02.11.15

Bang Your Head

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle, Made in China, Rock 'n' Roll at 2:59 pm by George Smith

They don’t make ’em like this anymore. That’s a Washburn A-20v BBR, for black-black-red, ca. 1984-85. I have one, made at the Matsumoko company in Japan (since out of business) for Washburn USA (which isn’t).

The shape and color scheme enjoyed a very brief moment in the sun, one coinciding with Quiet Riot’s Metal Health LP, the first heavy metal record to hit number one in the US charts in 1983, going on to sell 6 million copies.

Although I wasn’t much of a fan, Metal Health was a catchy record. Guitarist Carlos Cavazo and bassist Rudy Sarzo played Washburn A-20s, featured in videos on MTV and guitar magazine advertising.

That’s not why I bought mine. I’d wanted a Gibson Explorer but couldn’t afford it. And I’d played one of the BBRs at a Washburn stand at a guitar show. So I had one special ordered and still have it.

I play it regularly now. It’s a shape and color that went horribly out of style. And it fits me, also horribly out of style at almost 59, perfectly.

Even Carlos Cavazo won’t play his Washburn A-20s in public anymore. He joined Ratt and switched to Gibsons. His friends, he said, talked him out of playing those old things. It’s not hard to guess why.

Still, it sounds and plays great, a poor man’s Gibson with a great jet-black hard finish.

It has “Power Sustain” pick-ups, say the old brochures!

And that’s my intro to today’s post on the American guitar business. In the mid-Eighties, electric guitars were still solidly of the middle class business. Leo Fender made it that way.

It doesn’t take a lot of brains to figure out what happened.

The recession, the evisceration of buying power, and the great thinning of the middle class made the guitar-making industry polar.

One end is cheap guitars made in China or similar Asian labor markets. And the other end is expensive custom-shop artisan instruments for classic rock musicians who can still get paid, but mostly for the upper class and very top people who want them as nice things to have. Investments that impress stupid people.

And there’s little in the middle.

The stagnant economy isn’t the only reason guitars have had a hard time. Classic rock is music for an older generation. Like polka was for me in southeastern PA when I was in school.

It’s not entirely dead, of course. Taylor Swift, the biggest seller in pop rock, is firmly from classic rock roots. All her sidemen play vintage model guitars, the best. But young people, as they should, have different choices. They don’t need electric guitars in any big way.

And the industry bet wrong on that.

Before the collapse, the idea, and it was a clear one if you shopped at Guitar Center or BestBuy or Target, was that electric guitars could be put in every household, like microwave ovens. And so the production of 70 percent of all electric guitars was moved to China, the instruments made cheaply, and sold in cardboard boxes as start-up kits.

And then the bottom fell out of the economy and ruined it. Even $120 guitars-made-in-China weren’t quite cheap enough a lot of the time.

Plus a lot of young people would have rather spent up for a more universal symbol of cool, an iPod or iPhone.

However, you can’t have a guitar business like you did in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Guitars are not thrown away. They don’t end up in landfills. You can find them everywhere in pawn shops and used sales. And the very wealthy, who buy the American-made custom shop hot rods? There just aren’t enough of them.

They lack the numbers and the same prole desires of the old middle class.

I see this on-line everyday. Facebook shoves posts from guitar publications and companies into my feed and they’re all about only two things.

First, pictures of expensive hot rod guitars, most of which the middle class, or even people who work in music stores, can’t really afford anymore. And the guitar accessory business, which exploded.

The accessory business, which means guitar effects and foot pedals, can just barely keep prices down on American-made stuff because there’s not much to it in the way of materials.

Fuzz-tones, of which there are at least eighty different brands/makes now, are priced only slightly higher than a rock bottom guitar made in China or Indonesia. And at that price point, a lot of poverty-stricken musicians, which is to say quite a few of them, can still afford the stuff.

And so the American makers of guitar pedals have gone through a boom. Culturally and socially they resemble the demographic of Silicon Valley programmer/brogrammer. Only not paid nearly as well.

They’re all tinkerers. With analog electronics rather than code. They play guitar, naturally, and they’re all white guys who pretty much look and sound the same.

It’s a busy industry that’s forced adaptations on the old industry. Big manufacturers, who have been around for decades, have seen the offerings and co-opted, leased or bought out some of the best of the little guys. Or the luckiest. It’s often hard to tell which.

Dunlop, for example, makes about a score of guitar fuzz/distortion effects under three different sub-company names, MXR, Way Huge and its own. They all feature some overlap, many in details that are of little or no distinction to the millions of people who still listen to classic rock recordings.

But it’s a fit for the hollowed out economy. Small stuff, made-in-America, that young men can still afford to buy a bit of. Gadgets easy to market and advertise, not requiring a lot of development time or much of an investment as the designs have already been made over and over and over again. And lots of choices, like hot sauces or ketchups and mustards at slightly snob up-market grocery stores.

This has established glut as what looks like a permanent feature of the market. There are more things to buy, and more coming all the time, than there is demand.

