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It's time for the Industry to Change

I guess you’re supposed to believe that the guitar market is looking up. Unfortunately, that would be wrong. There’s a misleading trend happening that is causing an industry misdiagnosis. Guys my age, in their mid 50’s, who’ve been playing for years, are buying guitars, really good guitars, because they have the disposable income. Fender, Sweetwater, Reverb and others are reporting great sales. This is true – but really only to that narrow demographic. Teens and twenty somethings do not represent anywhere near a majority of guitar players anymore, as was the case in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. “C’mon Rusty, musical tastes change, it’s cyclical.” An industry exec says. I hate to burst your bubble but not this time my friend. The entire guitar industry, F, (the old) G, Y and GC all rested on their laurels during the 90’s, through the 2000’s and up to today. Can you imagine the marketing meeting at Fender 25 years ago, “What are we doing for marketing this year?” says the CEO. “We’re going to have EC hold the new shade of green Strats in our Ads.” Says the Marketing VP. “Perfect, then that’s a wrap, time for lunch.” Says the CEO. I might be exaggerating a bit but you get the point. I bring this up because for as much as the guitar/learning guitar/guitar features have stayed the same over the years, technology in other areas (read: entertainment and hobbies), ripped a giant swath through American and world culture.

Do the Guitar Executives understand that kids today have a world of information and fun at their fingertips? Let’s see, a kid can fly a drone with an HD camera using VR googles and make a video for the world to see in a few minutes with a few clicks. A kid can play a multi-player shooting game like Call of Duty with players from around the world and the graphics and experience are stunning. A kid can Facetime with friends around the world, post photos, text, chat or interact with thousands of people instantly. A kid can watch one of a million YouTube videos from stupid cat videos to how to do their math homework – on their phone! Do you see what I’m getting at? “But Rusty, guitar is not like that, you have to struggle for days/weeks/years and earn your chops!” That may be true for the person who wants to become an exceptionally good player but what about the casual player and especially the beginner? Why not make it easier for them to play or get a little better? Why does this industry (read: retailers, manufacturers, guitar teachers) believe that when someone shows interest in playing guitar they all automatically want to be as good as Eric Johnson? Why not embrace their desire to only play cowboy chords on the back porch? Stop forcing people to aspire to your ideal of what a guitar player is. Why does it threaten those teachers, retailers, and manufacturers if a person only wants to learn and play a few riffs? Here’s another example of old ways. In 2018, why aren’t all guitars outfitted with Bluetooth and all amps as well? Bluetooth has been around for over a decade. “But Rusty, the signal chain is much more pure using a high quality cable from guitar to amp.” I get that but you’re missing the bigger picture. This industry is losing customers! Hello…McFly…wake up already!! There aren’t going to be 50 year olds buying high priced guitars in 30 years unless they get hooked today! And that ain’t gonna happen with the methods of yesteryear. Don’t take my word for it, look at the facts.

Are you all aware that GC rather recently re-dedicated their stores to guitar education? They outfitted their stores with practice and teaching rooms. When I saw this development firsthand I remember thinking, finally, they get it. At that moment a hug smile came over my face. But alas, a minute later my heart sank. What did I see on the walls and retail shelves outside those teaching rooms? Books……books by HL and A, published in 1952, but wait for it….updated in 1973. (So grateful for the update). Are you kidding me? Really? Even my 83 year old father-in-law has a Kindle to read books. Seriously, what idiot thought that kids we’re going to embrace paper books? Unfortunately, I’m asking a rhetorical question. The answer is it’s the industry execs that believe that the same way they learned 30 years ago is the only way to learn today and if you don’t want to learn and struggle like they did, (under the oak tree for hours) then you won’t be admitted to the club. It’s such a poor self-serving attitude but hey, they’re retiring in a few years what do they care, right? Well I care and so should you. I fell in love with the guitar after strumming my first few chords. It touched my soul and I’m sure it touched many of you as well. Why else would we all continue to play? I would have been less of a person had I never felt what it was like to play guitar. I’ve said this for years but the next Eddie Van Halen is out there he just doesn’t know it. He’s too busy playing Madden 18. So why does the industry turn a blind eye to making progress in this area? Nobody is saying you don’t have to practice to be a really good player. What those of us on my side of the fence are saying is that many people (read: thousands of customers) would love to experience and enjoy playing just a few chords or a riff. You’ve got to give the beginner player a quick positive experience. The guitar may not resonate with all people who try but I’ll bet it would resonate with more than most think – much more (read: thousands more). Stop competing with each other and start competing with other forms of entertainment!

