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G&L: What’s new for 2018?

February 10th, 2018

Doheny SH 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 studio@upfrontguitars.com


Guitars as Investments – IMHO

August 31st, 2017

lp-tightIs 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.

CITES, Rosewood, and G&L Alternatives for Fretboards

August 23rd, 2017

G&L Rosewood FretboardIf 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.

G&L Alternatives

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.


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.

G&L Introduces Nitro Lacquer Finishes

July 6th, 2016

surf green nitro pictureIn 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 to phase out MSRP “List” Pricing

July 4th, 2014

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.

UpFront Guitars Big 2014 NAMM Adventure

January 26th, 2014

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.

For more information about UpFront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Four Rock Bands you should know better

February 22nd, 2013

If you’re like me, you have favorite band or two that you’ve always wondered why they were not better known or more famous. You know, interesting lyrics, hooky melodies, great guitar work, but for some reason they just don’t make it big. I’d like to nominate four bands to that list, and all of them had minor or major hits in the mid 90’s. If fact you’ve probably heard them in your local grocery store or Outback restaurant. While that might sound like abject failure musically, the residuals still help keep some of these bands on the road. So without further adieu, here are my four under-appreciated favorites.

Dada – Now on their 20th anniversary tour this winter (2013), Dada had a couple hits in the mid 90’s with “Dizz Knee Land” and “Dim” on college and progressive radio. Certainly the edgiest of my picks, Dada combines Beatle-like harmonies with sometimes disturbing lyrics, and some of the best guitar playing anywhere courtesy of Michael Gurley. Their songs can range from bleak scenes of despair to naive optimism, and all of it somehow hummable. Truly a great band that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. All their albums are worthy, but if you buy just one, get Puzzle. But don’t buy just one. They tour very infrequently, and if you can catch their 20th anniversary tour, you will not be sorry.

Del Amitri – From Scotland, Del Amitri’s big hit “Roll To Me” is still pounding out of restaurant speakers all over the country. It’s a shame, as they crafted many sophisticated pop songs with a slightly punk edge that makes Oasis look like total amateurs. From distorted driving rockers to sensitive acoustic numbers, Del Amitri was another band putting out finely crafted tunes just as the world was embracing grunge. We can thank grunge for killing hair metal, but their was collateral damage along the way. Their strongest album is probably Twisted.

Fastball – This Texas trio came to prominence with a song called “The Way” in the mid 90’s and despite a couple other minor hits and a series of solid releases remains relatively obscure. Despite their obvious Beatles influence, Fastball dabbles in almost every musical style and it’s worth noting that their big hit was actually a Rumba….on FM radio. In terms of material, Fastball was not a flash in the pan, and in many ways each album got lyrically and musically stronger. It’s hard to pick their best, and their latest release, 2009’s Little White Lies is as good as any. Fastball still tours somewhat erratically, and stays close to their home base in Texas.

Sister Hazel – Still a college campus favorite, Sister Hazel hit it big with their song “All For You” in the mid nineties, still tours mainly on the East Coast, and is a mainstay of the Rock Boat cruise. Certainly my most mainstream pick, Sister Hazel’s blend of sunny upbeat pop, tight harmonies and solid guitar work is hard to resist. They are not immune to fads and trends, and not all of Sister Hazel’s releases are stellar. For example, take their current dalliance with vacuous country-rock on Heartland Highway. That being said, Heartland Highway is way better than most vacuous country rock on the radio today, but Fortress strikes me as their most consistently solid effort. Always a good live show, and they seem like genuinely regular people.

Guitar Pedals – What’s with all the Stomp Boxes?

February 10th, 2013

On a recent business trip, I took along a recent edition of Guitar Player to read on the plane. In that issue they had a special section where they reviewed sixty guitar pedals. Sixty. Six Zero. Even at that, there were several well known brands that were not even represented! Every day it seems that there is a new boutique pedal maker out there with a new take on and old classic, and occasionally something really different. What is going on?

In the interest of full disclosure, UpFront Guitars does not sell many pedals. Honestly, I have found that it’s a bad fit for my business model, and I don’t do well with them. To be taken seriously, you need to carry lots of brands, and there is a lot of competition from the eBay used pedal market where players are frequently dumping their latest experiments in sonic bliss. Also, many of the boutique builders sell direct, so there you are carrying somebody’s pedal and they are selling against you. In that case why have dealers? But this is not about sour grapes, it’s about why there are so many darned pedals out there. I have a few theories:

Low barrier to entry – As I have said in previous writings, it’s not hard to get in the pedal business: Buy a die-cast box, a soldering iron, benchmark a few classic designs, and you’re in business. OK, not that easy, but a lot easier than making a guitar and much better certainty of sales. Pickups have become this way too. The raw materials are very easy to obtain, and boutique winders have sprung up all over the place. Most of these “noveau” builders are not breaking any new ground, so it’s hard to say what they are doing other than saturating the market. This is not to denigrate the folks that are really turning out new imaginative product, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a ton of me-too stuff out there.