But despite the inexorably shrinking market for this, YouTube bristles with unpaid advertising for the new state-of-the-art electric guitar and accessory market.

New local bands nationwide can record and make as many videos of their music as they want, never make any headway, never get any numbers without a couple lucky breaks.

But un-boxing and demonstration videos of new fuzz-tones and guitar overdrives often guarantees some kind of audience.

Since American guitar manufacturers moved their production to China they surely cannot be surprised at some of the more interesting ramifications.

Three years ago I did a number of posts on Chinese-made counterfeit Gibson guitars after the Washington Post and other major newspapers actually began running on-line ads pointing to sites that sold them.

The ads were eventually taken down but the business became more vigorous. And why would it not?

Why pay for an expensive American-made Gibson guitar when you can’t afford it? But you can have a nice-looking forgery for hundreds of dollars, with a little luck when it comes to shipping.

There are many people who think this way. Can you blame them? They know that if they try to hock a forgery it will be discovered. They know that in many areas in won’t be up to the standard imposed at the Gibson factory.

But the Chinese are always getting better at the job and, in terms of for personal pleasure and looks, often the difference in quality matters less and less every day.

Why, just look at the video enthusiasms of young American men over “Chibsons,” the name for Chinese Gibson forgeries, on YouTube. It’s real.

How good is that Chibson? How do you tell if you’ve been sold a Chibson? Let me show you the unboxing of my new Chibson! How do you get a Chibson and what can you do to upgrade it?

Boy, that Chibson sure looks nice!

Even Earl Slick plays, markets and recommends Chinese-made guitars! Chibsons and Chenders!

Ask and I’ll tell which one looks good to me.

Two years ago Fender Musical Instruments tried to go public.

Initially, it seemed a natural, even proper, thing. The company of Leo Fender, although he’s long dead, is the tap root of the tree of American electric guitar. It’s a big part of the history of pop rock all around the world.

The attempt failed, done in by the opinions of America’s financial wizards who deemed it overvalued.

“Jeffrey Bronchick, the chief investment officer at investment advisory firm Cove Street Capital, says the stock was overvalued,” read a story from Fortune.

β€œIt is a much more difficult business than what it was being sold as,” says Bronchick (who also plays guitar, on a Fender),” told the magazine. “It was highly levered, there was a big question mark on growth and it was priced too high …”

For the New York Times, there was the same financial adviser, telling the newspaper he had four Fender guitars, but: “What possible niche is left unexploited by Fender?”

Fender’s margins were under pressure, said the newspaper. “Many of the guitars that are selling these days are cheap ones made in places like China β€” ones that cost a small fraction of, say, a $1,599 Fender Artist Eric Clapton Strat …”

And “Poof!” went the i.p.o.

Done in by the merciless judgments of those in the financial industry who make nothing but who buy tricked-out American custom-shop goods as investments and baubles. They weren’t believers in the company’s future. What they believed was how nice it is to show off a couple expensively furnished Eric Clapton Stratocasters to wealthy acquaintances at dinner parties, acquisition of luxury goods as a means of keeping score.

Today Fender is owner by a private equity firm. It’s interim CEO is known for being an executive at Under Armour and J. Crew, the latter an upscale women’s wear company.

In 2011, the Fender Museum closed due to lack of interest. A week or so ago there was a garage sale for what was left of its memorabilia.

And in a not very surprising development, Fender announced it would be selling direct from its website, royally pissing off its 70-year old network of bricks-and-mortar guitar store dealers.

Why not? Perhaps it would increase the profit margin, if only by increments. And to the new generation who use smartphone apps of convenience, shopping in a physical store lacks the zing of custom-picking the colors and hardware of a Stratocaster on-line.

Picking up a guitar in a store is old and fuddy-duddy, obsolete. You have to drive to it. You might have to plug it into an amp to see how it sounds and plays. With new computerized machinery to set-up a guitar before it leaves the factory and the service of UPS or FedEx, things are generally OK when they arrive at your doorstep.

And there is the upside: Direct sales taps Fender directly into the mania of unboxing video.

Playing the guitar is entirely secondary to the loving way in which the cardboard shipping box is displayed. Then the slow prying open and gentle removal of packing materials, all captured with full HD digital camera work.

Finally, the climax: The camera shows the un-boxer panning over and turning the as yet untarnished instrument itself. Exquisite!

Perhaps a second video can be made in which the unboxer briefly plays the instrument.

But, really, this is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme because there are always new instruments and accessories to be unboxed. It is the movie-like documentation of the acquisition that is the be all and the end all.

Besides, look at the videos of the Fender guitar un-boxers. They’re nerds with expensive hobbies.

There’s no more rock n roll in the lot of them than there are in boxes of mashed potato mix. But that’s where the money is and you cannot fault Fender for trying to shake hands with the future.

What about Washburn? It has its custom shop in America, for the high-priced models. For the rest of us, there are those made in Indonesia.

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