Amplified Pessimism: Gibson and the So-Called Death of the Guitar

Founded in 1902 by Orville Gibson, Gibson Brands Inc. filed for section 11 bankruptcy this week. While few in the industry were terribly surprised by this, the media spoke vividly of the death of the electric guitar, and how this once-proud institution, rallying under the mantra of ‘Only A Gibson Is Good Enough’, could possibly have fallen so far.

The thing is, Gibson had been bought out already – twice. In 1944 they were purchased by CMI, who themselves were bought by ECL in 1969. Their eternal rivals – Fender – went through the same process with CBS, resulting in a significant change in the direction of their products. Every company goes through their ups and downs, and while the Japanese ‘lawsuit’ period of the ‘70s gave the big companies a serious shake, it’s been the most recent events that have caused the biggest waves.

It is widely held that, since 2003, Gibson’s quality control had taken a serious nose dive. This was due in no small part to the seizure of a huge amount of timber by the US government, which led to many guitar companies finding alternatives to certain woods, and coincided with a shift in Gibsons’ interests. This meant buying music production software, amongst others – including the company’s $135m acquisition of an audio and home entertainment business from the Dutch multinational Philips in 2014 – culminating in the company’s no-show at this year’s National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), which sent a grim shockwave through the industry.

Gibson’s CEO Henry Juszkiewicz stated in a recent interview that he wanted to turn Gibson into the Nike of musical lifestyle brands, and it backfired massively. “Backfired” in this instance means that dealers stopped using Gibson, the public lost faith in the quality of the instruments, and the models being produced were unsuccessful or rejected. Gibson were learning a valuable lesson about what happens when you overstretch; Sound Control, at one time the UK’s biggest musical instrument retailer, did the same thing. They spread themselves too thin, which led to employees not giving a shit, which meant that the punters that did go to the stores didn’t get proper service, and the proliferation of companies on the internet meant that the shops struggled to compete.

Sections of the press started firing out the news that the guitar was dying, quoting figures that indicated a fall in sales. This is a cyclical thing – the death of rock’n’roll has been reported ever since Bill Haley looked at the time – but the wider implications of such sensationalism are unwarranted. For every layman who reads that the guitar is finished, there’s 100 young people picking up the instrument, a thousand kids checking out their favourite star’s instruments online, and hours of practice going into creating the next generation of songs.

Here’s where it starts to rub. Musicians exist because life needs a soundtrack. Life without music is bollocks, and even those who have zero interest in recording or playing can still be moved, affected by and changed by song. Stating that the guitar is over because one company muddied the waters is like saying that the motorcar is finished because there’s job losses at General Motors, or that shoes are dying out when there’s layoffs at Clarks.

The big lads in the game having a bad time will always resonate with the world as a whole, which is completely understandable, but the guitar, of all instruments, is the most hardy. Every instrument has a place, but few sound generators have been weaponised the way the guitar has. Woody Guthrie’s guitar bore the legend ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’, Jimi Hendrix made the world take notice when he burned his guitar, and you’re only reading this site because some people decided to run with the electric into the fires of hell to show you what their own demons were like.

It is impossible to measure the true impact of the guitar on a cultural scale, and even harder to imagine that, when the likes of Ted McCarthy, Leo Fender, Orville Gibson, Semi Moseley and Les Paul were crafting the industry we take for granted today, they had any idea how interwoven with the culture of day-to-day life the guitar would become. It’s still impressive on a fundamental level when an individual can take this instrument and tell a story without words, stories that translate to every culture and language instantaneously, stories that change drastically from player to player. To think that that would die because one company loses its way is blinkered and insane, and to report such an assertion is thoughtless and damaging.

Gibson will no doubt recover, but hopefully a lesson has been learned. What the world as a whole needs is access to good guitars to make this a better place to live, to allow those who wish to express themselves to do so, and not to grab for as much as they can. Greed doesn’t help anyone but the greedy, and destroying the name of one of the Big Two is the price of such stupidity.

Words: John Tron Davidson


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