Heritage Guitars has been around since Gibson Guitar pulled up stakes and headed down south in 1985. But in the past few years, they have had three sets of owners, and we’ve had experience with all of them. There was the “original” Heritage owners, a “transitional” local ownership that purchased the company in 2016, and ultimately a sales and marketing agreement with BandLab in 2017. Today, Heritage guitars is effectively operated by BandLab.
The acquisition by BandLab sparked significant controversy amongst Heritage fans, and even some of their employees. This type of blow-back is not unusual when an iconic brand — even if the iconic brand is the “other” brand — is taken over and changes are made. Just think back to “Pre-CBS” and how that evokes the good old days before the big bad conglomerate took over.
At first we were worried ourselves, and the early communications from the BandLab management team had us concerned relative to our potential long term prospects as a dealer. But now that we are a couple years down the road, we’ve been very impressed with the BandLab management of the Heritage brand. And here’s why:
Without launching into a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo. BandLab understands brand equity, and the power of a properly managed brand. They understand and appreciate the history and emotions behind Heritage name, and what it means to players and fans. But they are also realists, and for Heritage to survive they have to deliver consistent high quality product at a price point that is competitive with similar products. The “old” Heritage had an expansive catalog of product, of which probably 4-5 models made up 80% of the sales. BandLab took the classic “80/20” rule (80% of sales comes from 20% of the products) and slashed the number of models and variations available to dealers. While at first this seems reckless, it makes perfect sense. It allowed the factory to focus and optimize the processes around their most popular products, and deliver them quickly at a high level of quality. Where the “old” Heritage would take 4+ months to make a guitar, the “BandLab” Heritage will typically ship us one in a few days, and it’s good right out of the box. Most of models that are no longer available to us we would not have ordered anyway. And you can still get them, but you have to go through the Heritage Custom Shop, which is rightfully where they belong.
Around the time of the BandLab involvement, there was also internet chatter about the loss of traditional manual processes and the introduction of increased process automation. While we have no particular insight into the manufacturing processes at Heritage, what on earth is the problem with using a CNC machine to cut the rough profile of a body or neck? Cutting out a body by hand does not make it better, it just makes it more expensive and potentially less consistent. Have people do what people do best — like polishing, binding…detail work — and let machines do what they do best. Case in point: Every Heritage guitar is processed through a PLEK machine, and people seem perfectly OK with that. If “authenticity” means that a guitar company cannot evolve and advance their technology, sooner or later the guitar company will cease to exist, or decline into irrelevance.
We are personally comfortable with the BandLab stewardship of the Heritage brand, and they understand the needs of independent dealers, and the importance of maintaining brand equity. In the past year BandLab also reintroduced the Teisco and Harmony brands, with a similar degree of sensitivity towards respecting history without being shackled to the past. The world is littered with brands and companies that have been mishandled, mangled and destroyed. Heaven knows Gibson Brands had their fair share of brand acquisition flops along to the road to bankruptcy. Successful brands are those that blend a respect for history while simultaneously adapting to change. We think that BandLab understands this better than most companies, and that Heritage is in good hands.
We’re on the plane back from NAMM, and it seems like a good time to reflect on what was a very productive few days. Firstly, NAMM is so huge there is no way to take in the entirety of the show without literally running non-stop up and down every aisle. NAMM requires a game plan, and ours was mainly to meet with our current product partners, catch up on things and see what it new.
G&L – Prior to the show, we had already seen an sneak preview of some of the unique guitars that G&L was bringing to the show and “tagged” a couple in advance. But G&L had a lot cool news that we did not learn until getting to their booth late on Thursday. The big news is the G&L Espada, a newly released guitar that G&L reversed-engineered from a 1969 design unearthed from original Leo Fender drawings. Featuring new split coil MFD pickups, active/passive controls and a very sexy Tele/Skyhawk/Stingray mash, the Espada is really new but authentically G&L. Actual production date is TBD, so suffice to say we are in line to get some.
Also at the booth is their new Doheny HH and Skyhawk HH, and both will be available through the Fullerton Special line of fixed-option guitars. Both use their chrome-covered humbuckers, which we prefer sonically to the open-coil AW4470’s, and they also dress up both guitars nicely. There is also going to be a Fullerton Special Skyhawk with the current S-500 pickup set. We’re glad to see more Skyhawk models, as we love the shape and ergonomics of this design.
Bandlab – Bandlab has been hard at work on a number of projects, and we really dig the direction they are heading. The Bandlab folks are pretty sharp, and they while they respect the value of history and tradition, they know it needs to be backed up by innovation, quality and consistency.
Heritage is in good hands, and they continue to make improvements in the factory, and work on making each model as consistent and high quality as possible. While they’ve narrowed the range of products that dealers can purchase, it also means they are available from stock with very little wait time. Their “Custom Shop” is still getting up and going, but for those who want a truly unique creation that will be an option in the future.
We saw the first Harmony prototype guitars at the 2018 show, and we’re glad to report that they will finally hit the streets this spring. Made at the Heritage factory, they include mahogany and alder bodies, bolt-on mahogany or maple necks, ebony fret boards, their own gold foil pickups, and nitro finishes. The finish and playing quality is right up there, the weight it good, and the foil pickups have a funky groove that is bright but full bodied. At around $1300 with a Mono Bag, these are a literal no-brainer and offer a fresh addition to any player’s lineup.
