Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Back Pages: A Look at Guitar Player Magazine Back Issues #1--Thoughts on the economics of guitar building

I've been playing guitar pretty seriously since 1986, and for almost all of that time I have subscribed to guitar magazines. I have a collection of just about every Guitar Player magazine from 1987-2010, at which point I got so frustrated with their poor editing and lack of substance that I abandoned my subscription and replaced it with one for Premier Guitar magazine. That said, I frequently go back and reread the old issues, and thus this occasional series was born. 

Back in the old days (the 1980's and very early 1990's), Guitar Player wrote long, informative articles about the state of the guitar manufacturing industry. These articles were deeply fascinating to me, but what stands out most starkly now, decades later, is just how totally wrong they were when predicting the future of the industry.

I remember reading articles after the fall of the Iron Curtain that warned that vacuum tubes (which power most old, and many expensive new instrument amplifiers) would rapidly become unavailable due to the environmental problems related to their manufacture. The theory was that the Soviet bloc countries needed them for their tanks and radar systems, but the modern West would move on. Well, here we are in 2015 and not only are tube amps still considered to be the default for pros and aspirational objects for amateurs, but the price of tube amps is actually falling. In the December 1990 issue of Guitar Player ("Special Issue: Amps in the '90s") they review the Peavey Classic 50 (a retro style guitar amplifier modeled after the Fender Bassman which was used by bluesmen and early rockers in the 1950's and became the basis of the first Marshall amps in the 1960's. At the time, the guitar retailed for $699.95, which (according to the inflation calculator) would be the equivalent of $1248 now. But when I looked at leading online retailers, I found that the amplifier actually costs only $999, which is about 20% less

How is this possible? The amplifier is still made in Meridian, Mississippi, but Peavey doubtless takes advantage of computer based manufacturing processes and most significantly, inventory control to reduce their costs. The tubes and some other electronic components are doubtless imported, but they are still able to pay American workers to make the same amp for less than the cost 25 years ago in constant dollars. It's times like this that I wish I was an economist so I could understand this better!

Some time after the  amplifier article, Guitar Player devoted the April 1992 issue to the then-popular "unplugged" phenomenon ("Special Issue: Unplugged! The Acoustic Revolution"). The editors convened a "roundtable" of leading luthiers (guitar makers), many of whom are still leaders in the industry today, such as Jean Larrivee, Bill Collings, Chris Martin, and Bob Taylor. All of these makers (and many others) have been in the forefront of trying to make "sustainable" instruments, but they are faced with a market that will pay a premium for traditional tonewoods like rosewood, mahogany and spruce.

Many guitars are made with laminated tops, backs and sides (or at least backs and sides)--these instruments sound fine, but the common perception is that they will not "open up" over time and improve in their tone. All-solid wood guitars, on the other hand, will often sound "better" to many people as the wood ages and it gets used to the tension of the strings and the frequencies of commonly played string vibrations. 

In the April, 1992 Guitar Player, members of the panel lamented the future of solid wood acoustic guitars. Bill Collings observed "It is getting harder and harder to find quality materials". Chris Martin,whose family founded the most famous guitar company in the world in the 19th century fretted (see what I did there?):
"In the long-term future, solid wood, non-laminated guitars are going to become phenomenally expensive. Laminates and synthetics are going to be used for all but the high-priced instruments. People will say "I really want a solid wood guitar, but I can't afford $5,000 or $10,000. Okay, I'll buy the best laminate."

I do not pretend to know even one-hundredth of  what these expert luthiers know about wood, but I do know something about the costs of guitars. It just so happens, that over the past couple of years, I have purchased two all solid wood (spruce tops, mahogany back, sides and necks) acoustic guitars that are modeled after the Martin 000 model. Both guitars were made in China, shipped by sea to the United States, and wound up in my hands for under $300. The guitars are well made, visually attractive, and sound lovely. There is no question that the manufacturers economized to save wood (such as by utilizing a stacked heel design and a spliced headstock in my latest acquisition (visible in the picture at right), but these designs can actually provide a stronger neck than a more traditional one-piece neck. 

The bigger question to me is, what did the experts get wrong 23 years ago? Spruce and mahogany reforestation is not underway at such a large scale to make a difference. Skilled labor costs in China are much lower than in the U.S. (though they are compressing, as Chinese wages have seen double digit increases for many years, while American workers' incomes have been largely stagnant), but someone still has to cut the wood, store it to dry, ship it to China, turn it into guitars, and then ship it around the world again. How can this be done for such a low price? My guitar pictured on this page cost me $200, which is 4% or 2% of the cost that Chris Martin predicted so many years ago.

Again, I wish I understood the dismal science of economics better. Right now, though, it is hard not to think that we are living in a golden age for guitar buyers, which is a much more optimistic view than I was expecting to have based on my careful reading of Guitar Player in the 1990's. I welcome any comments from readers who have their own experiences or theories to share. 

No comments:

Post a Comment