Eco-friendly renewable materials are those that don’t involve the felling of any new, living trees, but instead, recycle potentially wasted resources into viable new products. And among the premier of such tonewood alternatives is Richlite.

“Renewable” has become a way of life for guitar manufacturers that care about environmentally-conscience business practices.

Gibson has remained on the front of these changes by creating products that maintain the integrity of the guitars while researching and developing eco-friendly alternatives.

Gibson Les Paul Classic Player Plus

Beautifully Natural

Richlite is a composite material made from recycled paper bonded into a hard, smooth, and easily workable “board.” Those are the basics, but it doesn’t tell you all of this material’s many benefits. In addition to being made from an environmentally-certified material, Richlite is non-toxic, it doesn’t shrink, it’s scratch and ding resistant, and when tooled and polished looks virtually identical to the most desirable cuts of ebony.

“Richlite is a dense, dark, durable, and sustainable version of ebony made from recycled paper and resin,” says Mat Koehler, Product Specialist at Gibson Custom. “The feel, tone and EQ of Richlite is virtually identical to ebony. The Custom Shop does have a limited supply of ebony, which we reserve for archtops, mandolins, historic models and Made 2 Measure orders, but we feel that Richlite is a fantastic synthetic alternative. And don’t just take our word for it—ask those who have it on their guitars!”

Crafting New Traditions

Whether we play shred-metal or avant-garde jazz or something in between, we guitarists often like to consider ourselves a wild and adventurous bunch; yet, we can often be surprisingly traditional when it comes to our instruments.

“Guitarists have always been conservative in their tastes,” Koehler agrees. “We understand that. But acquiring sustainable woods is getting harder and harder for guitar manufacturers, so thoughtful innovation is the key.” Once a new product has proven itself the equal of the traditional ingredient, is there any real reason not to embrace it? “The Custom Shop team is accustomed to seeing and playing both Richlite and ebony on guitars coming through production over the past several years. At first the perception was that Richlite ‘must be inferior’ because it’s not ‘from a tree.’ The negativity stops when you play it, feel the resonance, and hear the result.”

Koehler adds: “It’s very easy to default to not liking Richlite. The name is sterile and corporate. It’s not traditional wood. It probably could have been explained better from the get-go. But it didn’t take long before, as a player, I just did not care whether my fingerboard was Richlite or ebony. I get the same feel and tones from each. And visually, a lot of times a guitar will look even better with Richlite because of how dark and black it is.”

The Tone Test

Richlite’s consistently strong, dark appearance is a huge bonus for guitar makers, as well as for players who like the elegant look of more upmarket Gibson models. As Koehler puts it, “Often at the Custom Shop we can’t tell the difference between Richlite and ebony at first glance. Sometimes ebony has lighter streaks or pronounced grain, but an ideal piece of ebony is smooth and perfectly black—which is what Richlite looks like every time.”

Arguably even more important than looks for many players, though, is how a material enhances the sound of any guitar it’s used in. And as much as we like for certain guitars—a Les Paul Custom or an ES-355, for example—to retain their historic appearance, we often prefer that those guitars accurately represent vintage-caliber tones, too.

The fact that Richlite’s density, weight, and rigidity are extremely similar to ebony’s means that ebony and Richlite blanks of the same size will resonate very similarly. They will also have similar “tap tones”—the sound heard when a luthier finger-taps a raw tonewood blank to test its sonic properties before using it in a guitar. “Richlite’s density helps make individual notes ‘ping’ just like ebony,” Koehler notes. “Ebony was favored by hard rock and metal players because of the clarity it adds to chords when distortion is used. Richlite performs the exact same way.”

Gibson Les Paul Classic Player Plus

Ruggedly Renewable

Satisfied with the look and sound of Richlite, some guitarists still have questions about its durability. It’s a relatively new material in the guitar world, after all, so it makes sense to wonder how it will wear over time. “One of the questions we get most often at Gibson Custom,” says Koehler, “is, ‘will Richlite hold up in 50 to 100 years?’ ”

To that end, Gibson customers should know from the get-go that Richlite was designed to take a beating. The Richlite company was founded in 1943 and originally manufactured the product for machine tooling used by the aerospace industry. So, yeah, Richlite has held up for well more than 50 years, going on 100, and in some far more strenuous circumstances than those required of most guitar fingerboards. From industrial fixtures to counter tops to skate parks to marine components and more, this renewable product has held up extremely well under great stress.

And that takes us right back to our other sustainability concern: as tied as we guitarists are to the look, feel and sound of some of the tonewoods commonly used in guitar making, it’s great to know there are renewable alternatives out there that—once we put the biases of tradition behind us—look and sound on par with the more familiar timbers. Help preserve the rainforests and continue to enjoy that gorgeous, rich, dynamic, traditional Gibson tone, too? Now that’s a win-win.

Where You’ll Find It

As Koehler tells us, other than special-order and true vintage-spec reissues, most Gibson models that would traditionally carry ebony will be made with Richlite today. “At the Custom Shop, any Les Paul Custom that is not a historic replica or specific custom order is going to come standard with Richlite,” says Koehler. “That includes all the Limited Run Les Paul Custom variations, too.”

But Custom isn’t the only division that’s using this renewable resource. From Gibson Memphis, you’ll find it on the Alex Lifeson Signature ES-Les Paul, the 2016 ES-355 Vintage Ebony Bigsby and ES-355 Classic White Bigsby, as well as several past incarnations of the B.B. King Signature ES-355.

The craftsmen of Bozeman, MT, have also shown us how well this versatile component works in fine acoustic guitar making, as exemplified by the 018 Parlor Rosewood, a flat-top that marries traditional rosewood back and sides and innovative Richlite fingerboard to stunning effect.

Whatever your taste in guitars, there’s likely a Richlite-carrying Gibson out there for you to try.