Gibson Vs. The Future.
The Gibson Direction
Tony Bacon asks Vice-President tough questions on the guitar makers' future 41
Back in issue 12 we interviewed Fender's guitar chief, Dan Smith and asked him some tough questions about his company's products. This month we sent Tony Bacon, with instructions to repeat the process with GIBSON's David Leed, International Vice-President and Director of European Operations. David was on a trip to U.K. Gibson distributors Rosetti and Co. and it was there that the interview took place. What's going on over there in the States with Gibson? Are the rumours about cut backs true? How about the current prices? Frank questions met with frank answers, read on...
How have things changed recently for the Gibson company?
Like many companies we've had to take a close look at ourselves and prune and cut out. We've centralised our manufacturing now in Nashville, with the exception of the custom carved, one-off custom type instruments and mandolins, things like that, which are still made at Kalamazoo. Nashville's a much more modern factory, and obviously you get a lot of cost-effectiveness out of a modern factory with numerically-controlled routers and so on.
What percentage of workers are at Nashville and Kalamazoo?
Call it 85/15, Nashville being the bigger number. We have probably half as many people as we had before.
Can you tell me about the new cheaper Gibson solid electrics made at Nashville?
The need is for us to have a lower end to our range, especially in international markets, because of the dollar which made every American product, musical or otherwise, rather expensive. You're talking about 50% more expensive than it was two years ago, simply because of the currency in England — and Japan, and Holland, and Spain, wherever. So we developed some guitars to fill the need. A year ago we agonised over whether to call these new guitars Gibsons, and we decided not to — we'd call them Epiphones. But we've now decided to call them Gibsons — the rationale behind that being that the guitars are made at the Gibson factory in Nashville on the same machines, by the same people. At trade shows our dealers have said, 'They're Gibsons!' So we have indeed decided to call all these models Gibsons — it was really down to listening to what the market tells you.
They are the Challenger, the Corvus, the Spirit, and the Special. The Spirit and the Special are reminiscent of Gibson guitars of gone days, the Special looks pretty close to an SG special, and the Spirit is a sort of Les Paul TV type, blank and flat. Those are offered in one and two pick-up versions, while the new-shape Corvus comes in one, two or three pickup versions.
What other new things can we expect from Gibson?
In the UK there'll be the Futura, similar in shape to the Corvus although not exactly — it's got an angled neck and peghead. We've already started on the Heritage V's, and there'll be a korina wood Explorer. The name of the Futura says that we intend to be the major name in guitars. That guitar is destined for a segment of the market which is probably those younger players you talked about earlier, who are looking for new shapes. They're perhaps getting a little tired of the original Gibson shapes which everybody has adopted, or 90% have adopted. If you looked around Frankfurt this year I think one paper said there were six different Explorers — so we've invented another shape.
Gibson is known very much at the moment for re-issues, limited editions and so on, which tend to be past models. I don't think you're known for new ideas at the moment.
Well that bears out what I've just said to you. Take the Flying-V — they're not re-issued at a whim, some idea that we had; 'Oh, let's re-issue that.' It's because people want them. When we were recently beginning to think of the idea of coming out with the Moderne again, suddenly, while we were talking and thinking about it, there were about 6 letters in 2 months, I think, in the American music press. 'Will somebody tell me where to find a Moderne', 'I want a Gibson Moderne'. And advertisements: 'Wanted by well-known guitarist, Gibson Moderne.'
And there are innovations today, for example the Chet Atkins. To talk about Gibson's innovations, go back 60 years and run through them — truss rod, machine heads, f-holes, tuneamatic bridges — the small things that nobody thinks of. The big things too, Flying-Vs, Explorers, Chet Atkins today, the Moderne — in no particular order. We innovated.
How much activity is there in Research and Development (R&D) at the moment?
No less than there has ever been, Bruce Bolen is still responsible for that and obviously will be for many years. It's still situated in Kalamazoo, that's where the R&D workshop is.
How many people are involved in R&D?
That's difficult to put a figure on — probably you're talking about four or five people in total, constantly involved in it. But everybody's got an input to it, not least among which are the two plant managers of Nashville and Kalamazoo. We also consult our distributors tremendously, and we develop custom instruments for particular markets.
