2008 NAMM Show Report

Saving the Music Biz One Guitar String at a Time

by Shawn Perry

It seems like every article I read about the music business these days is laced with a mixture of good and bad. Sales of CDs continue to fall, yet some of the more enterprising artists out there are going independent, and embracing new digital distribution channels to get their music to the masses. A number of new singers and bands on the mainstream circuit are just not cutting it, while oodles of more adventurous, challenging artists — hiding under rocks or slipping through the cracks — are beng ignored. There are plenty of other problems, but that's not what this article is about.

Newcomer Taylor Swift plays at
the Taylor Guitar booth

If the music industry, or more specifically, the "recording" industry, is in a hurt of pain, you'd never know it by looking at the $17 billion international musical instruments and products industry. Cruising the aisles of the Anaheim Convention Center, I detected few signs of turmoil or financial woe at the 2008 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) tradeshow. "Despite the uncertain economic times the music products industry once again showed its resiliency as we came together to see new products, attend NAMM University courses, and network with friends and peers," says Joe Lamond, president and CEO, NAMM. "We believe this is a positive sign for the year ahead."

Indeed, NAMM and its roster of music product manufacturers seem to be spinning in an alternate universe. Typically, I slither in and out of the NAMM show on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But this year, I only have Saturday and maybe an hour or so on Sunday morning, so I'm going to have to maximize my efforts and double up on my caffeine.

Fortunately, I've been getting bits and pieces of information on the show fed to me by one of my photographers who makes it a habit to go to first day press conferences — for the free breakfasts. I drive over to the Anaheim Hilton Thursday night to check on his progress. We meet at Casio's 5th anniversary party for the Privia digital piano line, and I immediately order a Fat Tire to wash down the anniversary cake.

As he finishes his fifth vodka and tonic and shows me some of the cool swag he'd collected that day, my photographer wows me with news about a soggy bagel he had at the Fender press conference, but heard they were serving some tasty jelly donuts at the Breedlove Guitar press conference (later confirmed untrue). Oh, and he'd also shot some nice footage of Jon Anderson singing some bluegrass. How can I not fetch him another drink from the open bar after hearing about that?

So I get him a drink and empty another Fat Tire, knowing my NAMM show experience is going to be quick, painless and stimulating.

Guitar Talk

Come Saturday morning, the first order of business is getting a good parking spot. This proves to be easier than previous years, though a bit pricey for a cheapskate like me. Nevertheless, the car is safe and accessible, so I’m good to go. Next, it’s off to the media registration window to claim my credentials. After that, I’m scheduled to meet with my crew in the press room. Miraculously, everyone’s on time, so I announce our first destination: the Peavey Custom Shop press conference.

Today, the company is unveiling two new signature guitars: the JR Special from Grammy-winning guitarist Josh Rand of Stone Sour, and the MS-1, a collaborative design between Queensrÿche guitarist Mike Stone and motorcycle designer Erik Buell. I marveled at Stone’s guitar work when I saw Queensrÿche open for Heaven & Hell, so I'm anxious to see what he’s come up with.

Stone’s guitar is a really beauty with a sleek contoured mahogany body, a mahogany fretboard and twin Seymour Duncan pickups. The guitarist says he was looking for something as comfortable as his bike, and Buell delivered. “Eric and I had been talking about designing a guitar,” he says as he hoists up a guitar with a sugary ivory finish, “and now I’m holding it.”

Queensrÿche guitarist Mike Stone
and his Peavey MS-1

Buell, who built the prototype and presented it to Peavey, adds,” it’s a mixture of a lot of motorcycles and guitars. When he puts down the guitar, he grabs a motorcycle. When my day job is over, I pick up a guitar. We live alternate lives.” Yeah, and when you have the best guitars and motorcycles at your disposal…what else do you need in this life?

Stone later fills me in on Queensrÿche, who are heading into the studio to make a new record for a summer release. Then, it’s back to Europe to tour behind the full Operation Mindcrime production. And maybe, he’ll squeeze in a ride or two if he gets a spare moment.

