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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December 2017 – That Time for Guitar Lists and Stuff

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

So, yet another infernal year draws to a close. Why infernal? Well, I was never going to like 2017 on principle, as 2,017 is a prime number. My dislike of prime numbers is one of my weird traits – I have no idea why – at least I’m not primonumerophobic, i.e. fearful of the darned things. At least the next prime year is 2027, which is a whole decade away yet. Fun Trivia: while many people fear the prime number 13 (triskaidekaphobia), many primonumerophobes fear the number 2, it being the only even prime number.

 

Anyhoo… I digress, as is my wont. In tried and tested (and predictable) fashion, it is time to reflect on the year now departing from platform 2017, re-assess the way things are now, as well as to look forward to new opportunities in the year ahead. One cannot change the past but one may be able to influence both the here and now as well as the future, so it’s a time to take a deep breath, muster up one’s energy and be both positive and forward thinking.

 

2017 in retrospect

Well, 2017 was certainly a year of major change, that’s for sure, with events during 2017 definitely impacting on CRAVE Guitars.

 

At the equivalent point last year, the relocation was looming and structural works were underway to make the ‘new’ (90‑year old) place safe, if not fully habitable. The move has now taken place but that is just the start. The structure still needs considerable work before even the basic works can be described as complete. At the time of writing, it is even now only barely habitable with little in the way of what many people expect of basic ‘home’ comforts. Carpets? Nah. Curtains? Nah. Heck, we’ve only just got heating and hot water after 7 months. Getting trustworthy, cost-effective workmen is proving aggravatingly difficult.

 

However, something about the ‘old’ life had to change and along with that realisation came major risks. After weighing up the cons and the even bigger cons, we embarked on the new venture with our eyes wide open. The two main drivers for change comprised basic economics and quality of life due to family health issues, so it had to be done, as the alternatives were simply unsustainable. So here we are in the south west of the UK.

 

As a direct result of the relocation, the major part of the vintage guitar ‘collection’ is currently in temporary storage until I can create safe and secure accommodation for them in the new location. This is why I haven’t been able to update all the photos on the web site. I am very, very concerned about the far from ideal environmental conditions at both the old and new places, so there is no easy answer. However, beggars can’t be choosers and, as ‘they’ say, needs must. The precious (to me) guitars will just have to endure their enforced incarceration for a while longer. I can only hope and pray that they aren’t unduly compromised by the interlude. Until they can be retrieved and re-homed, I just won’t know for sure what condition they are in. They are a couple of hundred miles away and I now have to be at this end, so all I can do is hope for the best. At least I have a few modest vintage guitars available here to pluck in the meantime, whenever I get a few rare moments to spare.

 

CRAVE Guitars – Cases

 

Also back in December 2016, I declared my hand and stated an ambition to secure two specific vintage instruments during 2017 – a 1970s Fender Starcaster and a 1950s Gibson ES-150. How did that turn out? Regrettably, I have to report that I failed dismally on both counts. In context, it really doesn’t matter a jot. I possibly could have achieved what I set out to do but circumstances and timing didn’t align to make it possible. Now, in the absence of sufficient lucre, I need to reassess and reprioritise my aspirations.

 

At the start of 2017, I was about to embark on a culling of the (guitar) herd to strengthen the focus on vintage gear. As a consequence of the clear out, I had the rare opportunity to reinvest some of the proceeds in a small number of ‘cheap’ and unusual vintage guitars (see below). I prefer the term ‘cool and rare’ but let’s be honest, there have been some peculiar budget vintage axes that have crossed my path this year. I wanted to use the funds to invest in maybe 1 or 2 great guitars, as mentioned above, but ‘best laid plans’ and all that.

 

The year hasn’t been without many other significant difficulties, particularly around significantly deteriorating family health. I’m afraid that’s the way our cookies tend to crumble. Don’t expect details; this article is supposed to be about guitars and music!

 

Still, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, at least there remains a way forward on a few fronts, albeit experiencing very slow and frustrating progress.

 

CRAVE Guitars acquisitions in 2017…

On a more positive note, there has been more instruments than I expected to be inducted into the CRAVE Guitars family over these past 12 months. I had anticipated that 2017 was going to be quite a barren year guitar-wise, especially with everything else going on.

 

There were some interesting acquisitions that were intentionally offbeat and not at all what one might have predicted 365 days ago. This unorthodox approach is now kinda becoming CRAVE Guitars’ raison d’être. As it turned out, there were no ‘classic’ models at all, probably because – to be honest – they would have represented ‘more of the same’. If you have followed these monthly articles, you’ll have picked up the conscious rationale for venturing off the beaten track. I must admit that, on reflection, even I have been surprised by the way things have panned out, which was actually a nice surprise. 2017 purchases included…

 

Guitars (7):

 

CRAVE Guitars – 2017 Guitars

 

Given that seven non-vintage guitars left the fold during 2017, there was a net increase of… zero guitars overall. It also represents more than double the number of vintage guitars purchased in 2016 (only 3).

