Geoff: Like you, I’ve covered arts — as a staff editor and staff writer, DVD columnist and music critic (in all but title) at the Chicago Tribune. Like you, I get to see the industry from an inside-out basis. I also know George Gruhn incredibly well; we go out for dinner whenever I’m in Nashville (I did an exhaustive profile of him for Vintage Guitar). So I’m sure if we got together for a beer, we’d likely have some great times, especially when I regale you with the details of my ludicrous 1980s New Jersey hair band.
I own about two dozen electric guitars, including a few I’ve built. I own a Gibson Les Paul with interchangeable pickups, one of maybe 100 ever made. I know enough about guitars to be dangerous.
And I can tell you that reports of the death of the electric guitar are greatly exaggerated.
For starters, I’d have a problem if one of my editors asked me to title a piece “The Death of the Electric Guitar.” That’s a disingenuous stab at rising above the noise floor to grab eyeballs.
Second, I’m steps away from the offices of Reverb.com in Chicago. As someone who helped get their editorial ops off the ground, I can tell you that the business they’re doing in the selling and buying of used and new guitars is beyond belief— so much so that the site will likely go public in the next year.
I need to read your piece a few more times to get a better understanding of your argument, and learn from your findings. But aside from gagging at the title, I also wonder whether you took into account the exploding business of kit makers and parts suppliers. If the market is glutted in any way, one needs to account for all the players buying and selling used instruments to each other. The hundreds of staffers who built Reverb, and producer/journalists such as myself, find the idea of the electric guitar’s death laughable — taking the pulse of Fender, Gibson and even Gruhn (who’s getting pretty near retirement so he can spend time with his beloved African grey parrot, Boid) can’t tell anywhere near the whole story. You have to hit up companies such as J. Turser, whose Hofner knockoffs were so convincing, Hofner had to make a cheap “knockoff knockoff” of its own violin bass.
I will buy “The Death of the Guitar Hero.” But Guitar Center’s debt, which you cite, is a much more complex story: High-pressure sales techniques, and the insurgence of Reverb — truly a high-tech “disruptor” a la Tesla versus Ford — have played a big role in its troubles.
As for Sweetwater: It has averaged 20 percent sales growth pretty consistently through the 2010s, which I learned in a piece where I interviewed the CEO.
And were you to examine the absolute rocket fuel behind the boutique guitar effects pedal business, I think you’d need to rejigger your thesis. Did you talk to Zachary Vex of ZVEX? The hundreds of folks who’ve started to make crazy pedals in response to demand? Johnny Balmer of Alchemy Audio, who runs one of the top pedal modification shops in the country and has a slew of electrics hanging on his wall? Meanwhile, companies from Mooer, to tc electronic, to Jet City, to Tone City, are blowing open the budget pedal business. These items fly off the shelves. Tone City’s brand new line has almost as many mini pedals as the IRS has pages in its tax code.
Indeed, there’s nothing worse than a fellow journalist (read: me) coming dangerously close to smug by picking apart the thesis of a respected, smart colleague. You worked the story, Geoff, at a level I truly envy. Lots of great interviews.
But after 25 years of scrawling for dailies and guitar mags, I’ve seen enough “death of hip-hop,” “death of rock,” “death of vinyl,” “death of anything but the MP3,” “death of the MP3,” and “death of the album” stories to make me question the fine line between thoughtful analysis and worn-out trope. What next: The Death of Death Metal? The only one that ever resonated with me was “The Death of Newspapers.” (I was laid off in 2009.)
Happy to grab a beer when I’m in DC, and we can debate this one on one. 773–294–7006, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The electric guitar is alive and well, Geoff. Long live rock.