September 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VII

Welcome back to the latest in a long series of articles chronicling the history of the world’s favourite musical instrument. Last time, we covered the advent of production solid body electric guitars during the guitar’s ‘golden era’ from c.1950-1965. That article also covered some relevant later events, but the essence was about a period of intense invention and creativity, hence why it deserved a separate article dedicated to it, even though much of the content would be familiar to many.

This month’s article mostly focuses on ‘what happened next’ between c.1965-1987, although it does also cover the subsequent period up to the current day, albeit in less depth than the earlier years. Depending on how the rest of the story is covered, this 7th part is likely to be the penultimate episode.

If you’ve been following the various twists and turns along the way, you’ll know that I have tried very hard to strike a balance between light entertainment for the general reader and the level of detail that would appeal to the needs of the nerdiest of guitar geeks out there. As previously stated, this is not an academic thesis – I just don’t have the time or resources to reference every element along the way, so it probably will never make it into book form, which is a bit of a shame but ç’est la vie. However, once the 3,500 year history has been finished, I may try to bring it all together as a ‘box set’ feature on the web site, so it will be easier to find and come back to than monthly instalments. It also provides the opportunity to correct the content. I may also add a bit off the original longer version back in (!!) and to balance the various parts as a more coherent whole.

You may wish to recap on previous articles before starting here at Part VII. If so, the previous segments of ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the journey so far and will stick with it for just a little longer. For me, it has certainly involved a huge amount of hard work researching and learning along the way. There is an enormous amount of information that had to be excluded in order to make it digestible in an online format. As always, while I have been diligent, some errors and omissions will inevitably have crept in. Not only do I apologise if that is the case but also, I welcome feedback from readers in order to correct or clarify. I would also encourage readers who might wish to look at things either from a different perspective or with a different level of detail to explore the fascinating world of guitars for yourselves.

There are not many pictures this month, as the subject matter is largely narrative‑driven. Sorry about that, photo fans.

Post-Modern Reconfiguration, Rejuvenation and Consolidation

It has become generally accepted that the electric guitar’s so‑called ‘golden era’ started at the beginning of the 1950s with the introduction of Fender and Gibson’s solid body electric guitar models and ended in the mid‑1960s around the time that Leo Fender sold up in early 1965, followed by Gibson in 1969.

On the face of it, the years immediately after the mid‑1960s would appear to be of little historic interest, particularly as far as investors and ‘serious’ collectors are concerned. While the 1950s and early 1960s have been very well documented in countless learned tomes, the subsequent years have tended to be characterised by vociferous opinion and anecdote in a relative vacuum, rather than subject to objective scrutiny.

The Internet has, perhaps unsurprisingly, encouraged many already polarised opinions to become even more extreme. Assertive and often throwaway hyperbole of many self‑appointed ‘experts’ has possibly been consistently exaggerated to the point that they have gained some sort of historical validity. Widely read ‘unpopular opinion’ is often misinterpreted as indisputable definitive evidence. It isn’t gospel; there was more to it than what many would have you believe.

This version of the ‘facts’ is arguably simply that and, while every effort has been made to remain impartial, it should be read with a degree of realistic scepticism. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some ‘smoke without fire’, just that the flames may have been fuelled by circumstances and intensified by ill‑informed prejudgment.

The music industry wasn’t alone in coming in for acerbic over‑criticism; the American automotive industry was also subject to similar issues during 1960s and 1970s. The parallels extend beyond the superficial with the demise of many historic car brands and the inexorable rise of Japanese competition. As with guitars, some of these old models are now becoming highly sought after. The guitar industry during the latter part of the 20th Century, it seems, was symptomatic of wider deep‑seated socio‑political problems in the world’s largest capitalist economy.

Actually, ‘what happened next’ is an equally fascinating tale and one that is worth spending a little while looking at. At the same time, it’s also worth standing back and looking at the bigger picture as events unfolded. While it’s all a matter of degree, what transpired was rife with intrigue and machination. The appeal of these transitional years is one of the reasons that CRAVE Guitars tends to focus on ‘forgotten underdog’ and quirky cool American electric guitars from between around 1960 and 1989, although not exclusively.

Was that all‑too‑brief 15‑year ‘golden era’ the end of the story? Will guitars built in the ‘dark ages’ between 1965 and 1987 remain ignored most as gross errors of judgement? Will there be another defining period of electric guitar evolution or will musicians spend their lives experiencing mediocrity by default while harking back to that unobtainable time viewed through rose‑tinted spectacles? Perhaps digital technology will deliver the next step‑change with some Darwinian mutation that future writers will look back upon and write about. OK, enough of the rant, on with the story…

The Catalysts

The trouble really started once both Fender and Gibson been acquired by faceless corporations used to running commercial businesses, rather than important customer‑led operations. Despite post‑war prosperity and growth, the period between the mid‑1960s and the mid‑1980s could possibly be described aptly as eventful and tempestuous. In hindsight, whichever way you look at it, the sale of the industry’s ‘big guns’ was a 20th Century watershed for guitar building.

Firstly, let’s take a quick look at what actually happened immediately after the ‘golden era’ drew to a close circa 1965. The subsequent corporate merger & acquisition activity impacted directly on American musical instrument manufacturing up to the end of the 1980s. A few choice examples may help to illuminate the significant strife that befell the industry for a couple of decades (in rough chronological order)…

Rickenbacker – The only one of the major American brands that didn’t ‘sell out’ during the 1960s was Rickenbacker. They had, in some ways dodged that particular bullet, as Adolph Rickenbacker had already sold his company to music industry businessman Francis C. Hall in 1953. In retrospect, the move to transfer the undertaking and to keep it in safe hands seemed both pre‑emptive and positively prophetic. Arguably, the timing enabled Rickenbacker to capitalise on 1950s creative growth and become more resilient to what was to come. RIC (short for Rickenbacker International Corporation) has remained under the ownership of the Hall family since 1953 with John C. Hall as CEO at the time of writing.

Fender – After Rickenbacker, Fender was the first of the big names to capitulate to big business ambition. In 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) for just over $13m. The reason often given for the sale was Leo Fender’s health, although an injection of capital funding probably was also contributory. Other perspectives cite Leo Fender’s desire to pursue new ideas, which he possibly couldn’t do while running the company. CBS started making changes almost immediately and expanded capacity at Fullerton to increase supply. By agreement, Leo Fender was prohibited from setting up another music instrument company for 10 years, after which he went on to found Music Man (1974) and then G&L (1980). After 20 years under CBS control and on the brink of total collapse, division president William Schultz bought the company, forming Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) in 1985. What followed was a period of intense restructuring, with guitar production temporarily moved to Japan for approximately two years before resuming full American manufacturing with the launch of the American Series guitars in 1987. U.S. manufacturing was moved from Fullerton to Corona, California and its headquarters were relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona. Fender was once again back on the path to success as an independent company and has remained so ever since.

Danelectro – Danelectro was originally formed by entrepreneur Nathan Daniel in 1947. Daniel built his business on the back of large scale, low cost department store and mail order demand for electric guitars, often branded as Silvertone and Airline. This enabled him to start building instruments under the Danelectro brand from 1954. By 1966, Daniel sold Danelectro to industry giant MCA (Music Corporation of America). MCA tried unsuccessfully to introduce the Coral brand and to restructure its distribution network. The outcome was that Danelectro ceased production altogether just 3 years later in 1969. The brand was resurrected by the Evets Corporation in the late 1990s and, after several faltering attempts to recapture market share, Danelectro remains in operation as a successful American company with overseas manufacturing based in China and Korea.

Gretsch – Gretsch was originally founded by Friedrich Gretsch in 1883. Two years after Fender and one year after Danelectro, Fred Gretsch sold the family business to the Baldwin Piano Company in early 1967. After many organisational troubles including relocation, factory fires, Chet Atkins withdrawing his endorsement, and misjudged model decisions, Baldwin finally ceased production of Gretsch instruments by 1981. Fred W. Gretsch acquired what little remained of the company in 1985, basically just the Gretsch name and rights ownership. After a number of abortive efforts, consistent output was eventually re‑established in Japan. Rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer became a key endorsee for Gretsch in the 1990s and consumer interest in the brand was rekindled. Retaining family leadership, Gretsch has been under the patronage of Fender since 2002 and the famous brand is once again a significant player in the guitar industry.

Gibson – Gibson was really the last of the large American names to succumb to corporate ownership. Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments Ltd (CMI) followed the competition in 1969 when Gibson was taken over by a South American brewing company called ECL and then subsumed by Norlin Musical Instruments in 1974. Gibson survived cost‑cutting, relocation to Nashville and general mismanagement largely intact, although its hard‑earned reputation was severely tarnished. Gibson eventually returned to private ownership in 1986 through a consortium management buyout. Despite a major financial crisis and bankruptcy protection initiated in May 2018, there are signs of a positive future for the company.

These were just some of the big players who were able to weather the economic storms during the second half of the 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In addition to the big names, plenty of other well‑known American companies failed to survive, including:

  • Valco merged with Kay in 1967; a move that included familiar names such as Supro and Airline. However, the newly combined company went bust in 1968
  • National Dobro merged with Mosrite before the latter went bankrupt, also in 1968
  • Harmony lasted until 1975 before it ceased trading

Those that survived the volatility would continue to fight for survival at best. Overall, when viewed in hindsight, it proved a disastrous phase for American guitar making and collectively one that isn’t widely documented, other than in individual circumstances. The ‘golden era’ was, seemingly, definitely over.

