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Who’s gonna steal the show, you know baby it’s the guitar man

Richard Heffernan
Blah, blah, blah, plus tax. 

A particular Blog without any particular rhyme or reason but maybe an interesting one all the same, depending on your politics of course.

Basically two stories, ideas, concepts that cross paths due mainly to a seismic shift in our modern music culture. I’ve read an interesting book recently, a book with a lot of photographs I might add, okay you got me, I’m no book worm and certainly no academic. So don’t expect to be blinded by science, facts and figures or the equity value of lead nurturing to achieve top of the funnel brand awareness... so back to the book.

The book I’ve recently read is about the Holy Grail, the Holy Grail that is of electric guitars. Known to those who are in the know as the ‘Burst’, the Gibson Les Paul Standard. Built between 1958 and 1960. If your old enough to have seen the mockumentary, 'This Is Spinal Tap' you’ll know all about the sustain (YouTube). The original Les Paul was endorsed by the man himself, Les Paul, who at the time was a big star in the US along with his wife Mary Ford. Some believe Les was instrumental (excuse the pun) in the design of the guitar and it’s aesthetic appearance, but this is not entirely true. Les was better known for his guitar playing and his wizardry in electronics. The Les Paul guitar spent over a year in Gibson’s R and D department before it was presented to Les Paul the man to encourage a contractual endorsement. It was designed by Gibson president Ted McCarty, factory manager John Huis and their team - while in the process, tipping their hat to guitarist/inventor Les Paul. 

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The new line of Les Paul Standards were introduced in 1958 in its classic configuration. Only 1,700 units were built between 1958 and 1960, all in a cherry red sunburst finish. The reason for the low output was due to bad sales as they were considered to be old fashioned compared to the new ultra-modern Fender Stratocaster. Or they were too expensive retailing near to $300 dollars with hard case, in today's money $2,604.13. They may have priced themselves out of the market. 

The 1,700 units disappeared into general life without any remarkable significance or impact, that is until 1964. The Bursts were eventually discovered by young blues guitarists in the UK, most notably Eric Clapton. In June 1965, Clapton bought a second-hand 1960 Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul in the London music shop Selmer. No one could predict that with it he would change the history and sound of the electric guitar. Other were to follow, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Keith Richards, the list goes on. Today an original Gibson Les Paul Burst is worth a king’s ransom. Clapton’s Les Paul was stolen in 1966 and is still out there somewhere and is probably one of the most sought after electric guitars in the world.

 

Due to trade and public demand the Les Paul was reintroduced in 1968 but in a different guise and configuration. It would take Gibson a few decades to get back to the original exacting specs of the Standard Les Paul. It seems they had forgotten how to make or recreate the old classic. 

Gibson’s fortunes did well during the sixties and seventies levelling out in the eighties and nineties. They opened two new factories in the southern state of Tennessee, Nashville and Memphis due mainly to weak unions and a cheap labour force. Gibson introduced the Les Paul Studio in 1983, basically a stripped down version of the Standard, at half the price it has become Gibson’s best seller ever since. Gibson also has great success with their less expensive sister brand Epiphone. They shifted production of Epiphone guitars to low cost Asia where they have gone on to sell store loads of guitars all around the world. This plays into Trumps ideology ‘Make America Great Again’, the loss of American jobs to overseas manufacturing. 

If I’m to believe what I read on the internet Gibson is not in a good place financially. They sold bonds to help finance the company and now those bonds have to be paid out and there’s no money. The reason for the decline in the company’s fortunes comes down to a simple fact, the younger generations are not buying guitars like they did in the past decades. This is due mainly to new technologies and the way it’s been integrated into modern music, hip hop, rap, synthetic or plastic pop. Entry level and mid-level guitars will always sell well, but young guitarist are not migrating to higher level instruments. There seems to be an opt out or cut off point, why?. There’s a collective realisation by younger wanna-be rock stars that there’s no future in it. The electric guitar bands dream of a rock and roll lifestyle is surely dead, buried in music industries back garden with a streak through its heart. There was a time when these young bands could at least hope to be in the right place at the right time, except now the right time doesn’t exist anymore. Interesting to think how the likes of U2, the Cranberries and all the other high rollers would make it in the modern world. Let's remember U2 sold their recent album to Apple Inc. They cut to the chase to get paid up front before their music was dispersed illegally for free on the dark net.

Technology has probably changed the music industry forever or, at best has changed its course. The golden age of collective popular music is over. Go on ask someone what’s the current number 1? does the number 1 concept even exist anymore? The music industry I suspect had no choice but to go along to get along, maybe because the genie was already out of the bottle. Today music is almost a free for all, it’s copied, borrowed, downloaded, streamed, YouTubed, iTuned, Spotified and whatever else. The result is the potential future great guitar bands will probably never get past the gigging stage, unless they are lucky enough to get full exposure, for example their music to be used in a successful American TV network drama. Think of The Rolling Stones, they didn’t or couldn’t write their own songs when they signed a recording contract with Dick Rowe of Decca Records in 1963. Rowe had already turned down The Beatles and wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. The fact of the matter is the Stones could learn on the job, to grow and develop their craft and find their voice. Something that would never happen today with a fledgling new band, unless it’s a commercially manufactured boy band or girl band.  

Any good news?, with so much music readily available on the internet there’s always the possibility of making new discoveries. With so many artists and music out there on the internet there’s no excuses anymore because we live in an age where we’re spoilt for choice. If it exists, it’s on the net. I have made a few new discoveries myself, stuff that would normally be off my radar and a good stray from my well-worn beaten track, ‘Respect the music man’. With new discoveries in mind my next stop would be the high-street music shop. Looking for some new discoveries in either CD or Vinyl, only to hear the words, “sorry mate, don’t have it, your best bet is the internet”. Everything either goes full circle or in a vicious circle.

For the moment one of the up sides of this change in music culture is getting to see these newly discovered artists and musicians in smaller venues, because they’ll never be big enough to fill bigger venues despite their talent. Artists and musicians will always have their niche market and cult following. We will always have popular teenage music or entertainment, rooted firmly in mainstream consumerism and commercialism. Music for the most part that sounds like it was created by an algorithm, and marketed cynically at influential pre-teens... alright maybe that’s a bit too harsh.

There is still hope in vinyl. It’s interesting the return of the 12" vinyl album and it’s ever increasing popularity. Vinyl demands respect, it’s bigger and more tangible and the sound is much better. There’s a process, it involves taking the record out of the sleeve and placing it carefully on the turntable, music as it should be. Maybe things will go full circle and there’ll come a time when the music industry, record companies, bands and artists will only produce their music on vinyl. Leaving us with no choice but to go OUT and buy it, or if we’re too busy or lazy just get it online.

Maybe then and only then will we see a gradual increase in guitar bands again, and the return of high-end guitar sales for Gibson.

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