March 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part I

posted in: History, Introduction | 0

The arrival of spring (?) in the UK heralds a new approach to CRAVE Guitars’ regular monthly articles. For some time, I have been interested in the history of the world’s favourite musical instrument. There is certainly plenty of information about the heritage from the mid‑20th Century onwards, much of it, however, is ambiguous and conflicting. As one looks further and further into the past, the lore becomes increasingly more vague, contradictory and incomplete. There seemed to be scant reliable information in book form and little dependable detail on the hinterwebby thing. There is considerable quantity of material and a relative scarcity of quality. NB. This may be adding to the latter, I guess!

 

So… a while back, I started researching the topic purely for my own interest and to satisfy my curiosity about where and how the guitar originated. As the scope of the topic broadened and the need to wade through misinformation deepened, I concluded that it may be sensible to start writing it down. Documenting my endeavours was a good idea as it turns out, as it proved invaluable when trying to make sense of it all. Disentangling the various perspectives has been a challenge and corroborating the ‘facts’ has proved equally difficult.

 

Frustratingly, there isn’t really enough material to turn it into a fully-fledged book. I have no interest in padding it out for the sake of it and thereby losing the essence in the process. In any case, it wasn’t an academic research project and I simply can’t be bothered with going back through everything just to reference all the narrative and credit other resources that have largely been gleaned from the public domain. There is no profit element involved, so copyright isn’t an issue. I do, however, thank anyone who might have contributed in some way.

 

Then, I thought, why not break the story down into manageable chunks and use it as a basis for monthly articles? There is now too much material to be able to use the original full‑fat ‘storyline’ in this format, so I’ve decided to abridge the narrative for easier digestion and issue it as a series of articles. Out of necessity, it will be in sequential, chronological format over several, although not necessarily consecutive months.

 

As you might imagine, this endeavour turned into a bit of an involved personal mission, rather than a ‘proper’ study. It is presented in this format purely for entertainment purposes and not for any sort of gain. As a result of these factors, I don’t anticipate that it will be published elsewhere, so it is therefore intended to be of primary interest to fans of the guitar. Due the sketchiness of information covering significant periods of time, it is presented as I have tried to rationalise it. As always, I don’t purport to provide the definitive ‘truth’ on the subject. If anyone has evidence to help improve the authenticity of the ‘story’, I would be very happy to amend the timeline or the supporting detail to give a more accurate potted history.

 

As mentioned above, the articles have been split into several parts for easier consumption. This first article in the series explores the ancestry of the guitar from the primitive beginnings in the ancient world, through the developing civilisations, expansion during the Middle Ages, and to the point of familiarity in the early European Renaissance.

 

In presenting this story, I have to assume that readers will have some prior knowledge about the basic characteristics of stringed instruments and, particularly, terminology of guitar features. For instance, where I refer to string courses, this means the practice of stringing instruments with pairs of strings tuned (generally) in unison.

 

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

One has to start somewhere so, this first part includes a little background context before looking back in time as far as it is possible to go. There may well have been proto stringed instruments that pre‑date the earliest evidence but we can only conjecture what they might have been like – we can only consider what the earliest artefacts can tell us. There have probably been infinite variations and adaptations along the way, so this article picks up on, perhaps debatably, the most relevant milestones to get to where we are today.

 

Many learned commentators suggest that the guitar as we know it has its origins in the 16th to 18th Century Europe. While they make a valid point, guitars weren’t invented out of the blue to appear as the fully formed instrument we know and love today, so this fact alone implies that its roots are much older and more convoluted.

 

Many of the early instruments described in this article may only have influenced the guitar’s incremental development, rather than defined it outright. However, assessing the guitar’s long lineage is worth doing if only to put the modern instrument into a broader historical context.

 

Before we really dive into the subject matter, I am aware of the many, many different types of stringed instruments from all over the world, many of them exotic and many others far removed from the guitar. However, in order to stay focused on the subject matter, those other instruments, often only tangential to the guitar’s story, are probably best left for a different topic and won’t be covered here.

 

So… exactly what is a guitar?

There are some fundamentals that underpin the historical development that makes up the guitar’s ‘story’. So, from what and where did the word ‘guitar’ originate?

 

Etymology:

  • Ancient Greek – kithara
  • Roman (Latin) – cithara
  • Andalusian Arabic – qitara
  • Spanish – guitarra
  • French – guitare
  • German – gitarre
  • English – guitar

 

Terminology:

The origin of the word ‘guitar’ is commonly constructed of 2 key parts. The suffix, ‘tar’ (or something like it, see above), comes from the ancient Sanskrit, simply meaning ‘string’. The prefix often refers to the number of strings that an instrument may have, including the following examples (recognising that there are many variations of the spellings):

  • 2 strings – Dotar – Persian long-necked lute
  • 3 strings – Setar – Persian, which may or may not have led to the Indian sitar (see also sattar below)
  • 4 strings – Chartar – Persian, from which it is believed that the early 4-string Spanish guitar, the guitarra, derives
  • 5 strings – Panchtar – Afghanistan
  • 7 strings – Sattar – from which it is believed the Indian sitar derives, which has 6/7 played strings

 

Many modern, regional stringed folk instruments retain the ‘tar’ suffix in some form, with some just colloquially called ‘tars’.

 

The word ‘guitar’ is largely recognised to derive from the Latin word ‘cithara’ which, in turn, may stem from the earlier Greek word ‘kithara’. However, as we’ll see, the instrument’s evolution may actually have taken a different geographical and chronological path from the past to the modern day, possibly from Arabia via North Africa and Spain.

 

Classification:

The system for categorising musical instruments comes from the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification (1914). Guitars are part of a broader musical instrument classification known as a chordophone, which is defined as “a musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points”. Chordophones include 4 main groupings within which other familiar instruments are categorised. Those groupings are; violins, guitars, lyres and harps. The main division of chordophones into which the guitar falls are known as composite because they have “a resonator that forms an integral part of the instrument”, i.e. with a sound chamber, unlike a piano or harpsichord. A chordophone’s strings may be plucked, bowed or struck.

 

The modern amplified electric guitar would initially appear to diverge from this definition and designation. However, in order to fit the electric guitar into a pre‑existing system, it is generally categorised as a ‘solid body electric chordophone’.

 

Guitar Anatomy

As a brief introduction to what makes a guitar a guitar in the minds of most 21st Century players, the following diagram shows the basic components of the modern acoustic and electric guitar.

Guitar Characteristics

 

The origins of guitar-like instruments

Many of the time periods indicated herein are approximate with no precise or definitive start and end dates. Also, many of the time periods (and geographies) overlap, rather than being sequential and discrete. The information is therefore indicative and only to be consumed as a (hopefully) helpful rough guide.

 

The Ancient World

The roots of the instrument extend way back from human pre‑history (i.e. before written records began around the 3rd millennium BCE) through to the start of classical antiquity (c.8th Century BCE) and the emergence of the major civilisations often characterised by urban development, social stratification and symbolic communication systems.

