A $40,000 price tag for a one-of-a kind-Austrian Spalt Instruments electric guitar, whose design is inspired by an Oscar Wilde short story? Chump change.
A $180,000 price tag for a Musical Instrument Digital Interface-compatible Blüthner grand piano from Germany, which is equipped with 265 remote-controlled LED lighting colors and a see-through acrylic lid? Peanuts.
An $860,000 price tag for an Australian TGSCO guitar strap, which contains an array of sapphires, rubies and other precious gems? Now you’re talking!
These are just three of the eye-popping items unveiled at the 2019 NAMM Show, which opened Thursday at the Anaheim Convention Center and runs through Sunday. Of course, many of the instruments and products on display cost much, much less and are geared for everyday customers. But the fact that there are six-figure price tags for specialized musical items is notable regardless.
NAMM — short for the Carlsbad-based National Association of Music Merchants — is now in its 118th year. The nonprofit organization’s nearly 10,500 member companies hail from 120 countries and regions. The music, sound and event technology products those companies make brought in $17 billion in global sales in 2017, $7 billion of it from the U.S. alone. (Sales totals for 2018 will be released this spring.)
This year’s members-only NAMM Show features 2,000 exhibiting companies showcasing more than 7,000 brands. Last year’s edition drew a record 115,085 attendees. Barring transportation snafus brought on by the current U.S. government shut-down, that number could be eclipsed this week.
“I think the NAMM vibe goes way beyond just presenting your product,” said James “J.C.” Curleigh, the new CEO and president of Gibson Brands, during a Wednesday interview at the NAMM Show. The 125-year-old guitar and music equipment company is now rebounding from a bankruptcy that saw Gibson skip the 2018 NAMM Show for the first time in memory.
“It’s about creating energy and moments that people didn’t know could exist,” Curleigh continued. “You create them and people will remember them. It’s pretty exciting.”
The global impact of NAMM explains why Gibson, Fender, Yamaha, El Cajon’s Taylor Guitars, Escondido’s Kiesel Guitars USA and a host of other companies, large and small, unveil new lines each year at the show. It occupies nearly every inch of the 1.8 million-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center, along with more space in adjacent hotel ballrooms.
That impact also explains why both Ed Sheeran and Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page chose the 2019 NAMM Show to each unveil their own respective custom guitar lines. Page was not present, but Sheeran was on hand Thursday to introduce his collaborative line of eight Sheeran guitar models with guitar-maker George Lowden.
“There are fewer guitar bands and fewer artists using guitars now, and not as many kids picking up guitars. That is something I would like to change by getting these great quality guitars, made in Ireland, into kids’ hands and encouraging them to learn and progress,” Sheeran, the pop-music world’s most commercially successful troubadour, said in a statement. Prices for the guitars that bear his name start at $825, which may be a bit steep for beginning musicians.
Page, meanwhile, is celebrating this year’s 50th anniversary of his long dormant Led Zeppelin with two signature guitar models made in partnership with Fender. The line features four Artist Signature guitars modeled after Page’s iconic 1959 Fender Telecaster.
Billed as the “Limited Edition Jimmy Page Telecaster Set,” they include two limited edition Fender Custom Shop versions — one with mirrors, the other with a painted dragon, with a price tag of $25,000 each. The regular editions are priced from $1,399.99 to $2,499.99 each.
Fender also generated major buzz with the debut of its hybrid Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster, which is both an acoustic and electric guitar and will retail for $1,999.99. Designed to be compatible with most any digital music platform and to eliminate feedback, it enables guitarists to easily access electric and acoustic tones — and almost anything in between — as well as to blend them at will.
Where the classic Fender Telecaster is a sold body electric guitar, the Acoustasonic is a hollow body instrument that enables players to combine analog sound with digital processing. It has a mahogany Telecaster neck, an ebony fingerboard, three pickups (including on in the bridge) and a patent-pending Stringed Instrument Resonance System.
“This guitar is meant to provide a multitude of sounds in one instrument and it’s been three years in the making,” said Billy Martinez, Fender’s VP Category Manager, Acoustic and Squier Divisions. “It gives players a new lane on the sonic highway.”
