Yesterday was an interesting day! The internet, as it does, erupted into a total storm of indignation and fury because of Gibson (probably the 10th time this year alone) over the news of bankruptcy. It’s the story we’ve all been waiting for, for months and months, and it had finally arrived. Even though we knew it was coming, it seems that even I could be surprised at the amount of acid reflux on display from almost everywhere.
Let’s put it this way, no matter what you might have read, Gibson ain’t going anywhere right now. Let’s look at the facts, they haven’t filed for a s7, they filed for a s11. So, they are restructuring to manage the debt to keep the company strong going forward. In the words of the release “Gibson will emerge from Chapter 11 with working capital financing, materially less debt, and a leaner and stronger musical instruments-focused platform that will allow the Company and all of its employees, vendors, customers and other critical stakeholders to succeed”. This means, in a nutshell, Gibson will liquidate the consumer electronics business it acquired from Philips in 2014, and concentrate resources on its instrument business, that being Gibson and Epiphone guitars, KRK and Stanton Audio. So, once again, Gibson guitars (at the moment) ain’t going anywhere.
So, now that the main talking point is out of the way, what do we think is the reason behind this? Well – I for one have always been a massive fan of the brand, it’s iconic history and the products it produces. From a tone chaser perspective, which is all I can talk about, what’s not to love? I’m guessing that a lot of people (including myself) just feel disassociated with the company and its mission of constantly innovating, which for many, seems to be done ‘just because it can’. A company like Gibson doesn’t really fit into the category of a ‘Lifestyle’ brand. They can never be a company like Nike. When Juszkiewicz et al bought Gibson back in 1986 for $5M, the company was in tatters and they turned it around to the brand that we recognize from latter years. A modern company with a sharp eye for the future. This direction, for me, was the rebirth and possibly the start of the death throws for Gibson as we know it today. Thus, Gibson Brands was born and they diversified - they took up other brands with the vision of a truly global lifestyle entity going forward.
This is where they went wrong I think… Guitars and associated products at this level are not classic consumable products. Most players simply do not replace their main guitar every two years like they do their phone because of new features, they just want a solid dependable instrument to last them until the GAS leads them to a new one. You can’t invoke GAS in the customers by radically changing a classic product for the sake of it, you create GAS by making it better from that strangely inert position we have as players, of looking at something like a LP and just desiring it. We do this because of finishes, woods, quality. Not because of the implementation of auto tuners. Well, it doesn’t for me, and I don’t think it does for other people much as well.
The internet in recent years has seemed to revel in hating Gibson and in particular Juszkiewicz because they didn’t feel like the company was empathizing with them. The advent of new technologies, new shapes, new features just isn’t what people want from Gibson – they look to other brands for this - they want a solid guitar that (other than the G string slipping its tuning now and then) just won’t let you down. I don’t think they want a Flying V that looks like the StarFleet Ensignia, or an olive green J-45, or a new style LP that no one can relate too... But hang on… this isn’t really what they did when you look properly. With those insanely coloured J-45, they made a handful but did not stop making the sunburst, the guitar that everyone wants. It was just a limited edition run. The LP Traditional was made to be the classic Gibson we all know and love and it was the LP Standard that has all the new features… maybe something as simple as keeping the classic called “Standard” and the new featured one “Contemporary” may have made people not think so dismissively about them. Who knows? We are a funny bunch us guitar players, we love it when new products are genuinely innovative, but we also love to be able to lean back on the technology and style we are already comfortable with. This is why guitars should not be treated like mobile phones.
One of the things that has interested me over the years is the constant internet chatter about QC at Gibson being shocking and/or them being overpriced. I am certain that this has caused massive reputational damage to the brand and I’m a little confused by it.
