Canadian Hemp Guitars Give Literal Meaning to “Stoner Rock”

They go for around $1,300... depending on the dealer.

Sep 25 2014, 3:00pm

In his workshop in a 200-year-old barn in rural Quebec, Boyd Pellow handcrafts electric guitars using traditional luthier methods to create beautiful instruments with optimal sound. The guitars are uniquely designed, using classic styles of the 50s and 60s for inspiration, and aside from the marijuana leaves emblazoned on each headstock, there’s no indication that there is anything at all out of the ordinary about the instruments... until it comes out that they’re built from hemp.

“I love walking up to people and saying, ‘Guess what my guitar is made from,’” says Stewart Burrows, a professional musician who co-founded Canadian Hemp Guitars with Pellow in 2011. While the concept of hemp guitars definitely raises eyebrows and invites its share of questionings, the rationale behind their invention is totally sound. The use of hemp materials in guitars minimizes the role of the instrument in deforestation and the use of endangered woods, and under Pellow’s careful construction they sound great, too.

Along with being more eco-friendly instruments, Canadian Hemp Guitars are also relatively affordable. The manufacturers’ suggested retail prices for the base level instrument is $1,600 but they are likely to street around $1,300 to 1,350, depending on the dealer (guitar dealer, that is). Three distinct, customizable styles are already available for purchase, and more designs are on the way. Although Canadian Hemp Guitars is not the first company to build hemp instruments, they’re the first to design them with working musicians in mind. Though the company is still in its early stages, its success hints that more guitar companies could follow suit and produce their own versions of hemp guitars down the line.

With my newfound discovery that the future of rock music could quite literally lie in fields of cannabis, I had to find out more from the experts themselves. My conversation with Burrows follows:

Noisey: What brought you and Boyd together and how did you form your company?
Stewart Burrows: Boyd and I met 25 years ago. He was a guitarist in the first band I ever sang in. I’m a musician by trade. That’s my main source of income. He’s been a luthier for about 30 years now. About 10 years ago, he started fooling around with building electric guitars out of non-traditional materials. There’s no reason to use tone woods that are becoming more and more endangered and rare when other materials are absolutely appropriate for making electric guitars. So he started making guitars out of all kinds of things and finally about seven or eight years ago, there was a company out of Chatham, Ontario doing some testing with hemp fiber basts, and using these basts in compression molding and making this bio-composites. He received some samples, built himself a heated press out of an antique book press. He started making these panels and it developed from there. We built our prototypes in 2011, decided to start the company, and that’s where we are today.

Are Canadian Hemp Guitars the first hemp guitars on the market as far as you know?
No, there are a couple of other companies that make them. There was a company back in the early 2000s called Mada Guitars out of Europe. They made very, very beautiful and very, very expensive instruments that I believe were construed more as museum pieces than as players’ guitars. They went for these really strange shapes and they wanted to show off this new technology as opposed to making a players’ instrument. Then there is a company out of Germany called Miller Guitars that makes one of their models out of hemp and the others out of carbon fibers. Their model was similar to ours in that they are using nontraditional methods to make guitars, but again, they are very expensive.

Our instruments are players’ guitars built using traditional luthier methods. We basically treat this high-density hemp wood like normal wood and build our guitars in that fashion. They’re priced for players, for people to actually be able to afford them and take them out and play them. That’s the difference.

There have been certain restrictions on building industrial hemp products in the States. Is that something that’s come up with manufacturing or shipping your instruments?I’ve asked US Customs and there is absolutely no problem with importing the goods. I believe with industrial hemp, the restrictions have been lifted for importing because most of industrial hemp comes into the US from Canada now. I haven’t encountered any problems whatsoever.

How did you develop the prototypes for your instruments?
If I had to compare it, I would say it is a hybrid between a 50s Danelectro and an early Les Paul Jr. with a flat back, a chambered inside, and a solid basswood sustain block in the middle. There’s still is some wood in the guitars—our necks are mahogany—so it’s a question of using the hemp where it is smart to use the hemp. I’d say it plays very much like a Les Paul. There’s a tremendous amount of sustain, you play a chord and it hangs there for a long time. It’s very responsive to a tube amp.