Then there’s the Ascender, which is made by Point Loma-based Ciari Guitars and bills itself as “the world’s first premium travel guitar.” Made primarily of mahogany, aluminum and plexiglass, the 22-fret instrument folds symmetrically in the middle, without the need to remove or de-tune any of its six strings. When folded, the Ascender fits easily under an airplane seat.
The brainchild of veteran San Diego musician and patent attorney Jonathan Spangler. It utilizes three patented features: a floating bridge that automatically provides tension and de-tension to the strings; a hinged neck; and a special truss rod that locks and unlocks the hinge.
A concealed recessed lever lever enables you to fold this otherwise conventional-looking electric guitar in half — in between the 12th and 15th frets — before you travel, then “unfold” it after your arrival.
“You can cock it and rock it!” said Spangler, who predicted that his prototype will have a $3,000 price tag when it comes to market later this year.
To demonstrate how compact the instrument is when folded and in its carrying case, the Ciari Guitars booth at the NAMM Show includes two rows of airline seats.
“We want to target travelers with kiosks at airports, so they can try the Ascender before they buy it,” Spangler said. “And it comes with a fortified backpack.”
For many NAMM Show exhibitors, being in attendance is both a tradition and a business necessity.
“I’m 39 and I’ve been coming to the NAMM Show since I was three or four,” said Kiesel Guitars’ Vice President Jeff Kiesel, whose company is debuting its new Delos line this week.
Kiesel specializes in custom-made guitars built to the specifications of each customer. The company sold 4,054 instruments last year, earning just under $8 million. That’s a record for Kiesel, which broke away from the now-defunct Carvin Corporation three years ago.
The demand for unique, custom-built guitars has grown so great that the NAMM Show now devotes an entire area in the Anaheim Convention Center to boutique guitar-makers.
“The intrinsic value of small, handcrafted instruments is still a big part of the industry. People are always looking for more variety and selection.” noted NAMM President and CEO Joe Lamond, who on Thursday presented Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson — a former San Diego resident — with the NAMM “Music for Life” award.
That variety also applies to guitar straps, which this year accounted for what may well be the single most expensive item at the NAMM Show.
Credit for this goes to Australia’s The Guitar Strap Co.(TGSCO). In addition to its line of 45, easily affordable guitar straps, the Perth-based company this week unveiled its aptly titled “The Show Stopper.” The singular strap is made of 18 karat gold and 2,000 gemstones — including emeralds and rubies — which account for its $860,000 price tag.
“We made it as a promotional tool, but ‘The Show Stopper’ has generated so much interest that it looks like we’ll be doing a few more,” said TGSCO CEO Tony Croce, who is a cousin of the late singer-songwriter (and former San Diegan) Jim Croce.
The ability to play an instrument is not required for some of the new products on display this week.
Sphero Specdrums are app-enabled silicone rings that — using embedded motion and light sensors — “play music” by tapping eight numbered colors on a thin rubber mat. In a novel twist, users can any object of color, be it a plastic yellow banana or a blue comb, to trigger sounds using the rings. It costs $64.99 for the play pad with one silicone ring or $99.99 for the pad with two rings.
“You don’t need to be a musician to play it,” said Specdrums Product manager Steven Dourmashkin, one of several dozen exhibitors at the NAMM Show’s Wednesday media preview day. “You can play any surface, and it makes music fun and accessible.”
Specdrums was being showcased no more than 30 feet from the booth Yamaha’s new “instrumental karaoke” Sonogenic SHS-500 keytar. A light, guitar-like keyboard that hangs from your neck, it uses an IOS app to produce 30 built-in sounds — from pianos to drums and synthesizers.
Priced at $499, it uses Yamaha’s Chord Tracker app, which instantly analyzes any song in the music library on your mobile device, then wirelessly sends the chord data to the Sonogenic. The instrument’s keys will trigger only the correct notes and chords, so that anyone can “play” along with their favorite songs without making any mistakes. No matter what key you depress, it will always be the right one, so to speak.
“Until now, you had to take some lessons or have good ears,” said Yamaha of America marketing representative Ben Harrison. “On the Sonogenic, without any musical training, you can sound good.”