The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

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Ryan Mazzocco
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The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Ryan Mazzocco »

Please forgive what is bound to be a seemingly aimless, rambling stream of thought, but it's just some things that have been floating around in my mind lately and I don't know of another acceptable outlet.
I was recently talking with a potential client (fingers still crossed) on commissioning a custom guitar. He is an active and hard working local musician who normally plays Martin guitars. But he wants to buy from me because, well, he was impressed with my work (sorry for tooting my own horn, but there it is) and wants something that was made locally and is different than what everyone else is playing. but he said something else that really got me thinking. He said that a respectable musician needs to have a high quality (which usually means expensive) guitar in order to be taken seriously by others. That's why he plays Martin guitars. they have a reputation of being among the best. According to him, when someone gets up on stage and puts on a Dean, Washburn or Alvarez (hey, watch it, I happen to like Washburn and Alvarez, but anyway...) or something like that you kinda get the feeling that they aren't really serious about what they are doing because they haven't made the big sacrifice to get a really good quality guitar. so before they ever even strum a chord you've made up your mind that they aren't that good. But when someone gets up there with a good quality (expensive) guitar you know they are serious and you are ready to hear what they can do.
Okay, first of all, someone can be really good and just not have any money and have to settle for a more mid range priced guitar, or maybe even low-end. Doesn't necessarily mean they aren't serious or they aren't good, they just can't afford it. And I know plenty of people that have very expensive guitars that can't play very well at all. But they had the money. But let's move past that point and focus on the point he was making that someone that's serious makes the sacrifice to get the serious guitar.
So, what, generally speaking, is considered the serious guitar? I can't help it, and I figure most of you in this forum do the same thing, but since I've started playing guitar before I was even a teenager I was always obsessed with brand. When I would see major acts performing on TV I was waiting for that perfect shot of the headstock so I could see what they were playing. I am at a point in my life where I know I will probably never ever buy a major factory brand guitar again, but I still look. Every time. What are these guys playing? I know there are a few exceptions, but almost every time if it's an electric guitar it's either a Fender or a Gibson. Sometimes it might be a Gretch, PRS, Ibanez or some other common brand. If it's an acoustic it's almost always a Martin, Gibson or Taylor. You might see the occasional Takamine, Ovation or other common brand. Point is, very, very, very rarely do you see someone on TV, or even live for that matter, playing a brand of guitar that you have never heard of. And that's not because we all know every brand of guitar out there, it's just that there are that few brands that it seems everyone wants and goes out and gets as soon as they have the money. Now, I admit that when I was younger there were certain guitars of these brands that I was just in love with and would daydream about being able to walk into a guitar store with a stack of cash and walk out with my dream guitar. That never happened. But you can bet that if I had the money I would have had them.
See, here's the thing; Luthiers, boutique guitar builders... I had never heard of such a thing. I thought all guitars came out of guitar factories and Gibson, Fender, Martin etc were the very best you could get. Once I learned that luthiery was a thing and seeing what luthiers are able to do, my entire world changed. As I said earlier, I will probably never buy a factory guitar ever again. I can just build for myself what I want. And if I do want to buy a guitar it will be a handmade instrument from an individual luthier. I am now convinced that THESE are the very best guitars you can buy. And this, finally, brings me to my point. Before I started becoming a luthier myself, those big factory brands were all I knew. If I had ever seen a boutique guitar I would probably just shrug it off as a nothing brand because I've never heard of it. "It's not one of the majors so it must be a cheap import or something. Right?" I try not to be that way, but that's how I was, and I assume most other guitar players are the same way. They want a good guitar, but they really want to impress their friends. A good friend of mine recently bought a Taylor and when she brought it to an open mic night the first thing she said to me was "I know, it's a poser guitar." First of all, I never said that... but sometimes... yeah. Everyone in the room (besides me) was impressed with her Taylor guitar, and knowing that everyone in the room is envious of something you have can bring a measure of satisfaction to a person.
Now, I know there are exceptions and there are the very very serious musicians who really know their stuff, but I'm speaking of the general, common musician population... the ones that are buying 99.999% of the high end guitars in the industry.
I realize that the hand-crafted boutique guitar is too expensive for the average working musician. So, let's go back to the performers that we see on TV. They've got money to spend and they claim they want to play the best they can get, and you know they are serious about what they are doing. Why, then, are they still playing the major well known brands? Why aren't they playing lesser known hand-made guitars? Why are they not searching out luthiers to build a truly custom, unique guitar that they can be really proud of? Why do they just get a stock Tele and swap out some pickups and a few mods, or buy a new Taylor and not make any mods at all and just play it like it is? This is not the best they can get. Why don't they seem to know about us? If anyone could help promote the boutique builder it would be these guys. But even when they are world famous and have more money than Davey Crockett (to borrow a line from Forrest Gump) they stick with the big brands to impress their friends and I guess, their fans? Sure, many times these big companies rope them into endorsement deals and they can't play anything else, but those contracts don't last forever. That in itself seems kind of silly to me. I mean, why sign a deal to get a few free guitars when you've got the money to buy as many of your favorite guitars as want? But that's beside the point. If you have actually been able to keep track of what the point actually is I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter because I do believe WE are indeed the best kept secret in the musical instrument industry.

