Is a guitar vegan? This is a question that was posed to me recently, so I decided to look into this further in order to offer some guidelines for curious vegans.
The popularity of the vegan lifestyle has skyrocketed over the past decade, with an estimated 6% of US consumers identifying as being vegan. That is a whopping 500% increase since 2014!
A guitar is comprised of a ton of different parts, many of which could be potentially crafted from animal sources.
Let’s take a look at what vegans need to look out for when it comes to choosing a guitar.
Is A Guitar Vegan?
The vast majority of modern guitars are completely vegan-friendly, with most parts being crafted from non-animal sources. However, a number of parts such as inlays, nuts, strings, and pickups, can in some cases contain non-ethical materials such as abalone, bone, ivory, shellac, and beeswax.
We’ll explore each of these individual parts below and find out what you need to look out for.
If you are new to guitar, make sure to read my parts of the guitar guide where you will find handy diagrams showing where to locate all of these parts!
Non-Vegan Guitar Parts
Let me first stress that these guitar parts can also be completely vegan-friendly. It all depends on the materials that the manufacturer decides to use.
Quite a few of the non-vegan materials I have mentioned below are so rarely found in guitars that it is unlikely you will ever need to worry about them.
1. Inlays & Side-Markers
On most guitars, you will find a series of dots, blocks, or more decorative designs which help to indicate fret positions on the fingerboard. Inlays can also be found on other parts of the guitar such as the headstock or even on the body itself.
These are commonly made from simple plastics on cheaper guitars and are perfectly vegan friendly. Some guitars may also use inlays created from clay, gemstones, or wood.
Vegans will need to keep an eye out for inlays made from shells.
In guitar building, the two most commonly used types of shells are nacre (also known as ‘Mother of Pearl’) and abalone (also known as paua).
Both of these materials are derived from sea snails, which are generally farmed and killed to collect their shells and meat. So inlays made from these sources are definitely not considered vegan-friendly.
However, to complicate matters, many guitars will use synthetic abalone or MOP that are vegan-friendly. These are often referred to as ‘Pearloid’.
Real abalone and MOP will generally only be found on higher-end and custom guitars. So make to check with the manufacturer, or just avoid these types of inlays altogether!
2. Electric Guitar Knobs
The knobs (or pots) on guitars are used to control the volume and tone of the instrument. They are generally made from various types of metal or plastics.
Non-vegan guitar knobs can contain decorative inserts made from non-ethical sources such as abalone and mother of pearl.
On cheaper guitars these inserts are likely to be a synthetic shell material instead, so make sure to check with the manufacturer to be safe.
On some guitars, you will find a thin strip of material that runs around the edges of the body, neck, and/or headstock. Binding is usually made from plastic or wood and helps to provide impact protection as well as an improved aesthetic.
Vegans should keep an eye out for abalone guitar binding.
Again, on more affordable guitars this abalone is likely to be a man-made imitation material instead.
4. Acoustic Guitar Rosettes
The decorative strip of material that circles the soundhole on an acoustic guitar is called the rosette.
They can often contain rings made from abalone or mother of pearl.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these can often be a synthetic shell, so make sure to check with the manufacturer.
At the point where the fretboard meets the headstock, you’ll find a little strip of (usually black or white) material called the nut. It has a series of slots etched into it and its purpose is to hold the strings in place at the correct distance and height.
In the majority of cases, nuts are made from vegan-friendly materials such as plastics, brass, graphite, or even woods such as ebony.
However, vegans will need to keep an eye out for nuts made from genuine bone or ivory.
Bone nuts are most commonly crafted from the leg bone of a cow. Ivory nuts are generally made from elephant tusks, however, some very high-end guitars can use fossilized mammoth ivory.
Some nuts are made from a material called Tusq, but don’t worry, it’s not actually made from tusks! Instead, this is a popular (vegan-friendly) man-made ivory-style material.
6. Acoustic Guitar Saddles
The saddle on an acoustic guitar is a strip of material that slots into the bridge of the instrument. Its purpose is to hold the strings at the correct distance and height, as well as ensuring good intonation.
Saddles are generally made from the same materials as guitar nuts, so the same rules will apply here.
Vegans should watch out for saddles made from genuine bone or ivory.
