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UpFront Guitars Goes To NAMM 2017

January 28th, 2017

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 Marketing Splash – 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.

Flame and Quilt Maple tops for G&L Guitars

January 22nd, 2017
flame maple top on ASAT Special from UpFront Guitars

A G&L Flame Maple top on an ASAT Special

Quilt Maple Top S-500 UpFront Guitars

A very deep Quilt Maple top on a G&L S-500

One of the snazzier options for a G&L guitar — or any guitar — is the addition of a flame or quilt maple top. The grain pattern in these woods is produced by cutting specific varieties of  maple in a direction that highlights the grain or figuring of the wood. This technique has been around a long time, and violin builders have been using flame maple — especially for instruments backs — for ages.

A maple top is both cosmetic, and to some degree sonic, and guitar builders frequently employ maple to add brightness. In particular it pairs well with mahogany solid bodies, which otherwise can be a little dark or muddy. So while they look great, is this a good idea as an option for a G&L guitar?

In theory, woods that are more hard and dense tend to add brightness. I guess one way to think about it is that they are more reflective than absorptive. Maple being quite hard tends to accentuate high frequencies. Single coil guitars like a G&L probably don’t need maple for the purpose of brightness, although an exception to this might be the ASAT Deluxe which has two humbucker pickups. In this case the classic pairing of mahogany body and maple top is a natural. Or a Bluesboy, which has a warm and woody Alnico 2 neck humbucker. And while the Fallout is thought of as a “simple” guitar, from personal experience the P-90 and Humbucker pairing responds nicely to a maple top, and looks very cool. Tuxedo Punk, if you will.

But will a maple top ruin your ASAT, S-500 or Legacy? No it won’t, and in the case of the MFD pickups they have plenty of depth and body to work well with a maple top. With any Legacy or traditional ALNICO pickup it can get pretty bright, especially at the bridge. But if you like the look, don’t be shy: After all you do have tone controls. The concept that guitars sound best with all the controls up is just not so. Personally I don’t think any P-90 sounds best wide open, but I love them with a little bit of volume or tone roll off. You paid for those knobs, so use them.

In the extreme, it is possible to create a guitar that is too bright. Maple will add some brightness, certain body woods will add brightness, a vibrato bridge is brighter than a hard tail, and so on. I did have a customer order a Comanche, quilt maple on Empress wood, and vibrato bridge. Between the wood, pickups and bridge it was about as zippy as you an get. I actually thought it sounded good, but he was never quite happy and changed out the pickups. In general, the pickups are the greatest driver, with body wood and bridge type being the next biggest factors. Fretboard material in my opinion matters least.

And remember, you do have tone controls….so build something you dig looking at.