Guitar

Update: The Guitar is Totally Not Dying!

(Would I lie to you?)

Over the past year I have posted a couple of times on the drama surrounding the financial difficulties of Gibson Guitar and Guitar Center, and the alleged cratering of the market for guitars that was going to result in The Walking Dead or a Music World Ruled by Holograms! (Nobody else is making the “hologram” connection, but that’s just the kind of hard-hitting journalism you should rightfully expect from THE GUITAR CAVE. Think I’m kidding? Watch this video and be frightened, outraged, and amazed!)

But we’re not here to talk about holograms, we’re here to follow-up on a post I wrote back in July on a story I’ve been tracking since last year; The Death of the Electric Guitar! As you may recall, I was skeptical and viewed a lot of the info and opinions contained in articles such as this one with a fair amount of derision and dark humor and, as it turns out, it looks like I was right to do that. Current information online suggests that Gibson, a company that is now millions of dollars in debt, was formerly doing a-ok selling guitars. Annually they move about 170,000 in 80 countries and control 40% of the over-$2000 market. But then Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz got bored or tried to channel his inner Steve Jobs and took his company on a buying spree:

In 2012, bought a stake in consumer audio company Onkyo.
In 2013, bought stereo maker TEAC in 2013 for $53 million.
In 2014, paid $135 million to acquire Royal Phillips’s home-entertainment systems.

None of this “stuff” really has anything to do with “guitars” and all of this “not guitar stuff” resulted in the company owing about $500 million in cool ones and no, I’m not talking about Mohitos. The debt was not accrued because Eric Clapton is old, rock is dead or any of the other reasons listed in any of those articles like the one I linked to above! Guitar sales haven’t fallen to zero levels, they just haven’t risen to the level necessary to counter the losses on this dream of being the King of ‘Lectronics. It’s very doubtful that any serious, responsible and independent study would’ve projected that the guitar market would’ve swelled to the levels necessary to cover the debts if these gambles didn’t pay off, but who worries about stuff like that anymore? Anyone who has spent even the minimum of time in Corporate America knows that no one likes a naysayer and if the CEO decides a guitar company should enter the very crowded and competitive market of electronics, who are you to say otherwise? A few months ago Juszkiewicz was interviewed and related that Gibson guitar sales had actually risen over 10% since January 2017! In my previous post on the subject I quoted Fender CEO Andy Mooney who claimed that, “Fender sales had risen and ukulele sales were ‘exploding,'” so the two largest guitar companies have actually seen a sales improvement over the past two years. Doesn’t sound like “death” to me. I think “death” is when NO SALES happen and junk, but I don’t have an MBA. Before exiting the interview, Juszkiewicz offered the following CEO-type predictions:

“…I’m not sure I exactly answered your question, but I will be here for a while, as CEO, and then I will be here for a while, for a couple of years, as an active advisor and mentor and we have a lot of young managers that are just dynamite inside the company, that are progressing and will progress into higher levels, so it’s all good.”

Bzzzt! Wrong again! I think this guy’s crystal ball capabilities have suffered critical failure. He was just bounced from the CEO chair as a condition of the bankruptcy exit plan that was approved this month! In September Gibson introduced its 2019 model line with a focus on gettin’ back to basics and this past week announced their new CEO and yes! It’s gonna be great! There’s a new Sheriff in town and he doesn’t shave, so you know he’s serious!

James “JC” Curleigh (the JC is supposed to make you think of the guy who rises things from the dead!) is billed on YouTube as someone WHO KNOWS HOW TO BUILD BRANDS! He was formerly CEO at Levi Strauss so I would expect a new line of guitars that features pockets and zippers as he merges the guitar + personal accessory markets! Potential profits = INSANE-A-MUNGOUS! It would be great if someone teaches Kylie Jenner to play guitar! Great for finance guys and investors I mean…because who cares about anyone else? Seriously though, I think we can all rest easier tonight knowing that Gibson is going to be around for a while. Even though I no longer own one of their guitars, I am happy that a deal has been worked out and hope that the right kind of positive improvements can be made to help the company prosper in the 2020s. Also, if you were one of those people who rushed into the stores to pick up a Les Paul because you thought they were going the way of the dodo…thanks for taking one for the team or something!