The press conference is surprisingly efficient, and we’re done and ready to make our next move. As I walk the floor, I realize there are probably over 10,000 guitars or more for 20,000 or more guitar players at this event. We’re talking a regular guitar army. Suddenly, I find myself checking out Washburn Guitars. They may have sponsored the Extreme reunion, featuring Washburn endorser Nuno Bettencourt, the night before, but I wasn’t about to hold that against them.

Joe Ekljer, a sales rep for U.S. Music Corp. (the parent company of Washburn Guitars, Randall Amplifiers, Eden Electronics, Parker Guitars, and Oscar Schmidt Musical Instruments), tells me Washburn is celebrating 125 years of guitar making. “We’re the second oldest guitar company in the world,” he says proudly. He shows me a few acoustics, then explains how they’re developing more heavy metal style guitars (quite a contrast). According to Ekljer, having five companies under the U.S. Music Corp. umbrella gives them the luxury of borrowing and sharing parts, technologies and ideas to enhance all the products lines. Makes sense to me.

Scott Ian's 'Murder Weapon' from Washburn

We wander about the booth and he shows me a Scott Ian (of Anthrax) Series “Murder Weapon” with a dodgy V-shape body (not at all like the “friendly” Flying V) and a blood-stained finish. Talk about versatility — it’s light as a matchbox, breathes and seethes profoundly when plucked, and doubles as a battle ax. I can’t wait to get one.

A few minutes later, I stumble into a different, brighter world: Daisy Rock Girl Guitars. Testosterone may be factored into the engineering of many of the guitars wielded around here, but Daisy Rock caters to a female clientele with butterflies and flowers adorning the instruments' bodies. Amber Chamberlain, a marketing coordinator with the company, says these guitars are light with a thinner neck, “designed to fit the female form.”

So far, Lisa Loeb, Hannah Montana, Hilary Duff, even Dolly Parton, among others (including a few male guitarists like ZZ Top’s Bill Gibbons), have signed on as endorsees. Chamberlain shows me their very first “artist” guitar the Bangles Signature model, a semi-hollow bodied, metallic black guitar. It looks like a modified Rickenbacker — an obvious favorite of the Liverpool-inspired L.A. band — with softer lines and a curious, defiant-looking f-hole. I’m thinking it could probably give a Les Paul a run for its money.

The Hit of the Show:
Gibson's Robot Guitar

Fender, Gibson and More Guitar Talk

I realize, with most of my day dedicated to guitars — always the most popular attraction at NAMM aside from…oh never mind — that it’s near impossible to escape the inevitable. I thank the people at Daisy Rock and venture out into the lobby. I stop by the press room and suck down a coffee. I ascend the escalator to guitar heaven. It’s time to pay my respects to the big guns of the guitar business:Fender and Gibson.

They might have missed the mark with the grub on Thursday morning, but Fender pulled out all the stops when they introduced their new “American Standard” Series — the first extensive revamp of the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass and Jazz Bass models in eight years. And while these lines certainly have a considerable presence at the Fender booth, so does just about everything else — from Jackson’s new Signature Phil Collen line to the Tony Franklin fretless bass.

As it so happens, Franklin, the spiky-haired bassist with the Firm and Blue Murder, is holding court with fellow bass player Chuck Wright (Quiet Riot, House of Lords) and drummer Pat Torpey (Mr. Big, Robert Plant). Seizing a rare opportunity, I ask each musician what he’s been up to. “I’m doing some graphic design work and playing with Dizzy Reed from Guns N’ Roses,” Wright says. “I’ll be out in March with Love/Hate and Dizzy.” Over to Torpey. “I’ve been doing some international stuff. I played with Ritchie Kotzen in Italy in October and November. And I’ve been working with the Knack. We did a festival in Spain. And then I went to Monte Carlo and hung out with Ringo.”

Torpey pulls out his digital camera and, lo and behold, there he is with Ringo Starr, posing together in the glitzy city of Monaco. No doubt about it, drummers have the most fun. Franklin arches his eyebrow and tells me he’s working for Fender, showing his signature line. “I have a fretless Precision Bass and a fretted Precision Bass,” he says. Nice. What else is going on? “I keep busy — doing lots of sessions, recording a bass album, writing a book, and a screenplay.” I ask him if he has time for a possible Firm reunion with Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers. “We talked about it, but now Jimmy’s involved in a different reunion,” he laughs.

