SCOTT BEVAN: (Presenter) Now to a story that springs from deep within the old growth forests of Tasmania. Australian craftsmen have discovered a growing market among the world's virtuoso classical guitarists for instruments made from ancient Tasmanian timbers, particularly the King Billy Pine. The magic of King Billy instruments is remarkable and the sounds they create provide a fitting memorial to a sad chapter in the nation's history. Greg Hoy reports.
SLAVA GRIGORYAN: You can tell a master, you know, by picking the guitar up. Maybe something spiritual, you know. You can definitely get a feel just by tapping it and listening to how the box works, without actually playing it.
GREG HOY: The ancient sound of King Billy, the timber, named after the original King Billy, or William Lane, third husband of Truganini. The last full-blooded Aboriginal male in Tasmania, he died of cholera, dysentery and a broken heart in 1842, so they named a tree after him the King Billy Pine, an ancient tree that grows slowly over many centuries, mainly deep in the cool temperate rainforests of Tasmania. Recently the King Billy, or King William Pine, has been found to have great musical powers when carefully handcrafted by Australian luthiers into sound boards for fine stringed instruments such as the violin or particularly, the classical guitar, replacing traditional European spruce. The resonant results speak for themselves.
DAVID BROWN, Luthier: (Montsalvat) If Stradivari had had this on the hills of Italy, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself from using it.
CHRIS WYNNE, Luthier: It's got a definite warmth to it. I think with classical music that's the sort of sound, well, I feel, that they're looking for. They're looking for that warmth to the actual instrument that you can, you know, you can really get the roundness of the note. That's what I found I can get with King William pine.
GREG HOY: Luthier Chris Wynne teaches guitar crafting at Monsalvat, Australia's oldest artist colony, which has thrived in the scenic hills to the east of Melbourne since the 1930s.
CHRIS WYNNE, Luthier: I'm creating what I feel is a direction that the guitar should go by using Australian timbers. As I say, I think, why not? They're beautiful, they sound beautiful.
GREG HOY: This is King William Pine and this is where it's being made into fine Australian guitars, and ironically it was here in the 1940s that the patriarch of the Australian classical guitar movement, John Williams, perfected his craft with Sebastian Johansen, the son of the man who built this place. The tradition lives on. The music still wafts through these hills, but these days it's coming from guitars crafted from fine Australian timbers.
ANTONY FIELD: They're a very different sound and I think it's also through guitar makers' sense of inquiry in Australia. They don't have a burden of history, of tradition, in making and so they think outside the square quite a bit and I think that results in some pretty amazing discoveries engineering-wise in the instrument which give it a much better quality of sound and better quality of resonance.
SLAVA GRIGORYAN: The timber is everything!
GREG HOY: Following in the footsteps of the maestro John Williams, the young modern master of Australian classical guitar is the world-renowned Slava Grigoryan.
SLAVA GRIGORYAN: So many makers started doing their own thing to guitars in Australia and that's been an overwhelming success. There are just simply dozens and dozens of makers in this country that are selling seriously good instruments straight to, you know, overseas performers and they've been selling hundreds of guitars to the States from their little workshops in the country. No one knows of them here.
CHRIS WYNNE, Luthier: You can create the instrument, the instrument is silent until a person picks it up. So if you've got the quality of person who can bring those sounds that you've tried to create out of it, it's just a wonderful feeling to hear it back in a concert hall.
GREG HOY: Echo of King Willy. When William Lane died his body was dismembered for souvenirs and for science, the last of a lost species. Today King William Pine is listed on the index of threatened Australian plant species, a legacy of the days it was squandered. One example early last century in Tasmania - a mining company built this two-kilometre water pipeline, or flume, on the outskirts of Queenstown from ancient King Billy Pine because metal was considered too expensive. Now leaky and redundant, the pipeline was about to be handed over to the woodchip company Gunn's recently until locals intervened. The water flows now to protect the timber, but its future remains in limbo.
CHRIS WYNNE, Luthier: I'd be very happy to get hold of some of that and if that's timber that's going to be wasted for whatever reason, I think what a great thing to do with it, is to create a beautiful sounding instrument.
GREG HOY: Their timber needs are modest. One mature tree would supply all Australian luthiers for more than 30 years. It takes two weeks of meticulous carpentry to create such a guitar from thin sliced wood. The King Billy timber from which the sound board is crafted is estimated to be 900 years old. Deservedly, Australian luthiers are winning the same international respect long enjoyed by those who play their instruments.
SLAVA GRIGORYAN: I don't think I'll ever look outside of this country for my instruments. Guitars are still changing all the time and makers are experimenting with how to make them, you know, louder and sweeter and with more of a sustain. In Australia that's happening more than I'm aware of it happening in other countries. I think it's actually a very exciting place to be in terms of, you know, classical guitar evolution.