Jason Rodgers
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Jason Rodgers »

Wow, that was amazing dude. Lots of stuff I can relate to there.

I think the last couple inches of what you said is what's going on. Of the handful of guitarists that I pay attention to anymore, I see in various articles and videos that they are in fact afficionados of smaller companies and some boutique builders, but on stage they play signature model Jackson, Ibanez, and PRS with signature model DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and Bare Knuckle pickups.

Why do they do this? I think it is because they - as guitar consumers who saw their guitar heros with those brands and signature/custom instruments - in part, feel that they've arrived and have had the torch passed to them to carry on that tradition. And yes, because they can go on tour and have a handful of nearly identical instruments waiting for them anywhere. And also because it allows all of those guitar god worshipping consumers to go out and buy their guitars, thus starting the cycle over again.
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.

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Ryan Mazzocco
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Ryan Mazzocco »

Yes, Jason I think you've hit it on the head. (and thanks for sticking with it long enough to get to the last couple inches.) Yes, the cycle starts over again and then trickles back down from there. Here's another quick story. At an open mic night a few weeks ago there was a guy who purchased one of my guitars (let's call him Mike) and had it there that night. There was another guy there that night (lets call him Chad) who is also a local working musician but just came to listen. Didn't even bring a guitar. In fact he plays lead in his band, electric only. The guy doesn't even own an acoustic guitar. So another he was with convinced him to go up and do a little improv jam. He borrows Mike's guitar, built by me, and just kills it on stage. It was awesome, everyone got into it. I hear later that he was so impressed with my guitar that he immediately went out the next day and bought himself a brand new... wait for it.... Gibson Songbird.......... yeah.....
The guy isn't even interested in playing acoustic. It was MY guitar that turned him and made him want an acoustic so badly, but instead of buying a Mazzocco he runs out and buys a Gibson. I was flattered and pissed at the same time. A very confusing mix of emotions.

Jason Rodgers
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Jason Rodgers »

One of my colleagues, band director like me, teaches on the side at one of those new trend "school of rock" type places for kids. He was telling me the other day that he has a high school age student in one of the regular rock band classes who is a really good guitarists and he told him, "There's this guitar show coming up [the NW Musical Instrument Exhibit that I posted about in Jam] and my friend has some cool guitars that he's going to show. You should go check it out." The kid said, "Yeah, I went to that once. It was really disappointing. All these amazing guitars that I'll never be able to afford." I think that kid's ideas about instruments, their value as musical tools, and their affordability is sort of a distillation of a widely held notion that precludes many folks from even considering the possibility of owning a boutique guitar.
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.

Brian Evans
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Brian Evans »

Over on the Acoustic Guitar Forum, in the Custom Shop section, there are many many build blog posts by boutique builders who are building custom guitars that have been commissioned by loyal customers. Many have several guitars, and love them, love the whole idea of a custom built for them guitar. I love to browse in those threads, excellent build photography. In another section, it seems like 80% of the people have multiple Taylors in their signature line, there are threads about Taylor this, Taylor that, all Taylor all the time. I personally just don't get it.

In the 1970's, when I was starting out, I really wanted this 1950's Guild all mahogany acoustic, but at around $200 I could not afford it. Last year of high school, got a job and bought a 1968 Gibson SG for $350 (two weeks pay). Other than the choice was pretty limited for a good guitar, and you really had a choice of a Fender or a Gibson, I never really paid much attention to the brand, or I don't recall such. Later got into ES-125's, had a couple, had a mid 1940's Epiphone Broadway that had been hacked about and pickups installed, had a neat Gretsch single pickup archtop that had the F-holes painted on that I paid $125 for at a pawn shop in Montreal in 1976. Even then I paid no attention to new guitars, just old scuzzy ones hanging at the back of the shop. At the time for a top level instrument it was Fender, Gibson, rarities like Gretsch and Guild, or Japanese imports, before they got good. That's when habits are set. I also think that an awful lot of great players don't actually know much about guitars so they don't have exposure to great luthier-made instruments. For them, a "Custom Shop" Fender or Martin really is the cream of the crop. For others, the 1950's Martin or Gibson really is the best instrument they've ever played, and they are in fact really really good, some of them.

Bill Raymond
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Bill Raymond »

On the other hand, if a musician can get the "feel" and the sound out of one of the factory instruments widely available, why commission a custom instrument from a luthier? Chet Atkins and Paul Yandell played a lot of different guitars over their careers and made them all sound great. Paul once remarked that Chet would pick up a guitar, maybe raise the bridge a bit and play without complaint about the neck or the pickups. Often, endorsements aren't so much about "free guitars" as they are about getting one's name out there.

