Golden Age or Glowing Sunset?

Every ten years or so over the last five decades a major publication has featured a big story about how rock is dead and the guitar is going the way of the accordion. Recently I read about how EDM is killing guitar-oriented music and that an entire generation is growing up without the power chord or jingle-jangle of guitar. My reaction was pretty much the same as it has always been—not so fast. How can the guitar be on the wane when so many different instruments are being offered—and sold at bargain prices? Or will that be the cause of its demise? Part of the guitar’s appeal has always been its status as a rebel’s badge, which is pretty hard to justify when there are more guitars than there are people.

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Typical Day at the Big Box Brand

If you read the guitar magazines or visit online guitar-centric sites, you’ll have noticed that there are more brand names than ever before. In fact, it seems that there are almost more guitar companies than there are bands. For a player, this is heaven—so many designs and configurations to choose from! The vast offering of styles makes it a good bet that if you crave something, there’s somebody out there who can supply it for you at a price you can afford. There are vintage styles, modern styles, hybrids and mutant mashups in every color imaginable and some not to imaginable. Certainly this is a buyer’s market.

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But what about the builders? Can you imagine being in competition not only with offshore giants who can build a finished guitar for under $30, but with hundreds (or thousands) of local garage-based businesses? For some, it’s just a hobby where real profit isn’t important. This is the case for a lot of builders who are happy to make a few instruments a month down in the basement. It keeps them busy and maybe even pays for itself—if they don’t look at their time as costing anything.

I quickly compiled a list of some of the guitar brands being sold today. This list is by no means complete or comprehensive. In fact, my list contains just a fraction of what’s out there. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them. I ran out of patience before I ran out of names to type. Did I mention your favorite?