I wondered if there are any particular areas R&D is concentrating on at the moment — there is this move to slightly odder body shapes in the solid electrics that you've mentioned, for example.
There are things I wouldn't want our competitors to know... I think we've got to look for things that we believe the market wants. New shapes, new ideas. Why a new shape? Not only for appearance, but for effect as well — you know more about guitars than I do, I'm sure. There's all these esoteric arguments about whether the wood makes any difference, but it certainly does, and the shape can come into that.
I think a weak point in Gibson's lines has always been basses, and the Victory still doesn't seem to have cracked it for Gibson. What sort of policy do you have towards electric basses, and would you consider that fair comment?
(David Leed elected Rosetti's Gibson expert Doug Ellis to answer this one.)
DE: I'm biased as a Gibson man: the Victory Artist bass is still ahead of its time... it's a very fine bass guitar indeed and has been played and endorsed by a lot of these very fanatical West-Coast session players. It's a case at the moment of the market catching up with that instrument. But you say that Gibson have never been strong in bass guitars — I take issue with that, because I'd remind you about the EBO and the EB3.
Fairly short-lived popularity...
I'd also remind you of the RD bass, discontinued some time ago but still being used around the place, which bears out my point. The product's right, it's ahead of its time, and we're waiting for the market to catch up.
(Back now to David Leed.) DL: Yes, the comments about the RD were that the technicalities of it were really too much for the player at the time of its introduction. There you go back to Gibson as an innovator, and you can take that with the models Doug's talked about. You can take it with the Flying-V which came out and a small number were sold — now everybody in the world wants to make Flying-Vs. The Explorer was another case in point, and the Thunderbird bass.
A lot of guitarists will have noticed the price of Gibsons creeping up quite steeply over the last little while. How do you intend to deal with that, because Gibsons are becoming very expensive.
Well we can't really fight the money men, whoever they are, who decide the value of the dollar.
Is it totally down to that?
Our US retail list on the Les Paul range did not change from 1982 to 1983, and it changed very little, I think possibly 7%, from 81 to 82. So I think that answers it. On certain colours this year we have done an up-charge procedure, but on the basic colours it's virtually the same price. There's not even any inflation in it. Now we're able to do that because of the modern facility that we have in Nashville, because of the re-sizing of our operation. There can't be much inflation if you've cut the cost of capacity as much as we have, and it is tremendous — it's around 60% over two years. It's taken millions of dollars out of the cost of running our business. Maybe we were over-populated for the times, you have to react to these times.
Who do you see as the competition for Gibson in 1983?
Our competition is clearly Fender, and the Japanese makers that you could quote, there's no question about that.
I was thinking specifically of the top of the Yamaha SG range, the 2000, competing directly with the Les Paul. Would you agree with that?
Well it's certainly the most similar Yamaha guitar in type. Let me put it this way: the Japanese have considered the Les Paul guitar to be the standard of comparison in the last 20 years, everybody has always tried to equal that guitar. I'm not going to say who I think has come close to it. It seems a pity to me that other manufacturers haven't come up with a success in their own right.
What's the Gibson policy on endorsements? Do you give guitars away?
No we don't. I think it would be wrong to say that we never have, but as a current policy we do not give guitars away because we believe if the endorsement is to be valid the man must want it. And I can't guarantee that if I give you something you'd really want it. You may never use it, you may stick it in the cupboard, you may sell it. These people use these guitars.
Artists come to our facilities in America, they phone up from the other side of the world and say they're going back to Amsterdam via New York, is it all right if they get off the plane and come to Kalamazoo or Nashville? They like to participate. This is where the market need gets communicated to us because they come, we don't invite them but they know they're welcome. We don't send out gilt-edged invitations and air tickets and all that kind of stuff, which other manufacturers have been known to do and still do.
Finally, where do you think Gibson will be in five years' time? Would it be fair to say they're likely to be a small operation, smaller than they are now even, turning out handcrafted guitars at premier prices? Is that the way you're going?
No, I don't think so. Where will be in five years' time? We'll be the major guitar name, leading the market as we've done for a long time. The size of Gibson is relative, as with all manufacturers, to the size of the market.
Feature by Tony Bacon
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!