 

The earliest forerunners of the guitar have their origins in the Middle East region populated by Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian societies. Around the time that these cultures started to keep historical records in the Bronze Age (c.3000‑1200 BCE), people also started to chronicle the presence of musical instruments as an integral part of their social order.

 

The earliest instruments were probably similar to our understanding of a bowl harp, which had a curved neck, round back, hide soundboard and a variable number of strings. They are clearly not guitars, although they do perhaps indicate where some of the key characteristics of modern-day guitars originated. Some of these early stringed instruments are conserved in museums and contemporary variations of these ancient instruments appear to have survived into the modern era. Due partly to local custom and partly to increasing interest in historic musical instruments, some modern regional folk instruments are very similar to these early archetypes.

Egyptian Bowl Harp

 

Around 2000-1500 BCE, the tanbur, originally a 3-stringed instrument with a long straight neck, pear-shaped body and round back began to appear in regions such as Mesopotamia (roughly equivalent to current day Iraq) and Turkey spreading to central and southern Asia. One of the earliest depictions of this guitar-like instrument appears in Babylonian wall carvings from c.1800 BCE. Other wall carvings made over 3,000 years ago during the Hittite civilisation (1600‑717 BCE), which occupied much of Asia Minor, show a distinctly guitar-like tanbur being played.

Babylonian and Hittite Wall Carvings, and Tanbur

 

Early lute-like instruments with long necks similar to the tanbur first appeared in Mesopotamia over 3,000 years ago and spread throughout the ancient world, including Egypt, Greece, Italy, Turkey, India and China. The word ‘lute’ is often used to refer to these early long-neck instruments. However, the term can be confusing as it did not come into common usage until much later and is usually used to denote to the more familiar form of short‑neck medieval European lutes.

 

It isn’t clear exactly what the evolutionary path is between the largely figurative prototypes dating back 3,500 years and the modern interpretations of today. It is likely that many ancient cultures developed primitive stringed, largely fretless instruments with similarities to either artefacts (physical remains) or representations (images) from the period.

 

Major Civilisations (c.3000 BCE-500 CE)

The Egyptians (3000-1800 BCE) – Egyptian wall paintings, including some from Thebes c.1420 BCE and elsewhere show that tanburs, harps, long lutes and other musical instruments were widely used around that time. As the reach of ancient civilisations extended outwards from the ‘cradle of civilisation’ in the Middle East, carried by travellers, explorers, and merchants from Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia to Turkey and Greece, as well as further afield including Afghanistan and India, so did their musical instrument design influences. While there may not be instruments attributed specifically to the Egyptians, they may be credited with dispersing existing instruments in an organised way that had not existed before, thereby possibly contributing to more rapid evolution of these pre‑guitars.

Egyptian Tanbur and Lute

 

The Greeks (800-146 BCE) – The kithara was an ancient Greek stringed instrument of the simple lyre (or lyra) family from c.1000 BCE-1 CE. While the common harp-like lyre was a folk instrument played by most Greek classes, the kithara was considered a ‘professional’ version of the instrument used for public performance by trained musicians (kitharodes). The kithara had 7 or more gut strings of equal length, strummed with a plektron (a precursor of the modern plectrum or pick). While the kithara wasn’t similar to the present‑day guitar, it may be an important link between rudimentary early instruments and a more refined and technical approach to design and construction. The word kithara has come to mean guitar in present day Greece.

Greek Kithara and Lyre

 

Originating around the 4th Century BCE, there was another group of popular Greek long‑neck, lute-like instruments known as the pandura, also adopted by the Romans.

Greek and Roman Pandura

 

The Romans (753 BCE-476 CE) – The Romans admired and adopted many Greek instruments including the 2-string lyre, the 3-string lute and the 7‑string cithara (now with Latin spelling), the latter was mentioned in the Bible. The Romans also continued the Greek tradition of playing the pandura. Alongside the cithara, the Egyptian influenced Roman Byzantine long lute brought the instrument to prominence and has similarities to the much earlier tanbur. Perhaps strangely, there is little evidence to suggest that the Romans added much in their own right to the fundamental design and development of existing instruments. Importantly, what the Romans did, though, was to introduce the instrument throughout much of continental Europe.

Roman Lyre, Cithara and Byzantine Lute

 

The Persians (550 BCE-224 CE) – One version of the guitar’s ‘family tree’ may begin in ancient Egypt, then adapted and improved upon by Greek and Roman cultures. Alternatively, the guitar’s origins may begin with members of the early long lute family in Persia from a 4‑stringed instrument known as the chartar, which arrived in Europe as a result of Arabic expansion via Africa. A separate branch of evolution possibly spread eastward towards India, the 3-string (a 4th string was added in the 19th Century) setar, which may have been influential in that country’s development of the sitar. Later instruments dating from the 15th Century include the 2-string dotar originally a humble shepherd’s instrument.

Persian Chartar, Setar and Dotar

 

Some commentators suggest that the nomenclature, kithara/cithara and chartar, bear a passing resemblance to the modern word ‘guitar’, although there is probably little evidence, other than supposition, to support the validity of this particular claim.

 

The Middle Ages (5th-15th Centuries CE)

Roughly, the Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’) of medieval Europe spans a 1,000 year period from c.476 CE following the fall of the Roman Empire to c.1450 CE with the beginning of the Renaissance and the ‘Age of Discovery’. The Middle Ages are generally characterised by many as a period during which there was little in the way of significant scientific or artistic accomplishments.

 

There are Middle Age manuscripts and numerous religious iconographies which suggest that guitar-like instruments were making their way across medieval Europe and the design fundamentals were probably being adapted and improved along the way to meet the cultural and social needs of musicians.

 

While the guitar’s roots almost undoubtedly lie in the Middle East, its development appears to have resulted from widespread distribution over an extended period of time in the vacuum left in the post-Roman era. While different scholars may adopt their own preferred view, it is likely that there isn’t a single traceable path and that early guitar development probably occurred via a number of different routes, along with a number of evolutionary dead ends, derivations and mutations along the way. Some of these archetypes survived, some didn’t, and some were modified or merged either in part or whole to fit the situations in which they were used. While the picture during the Middle Ages is both complex and unclear, the key evolutionary milestones to today’s instruments most certainly occurred in Europe rather than Asia.

 

In the 8th Century CE (c.711) the Moors from the Islamic world invaded the Iberian Peninsula from northern Africa. During the Middle Ages they brought with them an Arabic four-string fretless instrument known as the oud (meaning ‘wood’). With further development, including the addition of tied gut frets and a 5th string, it may have led to what is now widely recognised as the European, short or medieval lute (to some degree a descendant of, and distinct from, the earlier Egyptian, Greek and Roman lutes). The headstock of the medieval lute is traditionally set at a very sharp angle to the neck, making tuning both difficult and unreliable. The lute’s appearance is instantly recognisable today and differentiates it from the more guitar‑like instruments that would follow.