 

Amps(1):

 

1979 Fender Musicmaster Bass

 

That is an overall net reduction of one (non-vintage) amp on this time last year.

 

Effects (6):

 

CRAVE Guitars – 2017 Effect Pedals

 

This represents an overall reduction of seven effects in the year. Just 6 purchases in 2017 compares to 17 vintage effects bought in 2016. Admittedly, I was on a mission last year and limited funds meant that expenditure tended towards effects rather than guitars.

 

All in all, I think that is not bad going under circumstances.

 

Guitarists that departed us in 2017 (9):

As is inevitable, all things come to pass and this year, like every other before it, has seen the demise of some truly inspirational musicians. At this time of year it is customary to take a few moments to contemplate those guitarists that we have lost in 2017 and recall what musical treasures they have left us. Their talents will be sorely missed and it is sad to think that there will be no more distinctive music from these guys (no gals). Rest in Peace ineffable rock dudes and forever rock the big gig in the sky. Sad losses include:

  • Deke Leonard (Man) on 31st January, aged 72
  • Larry Coryell on 19th February, aged 73
  • Chuck Berry on 18th March, aged 90
  • Allan Holdsworth on 15th April, aged 70
  • Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) on 27th May, aged 69
  • Glen Campbell on 8th August, aged 81
  • Walter Becker (Steely Dan) on 3rd September, aged 67
  • Tom Petty on 2nd October, aged 66
  • Malcolm Young (AC/DC) on 18th November, aged 64

 

Deceased Guitarists 2017

 

New recorded music in 2017 (18):

One of the things I learnt from the late, great British DJ John Peel is to appreciate fresh new music as well as the respected classics. I had expected that access to new releases would have been a bit limited in 2017 but it seems to have been roughly on a par with previous years. There seems to have been a wealth of good music released this year from both established and new artists covering a broad range of genres. 2017 new music album purchases include (in artist alphabetical order):

  • !!! – Shake the Shudder
  • Bonobo – Migration
  • Cats In Space – Scarecrow
  • The Correspondents – Foolishman
  • Dub Pistols – Crazy Diamonds
  • Eric Gales – Middle Of The Road
  • Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator
  • The Jesus And Mary Chain – Damage And Joy
  • Kasabian – For Crying Out Loud
  • King Creature – Volume One
  • LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
  • London Grammar – Truth Is A Beautiful Thing
  • Imelda May – Life Love Flesh Blood
  • Prophets Of Rage – Prophets Of Rage
  • Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
  • The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
  • The xx – I See You
  • Neil Young – Hitchhiker

 

Albums 2017

 

I don’t think that I have a single ‘album of the year’ from this modest but diverse bunch, as my tastes change with mood. One wonders if any of these releases will be considered timeless classics in years to come.

 

Live Music in 2017 (2)

As you may know, I am also a big fan of live music of all kinds from street entertainers through pub gigs and concerts of all types and sizes, right up to minor and major festivals featuring a broad range of interesting musical experiences. One great thing about live music is that there is always something new and surprising to discover. I am also regularly amazed at the quality of musicianship exhibited across the board, including by artists that one may never hear of again. The talent out there is phenomenal and sadly puts my playing abilities to shame.

 

Due to constraints imposed by family health, live music attendance has had to be very limited in 2017 with just one major concert (Black Sabbath’s amazing ‘The End’ tour in January) and one boutique festival (Looe Music Festival in September/October, punching well above its weight). Now we are located in the south west of the UK, getting to major music venues is proving more challenging than in previous years.

 

Black Sabbath – The End
Looe Music Festival 2017

 

Social Media

There were a couple of minor achievements during 2017. CRAVE Guitars more than doubled the number of followers it has on Twitter, now standing at over 2,700. The number of followers also now consistently exceeds the number followed, another small landmark. A heck of a lot of hard work went into cultivating this social media audience. Although it earns diddley-squat at precisely £0, it is, I hope, an investment in the brand, at least in terms of time and diligence. Along the way, I have learnt quite a lot, so there is a modicum of knowledge gain. It’s a shame that other social media platforms have proved less successful, so the proportion of effort has to be targeted at Twitter.

 

2018 in Prospect

Looking forward, it looks like 2018 is going to be a really, really tough year. The family health situation that partly precipitated the move is likely to be life changing and VERY challenging during the year ahead. It is all very sad and the inevitable outcome is beyond my (or anyone else’s) ability to change.