As is often the case, the causes of American guitar manufacturing woes between the mid‑1960s and the mid‑1980s are quite complex, based on deep‑seated structural flaws. Looking at the circumstances strategically, there were probably, amongst many other contributory factors, five key issues…

  1. Industry structure and stability – Inward investment and backing of large business should have provided a positive commercial injection to guitar companies who were either struggling with financial difficulties or were unable to grow quickly enough with existing management structures. What actually happened was that big businesses, as is their wont, were looking to cut costs and increase profit, seemingly unaware of the impact that they were having. The large companies tried to stimulate demand by experimenting and introducing new products without assessing whether what they were making was adequately meeting consumers’ needs. For small agile companies, risk taking was a vital part of the creative process, while the bigger firms focused on large scale, efficient production methods, conversely heightening the risks of failure. Remote and disconnected governing bodies tended to dictate business decisions based on balance sheets and shareholder return, rather than customer satisfaction. Arguably, though, the businesses were in dire need of ‘better’ rather than ‘different’ management both before and after takeover.
  2. Industrial relations – Strict operational disciplines, controlled production processes and rigorously applied policies are a fundamental requirement of larger bureaucratic organisations. These management styles were generally not part of the music industry’s ‘way of doing things’ at the time. Companies needed to be managed effectively rather than efficiently and, unfortunately, the pendulum swang too far towards the latter. Business managers exhibited a flagrant disregard for the expertise and skills required to make consistent, high quality musical instruments. Production facilities were relocated, often giving long‑term highly experienced luthiers a ‘move or go’ ultimatum. In addition distribution and dealership networks were changed with little regard for what went before. Unhappy employees and belligerent trade unions led to heated industrial disputes (and worse), thereby causing significant leadership and management problems. Decades of accumulated knowledge, skills, expertise and, perhaps importantly, attitude were lost to the industry in a short space of time – something that would take years to rebuild. The outcome was that quality fell, exacerbating existing deficiencies elsewhere in the industry.
  3. Industry culture – New corporate owners did not fully appreciate or take the time to understand why the guitar industry worked as it did, resulting in fundamental mistakes internally and externally. The latter disenfranchised those involved in the supply chain from distributors to dealers and, ultimately, impacting on paying customers. Crucially, working musicians’ requirements were not being met and, with that dissatisfaction, brand loyalty diminished as professional guitarists looked elsewhere for alternatives. In addition, musical tastes were rapidly changing and short‑lived fads required nimble organisations that knew how to adapt to changes quickly and appropriately. Smaller companies that were better‑tuned into what was going on could flex more easily. The larger corporations, however, were unable to spot change and respond, leading to mismatches and time lags between demand and supply. Many commentators suggest that it was because musicians weren’t running the show. However, guitarists don’t necessarily make good business people (or vice versa!), which might have contributed to the difficulties. Significantly, two of the most influential guitar innovators – Leo Fender and Ted McCarty – didn’t play the guitar at all. Nevertheless, they were effective leaders because they ensured that professional artists were closely involved with business decisions. Importantly, the time when musicians were listened to and relationships were actively cultivated had fallen by the wayside.
  4. Supply problems – Availability of consistent materials, particularly the all‑important tone woods, created challenges for large‑scale American production. Variable density and therefore weight of some imported tone woods meant that it was difficult to manufacture to dependable standards. Depending on the combination of materials, the shortage of quality inputs affected builders to different degrees. Around the same time, sustainability and environmental factors were becoming an issue, leading to further supply issues. Manufacturers started looking to alternative materials including metal (e.g. Kramer, Travis Bean), plastics (e.g. Ampeg/Dan Armstrong) and composites (e.g. Gibson) that were intended to improve consistency and streamline manufacturing processes. Other moves included building guitars not from single pieces of difficult to acquire, expensive wood but from cheaper, smaller, more available cuts. Consumers saw such actions as negative and symptomatic of other perceived underlying problems. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, customers were not impressed by ‘good intentions’ and the changes were seen as cost‑cutting measures taken a step too far. Many consumers saw through superficial claims and resented the big companies for making what they felt were false marketing claims.
  5. Far Eastern competition – Enterprising Japanese companies, revitalised by post‑WWII recovery and able to observe from outside, spotted that American labour and manufacturing costs were contributing to a combination of poor quality and high prices – an equation that would present opportunities to penetrate a previously U.S.‑dominated market. Companies such as Ibanez and Yamaha did two crucial things. The first was to use their structural advantages to make high quality instruments at lower cost, and to produce them in large enough numbers to compete with American products on their own ground. The second thing they did was to brazenly copy iconic American designs, presenting consumers with recognisable products built to (generally but not always) higher standards and sold more cheaply than the American ‘classics’. There is more on the Japanese competitive assault on American guitar makers below. They also used rapidly changing music trends to create openings for entirely new products, including their own designs, thereby beginning to build a strong and more ethical reputation of their own. When the inevitable backlash came (see below), the marketplace had already changed fundamentally.

Lawsuit Guitars and Trademark Protection

During the post‑1965 period, sales of major American brand guitars was in decline and the home industry was in disarray. This provides a broad background against which American companies had to contend. Generally speaking, the way in which the industry and marketplace was organised was not favourable for the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker and many others.

The takeovers and general (mis-)management of American firms left the U.S. industry weakened and susceptible to aggressive business manoeuvres. American labour, tooling and material costs didn’t fall, so prices for finished instruments generally remained high for guitars that were increasingly poorly made. It is relatively easy to understand why the 20‑year period between approximately 1965 and 1985 was crucial to reshaping the global guitar making industry.

One particular Japanese guitar maker, Hoshino Gakki Gen, saw an ideal opportunity to enter the fragile American market. Cleverly, Hoshino recognised the potential animosity towards Japanese‑sounding products after WWII and adopted the Ibanez moniker. Incidentally, the Ibanez name was derived from Spanish guitar maker Salvador Ibáñez, who made classical guitars and sold them to Japan from the 1920s. When Ibáñez, failed during the Spanish Civil War (La Guerra 1936-1939), Hoshino acquired the rights to use the name, dropping the accents in the process. Hoshino’s next step was to take over an American company, Elger, which had already been importing Japanese guitars into the U.S. This move gave them ready access to the American territory, initially as Hoshino USA and then Ibanez USA. From 1970, Ibanez began systematically targeting and imitating popular American guitar models, particularly from Gibson, Fender, and Rickenbacker.

Initially, Fender and Gibson chose not to challenge these foreign copies unless they were identical to the originals, i.e. deliberate forgeries. Perhaps they didn’t see the early copies arriving in relatively small numbers as a significant threat and therefore not worth the lengthy and expensive battles through the American court system with no guarantee of success. Perhaps naively, they may have seen the copies as providing entry‑level experience that would lead consumers to trade up and purchase the ‘real thing’. Nobody really knows for sure. However, by taking their eye off the proverbial ball, the already struggling American brands were storing up a hornet’s nest of latent problems.

The relatively cheaply made Japanese copies often used bolt‑on necks, cheap materials and inferior hardware. Having said that, they were often reasonably well made for what they cost the consumer. The slavish copies appealed to many novice guitarists wishing to have guitars that, at least visually, looked like the more expensive American counterparts without the accompanying high price tags. Notably, and perhaps pertinently, Fender’s own low cost ‘student’ guitar lines (the Mustang ‘family’) and Gibson’s budget models (the Melody Maker) didn’t resemble their upmarket pro‑level instruments, further exacerbating the weaknesses in the eyes of customers.

The Japanese picture at the time is typically complex and confusing, particularly when trying to differentiate the production companies from the brands they made and the importers they used. Some of the companies such as Tokai, Greco, Yamaha and Suzuki followed Ibanez’s lead and jumped on the cloning bandwagon, making relatively faithful copies of American guitars.

The huge Kawai Teisco company was a mass producer that made guitars under many names, including Apollo, Domino, Kent, Randall, Sterling, Victoria and Winston. One brand, Antoria was actually a German company (Framus) that imported Japanese Guyatone (Suzuki) guitars that included replica Stratocaster copies. Others, such as British firm CSL (Charles Summerfield Limited) originally rebranded imported Ibanez guitars. Columbus was another brand that simply imported Japanese‑made guitars under its own name. Hondo was an American company that imported Japanese copies, giving them some home‑grown legitimacy. The Spanish‑sounding Fernandes, on the other hand, was a wholly owned Japanese company that also used the name Burny. Many companies made guitars for other companies, so the picture is further obscured. There were many, many Japanese manufacturers that were largely unknown outside the country but were indirectly contributory to the assault on America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, including Fujigen Gakki, the aforementioned Hoshino Gakki Gen (who also used the Tama brand), Matsumoku, Moridara and Tombo.

So… just what were all these Japanese companies actually targeting? In particular, Gibson’s Les Paul and SG models, as well as Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster came in for ubiquitous copying. Popular Martin, Guild and Gibson acoustics also came in for replication, as they were the world’s most recognisable acoustic instruments at the time. Acoustic copies including names like Takamine, Morris, Pro Martin and Ventura. Even the fonts used for headstock logos often mimicked the original American brand styles.

As volumes increased, the wave of imports understandably caused problems for the original manufacturers and it was only a matter of time before there was a defensive response. That reaction was based largely on Gibson’s famous Les Paul and particularly the outline shape of the headstock.