7. Guitar Strings
Believe it or not, guitar strings can also be created from animal sources – although it is exceedingly rare to see this today. Vegans will want to avoid ‘gut strings’ or ‘catgut strings’.
Up until around the mid 20th century all guitar strings were actually made from a combination of animal guts and silk – yuck!
The three thinnest strings would be made from either sheep or cow intestines, and the thicker trio would be an insect silk thread core wrapped with gut.
Although I think that it’s highly unlikely that as a vegan you would ever consider trying a set of strings called ‘gut strings‘, it’s worth knowing that these are still available from a small number of manufacturers.
Pretty much all modern guitar strings can be considered as vegan, being made from either steel or nylon. Modern synthetic gut strings are also available if you’d like an ethical taste of the past.
The majority of modern guitars will use synthetic (vegan-friendly) glues such as polyvinyl acetate (PVA).
However, for centuries animal hide glues were the only glues used by luthiers. Hide glue is typically made from the connective tissue of various animals, commonly horses.
These glues are still used today, but are only likely to be found on very high-end guitars which are specifically built to emulate historic instruments – for example, many Gibson Custom Shop Guitars. You will also obviously need to be wary about buying vintage guitars as these are more likely to contain hide glues.
Most new guitars will use polyurethane and polyester finishes, with some more expensive models also using nitrocellulose lacquer.
Vegans will need to keep an eye out for shellac finishes. This was the traditional finish commonly used on guitars before the invention of nitro lacquer.
Shellac is made from the secretions of female lac bugs. These insects are farmed commercially and it is estimated that as much as 300,000 are required to produce just 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of shellac. Collecting the secretions kills a huge number of the insects as well as their eggs.
Guitars finished with shellac are not very common due to the low durability of the finish and the fact that it is slow to apply.
Come on now, what could possibly bee non-vegan about pickups?
Some pickups are dipped in beeswax to prevent the parts inside them from vibrating and causing feedback when playing live. This process is known as wax potting.
This is not really a specification that most brands will advertise, so you will definitely need to contact manufacturers directly if the thought of using beeswax is an issue for you.
If you would like to avoid using pickups potted in beeswax you will need to look for options that only use paraffin wax. This is the stuff you will most usually find used in candles.
Alternatively, some pickups are also potted using epoxy. Many aren’t potted at all!
While the majority of picks are made from synthetic materials, some more exotic plectrums are made from non-vegan sources.
Some picks are crafted from bone, horn, shell, and believe it or not, leather.
In the past, plectrums were also made from tortoiseshell but new laws have all but killed the market for these. Most modern tortoiseshell picks are now synthetic.
This should be a pretty simple one! Avoid all straps made from any type of animal skin. Leather is a very common guitar strap material, but there are plenty of alternatives available which are totally vegan-friendly.
A product that is often mistakenly advertised as being vegan-friendly is a veg-leather strap. These are actually real leather straps that have been tanned in vegetable oil. So, make sure to avoid those!
For a real high-quality vegan strap, take a look at Couch Straps. Their products are handmade in the USA, are 100% cruelty-free, and even contain 25% recycled materials.
Conclusions – Do Guitars Contain Animal Products?
Many of the non-vegan components we’ve covered in this article are only likely to be found on either higher-end instruments, or vintage guitars. So a good rule of thumb for remaining as cruelty-free as possible is to opt for a modern guitar, probably up to a maximum price range of around $1000-$1500.
On these more affordable guitars you are not likely to have to worry about too much, perhaps just whether or not your pickups have been wax potted. But make sure to get in touch with the manufacturer if you are still unsure!
Keep in mind that even if you believe the guitar you are interested contains no animal sources, the accessories bundled with it still could. For example, a hard case could be made from leather or be put together with animal hide glue.
Alternatively, if you can tolerate owning a guitar which potentially contains a small amount of animal products then you can also consider buying second-hand. This way you aren’t contributing to the supply and demand of these products in any substantial way.
Another option is to look for guitars that are specifically marketed as being vegan. For example, Bedell Guitars offer a range of acoustics called the Blackbird Series which are 100% vegan.
If you find that any of the information in this article has become outdated, please get in touch and let me know what needs to be updated. You’ll find a link to the contact page in the footer below.