Medieval Oud and Lute

 

While sharing some characteristics with early guitars, the lute is arguably a separate but parallel line of progress from Bronze Age Arabian cultures. Whether the genetic route to current day is a result of European trade following the demise of the Roman Empire or via Arabic invasion from Africa (or both), the direct ‘missing link’ to prove the classical guitar’s lineage is likely to lie somewhere in medieval Spain as the Middle Ages overlapped and merged with the early European Renaissance.

 

Early Renaissance (14th-17th Centuries)

The French word renaissance translates as ‘rebirth’ or ‘reawakening’ and stands for a resurgence of interest in classical learning and culture in Europe with significant achievements in art, science and social orders.

 

European antecedents of the guitar include the archaic, small box-like, 4-string fretless citole that appeared from c.12th to 15th Centuries. Some commentators suggest that the holly leaf-shaped instrument may be a French form of the ancient cithara, although the physical similarities between the two are far from obvious. The citole is often cited as a distant relative of the guitar and is often confused with the more guitar-like cittern (see below) which possibly superseded it. There are visual depictions of citole-like instruments although there is only one surviving, adapted example, now looking more like a prototype of the violin rather than a guitar, dating to the 14th Century, which is now part of the British Museum collection (from Warwick Castle, previously labelled as a gittern – also see below).

English Citole

 

The pear-shaped cittern (French) or cistre (Italian) was a 4-course, flat-backed, metal-strung fretted instrument that appeared in Western Europe in the 13th Century and was relatively common during the European Renaissance. The cittern bore a greater similarity to a guitar than the lute and was popular amongst most social classes, often played by travelling minstrels and court musicians, as well as by amateurs within their local communities. The cittern remained popular in England up to the 18th Century, often referred to as ‘English guitars’ to differentiate them from the ‘Spanish guitars’ emerging from continental Europe. Visually, citterns are sometimes confused with the mandolin-like gittern, a 3 or 4‑course, round‑backed instrument from Western Europe, which also appeared around the 13th Century. There are only three known surviving examples of the gittern, currently residing in American, German and Polish museum collections.

 

Cittern and Gittern

 

Meanwhile, in Medieval Spain, the European guitar’s essential DNA began to coalesce into 2 distinct forms by c.1200 CE. These two variants include the lute-like Guitarra Morisca (Moorish guitar) and the more guitar‑like Guitarra Latina (Latin guitar). By c.1400 CE, these 2 main variants effectively converged and were henceforth commonly referred to simply as Spanish guitarra or simply ‘Spanish Guitars’. From this point onward, the generic word ‘guitar’ to describe these instruments is both common and appropriate.

Guitarra Latina and Guitarra Morisca

 

After 3,000 years of evolution, many historians suggest that the story of the guitar as we know it really began around the 16th Century CE. Certainly, examples of European fretted, stringed instruments from the mid‑Renaissance onwards certainly appear much more guitar-like than their predecessors. In addition, there are many more surviving examples in museum and heritage collections for academics and enthusiasts to study in detail. The convergence and rationalisation of diverse influences will be explored in the next part of the guitar’s development.

 

End of Part I

This is where the first part of the guitar’s long history must end… for now. This juncture seems a sensible place to stop as, for me, it represents the dividing line between the guitar’s pre‑existence and the guitar itself. The next instalment in the series will explore the remainder of the Renaissance period and the transformation from some unusual stringed instruments to generally more recognisable forms. These fascinating instruments will become the direct ancestors of today’s familiar guitars.

 

I hope that this introduction has whetted your appetite for subsequent episodes and you’ll join me on subsequent stages of the journey. To many, the later parts may become more interesting as the guitar’s features morph and converge into what we use nowadays. Be patient, there are few hundred years still to go before we get there.

 

Thank you for reading. I’m off to plink a modern (vintage) guitar. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “If we fail to learn from the past, we will fail to live as a species”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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February 2018 – Dear Editor

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Due to difficult personal circumstances, the February article is a little shorter than usual. This is probably a ‘good thing’. I apologise for any poor writing this month. I hope that abnormal service will be resumed a soon as possible.

 

The Trigger

As with many of my articles, the interminable dialogue is prompted by the seemingly innocuous and/or irrelevant. It’s just the way my weird and curious brain works. So just what was it that kicked me off this month?

 

If I get any downtime from caring duties, I try to read the occasional ‘letters to the editor’ in the music press. These contributors to mankind’s greater knowledge often use the medium as an opportunity to air their particular gripe or beef about this, that or something else. In doing so, it is almost as if they genuinely believe that their critical rant is the only possible legitimate stance and that what they say should not only be heard but also it should be accepted as the one and only universal truth. Looking at these self‑proclaimed prophecies from the other end of the proverbial telescope, editors like a bit of inflammatory narrative to stir up a cauldron of contradiction to keep avid readers coming back for more intrigue and conspiracy. Many of these editorials, having unleashed said swarm of angry bees, do seem to lose interest before the punters do, often leaving the various counterpoints frustratingly unresolved.

 

A few simple examples, if I may be so indulgent, so you begin to get an idea about where this is going.

 

You get the ones who go on endlessly that the word ‘relic’ is not a verb and that intentionally ‘relicing’ a guitar to make it look old/knackered is the most heinous thing you can do to a musical instrument… and they then they go onto complain about the sizeable price premium that companies extract for the privilege of owning a perfectly good damaged guitar. These antagonists do not appreciate some of the exemplary craftsmanship involved in giving musicians reasonably accurate facsimiles of some guitars that either most of us could never afford or, if we could, we would be afraid to use in anger at gigs. Others are just reliced (sic!) for fun. Fender Custom Shop says that there is greater demand for ‘heavy relic’ and historic recreations than for unmarked shiny ‘new’ Shop guitars.

Fender Custom Shop ’61Ultra Relic Stratocaster

 

Then you get the ones that prattle on about the stratospherically priced ‘furniture art for collectors’. Some exotic Private Stock Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars perhaps come into mind as examples of the breed and there are many custom luthiers out there doing good business with equally flashy designs (e.g. Kiesel, Knaggs, etc.). These guitars, the letter writers claim, are built for aesthetics offered at wallet emptying values. These critics accuse manufacturers and owners of having little interest in authentic music created by ‘real’ guitarists and then go onto assert that the products in question are not real instruments and that they are merely trinkets bought by pretentious ‘collectors’ to show off their wealth. Furthermore, some stretch their argument to suggest that we – the meagre guitar‑playing proletariat – should accept their notion that the luthier’s art should be nothing else but a utilitarian tool.

PRS Private Stock McCarty

 

One further example, just to begin to move the debate to the point… those that argue dogmatically that old=good and new=bad or vice versa and that NOS or VOS (NB. other acronyms are available) guitars are marketing ploys used by corporations to add a few (!) extra $ to the retail price. They generally use similar woods and similar hardware, so the only added value is adherence to historical accuracy and degree of ‘ageing’ applied to make it appear authentic (but falling short of outright relicing). I won’t re‑tread the well‑rehearsed ‘new versus old’ guitars debate here, even though polarised perspectives can fall into the same category as the other examples given above.