In June 1977, Gibson’s owners at the time, Norlin, filed a legal case against Ibanez/Hoshino for copying the Gibson ‘open book’ headstock outline. The case was settled out of court by February 1978, by which time Ibanez had already changed their headstock shape. However, since 1974, Ibanez had been astute enough to foresee the complication and had been developing and improving its own unique Artist guitar designs, thereby circumventing any further rights issues. From 1978, once the lawsuit was behind them, Ibanez focused purely on its own designs.

Despite appearances, there was, in fact, only one landmark lawsuit at the time and it only related to the design of the headstock on Gibson guitars. Presumably, other American manufacturers were watching and waiting for the outcome of the Gibson case. Not looking for potentially damaging confrontation in the courts, other Japanese companies sought to avoid the wrath of the American companies and changed their designs just enough so as not to fall foul of further litigation.

Ironically, some of the Japanese ‘lawsuit’ guitars have since become collectable in their own right. Although many copies that claim to be subject to the lawsuit aren’t, they are just guitars made during the ‘lawsuit era’ of the late 1970s. Generally speaking, Japanese guitar making – having made its mark for better or worse – went on to plough their own furrow in the multinational market, establishing a successful business model on which they could build.

The imitation game hasn’t gone away completely though. Many ‘knock off’ guitars in the 21st Century are emanating from China, where there is little effective means of legal challenge. While some of the guitars originating from China replicate American designs and are produced in large volumes, some of the fakes are appearing in small quantities as very convincing forgeries of rare and valuable vintage instruments.

Also, somewhat ironically, the big American brands struck back by strategically shifting manufacture of lower cost instruments off‑shore. Fender made guitars in Japan from 1982, only later changing the name to Squier to differentiate them from the American originals. Similarly, Gibson started Far Eastern manufacture of Epiphone guitars in Japan in the early 1970s, then in Korea from 1983, before relocating production again in 2003 to a dedicated Epiphone factory in Qingdao, China.

In 1984, PRS guitars was established by luthier Paul Reed Smith and has since become one of America’s major guitar manufacturers. To cater for all price points, PRS also introduced Korean production facilities for its SE‑branded guitars in 2003. While on the subject of lawsuits, after PRS had released the PRS Singlecut in 2001, Gibson filed a trademark infringement claim against PRS for allegedly copying the Les Paul design. Gibson’s lawsuit failed at appeal and PRS resumed production of the Singlecut, albeit slightly altered, from September 2005.

Fender now actively defends its trademarks, which exist in perpetuity, unlike patents that have a limited duration. To illustrate the issues, Fender’s defence of its trademark headstock design reads as follows, “The headstock is the key source-identifying feature of the modern electric guitar. In particular, the shape of the headstock (which, in the types of guitars at issue here, is part of a single piece of wood that also includes the guitar neck) is nonfunctional and primarily serves to identify the brand and model of the guitar. Fender owns trademark rights and federal registrations for the shapes of its headstock designs. These marks are instantly recognizable to generations of musicians and music fans as indicators of the source of Fender’s products and of the immense history and goodwill associated with Fender.”

Furthermore, Fender lost a 2009 application to trademark its guitar designs retrospectively. Opponents stated that consumers had had decades of unopposed exposure to those shapes from a wide variety of other guitar makers. This particular ruling opened the door to many look‑alike guitars, bar the familiar and distinctive headstock shapes.

Rickenbacker, unlike many of its counterparts, trademarks its important designs and vigorously protects them through the courts, hence why there are generally fewer Rickenbacker copies on the market compared to Fender and Gibson clones.

The whole issue of who owns what and how owners’ rights can be protected in a global market rife with replicas is a hugely complex issue and the nuanced legal debates are not for this story, so it is time to close this particular case and move on.

The Fallout and Time for Objective Re-assessment?

The Gibson law suit was, however, a wakeup call for American guitar building, as it proved beyond doubt that they were vulnerable to competition. While it may seem a relatively small isolated incident, it was contributory to the way in which guitar making, distribution and sales had to change. It was time for a shake‑out. By getting back to the basics, the rebuilding of American production that took place from the mid‑1980s resulted in vastly improved fortunes, even though it would take years for several companies to return to prosperity. Gibson and Fender were back in private ownership, Rickenbacker had sustained its business and, although Danelectro and Gretsch would find success, it took some time to regenerate historic popularity.

Despite what naysayers, respected journalists and wealthy vintage guitar collectors will delight in telling anyone who will listen, not all guitars built between 1965 and 1987 (when Fender introduced the landmark American Standards) are bad. Yes, there are many examples of poor quality instruments produced during those ‘dark ages’ but, let’s be honest, that has always been the case. Just look at some of the cheap and nasty instruments from the 1950s and early 1960s produced during the ‘golden era’.

Being a bit provocative and controversial, it is the author’s considered belief that there were many very good instruments built in the 1970s but these tend to be overlooked and caught up in the sweeping generalisation that ALL instruments from that period are sub‑standard. Some unique and interesting models only appeared during the 1970s and 1980s as part of the drive for experimentation. Some of these experiments were often made for relatively brief periods before they disappeared again. As a result, many of these rare examples are highly likely to be of interest to collectors in the future. As vintage prices of 1950s and 1960s guitars are rapidly increasing beyond many enthusiasts’ ability to purchase them, 1970s and 1980s guitars are also creeping up in value and are likely to become the ‘next big thing’ in the vintage marketplace. When they do eventually become desirable, which they will, that critical labelling of ‘poor quality’ is likely to be conveniently forgotten as the wheat is separated from the chaff.

Generally speaking, with the introduction of automated and computer controlled construction technologies, instruments from c.1990 onwards are generally consistently well‑made. This means that poor quality instruments are fewer and further between. Value‑for‑money since the 1990s has never been better with some very good guitars available at relatively low prices compared to the past. Broadly categorising the ensuing years between, say, 1990 and 2000 as a period of rejuvenation, resurgence and consolidation in the face of significant and multifarious challenges including economic downturn. The dawn of the new millennium saw further change including diversification, growth and a degree of reconfiguration. The reality, perhaps obviously, isn’t simply a case of general classification though, so such broad descriptions may best be regarded as a bit of artistic licence on the author’s part.

It may seem strange but it was often the inherent manufacturing variations and inconsistencies that have led to the handmade ‘golden era’ guitars becoming so desirable in the first place. As the idiosyncratic traits of the past have been ironed out, consumers have had ready access to consistent, reliable and higher quality guitars at virtually all price points. However, the increase in standardisation means that many modern mass‑produced guitars are often described as ‘generic’, samey and bland. It is also that lack of variation that has led to the boom in boutique, custom and modded guitars in the 21st Century.

Only time will really tell whether some of these maligned 1970s guitars will be re‑evaluated and achieve better recognition. Good examples will undoubtedly become increasingly sought after and collectable.

Recovery and Rejuvenation

Musical tastes continued to change and the 1980s and 1990s were no different. One trend was a move away from guitar music to highly produced electronic keyboard music. Japanese giant Roland (owner of BOSS effect pedals) tried to popularise the guitar synthesizers on the back of the electronica trend, as did consumer electronics company Casio who were more famous for calculators rather than guitars.

Another trend in musical taste was the explosion in popularity of glam, hard and ‘shred’ rock. Ironically, it was companies like Ibanez, once the scourge of copy guitars, which was ideally placed to cater for the trend with some cleverly designed genre‑appropriate instruments, such as their Destroyer, Iceman and Jem guitars.

Ibanez had cleverly repositioned themselves and continued to do so in order to sustain competitive advantage. In another canny move, Ibanez courted the new breed of virtuoso instrumental rock musicians, which proved successful. American guitarists such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani were regularly seen using and advertising the Ibanez brand. Other Japanese companies followed suit, such as Yamaha and ESP/LTD. American brands such as Dean, Jackson and BC Rich also exploited the growing market for pointy rock alternatives to the old‑hat rock shapes such as Gibson’s Explorer and Flying V. Times had moved on and the traditional industry stalwarts were once again looking tired, on the back foot and at a strategic disadvantage.

By the time that some sort of equilibrium was restored from the late 1990s, the music and guitar landscape was very different from the end of the ‘golden era’. There was room for big music companies to grow, such as Peavey and Ernie Ball, the latter having bought out Leo Fender’s Music Man in 1984. The ‘big four’ brands were still there – Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and Gretsch, who continued to expand their ranges into high‑value custom shop as well as low‑priced models. In addition, once the barriers to entry were lowered, there were many small, opportunistic companies that sought to grow market share on their own terms, such as PRS. There was also a whole thriving boutique sub‑industry that focused heavily on producing custom instruments built to individual guitarists’ requirements; a healthy trend that continues to flourish well into the 21st Century.

The 2000s saw a reversal of fortunes with synth‑based dance and pop music becoming clichéd and well‑worn. This change of fortune facilitated a major resurgence in guitar music across a whole range of musical genres but specifically the burgeoning indie/alternative music scene. Indie music also triggered a renewed interest in retro‑styled instruments often evoking quirky designs from the past. This revitalisation enabled many gone but not forgotten guitars to experience a new lease of life. In addition, metal, progressive/contemporary, alt‑country and blues/rock genres have also seen rejuvenation and/or revivals, together with relevant instruments to suit. Even the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Danelectro and Rickenbacker have benefitted through reissues of previously defunct models. All in all, many guitar‑based musical styles continue to flourish and guitar sales benefit from the 21st Century appetite for diversity.

