UpFront Guitars Goes To NAMM 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.

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

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.

The Guitar Pedal Boom – Too much of a good thing?

As anyone who is even a casual player has noticed, the last few years have been truly explosive for the guitar effects market. The rise of stomp box mania has defied current economics trends — sales even grew during the recession —¬† and is now over a $60 million segment of the MI industry. The number of brands and selection is dizzying, and just browsing one particular online guitar website revealed that they carried over 120 brands!

Why are pedals so popular?

Well for starters, as far as guitar gear goes, pedals are cheap thrills. With the vast majority of pedals being priced under $150, it’s not a big investment to try out a pedal, and if it’s not the cat’s pajamas you can sell it to a friend, put it on the shelf, or stick it on eBay. To some degree it’s pretty hard to wear out a pedal, so a used one on eBay is typically a smart choice. I have a theory that pedals are like the proverbial Christmas Fruitcake; there is actually only one, and everybody just keeps passing the same one around.

For a budding manufacturing or mad scientist, going into the pedal business has a fairly low barrier to entry. Practically everyone uses the same die cast box — now that guy is making a killing — silk screening and painting is pretty low tech (some people even skip the paint) and the actual cost of the components are pretty low too. If you don’t mind hand soldering, there is no need for fancy assembly or wave soldering equipment. It’s also pretty easy to find schematics online, or just back engineer your favorite stomp box. Now there are obviously many serious companies out there doing lot’s of research and making significant investments in R&D and manufacturing. But for somebody who just wants to get into the business, it’s a lot easier than making guitars, amps, or speakers.

One other factor — at least to me anyway — is that if you are looking for great sounding distortion or gain, which is by far the most popular effect type, a pedal is quite often better sounding than most “gain” channels on two or three channel amps. There are many players out there with multichannel amplifiers that tend to play only the clean channel, and rely on pedals for distortion and modulation effects. Why is this so?

Well if you look back to the early amplifiers and the onset of distortion, the distortion was caused by the power tubes clipping, which turned out to sound really good; warm, sweet and very musical. A low powered amplifier with limited headroom such as a Fender Tweed would distort at a reasonable volume level. It sounded great, and everyone saved their hearing. But bands were playing ever larger venues and needed larger amplifiers, with more wattage, and more headroom. Now the amps were louder, which was good, but that warm power tube clipping was gone. Try and get a Fender Twin to distort, I dare you. Players needed volume and distortion that they could control.

But some clever engineers came of with the master volume control. This allowed the player to essentially overdrive a section of the amplifier, but control the overall volume level with the master volume. Presto! distortion at listenable levels. But the characteristic of the distortion was different. It was not warm and creamy but more harsh and fizzy. This is the because the distortion is produced by clipping the preamp tubes, and this distorted sound is then fed into the power tube section for amplification. It’s a sound, but not the sound of an amp being played at the limits of its clean headroom.

Early master volume amplifiers were often harsh and raspy, with an edgy tone that was anything but musical. Fender’s foray with master volume controls in their 70’s Silverface amps were vile, sounding somewhat like a Kazoo Orchestra playing Smoke On The Water. Obviously amplifier designers have gotten much better in producing musical overdriven sounds, typically still by using preamp distortion. The famous Mesa high gain sound is essentially multiple preamp tubes each over-driving the other to produce a thick chunky distortion tone. This is sometimes called cascading gain, and it can sound really good. If you’re a fan of metal, it’s where it’s at.

But this type of distortion is actually fairly easy to emulate using solid state components. It’s not so easy to make a pedal that really sounds like a small amp working hard on a Saturday night, but fuzz and higher gain distortion sounds can be quite convincingly created in a small metal box. It looks a hell of a lot more impressive to have a half stack, but a 1×12 or 2×12 combo with good headroom and a couple pedals can sound pretty mean.

My apologies for a highly compressed and somewhat biased view of amplifier history, but many players have found that an amplifier with a good sounding clean channel is the perfect “canvas” to paint on with the pedal of your choice. Often a well-crafted little box will sound better than an amplifier using preamp distortion to achieve high gain sounds. That’s my experience anyway, and my choice in selecting an amplifier is totally focused on finding the best natural tone possible, and using pedals to color the sound in a way that suits my musical leanings. I also happen to like a little “natural” tube grit to my tone, so I tend to play fairly low powered amplifiers, but even so I’m never going to turn my amp up to “10” for a solo. I’ll use a pedal. As far as I can tell, the only people who turn their amps up to “10” are on YouTube, and live in very small bedrooms.

So pedals are inexpensive, they are plentiful both new and used, and the low investment required to get in pedal business means that lots of people are making them. So it’s all good, right? Sure, there is nothing essentially wrong with having too much of a good thing, and over time the number of pedal makers will reach some sort of natural Darwinian limit: The really good builders with grow and thrive, and the hacks and pure copycats will fade away. I’m of the opinion that pedals are somewhat like pizza: None of it is truly bad, and everyone finds their favorite. There are however many bad amplifiers, and spending $300 on some boutique distortion pedal with rare germanium diodes will not hide the fact that your amp sounds like crap. Start with the amplifier and speakers first. Get your core sound down to where you really love what you hear with nothing more than a guitar, a good cable, and your amp. Then go forth and experiment with the little die cast boxes of your choice.