Also later in the year will be Harmony amplifiers. These will be semi-closed back, hand-wired 6V6 designs with built in attenuator and vibrato. The design is pleasantly retro, and will get you noticed in a sea of Deluxe Reverbs. The prototypes are built in Singapore, and the production models will likely come from one of the Bandlab facilities in that region. While it’s hard to judge an amp in the din of NAMM, our own experience was very encouraging, and we’ve posted internet legend Jay Leonard Jay doing some great demo work of his own.
Tiesco is another legacy brand that Bandlab was resuscitated, and this spring they will release their first three pedals; a boost, fuzz pedal, and delay. Bandlab sweats the design details, and these pedals have unique and sturdy enclosures, funky graphics and intuitive controls. The boost pedal features a 9V and 24V power setting and ranges from true boost, to medium-crunch that is harmonically rich and detailed. The fuzz stole my heart, mainly because I don’t like fuzz, and I loved this pedal. It’s big and authoritative, but does not trample the tone of your guitar. It’s more classic crunch than lo-fi fizz, and it’s got an awesome octave feature that changes register depending where you are on the neck. I need it.
Mono is another Bandlab brand, is well known for their sturdy gig and gear bags beloved by professionals on the go. We plan on bringing some of these into the shop this spring.
ESP – Some of the sexiest guitars on the planet are at the ESP room, and their USA and Originals lines continue to push the envelop of functional art. They just built their first left-handed USA Eclipse, and we’ll soon commission our own southpaw model. They added some great new finishes to their Japanese E-II line, and much to our delight they’ll be available on the 22-fret Eclipse model. And while we pride ourselves on being a mostly USA shop, their are certain ESP guitars that we lust after that are not available anywhere but the LTD line. This includes affordable versions of their handsome Viper (SG-ish) and a very cool multi-scale (fanned fret) guitar that just knocked us out with how easy it was to play.
JAM Pedals – Our wildly artistic friends from Greece are updating nearly all of their graphics, and while some of them are a little less whimsical in nature, they continue to offer a wide array of custom graphics. Most of the changes in the line are evolutionary, but what caught our eye is their new Double Dreamer. This is an update of our best-selling Tube Dreamer 88, and they’ve added a wet/dry mix, the high gain feature is now a footswitch for on-the-fly usage, and the high gain is assignable to either or both channels.
Keeley – Keeley is always cooking up something new, and this year they had a larger space, some of the best personal demo capabilities, and four new releases. Their new Synth-1 is the most ambitious of all of them, and while it’s not for everyone, if you are looking for the road less traveled, this is it. Also of note is their new DDR, drive, delay and reverb pedal. Essentially a small pedalboard in an enclosure no bigger than their D&M Drive, it will allow you to travel light but not lacking for tone.
Godin – Godin has been making a lot of changes lately, and one of the more notable releases is their line of Godin Branded acoustic guitars. Godin has long maintained several acoustic brands, but this is the first time we’ve seen them put the Godin headstock on an acoustic. These are upper end models, all solid wood with both gloss and satin finishes. Other items of note are the reappearance of their very attractive Denim Blue finish on the ACS and A6 models, a new high end semi-hollow Summit, and some interesting new Kingpin models like their T-Armond with TV Jones DeArmond style pickups. In the Art & Lutherie line they’ve release a new finish that we really like called Havana Brown, and a cute Roadhouse Nylon acoustic.
Yorkville Sound – Yorkville is so many different brands you could literally stock a store with it (and they do in Canada via owners Long & McQuade’s more than 80 stores). Items we plan to add include their Traynor YGL2 guitar amp, which is a 30-watt version of our favorite YGL1. A little more power and slightly bigger enclosure is just the ticket for gigging players who need a great sounding pedal-friendly amp. They also have a nice compact acoustic guitar amp that is an affordable companion to their higher end Hughes & Kettner ERA-1.
What really grabbed our attention at Yorkville is the Xvive line of wireless transmitters for guitar, bass and vocals. They have a new plug-and-play wireless microphone adapter that turns any microphone into a wireless mic. So if you like the mic you have, you can now make it wireless. And everything is ultra-compact, so no big transmitter box, power supply, etc. It will make you rethink wireless.
Yorkville is also the parent of Hughes & Kettner, and they were showing off their Black Spirit 200 amplifier head. They’ve delved even further into connectivity, and the Black Spirit is a guitar amp, redbox, audio interface…and bluetooth enabled via an app.
Lastly, Yorkville is also “prosumer” and pro audio from compact bluetooth-enabled battery powered enclosures to full line arrays. If you are planning a system from solo acoustic to fixed installation, we can help you with that.
C.B.I – And if you are building that new sound system or studio, don’t forget cables. In upstate New York, C.B.I. makes everything from patch cables to concert-sized snakes and stage boxes. We’ve always liked their products, and like every stop we made on our NAMM tour, we learned something new. Their Stagewinder pedal board snake simplifies pedalboard and effect loop setup at a reasonable price. We also learned that we can simplify our cable packaging and eliminate the use of plastics (while adding our own UpFront Graphics). C.B.I. makes practically everything cable related, and we can also quote custom jobs too. We walked away with a new appreciation of C.B.I.
NAMM is fatiguing but energizing, and a little Southern California weather in January doesn’t hurt either. We’ve made our shopping list, and we’re checking it twice. Christmas is coming again this Spring.
After declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and parting ways with the sometimes controversial Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson will emerge from bankruptcy protection on November 1st with a new management team and funding from private investment firm KKR.