 

At least there is not another relocation to manage on top of increasing caring duties. It also looks like the renovation works are likely to take most of the year and all my patience, as well as resources. Of course, it isn’t possible to predict what will actually happen and experience suggests that the unexpected is likely to do its best to derail any reasonable plans. It is therefore best to approach the next 12 months with trepidation and no fixed expectations.

 

As a result of the uncertainties, the operating status of CRAVE Guitars’ is resolutely in ‘ticking over’ mode and I suspect that it is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I intend to maintain a modicum of incremental improvement and will endeavour to keep foundation‑building in the background while I can. The hope is that the venture should be ready to fly, given half a chance.

 

So… being a bit more specific, what music gear tops CRAVE Guitars’ affordable vintage ‘most wanted’ list for 2018? I have relinquished any hope of acquiring last year’s ambition for a Fender Starcaster and/or Gibson ES-150. This coming year, I will have to set my sights at an altogether different level and go for something on a more realistic budget. I am casting the net a bit wider and shallower this time. If I can get just one guitar, one amp and one effect from the following list this coming year, I’ll be content:

 

Guitars:

  • 1960s Danelectro (no specific model)
  • 1970s Fender Bronco
  • 1960s Gibson Melody Maker (type 3)
  • 1970s Guild (perhaps a S-100 or S-300D)
  • 1970s Peavey T-60

 

Amps:

  • 1970s ‘silverface’ Princeton (with or without reverb)
  • 1970s ‘silverface’ Fender Champ

 

Effect pedals:

  • 1980s BOSS CE-2 Chorus
  • 1970s Electro Harmonix Zipper (envelope follower)
  • 1980s Ibanez PT9 Phaser
  • 1970s MXR Micro Chorus

 

In order to achieve even 2018’s moderate ambition (just 3 items over 12 months), a lot of penny pinching is still likely to be required. I also don’t have much leeway to ‘trade up’ existing models. For instance, I wouldn’t mind some selective substitution, i.e. replacing a couple of later-year instruments with examples from earlier years, or to swap out a couple of current guitars for ones that are in better condition or are more original. The intention is really not to grow the ‘collection’ but to consolidate and improve it. All this needs funding of course. I also have to keep options open for those unforeseen, unmissable opportunities that might arise from time to time during the year, i.e. when the dreaded irresistible temptation strikes! We’ll just have to wait and see what transpires.

 

Hopefully, despite constant building setbacks on the residence, I want to try and create a safe home for the majority of the guitar ‘collection’. Currently, while this is top of my personal priorities, it isn’t top priority overall (grrr, argh). The necessity for very basic habitability and adaptation must come first. Finances are either completely used up or committed and now that I’m a full‑time carer, there is no other income on which I can rely, so I really hope there are no (further) unforeseen expensive catastrophes to contend with.

 

Frustratingly, I actually have the physical space earmarked for on-site guitar storage. Unfortunately, in its present‑day state, it is far from suitable. The space currently comprises a small, dark, dank and musty cellar suitable only for severely vertically challenged troglodytes and the occasional adventurous spelunker. Basically, the cellar is mostly underground (built into a solid rock cliff face) and is pretty much as it was when the house was built 90 years ago (single‑skinned concrete block walls with no damp‑proofing), so it needs some pretty extensive work(!).

 

The first step is for the walls and floor to be ‘tanked’ and drained to reduce rampant damp. Once dry, insulation, heating and ventilation are needed to keep the relative humidity and temperature within acceptable parameters for storing vintage musical instruments. Due to the adverse environment conditions, it may also require active de‑humidification. In addition, there needs to be suitable interior access to the cellar so all the guitars can be swapped around regularly but this has implications for the rest of the ground floor. The list goes on and on… lighting and power are essential to provide basic utility. Finally, reasonable security is required to keep pesky scoundrels and ne’er‑do‑wells out. I’m not too bothered about prettying it up to make it presentable; it is far more important that it is functional and fit‑for‑purpose. That’s all!!!!!

 

CRAVE Guitars – Cellar

 

Considering the current condition of the cellar and what needs to be done to make it usable, this is one heck of a project to take on, especially on a shoestring budget with everything else that needs doing. The trouble is that the works can’t really be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks – it currently looks like an all‑or‑nothing exercise. If the project could be phased over a longer period, it would certainly help, although it would extend the current storage compromise – it is something worth exploring though. Despite the obstacles, it is an exciting proposition and something I would really like to take on if I can. If nothing else, it would be a welcome distraction from some of the other difficulties.

 

Even then, because of the adaptations required, it will never be ideal, particularly the limited accessibility and very low headroom. I can only work with what I’ve got. For instance, it isn’t possible to excavate into solid rock and underpin the existing (poor) structure. Financially, it won’t be an investment. If I am going to be making a long‑term success of CRAVE Guitars, it has to be able to work under one roof. It is essentially the only feasible option I have and there is no ‘Plan B’. If I can’t do it, I will have to think again about the viability of CRAVE Guitars and/or its location. If I can embark on this ‘exciting’ venture, I will try to log progress through these regular articles. Wish me luck.

