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Popular Guitar Design is Player Driven

Are Guitar Buyers "Conservative"?

image & missing Tele profile credit/blame: vectorstock.com

Builders of "unconventional" guitar profiles & configs typically blame the guitar buying market for being too conservative as if the general demographic were mysteriously backward; perhaps even genetically dysfunctional. However, there actually is no mystery. Here's a perspective. Iconic guitars got that way by their positioning to and association with iconic guitar players...

Fender Stratocaster Sales & Marketing Division
Staff Directory: Eldon Shamblin, Buddy Holly, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Rory Gallagher, Robin Trower, Ritchie Blackmore, SRV, Eric Johnson and John Mayer

Gibson Les Paul Sales & Marketing Div
Staff Directory: Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Paul Kossoff, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh, Joe Perry, Gary Moore, Zakk Wylde and Joe Bonamassa

Get the idea? Similar holds true for each of the profiles illustrated above as well as the oddly absent Telecaster. It was the best illustration I could find, ok. Another correction might be the inclusion of little white monkey grip in bottom row, second silhouette from the left. No alien love secret there folks. 

During the most formative period in modern guitar culture, the above shapes and configs were the guitars most available to those players who helped create the culture. When a luthier/builder creates a unique or "unusual" config for the sake of uniqueness, ergonomics or whatever reason, and is puzzled when nobody buys it, he has ignored the laws and power of positioning.

Notice how J-types are uptrending, as indie/alternative artists are choosing Jags & Jazzmasters in order not to be positioned with other genres. Still, these were classic models Fender had discontinued, then decided to reissue because new players were picking up vintage ones nobody else wanted. Again, player driven. And some of these players are becoming new guitarist icons. But somewhat ironically, they're not picking up a totally new guitar design, instead maintaining enough Leo DNA for a retro vibe, with just enough distance from Dad's Strats & Teles to feel comfortably indie

Also worthy of historical note is that the almighty Strat was nearly discontinued. As the story goes, Leo created the Strat for Jazz players. But they didn't care for it. Country pickers preferred the Tele. Surf players, i.e. Dick Dale picked up the Strat, but as the surf calmed down so did Strat sales. Jimi Hendrix arrived just in time to keep the Strat in production until Neptune rises... if not longer.

Another alternative shape being embraced is the EVH config. basically a hybrid profile of classic derivation, yet establishing its own niche and identity. EB-Music Man and Peavey continue to produce tons of this guitar style even since the official EVH config has moved on to the Fender family. Player driven? What do you think?

Gretsch was a dead line. Throughout the 70's I saw vintage Gretsch guitars collecting dust in music shops that couldn't give 'em away.  Then in the early 80's, Stray Cat Brian Setzer, with the help of MTV, single-handedly revived the Gretsch line. The now Fender owned line continues to do well. And other Bigsby equipped Rock-a-Billy lines spin off Gretsch with their own success. Player driven.

PRS is of course an amazing story. But with totally classic profiles and configs as well as hybrid aspects. Ok, so they have an original scale length. Commitment to quality, vigorous up and coming artist endorsement, a nice boost from Carlos and one helluva legal team have established PRS as one of the top 3 US producers. Back in the day, people would sometimes refer to a Les Paul as a "Paul". Ya don't hear that anymore.

Ibanez - Started off making cheap Les Paul clones. I bought my PF200 new in '77 for around $280. Huge line, lots of models and a killer artist roster. They also enjoyed early success with the very Gibby-like Ice Man and Artist models. Later on going into more super-Strat territory with enormous assistance from the ever dynamic Satch & Vai duo who still help develop and evolve new models with Ibanez.

Yamaha - Fender & Gibson looking stuff, right. Every price point covered. High end endorsement with Mike Stern & Billy Sheehan. Otherwise, Yamaha makes keyboards, drums, studio gear, motorcycles and I can't even pretend to know what all else. Yamaha makes good stuff, but you get the feeling they could drop their guitar line tomorrow to make pasta machines, and we'd miss them more than they'd miss us.

Back to Ernie Ball/Music Man. Besides their aforementioned EVH-types, this Leo Fender descendant, like G&L, has established their Stratty profiled 4x2 headstock configs with the help of a small but mighty artist roster in Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, John Petrucci & Albert Lee. Healthy & viable guitar line. Game changer? We'll see.

G&L - Nothing new here profile-wise. The little headstock bump thingy, those Z-coil comanche pups and more bridge mass distinguish this line from Fender S & T-types at a glance. G&L makes great guitars. And their artist roster is enormous, but strangely it features very few hi-profile players. Some great players, just not household names. A real workhorse line for workin' players and Leo followers with a philosophical bent against post 1964 Fender direction. G&L experiences a certain marketing carry-over from Fender by virtue of its lineage, as well as a group of loyal grass-roots owners not unlike Subaru owners.