It’s safe to say that the future of Gibson the guitar company was never really in doubt. As a brand it is healthy and well-respected, and annual sales of Gibson and associated brands like Epiphone are somewhere in the $300 million range. But while Mr. Juszkiewicz can be credited with taking Gibson from a struggling brand in the 80’s to the giant it is today, his quest to build Gibson into a “lifestyle brand” was also Gibson’s financial undoing.
The Gibson acquisition 1986 was Juszkiewicz’s home run, but nearly every other attempt to build the brand — Stanton, Phillips, Baldwin Piano, Garrison Guitar, Gibson branded restaurants, etc — were essentially financial drags that puffed up the top line, did little to grow the bottom line, and added piles of debt. And when Gibson skipped the 2018 NAMM show and instead attended the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Vegas, things had gotten truly weird. In the end, Gibson’s bonds were rated at near junk status, and the “lifestyle brand” was brought down by what kills most distressed companies: They ran out of money to pay their debts.
With KKR funding and shedding some of the under-performing dead weight, Gibson guitars and Gibson Pro Audio will enter a new chapter of ownership, and has recently announced their new management team. You can read about the new team here: https://tiny.cc/wzsi0y
It would appear that things are looking up for Gibson: They have a great brand, loyal customers, formidable financial resources, and if you look past the buzzword-gibberish of their resumes, a capable management team. But their are some things to watch for with the New Gibson.
KKR is a Private Equity (PE) firm, meaning that they have their own funding to invest with, and are not a publicly traded company. PE firms tend to target companies that they believe are under-valued, with the goal of increasing their financial worth, and selling them at a profit down the road. PE firms are typically not in it for the long haul. They want to get their initial investment back, and hopefully drive up the value for a future sale.
So while the new CEO professes to be a personal fan of Gibson guitars — make no mistake — this is about making money, and preferably quickly. PE firms are not touchy-feely organizations, and they are not always particularly patient. There will be plenty of pressure to perform and create solid financial returns. Hopefully, they will do this by making great guitars that musicians love and want to purchase. But this is not a labor of love, and at some point KKR will want to recoup their investment.
From personal experience, one of the tricky things about Gibson is the steadfast traditionalism of their fan base. In contrast to Fender, Gibson fans have less tolerance for deviating from tradition (no Gibson “Parallel Universe” guitar, that’s for sure). Silly things like robo-tuners aside, Gibson fans push back rather swiftly — sometimes even making personal YouTube complaint videos — when they feel that Gibson has strayed off course. So when the new management team talks about “innovation” they have to keep in mind that their core customer may not be looking for something different. Technology has revolutionized recording, pro audio and even guitar amplifiers, but guitar players tend to like their instruments just as they’ve always been, and are slow to change.
Also, while the internet is a powerful selling tool, many guitar players still like to have a personal shopping experience. The “old” Gibson made it pretty much impossible for smaller stores to do business with them, and put all their chips in with major big box and internet retailers. While Sweetwater is the major exception, most of the big internet retailers don’t know the product well, frequently have inaccurate descriptions, pricing and sometimes even the wrong photos. You do yourself no favors when your chosen retail channel does not know what they are talking about. Feeling good about where you bought the product is part of the ownership experience (premium car brands focus intently on this aspect of the sales process)
So best wishes to the new Gibson management team. The music business really is different and more emotionally-linked than other products. Guitar Center and Mars Music were supposed to be the future of music retail. Mars folded eons ago, and Guitar Center has struggled for years to turn a profit (they are also in junk bond territory and routinely flirt with insolvency). The great thing about selling musical instruments is that it’s not like selling blue jeans, and a great many of our customers are emotionally invested in the product. Let’s hope they take that into consideration.
2017 was a very active year for G&L and they’ve gained steam, rolling into 2018 with a lot of new products, features and a whole new look on their website. Let’s take a quick look at what’s new for 2018:
New Website – G&L has launched their new website, and it’s cleaner, more modern and better pictures and images. G&L is also clearly promoting their heritage, and the Leo Fender story in a more obvious fashion. Makes a lot of sense when your founder invented the modern solid body electric guitar and bass. They also have a new “CLF Research” Instagram and Facebook page.
It’s still a work in progress, and there are some guitars and options in my price book that are not on the site, and vice versa. So we are working through that, and if you have any questions, just check with us and we’ll get an answer.
NAMM – G&L had a booth at NAMM for the first time in many years. It was packed, very active, and they had some great one-off guitars on the wall (we snagged a couple). Phyllis Fender was on hand to sign copies of her new book about Leo Fender the man. It’s the story of Leo, not a history of Fender guitar. It’s a pretty quick read and quite insightful about a very unique and creative individual that did not even play guitar.
G&L Custom Shop – G&L has launched their Custom Shop concept, and there is a dedicated section on the website for custom shop guitars. There a new finishes — the nitro option is back — the availability of hand-wound and signed pickups off Leo’s original CLF pickup winder, mild aging if you want it, and in general a much higher level of attention and hands-on TLC. Considering how good the “factory” guitars currently are, this is a pretty high bar. It’s not clear how “custom” you can get, and this is a work in progress. I don’t have a enough detail to know if you can put P-90’s in a Doheny, make a single pickup Fallout with Solamente wiring, etc. It’s baby steps as they feel out the process, and if you are interested give us a shout and we’ll work through the process with you.
What’s Out – The SC-2 is gone for 2018. My feeling is that once the Fallout came along, that really took the air out the SC-2. It’s fun guitar but they still have the ASAT special and it’s the same pickups.