Pricing. So many people talk about them being too expensive, isn’t the US made LP Tribute about $1K? Is that expensive? No it isn’t. Is it a good guitar for that money. Yes it is. They do the models at the top for silly money, but who doesn’t? You get for what you pay for, and if you want a showpiece instrument made by hand completely in the US, you spend a LOT of money. If you want a great brand name on your guitar but not the detailed handmade feel, you have the more budget friendly option. Gibson caters for all of these situations. I’m guessing that in this day and age people just look at cost and nothing else. Guitars run the line of ever diminishing returns, the higher you go, the more you pay for a smaller difference in quality.
QC. I saw a post a couple of days ago that said “I went into a guitar store owned by my friend yesterday and they had 10 Gibson’s on the wall, and they were all crap”. My first question to that person was “Who is letting them go up on the wall if they are that bad?” and he couldn’t answer, in fact, he couldn’t really answer anything so it may well have been a case of seeing a hate bandwagon and jumping on it.
Every company has QC hiccups now and then, but I still just can’t believe it is that bad – we’ve all seen the pictures, read the stories, and heard the talk but what’s the actual reality of it? I wanted to hear from someone who lives with issues such as these everyday so I jumped on the phone and talked to an old friend of the company, Lee Anderton, about his experiences with Gibson (as a prelude, you should know that Anderton’s sell Gibson’s by the truckload). He said this “We’ve had thousands of Gibson guitars come through the store over the years, and as each one goes through our own stringent internal QC procedure before being entered into stock, and I’m baffled by this. I would say that around 1% of the guitars we get are failed by our own QC technicians, which isn’t out of line with many of guitar brands we deal with. In the whole of last year we had 7 Gibson guitars come through here with a broken headstock – the way the forums read, you’d think every other Gibson Les Paul had a busted headstock. Last year I shot a video where I compared the build quality of a used 80s Les Paul Standard to a new 2018 Les Paul Standard. The build quality on the new one was significantly better than the old one. In the end I decided not to post the video as I just felt that people would accuse me of having a vested interest in selling the new ones, which of course I have! The phrase Haters Gonna Hate comes to mind.” That paints quite a different picture than what we read, doesn’t it?
And finally… As always, the internet had an absolute field day with this story, and this leads me nicely to the best thing about the whole thing. I’m a member of a Facebook group called “Petalberdz of Derm” – it’s one of those groups that exists for the sake of fun (never harmful) and just talking about gear – mostly pedals. It’s one of the only places that gives me a genuine LOL almost every time I go in and the thing I’m most thankful for, it’s a completely safe haven from the people who sometimes frequent FB groups just to be smug and overtly opinionated - although we do talk about gear a lot in there, most of the time it’s just a group of people having a really good laugh. Yesterday, one of the more prolific agitators of silliness mocked up an article that appeared to be from The Financial Times about Joe Bonamassa buying Gibson… and someone took it outside the group and it went viral. I must admit, I saw it elsewhere and posted it on the Wampler IG page and it wasn’t until much later I found out that it was just a silly joke that went a little crazy. And boy, did it go crazy. So, Dermers, well played - you had us all.
Thinking about the JB angle, just imagine what would happen if someone like him did raise the capital and bought Gibson. What would Gibson look like, would it be the classic Gibson we all know and love, or would it be the most silly thing that’s ever been thought of? It’s questions like this that distract me way too much at dinner and gets me in trouble with the family. It’s been such a long time since we’ve been able to have banter about an ACTUAL guitar player ACTUALLY owning a gear company I hope it happens for that alone.
None of us know what the future holds for Gibson guitars, I’m pretty certain that like me you want them to continue and carry on making guitars and for them to be fundamentally great instruments - but I personally think that a period of ‘eye opening’ is needed by them to understand what is really happening out there. The stories that are spread about Gibson have an element of truth about them, but in no such way that Social Media will have you believe, and I think it’s come from people genuinely fed up with the lack of connection to one of their favourite brands. There is a fine line between love and hate.
The ball is in their court, let’s hope the pick it up and start throwing it in the right direction.