A Race to the Bottom
At an outdoor bluegrass jam in Indiana I buyers ended up with instruments that
saw a woman in her late eighties, a friend appreciated, and wise companies turned
of my wife, playing an honest-to-God, pre- a profit while building legendary brands.
war Martin D45. I asked her if I could play Asian companies manufactured guitars in
it, and I noticed that the side of the guitar the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well. Today, most of
had picked up a big chunk of grass and their old relics are worthless, while most of
mud when she laid it down by her feet while the work of their US peers has appreciated
eating fried chicken during a break in the greatly—because the American companies
music. George Gruhn might price this guitar strove to build the highest quality instru-around $150K today, which is about double ments with the finest materials, while others
the value of this woman’s house. She and set a goal of high production at a low cost.
her sister Esther bought new, matching
Martins in the early forties, and they’ve
been playing them ever since—these days
mainly at their weekly nursing home gigs
and bluegrassy, covered-dish get-togethers
(to see this little old lady strumming the tar
out of her Martin is a holy thing). Go to a
bluegrass jam and you’ll find that this is not
uncommon. It’s all old Martins and Gibsons.
These salt-of-the-earth, working-class
bluegrassers laid out serious, hard-earned
cash for their instruments, buying the best
they could afford. One might assume these
instruments were relatively cheap at the
time, but that’s not the case.
than anybody I know—purchased a cute, little,
girly, import guitar for his adorable daughter.
He test-drove the flowery thing and thought,
Man, for an inexpensive guitar this is surprisingly good. And it was for a few months, until
that cheap, green wood and shoddy parts
disintegrated into unplayable crap.
My friend Rick Gessner, a builder of brilliant tube amps, hipped me to a 1958
Gibson catalogue; it was a thought-pro-voking read. As I made my way through
this catalogue, I began to yearn for a
DeLorean with a flux capacitor. Here are
a few mouth-watering examples: In 1958,
Gibson’s 35W GA- 70 amp cost $260, which
translates to $1809 today. The Les Paul
Standard gold top cost $247.50 (case $42);
that’s $2054.33 today. The three-pickup
Custom cost $375, which today would be
$2661.04, or around 3K including case.
lies in creating
timeless classics in
a disposable world.
American manufacturers’ salvation lies in
creating timeless classics in a disposable
world. Given the numbers in the 1958
Gibson catalogue, today’s boutique amps
and serious guitars are (in a lot of cases)
not much more expensive than those built
in the USA when manufacturing was in its
prime and we were the innovators. There
are committed craftsman, like Valvetrain,
Hahn, and Gadow, who toil in small shops
to create new classics, much like Leo
Fender and Orville Gibson did back in the
day. In roughly 20 years, Paul Reed Smith
and Bob Taylor went from two guys in their
garages with a few hand tools making one
great guitar at a time, to gigantic companies making thousands of great guitars at
a time. Their success came from their commitment to creating timeless classics rather
than quicker, cheaper, disposable shit.
A comic/tragic side-note: Gibson’s triple
neck non-pedal steel cost a whopping $895
in ‘ 58. Sadly, some poor steel-guitar geek
who bought this instrument new could turn
it for about a grand today, but he could
have purchased two ‘ 58 LP standards and
one custom for the same amount and
cashed in for a cool million.
Gibson’s Epiphone plant in Asia has done
well, making good guitars at affordable
prices, but this foreign-shore outsourcing
has unexpectedly bitten them in the ass.
The foreign builders have gotten so good
at making Les Pauls that they now produce
nearly perfect knock-offs. My brother Mark
owns a chain of pawnshops in Wyoming
and Colorado, (City National Pawn—I’ve
bought some great old gear out of there
over the years). In his remote stores deep
in the heartland, he’s seen a few Les Paul
copies that I can’t tell from the originals.
Luckily, he can, and he turns them away.
Now there are thousands of authentic-look-ing, fake Gibsons flooding the market and
falling apart on unsuspecting buyers who
think they’ve found the deal of a lifetime.
American companies don’t need corporate
welfare. Instead of competing in the race
to the bottom—the race for the fastest,
cheapest disposable crap—they need to
love their product and watch their quality
control. Then the whole world will cherish
their instruments for centuries to come.
This recession is no hype. Many companies
struggle to make their numbers, and few of
us can justify buying another guitar when we
don’t know if we will be employed in a few
months. I do have a few things on my wish
list that I’ll buy when my income allows; they
are made here and they will appreciate in
time. More importantly, I’m going to enjoy
the hell out of playing them.
Much like today, money was tight in the
‘40s and ‘50s, but people wanted quality
and they were willing to pay for it. Smart
My friend Winn Krozack, from PRS—a full-on
genius who knows more about making guitars
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who has
recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His
songs and playing can be heard in several major motion
pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of
television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com