Interestingly, in the 2000s and 2010s, with the renewed interest in both retro and vintage designs, many of the old American brand names that went out of business in the 1960s have since re‑emerged, including Supro, Valco, Airline, Harmony and Kay.

The global recession that started in 2008 has been the longest and deepest since the 1930s severely dampened demand for discretionary purchases such as musical instruments. However, the desire to own and play the world’s favourite instrument endures, despite regular proclamations of the ‘death of guitar music’.

Music Trades data shows that total guitar sales in America, either by number or value, have shown a general increasing trend per year since 2009:
Year    Number  Value
2009    1.65m     $924m
2010    1.74m     $922m
2011    1.94m     $921m
2012    2.34m     $903m
2013    2.34m     $821m
2014    2.50m     $839m
2015    2.49m     $935m
2016    2.47m     $1,001m
2017    2.63m     $1,070m

In comparison, the number of electric guitar sales in America has remained largely steady since the start of the recession. Where these figures will go in the future and whether sales will regain pre-crash levels anytime soon is a betting man’s game. The market is, judging by these indicators, likely to stay challenging for some time to come.

One very positive trend is that research by Fender in 2018 shows that 50% of new guitarists in the U.S. and the UK are females, suggesting that equality is finally making progress in the music industry.

Modern‑day guitarists have learned to become fickle and much more discerning. No longer could a few privileged brands expect musicians to be loyal or for their products to be accepted as the default ‘go‑to’ solution. While slower to adapt, the American ‘big four’ fought back and, although often constrained by their past, were forced to innovate and compete or die. Not all of those experiments have been successful but the point is that they are trying to adjust to the inevitability of the brave new world.

Looking at the bigger picture, the diverse structure of the guitar industry is healthy for both producers and consumers. While things will change again, the fragmented nature of the marketplace in the 2010s means that risks of major step change are reduced. For the long‑established brands, the asset value of the ‘classics’ is now cemented and, to some extent, can once again be relied upon in terms of quality and value. The reliance on industry standards also creates a problem for the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, as it inhibits what they can do in a way that consumers will accept, witness Gibson’s failed attempt to move into consumer and lifestyle electronics.

Ultimately, nothing is set in stone and there is very little that can be considered genuinely ‘new’. The only certainty is that change will be continuous and necessarily incremental. Digital music technology will continue to be both a threat to, and an opportunity for, manufacturers. The hybridisation of analogue instruments and digital technologies is still in its infancy and only time will tell, which companies will respond positively and which will fail to adapt and fall by the wayside (again).

That brings us pretty much up to the current day, at the time of writing (2018). As English punk rock pioneer Joe Strummer of The Clash once said, “The future is unwritten” and how true that is. We are nearing the end point of the guitar’s long story… except that the story will continue in perpetuity. All that is really left to do is to describe the current position (again at the time of writing) and to speculate, somewhat idly, about what that unwritten future may hold.

End of Part VII

Here we are at the end of yet another episode in the guitar’s extended tale. We are pretty much up‑to‑date and therefore almost at the end of the journey, with (I think) just one more article to go. I hope that you’ll join me, hopefully next month for the conclusion… as far as there can be one.

I am now beginning to deliberate about a companion series of articles for next year (2019). Before that happens, I need a rest from this massively resource intensive exercise. I can’t yet reveal what that new series is, as I am thinking about things I haven’t thought of yet (if you get my drift). I will have to consider how it might be done in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere up to now – I need to bring something new to the subject matter, otherwise it is just regurgitating what others have already done. Watch this space… In the meantime, I have to start planning what I’m going to fixate upon for the remainder of this year.

Right now though, it’s time to stop writing about guitars and to start playing one of the darned things, so I’m off to plink my plank! Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Whatever was pre-modernism like?”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI

Hello again, guitar history fans and welcome to August 2018’s article in the series on the history of the guitar. There is no point in beating about the bush, it’s time to dive right back in where we left off last month with the birth, and now – to extend the analogy – the growth of the electric guitar from early years to adolescent hood.

If you wish to recap on previous articles before starting here, the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

The Modern Solid Body Electric Guitar

This part of the guitar’s story covers the period of fundamental and rapid innovation as well as pragmatic entrepreneurialism that starts around the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period of intense creativity that would come to define the modern electric guitar. Once the essential foundations were laid by Rickenbacker, Gibson and a few others, the popularity of the guitar was about to explode.

Since the time of the guitar ‘big bang’, instruments would continue to be improved and refined; an incremental process that continues unabated up to the current day. However, nothing like the level of creativity that heralded the ‘dawn’ of the electric guitar era. It was the start of a so‑called ‘golden era’ that would last about 15 years.

While acoustic guitars continued to develop after the 1930s, they were just about as loud as they were going to get without some form of amplification. Electric archtop and early solid body electric guitars had started the ball rolling during the first half of the 1930s and guitarists were buying into the increasing trend for electric guitars of one sort or another.

While not alone in influencing guitar development, today’s ‘big two’ companies – Fender and Gibson – have between them, been responsible for, or at last instrumental (sic!) in, many of the major innovations and landmark electric guitars since the 1950s. Therefore, the focus here is predominantly, but not exclusively, on the contribution from these two major manufacturers.  Much credit though is due to the vast number of other guitar builders – way too many to mention them all by name – that have played their part in developing the musical landscape over the decades, and which we enjoy today. Without their competition to keep the ‘big two’ on their toes, the quality and price equation might have gone too far in opposite directions. Thankfully, there is no monopoly in the guitar market – far from it in fact – and that fact, as it turns out, is a very good thing for musicians all over the world.

However, before the story moves on to Fender and then Gibson, we need to take a short diversion before getting back on track…

Bigsby Guitars

No history of the formation of the electric guitar would be complete without some mention of Paul Adelburt Bigsby (1899-1968). P.A. Bigsby was a motorcycle racer, inventor, designer and builder based in California. Bigsby has often been quoted as saying confidently, “I can build anything”.

Historically, Bigsby might be better known for his iconic Bigsby vibrato systems. Less well known is that Bigsby was also responsible for pioneering solid body electric guitars as well as for revolutionising pedal steel guitars.

Bigsby collaborated with lap steel guitarist Earl ‘Joaquin’ Murphey (1923-1999) of Spade Cooley’s orchestra in the 1940s. Murphey helped to persuade Bigsby to start making guitars in the first place, in around 1946/1947. Bigsby built Murphey several steel guitars by 1947, with two or three necks. Murphey’s successor in Cooley’s band, another steel guitarist called Speedy West (1924-2003), not wishing to be outdone, also commissioned Bigsby to build him a custom pedal steel guitar in 1948.

Around the same time, successful country and western artist and good friend, Merle Travis (1917-1983) asked Bigsby to fix a wayward vibrato on his Gibson L-10 guitar. Bigsby subsequently went on to build a complete solid body electric guitar for Travis, based on a sketch Travis had made. Travis’s Bigsby guitar attracted a lot of attention and other artists queued up for Bigsby to make further custom guitars, including for acclaimed session guitarist with the ‘Nashville A-Team’, Grady Martin (1921‑2001).

Bigsby’s guitar designs not only seem familiar, but also seem well ahead of their time for 1948, especially when compared to anything else on the market. The Bigsby Merle Travis guitar has a single cutaway body not dissimilar to Gibson’s Les Paul models and a neck/headstock outline that bears a notable resemblance to Fender’s Stratocaster. Bigsby’s design predated both the Les Paul (1952) and the Stratocaster (1954) by several years. Many have contended that Gibson and Fender plagiarised, rather than simply being influenced by, Bigsby’s original designs. Hindsight provides the opportunity to speculate but the truth is shrouded in idle debate and misinformation.

Partly because he wanted to make most of the parts himself, Bigsby only produced a very small number of finished custom‑built instruments up until 1956, where after he concentrated on the vibrato business. However, as his guitars never entered full production, his legacy consists of a few unique examples of his craftsmanship. Unfortunately, Bigsby kept no records of his creations. The company he founded undertook extensive research and can document 47 steel guitars and only 6 standard guitars, along with a few other custom instruments surviving to the current day. Others may yet come to light at some point to be authenticated.

Bigsby’s name is now synonymous with his ubiquitous vibrato tailpieces, which have adorned countless guitars since the 1950s. Bigsby sensibly filed a patent for his ‘tailpiece vibrato’ in November 1952, which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in March 1953. The rest, as ‘they’ say, is history.

When his health started to fail, Bigsby sold his company to retired Gibson president Ted McCarty in 1966. Paul Bigsby died 2 years later in 1968 at the age of 68. Subsequently, Gretsch bought the Bigsby enterprise from McCarty in 1999. Bigsby Guitars is now making limited edition guitars under the patronage of Gretsch.

Many of those aware of Bigsby’s pioneering work feel that he should be given greater credit for his contribution to guitar history. One might only wonder at the course of modern guitar history had Bigsby capitalised on his creative designs. Bigsby may have been first in a lot of areas but it was other companies that catered for the market and it is the commercial success brought about by mass production which is where the story then continues.

