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While many companies have chased a dream of making everything bigger, faster and stronger, a select few have made the decision to chase a less visible dream. Baden Guitars is one of those companies in search of a simpler vision, one where musical production and artistic creations are at the forefront. Although it makes for a dramatic struggle, owner and founder TJ Baden hopes that there’s still a place in today’s market for guitarists who want quality instruments without all of the extra baggage.
Before Baden cut his teeth in sales and marketing over twenty years ago or made the move to create his own line, he was just another dreamer with a guitar. As a young man, Baden realized the instrument was a ticket to happiness, and he spent his initial years teaching other students at his boarding school how to play. During his tenure with Taylor Guitars he was able to combine his passion with a natural aptitude for sales. As Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, he received an education about the business of marketing and retailing musical instruments. Sensing an opportune moment, he founded Baden Guitars.
Musical instruments can take many shapes and forms in the boutique arena, but Baden’s take on design is refreshingly simple: two minimalist models – the a-style and d-style – comprise the company’s entire catalog. Lacking ornamentation, these guitars have the effect of boiling down the essence of the instrument, and the music it creates, to its purest form. Players like John Cephas, Bo Bice, George Benson, Bob Minner (Tim McGraw Band) and Jim Gairrett (Kenny Chesney Band) have all started slinging the acoustics, providing a real validation of Baden’s vision.
We had the chance to talk with TJ Baden about the boutique side of the acoustic world, what he’s learned during his time in the industry and what “handmade” really means.
How did you first begin working with guitars?
There was a period in my life when I was sent to a boarding school and that’s really when I found my calling with the guitar. I was more of a dreamer and a player then, and did not get into the design and marketing end of it until later on.
When you picked up the guitar for the first time, did you know what you were going to do with your life?
Yeah, and it was totally against my parents wishes, that’s for sure. My father wanted me to have a real job and it wasn’t until well into my career when he finally acknowledged that I had one. The guitar was really the only thing that made me happy no matter what, so I just decided that money wasn’t in the calling and that I’d just do what I loved.
I absolutely fell in love with acoustic guitars. Being able to take someone and educate them on what makes a quality instrument, and watch them develop their own skills and passion for the instrument is great stuff.
As a long-time Taylor employee, what prompted you to create your own guitar company?
That’s a really good question. I had a beautiful career at Taylor – I was passionate about marketing and I pretty much learned everything else on the fly. When I first started there we were making about four guitars a day; over a 17 year period we took it up beyond 300 a day and sales well into eight figures. I was in love with what we were doing and it was pure passion.
I also felt that in the later years guitar designs became more and more influenced by technology. In order to compete as a manufacturer in the U.S. market, we had to go that route. All of the (technological) advances were phenomenal, but I felt they also steered the designs of the guitar away from the original art form.
After I left, I found the second thing I was passionate about in my life: boutique guitars. I had a new desire to get into that art form and to produce a guitar at a price point that could service a larger market. So we assembled a small group of people and started researching the common threads between the most sought-after vintage instruments – the early Gibsons, D-18s, D-28s and the like. Our goal was to find the common thread that was producing the magic we heard and felt in these guitars.
We went back in time as much as we could and got samples to study, but we also referenced newer high-end builders as well. The boutique builders we looked at produced around 400 guitars a year, and we decided to deliver a similar handmade experience at the price of U.S. manufacturers like Martin and Taylor. I was looking at their price points, and I thought if I could produce a handmade, high-end boutique guitar that meets all of the specs of $6000-$7000 guitars and bring it to a larger audience, that would be an incredible mission. And that’s what started the journey.
We spent several years early on identifying what the specs should be. We definitely knew it would have a one-piece neck, a dovetail neck joint, forward shifted bracing, fresh designs, and of course, it had to be handmade. That prompted me to hire an Austrian designer, Andreas Pichler. I was really fond of his previous work. We connected deeply right off the bat. I simply gave him my design intent and he took it from there.