1960 Gibson Les Paul Junior
Gibson Les Paul Junior Reissue

 

In the cold light of day and from an objective standpoint, the inflammatory, dogmatic rhetoric used to fill column inches can seem quite ridiculous, almost as if they are employing reductio ad absurdum to get their message across. What does surprise me is the lengths that these self‑appointed judges go to, to indict the perpetrators for their misdemeanours, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. What next? Ritual hanging and quartering for suggesting a guitar makes your best mate look effeminate? That’s going a bit far – perhaps the reintroduction of stocks and public floggings will be sufficient. Oops, what did I just say in Latin?

 

All of the examples above, perhaps obviously, ignore one vital thing. They fail to focus on what it is that the consumer actually wants and what they value (not only in monetary terms). I go back to my mantra of the basic laws of economics and the principle of supply and demand. It is the consumers out there in the wide world that keep the manufacturers in business and the successful companies are the ones that respond to what the customer really wants/needs and set prices at what those customers are prepared to pay for their products.

 

If the evidence is anything to go by, no two consumers are the same and the tastes of those consumers vary considerably. This suggests to me that what we are observing is simply market reaction to changes in punters’ tastes. That means that, whether you a new or old guitar fan or you like your top‑end quilted maple carved top or your favourite beaten up ‘rat’ guitar, there are products out there to suit you, the buyer. Surely that can only be a good thing for all of us.

 

In fact, getting to the nub, this economic phenomenon is the cornerstone of marketing. Many people have a misplaced (negative) perception that marketing is just about advertising and/or selling you stuff you don’t want, let alone need. Actually, effective marketing is about identifying precisely what the consumer is seeking and changing their merchandise to satisfy that want/need as closely and as quickly as possible. Successful companies keep their finger on the pulse of short‑term fads, medium­‑term trends and long‑term vogues, and they are constantly adjusting their output to meet all of these market drivers. Unsuccessful companies miss a trick by assuming that the buying public will lap up whatever they churn out, or they assume that price is the only criterion on which purchases are made. The ability for manufacturers to flex is essential for longer‑term survival and prosperity.

 

Some people seem to delight in telling everyone else what they should or shouldn’t think, do, like, want, use, etc. One wonders upon what basis their authority to proclaim this or that either as a piece of cr*p or the dog’s b*ll*cks. Perhaps the most notable commonality about these diatribes is that their world view seems predicated on negativity, rather than what’s good about our wonderful obsessive, addictive hobby.

 

Anyone who reads CRAVE Guitars’ articles knows that I am opinionated (!) and don’t mind sharing those opinions with anyone prepared to listen. However, I don’t insist that my sentiments are anything other than part of a much bigger 2-way conversation. I will happily learn new things, listen to various perspectives and, yes, even admit that I may be wrong. I also try to learn something new every day, which means keeping an open mind. The old adage that the more you learn, the less you actually know rings true.

 

My rationale here is to attempt to unravel some of the hyperbole associated with the often vociferous and polarised contentions of these aforementioned letter writers.

 

Love & Hate

So, if it were me writing to the music press, what might incline me to rave about and what would inflame me to rant about the global guitar village which we all inhabit?

 

Well, on a positive, I am fascinated by just about every aspect of music making and listening. Clearly, I have a predilection for vintage guitar, effects and amps. However, it wasn’t always thus and, you never know, it may change again in the future. Like many gear heads, I have plenty of time for just about anything new, old, cheap, expensive, traditional, innovative, plain, whacky, popular, underdog, clean, battered, mass produced, custom/bespoke, etc. ad nauseum. It’s all good! What’s not to like about variety and choice of guitars and guitar‑related equipment these days. I firmly believe there is a place for it all and for everyone who is like‑minded.

 

Guitars et al are great. No ifs, no buts and no criticisms. I am more critical of my own playing abilities. My rants are more to do with attitude of individuals, rather than guitars. Anyone who reads my drivel will be familiar with my people‑related rather than guitar‑related anathemas (greed, avarice, dogma, lack of respect and integrity, vacuous celebrity, investment speculators, exploitation of the naïve, etc.) and apologies for putting my echo pedal on infinite repeat. Nuff said.

 

To Crave or not to Crave

Now, here’s a tricky question… Given that guitars are essentially unnecessary physical objects and given that vintage guitars have some inherent financial value, how do I reconcile material ownership with my somewhat socialist perspective on the human condition? Well…I would have to say that in order to justify CRAVE Guitars, there are two important factors involved.

 

My first excuse is that I’m not doing it (whatever ‘it’ is) to make a profit or to generate a return‑on‑investment. My motive is as an enthusiast, not as a hoarder for personal gain. Quite the opposite, my ‘hobby’ has made me very, very poor indeed! Remember that CRAVE’s guitars are not cosseted away, they are played and I share their beauty and my interest whenever I can.

 

My second excuse is that, to me, vintage guitars are not there to be pedalled like normal commodities. I believe that each and every one of them has a cultural and social significance beyond their mere existence. I feel that the history that surrounds them not only can’t be ignored but also needs to be conserved for the future generations. They are of their time and represent a societal context within which they were made, bought, played, sold on, played some more and, eventually ended up with me (for now). More important is the music that they have made in the hands of musicians over the decades. You probably don’t ‘get’ my odd view of vintage guitars are more than just bits of wood, metal and plastic to be traded… but that’s OK. I expect and adversative response to my observations and commentary.

 

These two factors support my assertion that I don’t regard myself either as a dealer or a collector per se. It also accounts for why I don’t pursue (and can’t afford) ‘collector’ or ‘museum‑grade’ guitars – I prefer some signs that they have been used (but not abused) and enjoyed as musical instruments not trinkets. If vintage guitars were in genuinely ‘as new’ condition, I wouldn’t feel comfortable picking them up and playing them in case I damaged them. If they are already marked, then, for some reason, it’s different.

 

Don’t get me wrong, some guitars are so beautiful that they have to be admired. However, that shouldn’t be at the expense of playability and sound. Guitars are fascinating because of their unique combination of looks, feel and tone.

 

Quite what CRAVE Guitars is, has still to be resolved and I continue to agonise over what to do with the enterprise. For now, I will continue on my quest to showcase affordable vintage guitars to anyone who may be interested.

CRAVE Guitars Logo

 

Summary and Conclusion

My underlying message is that we could always try and refrain from being negative about the things we don’t like and celebrate what we do like. Heck, I have an opinion on just about anything that comes across my path but hopefully, I am wise enough to differentiate between prejudiced personal preferences and evidence-based fact. Even the latter only remains valid until better evidence comes along and we have to recalibrate our understanding of the world in which we rent space.

 

Personal circumstances over the past few years have highlighted that life really is too short to get hung up on things that are inconsequential. It is important to care about what matters and to be cognisant of the fundamental truths to which we are all subject.

 

In the end, it surely is a case of each to their own. If you love or loathe relic/aged guitars, that’s fine by me. If you think exotic woods/finishes are fab or feeble, that’s entirely up to you. If I you desire or detest old/new guitars, then who am I to attempt to deter you? As the old saying goes, “you pays your money and you makes your choice”, and perhaps that is a basic principle we should accept and respect.

