Einstein is often credited for coining the definition of insanity as follows: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” However, as the Quote Investigator notes, actual evidence of the origin of this infamous quote points toward a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet. Still, the person birthing the wise warning of failure imminent for those unwilling to adapt isn’t as important as the actual advice, which is very sound.
Change and innovation are pivotal to the survival of our species. Technological advances are also welcomed into our lives thanks to their contribution to improving business efficiency, convenience in our daily lives, and personal enjoyment.
Some tech is rapidly changing and making what came before obsolete, while other “Eureka moments” occurring more than 2000 years ago have changed some, but the basic design remains. The business world brings out a competitive desire to stay ahead of the pack, which often sabotages a successful niche because, as humans, we cannot help ourselves—we are driven to fix what isn’t broken.
Guitars have been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. Acoustic flattops and solid-body electric 6-strings are regular visitors to my daydreams: sexy, sleek body designs, comfortable neck profiles, and unique tone. I’m not the only guitar lover here (you know who you are) who can’t wait to head over to the music store and check out those guitars that feel and play like the originals produced in the first half of the 20th century.
The vintage guitar market can get red hot and then cool for a few years, but the value of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul will still cost more than an average house in a nice neighborhood. If you find a Martin 000 made before 1970, you may have to pawn one of your kids (please don’t do that!). Instruments commanding insane amounts of cash are highly valued primarily because of their age and what each model represents. Still, sonic attributes and playability are why the ’59 Flametop will never relinquish its Holy Grail of Guitar Tone title.
Corner Music is the premier music store in Nashville, Tennessee. Its customers include recording artists, touring pros, studio players, engineers, producers, and songwriters. I worked as Corner Music’s director of marketing and eCommerce for 15 years, and the one constant I could rely on was the head-scratching offerings Gibson and Fender were going to lay on us. Traditional models of both brands were in high demand, but—for some reason—the Kings of the electric guitar market felt the need to put the vintage replicas out of reach for most consumers and offer ugly instruments that would scare young kids.
Remaining a Fender or Gibson dealer required paying a bunch of money for guitars the store didn’t want because customers didn’t want them. A Custom Shop agreement, costing even more money, was needed to stock the custom shop instruments, which mandated a specific dollar amount with specific demands regarding the guitars and basses to be ordered. For the two or three Custom Shop guitars we’d sell, five costly ‘exotic’ pieces would remain store regulars for the next five years and beyond.
The yearly results of repetitive lunacy concluded as you would expect. The ‘New & Improved’ Super Strats with goofy pickups, ugly colors, and switches in different places hung on the wall until they were sold at or below cost to make space for the next year’s innovative models no one would want. I remember asking the Fender rep why a particular model was discontinued, and he said, “It just wasn’t Fender enough.” The funny thing is that this could have described most of the guitars we had on display.
Arrogance is a funny thing. The larger companies become, the smaller-minded corporate execs seem to behave. Is the separation from reality due to isolation enabled by a C-suite afraid to tell the boss he’s crazy? Perhaps there’s paranoia about losing market share, a common motivation for constant innovation. I think solid growth is best served by listening to customers, sustaining supply, and creating a healthy workforce. Instead, guitar giants prefer to threaten litigation against small boutique companies making guitars inspired by the originals, which customers cannot buy from the original brand thanks to being overpriced and because their latest offering makes noise and doubles as a toaster.
Fender even went so far as to tell Corner Music they could not sell competing brands sharing a likeness to their guitars if we wanted to remain a Fender dealer. Considering the electric guitar market is made up of instruments resembling a Fender or Gibson, the store owners called Fender’s bluff and went about their business. Ironically, Fender saw no problem offering their brand of acoustic guitars resembling earlier creations from Gibson, Martin, and even Taylor guitars.
Gibson was not to be outdone by Leo’s former company. A marketing fee was required if a dealer wanted to advertise any new Gibson product. For retailers intending to sell their latest Gibson inventory online, an online retailer buy-in was mandatory.
Everyone has their breaking point, and Corner Music’s came when Gibson rolled out robot tuners in 2015. Our fifth or sixth rep in two years informed the staff that the popular standard models would be phased out in favor of newer models with auto-tuning technology. These ‘revolutionary’ guitars were confusing to use, noisy, violated the fingerboard, and had a plastic mechanical box on the back of the headstock that looked like the plastic roach station you strategically plant in the corner of your home. Corner Music walked away from selling Gibson’s electric guitars and many other small retailers did the same. The attempt to fix what wasn’t broken flopped, and Gibson fell into bankruptcy shortly after.
So, what went wrong with Gibson’s robot tuners? Well, rumor has it that Orville Gibson stopped spinning in his grave once Gibson’s former CEO was forced out after driving the company to file Chapter 11. A new Captain at the helm seems to be steering the organization from the brink of extinction. For how long, there’s no telling. Learned lessons are hard to come by in the music instrument-making world, and the two largest conglomerates will continue making strides by changing absolutely nothing.
Mom and Pop retailers have evolved by working with small builders of guitars who are making instruments the way they were initially produced. So much for constant innovation when a guitar built to look, feel, and play like a guitar made in the early 1950s can outsell whatever Fender offers as their latest ‘be all end all’ gimmick. These small builders won’t overtake the big builders, but they will gain the following needed to sustain themselves in the marketplace while keeping the doors of your local music store open.
Humans are capable of creating fabulous inventions, and our nature is to continue improving on great ideas for the greater good, but there are times when it’s okay to give things a rest. Aspiring guitar players who want to play the guitar their idols played will buy a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul. Most of us aren’t thinking about buying a guitar that stays in perfect tune and doubles as a hair dryer. We want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn or BB King, so we’ll find a guitar like the one they used.
Guitars will constantly go out of tune, get dinged, or be maintenance-free, and that’s okay. The rock legend Ritchie Blackmore found the perfect pitch playing of Joe Satriani annoying, saying: “If you’re always playing the correct notes, there’s something wrong.” Satriani is a brilliant guitarist, but Blackmore’s remark makes sense. Imperfection isn’t so much a flaw, but rather a distinction that makes us unique.
The world would be boring if everyone and everything ever created were flawless. There’s a guitar I own with worn frets and a funky neck groove. The pickups are wired out of phase, and the pots are a little scratchy. It’s far from perfect, which makes it perfect for me.