Parker - Holding their own with a highly innovative hybrid design and use of materials. Cool guitars, but again not enough retro vibe for most people! The original 80's Parker ads displayed a Parker guitar next to a Strat and a Les Paul, positioning it as the next evolutionary step. Cute marketing. Still, not embraced by enough players of influence. Could Paul Reed Smith have put this config into more hands? Perhaps, as Smith was a bigger networker than Ken Parker. But we'll never know for sure on that one. Meanwhile Adrian Belew is the only Parker endorser of any recognition. Vernon Reid and even Joe Walsh are on Parker's artist roster, but web images for Reid are still predominately Hamer, and does anyone out there associate Joe Walsh with a Parker? Are you kidding? Leonard Nimoy might dig a Parker though. His presence in those original ads might have created enough trekkie futuristic retro vibe to make the Parker cool for more people. Or maybe not...

Hamer - They did everything, and could have been at least where PRS is now. Back in the day, Dantzig and crew built every icon, and built them well. They tackled V's and Explorer types as well as the early S-type Daytona models, 5 neck guitars for Rick Nielsen and any other crazy custom request. Their Monaco series archtops are exquisite guitars. And like B.C. Rich's Bernie Rico, Jol Dantzig was player networked enough to bring new shapes into acceptance. However, these companies have both moved on to new corporate ownership with different management, maintaining facsimiles of their products without the original movers & shakers aboard in terms of both leadership and the artist caliber of their heydays.

Still more companies, i.e. Washburn, Schecter, ESP, Dean, Carvin, Peavey, Reverend and others manage to keep rolling with their own slight variations of classic platforms. And Samick seems to provide to nearly everyone at some level.

The growing list of boutique builders mostly sticks with standard profiles and hybrids of familar profiles, doing them better-- at least they want us to believe they are doing better, than the big names. Suhr makes S & T-types, and boutique acoustic maker Collings has added hi-end LP and 335 Gibby types to their line. Lots of fine smaller outfits are focused on the standards.

And somewhere, this very moment, someone is building a guitar shaped like a scorpion, a medieval war ax, a swastika or simply a design that's more forgiving to back and shoulder problems. If they have a network of like minded buyers, perhaps they'll get by. Otherwise, they'd better find their market or go back to work at the Home Depot. These guitars are not associated with anyone's favorite hero. Thus it's a nerd niche. Orthopedic shoes may be beneficial, but rarely are they sexy.

"Art Guitars" is an interesting niche. For reasons which are difficult to understand or explain, some unique guitars manage to escape traditional, geek or utilitarian perceptions and attract certain people, hopefully wealthy people. One way to brand an art guitar is with a hefty price. Another is context. The guitar in my site header is considered an art guitar. The one-off "Fracturecaster" was created by Phil Sylvester at www.pheoguitars.com. It's a fully functioning & playable Strat on which Phil was doing body resonance & tone experiments by cutting sections of the body and reconnecting where the guitar sounded best. The result you see is reconfigured, body wood-wise for its best tone. But even more so, the Fracturecaster is an art guitar. Phil is a guitarist, so the variety of unconventional guitars he creates must also play well. But as their positioning to known guitar players is abstract at best he presents & markets them like art, prices them accordingly and isn't interested in appealing to a mass market. Everything is one-off. He also does other things for a living. But you'd be surprised by the growing number of art guitar builders.

And what about headless guitars? Remember those? Steinberger models enjoyed a brief success in the 80's, but must have been too closely positioned with new wave MTV artists. When bands like Missing Persons & Flock of Seagulls went away, so did interest in rectangular body, headless guitars. Only Allan Holdsworth is of any significance still representing headless guitars. Also, it didn't help when Gibson bought Steinberger and shelved everything for awhile. Luthiers couldn't even obtain LSR tuners for custom projects.

In summary, until some new savior guitar god shows up from another galaxy or Minneapolis, blowing everyone away with a unicorn shaped guitar, nobody's gonna be interested in playing instruments other than those played by Jimi Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, Jimmy Page, BB King or Angus Young. And even if Prince is your savior, just know that his main axe is a Tele copy made by Hohner. And he don't play nothin' Jimi didn't already play. Guitar culture is on a plateau, and unlikely to see any drastic changes. Although guitar is still revered, perhaps it's no longer a tool of revolutionary change and impact.

I'm just glad that Steve McQueen drove a Mustang in "Bullitt", instead of an AMC Pacer (Google it kids). Remember this the next time you see a current model Ford Mustang. More classic style cues than any American car on the road.

Iconic gear follows iconic artists. Popular guitar design is player driven, period. End of story.

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