 

As guitarists, we could set a good example and try our best to live in peace, love and harmony. Perhaps we could try to be a little less judgemental about the wonderful tools of our beloved trade although, admittedly, it can be fun to prod the sleeping giant on occasions, if only to keep them on their toes. Perhaps, more importantly, why not forget about abusing other musicians’ predilections and just get on with making some good ol’ guitar music with one’s chosen weapon of choice? That’s convinced me; I’m off to play mine. Now what shall I go for today – fancy or plain? Actually, it won’t improve my playing but who cares? Until next time (hopefully)…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Accept nothing simply because someone asserts something to be the truth, whether they are in ‘authority’ or not.”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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January 2018 – The State Of The Village

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Welcome to 2018, albeit a tad belated. The previous CRAVE Guitars article (December 2017) was an introspective look back at 2017 and a tentative look forward to 2018. That article looked only at CRAVE Guitars’ personal experiences, apprehensions and aspirations. What it didn’t do was to look more broadly at the music industry landscape and to make some sort of sense of what’s going on out there in the global guitar village, hence the somewhat intentionally ambiguous title of this month’s article. The timing also coincides with the U.S. President’s annual State of the Union Address, so there is some rhyme to the reason. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my assessment (quite the contrary in fact), as it is purely a personal view of the world from the margins of the sector.

Looking across the whole industry, it is in a good enough state considering the severe difficulties experienced by just about every sector of the global economy over the last decade. Business has been, is now, and will remain very challenging and it will only get harder for manufacturers to achieve competitive advantage in rapidly changing markets. Things are looking positive though; maybe not everywhere but there are certainly areas of buoyancy and there is reason for optimism, generally. Yes, there are always ups and downs and it is often a case that firms need to be adapting continuously in order to stay current and relevant. There have been fundamental, structural changes taking place in the way people experience music and the likelihood is that those changes will not only continue but also accelerate as technology enables new and better ways to get into the groove. Generally, the industry is both driving innovation and meeting the needs of musicians, which is a good sign for manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

Music is the law

The thing that I keep being reminded of is that people are still actively making music and people are still listening to music; something that I believe is a universal constant that will not change. I have covered the science of music in previous articles and, as music is subject to the physical laws of the universe, it is essentially necessary for the continuation of the human condition. How and where people experience music changes but the basic (and I believe, elemental) human need for music ensures that demand will be sustained, although I hesitate to use the word ‘forever’.

“Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life” Keith Richards (1943-)

Keith Richards

“Music is the universal language of mankind” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807‑1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe” Laozi (6th Century BCE)

Laozi

The challenge for the industry in the developed world is that music, as an artistic and cultural pursuit, is discretionary and people’s ability to access music is a matter of individual choice, subject to inevitable economic constraints and lifestyle priorities. Fortunately, at least in the western countries, personal freedoms mean that music is an integral and essential part of most people’s lives. Furthermore, most post‑industrial societies recognise the value of art and culture to the well‑being of its citizens as well as being a principal contributor to the national economy – music earns a great deal of money and thereby raises a considerable amount in taxation.

An appreciation of this ‘macro’ context is important in order to evaluate what is happening on the ground at the ‘micro’ level.

Shiny, shiny new gear

That’s the ‘big picture’ set out. Now let’s start with what’s happening with new gear out there. At the time of writing, Winter NAMM 2018 in Anaheim, California has just ended and there is plenty to be excited about. NAMM is the trade show where the major manufacturers in the business sport their wares for the coming year.

NAMM January 2018

Although my primary focus and main interest is with vintage guitars, as well as vintage analogue effect pedals and vintage valve amps, it may surprise to you to know that I still have a keen interest in modern gear as well. OK, so I don’t spend my meagre lucre on new musical equipment any longer but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate exciting, shiny new‑fangled stuff. Like most eager G.A.S.-obsessed guitarists (you know who you are and what that acronym stands for), I am not alone in that I have the frequent pangs of lust for whizzy modern gear. I may not have the intimate knowledge of new equipment that others do, so my comments are therefore largely general and observational.

First off, the quality of equipment coming onto the market these days is extremely high and many leagues ahead of the sub‑par stuff that was available in most guitar shops when I was young, eager and willing. For people who are starting the journey of guitar discovery, it is very easy to buy a very high standard of instrument these days, even on a tight budget. The baseline is that there are very few poor guitars in today’s market. That doesn’t mean that poor examples don’t exist, of course they do. Sometimes, though, consumers can be critical of what is on offer, although this may be result of not being clear about what they need and then not making informed choices of gear. This mismatch may cause as much disappointment as bad gear per se. I regularly hear the “piece of cr*p” argument levelled at the tools of our trade and I feel that this is possibly more to do with assertive conceit to cover up a poor experience in the first place, rather than an objective evaluation of the kit itself.

Part of the reason for the bar continually being raised is the influx of mass‑produced equipment from the Far East, particularly the growth in products from China. Chinese output is in turn exerting pressure on other Pacific Rim producers, such as Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia to up their game in the face of stiff Asian competition. Japan has suffered economically for many years and is now facing many of the commercial squeezes that America faced several decades ago, including increasing labour, regulatory and raw material costs and increasing inability to compete on price in a saturated global market. Let’s face it, there are only so many guitars that can be sold, so if there is over‑production, this places downward pressure on costs and therefore effectively capping retail prices. Improved quality and low prices are good for the consumer but cause many headaches for many manufacturers trying to earn a living.

As a result of global trading arrangements, established American brands like Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, PRS and Danelectro will continue to take advantage of offshore production in order to compete at the lower‑cost, higher‑volume end of the market.

The over-supply of generic products at the budget end of the market does, however, open up all sorts of opportunities for the niche guitar makers who are small, agile and able to meet individual customers’ needs for something different. The boom in independent luthiers from all over the globe is a healthy phenomenon of the early 21st century. These custom builders are producing innovative and appealing guitars like never before. There are way too many small‑scale builders to mention but just take a look and you’ll discover a plethora of superb bespoke equipment just waiting to be tailored to your individual requirements. There is even a guitar show specifically showcasing small luthiers – the annual Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, Germany.

The losers in this more volatile and fickle arena tend to be the mid‑sized producers of classic instruments who are constrained by their history and a certain amount of preconceived public expectation.

Gibson, in particular, has had a number of difficulties over recent years. Strategically, they are caught between a rock and a hard place with their traditional customer base being eroded by competition while not being able to create a loyal new following. The introduction of the Modern Double Cut is evidence of how Gibson continues to split opinion (NB. for what it’s worth, I like them). It may seem that Gibson doesn’t know where it is going. I would argue, though, that whatever direction it goes, it is likely to struggle, so I don’t envy the company executives who have very difficult jobs at the moment. Gibson’s custom shop is producing excellent wares but the size of that niche is limited to a relatively few well‑off discerning customers. It is Gibson’s Memphis division though, responsible for its semi‑acoustic products, that is a shining light. The Memphis plant is producing some exciting, beautifully made instruments in relatively low numbers. If they can replicate the success and reputation of their Memphis division in other areas, they may well experience a resurgence in fortunes. In the meantime, Gibson’s absence from U.S. industry trade show NAMM 2018 in favour of CES may be symptomatic of their problems. Sadly, the words ‘shoot’ and ‘foot’ spring to mind.

