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Why small gear builders are struggling, and how some are coping

The guitar business is in a weird spot. It’s the best of times for some, the worst for others. Never before has so much quality gear been available to players. Never before have there been so many of us looking for gear. You’d think everybody would be happy. Yet the folks who build and sell the gear are struggling to stay in business. And the players, well, they’re still hunting for that perfect piece of gear.

Since the mid 1980s, we have seen a resurrection of the entire industry. We’ve come from a point when it looked like both Fender and Gibson were about to go under (1985 and 1986, respectively) to now having more manufacturers of guitar gear than ever. In straight numbers, production hasn’t been this high since 1964—and that was a spike sparked by the Beatles, not a sustained period like we’ve seen over the past few years. This renaissance was built on three trends: 1) The popularity of reissues of the iconic electric guitars of the first golden era, 2) buyers’ desire for high-end gear, and 3) the ability of manufacturers to produce gear of excellent quality at lower prices. It’s a rare case of an industry actually listening to the market. It was a good business model and, for a time, it worked.

The Economic Blues
The state of the economy, of course, has not helped. According to Music Trades, the oldest and probably most-read journal of the musical instrument industry, sales of musical instruments dropped by 19% in 2009. That’s the single biggest dip ever recorded—and Music Trades ought to know, because they’ve been in publication for well over 100 years. Shaky economics have put a pinch on the pocketbooks of gear buyers at every level.

Perhaps we’ve come to a point where the industry has gotten so good at what it does that it’s almost too much of a good thing. The quality of the gear available today is really astounding. There are more high-end builders of guitars and amps than ever before, and the products they produce are mini works of art—pieces of craftsmanship well beyond any production-line pieces of previous periods. They take the best of what we know about building and make it available to every player. For a price. Many of the small shops reside in what has come to be called the “boutique” category—a term that has become synonymous with “expensive” and that has, I believe, unfairly categorized a lot of good builders who truly do make a superior product.

Savaged by Overhead

Take, for instance, my friends over at Savage Audio. I have known Jeff Krumm and his team for years. They have a solid reputation for quality repair and tremendous customer service, and the amplifiers they build are some of the best offerings ever available. Savage amplifiers reside squarely in the “overbuilt” category: heavy cabinets, massive transformers, better-than-military-grade wiring, and circuits that have some serious thought and expertise behind them. Savage got into the amp business back in the mid ’90s, building amps for rock stars like Beck, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M. to take out on the road—where quality is paramount. If you’re building an amp for a guy who is about to go out on a 200-show world tour, you build the amp to stand up to any abuse. You overbuild it, because that’s the type of quality a pro player requires. It’s not overbuilt to be expensive.

Savage has sold these amps to the general public for some time, and they have always commanded some of the highest prices in the amp game. But the Great Recession of the last few years has really put a squeeze on high-end amp sales. This leaves Savage and their dealers in a tight spot. In fact, recently Savage found themselves forced to sell their amps direct from the shop as the only way to continue to build to their quality standards and still be able to offer amps to the public.

The Quality Conundrum
The odd juxtaposition here is that the big guys have gotten much better at offering great quality gear at the lower end of the price spectrum. Back in ’64, when you bought a budget guitar that’s exactly what you got—something that was just barely playable, might last for a year, and probably produced a sound that was dubious at best. Now the budget-level offerings are much different. I was at Larry Taylor’s house a couple months ago (Larry played with Canned Heat at Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont, and has played with a zillion other artists since—Larry knows gear) and he was freaking over a new guitar he had just bought. I figured it was another classic piece, something that would go right along with his collection of fine vintage gear. But when I got to Larry’s gear room, the new jewel he so proudly handed me was a Jay Turser JT139T hollowbody with two P-90s. I thought he was kidding until he showed me the build quality. Nice frets, good fit and finish, fine hardware. He plugged it into his reissue tweed Fender Deluxe, and I’m telling you it sounded righteous. I had the same experience recently when I bought a Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Telecaster. It’s truly one of the best axes I’ve ever played. And at $300, I don’t feel guilty about it.

So, good for the big guys. They finally got to the point where they’re building boutique-style gear in China. They’ve worked out the kinks, and even the pickiest internet forum-jockeys are impressed. But where does this leave the small guys? Jeff Krumm and his team continue to build Savage amps one at a time, using the best materials they can get their hands on and playing and listening to each amp for hours until they are completely sure it’s A-1 quality. I think we all admire that kind of dedication to craft. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the satisfaction you get out of thrashing around on a well-built budget piece of gear that you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy.

I admire the guys at Savage for their work ethic. I also know how much work it took the folks at Jay Turser and Fender to get their factories abroad to build their guitars exactly to spec. I’d hate to think that these two extremes are a mutually exclusive deal— that, to like one, you have to hate the other. Because I sure don’t—I get quite a kick out of playing my $300 Classic Vibe Tele through my $3000 Savage Glas 30.

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