In the face of current events, we’ve witnessed the steady and resilient progression of the guitar industry.
Despite the tough times we’ve been facing over the past few years, the guitar world has kept on ticking. By all visible measures, the industry has been doing well, both for sellers of musical gear and for content creators. There has also been a resurgence of live shows, and even with the ebb and flow of infectious disease, the marketplace for live concerts is gathering steam. So, what has changed in our journey to the “new” normal?
For musicians, live music is the component that many enjoy most, so its return is a welcome catharsis. This is good news not just for musicians, but for all the supporting cast members who make the performance ecosystem run. Guitar and drum techs, sound designers, lighting directors, and all the ancillary venue staff needed to stage and manage a night out for a few hundred (or thousand) music fans are the lifeblood of the whole musical experience machine. It takes a lot of grease to make the gravy, which is good for people in the industry who have been sidelined for so long.
It’s going to take a while for the past level of venues to rebuild, I suppose. In the meantime, other outlets that have blossomed in the past few years will continue, with more and more emphasis placed on quality content like streaming shows. True, the format is hardly new, but the production values have improved significantly. Five years ago, you could get away with a shaky cell phone video of your gig or lesson. Today, the bar has risen to make well-lit multi-camera productions the norm. Video editing has become more sophisticated, and a lot of what I see looks more like real broadcast quality. The same goes for shop tours and builder interviews. On the gear side of things, podcasts and more in-depth videos from builders have reached a new level as well.
It takes a lot of grease to make the gravy, which is good for people in the industry who have been sidelined for so long.
Some of this has resulted from the plethora of information about how audio and video production works, and the huge amount of affordable video gear. Previously, only well-funded outfits could afford to hire production companies to create video content. The cost of making a 30-minute piece of broadcast-quality video could be five, or even six figures. Compare that to today, where a few thousand dollars’ worth of gear can get you into the game—and you start to understand why new videos are much slicker.
That’s not to imply that slick production is what makes the difference. Great content is at the heart of any great endeavor. Take a look at the in-depth YouTube series Archtoppery, featuring master luthier Ken Parker. Not that the production value is anywhere near Hollywood levels, but Parker’s guidance through the mesmerizing journey into the minutiae of guitar making is a must-see. What sets it apart is his depth of experience and his ability to verbalize the mechanics of the craft in a way that anyone can understand. You need a little patience to watch a solid hour of how to improve a wood gouge, but that’s precisely what makes this series superlative. Even though Parker is adept at building guitars in a factory setting, his love of the handiwork that he employs on his current instruments humbles even the most experienced among us.
This all brings me to the future of guitar-building on the individual level. If the first few years of this century was a gold rush to launch small-batch guitar brands, the pandemic years brought oversaturation. As we move into the next phase, the reality of the home-built market is setting in. I’m certain that a lot of the basement builders will continue, just as the home beer-brewing hobby does. My best guess is that a lot of the people who attempted to take their hobby to the next level may tire of the struggle to get enough traction to survive. At the corporate level, the Anheuser-Busch and Heinekens of guitar sales will still carry the day.
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.
Trying to figure out how to mix up your musical life this year? Here are some ideas.
Here we are again friends, at the beginning of the human construct known as the New Year. So, as is traditional here at Esoterica, I’m compelled to lay out some goals I’d like to pass on for the months ahead. A lot of things have happened and changed in the last few years, and yet things are oddly the same. The chase for the ultimate guitar tone remains with us, even as tone changes with the winds and whims of fashion. Still, I feel compelled to daydream about our opportunities to grow as musicians and passengers on spaceship Earth in the coming year. So, enough of my yakking—here’s the setlist:
Stop calling it a fingerboard. Unless you are playing a fretless instrument, the part of your instrument that harbors the frets is known as the fretboard. It’s a board, and it holds frets. I’ve taken heat for using the wrong term, so I’m working on this, too. We need solidarity here, so I promise to help you if you help me.
Learn the names of those “wacky” chords you use. It has never been easier to decode your fretboard. (See what I did there?) There are some great apps for this sort of detective work, and you probably already have one or more on your phone. I’ve been using GuitarToolkit for years as a mobile tuner. Like many of the other offerings out there, it has a function that lets you enter the chord voicing on a virtual fretboard, and it tells you what it is. You may not improve your playing, but it’s always empowering to discover you already know how to play Esus4.
Introduce a child to guitar music. I never really thought about this sort of thing before, but somebody’s got to do it. Parents subject their kids to junk food and stick-and-ball sports, so be an evangelist for the arts and put a cranked electric in the hands of a kid—and watch the fun begin. I built a kit guitar with my granddaughter for her birthday, and now she’s playing White Stripes songs. I can’t wait to show her some Tanya O’Callaghan and Larkin Poe videos! This year I’m going to get her little brother some drums just to annoy her parents.