Gibson Les Paul Standard Modern Double Cut 2018
Gibson Memphis ES-335 Figured 2018

Conversely, Fender seems to have fared better in keeping things afloat. They have done this by rejuvenating some of their lesser known instruments (e.g. the updated offset Duo‑Sonic and Mustang, as well as the semi-acoustic Coronado) to a customer base that wasn’t generally aware of the originals. The Jaguar and Jazzmaster are also proving to be popular and very cool, especially with alternative and indie musicians. Fender is also tweaking its classics, the Strat and Tele. Fender’s, current ranges have an exciting freshness at keen price points that are attracting young players wanting to differentiate themselves from the old guard. Fender also has an advantage in material sourcing, as they generally use woods that are less exotic and therefore more available and sustainable. Compared with Gibson, Fender also has a highly lucrative amp and bass guitar business, both of which provide industry standard products. The Gretsch brand (part of the Fender empire) is also producing some very fine instruments across its key lines.

Fender Duo-Sonic 2018
Fender Telecaster Thinline Super Deluxe

Fender therefore seems to have the upper hand of the ‘big two’ at the moment, although this could change easily and rapidly. Like Gibson, Fender could do with some credible, long‑standing all‑new guitar and bass designs to reinforce their reputation and ensure their long-term prosperity.

When this article was published, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations prohibiting, or at least severely limiting, the international trade in rosewood will have been in place for a whole year. The full long‑term impact of this has still to be felt. However, most guitar makers are urgently seeking viable alternatives – easier said than done. Ebony is likely to be next and who can predict what will follow after that (mahogany?). The import burden imposed by CITES has pretty much stopped CRAVE Guitars from purchasing instruments containing rosewood from outside the EU. As if importing from North America wasn’t bad enough (including dire currency exchange rates), Brexit will probably impose further barriers to buying products from the near continent. These burdensome trading restrictions are definitely not good for small enterprises like CRAVE Guitars.

Will online selling result in the disappearance of physical off‑high street guitar shops? Internet sellers will try to gain market share and brick‑built emporiums carrying expensive display stock will struggle in the same way as many other retailers grappling with the same conundrum. However, as with other parts of the retail sector, it will probably result in a mix of retail and online channels providing customers with choice about the way they buy their gear.

I always advocate actually playing something before buying but it doesn’t always suit everyone and sometimes it just isn’t possible. As an example, some of the guitars in CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’ simply couldn’t be sourced locally and many had to be acquired over the Internet, usually in eBay or Reverb, many from across the Atlantic or in Europe. There is obviously a risk in doing so but these can be mitigated to a degree by doing one’s homework. Diligence should always rule over desire when making unseen purchases. Even so, I have made many costly mistakes but on the whole, one develops a nous for buying guitars this way, especially when there is no alternative option.

The fad for ‘modding’ guitars is as strong as ever with many 3rd party after‑market companies producing just about anything you could ever want for your guitar, effect pedal or amp. In particular, the evolution of quality after‑market pickup manufacturers seems to have followed the growth of luthiers, focusing on quality, tone, character and individuality. Small changes can have a significant improvement to an otherwise bland, generic instrument (but realise that it may devalue a vintage piece of equipment).

Specialisation and differentiation is increasing in the accessories market as well, which includes anything from strings, leads, picks, pedalboards, cases, straps, merchandise, and just about anything else you can think of. In a similar vein, front‑of‑house concert tech such as mixing, PAs, monitoring and lighting are all evolving very rapidly.

One downside of a market flooded with cheap imported product is the resurgence of copies, knock‑offs and fakes affecting both old and new guitars. Long gone are the days of winnable ‘lawsuit’ cases, so replicas are rife. The topic of 1970s and 1980s ‘lawsuit’ cases against Japanese copies is fascinating (not for this article though). Many cheap lookalikes sail close to infringing trademark violations.

As the value of rare vintage gear rockets, there is a temptation to capitalise on reproductions that are so well done that even experts can be fooled. There have always been fakes of course but the stakes seem to be so much higher now. The origin of fakes seems to be from countries over which there is little or no jurisdiction, therefore bringing those accountable to justice is nigh on impossible. Few companies have the resources to track the forgers down, enforce their rights and drive them out of business. Even if they are successful, it is only a temporary sticking plaster, as the culprits simply disappear underground, only to pop up again somewhere else with an alternative ruse to rid the unwary honest of their cash. Beware!

Another massive growth trend over the last few years is in boutique effects. This is, I believe a reaction to the trend towards multi-effects and digital modelling products where major companies crammed so much versatility and functionality into these boxes that it became difficult to make music without embarking on an engineering degree. The back‑to‑basics approach of the small specialist effect makers has mirrored the boutique guitar and pickup makers. Their tactic was to take the best of the past and bring it up to date without falling into the trap of over‑cramming. The quality is excellent and the only problem for the consumer is possibly the abundance of choice (and sometimes price). Great examples from 2017 include pedals from Keeley, Electro‑Harmonix, Orange, Digitech, Way Huge and Earthquaker Devices. If you want full-featured effects, well you can have that too if you want.

Electro-Harmonix Canyon Looper/Delay
Way Huge Effect Pedals

One unforeseen benefit to the explosion of stomp boxes is that it has stimulated a boom in power supplies and clever pedalboard switching systems. Following the established GigRig (now in G2 form), Japanese giant Boss has jumped on the bandwagon with their highly successful MS-3. There is a negative to complexity in that the level of tinkering needed to find THAT killer tone is considerable and it can actually distract us guitarists from actually playing guitar! Not a good thing in my view.

The GigRig G2
BOSS MS3

Another idea spun off from effects is for crossover tech such as ‘amps in a pedal’, frequently used in a modern amp’s effects loop to push an amp’s power stage by bypassing the amplifier’s pre‑amp. These intriguing boxes of tricks are just emerging onto the market – expect them to be popular in 2018.

Amp manufactures, like luthiers and effect builders have followed a similar track by diversifying and honing in on specifically what 21st century musicians’ need. Live gigging has changed massively and so has the business that supplies it. Apart from arena bands, the crowded backline of insanely powerful amps and stacked speaker cabs has pretty much gone by the wayside. There is still a place for muscle amps but tone quality has largely replaced volume quantity in the modern gigging environment. The move towards ultra-high quality and often low output boutique valve amps (e.g. Two Rock, 633, Bad Cat) and cute/cool ‘lunchbox’ amps has been particularly notable, with many established amp manufacturers following suit at the next level down (e.g. Victory, PRS, EVH). The choice of amps for the budget conscious is impressive with some great options (e.g. Fender, Vox, Orange, Blackstar, BOSS, Yamaha). The change is revolutionary and on‑going. It will be fascinating to see where it leads. Archaic valves still seem to be beguiling the affection of serious musicians, so we won’t see the imminent end of those pretty glowing glass vacuum tubes just yet. It may well happen, just not soon.

