07.05.17

Electric guitars have the blues

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle, Made in China, Rock 'n' Roll at 2:48 pm by George Smith

A reader points out a recent story in the Washington Post: Why my guitar gently weeps: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.

Written by Geoff Edgers, it’s a good piece that touches on some subjects and people I’ve written about over the years, with special focus on the loss of sales of the primary middle class instrument of my generation: the electric guitar.

Today the electric guitar faces challenge from all sides. The most influential being the US economy just isn’t what it used to be. After 2007, it collapsed for a great part of the US middle class. And the electric guitar was and is an iconic MIDDLE class luxury buy.

Today there are two forces, one noted at a musical instrument seller’s convention (NAMM) by the reporter, glut and, two, lack of demand. The US economy has been sputtering along since the “recovery” at a paltry 2 percent growth rate. Sales of goods beyond necessities (of which the guitar is an example) have been hurting for a long while. Fender and Gibson, the primary American producer of electric guitars, are businesses caught in the doldrums with signficant debt overhang:

In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt. And at Sweetwater.com, the online retailer, a brand-new, interest-free Fender can be had for as little as $8 a month.

I get a copy of the Sweetwater Pro Gear catalog. It’s a perfect example of glut, Sweetwater not being the only guitar rock business, businesses all selling the same thing to the same limited number of people at a time when there’s not a lot of cash to go around. The people hurting in middle America, in the heartland, those who voted for the President, are the potential buyers of electric guitars and times just aren’t what they used to be. There’s pain out there and it filters over into all manner of businesses, not just the sales of electric guitars. Middle age (or older) wasteland, call it. (Which is to say things would probably not be so grim if the economy was better for everyone, not just people in the right professions on the coasts).

At the music merchants’ convention in Anaheim, Edgers interviews George Gruhn. Ten years ago I touched on Gruhn as an American speculator in antiquities of sorts, in this case the electric guitar. It was in an article for the Los Angeles Times, one on conspicuous consumption just before the great economic crash. The items of interest were Gibson Les Paul electric guitars, ’59 vintage models, selling for a quarter of a million dollars and up:

Part of the Los Angeles Times’ new contemporary coverage of America is its glorification of conspicuous consumption. Weekly, features writers find the most annoying examples of Grotesquus Americanus. Then it proceeds to portray whatever herd of manipulators it has found as something swell. The point of it is to make you feel stupid or envious while marveling at the business acumen and immense good fortune of others.

Today’s example were men who hoard late-Fifties/early Sixties Gibson Les Paul Standard guitars painted in sunburst finishes.

An example of the ridiculous prices the instrument fetches is here at Gruhn Guitars, run by reseller/guitar collector/speculator …

Business in fantastically priced Les Pauls was apparently great. There was even a link, now dead, to Gruhn’s website whereupon you could see a picture of a Les Paul selling for 275,000 USD. And while this small part of the antiquities business may still be solid, the rest of the world of electric guitar has gone upside down. Paradoxically, it will not surprise readers that the expansion of sales of “cheaper guitars” has meant the offshoring to China and other Asian rim countries. Again, the mirroring of the US economy as a whole.

For the Post, Gruhn says the current business is “unsustainable.” This is obvious. There’s no actual market to allow the survival of hundreds of luthiers or electronic tinkerers making an endless supply of custom fuzztones in the United States.

Gruhn thinks its because there’s a lack of guitar heroes, as contrasted with days of yore.

Guitar heroes. They arrived with the first wave of rock-and-roll. Chuck Berry duckwalking across the big screen. Scotty Moore’s reverb-soaked Gibson on Elvis’s Sun records. Link Wray, with his biker cool, blasting through “Rumble” in 1958.

This is only maybe half right.

Gibson dies by their premium prices, in direct competition with luthiers and another maker in exactly the same space, Paul Reed Smith. This is at a time when demand hollowed out the middle. There’s the low end and a high end, and the high end is the smaller of the two.

The other side is boring old classic rock radio, now oldies stations although they’re not called that.

Jimmy Page / The Rolling Stones/ Clapton / Slash / Jeff Beck /Pete Townshend / Heart / Journey / Van Halen still have their radio exposure. Keep in mind none of the glory days musicians can make records anyone will pay money for. Digital cratered everything but their back catalogs. No one wants a new Ted Nugent record but he can still summer tour and Cat Scratch Fever still gets played on radio. Stubbornly, though, that radio territory is strictly out of reach of any new artists playing rock and roll.

Country music is one exception. Lots of classic rock and roll went to country and it’s not an accident a lot of guitar manufacturing, like Gibson, is in Nashville. Country music still features guitar heroes. One of them is a woman — Taylor Swift.

On the other hand, Link Wray never got played. He died an expat in Denmark, I think. In Europe he had an audience.

I play “Rumble”. People know that but it wasn’t on the radio during Zep or the Who’s heyday. Polydor even tied a release of “The Link Wray Rumble” to a blurb by Pete Townshend. The recommendations didn’t help. The record didn’t rise in the charts. “Rumble” wasn’t on the radio in 1974.

Even more tiresomely, the internet and freetardism has atomized the market, again — glut — has become a problem with everything making it impossible to record and make money in the the old way of development.

Couple it with the rupture of demand. The cash just isn’t there.

And sitting in front of a smartphone or laptop isn’t fun when playing guitar. It’s work. Not the same as playing along to an old record player.

Again — the Washington Post piece.


1. Rumble. A tribute. Note famous fight scene from They Live, wherein the thuds and cries are timed to the riffage.

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