Fender Solid Body Electric Guitars

Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991) was an electrical engineer by trade. He started out in business as Fender Radio Service in 1938, repairing radios, phonographs and valve amplifiers. Recognising the growing demand for his skills from the music industry, Fender looked to use his growing expertise in that area. Along with business partner and former Rickenbacker employee Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, Fender co‑founded the short‑lived K&F Manufacturing Corp in 1945. K&F’s intention was to manufacture musical instruments and amplifiers, including lap steel guitars that were particularly popular at the time.

By 1946, Fender had parted ways with Kauffman and established the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, based in Fullerton, California. The company, known to most simply as Fender, has become one of the pre‑eminent and most widely recognised manufacturers of electric guitars, basses and amplifiers in the world. Historically, Fender is particularly important because of its ground breaking role in making electric instruments and amps accessible to mass markets eager for the new‑fangled technology in the 1950s.

Leo Fender’s vision had less to do with building small numbers of bespoke instruments and more to do with commercial large‑scale manufacture of instruments using tried and tested production methods. Fender wanted the electric guitar to be straightforward to manufacture as well as easy to service and maintain. Leo Fender asked George William Fullerton (1923-2009) to join the company in 1948. Fullerton’s appointment was important, as he would become a long‑term business associate not only at Fender but also in subsequent post‑Fender enterprises, including Music Man and G&L (an acronym standing for George & Leo).

Even though Fender had introduced amplifiers in 1947, Fender’s business began focusing on guitar designs and in c.1949 the company started making prototypes of what would eventually become the iconic Telecaster. The early prototypes used a body largely designed by George Fullerton. The first prototype exhibited a 3‑a‑side lap steel‑style headstock, while the second attempt looked more Fender‑like. Both prototype headstock designs bore a similarity to those seen on Bigsby’s guitars.

Fender offered the first mass-produced Spanish-style solid-body electric guitar to the public in 1950. The initial few guitars were single pickup models called the Esquire, although confusingly, a small number of Esquires were also ordered with two pickups.

The production dual pickup model was originally named the Broadcaster until Gretsch objected to the use of the name, as they had produced drums using the Broadkaster name since the 1920s. Fender complied and for a short period between February and August of 1951, the guitar appeared with no name on the headstock, leading to the popular nickname ‘Nocaster’ to describe its curious temporary anonymity.

Fender filed a patent for the Telecaster design in April 1951, which was awarded quite quickly by the U.S. Patent Office in August 1951. The familiar twin pickup single cutaway guitar, now formally named the Telecaster was made available to the public from mid‑1951 and has, remarkably, remained in continuous production ever since.

Although instantly recognisable nowadays, the Telecaster was unlike anything that had come before. The way they were put together was revolutionary; using a modular construction comprising a single cutaway slab body of solid ash wood and a removable maple neck secured by four screws on the back of the body. The simple and sturdy design proved not only resilient but also efficient and relatively cheap to manufacture using established assembly line techniques of the time.

While there have been many variants of the Telecaster over the years, including the Custom, Deluxe, Thinline and Elite, the original fundamental design elements have remained largely unchanged over many decades.

Not content with the success of the Telecaster, Fender and this team went on to design and market the enormously popular Stratocaster in 1954. Unlike the Telecaster, the Stratocaster employed a futuristic double cutaway ash body with deep rib and forearm contours for player comfort, 3 single coil pickups and a clever floating vibrato system. Fender retained the bolt‑on maple neck, albeit with a shapelier headstock than the Telecaster and eerily reminiscent of Bigsby’s earlier design. Fender filed a patent application for the Stratocaster’s ‘tremolo’ (a misnomer – it is actually a vibrato) design in August 1954, which was subsequently awarded in April 1956. The Stratocaster, like the Telecaster before it, became phenomenally successful with consumers and has been in continuous production since its launch.

Just as revolutionary for bass players, Fender also pioneered the commercially successful electric solid-body bass guitar. The Precision bass first appeared shortly after the Telecaster in 1952 and before the Stratocaster. Before the Precision, bass players had to contend with cumbersome acoustic, hollow body, fretless upright basses. The Precision was an ergonomic godsend, especially for travelling musicians. Like a guitar, the Precision featured a fretted neck making the instrument much more accessible to neophytes wanting to jump on the bandwagon of popular electric guitar music in the 1950s and 1960s. The 34”‑scale fretted neck gave practical credence to the new bass’s name – Precision. Fender filed a patent for the bass guitar in November 1952, which was awarded in March 1953.

Initially, the Precision took many design cues from the Telecaster before updates in 1954 and 1957 gave it the now‑familiar characteristics more akin to the Stratocaster. Not resting on their laurels, Fender followed up the hugely successful Precision with the twin‑pickup offset Jazz bass in 1960.

These four models – Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision and Jazz – represented the enduring ‘core’ models around which Fender experimented with other designs. It is very unusual in industrial design history to ‘get it right’ first time and then for those products to remain relevant for over six decades (… so far, and counting). However, Fender seemed to have achieved just that. Fender, however, not content to stand still, kept innovating.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Fender also introduced two luxury contoured offset‑waist body models; the 25½”‑scale Jazzmaster in 1958 and the shorter 24”‑scale Jaguar in 1962. Both models used entirely new single coil pickups and both had separate, complex ‘rhythm’ and ‘lead’ circuits. The controls were not intuitive, which put off some players. The high‑price of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar may also have deterred customers and both models failed to attract the intended target audience – traditional jazz guitarists wedded to the competition’s archtop designs. However, both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar gained a significant boost from an unexpected source. Popular west coasts surf musicians including The Beach Boys and The Ventures adopted the new offsets and gave them some legitimacy. Ultimately though, poor sales led to Fender discontinuing the Jaguar in 1975 and the Jazzmaster in 1980. Wisely, Fender has subsequently successfully reissued both models for newer generations to discover.

One of the key success factors for Fender was the introduction of custom colour options in addition to the limited standard blonde and sunburst finishes. Custom colours were based on popular automobile paints made by DuPont during the American car craze of the 1950s. Customers could custom order new guitars from a range of exciting colour finishes for an additional 5% upcharge. Fender was also open to accepting standard colour guitars for factory refinishing in the custom colours. Popular names for the custom colours included Olympic White, Lake Placid Blue, Daphne Blue, Sonic Blue, Shoreline Gold, Burgundy Mist, Sherwood Green, Surf Green, Foam Green, Fiesta Red, Dakota Red, Candy Apple Red, and Shell Pink. Early models with genuine custom colours are relatively rare and have since become highly desirable with vintage guitar collectors; some guitars fetching a hefty premium on the vintage market compared to the standard colours. Many of those original custom colours phased out by 1969 to 1972 have now become very popular again as standard colours in the 21st Century.

Strategically, Fender tried to cover all bases by also introducing a range of short-scale (initially 22½” and then 24”) ‘student’ models including the Musicmaster (1956), Duo‑Sonic (1964), Mustang (1964) and Bronco (1967). To differentiate the ‘student’ instruments from the pro‑level models, Fender designed hardware and finishes that was unique to these models. The Musicmaster and Bronco had single pickups, while the Duo‑Sonic and Mustang had two pickups. The Mustang and Bronco also featured bespoke vibrato systems while the Musicmaster and Duo‑Sonic had fixed bridges. While these budget models have found a strong following by those in the know, they have had chequered histories, all having been discontinued and reissued over the years. Seen as peripheral to the ‘core’ classics, the high volume low cost guitars undeservedly attract a lower profile and lower resale values on the vintage collector market despite being made at the same factory, by the same staff, using the same materials and tools.

In the minds of most guitarists, Fender was a solid‑body guitar maker. After the failure of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar to persuade traditionalists to change brand, Fender attempted to compete with Gibson’s popular ES range of semi‑acoustic guitars. Fender introduced the fully hollow‑body Coronado in 1966, designed by German luthier and Rickenbacker guitar designer Roger Rossmeisl. The Coronado retained Fender’s ‘bolt‑on’ maple necks with six‑a‑side headstocks, although the pickups used were unusually DeArmond single coil models. Unfortunately for Fender, the ill‑fated Coronado proved a commercial failure and was discontinued in 1972. After a short‑lived venture into archtop jazz guitars with the rare Montego and LTD models between 1968 and 1972, Fender tried again in1976 with the introduction of the upmarket semi‑hollow humbucker‑equipped Starcaster. Like the valiant attempts before it, the Starcaster met with the same consumer resistance and proved equally unsuccessful, resulting in it being summarily discontinued in 1982. Notably, both the Coronado and Starcaster models were reissued by Fender in 2013 and continue in production today.

There have been many other Fender solid body electric guitars over the years including the Bass V & VI, the Electric XII, Bullet and Lead amongst numerous others.  In addition, there were many variations on a theme, for instance the Coronado came in Antigua, Wildwood, XII and bass versions. Similarly, the Musicmaster and Mustang also had short‑scale bass models. Other examples include parts‑bin oddities like the Swinger and Maverick. Many later experiments were undertaken by the Japanese arm of Fender without any risk to the company’s ‘Made in USA’ standing. Japanese‑only models include the Performer, Katana and the Gibson‑like set neck Flame. Many of these low volume under‑the‑radar guitar models are often described as ‘forgotten Fenders’.

As covered in Part IV of the story, Fender has also sustained a very successful line of guitar and bass amplifiers dating from the late 1940s right through to the current day, including landmark valve amps such as the Princeton, Champ, Bassman and the mighty Twin Reverb (among many others). Like Marshall and Vox from the UK, Fender amps have become synonymous with modern electric guitar music.