What sort of volume do you produce each year? Obviously these are handmade instruments...
Our volume is very low right now. We build to order, but again, we’re just starting. We built the brand for a good year before we got anything besides prototypes out the door. We’re looking to grow slowly. It’s a small shop right now, just Boyd and myself and some part time help every once in a while. We’re just in the process of looking beyond that right now. We’re branching out into a line of ukuleles, called “Hempaleles,” of course. We’ve been gearing up for that in the last month or two. We’ve had a lot of interest in them and we’d like to have them down in the States before Thanksgiving for the Christmas rush.

What’s your distribution like in the States?
Small music stores, absolutely. Some head shops, of course, we can’t avoid it with what it is. If anyone who wants to sell them, we’ll certainly make them available for sale.

You’re selling these at guitar stores and at head shops? So, who is buying your instrument?
Guitar players who are looking outside the box are buying our instruments. If you have $1000 and want to buy a Strat, by all means, go buy a Strat. I’m looking for people who think outside the box and want to try something new. It’s very, very rare that someone picks up my instrument and tells me they don’t like it. It’s a great instrument and it plays really well.

I think some of the headshops like to have a guitar made out of hemp because it’s a guitar made out of hemp and it looks great on their wall. It’s a striking guitar, you know? I think we’ll probably do better in the headshops with the ukes. A lot of my interest and a lot of people who are pre-ordering these instruments come from that community. They’re good ukes, too. They’re not gimmicky at all. They’re loud and they project well. And if you’re in a headshop and looking to make an impulse buy it’s easier to spend $150 on a uke than $1500 on a guitar.

I’d imagine you see a lot of surprised looks on people’s faces and get a lot of goofy questions when you tell them you make hemp guitars.
“Can you smoke them?” is goofy question number one, obviously. There is a lot of skepticism on the phone or right before they play it. “Oh, this is a gimmick. It can’t be a real instrument.” Then they play it and they change their tune.

Some guitarists have a prejudice against composite material guitars. Do people question the quality of the hemp materials in your instruments?
Absolutely, that’s something we fight against. “Why would I pay $1500 on a plywood guitar?” You try your best to educate people, but at the end of the day, all you can do is make a quality product and wait until they get it in their hands. If someone doesn’t want to put it in their hands, that’s OK, you can’t please everyone all the time. We’re about building the highest quality instruments we can. Boyd studied under Charles Fox in Oregon, one of the finest builders the States have seen in 50 years. He’s a great builder and I have nothing but confidence in him.

Part of the reason you decided to build guitars out of hemp in the first place were the environmental factors. That’s maybe something many people don’t take into consideration when it comes to guitars or other “rock” instruments.
I play a 1962 Martin D28. The back and sides are made out of Brazilian rosewood and you can’t get that anymore. And why not? Because it became rare because it was overused. Who’s to say that’s not going to happen with swamp ash? I’m not saying that it will, but it’s something to think about. On top of that, it takes 30 years to grow a swamp ash tree to the size you need it to be to build a guitar neck out of it. It takes one season to grow hemp to be able to build something out of it. It’s about sustainability.

The most basic answer to the question, “Why do you make guitars out of hemp?” is because everything should made out of hemp. It’s a wonder material. You can eat it, you can use it for bedding, you can make cloth with it, you can use it for car parts or houses. That’s the main reason for it. On top of building quality instruments we can educate people about this phenomenal natural product.

Is your method patented?
If you don’t have the money to defend a patent, don’t pursue a patent. It’s not worth it. If someone wants your idea, they’ll take it. I could have things made a lot cheaper in China, but I don’t because the first thing that happens is they make your product, and then they knock it off. And the quality isn’t the same. What we make are made by a pair of human hands. I like that. Eventually, the shop will get bigger but I don’t want to lose that small shop mentality.

Do you think you’ll be training other luthiers around the world?
That’s something we’re looking into. There’s a great community of young luthiers in Montreal—we’re just outside of Montreal, and we’re talking about maybe starting a mentorship program to get some young people in to start building. It’s a great craft and that’s how the knowledge has to be transferred. You can’t learn everything from books and DVDs. It has to be taught hand over hand and side by side at a work bench. That’s something we believe in. We’re at that cusp right now where our prototypes are done and we’re just starting to sell and build. It’s a process and it involves a lot of discussion. It’s exciting. It’s something new, and I think it’s the vanguard of instrument building.

Jamie Ludwig got a contact high from playing "Stairway to Heaven." Follow her on Twitter - @UnlistenMusic