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Newsletter #13, January 13, 2004

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What the heck is this thing?

Riding back from the Columbus Guitar Show with Jay Pilzer and Gruhn Guitar intern for three weeks, Matt Grimmer, caused us to wax eloquent discussing the complexity and confusion of model lineups by major guitar manufacturers today. In the "Good Ole Days" model lines were not only more comprehensible, but there were far fewer variations. In the 1950s, for example, the Gibson Les Paul line consisted of the Junior, the limed-mahogany finished version called the Les Paul TV model, Les Paul Special, Les Paul Standard and Les Paul Custom. Each was an easily recognized model. The early Les Paul Junior was offered only in single cutaway in any color you wanted as long as it was sunburst. The TV came in the limed-mahogany yellow color. The Special came in TV limed mahogany until mid 1958 after which it could be gotten in either cherry red or the TV color. The Standard originally came in any color you wanted as long as it was gold top with the rare variation of all gold on front, back and neck. The Custom was available, as Henry Ford said, in "Any color you want as long as it is black." Later when Gibson came out with the SGs, they were available as SG Junior, Special, Standard and Custom and again options were extremely limited. The Fender line likewise was very simple. Telecasters, Stratocasters, Precision basses, Jazz basses, etc., were available with very few options. The Stratocaster was available either with tremolo or non-tremolo. Sunburst was the only standard color. All other colors were custom color options. It was easy to look at the guitar and figure out what it was. All model lines and specifications were clearly delineated. This made it easy not only to market and sell them when they were new, since the manufacturer's representatives, dealers and customers were easily able to comprehend the line, but it also made it much simpler for these items to become collector's items in the future since the lines and models were comprehensible.

Wandering the Columbus Guitar Show, one could not help but note that the clear model delineations of the past have come and gone. Not only were the vast majority of guitars at the show, both in dealer booths and those being brought in by the public, no longer true vintage, American-made collectibles, but it is frequently difficult to figure out what the heck they are at all. Many of the guitars are brand names I am not familiar with at all. There are now so many different import lines that I have yet to encounter anyone familiar with all of them. Factories in Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China often act as "ghost manufacturers" producing dozens of different brands in the same factory for a wide variety of distributors and music store chains.

What I find of far greater concern, however, is the vast proliferation of different models by major manufacturers such as Martin, Fender and Gibson. In the past there was never any question looking at an instrument from any one of these makers as to what model it was, where it was made, and where this model stood in the company's lineup of price and quality. When Walter Carter and I wrote the original edition of Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars, our first intent was to provide a comprehensive identification guide to vintage instruments by major American manufacturers such as Martin, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Guild, Dobro, Epiphone and other significant makers. We quickly found that coverage of the true vintage instruments such as pre-CBS Fender guitars took less page space than any attempt to bring coverage up to the present. There were more models of Fender Stratocasters, for example, made after the company was sold by CBS than the company had made of all models combined during the entire period when it was owned by Leo Fender and later by CBS. When we prepared the second edition, the problem was further compounded by virtually hundreds of new models which had been introduced in the short space of time between the first and second editions. While Walter and I are personally far more interested in the historic true vintage models, we both felt that it was critically important in an identification guide to cover those instruments which people using our book would encounter in their daily experience. Any dealer or collector will quickly become keenly aware that the vast majority of guitars being offered are not pre-World War II Martins and pre-CBS Fender guitars. It is important to be able to identify those instruments which one encounters in daily experience. From an author's point of view, however, it is an extreme challenge to try to assemble this information in a comprehensible format.

It is my opinion that the Martin guitars of the 1960s and earlier are far more comprehensible as a group than those of today. The same can be said of Fender guitars of the CBS period and earlier versus those of today, as well as instruments by numerous other manufacturers. Whereas in the past Martin guitars could be explained in a very simple gridwork of models consisting of sizes 0, 00, 000 and D and ornamentation and wood styles 17, 18, 21, 28, 42 and 45, today no such simple gridwork exists. The company makes different product lines such as the X Series, Technology Series, Standard line, Vintage line, Golden Era line and special artist endorsement models. Fender used to have one standard American lineup such that guitars that said Fender on the peghead were not at all confusing as to where they were made or what model they were. Each model was clearly delineated on the peghead decal. Today that is absolutely not the case. A guitar saying Fender on the peghead could be make in the USA, Mexico, Japan, Korea or some which have combinations of both USA and Mexican parts and workmanship. The USA made product is labeled as made in USA. Mexican and Japanese instruments similarly are clearly delineated. However, those which combine both Mexican and American work are not necessarily clearly marked and in some cases are marked as "Made In USA." This is legally possible if enough work is done in the USA, but in my opinion it confuses the issue.

Regardless of any such confusion as to where the instrument is made, the line in my view is confusing with so many different models. In the past one at least knew the model by reading the decal on the peghead. No such chance is given to the customer today. Stratocasters say "Stratocaster" on the peghead, but they do not say which variation it is, with the exception of artist endorsement models such as the Eric Clapton or Bonnie Raitt models. Custom Shop models as well as the Masterbuilt models are clearly labeled as to that designation, but they do not anywhere on them say exactly what model they are. It is not nearly enough to know that a guitar is a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster because there are dozens of different Custom Shop varieties of Stratocaster, but very few are labeled on the guitar as to what they are. Similarly an American Standard Stratocaster is not clearly labeled on the headstock in any different manner from the new American Series or American Deluxe models. If a dealer can't look at the guitar and figure out what it is, heaven help the customer. While the Martin lineup today in my opinion is virtually incomprehensible compared to the past, at least one can look through the soundhole and read the model number on the neck block, and the guitars are consecutively numbered such as to be easy to date them. No such luck with Fender guitars. The new Fenders are extremely difficult to date accurately from the serial numbers, and the vast majority of the models are not clearly designated anywhere on the instrument. In the case of Martin, one can call the company with a model number and serial number and get not only the date but how many of this model were made in a particular year and numerous other specifications. No such luck in most cases with Fender. Even if one has a guitar with a Custom Shop Limited Edition Certificate, one can call giving that information and find that specifications, original price and quantity of production figures are not readily available. I am firmly of the opinion that in order for instruments to have future collector's item appeal and investment potential, they need to be well-documented.