What’s New – The Doheny was new for the fall of 2017 and they’ve now rolled out the Doheny Deluxe and Doheny Semi-Hollow. The Deluxe is a Flame Top guitar with wood binding and rear-mounted controls. But you don’t have to get binding, and what we also like about the Doheny is that Fixed or Vibrato bridge is the same price. Also the MAP for this guitar is $200 less than then similarly outfitted ASAT Deluxe.
The Doheny Semi-Hollow comes standard in swamp ash and also includes wood binding and rear mounted controls. Our feeling here it to opt for an Okoume back when ordering this guitar. Semi-hollow guitars tend to gain some nice harmonics, but lose a bit of low end. The Okoume back will add in a bit of roundness and warmth.
Also note there are no neck profile options on the Doheny. It’s a Modern Classic, but you can opt for a different radius. The Doheny has its own 21-fret neck, and it’s not tooled to handle all the other profiles. The “MCNK” seems to be very popular, so I think they are sticking with what most people want anyway.
Also new is the CLF Heritage L-2000. This is a throwback L-2000 with an 80’s neck profile, the cool 80’s metal control plate, glossy neck finish, and “Heritage” MFD pickups. It’s available in four colors and no options. To keep the weight down they are using Basswood on the solid colors and Okoume on the bursts. Both woods work very nice on a bass, with punchy and clear fundamental notes.
Not Sure – The Invader and Invader XL are still in my 2018 price book but not on the new website. I don’t think they are dead, but that there is a make-over in the process in terms of a more shred-friendly neck profile and other features. The Anderson/Suhr market is something G&L has yet to crack, and they’ve got their eye on it. The ASAT Fullerton Standard is on the website but also not in the price book, and I know that’s currently not in the plans.
While I’ve not scoured the prices in excruciating detail, nothing pops out, and all the base guitar MAP prices appear unchanged. Rosewood is now a $50 MAP option and “Caribbean Rosewood” (Chechen) is now the standard “brown” wood. We really like Chechen, and while it’s not as dark as Rosewood, it’s got really interesting grain and it feels nice and smooth. Due to CITES regulations Rosewood has become problematic, and the supply is erratic.
Neck Profiles – The 2018 book is not listing the V-profiles, U, the Wide C, or Heritage profile. But the website is. We’ll have to sort this out, and it could be that the wide range of profiles will be reserved for Custom Shop. I will lobby for the Soft-V though….
New Colors – Rally Red (sort of Fiesta), Galaxy Black (jet black with a subtle light metallic flake), Shell Pink, and Surf Green joins the permanent ranks. Yukon Gold Metallic is out, and they are working on a better replacement. Nobody really liked Yukon Gold, including G&L.
Overall we like what G&L has been up to, and while sometimes they run before they walk, it’s all with good intentions. They also maintain a presence on Social Media, which a lot of companies just don’t bother to do. That’s good for the brand image, brand value, and ultimately resale value. We think 2018 will be a great year for G&L, and let us know if you have any questions or comments at email@example.com
Is it a good idea in general to buy electric guitars as investments?
That’s the short answer, and generally speaking I think it’s a good idea to purchase guitars that you like and want to play. While it’s true that some brands of guitars — Fender, Gibson, Martin, Rickenbacker for example — will appreciate over time, quite often it’s a long time and of course not every model. Yes, people are now paying some silly prices for 70’s Fenders, which were not even very good guitars to begin with. And we’re also talking about waiting almost 40 years for the guitar to be worth something. Just the idea that something is old does not make it of increased value.
Even if you got a really cool guitar cheap, the rate of appreciation is generally very slow. Maybe you got a great R9 Les Paul in mint condition, but it’s not a house: You can’t sit on it for 3-4 years and flip it. While it’s certainly possible that it holds its value well, it does not mean it’s going to go up. If you want a guitar that really holds its value, buy a Rickenbacker. They have a great combination of quality, history and scarcity. Hardly the all-around rock guitar, but if you’re obsessed with resale, you’ll get a good chunk of your money back. Used guitars that really take a beating? Almost any import guitar not from Japan (sometimes Korea) and valued-priced USA guitars like PRS S2 and various ~$1000 Gibson’s. They are not bad guitars, but they are appliances, not works of art.
Manufacturers also make it difficult for investors by making increasingly good new guitars. The idea that only old stuff is good, is just not true. In fact a lot of old instruments are highly variable in quality. The hard to define “mojo” of an old guitar is often psychosomatic, and players love the concept of old stuff, and will make themselves believe that it is special. If you spend $2000 on a 1970’s Fender with a 1/4″ thick polyester finish and a 3-bolt neck are no getting a “vintage” guitar? In name only.
Manufacturers also make it difficult for investors by making way too many versions of the same guitar. When somebody gives us a Les Paul or Strat to sell (especially Les Paul) we spend a chunk of time trying to figure out what it’s really worth. Gibson makes so many darn versions of the Les Paul (Traditional, Traditional Plus, Tribute, Studio, Awesome Maximus…) it’s truly hard to figure out what the guitar is worth. Go on Reverb.com and there will be around 300 Les Paul’s from $800 to $5000. Strats are not much better: I’m mean really, how many versions of a “Clapton” Strat can you make? Quite a few, it turns out. All this just confuses the market and makes it hard to assign value.
Lastly, then you have dealers that frequently skirt MAP pricing rules for new guitars. So what you say? Selling a guitar blatantly below MAP depresses the price of a used guitar by deflating its new value. No matter how you feel about MAP, strong MAP enforcement helps the value of used guitars. Companies that protect their brand value (Bose, Mesa for example) enjoy higher perceived value and better resale. Companies that let retailers run amok pay for it in the long run.