Tune ’em down, speed ’em up, and strain those vocals like bloody murder. Before you know it, you’ll be touring stadium gigs packed with young fans who’ve never heard country music before.
Install a Floyd Rose on your Jazzmaster. Do I really have to explain this? It’s a natural progression to defile a classic instrument in order to piss off future generations of collectors. While you’re at it, put some active pickups in that vintage Harmony Rocket III and put the OG foil pickups on Reverb.
Rework some country tunes. Nothing is as edgy as bending genres. This is exactly what put classic acts like Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, and the Black Keys on the musical map. My bet is on turning Garth Brooks and Dwight Yoakam ballads into modern anthems. Critics have called bro’ country “classic rock with a cowboy hat,” so here’s your opportunity to turn the tables for fun and profit. Tune ’em down, speed ’em up, and strain those vocals like bloody murder. Before you know it, you’ll be touring stadium gigs packed with young fans who’ve never heard country music before.
Refinish your relic Strat to mint condition. As long as we’re zigging while others zag, you may as well define the next big trend in guitars. Factory fresh is what you’re looking for, so make sure you use gobs of polyester clear to provide the final detail. And if you’re stuck with that minty PRS, go against the grain and refinish it with nitro and put it in the freezer until it checks like crazy. This goes over great at corporate gigs.
Befriend an aging musician. This is more of a cry for help on my part than advice to you. Just like a 23-year-old Peter Green introduced older Chicago bluesmen to sideways vibrato, you can teach old dogs new tricks too. The younger generations always have the latest innovations and techniques that can give has-been guitarists a new perspective and extend their careers. Move past the boomer jokes and help us understand that tone isn’t in our arthritic hands.
Get John Bohlinger to rundown your rig. Let’s face it, Bohlinger’s Rig Rundowns are the launching pad to stardom. He’s the man behind the careers of Joe Bonamassa and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein. So why build your fanbase organically? That’s so 2019. Just think, you’ll be turning this page (or scrolling) and BOOM.
Here are the good and bad habits to look for when you’re watching a builder at work.
It’s fun to binge-watch YouTube videos, and for guitarists there are a plethora of them to behold. There are mashups of metal and funk, as well as never-before-seen footage of classic acts in every genre. Then, there are the how-to videos that have helped me and countless others learn new fretboard moves. My favorites are the ones that decode songs, unlocking finger positions and chord voicings that have eluded me for years. But next to that, I enjoy watching guitar-making videos. As a builder whose 50-year career has allowed me to tour and work in dozens of guitar factories and shops, you might wonder why on earth I would subject myself to this. The answer is that you can always learn something new if you know what to watch for. New and correct information is certainly what most of us are hoping for when we spool up a video.
The first thing I look for is if a shop is organized and relatively clean. I say relatively, because woodworking is, by nature, somewhat messy. All that cutting and sanding creates shavings and dust that’s hard to control completely. Most decent shops have some sort of dust collection, so when you spy ankle-deep wood shavings, you might wonder where the priorities are. Wood dust is flammable at best and explosive at worst, so if you buy a guitar from a shop that’s a ticking time-bomb, you may not be able to count on any long-term customer service. I’ve written before about the benefits of being well-ordered, and I think that it speaks volumes about the builder’s attitude. Clutter slows things down as little interruptions in the workflow add up to mistakes or even bankruptcy. I’m not saying that great work can’t be done in a messy shop, but I’m not a gambling man either.
“Wood dust is flammable at best and explosive at worst, so if you buy a guitar from a shop that’s a ticking time-bomb, you may not be able to count on any long-term customer service.”
For a guy who hates hammers, I’ve got a lot of them. Sometimes it’s the only tool that will get the job done. One task that a hammer isn’t good at is fretting. Sure, that’s the way it used to be done back in the good old days—you know, when all those unplayable budget guitars were being sold at department stores. I cringe when I see builders smacking a neck with a hammer, and you should too. In a repair shop, there’s room for the hammer as an adjustment tool, but it takes hundreds of hours to get really good at it.
The problem is that hammers aren’t very consistent, and seating frets properly demands uniformity. Hit the fret a little too hard and it’s buried, not hard enough and you get a high fret. That’s why the best shops use a mechanical press of some sort.