Fender is certainly not the only company for which information is difficult to obtain. Numerous Gibson guitars are also virtually incomprehensible as to their position in the model lineup, and information is not readily available. Interestingly enough, Ibanez has exceedingly good records and is quite willing to share information with customers, whereas other import companies such as Washburn appear to have virtually no records at all, such that it is virtually impossible to get accurate information on a model which may be only two or three years old.

Whether it gives me comfort or not, the fact remains that a huge portion of the used guitar market today is closely tied to the proliferation of new models both by American manufacturers as well as the importers. The confusion of new models, as well as a blurring of the lines in the mind of dealers and customers with regard to which model is which and where it is made, can greatly cloud customer judgment. People are not willing to pay extra for a model they don't understand and cannot distinguish in their mind from another one which may be cheaper. My baby boomer customers are primarily interested in collecting the guitars that were popular when they were in their formative "musical imprinting age," from the time they were thirteen to twenty-three years of age. As such they want pre-CBS Fenders, old Martins, 1950s and 1960s Gibsons, old Gretsches and other such guitars. Today's youth, however, often does not clearly distinguish any difference in desirability between a Japanese Fender, a Mexican Fender and an American one. For that matter, they may be just as happy or even happier with an Ibanez or ESP. In the past I have written articles and newsletters regarding my general skepticism as to the collector's item potential of so-called "Limited Edition" guitars. My concern only deepens the more I find that I myself have difficulty looking at many guitars and figuring out exactly what they are. If I can't pick up an instrument and quickly identify the model by its features and am not able to get fast accurate information even after calling company representatives for help, it should come as no surprise that my customers would share this confusion and frequently be hesitant to fork over a large price premium for a model they don't comprehend.

I personally find it hard to fathom why companies have abandoned what were once clearly delineated lines. Perhaps executives feel that they can increase profits by introducing numerous new models, but in my view it is short-sighted to pump up the model lineup for a quick return if in the long run it so confuses the public as to cheapen the line. There is little doubt that in the short run new models spark interest and can hike sales, but after a while when the product line becomes confused and customers no longer can figure out any clear distinction between the higher end models and cheaper versions, profit on total sales can be diminished when the public sees no reason to buy a high-end expensive model when there is a confusingly similar cheaper variation which is not even clearly marked in any distinguishing manner.

It is my opinion that at least part of the impetus for this change is a vastly expanded manufacturing capacity of all the major makers. The number of guitars made in the USA today is easily more than ten times what it was in the mid 1980s. In 1982 Martin was at a very low ebb and produced only 3,153 guitars. By 1986 their fortunes had improved significantly and they made 7,600 guitars. In the past year, however, they made at least 70,000 guitars. Taylor told me they made 681 guitars in 1986. Their production figures today are probably well over 50,000 instruments per year. In 1985 Fender's new owners had just purchased the company and did not get the Fullerton factory. As a result they had no USA production at all and took several years before they handled much other than import models. Today Fender makes far more guitars per year in the USA than they ever did before, plus the line is filled with numerous Japanese and Mexican imports. Similarly Gibson was at a very low ebb in 1985, the last year in which it was owned by Norlin. Under the present ownership the company has greatly expanded its manufacturing facilities in Nashville as well as opening an acoustic factory in Bozeman, Montana, and an additional electric factory in Memphis. When we add to the total of guitars being offered in the USA the vastly increased production capabilities of China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan, as well as Canada where such fine guitars as Larrivee and Godin are made, it becomes clear that there is a potential market glut. With proper care a good guitar will last 300 years. Used ones do not simply fade away. They do not become obsolete in a year-and-a-half as does a computer. There is nothing about a 1954 Stratocaster, a 1959 sunburst Les Paul or a 1935 Martin guitar that makes the old one obsolete versus a new one. In an attempt to keep the production lines rolling along, management keeps introducing more and more new models. I maintain that it is possible to do this for a while, but eventually we will all be up to our eyeballs in guitars. Car manufacturers used to and still do introduce many new models, but cars of the 1950s and 1960s wore out more rapidly than today's autos. Even today a ten-year-old car is quite tired. By contrast a ten-year-old or even twenty-year-old guitar may be just barely broken in.

This week I will be heading off to the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, California. All the major manufacturers will be showing their product lines and dealers from around the world will be placing orders for the coming year. I have already been deluged with emails as well as postal mail product brochures of new offerings, most of which do not excite me. I have no doubt that there will be some very fine products on display, but being able to sift through the multi-thousands of offerings to find the few golden nuggets will be a challenge to say the least. If and when I find those few golden nuggets, the question remains: Will they be clearly distinguishable enough from other product offerings that dealers and the public will comprehend them and therefore want to buy? "May you live in interesting times" is an old Chinese curse. At least the market isn't boring.

George Gruhn