Peerless Guitars

Farida Guitars

Paul Rhoney Guitars

Banning Guitars

Blu Guitars

Wood Hagan Guitars

Veritas Guitars

Volta Guitars

Yamaha Guitars

Doppler Guitars

Lollar Guitars

Ham-tone Guitars

Gibson Guitars

Rickenbacker Guitars

Electra Guitars

Warlatron Guitars

Peavey Guitars

RS Guitarworks

Agile Guitars

Dudley Customs

Harden Engineering

Landric Guitars

Grosh Guitars

Dreamer Guitarworks

Fujigen Guitars

D’Angelico Guitars

Dean Guitars

Wayne Guitars

DBZ Guitars

Warr Guitars

Stewart Guitars

Carl Barney Guitars

Washburn Guitars

Scott French Guitars

Vesper Guitars

Koll Guitars

Fano Guitars

Moonstone Guitars

b3 Guitars

Zolla Guitars

Framus Guitars

Trussart Gutars

LAG Guitars

Ronin Guitars

Fender Guitars

HiTone Guitars

Ruokangas Guitars

St. Blues Guitars

McElroy Guitars

Hamburguitar

MDX Guitars

Collings Guitars

Ritter Instruments

Crafter Guitars

Viktorian Guitars

Giles Guitars

Mike Lull Guitars

Taylor Guitars

Francis Guitars

Maton Guitars

Kramer Guitars

Takamine Guitars

Martin Guitars

Godin Guitars

Gretsch Guitars

Duesenberg Guitars

Hofner Guitars

SB MacDonald

Creston Guitars

LaRose Guitars

Hoyer Guitars

M-Tone Guitars

Ibanez Guitars

Recording King Guitars

Suhr Guitars

G&L Guitars

Blade Guitars

Musicman Guitars

ESP Guitars

Fretlight Guitars

Zager Guitars

Schroeder Guitars

Potvin Guitars

Virgil Guitars

Lieber Guitars

Fliski Guitars

Black Pearl Guitars

Abyss Guitars

Abel Axe

Ed Clark Guitars

Abyss Guitars

Driskill Guitars

Andrews Guitars

Dragonfly Guitars

Farnell Guitars

Melancon Guitars

Michael Kelly Guitars

Ted Crocker Guitars

Tom Anderson Guitars

Batson Guitars

Greenfield Guitars

Mauel Guitars

Sexauer Guitars

Gadow Guitars

Fodera Guitars

Warrior Guitars

Abita Guitars

Ace Guitars

Bourgeois Guitars

Fleishman Guitars

Knaggs Guitars

K-Line Guitars

Campbell American Guitars

Conklin Guitars

Delaney Guitars

Learn guitars

McInturf Guitars

Sadowsky Guitars

Pensa Guitars

Novax Guitars

Stevens Guitars

Artinger Guitars

Dragonfly Guitars

Marchione Guitars

DiPinto Guitars

McNaught Guitars

Minarik Guitars

Nash Guitars

Moser Guitars

TV Jones Guitars

DeTemple Guitars

John Carruthers Guitars

GJ3 Guitars

Brubaker Guitars

GMP Guitars

Henman Guitars

Ken Parker Guitars

Malden Guitars

Tonesmith Guitars

Triggs Guitars

Zion Guitar Technology

US Masters Guitars

Bear Creek Guitars

Bell Custom Guitars

Dingwall Guitars

Dolan Guitars

Chafin Guitars

Bolin Guitars

AXL Guitars

Heritage Guitars

James Tyler Guitars

Leach Guitars

Michael Tuttle Guitars

Myka Guitars

Boris Guitars

MJ Guitars

Norton Guitars

S3 Guitars

Jackson Guitars

Tradition Guitars

Veillette Guitars

Chappell Guitars

Electrical Guitar Company

Byrd Guitars

Knutson Luthierie

King Blossom Guitars

Bootleg Guitars

Austin Guitars

A E Guitars

Grove Guitars

J. Backlund Guitars

Gigliotti Guitars

Hanson Musical Instruments

Benavente Guitars

KXK Guitars

North American Instruments

Red Rocket Guitars

Black Mesa Guitars

Chris Larkin Guitars

Larry Alan Guitars

Motorave Guitars

DGN Guitars

Malinosky Guitars

LSL Guitars

Crook Custom Guitars

Branch Guitars

Cycfi Research

EER Customs

Decava Guitars

Bacorn Guitars

Maret Guitars

RWK Guitars

Russell Guitars

McSwain Guitars

Schaefer Guitars

DeLacugo Guitars

Switch Guitars

Tsunami Guitars

Becker Guitars

Benedict Guitar Company

Gene Liberty Guitars

Citron Guitars

Hallmark Guitars

McCurdy Guitars

 

 

 

 

Axes to Grind

In my latest column for Premier Guitar I describe the arc of some American manufacturing businesses including guitar factories.

Yesterday I paid a visit to Grover Jackson’s website to see what he’d been up to. The last time we spoke, about a year ago, Jackson had recently started a small guitar-building shop with ex-Fender salesman John Gold and they were building new instruments under the GJ2 name. He’d gotten himself a Fadal CNC and was about to release a new design called the Concorde. I was happy to see Jackson back in the saddle, he’d been an inspiration to me and I loved his original designs. I wished him luck and waited to see what amazing stuff he’d come up with next.

However, when I recently looked at his site, I was a bit surprised to see some pretty straight ahead Strat and Tele clones for sale. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. It’s a tough marketplace out there if your headstock doesn’t say Gibson, Fender or Martin. The realities of the marketplace are in force even if your name is Grover Jackson. I know from personal experience that copycatting can be a double edged sword. It can make you, but it can cubbyhole you into a second-tier existence.

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On a related note, here is my latest column for Premier Guitar.

It’s about how the guitar industry is following a familiar arc. How many Packards, Tuckers, Humpmobiles, or even Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles do you see on the road today? There have been Shelbys, Deloreans, Studebakers, Dusenbergs, Hudsons, and Bricklins out there, trying to do battle against a stacked deck. For those of you who don’t know those names I’ll fill you in—they once were big shots in the car industry.

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So to all the small builders out there hanging on by your fingernails, you have my respect and I wish you the best. It’s not easy to survive in the shrinking guitar market—even if you have a famous name.

The Plywood Panacea and Masonite Mantra

Paul Simon wrote, “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” and how correct he was. But Simon could have been talking about the product life cycle of any consumer item that relies upon favor for its sales.

 

In my latest column for Premier Guitar I examine the budget bin guitar fad. Click here to read.

Fifties guitars and boutique handmades are priced out of the reach for all but the wealthy or the truly dedicated players—something was bound to burst. Just as Andy Williams was left high and dry by the arrival of The Beatles, so too might be the fate of instruments from the golden age. Disdain of the old has often been the motivation for trends of the young.

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We don’t need your stinkin’ Les Pauls, PRS and Stratocasters, we’ve got cheapo student guitars that sound funky and make us look different than the old people in classic rock and country.

Maybe the suits at PRS will abandon their collectibles attitude and scramble to duke it out with more trendy upstarts like Fano. The executive teams at Fender and Gibson are already turning the microscope onto the pages of their cheesiest past offerings—you know, the ones that sort of inspired Fano in the first place.

Meanwhile, Rickenbacker just continues on making beautiful and glorious sounding, but practically unplayable art.

