Sam Aronson (Heller Social Impact MBA ’23 and ’20) and Alden Kennedy (Heller Social Impact MBA ’23) recently founded their company Tree for Taking with the vision of reinventing the guitar manufacturing industry to become more sustainable. In an interview with The Hoot, they discuss their journey in founding Tree for Taking as well as their future goals.
Aronson’s love for guitars stemmed from his late-father’s talent in music. “I didn’t learn to play guitar until after inheriting my father’s collection, and [I] decid[ed] that they must be played in order to do them honor,” he said. In addition to learning how to play the instrument, Aronson “was aware of the fact that if [he] was ever to make a difference in the history of the guitar … it would not be through [his] playing but through innovating in their manufacturing.”
In an undergraduate Environmental Studies course at Brandeis, Aronson learned about invasive tree species and the depletion of tonal woods. He grew interested in the connection between guitar-making, the perpetuation of necessitated deforestation and the role of artists in promoting conscientious works.
“I made a connection,” Aronson said. “I realized that guitars are tools of art, and that for an artist to truly feel free to express themselves using said tool, that it should not have any negative connotations.” Further inspired by epoxy guitar projects involving the use of coffee beans and ocean plastics, Aronson changed his career path from pursuing environmental law to utilizing entrepreneurship to impact the guitar industry.
Through the Brandeis Spark program, Aronson connected with Kennedy, who was the only other guitarist in their cohort of students. “Sam and I connected pretty quickly as guitarists, colleagues and friends at the beginning of the Social Impact MBA program. I didn’t have the chance to attend the Heller Startup Challenge the first semester of our program, but having heard—and really liking—Sam’s guitar startup idea, I knew that I had to make it happen that following October. I’ve been playing guitar myself for about a decade and was values-aligned with Sam as far as protecting trees and being passionate about music,” Alden explained.
Together, the team won the Heller Startup Challenge, $1,500 in funding from the first round of Spark and $10,000 during the second round of Spark. This allowed them to build the guitar prototype and begin their business prospects in earnest. Along the way, Ethan Gelman ’24 joined their team as an environmental science student intern, and within six weeks, they built their first guitar prototype.
Though their project ultimately reached fruition, the team described some logistical and technical difficulties that came up along the way. Aronson described the construction process and the needs for working with wood. “Wood for instrument construction has to be properly acclimated to its climate through sufficient drying, which is rare among salvaged scrap wood such as the cedar I used for the top of our prototype, which had been pulled out of a warehouse. Finding pieces of reclaimed flooring large enough to make necks out of was also difficult. The intonation of an instrument is dimensionally critical, with fret location accuracy and the geometry of the neck pocket determining whether or not the instrument will ever play in tune. I had to acquire a lot of tools to be able to execute the prototype, with the singularly hardest task being the route for the truss rod channel which must be a press fit dead center in the neck. Fortunately, I now have a well furnished woodshop,” he said.
Kennedy added, “As we’ve progressed in the last year, I think one challenge we’ve faced well is our geographical situation. Sam is out in Massachusetts and I now live in Chicago, but that hasn’t stopped us from getting on regular calls with each other and mentors to project, plan, update and coordinate our moves. I also flew out for the Sparktank pitch that secured us our biggest funding infusion to date.”
Aronson described some ways in which the guitar-making industry can become more environmentally friendly. One example that Aronson cited was the company called Gibson. “Gibson and other brands continue to use Brazilian rosewood as well which was also outlawed for import decades ago, necessitating that each guitar built using it requires its own passport. When their Firebird X model guitar didn’t sell well, rather than donating them to music education programs or guitarists in need, they destroyed hundreds of them by running them over with an excavator,” Aronson explains.
Some companies that are moving in the right direction include Taylor and Fender. “Better players in the industry such as Taylor or Fender have built guitars made with sustainable and even FSC certified timbers. However, the most recent reclaimed-wood sustainable Fender line was exclusively masterbuilt instruments nearing $12,000. Current sustainable options are unaffordable or only slightly less ecologically harmful than traditional guitars,” Aronson said. “This new direction towards reclaimed woods is a good one, but we want to go a step beyond reclaimed timbers and actually sequester invasive biomass.”
Aronson is currently in the process of building three more guitars. “The hurdle there is to modify our silicone mold into one that lets us make the body of the instrument with less weight and waste. Once I’m happier with the design and execution of fit and finish, we’ll launch a kickstarter campaign to fund the initial small batch of guitars. They have to be perfect, anything less wouldn’t justify the higher cost of having to make them all by hand myself.”
The team encouraged people to check out their social media platforms to stay tuned on their latest updates. “I think a lot about the quote, ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit.’ After empowering myself with a second degree in business, I feel confident enough to launch this dream,” Aronson concluded.