As a G&L dealer, I often hear the comment, “Great guitars but I wish the resale value was better.” I’ve come to realization that G&L’s fare no better or worse than most Gibson’s and Fenders. It just that Gibson and Fender owners think their guitars are worth more. In the end, the relationship between street price and used prices are not appreciably different (But the Gibson owner is disappointed and the G&L owner says, “Ok thanks for selling if or me.”). I just sold a left handed mid-2000’s ASAT Classic in nice condition for $849. The guitar probably went new for a little over $1000. Took about 10 days to sell. That’s a boatload better than I’ll do trying to sell a 3-year old Les Paul that had an original list of $3600.
Play what you like, have fun, and if you love the guitar, keep it. If you don’t like the guitar, sell it an move on. Guitars are a passion, a hobby, and for some a profession. For a precious few, they are an investment.
If you are interested in buying a G&L guitar and live in the USA, you can skip over this blog (unless you are curious). However if you live outside of the USA, as of January 1st, 2017 things got a little complicated.
CITES, the international organization that protects wildlife (animals as well as plants) implemented new restrictions on the use and export of Rosewood. Essentially Rosewood became a restricted material, and products containing Rosewood are now required to have documentation to verify that they are legally harvested.
How did this happen? It’s all about demand, and mostly in China where the expanding middle class developed a particular appetite for Rosewood furniture. The spike in demand created over-harvesting and illegal harvesting. Rather than see Rosewood wiped out, regulations have been put in place. You can debate the logic and methodology, but something needed to be done. Also note that “Rosewood” is a rather generic term that includes many varieties including Cocobolo, Bubinga, etc.
What are the practical implications?
The short story is that new guitars containing Rosewood manufactured after January 1st 2017 that are going to be exported out of the USA, need documentation verifying the sourcing of the Rosewood. Manufacturers have to apply for the paperwork and permits to export guitars containing Rosewood. There is of course a lot more to it than that, but that is the quick summary.
Dealers (like me) in most cases do not have this type of documentation; it’s the manufacturer that holds the permit. So most dealers will not be able to ship a post-January 2017 guitar with rosewood out of the country. It stands the risk of being confiscated at customs, and nobody gets the guitar back.
Guitars built before January 2017 can be shipped out of the country provided they have a re-export certificate. These are obtained from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The certificates cost money, and take time to obtain. A dealer can also apply for a “Master File” and purchase re-export certificates in advance, but it’s still a process. Suffice to say, many dealers are just not going to bother with exporting a guitar with Rosewood.
This is bad for independent dealers selling overseas but a boon for distributors. International distributors buying directly from the manufacturer will get legally documented product, and far less competition from independent dealers exporting into their home country.
Non-commercial (person-to-person) sales are technically exempt. I can imagine this becoming a loophole as some dealers will have a relative or friend be the shipper of record on a guitar going out of the country.
Aside from the occasional fancy top or limited editions, Rosewood on a G&L guitar is limited to the fretboard. The obvious alternatives are Maple and Ebony. Those materials can be exported freely without additional documentation.
If you are not partial to those materials, G&L has also started using a material called Chechen, also known as “Caribbean Rosewood.” It’s a hard and dense Central American hardwood that looks and feels very much like Rosewood. It has a more color variation than most rosewood, but it’s attractive and a good substitute. Most important is that is not subject to any restrictions and is widely available. Dealers with international customers looking for a way around Rosewood should consider Chechen.
Have an Open Mind
Traditional tone woods are just that: Traditional. They have obvious desirable qualities, but what they also have in common was that at the the time they were first used, they were widely available. And there were a lot fewer people on the earth. Guitar builders have been exploring new materials for decades, and many alternatives have been proven to be just as good as the traditional woods. Just like it very hard to get totally black ebony these days, guitar players will have to adjust to other paradigm shifts in guitar materials. In many cases the adjustment is more mental than sonic. Conventional wisdom dies a slow death, and there will always be players that cling to whatever “old way” they hold most dear.
If you want to play it totally safe, just avoid Rosewood. There are lots of other good materials both synthetic and natural. If you have your heart set on Rosewood, the sky isn’t falling, but obtaining that Rosewood guitar may take more diligence and planning.
OK, so we just got back from NAMM, and as always it’s a fun if not tiring and slightly deafening time. This is not a blow-by-blow rundown of the show, but a few quick observations on what we did and saw.
G&L – G&L did not display at the show, but the factory is 20 minutes away and so we dropped in for a tour. We spent quite a bit of time there, and got a very detailed tour from Ben the Shop Foreman (I won’t throw out a lot of names because I did not ask them that ahead of time. But you can read their build sheets). There is a lot that goes into a guitar, but the process takes place in four major sections: Wood shop, paint, polish and assembly. It’s pretty compact facility and G&L builds in a day what Fender probably builds in 15 minutes. It’s a group of people who build guitars and love doing it. And they are doing it better than ever.
The NAMM Show – With over 1100 exhibitors for just “fretted instruments” it begs the question, “how on earth does one make up their mind on anything?” The shear number of guitar manufacturers makes you wonder how anyone survives. Especially the small builders who are often making very expensive guitars in low numbers. Some of their work is exquisite and some just weird. But how they carve out their market niche and clientele seems challenging to say the least.
