As I sat in LAX airport waiting for my plane to begin boarding I perused the catalogs and materials from the many companies I spent time with. While I only spent one full day at the show and only saw a small fraction of what was on display I felt I had a good overview of the current state of the musical instrument business. Some of the things I learned surprised me, some not so much. Here are a few reflections from my notes.
This is truly an amazing time to be a guitar player. There are a dizzying array of options for both the beginner and the experienced, professional player. This is great! But if I was the owner of one of those companies I’d feel more than a bit stressed out. The competition is coming from literally everywhere in the world. The famous American guitar companies have to be feeling the pressure from the Far East as never before because gone are the days when a guitar coming out of that area was inherently inferior to the American brands. Yes, there are still some cheapo’s that are pretty bad but the vast majority are good; some are excellent and rival or even surpass what’s being made in this country – for a fraction of the cost. I’ll always be loyal to Martin guitars; they were my first love and still hold my heart but if I were contemplating a big investment in yet another professional quality guitar I would be hard pressed to ignore some of the better Chinese-made instruments. In fit, finish, looks and most importantly, SOUND there are some clear winners. What I find interesting is that the stigma of going on stage with a Chinese guitar has largely disappeared. Not long ago, no serious player would do such a thing but not today.
So what are the American companies doing to counter this? From what I can see they are focusing on re-styling or “re-imagining” (in Martin parlance) existing models. Or redesigning guitars from the inside, out. See Taylor’s new “V-bracing.” The danger there is that the companies are banking on older players with disposable income will take notice. I feel that it’s too early to tell if that will be the case. Just how many $4000+ guitars will a middle-class Baby Boomer buy? Time marches on…none of us are getting younger…
And a bit more troubling – how about that be-all and end-all guitar from Martin or Taylor or Gibson of a few years ago that is suddenly not quite so special anymore? The fact is, right now in this country at least it’s a buyer’s market for perfectly fine and very nice but common and standard models from those companies, and others. Will the higher end guitar buyer suck it up, accept that their guitar that was oh-so-special a few years ago has plummeted in value and jump at the current latest/greatest? Again, time will tell.
Another observation. The world of electric guitars is RULED by pedals! Players routinely do gigs with pedal boards holding dozens of sound-altering devices. The starting point is the guitar and the end point is the amp but what comes in between is much more important it seems. This is not news of course; electric guitar players have been using pedals for decades but now it seems that the pure sound of a fine electric through a warm and sweet tube amp is passé. Lots of pedals do cover up a multitude of sins, with some players anyway. Now the pedal frenzy is coming into the world of acoustic/electric guitars with a vengeance. For my part, just a bit of reverb and a bit of equalization are enough. But hey, have fun. Grab a few pedals and have at it. It’s supposed to be fun, right?
At the NAMM show you could find both software and hardware to make studio quality recordings for a fraction of the price similar devices were not long ago. I think this is great! In some cases the options on these devices and the software used with them can be quite daunting to an old dog like me. I still would like to do some more home recording. Haven’t done much in the last couple of years but if I could just find some smart and tech-savvy youngster to help me out I’d be much more inclined to dive into this new world. My recording software is archaic by today’s standards, unfortunately. Might have to step up to some of the new stuff though. Anyone out there want to help me?
And finally, my lasting impression of the show will be the wonderful enthusiasm, friendliness and love of making music that permeated every moment I was there. As I wrote to my wife while I was there: I’m with my people! I’m on the fence about whether I’ll attend the East Coast summer NAMM show in Nashville this summer as I’ve been told it is quite a bit smaller than the annual show in Anaheim but who knows? Embarrassed to say, I have never been to Nashville and I’m only a few decades overdue. It could be a great excuse!
Peace & good music,