What I was looking for was our own sound, and I found it first through design and secondly through a facility that could produce our designs to our specs. We found a voice in there that was fat on the treble and fat on the bass, and really well balanced. Having our own voice enabled us to drive the process and demand that everything have an original identity. Our target was to go right up the middle, between both of the heritages of Martin and Taylor, not outside or around them. I wanted to be original and fresh, I wanted to start challenging these traditional designs and I needed a platform, so I stayed as conservative as I could while introducing new design concepts.
That sounds like a tight line to walk.
Yeah, so we did our a-style with what we call a “non-cutaway.” We didn’t want to build a guitar and then cut something away, so we designed it to be built in two halves. It gives the relief needed to play a good lead high on the neck without actually having to cut away. I felt that the a-style was our platform to be conservative and safe – even though we introduced some new concepts, it was friendly enough that everybody could grab it and play.
We chose the d-style as the model to really challenge things. I knew that the world didn’t need another dreadnought, yet most of the sales are going to come from dreadnoughts and auditorium size guitars, so I wanted to really focus the first couple of years on those two areas. I chose to name them “styles” because they aren’t the typical dreadnought or auditorium. I wanted to give them their own identity within the market.
On the d-style, I think you can find some similarities with guitars from the early 1900s, but it was designed to push the envelope and be a little controversial. I just chose a pure, simple approach. To me, even inlays could drown out all the factors that go into details such as the miter joints, and the carefully chosen materials. Our target consumers already own a lot of guitars and we are looking to give them something more. That was the driving force in our design intent, which was a tall order.
What we did was take a reasonably priced, boutique, handmade guitar to the market. There is a lot of controversy over what a true handmade instrument is, but these are completely built by hand. We use a mallet and a blade for hand-carving necks and bodies. The specs are set up to my own tastes and on what the boutique guys are doing. We aren’t looking to copy anything, but we are looking at what the consumer wants from these types of guitars. For example, the d-style uses medium strings and a little higher action to give it that bark and growl; we made a monster out of it. The a-style has light strings and is set up for guys who play fingerstyle.
Your guitars are also notable for making Fishman’s Ellipse Aura technology an integral part of the instrument. How did that come about, and what does the technology do for your instruments?
Larry (Fishman) and I have a history. When I got into the guitar business, everybody looked at the acoustic/electric as a nonacoustic, because if you put a Thinline into it you were a sinner or didn’t know real music. I got into selling acoustic/electrics because I personally prefer to play plugged in. When I started early on, companies didn’t want to go acoustic/electric with high-end guitars, but I was always driving for it. I represented the artists and was voicing the artists’ demands, so Larry and I started working together with sort of the same vision, that all guitars should be able to be plugged in. He would call me up on a regular basis about a new prototype and we would get excited over everything. He would then design the technology and we would find the right guitar to showcase his innovations.
Later on, when I started my own company, I thought it was important to make all of my guitars acoustic/electric, so I turned to Larry to help me out. We always saw eye-to-eye on this point and felt it was our responsibility to provide high-quality instruments that both professional artists and consumers could play onstage. To overcome the obstacle of artists and consumers wanting to play a lesser quality instrument on the road because they felt their high-end instruments were for home, we worked really hard to get the Ellipse Aura technology on all the guitars and to move the control surface inside the soundhole so we wouldn’t disrupt the beautiful curvature of our lines. We absolutely did not want to put a hole in the side of the guitar.
With the voice and imaging technology, we were able to create something better than anything that I had heard before. I challenge everybody to sit down with the system in a high-fidelity situation, take the volume down to 0 and just roll it up slowly. You’ll realize that all we’re doing is allowing you to play that voice louder. We’re not coloring or altering the original tone at all.
Modeling is the ability to make something sound similar to something else. We use this technology in imaging to make it sound like the instrument in its purest way. The piezo triggers the image, and you can also blend it with the sound of the images. We went in the studio and used large and small diaphragms mics with various placements to create .wav files. Larry has a special sauce for creating these things. I don’t understand what he does, nor do I really want to, but I know it works.