Andy Mooney, the current CEO of Fender, has been on record in print saying that of all the strat packs they sell during a year, 90% of those people quit within about 30 days. Congrats Andy, you’re batting .100. That’s not going to cut it on my team. I’m going to have to send you down to the minors. The Biloxi Shuckers have shown some interest in you. Good Luck. To Andy’s credit though, he has tried to do something in his short tenure at Fender thus far. It’s a curious attempt. Fender released their Fender Play app which allows you to subscribe to their video lessons. I’m confused though Andy. Why would I pay for video instruction (via a monthly subscription) when I can just go on YouTube and get virtually the same instruction for free – and a lot more of it? Even with all that content, YouTube didn’t have any effect on making new guitar players, so why does Fender think that doing the same thing would?

“But Rusty, you’re just knocking Fender and the others because you’re trying to promote your Fretlight Guitar.” That’s incorrect. My assessment of the industry above stands independent of the Fretlight guitar. Please don’t misunderstand. As a player of many years I love my Fender guitars, they play great. I’ll probably purchase a few more in the coming years. But as the industry leader, when it comes to lowering the barrier to entry into the industry, Fender has done a poor job. Do I think Fretlight is a better way to learn than looking back and forth from book or video in this day and age? Yes. Do I think that Fretlight is especially great for the short attention span kids or anyone with limited time? Absolutely.

We only need look at a couple of other industries to see how they successfully dealt with their challenges. Years ago, when lift tickets started to increase, ski manufacturers heard from beginner skiers that skiing was hard to master. Turning was hard and it was just not that fun for the cost of the equipment and the rising ticket prices. What did the manufacturers do? They certainly didn’t criticize beginners or make them feel bad about their frustrations, they came up with the ‘Shape’ ski which made turning and the entire process of learning to ski easier. Now years later those beginners are taking their kids skiing and guess what, they’re happily paying the $140 lift ticket fees for themselves and their family. Does the Starcaster make it any easier to learn to play than a $5,000 PRS? Not at all (Probably the opposite right? That alone is backward). How about the Golf industry? Bigger head drivers and irons make it easier to hit the ball down the fairway. The odds of success went up for the casual golfer. Same with large head tennis rackets. Do you think these industries did this just for profit? Nope. They did it for the purpose of new customers. New lifelong customers.

I’ve observed this industry as a consumer and a guitar manufacturer for over 30 years. The one undeniable trend (and fact) is that there have been less new guitar players each year, year over year, for the past 30 years and the downward trend continues. I pick on the big guys because they have the resources to actually make an impact, to make a change…to make a difference. It’s 2018 and GC decided to give new players paper books. Fender decided to continue to make new players look back and forth from video to their guitar – and charge for it. Same old, same old. Please understand, I want these companies to succeed. More players means more sales of everything in the industry, including Fretlight guitars. It means more songwriters, it means more songs with guitar in them. That in turn means new listeners and people who then want to grab a guitar and try to play what they hear. And so on.

Even though Fretlight is a relatively small company as compared to the likes of Fender, we sell thousands of Fretlight guitars every year. Why? Because no matter what your age in today’s world, your time is limited. You’ve got about 1,000 things pulling you in every direction. Whether you want to learn the depths of the Spanish Phrygian scale or just the riff to “My Girl”, you can just put your hands on a Fretlight and go. When our customers experience success with Fretlight what do you think they do? They are so excited with their success that they go buy a Vox amp, or a guitar stand, or a strap, or maybe even that vintage Fender Tele they thought they could never play or even that beautiful Taylor cutaway acoustic they’ve been dreaming of.

The question is simple. Does the industry really want new players? I have my doubts. As soon as the answer to that question is a resounding ‘Yes’, barriers and egos will be shattered so as to embrace new players and let them into the club by the droves – even if they can only play a few open chords.