 

If I can liberate all the stored guitars from their enforced confinement, I am pretty sure that I will need to find a local luthier/guitar tech to work through any conservation work that needs to be done to get/keep them in as good a condition as can be expected after their prolonged period of internment. Most of the remedial work is likely to comprise setups and tweaks but I suspect that a few guitars may require some expert intervention. For instance, a couple could have potential truss rod issues, which may or may not turn out to be complicated, and there are probably also some electrical issues that need investigating (scratchy pots, intermittent switches, dodgy sockets, etc.). There may also be some finish or corrosion problems.

 

I have to be honest here – I am not one of those tinkerer types; I hate changing guitar strings, let alone anything more involved. I am wise enough to understand that I should leave anything complex to the specialists, especially if it involves a soldering iron! I am pretty certain that, by attempting to do any serious guitar work myself, I would probably make any problems worse. Where vintage guitars are concerned, a cautious approach makes a lot of common sense – leave it to the experts every time.

 

Changing the subject matter a little bit. Strange as it may seem after 40 years of playing, I would actually like to take some guitar lessons. I am not sure that tuition could do much to improve my technical or theoretical skills (see previous articles) but it might be able to inspire me to make better noises than I do now. It might also motivate me to play with others again and maybe, just maybe, encourage me to play live with a band again. I’m not committing to anything and it looks unlikely that 2018 will be the year that it happens. I’m running out of years though, so perhaps I’d better get a move on if I’m to achieve that particular bucket list item. Even if learning is purely a recreational exercise, my playing could definitely do with significant improvement. Like many musical types, I suffer crippling self‑doubt, so I’d hope that my confidence would benefit greatly as well. If I don’t enjoy the fruits of such hard work, it isn’t worth doing, so I’m a bit dubious. Acquiring skill is as much in the mind as it is in the physical dexterity. The trouble is that I’m very much a loner in my old age and I’m not sure I could collaborate easily with others. I would, however, also like to record some of my guitar music, if only for personal gratification and, perhaps, posterity.

 

At this particular juncture, it really isn’t possible, or advisable, to look any further forward or to speculate more strategically about what may happen either more generally or to CRAVE Guitars. So, it is probably best to let 2018 play out as it sees fit. I must trust that good things will happen and let fate take its course. They say you make your own luck, so I will try my hardest to influence good fortune. Let’s face it, despite my best endeavours, luck hasn’t been on my side for many years but I persevere and try to do the right thing to the best of my abilities and hope that things will work out alright in the end.

 

What else is in store for 2018? Well that depends on many other things. If possible, I would like to improve the CRAVE Guitars web site and enhance the social media content on platforms other than Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. I would also like to spend a little more time researching and writing seriously about my obsession with guitars and contemporary music. However, being brutally realistic, 2018 will simply be just keeping things going on the back burner. I would dearly like to say that it will be a year of exciting new developments but I think I’d be raising expectations beyond what I’ll physically be able to deliver.

 

In terms of recorded music, I have to admit that I am a Luddite as far as streaming and download services are concerned. I like to go into retail stores and purchase a tangible product that I can take home and appreciate visually as well as aurally. My tastes are not stuck in any particular period and I am a big fan of both old and new music alike. Who knows what new recorded music will be released in 2018 but I look forward to finding out.

 

I also don’t think that there is much likelihood of attending many live music events in 2018. However, all other things being equal one of my all‑time favourite bands is playing live in 2018 and tickets are already booked. Indie rock legends Robert Smith and The Cure are celebrating their 40th anniversary by playing London Hyde Park BST concert in July. I also hope to repeat Looe Music Festival in September if I can.

 

The Cure – Hyde Park BST

 

A message of hope for 2018 and the future

Fundamentally, I don’t like to plan things out in great detail for two principal reasons: a) things never seem to work out for me and I would only get downcast when things don’t go as intended and, b) no-one really knows what is going to happen and prescribing a set of immutable circumstances in advance inhibits the potential for the sort of spontaneous opportunity that may make life really worth living (one can hope!).

 

One thing experience has taught me is that life is too short to get hung up on trivial things and maintaining a positive mental attitude is the only way to deal with life’s harsh realities. Perhaps it is the juddering realisation of one’s mortality that hangs over us all (but some more than others) like the proverbial sword of Damocles that makes me so philosophical. One cannot afford to be laid back about life otherwise precious time will be squandered in the pursuit of idle mundanity. So, I will take one day at a time, aim to do the best one can in every situation, make the most of every moment, and see what transpires. If I can be more profound and fundamental, I shall attempt to do so. I hope that I’ll still be here waffling on interminably this time next year (December 2018).