Then, there is Guitar Center. A March, 2018 article here lays the blame for the company’s $1 billion debts “partly on changing musical tastes”. This statement is followed by George Gruhn’s old-guy babbling about the lack of guitar heroes, the kids who listen to rap, and how we’re all Juggalos now, homescallion! As a very prescient comment to this article notes, this is all about customer-blaming and that is what I’ve been saying in all of my posts and the reason for my sarcastic tone. The finance guys and their buds in the media never take the blame for anything and no matter how egregious the business gamble, mistake, or miscalculation, the fault gets shoved on unpredictable intangibles or hapless customers/consumers who can just never do enough for Corporate America. Let’s just look at this article for further confirmation:

“…Los Angeles financial firm Ares Management took control of Guitar Center in 2014 in a $500-million debt-for-equity swap. There has been some talk of Ares taking Guitar Center public again…“Guitar Center is a good business, and the Bain Capital guys paid a premium on it, expecting continued market growth,” said Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades magazine. “The industry growth didn’t materialize.”…Bain Capital declined to comment. Ares did not respond to a request for comment.

Of course there was no comment from the guys who overpaid, gambled and lost…what are they going to say? “Er…we overpaid, gambled and lost?” The next sentence is also a humdinger: “A main drag has been the massive changes in retail as sales have migrated online. For example, Guitar Center has long generated income selling used instruments. But it now faces competition in that market from the likes of EBay and Reverb, an online musician marketplace, experts say.” Ebay has been around for 20+ years and Guitar Center also has a lot of competition from Craigslist in the used instrument market. Do those “industry experts” not know this or do they not think the public realizes this…even as the public uses these services? Sometimes it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the disconnect. Soon after these articles appeared, another emerged on Forbes where previous allegations of trouble were dismissed as “fake news” by Michael Amkreutz, EVP of merchandising and e-commerce. According to him, things be looking pretty cherry, yo!:

Music Trades magazine, the industry’s bible, reported the total guitar market unit volume grew 7% from 2016-2017 and in retail value 8.8%. With a total retail market of $1.3 billion, acoustic guitars make up about 56% ($740 million) and electric guitars the remaining 44% ($590 million), which grew just a shade faster in retail volume last year (up 9.1% as compared to 8.6% for acoustics).

So customers are stepping up and Gibson and Guitar Center, who just a few months ago were supposedly in a death spiral because they had been abandoned by a fickle, distracted public, have actually seen increased sales! Hallelujah! So were those articles, like this one from the Washington Post, wrong or were they part of the strategy? I. Don’t. Know. Perhaps it was the old “snowstorm” psychology at work. Doom and gloom gets people to buy! buy! buy! Similar behavior has occurred after mass shootings; because people fear legislation that will restrict their purchasing choices, they flock to the stores before the legislation happens. Who knows what kind of numbers a bunch of articles on “the death of the guitar” could drive into the stores? Tune in tomorrow for the Christmas forecast! I’m sure it will be just as confusing.

The Wolf at the Door

Ater 25 years in the same apartment, I moved on to new digs this year. It was time and all of the post-move changes seem to have worked out, and I am very thankful for that. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to move too far and it wasn’t a tedious or complicated process, but, somehow, somewhere, I lost a Howlin’ Wolf compilation that I had and I don’t have it digitally. Bummer! I have no Howlin’ Wolf on my person at the moment. I am Wolf-less. I haven’t been Wolf-less in years and the stuff I see on the iTunes store doesn’t look that great. It is incomplete. This is not a good thing.

Way, way back in 2011 (WOW!) I wrote this paragraph in a post on the illustrious Booker ‘Bukka’ White:

“I’ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. And…he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.”

That’s a pretty happening paragraph. Damn! I’m good. The same feelings I have for Bukka and his acoustic blues music, I have always had for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) and his gnarly, snarly, electric blues. Yea, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson and all of the rest were great. No doubt. Willie Dixon, of course, was the premiere songwriter of them all. He was also an awesome bass player and over the years played with pretty much everybody. But Wolf’s brand of blues and his awesome presence, live or on record, cannot be beat. He towers over other performers by a mile and this is why he was also a huge influence and a big favorite of people like Bonnie Raitt, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Brian Jones and his little band from Britain, The Rolling Stones.

