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Fender: 25 Years at the Ensenada Factory

October 24th, 2012

We sometimes like to take pleasure in kicking the big guys when they are down. GM, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft…the Yankees. Seeing the seemingly invincible struggle sometimes makes us little guys feel better. In the world of guitars, certainly the two electric heavyweights Fender and Gibson have had their share of troubles. Fender has been in headlines for their struggling profitability and the much publicized IPO that never happened (probably because the Private Equity people realized that the stock value just wasn’t there). Gibson of course hit the papers with their government raid and fines related to the improper importation of restricted hardwoods. I still maintain that if everyone else in the industry can manage to buy fingerboards legally, then Gibson most likely was doing something not kosher. Also there’s just something about a $3500 guitar with lacquer drips, but that’s for another day.

Fender however recently hit a real milestone with the 25th anniversary of their manufacturing facility in Ensenada, Mexico. What is so great you say about celebrating a factory that makes guitars in Mexico rather than in the USA? The importance of the Fender Ensenada factory is that over two decades ago Fender realized that as global competition would continue to drive manufacturing to low cost countries, that is was better to control their destiny rather than subcontract it. The Fender factory in Mexico now employs over 1000 people and occupies over a quarter million square feet, turning out electric guitars, acoustics, and amplifiers.

It would be nice to think that this manufacturing could have stayed in the US, but by nature guitar making is labor intensive. And with 80% of the worlds guitar market being under $600, nearly all this market is going to be fulfilled by suppliers in low cost countries. In a recent Music Trades article about the Fender plant, it was pointed out that in 1990 China produced 0% of the world’s guitars. Now China produces over 70% of the world’s guitars, but only 45% of the total market value. In other words, they make a boatload of inexpensive guitars. And most of these China factories don’t have names that we would recognize. They are contract manufacturers that produce guitars and then brand them with names that we do recognize. This is how much of the consumer product world works, but it’s hardly the image we like to have of guitar making as a craft.

Fender deserves a lot of credit for investing to maintain control over their intellectual property, their manufacturing processes, designs, materials and product quality. Building a factory is a huge undertaking, and it would have been much less expensive for Fender to just find a factory to build their designs. However, when we stop manufacturing, we also lose touch with the skills and technology to actually create the product. Product designers who know how their designs are made invariably design better products. Take a guitar pickup for example: Here is a product where several companies can take the same wire, magnets and bobbins but all get different results. It’s the process of making the pickup as much as it is the actual design. When manufacturers and designers work together, products and quality naturally improve at a faster rate. The pace of product development increases too, and it takes less time to bring a new product to market. Although the factory is in Mexico, it’s a day trip from the Fender HQ in Arizona. They are in the same time zone and the same continent, and it makes a difference.

As a lot of people already know and appreciate, a “MIM” (Made in Mexico) Fender is a good quality product. It’s not a cheap guitar; it’s a guitar that delivers top value for the price point. As the factory continues to increase its capabilities, the price point and value of the MIM products  will continue to rise. From the standpoint of brand equity, the Fender MIM products are largely embraced by the guitar playing public, and while some would rather be playing a true USA Fender, nobody is being done a disservice by playing an Ensenada product.

Whether it is Foxconn producing the iPad or whoever actually makes Nike footwear, there is increasing separation between the creators of products and the manufacturers of the products. Some pundits will argue that owning the design is the only true value, and that manufacturing is strictly a matter of finding the lowest cost source. That’s how we get Barbie Dolls with lead paint, and why it’s hard to buy a Toaster Oven that will last more than three years. Guitars are not appliances or toys, and should not be built that way.

Fender has its share of troubles, and for some purists the only real Fender guitars are those made before 1965 when a man named Leo ran the company. But for people of normal means, Fender Ensenada products are the pathway to owning what are arguably the most recognizable shapes in rock and roll. Kudos to Fender for keeping the dream of rock and roll alive.

Where are the good rock radio stations?

October 10th, 2012

If you’re like me, you still listen to a fair amount of radio. For me these days, it’s mostly news via Public Radio, but I still attempt to discover new music by listening to the radio. With radio stations so tightly formatted to a certain genre, it’s quite a chore. Also radio ownership is highly concentrated these days, which leads to musical conformity and homogenized playlists. A quick check on Wikipedia showed that just three companies own more that 1600 stations across the US. Check it out here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Radio_stations_in_the_United_States_by_owner

This is why the FCC is supposed to limit things like concentrated ownership of radio, TV and newspapers within a given media market. Yeah, right.

But, all is not lost. Between independently owned and college stations, you can still find new music created by new bands, old favorites, and artists that fell off the charts years ago but still ply their trade with integrity.  So I’m going to try an experiment here: If you know of a good radio station that plays a wide variety of new and old rock, blues, R&B….and they stream over the internet, send me an email with the link and I’ll post it here. Just send it to sales@upfrontguitars.com and I will put the link on this blog page. Half the fun of music is hearing new music. So let’s start a movement for good radio and spread the word. Here is my first submission:

WXRV “The River” in Haverill, MA: www.wxrv.com

 

 

Will Country Music Save the Electric Guitar?