 

I am not a religious person. However, the Buddhist philosophy tends to resonate with my own outlook on life, so I will share the following quotes ascribed to Buddha. I reflect on these (and other) words of wisdom from time to time in an attempt to find internal solace, particularly during difficult times. Perhaps, through sharing, they may make a difference for others too:

 

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

 

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”

 

“I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”

 

“To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent.”

 

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”

 

Buddha

 

What does all this have to do with vintage guitars, you may well ask? Well, if I can get everything else turning out positively, it may increase the likelihood that CRAVE Guitars could prove to become a success. It is, at least, something on which I can focus. Call me crazy but I remain determined to make something of CRAVE Guitars sooner or later, preferably sooner. It may not become a reality in 2018, but, as long as I can keep things moving forward in the right direction, however slowly, it may just happen… eventually. The following quotes are others that seem appropriate…

 

 “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward” – Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968)

 

Martin Luther King Jr

 

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion” – Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

 

Jack Kerouac

 

I don’t have any great words of comfort, grace or insight to impart either in retrospect or prospect, other than the obligatory monthly CRAVE quote (see below). Praying for world peace, an end to suffering and justice for all seems trite, given the current poor state of world affairs. So, perhaps, a simple personal message of “I hope that 2018 will be good for you” to all guitar aficionados out there will suffice.

 

That’s it for now. The holiday season should be a time to sit back and plink one’s plank(s), so I’m off to pick up a geetar (or two). Play on. Until next time (and next year)…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Inspiration is everywhere around. Think deeply about what you experience every day and then act on what matters to change some things for the better.”

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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August 2017 – A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Over the last 30 months or so, I’ve been going on and on about the mainstay of CRAVE Guitars ‘work’, which is to share with you not only stuff about music and stuff about guitars generally but also specifically stuff about Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. If you’ve taken a look at the web site, you’ll know that the focus tends to be on mainstream U.S. brands and, within that, if possible, some cool variations of well-established guitar models. However, perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, the guitar world is much bigger than that.

 

This month I’m dipping a toe in the water of some of the other guitar treasures out there. When one looks across the whole guitar landscape, antique, vintage, old, used, new, American, European, Eastern bloc, Asian, mass manufacture, boutique makers, unique luthiers, home‑made, traditional, basic, hi-tech, innovative and whacky, there is infinite variety and a veritable cornucopia of interesting and wonderful instruments to appreciate. The same goes for amps and effects of course (as colleagues into those things keep reminding me) but there’s not enough room in a single article for those as well. Besides, although I don’t claim to be an expert on guitars, I’m even less well‑acquainted the minutiae of amps and effects – that’s another ballgame altogether. The focus of this article is essentially on electric instruments.

 

When researching this article, it became ridiculously clear that I simply can’t do justice to every aspect of this enormous topic. I can only mention a figurative iceberg’s tip of what’s out there and I apologise in advance for the probable monumental omissions herein. Before we get going, none of the guitars covered in this article are part of the CRAVE Guitars’ family. In order to illustrate the diversity, I’ve resorted to using pictures sourced from Google Images – I acknowledge all guitar owners and photographers.

 

Let’s face it, love them or loathe them, the centre of the guitar universe remains occupied by the American ‘Big Two’, Fender and Gibson, along with their subsidiary companies including, respectively, Epiphone and Squier that concentrate on the budget end of the market. Incidentally, Fender and Gibson also own a number of other iconic brands that come under their wing. For instance, did you know that Fender own Gretsch, Jackson, Charvel, DeArmond and Tacoma, and Gibson own Baldwin, Kramer, Steinberger, Tobias and Wurlitzer? Until the mid-2010s, Fender also owned Guild and Ovation guitar brands.

 

 

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Fender and Gibson are massive multinational industrial giants, but in actuality, they are pretty modest business concerns compared to the sheer scale and scope of some truly global companies. Fender and Gibson are, above all, very successful brands with a strong identity, whose reach extends well beyond the music industry. This general public awareness helps to shield them from some of the economic, social and technological pressures facing them. Business fortunes, however, go in cycles and the ‘Big Two’ have had their ups and downs. Both companies, along with many others, were taken over in the 1960s, leading to a period of corporate complacency and weakness that opportunistic competitors were able to exploit. While they have been able to rejuvenate their image, they are now dealing with a radically different global context.