Tony Franklin and his
Fender Precision Bass

Fighting through a massive throng of autograph seekers and wide-eyed gawkers awaiting the arrival of the Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan, I make my way over to the Gibson booth, where only the media, buyers, and well-connected members of the royal family are granted entrance.

Gibson, of course, is still swimming in the adulation from the Consumer Electronics Show, which took place two weeks previous in Las Vegas. There, they unveiled the Robot Guitar, the first guitar with robotic self-tuning technology. The Robot is prominently displayed in the front part of the room the company is occupying. One buyer from Guitar Center informs me that Robot Guitars are flying off the shelves and he’s having problems keeping them in stock. Although its inner workings are impressive, the Robot looks like a simple and sleek blue Les Paul without the excess.

Aside from the Robot Guitar, Gibson, much like Fender, is riding the range on its legacy products — forgoing the whole nasty heavy metal, cutting-edge route in lieu of its rich history and relationships with world-class players. In other words, the guitars the company is tooting its horn about are reissue signature models of classic models.

The Jimmy Page guitar replicates a three-pickup 1960 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty” with a Bigsby tailpiece. The Gibson Custom Shop Johnny Winter Signature Firebird V is a recreation of the blues master’s most beloved ax, right down to the very last detail. Slash’s #1 Les Paul Standard captures the spirit of the GNR/Velvet Revolver slinger’s attitude with an authentic cigarette burn mark on the body. Alex Lifeson’s 1976 Gibson ES-355, extensively used on stage and in the studio by the renown Rush guitarist, receives a proper, tasteful makeover. Operating from this small, almost claustrophobic room, Gibson still holds the competition at bay.

Retreating from the second floor, I return to the main showroom, passing by a seemingly endless parade of guitar manufacturers. Dean, Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, B.C. Rich, ESP, Carvin, Schecter — they’re all pushing the envelope with new designs and shapes, additional hardware options, integrated technologies and other enticing gimmicks they think guitar players want and need. And while gearheads eat this stuff up, you have to wonder how the purebred players feel about all the so-called “innovations” being slapped onto their chosen instrument.

Lashbrook's LTH-1 Guitar

For a change, I venture down to the basement of the convention center, a place where lots of smaller companies and upstarts work at getting a foothold in an extremely competitive business. Perhaps, there’s a guitar maker here trying something new, interesting, maybe even practical — instead of reissuing a classic design or covering the body with bright colors, curious angles and odd-ball gadgets.

I come across the Lashbrook LTH-1, an aesthetically pleasing solid body electric guitar boasting an extremely thin form factor, five pounds wet or dry, and a tone as sweet as honey pie. Master luthier Larry Lashbrook isn’t necessarily new to the scene; he’s been building guitars for decades, and has even done custom work for people like Yngwie Malmsteen. The LTH-1 is the culmination of his many years working to create the “perfect” guitar. “This is our first NAMM show and our first chance to introduce this guitar,” John Lashbrook, Larry’s son, tells me. "The real innovation is that we wind our own pick-ups, which are made out of wood. Everything on this guitar is made of wood except the mounting hardware. What that means is we have wooden components that give the guitar an unbelievable acoustic sound." Not bad for a solid body.

At this point, I’m fairly “guitared” out, but then I get to talking with Pat Bubien, who’s looking over some of the different woods on display. It seems there’s enough parts here to build a guitar, something Bubien has been doing for 22 years with his own line he calls Guitarification.

“I have a few designs that follow the Tele, and a few original designs that follow some heavy metal styles,” he says. “I have one that simulates a hatchet.” At this point, I’m thinking Scott Ian needs to get in touch with this guy, but after Bubien shows me a couple of pics, I suspect he won’t have much trouble signing some talent to back his axes.

With only a few hours left, I suddenly realize there’s something more I need to see at NAMM besides another friggin’ electric guitar.