October 8th, 2012

If you’re a person of a certain age — let’s say over 35 — your definition of rock music is probably very different than somebody who is currently in high school or college. For the first forty years of rock music, the primary driving force was the electric guitar. From Scotty Moore backing up Elvis in the 50’s to Kurt Kobain in the 90’s the electric guitar was inseparable from the music.

But as rap, hip hop, house music and the generic category of dance pop came to dominate what was left of Top 40 radio, electric guitar and the guitarist started to fade into the background. In the realm of pop music, how easily can you name current popular figures that are known for playing guitar? Unless you are into really hard rock, metal, or ply the pages of Guitar Player it’s not easy to come up with many names. John Mayer perhaps, Dave Grolsch (sort of) but in general it’s a short list. Now of course you might do better if we include College Radio or Adult Contemporary, but in the world of Pop it’s pretty slim pickings.

Go back to any decade, and rock on the radio just oozed guitar. You name it: Chuck Berry, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Doobie Brothers, Def Leppard, Pearl Jam, Van Halen….you name it. I’m not even touching on the whole Hair Metal era which essentially revolved around pointy guitars and spandex.

Not all of this was great music, but it all featured guitar, and kids who listened to this music wanted to play guitar. What do they want to play today? Their Laptop? When a lot of today’s music can be sampled, programmed, or mashed, creating music may not involve playing an instrument at all.

For certain, I’m sounding like an old man right now, but this can’t really be good for guitar companies. If the music young people are listening to doesn’t inspire them to play guitar — or they don’t even hear a guitar — guitar sales are going to suffer. It’s not news that companies like Fender and Gibson are struggling, and while some of this is obviously related to the economy, popular music is less guitar driven than it used to be.

Which brings us to the potential savior of the Electric Guitar: Country Music. Go ahead and laugh, but if you want to hear a half-decent electric guitar player on pop radio these days, chances are it’s going to be in a country band. Country music has largely taken the place of rock music on Pop radio, and as it evolves it becomes increasingly less country and more like just like rock. Take away the vapid lyrics about dirt roads, beer and cut-off jeans and bands like Rascal Flats and Jason Aldean are churning out arena rock just like the old days. If you go back a decade or so, producer Mutt Lang (AC/DC’s, Def Leppard) practically created the genre of arena country with his then-wife Shania Twain and her blockbuster album Come on Over.

Country music even has its own guitar heroes. Guys like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban manage to be both really hot players and popular music figures. And in general, some of the most talented bands in popular music are the country bands. Say what you will about the actual star performer, but the bands backing these singers are sharp as a tack. And if you check out their gear you’ll see some interesting stuff: PRS, Mesa, Victoria, Marshall, and of course Brad and his Dr. Z’s. It’s a far cry from the Tele’s and Tweed that defined country music for years.

So if Country Music is the current curator and preserver of electric guitar, should we be concerned? If actual people are playing real guitars in real bands with other instruments but it also happens to be country music, do we look down in scorn? If you feel that way, take some Brent Mason, Vince Gill or Albert Lee and call me in the morning. Talent runs very deep in country music; it’s just that like most forms of music it gets processed and homogenized for popular consumption, often ending up like musical equivalent of Twinkies.

There are quite a few things that bug me about country music, such as the beer-and-wings lyrics, lack of tempo change, and such glossy production that any real energy is often sucked out of the song. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and what you have these days is a winning formula, with dozens of also-rans capitalizing on a trend. That’s not so different from any phase, whether it’s the British Invasion or Disco. There are always the creators and imitators. So while much of what is on country radio these days sounds totally packaged and phoned-in, that been true since to dawn of pop music.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to become a country music fan, and it’s certainly not my favorite format. But within any category of music there is true talent, and our job as music lovers is to look past what the “industry” is trying to sell us, and dig deeper to find the people that are truly making music. Country music is a big tent that runs from the traditional to essentially today’s version of pop-rock. In many ways it’s keeping the electric guitar in mainstream music, and if only for that, we rockers need to at least give it a deeper listen.

 

 

 

 

 

American Made Electric Guitars for around $1000

October 1st, 2012

Updated January, 2016

The solid body electric guitar is a uniquely American invention, but as most people know, very few of them are made in the USA anymore. As with many consumer products, the lure of low cost labor has drawn most manufacturing offshore. The first imports in the 60’s were from Japan, and then as costs rose there, manufacturing shifted to South Korea, then China, and now there is a growing industry in Indonesia. China is still the big dog in terms of guitar production, but as Chinese manufacturing costs continue to increase, more manufacturing will likely shift to Indonesia, and after that, who knows where?  Most players would be surprised to learn that South Korea accounts for only about 5% of electric guitar production, with the USA a couple points below that.