Wolf was a big dude — 6 foot 3, 300 lbs. and his brand of blues was dangerous and menacing…’cause even when he was sitting down wearing accountant glasses he still looked menacing. Like Bukka White he sang about the very dangerous things he knew about: evil, riding trains, liquor, fights, women, more fighting, life, and more women. His best songs, whether original or not, are my favorite versions of those songs: Smokestack Lightning, Sittin’ On Top of the World, Evil, Moanin’ at Midnight, Wang Dang Doodle, Killing Floor, Down in the Bottom, Back Door Man, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, How Many More Years, and I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline). All of these tunes featured Wolf’s booming, bassy, bad-ass testifying shouts, whoops, snarls and, yelps front and center, while his guitar, slide guitar and harmonica punched, jabbed, accented and punctuated his backing band’s steady rolling rhythm. This produced a beautiful and sometimes terrifying musical atmosphere as Wolf’s. It was, as legendary producer Sam Phillips recalled, “This is where the soul of man never dies.” His voice was as big as the country; too big to be contained by music hall, bar or the radio. Often imitated, but never equaled, it was an unparalleled instrument gave all of his material an instantly recognizable brand and edge. This version of Smokestack Lightning is a bit different from the recorded version but it illustrates the Howlin’ Wolf’s blues train: the swingin’ kit hits, guitar screams and stabs, piano tinkles, and bass rumble working together simultaneously while Wolf rides the top of the boxcar shouting, moaning and lowing his orgy dream tale of train-riding and woman-loving. [LateEdit: I love the recorded version of this song. It has all of the elements of this live version but is driven by Hubert’s hypnotically repetitive Chicago-by-way-of-the-Delta guitar riff. Definitely serves up the essence of the Howlin’ Wolf sound!]

While Wolf had the showbiz image of the dangerous, fly-by-night, criminal badass, he was actually a very conservative, hard-working and responsible bandleader. Financially he always did well; so well he was able to pay his band better than anyone else and even provided health insurance, which is why he had the best band in the business and players, like guitarist Hubert Sumlin, stuck around for the duration of Wolf’s life and career. It was all about the music, which Wolf gave forty years of his life to before succumbing to various health ailments in 1976. Prior to that he was able to capitalize on the blues revival in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and he taught all of youngsters what roadhouse blues was really all about.

Hubert Sumlin was also a huge part of the Howlin’ Wolf sound and a lot of his licks show up later in stuff like Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song and various Cream covers that everyone has heard a million times. He was the perfect foil for Wolf’s voice, guitar and harmonica sound. Whether the band was on big stages or in small, intimate situations, they always turned it out in great rockin’ rhythm and blues style!

So what am I gonna do? I have to find the complete sides collection somewhere, but no one buys CDs anymore do they? I don’t do the streaming, so I guess I’ll have to go to a store. Holy Cow! I’ll have to work up to this…I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Wow! It’s Summer Already!

Yeah! I haven’t exactly been lighting up the blogging universe with posts. I think the last one was in Fall of 2017. Whatever…I got old, I slowed down…way down. I’m not really doing anything very interesting musical anymore but I think there is going to be a big rush of stuff coming. So stay tuned for that you 20-30 people a day (maybe) who still visit here. I have been taking a lot of pictures and cooking a whole bunch of different food. I was thinking of putting some of that on here too…so there might not be as much Guitar in The Guitar Cave anymore…that will probably be ok.

The other thing is: If I were a young guy I would get a YouTube channel and do something that way because for music, art, graphics, cooking or really most of the stuff I like, a YouTube presentation really is the way to go. A blog can still work for political analysis/social commentary-type stuff where most people, especially older people, would rather read than watch… and where the commentariat plays a big role in how the blog/site functions and how popular it is. I think everybody has these preferences…some would rather watch this or read this, etc., etc.

I started this blog in 2011 and these types of channels hadn’t materialized yet. For that matter, when I started playing Gypsy Jazz, online instructional material on jazz guitar was pretty hard to come by unless you were already a player. YouTube has really become what television always should have been — entertaining and instructional, whether it’s for guitar, music, art, food, whatever. One can enjoy watching a channel spotlighting a skill, even something as humanly basic as cooking, and (if one is capable of following instructions) prepare that dish or those dishes for an evening meal. And it’s all driven by audience choice…dial up whatever you want and I’m sure you will find exactly that and not something that a group of people who own a station or a media company decided you should watch at a certain time. It’s soooo cool to be alive to see this and I make use of it ALL THE TIME.

Speaking of photos, here is a close-up on the plaque of the Charlie Parker residence in the East Village, New York City. Follow the link in “residence” for property info. Charlie lived here from 1950 to 1954 and besides the land-marked townhouse that is worth whatever millions people with too much money are willing to pay, there is an annual Charlie Parker Festival in the park across the street. It is one of a few good concerts one can see in the summertime.

I dunno…just, because.