This brings me to another chilling moment in guitar videos: the fret leveling. Fretwire manufacturing is a precise art with tight tolerances well within the range of good playability. That means if the fretboard is true and all the frets are seated properly, no fret leveling is needed at all. So, when a video is about doing a “fret job” on a brand-new build, you know that something was botched in an earlier step. Fret filing is reserved for compensating for uneven fret wear or impact damage. Of course, if the fretboard radius is sloppy, there’s no way the frets will be level regardless of how you put them in. I roll my eyes when I see a hand router on a plywood fixture used to crown a fretboard. It’s certainly faster than sanding with a radius block or swing fixture, but not nearly as accurate. To be clear, if a router is followed with a more precise shaping process, it’s perfectly acceptable. But you can see that if the first step isn’t right, it’s just kicking the can down the road as everything after that compounds the issue.
Finishing is another area that separates the good from the bad and ugly. A good spray painter is amazing to watch, as they systematically layer smooth and consistent passes over an instrument. You don’t want to see the painter waving the gun around from side to side with a lot of wrist movement like they’re watering a garden. The trick is keeping the speed and distance consistent. When done correctly, clear coats lay out flat and shiny and barely need to be buffed. It takes a long time to learn, but when you get it right, it’s like magic.
There are a lot of great ideas and unconventional yet effective methods to be seen in how-to videos. I’m always happy when I see something brilliant and noteworthy, but occasionally it’s the opposite. Just like the “lessons” that don’t quite get the chords right or ignore the fact that a song was recorded in an open tuning, home-guitar-building videos are not always insight into best practices. That’s doesn’t mean that they can’t be entertaining. So, get out the popcorn and settle in for some luthier jump scares.
What’s does a Shelby Cobra and a vintage Les Paul have in common? And what comes next?
Dave was minding his own business, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, when the driver in the next lane got a little crazy. It was a lovely day—the kind of bright Saturday when you might want to roll the windows down and just go for a drive. The guy was waving his hands and motioning to make eye contact. He clearly thought that a busy intersection was a good place to have a conversation with a total stranger. Because Dave is a very friendly and outgoing guy, he played along and engaged. His new friend only wanted to know one thing: “Is it real?” This wasn’t the first time someone had asked the question. It came with the territory when you were in public with a genuine early-1960s Shelby Cobra.
Despite racing success and an outsized reputation, the Cobra enterprise wasn’t a slam-dunk, and there were quite a few points where the whole thing could have gone south before it actually did. In the end, the Cobra only lasted a handful of years. Most sports-car fans know that there are a myriad of small builders who make replicas of the legendary Shelby creation—that’s usually what you see on the road today—but very few examples of the original cars, now worth millions of dollars, are routinely out on the town. So, it’s understandable that when fans spot what appears to be the real deal, they might want to confirm their suspicions. Not everyone cares, but if you are a member of the tribe of motorsports, it’s pretty exciting.
The same sort of queries get tossed out in the guitar world, which readers of this column know is a parallel I like to point out. The most obvious example is probably the 1958-1960 Les Paul Standard “Sunburst.” Similar to the Cobra, the ’burst was made for only a few years, and is recognized as the best of the breed. Another similarity is that both icons became desirable not just because of their incredible performance, but by the legendary owners who wielded them while attaining their own fame.
It might be a stretch, but I happen to think that the car and the guitar are also similar in other ways. Both are known for their power and appearance, and the fact that they’re not for everybody. But the allure remains so much so that Ford (who provided the motors for the Cobra) and Gibson continue to trade on the name and reputation created by a small number of originals made long ago. It has to be said that Gibson does a much better job of recreating the experience than Ford, though.
Both icons became desirable not just because of their incredible performance, but by the legendary owners who wielded them while attaining their own fame.
Of course, there are hundreds of examples of the same kind of thinking in the musical instrument industry. My own roots in the “modern vintage” angle stemmed from attempting to fill a void in the marketplace when the big factories abandoned production of their golden-age instruments. Since that time, musicians have rediscovered the sound, feel, and romance of gear from decades past. What might have been seen as business suicide back then, has proven to be a workable model today—and not limited to the guitar industry either.
The idea of paying homage to the glorious roots of guitar-based music by emulating the looks and the sounds of the past, while employing modern advances in manufacturing, is everywhere. From the obvious reissues of amps, guitars, and effects, the same playbook is being applied to digital simulations of speakers, microphones, and outboard recording gear. If you don’t want to throw down for the real thing, buy a simulation!
For certain, there have always been products that ignore nostalgia and attempt to push boundaries. Stages, studios, and bedrooms are chock full of merchandise that may or may not live on for future consideration. Some fade into obscurity while others become entrenched in the new vocabulary of music making. It’s hard to know which ones will persevere to take their place alongside the icons we love. But like the story of Dave’s Shelby Cobra, I’ll bet a lot of it depends upon superior performance, with a big dose of artist association. Shelby’s reputation is certainly bigger than the actual enterprise, which ironically has added to the lore. They say the cream rises to the top, but a lot of luck doesn’t hurt.