What Vegan Musicians Should Know About Instruments
As a vegan who is also a musician I have always struggled with finding instruments that are cruelty-free. I started my journey into music around 2000 and became vegan around 2010. If you’re vegan, you know that as you walk further down your vegan path you find along the way more and more things in your life that are not vegan—not just the food we eat. That toothpaste has what in it? They tested that shampoo on who!? Good bye, leather shoes and silk tea bag sachets! Every vegan usually has a lot of decisions to make regarding minimizing suffering as much as possible in a world that structurally promotes it. I was able to successfully make the jump from vegetarian to vegan in the food I ate, clothing I wore and the personal products I use. However, finding vegan instruments was another endeavor. In the following sections I would like to raise awareness of how animals are used in instrument construction, offer solutions and ideas for reducing and in some cases eliminating this use, and ask the reader some questions to take away for self-reflection and next personal steps regarding veganism and music.
The Facts and Vegan Problems with Instrument Construction
It started with the sad realization that the bow used to play my standup bass was made of horsehair. The same goes for the entire string section of an orchestra; the cellos, violins, and violas included. And then the comments from other musicians that if I used traditional gut strings on my standup bass I would “really get the tone I was after.” Yes, real animal intestinal gut strings – a practice that continues to this day. Pianos I practiced on during my study were composed of animal parts from the keys to the wool and leather within the instrument. The unfortunate truth dawned on me that the bridges and nut pieces of my guitars and bass guitars were made of bone. The fancy and shiny looking inlays in the fretboard of these instruments were in some cases made of pearl, although that seems to be a fading trend in a move over to synthetic material. I regrettably once owned congas, popular in Afro-Cuban and Latin music, that projected their tone through the use of dried animal hide. The tablas from the East side of the world and other traditional percussion instruments are also constructed in a similar process to the congas.
My beloved sitars from India were also included with the rest as the bridges and other pieces of the instrument are made from a combination of and/or ivory, horn, or bone. Like with other traditional instruments, if you are a vegan and play the sitar you need to closely examine your options for substitute materials. Other traditional stringed instruments are also often made from the extensive use of animal parts. For instance, the hypnotic harp like sounds of the kora from Africa are made from stretching/gluing animal skin across its resonator, whereas wood is used in other stringed instruments. The sarod from India has a similar design principle to its resonator to the kora. This can cause a real ethical conundrum for someone like me who likes traditional instrumental music from other cultures and parts of the world!
There is also the issue of animal-based glues used in construction of instruments. This problem is more hidden in view than the others described. Animal glues hold together stringed instruments. It can be difficult to find an alternative or even establish the materials of the glue used with makers. The use of animal glue is unfortunately common in instrument making as it is woodworking, bookbinding and laminating crafts. In a similar fashion shellacs or finishes are sometimes used from animal byproducts subtlety in view and awareness.
So I ask myself what benevolent qualities does music possess and why do we make it? People make music to lift themselves and their listeners upward. For some it is spiritual. One can express their deepest emotional states in sound beyond the realm of words. It can connect us through positive social interaction and enhance our celebrations together. We can communicate and have fun with music. It can allow us to experience peace and joy in a chaotic world. Music can be an extension of our shared goals and our love. However, years of music that I thought was made in the light was shadowed for me by the undeniable cruelty and exploitation toward animals it took to create it. Why do we make music at the cost of animals and what can we do about it?
Solutions and Actions
The issues with instrument creation have been identified in this article and elsewhere, but what do we actually do about it in reality? I am happy to say that there are options available. I am sorry to say, but it is important to remember that we live on a planet that structurally promotes violence of all sorts. That does not mean that we should accept and embrace this. Small attempts on the part of us all will make the larger difference for everyone to reduce acts of violence in our world and promote peace.
In addition to the materials used we must also consider the market place and simple supply and demand principles. Buying an instrument second hand (so nothing new is created for you) and swapping out the obvious animal parts is a great way to start your journey. Ask questions and read reviews as well as instrument specifications/materials. Contact and potentially even develop a relationship with the maker of your instrument. These are all ways to ensure you know what is going into the creation of your instrument. We can do our part in reducing suffering as much as possible. Through our advocacy we can enhance the thought process and production methods to be more sustainable moving forward for people, the animals and our planet.