PRS MT15
VOX MV50 High Gain and Boutique

All in all, gear‑wise, it’s been a fascinating 2017 with lots of exciting new product hitting the scene. The growth in small‑scale companies suggests that a shakeout may occur at some point, with larger corporates buying out smaller entrepreneurial companies. The big companies do this to acquire successful new products without having to do all the R&D and testing and the risks that go with it. This process of rationalising the supply chain is quite common in post-recessionary periods of economic growth, so expect some announcements of mergers and acquisitions. The flood of imports from Asia is likely to increase further in 2018 and will continue for the foreseeable future, echoing the massive growth of Japanese brands in the 1970s and 1980s. As long as the standards are good and the prices reasonable, consumers will keep spending money.

Live and recorded music

Live music seems to have overtaken recorded music in terms of significance to the sector. It appears that consumers are increasingly demanding the immediacy and exclusivity of the live concert experience. This also seems to coincide with the fact that it is also where management and bands are making their money. The demands of touring make for a great deal of hard work for professional musicians – it isn’t the endless rock ‘n’ roll party of sex and drugs that naïve outsiders think it is (or would maybe like it to be). The key to success for artists is to achieve longevity, rather than the harsh spotlight of overnight success followed by the abyss of obscurity.

Like many, I am trying hard to work out where the guitar heroes for the next generation are coming from. There are so many very good guitarists out there and it is tricky trying to determine what it will take to stand out from the crowd. Once they do get attention, will they then have the credentials to stay in the frame for decades to come? Personally, I would dearly love to be able to record my music. At the moment, I don’t have the time, patience, resources or equipment to do it.

Like live music, the way that music is recorded and distributed has also been revolutionised with major recording studios being replaced by modest home recording environments using impressively powerful DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). Never has it been easier and cheaper to record music. The quality of the music recorded, though, is another matter. The regretful tendency towards the celebrity‑driven vacuous and generic is an enduring concern. Thankfully, there are still enough leftfield artists with integrity to keep the cauldron of creativity bubbling. Britain and Europe seem to be pushing the boundaries more than America, although this may be a perception based on local exposure, rather than reality.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

The abundance of people who believe that they know best how to make, record and sell music also has an effect on what the consumer hears. We have a situation where the OCD can delight in correcting every last flaw in the production process and, perhaps unknowingly, they rob much modern music of its vitality and rawness in the process. There is also a tendency towards uniformity and conformity that I can only put down to ‘artists’ seeking short‑term fame and success, rather than producing excellent new music for the long­‑term. Having said that, the ability to create and distribute music has enabled musicians to get their music heard in a way that they wouldn’t have done in the past, as well as for listeners to find new artists.

The investment in time and effort required to master recording technology is immense. Even then, the technical skills and expertise may dominate over the ability to create something worthwhile. However, this is no different to putting a novice at the controls of a traditional studio desk. Those who can and do master the technology have my respect, not only for learning and being able to do it in the first place but also in keeping up to date, which must be a complete nightmare. Having worked in IT for over a decade, currency of knowledge is essential and it is the same with recording technology.

Distribution of recorded music has been transformed by downloads and streaming services like iTunes and Spotify, rather than tangible product or traditional media broadcasting. The benefit is that it provides greater choice and diversity. The issues around licensing and royalties are lagging behind the technological changes, meaning that predatory lawyers will no‑doubt benefit from the inevitable wrangling over rights ownership and originality for years to come.

So… what of the consumer? UK sales of music in 2017 were higher than for any year in the previous 20 years. Streaming (excluding YouTube) accounted for just over 50% of all music consumption in the UK, equating to 68.1 billion songs and contributing £1.2bn to the economy! Vinyl still accounts for about 3% and grew in absolute terms in 2017. Both CD sales and downloads have been declining in percentage terms for the last 5 years, which is a bit sad. All this indicates that entertainment industry scare stories about the Internet and streaming killing off music have proved quite the contrary, given the evidence.

Unlike music sales, there are some areas where innovation is certainly lacklustre, for instance in music videos. For most bands, music videos are still an essential medium but there is little in the way of ‘must watch’ material, compared to the past (think 1980s video). It’s difficult to see what could rejuvenate the platform. If it were me, I’d be looking to work with successful video game producers for an injection of much‑needed new ideas and talent.

Digital rules… or does it?

The analogue versus digital debate would seem to raise its head at this point but to many observers, the lines are currently reasonably clear. There is a place for both and both have their well-argued positives and negatives. Put bluntly, digital is here to stay; get used to it. However, many musicians remain wedded to analogue gear and it is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Heck, we can’t even eradicate vinyl records after decades of digital ‘supremacy’, so the best of analogue will be around for a while yet.

Thanks to the likes of the Line6 Pod before it, innovative digital products like the Fractal FX-II, Line6 Helix and the Kemper Profiler have proved hugely successful. This is notable, mainly because of the way these products replicate or emulate the tone and dynamics of decades‑old valve amps. This suggests that new music technology may be more likely to succeed when imitating old technology. The same applies to many new digital effect pedals that strive to reproduce the lo‑fi characteristics of clunky old analogue pedals. Go figure!

I remember back in the 1970s when solid state tried to oust the vacuum tube in amplifiers – it failed. I also remember solid state (analogue) effects replacing, for instance, tape echoes – it succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of mileage in transistor amps and they are very good at what they do. At the risk of repeating myself, there is a place for everything in the right context. The future will undoubtedly feature a mix of both analogue and digital domains, each suited to their strengths.

I foresee a whole area for growth in hybrid ‘cyber’ guitars, ones that balance traditional characteristics with digital tools that appeal to new age tech‑savvy musical pioneers. While many companies have toyed with the idea, it hasn’t taken off yet but I reckon the flood gates will soon open and they will push the sounds guitarists are able to create to new levels. Where digital excels, for instance, is in the recording environment where it is almost universally standard. Will digital guitars completely replace our beloved instrument? Not in my lifetime.

Guitars will undoubtedly accommodate and adapt to digital technology but digital won’t make what we have now obsolete. After decades of electric guitars, we are devoted to the beauty and tone of our instruments. Will new generations demand an all‑digital guitar and will such an instrument be able to replicate the best of the old tech? I don’t believe that it can but you never know. Counter‑intuitively, electronic music has only made guitar music stronger since the 1980s, when synths and ‘electronica’ attempted to eliminate ‘old‑fashioned’ guitar‑based music. It failed then and it would almost certainly fail again now. I think we’ll be sticking to our traditional woody guitars, the essence of which hasn’t changed since the 1930s (for electric hollow body guitars and the early 1950s (for solid guitars). I think we will see an increase in hexaphonic pickups, i.e. ones that are able to send separate signals for each individual string to external digital processors/controllers. This is actually nothing new!