 

While the ‘Big Two’ are fortunate to have genuinely iconic products including Fender’s Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass, and Gibson’s Les Paul, SG and ES-335 (among others), this otherwise enviable position can also constrain them operationally. It has proved very difficult for them to innovate and stretch too far from the proverbial straightjacket imposed by their core instruments. Existing models are scrutinised minutely and often face intense criticism if they move away from the accepted recipe. At the same time, it is difficult for them to introduce all-new models, as they are often compared unfavourably with the classic mould. Without sustainable growth in a finite market, these companies are commercially vulnerable and their potential success is increasingly limited by their past. This strategic conundrum for Fender and Gibson actually creates fertile ground for other smaller firms to grasp opportunity to enter the market through differentiation, diversification and innovation, as well as imitation.

 

Fender and Gibson Guitars

 

Circling around the ‘star’ of the Big Two, there are the other recognisable brands such as Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Guild, Ovation, Music Man (now part of the Ernie Ball corporation), G&L, and, as well as the aforementioned Gretsch (the Gretsch family retains major influence as part of Fender) and relative newcomers such as PRS. There are other companies that don’t immediately spring to mind but which have enormous presence in the industry. I include Peavey here, as one of the world’s largest musical manufacturing company. Then there are the other recognisable ‘independent’ American manufacturers that tend to focus on niche markets, such as BC Rich, Dean, Jackson, Alembic, Carvin, Schecter, Steinberger, Suhr, Parker, Heritage, etc. At the same time, some major US guitar companies focus predominantly on acoustic guitars, such as Martin and Taylor.

 

American Guitars

 

There is an incredible history surrounding brands that have either disappeared completely or those that have gone, some of which have now been resurrected, e.g. Supro, Airline, National, Dobro (acoustic, now part of Epiphone), Bigsby, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Silvertone, Kalamazoo, etc. American guitar manufacturers suffered particularly badly in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of multiple pressures including falling production quality, increasing manufacturing costs (including union labour), and hostile competition from high quality cheap imports from the Far East.

 

American Guitars

 

As you might expect, the history of many of the brands already mentioned goes back to the early-mid 1900s (or even further), which means that there are plenty of very cool vintage guitars floating around. In the guitar world, age doesn’t mean valuable – it is the combination of age, rarity, quality originality and current condition that matter for those with an eye on the dollar value. While the Big Two tend to command the premium prices, pretty much across the board, there are plenty of bargains to be had by looking more broadly at these, sometimes ephemeral makes. I recently come across an early 1960s U.S. Airline in all‑original clean condition that went for a little over £300GBP. These never were top‑of‑the‑range instruments back in the day, and they can be picked up as bargain vintage instruments now. Some of these leftfield guitars present low-risk options for entry into the vintage market if you research carefully and don’t expect too much. History suggests that, in all likelihood, they won’t accumulate vintage value very quickly without major artist association. Look around and there are gems to be found from under-the-radar guitar makers. Some are very nice, including Washburn, Hondo (mainly copies), Mosrite, Harmony, Kay, Valco (maker of a number of other brands), etc.

 

American Guitars

 

Moving away from the American continent, Europe also has a long tradition of great musical instrument manufacture, with brands such as Vox, Höfner, Baldwin, Burns, Watkins, Framus, Hagstrom, Hohner, Shergold, Hoyer, Wandre, Bartolini, Levin, Goya, Welson, along with newer entrants such as Warwick, Duesenberg and Vigier, Some of these were prolific during the ‘golden years’, capitalising on the rapidly moving musical paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s. A post-war embargo on American guitar imports certainly helped European brands (and bands) get a foothold and to prosper up to the early-mid 1960s. While, as in other markets, the quality of European guitars varied considerably, many models have become synonymous with the period and, as a result, highly collectable, for instance, the teardrop Vox guitar used by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones or the Höfner violin bass used by Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

 

European Guitars

 

Even further away from America, the Japanese companies competed head on with the American brands in the 1970s. Plenty of the budget guitars were blatant copies of American guitars, which resulted in protracted litigation to protect U.S. patents and trademarks. Many ‘older’ guitarists may remember copies from the likes of CSL and Columbus, as well as Ibanez. Japanese firms didn’t just replicate American designs; some also produced original designs and have retained a credible reputation over time for quality and consistency, including their dominant brands – Yamaha and Ibanez. Takamine, which focuses predominantly on acoustic guitars, is also Japanese. There have been plenty of Japanese names that are or have been familiar, including ESP (and subsidiary LTD), Roland, Italia, Aria, Tokai, Teisco, Greco, Guyatone, Apollo, Kawai, Kent, Westone, etc. Many of the instruments made by Japanese companies in the 1960s and 1970s (including some copies) are now becoming very collectable in the off‑the‑beaten‑track vintage niches. If you want some truly whacky vintage designs at reasonable prices, take a look at Japanese guitars. Plenty of people now specialise in conserving these vintage Japanese/Asian instruments.