The amplifier market seems to be a tale of two cities: The big and fairly big guys like Marshall, Fender, Orange and Vox, and the boutique-ish small builders scattered throughout the show. With margins very thin on amplifiers, many of the small builders seem rather disinterested in dealers, and focus more on direct sales or getting picked up by Sweetwater. Supro is currently occupying the space between average and boutique, and the guitar world needs more of that. For us, the search continues for amp line that is inspiring and reasonably affordable. Sigh.
Keeley Electronics – Except for our beloved Solodallas, we have deliberately avoided pedals. The whole market seems insanely over-saturated, and like a lot of things at NAMM, how on earth does one choose? But pedal effects are a fact of life, and I have a pedal board, so who am I to judge? So we chose Keeley electronics. Why? They have a comprehensive line that covers just about everything, they sound good, are well built, and they shy away from gimmicks and silly stuff, like calling a volume knob “urgency” and nonsense like that. Pro-level pedals for regular folks that won’t cost you $400.
Heritage Guitars – We’ve been looking at Heritage for about three years, but never quite made the jump. We’ve played a couple and they are awesome, but long delivery times, minimal marketing, and the secondary market made us skittish. But they’ve got new ownership, a renewed emphasis on artist relations and marketing, and better operations management that should bring down lead times and bolster consistency. So we are going to take the plunge, and while it will take 3-4 months to get our first batch, we are really looking forward to it.
Norman Guitars, Art and Lutherie – Acoustics have never been a big part of our business, but they are a big part of the market. We’ve dabbled in some higher end acoustics, but I’m convinced that if you can’t have Taylor or Martin, you’ll be forever swimming upstream. Their names are synonymous with the genre, like Kleenex. But everyone needs a solid, affordable acoustic, and we decided to go with two of Godin’s other historic brands, Norman and Art and Lutherie. Both have been given a little bit of a reboot, and the new A&L guitars in particular have some very cool “Americana” finishes that are hip, and fit in well with singer-songwriter coolness. Take one to Brooklyn, and you’ll be an instant hit.
Best Booth Venue for Music – Taylor. The Taylor room always has interesting people, a nice stage and great sound. And usually a surprise or two.
Biggest MarketingSplash – D’Angelico. Where did these guys come from? Somebody has put some serious bucks into what I thought was a little jazz box company. Even Ukes for heaven’s sake. And Bob Weir was the invitation-only headliner on Friday night. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
Pianos, Band and Orchestra – This is not a guitar show, and the amount of space occupied by Piano, B&O and Sheet Music makes one think twice about what makes the industry tick.
Metal Heads – They keep the guitar industry alive and are the guitar’s most faithful supporters, even more than Blues. The autograph line for Steve Morse at the Ernie Ball booth always wraps around at least once.
Line 6 – Was not even in the convention hall, but in a ballroom at an adjacent hotel. I don’t follow the logic on that. Would you take a long walk through a crowd and security to look at a Line 6? Me neither.
Post Show Music in the Hotels – Take a nap, do whatever, but make a point of hanging out a the host hotels after the show closes for the night. The music is frequently good — at least performed well — and you never know who you will run into.
In the world of guitars, there are a number of features that separate the higher end of the spectrum from the typical electric guitar. For my own purposes, I’ll classify high end guitars as those that have a street price of greater than $2000. For some that may not be an expensive guitar, but only a few percent of the market is above $1500 dollars, so at least in dollar terms it’s high end.
Many guitars in this price range still use the traditional process of finishing their guitars in Nitrocellulose Lacquer. This type of finish chemistry has been in use since the 1920’s and for decades was the preferred method for finishing all types of musical instruments. Nitro remained the dominant process up through the early 70’s when the faster and easier polyurethane catalyzed finished grew in popularity. Today probably 99% of all guitar production is some form of a poly finish.
Like many things that have become revered as the “best,” nitrocellulose lacquer was the available chemistry at the time, and one of the first commercial processes for producing colorful finishes. Until then, it was no coincidence that many commercial products — like cars — came in just black. It was not just economical, but a practical necessity.
But there are certain advantages that make nitro finishes attractive for musical instruments. The finish is quite flexible, which is a good property to let the base materials of the instrument resonate properly. The solvent-based nature of the finish means that you can both remove it, and patch it, which makes is repairable. Lastly is can be buffed and polished to a high gloss.
The drawbacks of nitro is that it uses toxic and highly flammable solvents — xylene and toluene for starters — which means specific handling precautions and ventilation. It’s also built up of many thin coats, so it’s also a slower process as compared to poly finishes. In contrast the modern poly finish is much quicker to apply, and requires fewer handling and safety precautions. Poly finishes have come a long way, and some manufacturers have developed thin environmentally-friendly finishes for their instruments, especially for acoustics. But to many players, poly finishes just don’t “sound” the same.
G&L toyed with nitro finishes on their now-discontinued “Rustic” line of guitars. This was during the relic boom a few years back when just about every manufacturer was beating up their guitars. But the finishing process was subcontracted, and lead times were often many many months. And it was an aged process.
Quite by surprise, G&L introduced their own in-house lacquer process in the spring of 2016. The process is still gaining momentum, and G&L tends to spray a single color in batches of twenty guitars at a time. The colors are pretty traditional and run the range of vintage and 60’s-inspired colors: Sunburst, Butterscotch, Sonic Blue, Fiesta Red, Surf Green, Shell Pink, and Vintage White are all colors that we currently have in stock. The nitro process also includes the neck finish, and all guitars at this point have glossy neck finishes with rosewood or maple fretboards. At this time there are no special orders being taken for nitro guitars.