David King
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by David King »

Even the cheapest factory guitar makers often have a custom shop that puts together the endorsee instruments. They may just commission those instruments from a willing boutique maker. You can be sure that the endorsee gets the pick of the litter if it's an off the shelf instrument.

Chris Reed
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Chris Reed »

I don't know about guitars but I do know some professional uke players. They all own boutique and vintage instruments, but in general these are just too good (great dynamics, hard to control on stage)/temperamental or both for gigging. On stage they play decent quality mass-market instruments. The stage stuff are work tools, the instruments at home are the ones they play for pleasure.

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Randolph Rhett
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Randolph Rhett »

I think there is a catch 22 in boutique building (assuming you are old enough to know what a "catch 22" is). You put in 100+ man hours, need a shop and tools, consume anywhere from a couple of hundred to near a thousand dollars in raw materials just to hand build a guitar. You need to put near as much time in admin and marketing to find a home for those guitars. It's not really a sustainable business unless you are selling these things for multiple thousands.
Most working musicians I know can't afford to spend $6k on a tool that can be easily stolen, breaks if some idiot trips on stage or drops it, scratches easily, etc. you can buy three workhorse Martins that do a fine job.
So our market is the CEO or VP of Sales for the Northwest Territory. They pick up their trophy once every few months, and otherwise it hangs on a wall. Fore them the guitar is a status symbol. I assume a talented watch maker can make a watch that is much better than any Rolex, but nobody buys a Rolex do how well it keeps time.
That's the catch: the players who can appreciate why our guitars are superior to a Taylor can't afford them, and the people who can can't tell the difference and care mostly about the brand.

Daryl Kosinski
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Daryl Kosinski »

The way I see it (playing over 50 years) there are 3 things that matter when selecting a instrument in order.

1. Plays well.
2. Sounds good.
3. Paid for.

It is 90% player 10% guitar.

I never look at the head stock for quality. When I decided to switch to acoustic some 20 years ago I used a Hondo that was found in the trash. A little work and heavy strings made it sound pretty good. I have had some of the brand snobs say to me that sounds good what is it? I would show them the headstock and they would slowly back away.

I still use it from time to time when I don't care if it gets sat on or run over. No one would ever steal it.

Bottom line if it makes you happy what else matters?

Stephen Neal Saqui
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Stephen Neal Saqui »

I'm glad I waited before jumping in here.

In the world of classical guitars there has been, and continues to be, evolution of the instrument. The sole reason for this is that players have continued to evolve and they have sought out guitars that can do what they ask it to do. The skill level of players involves more subtle and difficult abilities to express music on finer and finer levels so they seek out instrument makers that have the ability to create instruments worthy of their skills.

On the other hand, in the steel stringed world, the above scenario just doesn't exist! Yes the players are better, faster, etc, but they're not interested in, nor do they even try to express deeper and finer levels of the instruments themselves. They just find a guitar they like and that's it! They're practical!

To me "boutique" builders are just fine craftsmen who are expressing their craft on higher levels, not necessarily, hand skills because many of them use CNC tools to do all their fancy work. And those who don't use CNC, but pride themselves in their craftsmanship are not looking to make finer musical instruments in the same realm I spoke of above. Instruments that have more musical capability. Why? Because the steelstring musicians are not asking for that.

Steel stringed guitars could be far more musically expressive just by the very nature of what the strings do...they're loud and they have tremendous potential for infinite expression in tone, timbre and duration if only the players had that kind of skill and asked makers to fulfill their desires.

To me, the whole thing is about music. I would love to have worked in Stradivarius' shop and Miguel Rodriguez's shop in Cordoba as well!

Stephen

Perry Ormsby
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Perry Ormsby »

Why do they choose a big brand?

1. Brand recognition. They cant buy yours if they dont know you. Also, years of built up lust and desire for a brand is a huge thing.
2. Perceived company quality. Some believe the big boys have more of a chance to get it right, because they do it so often. Also included here would be warranty issues.
3. Ease of purchase. They can buy a big brand today. They can try a big brand, today. Custom? Not only do they have to trust that they themselves can spec out the guitar, but that you can interpret that information, AND nail it.... all with a stressful 3-6-12-24 month wait. Everyone has played enough duds in stores to assume there is a risk...
4. Artist X has one, and I like his tunes and tone.
5. Sales guy in a store offering a product to them, doing the job he is trained to do (sell), rather than a luthier sitting in his shed being all arty waiting for an order he's not proactive enough to chase.
6. Read No 1 again.

Stephen Neal Saqui
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Re: The best kept secret in the musical instrument industry....

Post by Stephen Neal Saqui »

Word of mouth

Word of mouth means somebody likes, loves, doesn't like, hates what you do.

Word of mouth has kept me in business for 48 years.

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