Hello Troubadourians! I apologize right up front… This is not going to be one of my usual upbeat columns. No, this column is about profound loss on a very personal level. Recently, the Washington Post published an article titled “the slow, secret death of the electric guitar. And why you should care.” In short, the article chronicled the financial woes of Guitar Center as well as the Gibson and Fender guitar companies. With quotes from no less than the essential inventor of the vintage guitar market, George Gruhn. Yes, Guitar Center is in serious financial straits–at $1.6 billion, yes BILLION in debt–and Gibson and Fender have had their profits drop between $200,000,000 to $300,000,000 in recent years. Facts that beg the question, why? The article offers several “reasons” for the decline, ranging from the fact that the guitar is less prominent in popular music to the supposed lack of guitar heroes from the Millennial Generation. My initial take was that the writer stitched together several unrelated facts about the music industry, including the financial problems of the retail music business, and included the current shift away from the guitar in popular music. It threw in some choice quotes from guitar experts and stirred in enough circular logic to support the implication that the guitar was dead. Following the publication of the article, every guitar-related publication jumped on the story and analyzed every sentence for possible truths. For his part, Gruhn backed away from most of what he was quoted as saying and claimed that his opinions were used to support a position he didn’t believe in. The real hot button was that the author claimed that a major reason for the “decline” of the guitar was that there aren’t any new guitar heroes for young people to be inspired by. Blah, blah, blah… If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m calling B.S. on the entire concept. Here’s the deal: the prominence of the guitar in pop music has always been cyclical–remember, Decca famously justified their rejection of the Beatles by saying “guitar groups are on the way out” and “the Beatles have no future in show business.” Yeah, right. The fact is, without the guitar there is no metal, country, Americana, folk, and bluegrass, essentially every musical genre other than what we call “pop.” As for the very real financial problems of GC, Gibson, and Fender, it has been obvious for at least a decade–if not longer–that those companies have refused to acknowledge that they were in niche markets and that the financial growth patterns of “normal” consumer goods companies don’t apply to them. A guitar company trying to keep up with Apple or Samsung or Motorola, is a Fool’s Errand.
In this column I have, on many occasions, written about my love and respect for Collings Guitars and for my personal instruments in particular. My 1999 D2H is the most amazing guitar I have ever played, and I’ve played some amazing guitars. I chose to buy that guitar because it was essentially equal in tone and vibe to a vintage pre-war Martin but without the fragility that goes hand in hand with a guitar from the ’30s. For me, Collings acoustic guitars–and later their electrics as well–are the perfect blend of modern CNC repeatable perfection and handmade mojo. Bill Collings himself build my D2H. I know this because it is a cutaway model and I had to wait an extra two months for it to be built because the side bending machine that was used for cutaways was broken and only Bill could repair and use the machine, but he was out of the country looking for tone woods to buy. Bill sent me a note apologizing for the delay and thanked me for my patience. I brought the guitar to the first NAMM show following delivery and asked if he would sign my guitar. He made a big show of going around to all of the nearby booths, including the PRS Guitars booth, and gathering all of the representatives from those companies over to the Collings booth so that they could “witness” the signing. After doing his best Art Carney impression, he signed my guitar with a flourish worthy of a Shakespearean performer. He made me feel like I was a part of the family–and the company–like I was just as important a customer and artist as Lyle Lovett, their most prominent artist-endorser at the time. So, I was devastated when I learned that Bill Collings died on July 14th after a battle with cancer. When saw him at the 2016 NAMM Show, I had no idea that would be the last time I would see my friend. Bill was conspicuously absent at this year’s NAMM Show, but after asking about him, the folks from Collings would only say he was ill. Reading faces and between the lines, I knew it was serious but I didn’t expect he would be gone only six short months later. I will treasure every conversation and correspondence I had with Bill and know that he truly listened to my input when he asked me about what I thought of the electric guitars he introduced at the 2006 NAMM Show. He asked me what I preferred about my PRS guitars over his and I said that they were just “sexier.” He never forgot about that and would tease me about the un-sexy Collings electric guitars. Soon enough, those un-sexy guitars became exceedingly sexy and in 2010 I sold all of my PRS guitars and bought a custom Collings City Limits with a one-of-a-kind wide neck that Bill agreed to make just for me. That guitar too bears the signature if its maker as well as those of all of the other good folks at Collings Guitars who made that guitar happen.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of my friend Jeffrey Joe Morin. I had seen JJ play at Lestat’s as a solo act but I really got to know him when I replaced him as the lead guitarist in Folding Mr. Lincoln. That was how he described it to my daughters when we saw him at the Troubadour Christmas party following my joining FML. Some guys would have been angry and competitive but not JJ. He spoke sincerely of his “replacement” with a typical Jeffrey Joe laugh and he wished me good luck in the gig, saying I was better suited for the job than him. Oh my, Big Ol’ Heart indeed.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)