The nitro finishes have a decidedly “non-plastic” look to them, and this is especially noticeable on the necks, and transparent finishes like Butterscotch and Sunburst. The thinner nature of the finish will also show a little grain texture in the finish. We see this the most on the mahogany bodied guitars. The finish is glossy and smooth, but you can just see the texture of the mahogany in the finish. On some of the guitars there is also the occasional small sink in the finish where the filler did not totally block the pores in the grain. This is not seen as a defect, but a positive sign that the finish is thin, and that the body is not excessively encased in potentially tone-deadening fillers.
Naturally, there is a price increase for the nitrocellulose lacquer finish, but G&L has done a great job in keeping the price in check. Most MAP prices are in the $1600 range for solid bodies, and $1799 for semi-hollow models. When you figure that all models have gloss necks — around $150 MAP in poly — the up-charge is very reasonable indeed.
Does nitrocellulose lacquer sound better? It’s hard to quantify, as every guitar is different in its own respect. But nitro is what I’d like to term as “directionally correct.” In other words the benefits of a thinner, more flexible finish is in theory always beneficial to improving the acoustic properties of a guitar. Or you could ascribe to the idea that no company would apply an expensive nitro finish to a poorly assembled guitar, or one with low quality materials. Either way, there should be no sonic downside to a properly applied lacquer finish, and plenty of potential for upside.
Kudos to G&L for bringing a type of finish generally reserved for the upper stratosphere into the “everyman” range.
Fender has recently announced that starting in July, they will no longer provide Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Pricing — also known as list pricing — to their retailers. As of July 7th, Fender will begin using just an “advertised” price, otherwise known as MAP pricing.
In many industries besides musical instruments list pricing is an almost meaningless number, sometimes only a reference point from which to calculate the MAP price. Given the fact that probably 0% of guitars are ever sold at list price, reverting to using only MAP may not have any material impact on the average consumer. But given the ability of buyers to rapidly price check products on the internet, MSRP bears little connection with reality.
The larger goal for Fender and other makers of well-known consumer brands is working with retailers — brick and mortar and otherwise — to properly present, market, and value their products. If the internet has proven anything, it’s that there are people out there willing to make amazingly little margin on their sales. Sometimes these folks don’t last long (it’s hard to survive on marginal profits, at least not without massive volume) but they all have their impact on the overall market. While low pricing and competition is inherently good for the consumer, taken to an extreme it lowers the value of a product to the point where it becomes unattractive to manufacture. This is the Wal-Mart effect of being able to drive a supplier to the brink of failure.
Case in point: I used to work for a well-regarded maker of very nice pens (writing instruments to those in the industry) and in order to grow volume they took on big box customers such as Wal-Mart, Target, etc. It got to the point where Wal-Mart was retailing our typical pen for less than a jewelry store or gift shop to could buy it from us. Long term having our pen at Wal-Mart dropped it’s perceived value, plus our traditional retailers were mad at us and stocked less of our products. Ultimately, Wal-Mart dropped the pens because the product did not generate enough sales volume. So the pen company alienated their traditional retailer, had their reputation damaged by the big box store that ultimately jilted them, and for that and many other reasons the company was never the same.
I can’t be inside the minds of Fender management, but the pen company experience feels very much like what many old line musical instrument manufacturers have been going through. We’ve had the grand experiment with Guitar Center, Mars, Unique Squared, Bain Capital, a botched IPO, and now it’s time to regroup and rethink.
While guitars can and will be sold on the internet, if they are sold and marketed like a commodity, the industry is doomed. Musical instruments are a personal experience, and people create art and emotion with them. Quite often the sales process is a relationship process, and even big mail order companies like a Sweetwater get that point. Consider Best Buy and their dalliance with MI products: Having untrained, underpaid people selling microwaves and Marshall amplifiers was so uncool and unappealing it could only crash and burn.
It’s interesting to see the recent changes at both Fender and Gibson. Fender is getting new management, dabbling with some direct sales of merchandise and high end products, cracking down on MAP violators, pruning minor brands, and eliminating MSRP. Gibson has been in an acquisition mode to acquire other types of entertainment and audio products, and positioning Gibson as a “lifestyle” (sic) brand. And while all this is going on, Guitar Center has cut ties with the private equity group that nearly killed them, dropped Berhinger for kicking them when they were down , and is crafting a plan to cutting years of quarterly losses. Interesting times indeed.
Personally, as a self-described “micro-retailer” I’m not sure who I’m rooting for. But emotionally, Fender is trying to maintain and protect the value that their products represent. Yes, you can get a silly “Fender” stereo in a VW Beetle, but I think you’ll see less pimping of their name, and more focus creating true brand value. Gibson appears to be doing the corporate diversification game, which is a sign that they may have less than rock solid faith in the profitability of their core products. Both approaches can work, but Fender’s “do what you are good at” approach is more reassuring for music lovers. As far as Guitar Center goes, their tactics have contributed to the devaluation of musical brands in general, but they are now trying to reinvent themselves. GC is very big player, so it’s similar to not liking General Motors, but not wanting them to go belly up either. Paying their salespeople a half decent hourly wage would be a start though.
In the end though, any product has to represent value: Both tangible and emotional. And the selling process is part of the overall value proposition. Selling your product for too little, whether it be a guitar or the music you create is bad for your products, and it’s bad for the artist and creator. Free sounds cool until it’s your work that is being literally given away. On the surface, Fender dropping MSRP may appear like just a marketing sleight of hand, but hopefully it’s a sign of a new recognition of value in the MI industry.