All Amped Up

All the electric guitars in the world aren’t worth their weight in whammy bars unless you can plug in and turn it up. On that front, Marshall pretty much has the market cornered. I could extol the virtues of a Fender Twin Reverb or a stack of EVHs, but the Marshall sound is what every rock guitarist wants. For a company steeped in tradition, it amazes me how much attention they give to Slayer’s Kerry King. I’ve met King on a few occasions over the years, and found him to be rather amicable despite his salty reputation with many of his metal peers. His attitude towards other bands for selling out may be a bit unfair; afterall, the guy has more product endorsements than Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods combined. And his presence at NAMM, especially at Marshall, is huge.

Apparently, King’s diabolical look — shaved head, imposing beard and plenty of well-placed modern primitive tattoos — is something Marshall finds appealing and marketable. When introducing King’s signature MG10KK practice amp, Marshall’s PR people emphasize that the amp “features a striking red and bold black faceplate design, and drawing from King’s trademark look, shares the same tribal-art motif of his signature Marshall JCM800 2203KK head.” Based on that, one can only assume it sounds as good as it looks.

While I can admire Marshall’s efforts to step it up visually, their Limited Edition Randy Rhoads Tribute Head only catches my eye because it’s white. Further investigation reveals it’s the guts inside that give the amp its roar. And that’s why Marshall amps, whether they come in black, white, pink, or include little fuzzy balls to hang from the volume knob, are still king. If you want to keep things simple, check out their Vintage Modern line, which allows you to explore a range of sounds to keep your ears ringing for weeks.

It’s at this point that one of my photographers, a guitarist and major gearhead, directs my attention to Diezel Guitar Amplification. According to the company’s web site, Peter Diezel got his start modifying Marshall amps. When he hit a wall, he teamed up with Peter Stapfer, and together they built their German-based operations into a reputable brand.

Diezel Guitar Amplification

Diezel gets a lot of love from the likes of Richie Sambora, Muse and Korn. While it’s debatable as to whether or not it unleashes the proper mix of drive and distortion like the Marshalls, no can argue with the fact that unique features like midi, switchable loops enhance the Diezel line with a certain air of versatility. And for that, they should be commended.

After a while, amps start to look and sound the same. And while I’m not really looking for anything unique, there’s no avoiding a company like Orange, who not only offers all their products in a distinctive orange enclosure; they also hit the meters soundwise. Nevertheless, when I bump into Cliff Cooper, the company’s CEO, I have to ask: Why orange? “It’s my favorite color,” he laughs, “and it’s been very lucky for us.” Given the fact that Orange, like Marshall, is British may also contribute to its rich and regal legacy. One thing is for sure: when you have everyone from Avril Lavigne to Stevie Wonder using your product, you must be doing something right.

Tickling the Ivories

At this point, I’m done with amps, strings, picks, straps, hardware, wood, and anything else remotely related to the guitar. With only a couple of hours left, I listen to another of my photographers, who also happens to be a keyboard player. We decide to check in on Hammond and Moog, both of which carry a lot of weight (literally) and sway with the rock and roll crowd.

Hammond is one of the more unassuming booths at NAMM, and I kind of appreciate that. I get to talking to National Sales Manager Jay Valle and he says, “Hammond has been in a real growth period for the past couple of years. Now we’re expanding our legacy products to include guitars. As you can see, we have our new Leslie guitar amp.” Valle takes me over to the G37 and G27, essentially amplified channels that spin a guitar through the Leslie cycle. And to think: I came here to talk keyboards and end up back in Guitar Land.

I have to admit, Hammond and Leslie, at one time bitter enemies and now joined at the hip, are moving forward with some exciting things. Valle assures me. “Expect a number of good things from Hammond, because Hammond has the sound, the look, the feel…” It’s like the B3 is entering another dimension and you can’t fight the feeling.

The Nord C1:
Made in Sweden

I’m ready for Moog, a product I approach with some hesitation. How do you improve on a sound that no one has yet improved on? Yeah, that’s how strongly I feel about it. They’re a lot like Hammond — modest, out-of-the-way, practically missed if you blink your right eye walking the 10 feet or so between Paul Reed Smith and Peavey and Ernie Ball. And that’s only if you’re looking to your left.

So, we amble into Moog and make friends with James Daniello, a sales and marketing associate with the company. He says, “the main thing we have is the Voyager – Old School, which is really a stripped down Voyager with no midi and no presets, completely analog. And that’s been a real hit around here.”