The successful honeymoon period for Fender was, however, not destined to last forever. In early 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), reportedly for $13m. Despite investment and efforts to diversify the product lines, manufacturing quality varied considerably due to poor management and cost cutting, particularly during the 1970s. Industry reputation and credibility waned and Fender sales suffered significantly, especially in the face of aggressive competition from Japan. One of the strategies adopted by Japanese companies at the time was, despite the existence of U.S. patents, to flagrantly copy American guitar designs. Japanese companies produced large numbers of guitars built to high standards and sold at low prices. This shameless targeting of American products placed an already struggling Fender under considerable pressure. By 1981, Fender had brought in Dan Smith from Yamaha as Marketing Director to oversee selective guitar redesigns and, along with Fender luthier (and founder of the Fender Custom Shop) John Page, to breathe new life into Fender’s fortunes.

After making considerable improvements across the business, 20 years after being sold to CBS, a management buyout was initiated by CEO William Schultz (1926‑2006). In retrospect, Schultz is now widely regarded as ‘the man who saved Fender’. Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company was acquired from CBS by its own employees in 1985 and the newly privatised company was renamed Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC). The sale did not, however, include the existing Fullerton factory, so Fender was forced to construct a new plant at Corona, California which started limited manufacturing in late 1985.

After two years of restructuring the business, the post‑CBS Fender American Standard Stratocaster was introduced in 1987. While superficially similar to previous models, the American Standard was a significant model that signified the company’s return to form and commercial prosperity. In the same year (1987), Fender set up their in‑house Custom Shop (nicknamed ‘The Dream Factory’), based at their Corona facility in California. The aim of the Custom Shop was to showcase just what Fender’s master luthiers were capable of building.

Fender’s headquarters are now based in Scottsdale, Arizona, with North American manufacturing facilities in Corona, California, and Ensenada in Mexico. Off-shore production of budget Squier guitars and basses is based in Korea and Japan. Fender has continued to innovate, introducing ‘custom shop’, ‘vintage reissue’ and ‘relic’ instruments and a range of electronics to a market hungry to recapture the ‘golden years’ of pre‑CBS Fender instruments and amps.

We have become so familiar with the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision, that we sometimes forget just how revolutionary these designs actually were back in the 1950s and what they, perhaps unwittingly, came to represent. Looking a little more broadly helps to put things into context. Loud and brash electric guitars undoubtedly helped to define the musical uprising brought about by the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, a western social and cultural transformation was taking place in the wake of post‑WWII austerity and despite prevailing conservative Cold War political paranoia. Affluent and often puritanical middle class values allied to consumers’ relentless drive to satisfy materialistic aspiration were fuelled by media, film and television. Opposing the status quo was a growing urban resentment, an angry youthful rebellion boosted by emerging anti‑conformist liberalism and radical demands for greater personal freedoms. Fundamental change was, arguably, inevitable. The turmoil created in the 1950s began to reshape the fabric of society in both the U.S. and the UK and this, in turn, propelled musical experimentation and creativity at a pace never seen before. Fender’s electric guitars not only enabled that particular wave to be ridden with verve, passion and a certain degree of teenage angst, but also came to symbolise many defining events for a frustrated generation, a subversive movement that would last well into the 1960s. When Marlon Brando was asked the question in the film ‘The Wild One’ (1953), “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” he retorted disinterestedly “whadda you got?” For a while at least, it was hip to be cool and cool to be hip.

If there are any guitars that qualify for the terms ‘iconic’, ‘classic’ and ‘industry standard’, these original Fender models have to be up there with the best and most enduring industrial design wonders of all time. In particular, the timeless design of the ‘Tele’ and the ‘Strat’ have persisted in the minds of guitarists over many decades, and will surely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Those ‘new’ guitars back in the 1950s are now hugely valuable vintage instruments and are part of our collective music heritage. Vintage Fender guitars, basses and amplifiers are much sought after by collectors, musicians, dealers and enthusiasts alike, with many key models originally made prior to the CBS takeover in 1965 now reaching high vintage guitar market values. Authentic vintage instruments associated with successful artists (and with documented provenance) attract an even higher price premium on the collectable market, for instance, Eric Clapton’s famous c.1956 ‘Blackie’, which was sold for $959,500 to Guitar Center at Christie’s in New York in 2005.

Gibson Solid Body Electric Guitars

The history of Gibson guitars is much longer than that of its main current‑day rival Fender and much of this has already been covered elsewhere. The crucial part that Gibson played in this stage of guitar evolution is picked up again here in the mid‑20th Century.

During the 1940s, popular American jazz guitarist, performer and musical inventor Les Paul (1915-2009) – born Lester William Polsfuss – had become increasingly unhappy with the compromises experienced by electric acoustic archtop guitars. In an attempt to overcome the shortcomings, Les Paul had been actively experimenting with guitar design from around 1939. A famous early prototype electric guitar assembled by Les Paul out of hours at the Epiphone factory around 1940 was nicknamed ‘the log’, which was essentially a solid piece of 4”x4” pine timber running the length of the body, providing the base for the strings, bridge assembly and pickups. To make the design appear more guitar‑like, Les Paul attached a traditional guitar neck and two hollow guitar ‘wings’ from an Epiphone archtop on either side of the ‘plank’.

Les Paul had originally approached Gibson as early as 1941 but no interest was shown by the company.  He tried again in 1945 or 1946 and his ideas were once again rejected. It wasn’t until 1950 that newly‑appointed Gibson president, Theodore ‘Ted’ McCarty (1909-2001) brought in Les Paul to act as a consultant in response to Fender’s newly launched solid body electric guitars. Like Leo Fender, McCarty could not play the guitar, so he worked very closely with those who could.

In 1951, Gibson began producing prototypes of a solid body electric guitar designed by McCarty in consultation with Les Paul. One of the many prototype designs (shown following restoration below) is relatively close to the final production in all but detail.

Gibson was already losing ground, and business, following the introduction of Fender solid body guitars that appealed to young musicians exploring new musical ideas. To many consumers, Gibson’s models were seen as staid and, compared to the modernistic Stratocaster, frankly old fashioned, tired and boring. For Gibson, it was important that any sold body electric guitar design would be all‑new while also remaining consistent with the values, quality and reputation of the company. It was also crucial that the new instrument would be quite different from Gibson’s competition, whether existing or emerging. Crucially, before the new guitar was launched, McCarty agreed a deal with Les Paul for it to carry Les Paul’s name on the headstock and for him to be an integral part of Gibson’s advertising campaign.

In July 1952, Gibson launched the now-iconic solid-bodied guitar, the Gibson Les Paul Model, finished in metallic gold, equipped with dual P90 pickups and a trapeze tailpiece similar to those found on the company’s archtop guitars. For a number of years, the Les Paul Model and its variants were the only solid body guitars made by Gibson. The range was extended from the basic ‘gold top’ to the upmarket black and gold Les Paul Custom in 1953 featuring a standard bridge, one P90 pickup and a unique Alnico V ‘staple’ pickup at the neck, a unique design intended to appeal to jazz guitarists.

To broaden appeal, Gibson introduced two affordable slab‑body single cutaway Les Paul models, the Junior with a single P90 pickup in 1954 and Special with dual‑P90 pickups in 1955. These rather utilitarian models retained the body outline but with few of the upmarket features of the carved‑top Les Pauls.

By 1957, the Les Paul’s P90 single coil pickups began to be replaced with Gibson’s PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucking pickup. The process started with the now‑iconic 3‑pickup Les Paul Custom ‘Black Beauty’.

1958 saw the Junior and Special updated to a new double cutaway body and the option of cherry or outrageous TV Yellow, a colour allegedly designed to show up well on black & white TV screens of the time.

Following poor sales of the original Les Paul ‘gold top’ model, the guitar was rejuvenated in 1958 by renaming it the Standard. The Standard’s specification was changed substantially – a cherry sunburst finish was applied to a maple‑capped mahogany body, the PAF pickups became the norm and a tune‑o‑matic bridge and ‘stop’ tailpiece were standardised. Some, but not all, of the tops exhibited an attractive matched 2‑piece ‘flame’ maple top. Around 1,700 of the now‑legendary ‘Burst’ Les Paul Standards were produced between 1958 and 1960 and all have become highly collectable on the vintage guitar market. The original sunburst Standards have become the aspiration of many guitar enthusiasts. These rare instruments are widely regarded as representing the epitome of Gibson guitar’s ‘golden age’.

The Les Paul models weren’t the only new instruments aiming to establish Gibson’s electric guitar credentials. The late 1950s saw a number of new guitar designs including the McCarty‑designed ES-335 semi‑acoustic, which first appeared in 1958. The ES‑335 was significant because of a solid centre block running through the body and on which the pickups and bridge were mounted, essentially much like Les Paul’s ‘log’ experiment. The semi‑hollow body construction was important in reducing acoustic feedback in high gain situations compared to fully‑hollow archtops. Gibson also released a lower cost hollow‑body ES model with dual P90s, called the ES-330 and two upmarket siblings, the ES‑345 and ES‑355.

The late 1950s was a period of intense innovation at Gibson. In addition to the Les Paul and the ES series, Gibson designed two ‘modernistic’ guitars intended to compete with Fender’s popular solid guitars, the Explorer and Flying V, both of which were introduced in 1958. A third ‘modernistic’ series model, the Moderne, was patented and prototypes might have been constructed but no actual verified examples have ever come to light, let alone reached the vintage collector market. The Moderne has become something of a myth and an original 1950s example is seen by many collectors as the ‘Holy Grail of guitar collecting’. Gibson (re‑)issued a Moderne in small numbers in the early 1980s and again occasionally since.