Future Guitar – Hyper Touch

Therefore, some sort of mutual co-existence will probably exist for many decades to come, without an ultimate resolution to the digital versus analogue debate. In the end, it’s all about compromise. Fine by me, I’m happy to sit on a fence and continue playing my vintage guitars without them becoming totally obsolete.

Trivia: The original ​¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and socket, the ubiquitous industry standard for connecting electric guitars to effect pedals and amplifiers originally dates from c.1878. An early type of the humble jack connector was created by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manually operated switchboard at the telephone exchange he created in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Note: Other connectors have been tried in the past, including a few companies that attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace the jack plug/socket with the common DIN connector. I will wager that the digital USB port, currently being fitted to a few guitars these days will not endure for the next 140 years in the same way as the jack plug/socket has. You’ll have to wait until the 2120s to collect any winnings on that particular bet.

Jack Plug

Mobile devices

Where do our mobile phones and tablets sit in this brave new world? Like other electronic visual interfaces, it is simply a different way of looking at the same thing. They have their place but it will probably remain at the margins of music production, largely due to the effects of continual progress and obsolescence. I would suggest that guitarists, generally being quite a conservative bunch, probably won’t adopt mobile technology in quite the way many companies might like. While portability and convenience is undeniable, standardisation and compatibility need to be established before they become commonplace.

Apple Garage Band on Mobile Devices

Vintage vibrations

Moving onto things vintage… The ‘investment’ boom years between 2000 and 2008 came to an abrupt end with the financial crash and the subsequent recession that followed it. Many commentators point to a 30% loss in value across the vintage guitar market. The market has just about recovered to the point that it was before the crisis. There are always exceptions to the rule of course. Some aspects, particularly the affordable low end of the market remain very problematic with prices varying wildly and with considerable inconsistency.

The upper end of the market did, and probably always will, ride out short‑run economic fluctuations relatively unscathed. The wealthy are far better equipped to ride out commercial ups and downs and that’s where the big profits are likely to end up. Pecuniary speculation may be rewarding for the well‑healed musician or collector but for everyone else it is challenging and I can’t see that changing for the foreseeable future. My usual bleat of ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ still holds true, especially as I am firmly in the latter category – apologies, this is just the chip on the shoulder of sour grapes talking (no apologies for intentionally mixing metaphors).

Some things still surprise on the vintage front. As a simple example, a relatively modest original early‑1980s Ibanez TS9 overdrive pedal seems to have certainly bucked the trend. I bought one for a reasonable market price about 18 months ago, now you can’t find one offered at less than four to five times what I paid. What the heck is going on there? Crazy. It may be riding on the back of its scarce and collectable predecessor, the venerable TS-808, but that’s no guarantee of anything. Other prices, for instance late 1970s/early 1980s Fender Stratocasters, seem to bouncing along in a very unpredictable fashion compared to similar guitars from the early 1970s, the prices of which are beginning to climb steeply.

1981 Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer

I am concerned that the vintage guitar market is increasingly at great risk of repeating the pre‑recession ‘boom and bust’ cycle. Anything ‘classic’ from the 1950s is already at a premium, while most models from the 1960s are likely to increase in value significantly until they are equally out of reach. Gear from the 1970s, 1980s and newer is still not fashionable… for now. If the climate changes dramatically, which it could, the probability of the bubble bursting (again) will increase. It will happen again; it’s a case of when, rather than if. Looking at the long-term, the vintage guitar market will survive for as long as there are vintage guitars to be bought and sold.

One thing I’ve noticed over the decade‑long slump is that sourcing specific guitars, effects and amps has become so much more difficult. The same also goes for vintage parts that are needed to conserve vintage instruments for the future. There used to be much broader choice and availability for punters. Now, particular items are either unavailable or very hard to find. This lack of supply linked to sustained demand would suggest an inevitable increase in market value (one of the basic laws of economics) but that only seems to apply piecemeal. I’ve said it before and it still holds true, the vintage guitar marketplace remains a bit of a minefield at the moment.

Another thing I’ve observed is that my UK online feeds for vintage gear are being flooded by items from Japan, the Russian Federation, China and Australasia. I would urge extreme caution if considering long-distance purchases from these underdeveloped territories. Prices are high, the exchange rates into the UK are poor, import duties, taxes and charges are disproportionately exorbitant, and the regulations are increasingly onerous (CITES again). It is not difficult to deduce that it just ain’t worth the risk.

Moreover, be aware that many Japanese items are not owned by the actual seller. They list the item and only when a customer clicks ‘Buy it Now’ do they then try to source the original and, if it has been sold in the meantime, you may either not receive the item at all or you may get a substitute that can be very different from what you believe you ordered. As if to corroborate this, it is not unusual to see the same item being offered by different sellers. Do you think you’d have any sort of come back in the event of an issue? Nah, forget it. Never has the contract law principle of ‘caveat emptor’ (literally from the Latin, ‘let the buyer beware’) applied more. If you do risk it and end up getting burned, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you are interested in gambling on vintage guitars to make a return on investment (not my thing, I reiterate), the trick is to anticipate what might be ‘the next big thing’ just before it takes off. Do I have any advice on this front? Yep, but I’m keeping it very much to myself. Why? Not because I want to profit from my hard‑earned insights (which would be nice) or because I hate greed (which I do), it’s because of the numerous uncertainties involved. I would hate to suggest something only for that advice to implode (i.e. my sort of luck). I really don’t want to be held to account for giving poor advice… or for pricing myself out of a purchase because I end up competing with someone who took my advice.

Summary and conclusion

So, there you have one person’s view of the ‘state of the village’. The market for new music gear continues to evolve in a positive way. With western economies emerging from the deepest, harshest recession ever, the industry will thrive, innovate and change providing a wealth of choice and options for guitarists of every age, level of competence, income bracket and musical style. The vintage market, while currently erratic, will always remain relatively niche as supply and demand is limited – expect vintage market values to escalate in the year (or two) ahead.

The operating environment for manufacturers and retailers will continue to be challenging and they will need to adapt to meet musicians’ fickle needs while appealing to traditionalists and neophytes alike. The firms that will survive will understand both the external pressures affecting them while also engaging actively with what guitarists most value in their diverse gear-focused world. A much‑needed injection of authentic customer service would be welcome too.

The future looks exhilarating as the technology continues to evolve and challenge existing preconceptions about what music‑making is all about. The business is not going to go away but it will change and do so more rapidly than it has in the past.

I am optimistic that the best of the past and the best of the future will find a sustainable equilibrium where there is something for everyone. More importantly, the products that we use on a daily basis, whether created in the past, the present or the future will continue to inspire, motivate and enable more of us to produce some fantastically creative music. That music will, in turn, hopefully excite and evoke deep emotions for millions of listeners of both recorded and live music all over the world. Music is a wonderfully powerful medium that has the potential to change individual lives, communities and societies to create a better, more peaceful world. Now that’s an ambitious agenda. Sign me up!

CRAVE Guitars Logo

Whatever transpires, I’ll watch with great interest. Wanna play? I do, so I’m off to plink my planks (despite badly hurting my little finger on my fretting hand). Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “The best way to keep music alive is to keep music live.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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