The 2009 Recession – The recession in 2009 was bad for a lot of things, including musical instrument sales. The only category that grew during that time was effects. People still wanted to buy some type of new toy, but had to watch their wallet. Stomp boxes fit the bill even when guitar and amp sales were tanking.

Modeling Amps – Is it just me, or does it seem as though the craze over modeling amps has blown over? Aside from really sophisticated stuff like the Fractal, Eleven Rack, and Kemper, many amps have sort of gone “basic” again. Possbily buyers have decided it’s more flexible to have a couple pedals than it is to buy a box of so-so “amps” in the form of a sterile sounding combo amp. To me, the affordable modeling stuff has typically sounded blah to occasionally awful, and most players settle in on one or two sounds anyway.

Active secondary market – This is also known as “used pedals”. Don’t like what you just bought? You can probably get 60% of your money back in ten days on eBay. Most players don’t keep pedals long enough to wear them out, and the Next Greatest Thing is often for sale used a few weeks after they hit the streets. It’s not nearly so easy to sell your amp if you don’t like it, and shipping it can be daunting.

Cheaper than Amplifiers – The amp market is pretty terrible these days, especially at the upper end where even some of the well-known names are struggling to move product. There are also lots of “used” amplifiers for sale dirt cheap as dealers try to unload inventory while trying to respect MAP pricing (which further depresses new amp sales). Plus look at the well known amp builders that are now making pedals: Mesa, Bogner and Rivera to name a few. All three of these companies make expensive amplifiers, and the market for high end stuff is limited (and an imported “value” line can hurt your image). If you cannot sell someone an amplifier, sell them the essence of your amplifier in a box. While fundamentally I maintain that a great amp is worth your hard earned money, it’s tempting to do a pedal-makeover to breathe some new life into your old rig. I’m not sure that a pedal will make a bad amp good, but the economics are tempting. I have carried some of the Rivera pedals, and while they are good they violate an important rule: Price. Keep it under $179 and it’s almost an impulse buy. Price it at $250 or higher and buyers look elsewhere.

The theory of “What the heck” – What other product promises the ability to transform your sound at such a low price? Plus installation could not be easier: Just plug it in. It’s not like a pickup, which requires some dis-assembly, soldering, and the risk that it won’t sound good (some makers like Seymour Duncan now offer solder-less pickups to lower the skill barrier). Pedals are like a new diet shake or a magic wrinkle cream that promise so much for so little effort. It’s actually marketing genius; and has certainly been a boon for magazine advertising, stores and e-tailers.

But do stomp boxes really transform our playing enjoyment, or just give us a shiny new object to chase instead of playing our guitars? The music industry benefits from this constant “pedal churn” but does the player? To me, pedals are like pizza: Most of them are pretty good, and rarely are they awful. Yes, there are some “bad” pedals out there, but I don’t think it takes a lifetime to find a few pretty good ones to form your core sound. My board has been pretty solid the past three years, and is mostly gain pedals, one modulation pedal, and a reverb. Some were carefully chosen and some were just cheap, like a BBE Minder Bender because I needed chorus for a couple songs and did not want to spend a lot. So what’s on there now is:

  • Peterson Strobe Tuner
  • Lovepedal Kalamazoo
  • JHS Charlie Brown
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive (ten years and running)
  • BBE Mind Bender
  • Lee Jackson Mr. Springy Reverb

That’s it, and I used my own “brand” of Evidence Monorail patch cables. Plus I don’t have any more room on the PedalTrain. I have been messing around with a Voodoo Lab Giggity, which is not even an effect so much as it is a parametric EQ of sorts. But I like it, and if it stays, something may have to go.

I do like other pedals: A have a Fulldrive that I used to play a lot, and I like a lot of the Wampler stuff, but it’s not as if they get me to some new musical place. If I don’t like the way I sound, it’s probably me and not the pedal. If your new pedal makes you want to play more, that’s great. If it just makes you want to re-arrange your board instead of playing, that’s not great. For a person who sells gear, this is dangerous advice. But I guess there is no quick route to being a great musician, and pedals are not the musical equivalent of Rogain. Playing, playing with other people, and optionally playing live are what really makes us better. Everybody has heard a great guitar player in a guitar store making a $150 guitar sound good. There’s a reason for that: Practice, and the gift of talent. We can’t all be gifted, but we can all practice.

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.