While the futuristic Flying V and Explorer models were well ahead their time, sales of these radical instruments was very poor. In 1958, Gibson sold only 81 Flying Vs and 19 Explorers. The following year (1959), only 17 Flying Vs and 3 Explorers were sold. It is hardly surprising then that both models were withdrawn by 1959-1960. A few further examples were constructed in the early 1960s from parts. As only small numbers of the original release Explorers and Flying Vs were made, they have become very highly sought after and valued. Gibson, however, would return to these original designs and has successfully reissued both the Flying V and Explorer many years later.

Like Fender, Gibson recognised that they had to cater for the lower end of the market in order to attract new and younger players to the fold. In order to make budget guitars accessible without affecting sales of their premium models, Gibson introduced a range of simple low cost ‘student’ guitars, called the Melody Maker, from 1959. The basic Melody Makers, featuring distinctive narrow headstocks, slab bodies and all‑new Fender‑like narrow single coil pickups, were produced in large numbers at Gibson’s Kalamazoo plant alongside the classics. The Melody Maker’s body shape went through four incarnations during its lifetime, with only 2 bearing a similarity to existing Gibson electrics. Although the Melody Makers proved very popular and sold in large numbers, they were nevertheless withdrawn by 1971. Gibson has re‑used the Melody Maker name on a number of occasions since the original models.

Despite the now‑legendary reputation of the Les Paul Standard, sales of the model remained relatively stagnant and, in 1961, Gibson were forced to take action. Effectively, production of the Les Paul ceased and a new design was introduced in 1961, even though it retained the ‘Les Paul’ moniker.  The new model was another design shift with a thin double cutaway mahogany body with contoured upper bouts and pointed ‘devil’ horns. Allegedly, Les Paul didn’t favour the guitar’s design and no longer wanted to be associated with it. In addition, Les Paul separated from his wife Mary Ford and the divorce settlement may also have been a pecuniary factor in his decision to drop his name from the guitar. By 1963, after Les Paul’s name was removed, the model was re‑designated the Gibson SG (standing for ‘Solid Guitar’). The Gibson SG has remained in continuous production since 1961 and, ironically, it has become the company’s most commercially successful model in Gibson’s long history. Like the single cutaway Les Paul before it, the SG model came in a number of variants, the single‑P90 Junior, the dual‑P90 Special, dual‑humbucker Standard and 3‑humbucker Custom.

The single cutaway Gibson Les Paul may have gone but it was not forgotten. It reappeared in 1968, and then only after second hand guitars became popular at around the time of the British blues explosion, led by guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green, as well as other contemporary musicians of the time, including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff. The Les Paul has had numerous variants over the years including notable models such as the Les Paul Deluxe, Professional, Recording, Artisan and Studio models, and many guitarists have had signature models released to celebrate the artists’ association with the company.  Since its reintroduction in the late 1960s, the Les Paul has remained in continuous production and, along with the Fender Stratocaster, it has become one of the most recognisable design icons of modern‑day guitar music.

Gibson continued to innovate into the early 1960s, introducing more convention‑busting designs. McCarty, hired famed car designer Ray Dietrich (1894‑1980) to cash in on the American automotive craze of the time. The new model was called the Firebird, which featured a more rounded‑off Explorer‑like outline, through‑body construction and rear‑facing banjo tuners. These first Firebirds, produced in 1963‑1964, were known informally as ‘reverse’ bodied because the upper treble bout was more pronounced than the bass bout. Again, due to poor sales and high manufacturing costs, Gibson simplified the fundamentals and ‘flipped’ the body to produce the ‘non‑reverse’ Firebird, made between 1965 and 1969, when it was withdrawn. As with many of other unsuccessful early Gibson solid body designs, the company has reissued the Firebird in both ‘reverse’ and ‘non‑reverse’ formats since. Other variants were made including the 12‑string Firebird XII and the Thunderbird bass.

McCarty stood down from Gibson in 1966 and became president of Bigsby Guitars. McCarty later collaborated with, influenced and mentored up‑and‑coming ambitious American luthier Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars. Smith honoured McCarty’s contribution to guitar building by dedicating him with a PRS McCarty model. McCarty died in 2001 at the age of 91.

As with competitors, Fender, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, the 1970s was a period of controversial experimentation while under ‘corporate’ ownership. Gibson produced many other solid body electric guitars than have been mentioned so far. Among the many ‘forgotten Gibsons’ of the period, there are some notable examples, including the Challenger, Corvus, Firebrand, Invader, L6-S, Marauder, RD series, S‑1, Sonex‑180 and the Victory.

While Gibson may have had considerable success with guitars, it has never quite found the same formula for basses, amps and acoustics as some of its competitors, including Fender. That doesn’t mean to say they haven’t made notable examples; they have, it’s just that they haven’t had the popular impact and longevity to warrant mainstream success alongside the recognised ‘classics’.

After McCarty’s departure, Gibson came under increasing commercial pressure. Things came to a head in 1969, when Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments Ltd (CMI) was taken over by a South American brewing company called ECL and then became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments in 1974. In the same year, Norlin shifted production of Gibson guitars from its long‑term home in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee. In 1984, Gibson finally closed its old factory at Kalamazoo.

Following a similar pattern to Fender’s travails at the time, Gibson underwent a period of poor quality control and severe financial difficulties, often blamed on corporate interference by executives who knew little about, and cared little for, the company’s pedigree and its customer base. Ultimately, as happened with Fender, the company returned to private ownership in January 1986 to focus on its core business. The Gibson Guitar Corporation was close to liquidation when it was bought by three businessmen, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman and Gary A. Zebrowski. Under the new management, the business was once again repositioned as a maker of high quality professional musical instruments.

While production of Gibson’s sold body guitars remained in Nashville, further production plants were also opened in Memphis, Tennessee (1984) for semi‑hollow models, as well as Bozeman, Montana (1989) for acoustic guitars. After having bought out its main American competitor Epiphone in 1957, Gibson strategically repositioned Epiphone as a budget brand and relocated production of Epiphone guitars to Japan in 1970 and then to Korea in 1983, mainly producing low‑cost versions of famous Gibson models.

In order to cater for the more exclusive end of the market, Gibson produced select instruments under an in‑house Custom Shop operation. Juszkiewicz built on the internal Custom Shop operations, the roots of which date back to around 1984 (3 years before Fender established its Custom Shop), and which became a separate facility based in Nashville from October 1993.

The Gibson Guitar Corporation, still a private company, has its headquarters based in Nashville, Tennessee and continues to develop and produce high quality instruments into the 21st century. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Gibson. In May 2018, after a period of unsuccessful diversification into peripheral consumer electronics products and rapidly rising debts, Gibson entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. The widely anticipated move was intended to give the company sufficient time to restructure the business, with Henry Juszkiewicz still as CEO. Gibson intends to focus on profitable core musical instrument products, while divesting itself of the remainder of its ill‑fated and loss‑making lifestyle ventures. It is likely that Gibson’s rationalisation programme will succeed and the company will avoid liquidation. Like the phoenix symbolised on its Firebird guitars, Gibson will surely rise again from the ashes and achieve long‑term financial security.

Many vintage Gibson solid body electric guitars are highly regarded by collectors, musicians and enthusiasts alike, with many key models reaching high or very prices on the vintage guitar market with the 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard is held in particularly high esteem. It will be interesting to see if a resurgent Gibson will be able to recapture the pinnacles of past glory. Watch this space…

Other Major American Electric Guitar Brands

While it might seem from the previous two sections that Fender and Gibson were the only companies responsible for all the key milestones in the solid guitar’s evolution, this is in fact far from reality. There have been innumerable manufacturers from around the globe that have been highly influential in shaping the market.

Epiphone – Epiphone’s illustrious history dates back to 1873 when the Stathopoulo family emigrated from Greece, via Turkey, and arrived in New York in 1903. The family set up a business in America making banjos and mandolins. By the end of WWI, the company became ‘The House Of Stathopoulo’, then changed its name to the ‘Epiphone Banjo Company’ in 1928, the same year that they started producing acoustic guitars. The name Epiphone derived from a combination of owner Epaminondas Stathopoulo’s nickname, ‘Epi’, and the Greek word ‘phon-’ meaning ‘sound’ or ‘voice’. In addition to musical instruments, Epiphone started producing amplifiers in 1935. Epiphone was Gibson’s main competitor in the production of high‑quality instruments, particularly archtop guitars in the 1930s and 1940s, such as the De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph models. It was only after World War II that Epiphone began to struggle, eventually resulting in its acquisition by Gibson in 1957. Initially, the new generation of Epiphone guitars were still made in Gibson’s American facilities, even though many of their instruments were re‑branded Gibson models. During the 1960s, Epiphone’s Casino, which was effectively their version of the Gibson ES-330, became particularly famous because of an association with English pop/rock band The Beatles. In recent decades, the Epiphone brand has come to represent the affordable end of Gibson’s output, complementing the parent company’s product lines. In the early 1970s manufacturing was migrated to the Far East, first in Japan, then Korea and, since 2004, Epiphone guitars have been made in a dedicated factory in Qingdao, China. Other well‑known model Epiphone names from their past include Emperor, Riviera, Sheraton, Olympic, Wilshire and Crestwood.