After a couple years’ hiatus, the brain trust of UpFront guitars made to the trip out to the 2014 NAMM show in Anaheim, California. We had several goals in mind: 1) Meet with many of our biggest suppliers 2) Scout out some new opportunities to bring to UpFront Guitars 3) Meet up with old friends, and 4) Soak up a little SoCal weather.
If you’ve ever been to a trade show of any type, you know they can be crowded, noisy affairs. The NAMM show shatters all preconceptions of crowded, noisy affairs. I suppose that the CES (Consumer Electronics) and SEMA (Car accessories) shows probably rival NAMM for calamity factor, but just imagine 35,000 visitors a day, and four floors of musical instruments. Visiting the show is tiring, and it’s hard to imagine working a booth for four days. Here are some of the high points, observations, and cheap advice to consider if you plan on visiting NAMM:
G&L – After working with G&L for almost four years, finally meeting the crew – Jim, Natalie, Rob, and Larry – was like catching up long lost relatives. These folks are awesome, and it’s wonderful to have such a great working relationship with people who really put their heart and soul into a company. It’s companies like this that make the music business fun.
Godin – Godin gets their own room upstairs at the convention center, so it’s a little less chaotic. But as usual they are rolling out a lot of new products, and it’s a good place to hear an impromptu performance, often Latin in nature involving their Multiac line. New items that we took a shine to include a P-90 version of their Montreal Premiere line (with Bigsby), gloss white versions of the Nylon ACS, and some cool affordable guitars from their Richmond line.
Vox – Interesting that their display was over in the Pro Audio section with Korg, while sister company Marshall was smack dab in Metal-Land. But Vox has done a nice job blending traditional amplifiers with technology, modeling, and their own line of unique guitars.
Percussion – Unless you are a drummer, you really want to stay away from their section. Think about it.
The Biggies: Taylor, Martin, Fender, Peavey, Gibson, PRS, etc – They mostly have their own rooms, and these tend to be very crowded affairs and are as much branding/culture exercises as they are selling to their dealers. The crowds were so heavy, that we had just walk by some of them and move on. Taylor knows brand building better than just about anyone, and their room was heavily focused on live performances and an almost museum-like approach to their displays. They topped everyone on Saturday with an unannounced performance by Jason Mraz, which we missed getting into by mere minutes. You can see it on their website, and as usual Jason exhales more talent than most people ever have in a lifetime. In contrast, the PRS room was very low key, and basically just a room full of guitars with mood lighting. For a brand with such a fervent following, they didn’t bring the story like Taylor and others.
Breedlove – Way more impressive than was I expecting, and they have some beautiful guitars, and interesting design features that are both functional and attractive. They cover all the price points with USA, Korea and China-made models, and we may to have to take a closer look at these guys, specifically their USA line.
Metal is Not Dead – It’s in Anaheim. It’s grayer, older, several pounds heavier, but there was a whole heap of leather, tattoos, fishnet, and piercings walking the show. They must have all driven there, because there is no way they got through airport security. The artist signings were also heavily tilted towards hard rock, and any long line of black leather was typically waiting for autographs. But God Bless’em they love rock and roll and were out in force. Be nice to them.
Pedals and Effects – To paraphrase Chandler from Friends, “Can there possibly be anymore pedals?” There was just an unfathomable number of pedals on display, from the big names to the tiny cottage makers lurking in the far back corners of the hall. I have no idea when the bubble will burst, but it’s got to someday.
Band and Orchestra – We guitar heads forget how big the B&O segment is to the overall industry. Quite likely lessons, sheet music and rentals are keeping your local music store alive. If you can figure out how to start a guitar orchestra and rent them instruments, you will be very rich indeed.
Technology – In many ways, the Pro Audio and software exhibitors were some of the most fascinating. And that fact that a good deal of the stuff is right over my head is a real wake-up call. There will always (I hope) be a need for real guitars, amps and performers, but you owe it to yourself to stay abreast of even rudimentary recording and production technology. Record labels and radio stations don’t have the power they used to, and the ability to self-produce at a high level of quality has never been better. You still need talent, but you don’t need a big dollar studio to get heard. For around $500 you can get a pretty good mic-preamp/USB/Firewire interface, recording software, and an SM-57. You can do it.
Have a plan for the show – Just going to NAMM to “walk around” is like saying you left your glasses at Disneyworld and you need to go find them. It’s too big, too noisy, and too crowded to saunter. Many booths are so packed that unless you have an appointment you won’t even be able to talk to anybody. Make a plan of attack, make appointments, download the phone app, and get organized. Wandering is fruitless and unproductive. It’s great for people watching, but you can do that while outside in the nice weather, and sitting down.
Attend seminars and workshops – NAMM is after all a trade organization, and there are literally dozens of opportunities to learn about business, technology, finance, marketing…you name it. It’s free information, often taught by independent businessmen with a lot of personal experience to share. If you are in the business, or are just curious, these are well worth your time. We took a lot of notes and got some great ideas for UpFront Guitars.
China, the country and the brand – We all know that China makes about 75% of all this stuff, maybe more. But they are not just the factory anymore, and there is an emerging number of China-based brands looking to make their own name at NAMM. Much of the productive derivative and often blatant copies, but that was Japan fifty years ago.
Food – Hands down, the best food of any trade show I’ve been to. Nice weather means Food Trucks, and while the lines were long, we actually got something really good at a reasonable price.
Go early, leave early – Get your business done early in the day. Go back to your hotel, take a nap, and go back for the live performances that run late into the night. We at UpFront Guitars didn’t do that. Next time.