 

Far Eastern Guitars

 

The old Eastern Bloc countries have also produced a wide range of brands catering for home-grown musicians. The strategy of government-owned manufacture was partly nationalistic, in that they were required to protect their home market from capitalist imports from both the west and east. Many of these guitars were typically utilitarian with little in the way of flamboyance. Many of these brands will be little known in the western world, even now. As you might expect, there are experts who concentrate on collecting these communist bloc guitars for posterity. The ones that have penetrated the western markets offer something different from, and cheaper than, the mainstream names. Look out for names like Aelita, Elgava, Formanta, Migma, Musima, Odessa, Stella, Tonika, Marma (East Germany), Jolana (Czechoslovakia), etc.

 

Eastern Bloc Guitars

 

There are a few other territories that have developed their own guitar manufacturing, including Godin and Eastwood in Canada and Maton in Australia. In addition, there are a large number of unmarked guitars out there with no means of identifying age or source. Some can be traced back to similar designs by known manufacturers while the creators of others are lost in the mists of time and geography. These ‘pawn shop’ guitars are often poorly made and may be considered curios, although, there are aficionados looking to conserve the more vernacular heritage.

 

Canadian and Australian Guitars
No-Name Pawn Shop Guitars

 

The modern-world picture is far more complicated and can’t be talked about in terms of familiar regional territories. Some multi-national companies, including Fender and Both Fender and Gibson have their headquarters in the US and produce large numbers of their subsidiary ranges in other countries. Some brands are designed in the US and constructed offshore. Some are assembled and quality checked in the US from parts made elsewhere. Larger companies have international distribution operations that channel product to dealership networks within economic regions, e.g. Fender UK servicing the European Union (at the moment!). Others have to manage distribution through networks of independent dealers. Some smaller companies have to rely either on local markets or alternative methods of distribution, direct or indirect. Some companies make instruments that are branded by one or more retail chains. A classic example is Silvertone whose instruments were made by Danelectro, Kay and others, sold through Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order (remember that?). Similarly, many of the diverse Japanese brand names were actually made by a relatively small number of manufacturers, e.g. Kawai and Teisco.

 

Another feature of new millennium guitar building is the explosion in bespoke guitar building, either by small specialist companies or individual luthiers. Low volumes, creative designs, alternative materials, custom features, and high quality tend to characterise the sub-industry but there are always exceptions to the rule. There have, pretty obviously, always been bespoke builders catering for the well‑heeled or professional musicians’ need and this has led to further opportunities that are difficult for the mass manufacturers to match. In response, the larger manufacturers, including Fender and Gibson, created custom shop operations to provide tailored services for individual clients. Custom shops also heralded the explosion in vintage-styled recreations and the more recent craze for relic finishes, both building on the growth of interest in vintage guitars.

 

Remember, even the (now) big companies had to start somewhere, usually with an inspirational leader, visionary pioneer or commercial entrepreneur at the helm, often working on their own or in a small workshop. Many of today’s big brands started out with some names you might just recognise, including Friedrich Gretsch and son, Fred Gretsch Jr, Orville H. Gibson, Christian Frederick Martin, Adolph Rickenbacker, Nathan Daniel (Danelectro), Epaminondas Stathopoulo (Epiphone), and one Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender. More recently, Paul Reed Smith has earned a place amongst this exlusive group. Even these industry giants relied on other key individuals and their skills including John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Lloyd Loar, F.C. Hall, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, George Fullerton, Ray Dietrich, Roger Rossmeisl, etc.

 

Guitar Founders

 

Other well-known names span out of larger companies, for instance, Travis Bean, well known for metal-neck guitars, split from Kramer. Kiesel Custom Guitars is another example, producing some astounding instruments having been formed following the splitting up of American company Carvin in 2015. Perhaps the most successful modern entrepreneur is Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars, based in Maryland USA since 1985. While growing his reputation, Smith wisely sought advice from Gibson’s ex‑president Ted McCarty to mentor him, and several PRS models now proudly bear McCarty’s name. The tradition continues with renowned luthier Joe Knaggs setting up his own prestigious guitar company after leaving PRS, producing some wonderful instruments in relatively small numbers.

 

Spin-Off Brand Guitars

 

One of the most celebrated and influential craftsmen to exploit niche demand in the 1960s was Lithuanian immigrant to the UK, Tony Zemaitis who made some very remarkable guitars for some very remarkable guitarists. Zemaitis’ legacy can clearly be seen in other current models from the likes of Duesenberg and Teye, as well as the Japanese company that currently carries on Zematis’ illustrious name.