Let’s examine some options currently available to help make your instruments as cruelty-free as possible. For acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or electric bass using the synthetic substitute TUSQ for the standard bone pieces has worked great for me. It is an organic material that contains no animal by-products made with consistent material every time. Your instrument can still sound great as this product is rich in tone and harmonic content. Another promising alternative is Bedell Guitars who offer the ‘Bedell Blackbird Vegan’ acoustic guitar. They use synthetic TUSQ technology, acrylic for their inlays and are made from ethically harvested trees. Bedell says it is a “truly planet-friendly guitar.” Popular leather guitar straps of the past are commonly being replaced by vegan leather lookalikes and non-animal derived materials.
On my sitar, a popular lute from India, I have swapped out the fittings that are animal parts for wooden, plastic and synthetic parts. You can search for these parts and then find someone (hopefully nearby or ship to them) to do the work if you are not able to. If you’d like, search vegan sitar in your search engine and you can see some makers are trying to develop this idea further. It is also worth mentioning at this point, if you’d like to learn more about other popular instruments of India that can be vegan, such as the wooden Bansuri flute, search for India Instruments Vegan. There are non-vegan distributors and makers who house vegan instruments within their sites for sale. It is similar to going to the supermarket to get your vegan groceries… just walk past the rest of the non-vegan items and support the demand for vegan products.
If you play a stringed instrument that uses a bow there is a company called Incredibow that are a cruelty-free animal-friendly product. The traditional real animal hair is replaced by a tough polymer filament designed to grab the strings well and it is very sturdy. Interestingly no wood is used in this bow. It is made of a carbon fiber stick that can look like wood but is lighter in weight for the player. The Vegan Violin is a 100% vegan violin which is certified by the Vegan Society. This maker takes great care to ensure that the instrument produced is vegan-friendly and has awareness for rising concerns for our environment. Hand-made natural dyes and locally collected spring water for finishing the instrument are even used in production.
A lot of drum sets are made from wood and have synthetic drum heads. This is good news if you like to play the drums. Electric drum sets and electric drum pads are also nice practical options. Traditional instruments like congas are also making the option to swap out animal skin drum heads with synthetic ones. Karunya Musicals has developed vegan cruelty-free drums of India. They offer various traditional drums such as the tabla. I own a pair of their tablas and they are absolutely wonderful. On their website I think they sum it up nicely: “The primary motivation for developing these instruments was a burning desire to eliminate the use of animal skins and make the instruments truly divine.” Karunya Musicals also supports environments sustainability by using fiberglass to avoid the cutting of trees. They are consistent in sound and a joy to play!
If you like to play piano, be aware that a standard acoustic upright piano often has animal parts in various locations of the instrument. You can of course contact makers and read and research for a solution if you want an acoustic upright piano. I have found for myself the ethical, simple, easy and cost-efficient solution was a piano keyboard with plastic keys. You still have access to upright piano sounds in addition to other sounds (digitally stored in the instrument memory.) This also works particularly nice if you want to get the sound of an instrument that traditionally is made from animal parts without owning or supporting the craft going into the construction. With electronic drum pads/sets, the sounds are similarly at your hands digitally without having to have any animal suffer for that sound. You still perform the sounds on your electric instrument which accesses a variety of sounds from its sound library.
Beautiful and new advantageous instrument designs are directly developing in response to solve ethical dilemmas to instrument making. In some cases we are able to reuse and repurpose already existing instruments who did not start their life cruelty-free. We can fit them appropriately with parts that are not derived from animals. I did not start this life as a vegan either! In best case scenarios we can purchase a completely vegan instrument from a maker who has the ethics of everyone in mind – the animals, people and the environment. Whichever route we choose to continue our path, let’s please consider returning music back towards the high vibrating frequency it was intended to resonate as. We can do this by making and advocating for cruelty-free musical instrument choices.