After creating a lot of images, we find the best situations and choose the best sets for our guitars. You are getting our best work for what a guitar should sound like in the studio. People often talk about the negatives of piezo pickups, but they are workhorses, one of the most functional pickups ever made. In a band situation, it’s a frequency that cuts through everything else.
Another key is the Phase In/Out button, which allows players to get rid of the woof by simply hitting a button and changing the phase. These guitars work so well in big band situations that they are being played without soundhole mutes, which tend to kill the true acoustic tone. I suggest that anyone who has a dusty Gibson or Martin with a piezo pickup under their bed get this technology and start playing those great guitars.
Your website really emphasizes both that your guitars are handmade and that you’ve eschewed a lot of the ornamentation that exists in the high-end segment of the acoustic market. How did you come to that design philosophy and how exactly are your guitars made?
Our Vietnam factory has six master luthiers, all of whom have an incredible work ethic. This place isn’t just a company or factory – it’s a family. When you find a place like this – they can produce what I call a unique blueprint or fingerprint – the tone and sound of that instrument is unique to that facility. The motivation behind our design was based on the need for market acceptance of the concept of quality from Asia. I think you’ll see more of it in the future because the prices in China have gone up two or three-fold and companies are pulling out, looking for the next low-cost provider. So it seems natural that those companies will turn more towards producing quality over quantity from that region.
No matter where you manufacture, you have a choice to go with either quality or price. If you choose quality, it has a cost, and the way we build is the most labor and material intensive way possible. While we are pioneering this concept, we want to make sure that people know we’re an American brand and an Americandesigned company. We need to realize that it’s 2008 and it doesn’t matter where you make it, but how you make it. There is still a prejudice resonating from the eighties and nineties, which I take blame for, too. That’s what we are pioneering against.
To help answer your question, I’ll ask another question, which is how do you take out the Asian part of design? Asian builders are known for their detailed inlay on the fretboard and peghead areas, but I wanted to differentiate us from the typical Asian product. The extra detail and glitter adds value but is more expensive for the consumer. We are keeping the price reasonable because we are focusing only on the highest grade of materials for each instrument. If I produced the same product in the U.S., I’d be producing a $6000-$8000 instrument. That said, if and when we decide to come back to that inlay style, we know we have some of the best and most dedicated artists we’ve ever seen and will have that capability as well.
Because of your dedication to handbuilding each instrument, is it tough to stay competitive in the modern guitar market?
I think we are extremely competitive, and that starts with the work done inside our own four walls. The market is saturated right now, but the market goes up and down in waves. At the end of the day the thing that enables us to complete the cycle is the brand. Branding is important for consumers to know exactly what the company is all about. We aren’t trying to be a massive company; we are just trying to be a large boutique company offering quality, handmade guitars.
There is a lot of change in our industry. For example, I was recently with a distributor, and they met me in Vietnam to tour my facility. It was actually the same executive I gave a tour during my days at Taylor, but this time we were at a facility where everything was handmade. We had a few laughs about our past encounters – just ten years ago I was showing them CNC machines and explaining how we could produce kits and accurate parts for guitars, and this time I was showing him a handmade line where each guitar is unique. It was a surreal situation that had come full circle. You are really going to see a flash in the next 12-18 months. It’s just not us – the entire landscape of the industry is changing.
How do you feel about the current state of the guitar industry?
I’ve touched on it, but it’s rather saturated and overall it lacks creativity and originality. Everything we are doing is because of the current market condition, which I think is caused by manufacturers and dealers hanging onto old ways. They make money selling a Strat and if they get a similar version of one that can make more money, they’ll do that. It’s much more difficult and time-consuming for dealers to break a brand like Baden, because we are fresh and unknown. But the essence of everything we’re doing is to create our own pocket in the industry and give us the platform for our visions to be realized.
It sounds like you’ve got a solid grounding in the business side of the industry – did you pick up a lot of that from your time at Taylor?