 

Zemaitis Guitars
Teye and Duesenberg Guitars

 

There have been many excursions into the application of alternative materials to wood. The use of metal in guitar production was pioneered by the likes of National and Dobro in their resonator guitars as a means of producing more volume from acoustic guitars in the pre‑electric era of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, Valco used fibreglass (coined Res‑o‑Glas) for futuristic designs in the 1960s, such as the stunning National Newport. More recently, acoustic maker, Ovation, used a variation of fibreglass (lyrachord) on its bowlback instruments. Zemaitis experimented with other materials in his guitar construction and many others have followed suit, including the aforementioned Kramer/Travis Bean. Around the same time, there was a ‘fad’ for acrylic guitar bodies, perhaps the most well-known proponent being Dan Armstrong who used acrylic for parent company Ampeg.

 

On this side of the Atlantic, another luthier has set the bar for innovative use of metal; French luthier, James Trussart, Italian company XoX Audio are making some nice instruments out of carbon fibre. 3D printing also presents opportunities for greater use of plastics and metals in guitar production. Some luthiers have experimented with stone as part of the construction but it is not common – or very practical. With ever increasingly stringent restrictions on sourcing, use, sale and movement of hardwoods commonly used in guitar production, expect wider use of alternative sustainable materials in the future.

 

Alternative Guitar Materials

 

There are hundreds if not thousands or even tens of thousands of guitar makers out there, all wanting a proportion of the overall demand for great guitars. Here are a very few notable names from all around the world to keep an eye on, including (in no particular order); Collings, Stone Wolf, Flaxwood, Palm Bay, Hutchinson, Emerald, Ed Roman, Suhr, Mayones, Nik Huber, Matt Artinger, Tom Anderson, Patrick James Eggle, Fano, Gus, Goulding, Prisma, Frank Hartung, Michael Spalt, Michihiro Matsuda, TK Smith, Rick Toone, Carillion, McSwain, John Backlund, Reverend, Ron Thorn, John Ambler, Mule, Tony Cochran, Walla Walla, Ezequiel Galasso, Langcaster… The list could be endless as there are just too many great guitar buillders out there to mention and apologies to those I’ve left out and, sorry, I can’t post pictures of every one – I wish I could. The point, I guess, is to broaden one’s perspective and perhaps open one’s mind to a wide range of other possibilities beyond the obvious in-your-face guitar shop fare. I don’t usually proffer advice but on this occasion, I would simply just say, take a look out there and you might just find something weird and wonderful that you probably didn’t know existed. I regularly feature some of this wonderland of goodies on Twitter for those that may want to take a look (@CRAVE_guitars).

 

Boutique Makers to Watch

 

For the amateur hobbyist or artisans with aspirations of becoming the next notable designer, there are now plenty of DIY kits for everything from generic product to some quite fancy customised guitar construction. Access to information the Internet provides plenty of plans and specifications for people to design and build almost any type of instrument without the need to track down books or luthiers willing to share their knowledge. Experimenting in this way can present all sorts of opportunities to be taken. What about you?

 

Renovation ‘husk’ projects are probably best avoided unless you really know what you’re doing, as there’s probably a reason why they are in that state to begin with. For some, though. a ‘bitsa’ guitar may make an ideal low cost player’s guitar. My lack of practical skills prevents me from trying out a DIY (re-)build beyond my limited capabilities. Besides, given CRAVE Guitars’ fundamental raison d’être, I simply can’t create an authentic American vintage guitar.

 

Guitar DIY Kit and Project Husk

 

I hope that this article has given a tiny indication of the beauty and multiplicity of guitars out there. That’s without going into oddities with unconventional string configurations, double (or more) necks, hybrid instruments, etc. It is this fascination with making things different while also keeping things the same that is quite inspirational and, I think, pretty unique to guitars, at least on this sort of scale. We are blessedly spoilt for choice and there are some ridiculously good guitars out there for very reasonable prices without experiencing the diminishing returns associated with esoteric exotica. Ultimately, this clearly indicates that there is something for everyone with an interest in the world’s favourite musical instrument.

 

So… you may ask… what’s my favourite out of everything covered here? Truthfully, I can’t say; I find guitars endlessly beguiling and preferences vary continuously. It would be unfair to single any one brand or model from the others. As my obsessive quest for ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ continues, the CRAVE name gives a hint of bias but that is not so dogmatic that I can’t appreciate all aspects of the luthier’s art and craftsmanship. MY position is firmly ‘on the fence’. If any of the names mentioned wish to persuade me off the fence with a prime example of their product(s), I am more than happy to accommodate them (f.o.c. of course!). I optimistically await a swathe of e-mails to that effect (hint, hint).

 

Me? I’m off to plink a new CRAVE Guitars’ plank. The new addition to the family is something both very recognisable and very unusual at the same time. All being well, I’ll try to cover it in next month’s article. All I’ll say at this juncture is that it is definitely one that fits the Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitar bill very aptly while also strongly dividing opinion. Intrigued? The lengths we go to, to bring you guitar ‘stuff’. Watch this space…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “There is a finite limit to the amount you can know, there is no limit to the amount you can imagine.”

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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