Gretsch – Another famous manufacturer with a long history dating back to 1883 is Gretsch. The company was founded by Friedrich Gretsch (c.1856-1895). Gretsch arrived as a 17 year old German immigrant to the United States in 1872. By 1883, aged 27, Gretsch was manufacturing banjos, tambourines, and drums from a modest shop in Brooklyn, New York. It wasn’t until the big band era of the 1930s that guitars became part of Gretsch’s core business with models like the Synchromatic and Electromatic. Gretsch became hugely successful with the explosion of blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s. The man behind many of Gretsch’s iconic designs including the flamboyant White Falcon was guitarist Jimmie Webster (1908‑1979), who worked as sales and demonstration representative for Gretsch. NB. Webster was known as the inventor of the ‘Touch System’ of playing in the 1950s, popularised by Van Halen as ‘two‑hand tapping’ in the late 1970s. The demand for Gretsch guitars during this period enabled Gretsch to compete head on with Gibson and Fender. Gretsch’s association with guitarist Chet Atkins propelled their now‑iconic 6120 from 1955 to massive popularity. Like many other companies in the 1960s, Gretsch struggled and was bought out by Baldwin Pianos in 1967. By 1981, after a period of significant decline Baldwin finally wound up production of Gretsch instruments. Fred W. Gretsch purchased the brand name in 1985 and several attempts were made to restart production, including manufacturing in the Far East. Gretsch has been under Fender patronage since 2002 with Fender having the controlling interest and the Gretsch family retaining ownership. A rejuvenated Gretsch company, with Fender’s support and endorsement from rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer has, once again, become successful. Well‑known model Gretsch names from their history include the White Falcon, Country Gentleman, Tennessean, Viking, Anniversary, Jet and Corvette, often carrying obscure and confusing numerical model numbers.

Rickenbacker – Rickenbacker’s history is shorter than some of its competitors and has been widely covered in other parts of the guitar’s story. Rickenbacker only emerged in the early 1930s first as Ro‑Pat‑In then as Electro before formally adopting the Rickenbacker name. Rickenbacker was crucial in the early development of the electric guitar. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Rickenbacker’s fortunes found a new lease of life and took a major upturn that would lead to the current day. In 1953, Adolph Rickenbacker sold his company to music industry businessman F.C. Hall (1909‑1999), founder and CEO of media company Radio-Tel. Under Hall’s ambitious leadership, the company introduced a number of innovative guitar models, which proved popular with many bands during the nascent rock ‘n’ roll era. In an inspired move, Halll hired illustrious guitar maker Roger Rossmeisl (1927-1979) in 1954. Rossmeisl was responsible for the design of Rickenbacker guitars including a number of iconic instruments released in the late 1950s, including the ‘Capri’ 300 series guitars from 1958 and the equally influential 4000 series basses from 1957. Both of these designs, along with a number of others, are still in production today. Rickenbacker’s artist association with, particularly, The Beatles and The Byrds in the 1960s, cemented the brand’s rightful place in guitar history.

Danelectro – While it may not be an obvious choice for coverage, it is worth mentioning Danelectro. The company was founded in 1947 by Lithuanian immigrant Nathan ‘Nat’ Daniel (1912-1994) and based in New Jersey. The company started out by making guitars, basses and baritones for other companies including Silvertone models for the Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order, and Airline models for Montgomery Ward. The strategy enabled Danelectro to start making guitars using its own name by 1954. Daniel innovated by using unorthodox materials and construction techniques, at least hitherto unusual in the guitar building industry. The resulting instruments have a distinctive look and sound that also enabled the company to produce no-frills instruments at competitive prices for the mass market. In a clever move under the Silvertone brand, they produced guitars with a valve amp built into the guitar case, so customers could buy everything they needed in one convenient, portable package. The brand is important historically because it enabled many young aspiring musicians to buy instruments at low cost. The unique approach also attracted many professional players to use Danelectro instruments, including guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Page and Beck. Like many other American companies, including Fender and Gibson, Danelectro struggled in the 1960s and was sold to industry giant MCA in 1966, only for the factory to be closed down in 1969. The brand was resurrected and started making guitars again in 2006.

PRS – Compared to some of the well established brands that have been around much longer, PRS Guitars is really the new‑kid‑on‑the‑block, founded by American luthier Paul Reed Smith in Annapolis, Maryland in 1984. In a relatively short period of time, PRS has gained an enviable reputation for high quality instruments and amps, cleverly finding a niche in the market that is different from their competitors. Taking design influences from Fender and Gibson amongst others and adding something new and fresh of their own, PRS managed to build substantial market share rapidly from seemingly nowhere.  Having guitarist Carlos Santana on board from the start and bringing in ex‑Gibson president Ted McCarty as Smith’s mentor didn’t harm the company’s credibility either. PRS introduced stunning instruments, starting with the Standard and Custom, recognised for their immaculate craftsmanship. Many PRS instruments have distinctive features including exquisite highly figured tone woods, superbly engineered hardware and distinctive unique ‘bird’ fingerboard inlays. The company grew swiftly; relocating to a major new American factory in 1996 and from 2003 PRS established a range of more affordable SE (standing for ‘Student Edition’) models manufactured in Korea. PRS’s success demonstrates that the industry’s barriers to entry are not insurmountable and with the right strategy, it is still possible to enter the market and to grow market share despite well‑established competition, and without being straightjacketed by historical constraints.

Other Guitar Brands From Around the World

Guitar design, production and sales are not restricted to just a few large American companies. In America alone, there are many thousands of guitar manufacturers past and present. Many names will be familiar, such as Ernie Ball/Music Man, Peavey, Guild, Jackson, Dean, BC Rich, Ovation, Supro, National, Kay, Harmony, etc., through to innumerable custom and boutique luthiers. Some of these manufacture instruments in the U.S. while others are American companies that source part or all of their guitars from the Far East. A quick look around the globe highlights many other fertile guitar making territories…

Europe – Particularly following World War II when embargoes and tight trade restrictions limited exports of guitars from America, a combination of high demand for guitars and low supply provided an opportunity for some enterprising European companies to fill the gap. Many of these guitars followed the influence of American designs in the knowledge that young people in Europe aspired to emulate their American counterparts. Britain and continental Europe have produced many guitar brands over a long period of time including from illustrious companies such as Burns, Duesenberg, Eko, Framus, Hagstrom, Höfner, Hohner, Patrick James Eggle, Shergold, Gordon Smith, James Trussart, Vigier, Vox, Warwick, Watkins, Zemaitis, etc.

Far East – The Far East isn’t only responsible for producing low cost guitars for American and European guitar brands. During the 1970s, Japanese firms were producing affordable, high quality copies of American guitars, taking advantage of high labour prices and poor quality control in the U.S. However, there has also been a notable history of guitar manufacture in its own right, including some very quirky and idiosyncratic models. Many of the big names from Japan include, Aria, ESP/LTD, Ibanez, Italia, Teisco Tokai, Yamaha, etc.

Eastern Bloc – While not widely recognised as a guitar‑making region, largely because of its nationalistic political regime and economic protectionism, the Eastern Bloc countries have produced a diverse range of instruments over an extended period of time. There is a vast array of models bearing many unfamiliar names such as, Aelita, Formanta, Jolana, Migma, Tokina, etc.

As you might expect, the fascination with the world’s favourite instrument is genuinely global and they have been made in every corner of the world, including Australia, Canada, South America and, to a lesser extent, the middle east (where the guitar’s story began after all!) and Africa.

Other Factors

Although this section focuses on electric guitar production, it is worth remembering that acoustic guitar manufacturing is also thriving in the 21st Century with famous specialist brands such as Martin (based in Pennsylvania since 1833) and Taylor (based in California since 1974) at the forefront of innovation and technological development. Of the major American electric guitar makers, it is only really Gibson that also has a reputable range of professional acoustic instruments. Elsewhere, Yamaha has a strong range of Far Eastern acoustic guitars. There are numerous other manufacturers to be found producing fine acoustic guitars at all price points in the market.

The 21st Century landscape of guitar production is one of global diversity and differentiation. Modern guitars may have been hugely influenced, if not defined, by a small number of American companies but it is by no means a monopolistic industry; quite the opposite in reality. The long‑term viability of guitar making is inextricably linked to the music industry and what happens will rely heavily on musical trends and influences.

There have been many challenges to the dominance of the electric guitar, notably during the 1980s and 1990s with proliferation of synthesizers and in the 2000s as home production of electronic music became affordable and accessible. However, the popularity of the guitar seems (relatively) assured, despite many cynical commentators regularly proclaiming ‘the death of guitar music’. Digital technology is bringing a new challenge to guitar makers, so it will be up to countless luthiers around the world to rise to the challenge, seek new opportunities, adapt the guitar and make it truly a universal instrument and secure its future success for generations to come.

End of Part VI

Over these last six instalments, I have covered the guitar’s history from its vestigial beginnings in the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ to the birth and proliferation of the electric guitar. There is just a little of the long and winding path left to travel and I hope you’ll join me for the remainder of the story. The next article has yet to be written, due to personal circumstances. While I hope to publish it next month, it is by no means certain. Fingers crossed. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Contrary to popular opinion, great minds most definitely do not think alike. Similarly, great musicians do not play or sound alike.”

© 2018 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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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