Read my latest for Premier Guitar

On the Fringe

In the margins, on the fringe, away from the mainstream and lurking in the shadows of popular culture. Those phrases describe the people I respect and admire most. You could say that I’ve unconsciously—or consciously—modeled my career after those people. I’ve never wanted to be a household name, and I don’t care if everyone knows my work. The important thing to me is to do good work and build cool shit. Grandstanding is against my nature, and in the past when my job required me to be the face and voice for an organization, I did the job reluctantly. I saw it as part of the way we all put food on the table. It provided everyone in the shop a chance to continue doing what mattered.

Hamer guru tour at Lighting Joe’s
Hamer guru tour at Lighting Joe’s

Our traveling roadshow was a harbinger of what others do today. I liked meeting the dealers and the customers, but after each appearance was over I would go back to my hotel with a migraine—the reward for strong-arming my natural shyness. When I started my first guitar blog in October of 2005, I had to do it against the wishes of the parent company’s vice president, who didn’t even know what a blog was. He went home, asked his kids, and then told me it was a bad idea. I did it anyway and paid for it myself. My intent wasn’t to elevate myself, but rather to share the stories of how the crew and I made—cool shit. Those pages told of the daily life in our shop and turned the spotlight on the key people who worked there. It was the first time any of them got the credit they deserved, but were denied by policy. I’ll admit that I did get a sense of vindication when a few years later, Premier Guitar magazine called it “essential reading” for those in the industry. At that point the marketing pukes put a link on our main website and I almost immediately started to lose interest. I had 11,000 people coming to look, and yet I wanted to derail it. When I left, they struggled to emulate what I had started, and it didn’t end well.

So, is this some sort of failure complex? Possibly. The Woody Allen line from Annie Hall comes to mind: “I would never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” More likely, I just don’t like crowds. I prefer to meet people one on one and make a real connection. And that’s what the blog felt like. I could talk about what I wanted and share with a few weirdos who got it. As soon as it was a “big deal” it was serving the wrong purpose. I prefer to interact with the kind of souls that look to the details and make the connections offered up by references rather than have it all laid out for them in easy to understand WOW soundbites.

One guy who gets it—Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars
One guy who gets it—Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars

In my present shop I have only myself to praise or blame. I post when I wish and don’t worry about trying to please everyone. My monthly column/blog Esoterica Electrica is the result of just being myself, and the good people at PG have given me a lot of freedom to explore subjects from my own perspective. I get to ask the questions that most people aren’t asking, because that’s where the cool shit is. In the era of the long tail, I don’t need to kiss the ass of the same old, and I’m assured that there is sufficient traffic for me to continue. And now, as this incarnation of my Workshop Blog has served millions, I still consider it comfortably small potatoes.

My guitar building continues unhindered by the constraints of the corporate hand that often strangles itself. Occasionally I collaborate with my compatriots from the now-shuttered old shop, but mostly I work alone. I have a manageable work schedule that allows me to write, photograph, travel and meet interesting people who inhabit the fringes like me. I’m happy that people like you hang out with me in our virtual meeting spot, and I do appreciate the nice emails and enjoy answering you questions. Oh yeah, I also get to make cool shit.

Industrial Disease

“Warning lights are flashing down at Quality Control 
Somebody threw a spanner and they threw him in the hole 
There’s rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town 
Somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down.”

One of my favorite Dire Straits songs is “Industrial Disease,” from their 1982 album, “Love Over Gold.” It’s a bouncy little number with a cheesy ’60s combo organ part that belies its serious subject. Mark Knopfler’s lyrics are expertly crafted with an endless stream of references to the woes of the British Industrial decline. Actually, it is pretty universal and can be applied to our own American landscape. As much as Knopfler tries to keep his tongue in cheek, as a writer he is keenly aware that a good joke is funny because it contains an uncomfortable truth.

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Near the song’s conclusion the narrator encounters a pair of competing Jesuses at a public rally who both propose their solutions to the situation, with the second Jesus offering, “I’d cure it soon—abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.” Which refers to the old adage about how anything made during those periods didn’t recieve the full concentration of the employees.

Having worked in industrial settings since my teens, I can attest to the fact that it is sometimes hard to find your stride at the beginning of the week and likewise at week’s end. As much as I enjoy what I do, a little perspective goes a long way. Which is why I’ve made it a practice of using these periods to inject some fun into the workshop, and ease in and out of the week.

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Last week it was the changeup of dismantling the door of a vintage Porsche, but it could be any number of things. I find that by breaking up the week with departures from the routine, I keep my interest up for the job of making guitars. Today, it was sorting through a box of cool old parts that was left on the shop’s doorstep by a friend who knows I like this sort of stuff.

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So, as we head into midday I return to the woodshop to some builds that are in progress—the grogginess that sometimes accompanies a Monday morning left far behind. I’m ready to concentrate fully on the task at hand, and avoid having to pitch good wood into the dumpster, which costs more in the long run.

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