I basically took away a college degree in distribution. I was fortunate to have access to good mentors and consultants, so I really learned a tremendous amount about business. But the main thing I pulled was a firm grasp of what I want to do with my own company. The most passionate time of my career was when I was connected with artists and dealers. I did artist relations for over 17 years, so I was able to cement good relationships with artists all over the place, but there came a point where I couldn’t do those jobs anymore. We grew and were managing a large company – the company’s own needs changed. My passion was to get back and connected to the industry. I also took away a good perspective on how to bring a new brand to market, to build proper distribution and most importantly, the importance of quality customer service.
Consumers often misunderstand the value the dealer has to offer when compared with the big box stores. The top influences in the purchase of a high-end acoustic guitar are salespeople and customer service centers. Those one-on-one recommendations are the most valuable part of the consumer’s purchase decision, so with that understanding, we designed an entire line of guitars that were very simple for the dealers to represent. That’s why our offerings are very thin, with two body sizes and three material choices. The majority of all guitar sales, percentagewise, are covered by those simple offerings. Print drives the web, the web takes it to the stores and the stores demonstrate the product. That’s how the process works. With that understanding, we were able to build a company that could deliver and get into the market rapidly.
Who have you been targeting as the typical player of Baden guitars?
First and foremost, we design guitars that we personally want to play. I have been fortunate enough to service all the different areas where our products are used and I have a thorough understanding of what gets guitar players excited. As guitar players, we can tend to sound alike when it comes down to it. It’s how we write, our diligence and our relationship to our audience onstage where the magic and the true artist comes out, but as strictly guitar players, we are all kind of the same. It is in our choice of guitars where we have the ability to further identify ourselves as individuals.
What’s been the most rewarding part in making your own guitar company?
I was very shy about putting my own name on the guitars. I actually spent the first year trying to acquire well-established brands with a business partner to brand our guitars. But I realized that there were all these issues that came with these companies, so I thought, why don’t I start my own company and have my own issues?
I started this company not because I wanted to be CEO or the president, but because I wanted to be able to do what I do really well, which is working with the dealers, artists and consumers. I’m absolutely passionate about teaching, sharing and solving problems through music, and helping consumers and artists find products with which they can write new, inspiring music. It wasn’t about me trying to climb the ladder again, but instead going back down. I wanted to be in a position where I could operate a company that enabled me to do what I enjoy in life and I now have a lifetime’s worth of friends to share this common bond with. I’ve also enjoyed pioneering new concepts and being validated by our customer response, and by renowned artists using our products. And you know what really turns me on? It’s when art is produced with our instruments. Seeing Bo Bice or John Cephas use our product on stage is a real connection for me.
You obviously have a lot of stuff on your plate – what does the future look like for Baden?
We have so many ideas, like the next 10- 20 years of our lives mapped out. One of the immediate things I can talk about is something called Baden Tours. I’d like to say that it’s wildly different than the clinic program we built last time, but really the main difference is that we are going to primarily push performance, as it is about the artist which makes it so fun – and we’re going to try and make sure they are fun for all ages. We plan on bringing in some of the area’s finest artists, for example John Cephas. They’ll be performing small concerts and various promotions at local venues as well as instore shows. These will start during the fourth quarter of this year.
John and I have been friends for a long time. After he got his first Baden guitar, I didn’t hear from him for about a week; it turned out he put it in his car and drove around to music stores to show it off. As he put it, this guitar really spoke to him and he had to share it with everyone.
We’ve been working together for years and we got to a point where I said, “John, what more do you want out of life?” He replied that he wanted a platform to give back to the community and teach kids about the Piedmont blues, Delta blues and other classical musical styles. So another thing we started is called Blues in the School, and this non-profit organization will be bringing artists and the blues to schools. We want to get to teach kids different styles of music, especially the Piedmont blues, which is becoming extinct in today’s musical world. I don’t care what type of music you prefer to play or hear – the ability for John and others to talk about these styles of music just moves people.
We will also be heading to the Summer NAMM show to demo our first handmade U.S. guitar, depending on how far along we are in the process. Of course, I also have plenty more tricks up my sleeve that I don’t want to release quite yet.