All of sudden, in the midst of our interview, a spooky sounding Theremin starts churning out “The Star Spangled Banner,” and I realize I’m probably way over my head when it comes to a colliding montage of noise clouding my mind while I’m trying to figure out a technology that, at best, confounds the commoner and the snoopy-nosed reporter like me. Bob Moog would have been proud.

Beaten & Bruised

I realize there is one world I have passed by without any recognition whatsoever: Drums. I own a Gretsch set, but can’t seem to interest anyone at Gretsch to give me the lowdown, so I mosey on over to Ludwig because…they’re Ludwig. I had wandered by earlier, asking Jason Bonham if Led Zeppelin had any further plans beyond the 02 show. He just smiled and played dumb.

Roland V-Drums rule the roost

I just care about what they’re doing with the line, so Les Butts, national accounts regional manager with the company, fills me in on the latest Ludwig happenings. "We've introduced our new Legacy Classics and our wrap finishes," he says, "we have four vintage wrap finishes: champagne sparkle, green sparkle, silver sparkle and red sparkle." When I press him on whether or not Ludwig is developing a special set for a possible upcoming Led Zeppelin world tear, he replies: “I can officially say, ‘no comment.’”

From there, I admire the Pearls, the Premiers, the Tamas, and of course, the Zildjians. But alas — the show is over and my job is done. It’s time to ditch this function and grab a bite before the evening’s entertainment.

Heart & Soul

If you’ve read any of my previous NAMM Show Reports, you may know that the Hilton is the epicenter for post-show socializing, merry-making and all-out chaos. In more recent years, I’ve come to regard the mangle of individuals who camp out in the lobby and bar of the hotel with a mixture of fear, hostility and mild amusement.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with everyone getting together and sharing a few drinks; it’s just putting so many people into such a small space can be annoying and somewhat treacherous.

That being said, I return to the Hilton tonight for one reason and one reason only: to see Epiphone’s Heart & Soul show in the Pulse Lounge, which occupies a corner of the Hilton. We arrive early and enjoy some dynamite blues from Bad Influence and Nick Colionne. Then around 10:00 PM, Heart hits the stage and blazes through a monster set filled with hits of their own like "Straight On" and "Barracuda," as well as a few classics by others, such as the Who's "The Real Me." Ann Wilson can still belt it out like there's no tomorrow, while sister Nancy handles the guitar as if it's an extension of her body. By and large, this is one of the best shows I've ever seen at NAMM.

Just before midnight, I escape the madness of the Hilton and head back to my room. At once, I'm skipping down Slumber Lane with visions of Stratocasters, Les Pauls, B3s and Marshall stacks dancing in my head. It's a wonder I get any sleep at all.

Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart
take over the Hilton

The Morning After

It’s not always the rule, but Sundays during the Winter NAMM show are usually pretty dead. There are a number of reasons for this. Saturday is the pinnacle of partying for the NAMM crowd. Like all musicians and musical types, NAMM people know how to party. For those revelers who closed out the Hilton and kept it going late into the night in a suite, Sunday is for rest and recuperation. After three days, the show winds down on Sunday, with lots of folks heading home or already there. Sundays in January also happen to be playoff game days in the NFL. But even a few scattered LCDs on the showroom floor don’t quite capture the needed spirit, especially when you’re competing with a cacophony of guitars, drums, horns, keyboards, voices and other noises.

On my way out, I see Rick Derringer, a regular fixture at the Warrior Guitar booth, and ask him about the forthcoming Derringer reunion. "We're getting warmed up," he says. "We have a few dates out here. I think we're doing the Coach House and the Key Club on the west coast. Probably B.B. Kings on the east coast. Then a few shows in Europe and that will probably be it. We're not going to stay together forever, just a few reunion shows."

And the lineup? "The exact same Derringer band from the 70s: Danny Johnson on the other guitar, Kenny Aaronson on bass and Vinny Appice on drums." Sounds rocking!

Once I’m informed that the New England Patriots are beating the San Diego Chargers, I realize I need to get to a TV and watch the rest of the game. It’s been a great show this year. I learned a lot and spoke to some great companies and musicians. We’ll see what happens next year.

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