In practical terms, the average guitar player benefits from lower prices for musical instruments and gear. Given the combination of low labor costs and improved manufacturing technology, the bang-for-the-buck on guitars has never been better. About 44% of electric guitars purchased in 2011 cost less than $200. That’s just an astounding number, and even more astounding when you figure that these products are generally something you can actually play and that will stay in tune. Fully 80% of electric guitars purchased in 2011 cost less than $600. While I can’t be certain, I’ll wager that virtually none of these guitars were manufactured in the USA.

But what if you want to purchase something made in the USA, and you are on a budget? There are several options available, and if you are willing to head north of the border, the selection expands considerably. This is not meant to be a totally comprehensive list, but just some of the options out there for guitarists that want a good quality instrument and also support American manufacturing.

G&L – Barring a special release model, the days of a $1000 street price G&L are over. With new dealer and list pricing implemented in July 2015, your not going to see a 2015 G&L at this price; short of a desperate and/or math-challenged dealer blowing them out. There are still quite a few new 2014 models out there, and a base Legacy or SC-2 still might be had for around a grand. G&L continues to offer a unique value in terms of fit, finish, and the ability to special order. If you are willing to stretch your budget, you will be well rewarded.

Godin – Godin gets an honorable mention because while they don’t manufacture complete guitars in the USA, they assemble a variety of models in their New Hampshire facility from Canadian-made parts. Godin also uses a lot of locally sourced and sustainable woods like Maple, Basswood, and Cherry for their guitars. The Session and Progression and Core lines are examples of guitars assembled in the USA, and with a street price of around $500 the Session is a particularly good value. If you consider Canada as the 51st state, the all-Canadian Godin Core is our favorite both in P-90 and Humbucker trim. These street price for around $800, and there is just nothing not to like about them. They even use Seymour Duncan P-90 and bridge Humbucker pickups. Now for a $500 North American guitar don’t expect vintage Alnico pickups, and Godin does use PCB-mounted controls rather than hand-wired pots, but the setup and playability are first rate. All Godin guitars included a gig bag in the price.

Fender – One thing is for certain about Fender, and it’s that they offer a dizzying array of products that is both extensive, confusing, and often unnecessary.  But mixed in there is an assortment of Highway One and American Special guitars that offer good values and prices right at around $1000. Models seem to come and go in the Fender line with little or no warning, so what’s available at any given moment is hard to predict. The pickups in these guitars are decent if not awe inspiring, but overall these guitars are perfectly gig-worthy instruments and great platforms for hot-rodding. Keep in mind the price of these guitars either include no case, or a gig bag.

Gibson – Like Fender, Gibson suffers somewhat from product line schizophrenia. If you are browsing the major online retailers, models tend to come and go, at least from a standpoint of what’s being promoted at the moment. Gibson offers “faded” Les Paul and SG models with prices below $1000. There are also satin finish guitars both with flat and carved tops that come in under $1000. Gibson also offers Melody Maker and Les Paul Junior models, again with satin or aged finishes. We’ve tried the Les Paul Junior, and it’s pretty nifty with lots of bite out of the single dog-ear P-90, and good playing qualities. LP Juniors are fun guitars, and for a for pure elemental rock machine you can’t really go wrong. Gibson fit and finish can sometimes be a little variable, and if you want to mod the pickups or controls, you’ll likely be dealing with a printed circuit board (even if you spend thousands). As with Fender, gig bags may not be in the price, so consider that when you are shopping.

Carvin – By eliminating the retailer and going strictly direct, Carvin has been putting out a broad variety of attractively priced USA guitars for many years. Having never played their guitars I can’t say a wh0le lot, but my personal experience with their pro-audio and bass amplifiers tells me that they do deliver above average performance at a very competitive price. Provided you don’t option them up too much, their ST300, DC127, DC134/5, DC600 and Bolt-On  series guitars can all be had for under $1000. Carvin guitars can be custom built to order, and the array of options available from Carvin is pretty mind-boggling. For under $1000, your going to be looking at a fairly basic guitar — no quilt maple tops or Koa wood — but there is still a lot to choose from. Part of the option list is the case, and essentially you have to buy some sort of case, but the case pricing is very reasonable.

Summary – There is a good feeling about buying something made in the USA, and supporting American manufacturing. After all, the solid body electric guitar was born here, so why not buy one made in the USA? In this global world, made in USA is also subject to interpretation. For many product categories there are specific regulations that control whether a product can be labeled “made in USA” or “assembled in USA” etc. There is likely some amount of foreign content in any USA guitar, most notably electronic components, and of course certain woods like rosewood just don’t exist in the USA. Also, chances of finding a gig bag not made in China is pretty tough. So made in USA can sometimes be a fuzzy term, and certain components just cannot be sourced domestically. With that in mind, you can find a guitar in which the majority of the parts and labor come from domestic sources, and not break the bank doing so.

To see some of the American made guitars carried by UpFront Guitars for around $500 – $1200: www.upfrontguitars.com