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Dear Musician - When Musical Icons Stumble

Will you kick it while it’s down?


by Dendy Jarrett



Let’s face it – there are very few American Icons left when it comes to brand names that are still manufactured in the U.S.A. Coke, Harley-Davidson, Jack Daniels, and Airstream are just a few. These brands are all internationally recognized and represent top quality that's made in America.


This week, we learned that Gibson has stumbled, announcing it has filed for Chapter 11 reorganization and protection through the bankruptcy courts in Delaware. Maybe Gibson isn’t as ubiquitous as a brand like Coke, but their logo is instantly recognizable the world over, as is the iconic Les Paul body shape.


Now, to the Gibson haters who rejoiced at the announcement of the brand's stumbling, I remind you that there are only a few of these hallowed 100-plus-year-old brands left in the US. Gibson is trying for a comeback. You can kick it while it’s down...or you can help it get back up.


I’m left thinking about the over 800 families who are supported by this fantastic brand. I’m left thinking of the guy who has cut necks from blocks of wood for 18 years. He’s done it for so long he doesn’t even need the cut lines any longer – he does it by touch and sight. That’s what happens when you’ve done something for so long that it becomes a part of you. I’m thinking about the woman who has scraped bindings on these guitars for 30 years and wears the worn calloused tape-wrapped fingers to show for it. I’m thinking about the guy who stands in front of a buffing wheel all day buffing the nitro finish into an amazing work of art for some aspiring guitarist. None of these people makes a tremendous amount of money, but each does  his or her  job  because of the love of working for such an iconic and historic brand.


There’s been talk about the quality suffering over the last few years. None of these people had anything to do with that. When companies feel pressure to make numbers, something’s got to give. Of course, Gibson could have resorted to robotics manufacturing years ago to increase production so they could pump more and more guitars into the marketplace. But wouldn’t something have been lost in that sort of measure? Any product that’s hand made is going to have “characteristics” that may be viewed as flaws. It’s impossible to have something touched by humans without some inconsistencies and issues. But without the human touch, Gibson’s guitars wouldn’t have maintained their mystique and prestige—they would have become sterile representations of craftsmanship lost.

Fortunately, that craftsmanship has not been lost--it has been re-awakened. What I’ve heard from guitarists is that the 2018 models are some of the best-produced in years. That’s a good foundation to start a comeback.


And let’s look at something else that's unique about Gibson. Did you know that if you call their customer service line, you get a live human every time you call? No robotic prompts, no clearing- customer-service house in Bangladesh – just dedicated American guitar enthusiasts to take your call 24/7 - 365 days a year. Who does this anymore?


I won’t go into what caused this magnificent century-old company to stumble. I have my opinions, and you probably have yours. Chances are our opinions are pretty close. And it's complicated. But I implore you not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Don’t punish the people who labor under circumstances beyond their control, yet remain dedicated to making musical instruments as only they know how. 



Now that this iconic brand has stumbled, I ask you to stand behind them as the re-gain their footing under new leadership. Stand behind the guy cutting the necks. Stand behind the woman scraping bindings. Stand behind the guy who stands behind the buffing wheel who’s covered in buffing compound from head to toe. You’ll be providing them with a job and a paycheck to feed their children. You’ll be protecting an iconic American-made product. You’ll help support over 800 families who rely on guitar sales to pay their mortgage. They are people just like you, but, more importantly, they are the Gibson brand. They are why 'only a Gibson is good enough.'


There are other guitar companies to whom you could send your business, and perhaps you need a Fender to go with your Les Paul or vice-versa—and that’s great…go for it. But please think about this century-old piece of American history.  Don’t kick this brand when it’s down. Help it get back up.


Oh, and since Harmony Central is owned by Gibson, we’ll thank you as well. We’re here to inspire people to make better music, and this time we’re asking you to make some music with a Gibson. In the meantime, if you do, we’ll leave a light on for you.







Dendy Jarrett is the Publisher and Executive Director of Harmony Central. He has been heavily involved at the executive level in many aspects of the drum and percussion industry for over 25 years and has been a professional player since he was 16. His articles and product reviews have been featured in InTune Monthly, Gig Magazine, DRUM! and Modern Drummer Magazines.


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Ben Lorentzen  |  June 07, 2018 at 9:19 pm
Interesting article.
I want to talk about something that feels a little left field, but I think is very important here. Albert Bandura, a social scientist (Stanford University) did a huge study on "why we do what we do" (observational learning). 
This seems farfetched, but I started thinking about this: "What Gibson playing guitar hero are kids looking up to today?"
Bandura argued that a lot of what we do is done because we observed others before us. He mentions age, sex, emotional connections as big triggers for why we observe and learn.  

Secondly: Technology has always moved hand in hand with musical explorations and what has Gibson done to serve tech edgy guitars while honoring its legacy? What will create new guitar heros for the future?

In other words, I wonder if the problem is not what Gibson did, but what they didn't do....?

Anagram  |  May 17, 2018 at 6:36 pm
Gibson's bankruptcy was not caused by its guitar division:

Expert: Expansion to lifestyle brand was a mistakeGibson’s guitar business has actually been on the uptick, according to the bankruptcy filings, rising 10.5 percent from January 2017 — $110 million to $122 million during the same 12-month period.Gibson enjoys 22 percent market share in electric guitars, and 40 percent market share for guitars selling for more than $2,000, including the iconic Les Paul model. Gibson is known for providing guitars to stars such as Elvis Presley, BB King, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and Lenny Kravitz.Gibson's guitars include the SG, Flying V, Explorer, J-45 and Hummingbird. But, the company believed that expanding into electronics and creating a music-centered lifestyle brand was the key to overall growth.https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2018/05/01/gibson-files-chapter-11-bankruptcy-nashville-guitar-maker-news/567946002/
RTRios  |  May 16, 2018 at 1:19 pm
RTR -  Excellent article Mr. Jarrett.  That tells it just like it is for those of us who love to own and play our Gibson instruments.   Around 1965 a Fender Stratocaster went for $259.50-$329.50. It was made from a slab of Ash with body contouring, standard electronics and a bolt-on neck.  Pure simplicity, manufacturing genius, and the standard of an industry to this day.   A Gibson Les Paul Standard went for $305.00 and was made from a slab of mahogany, sometimes 2 pieces, carved and channelled for electronics and a carved maple top, with a set, angled neck and binding.  Pure artistry and one-of-kind tone for days.   I once brought home an early 60's Melody Maker from the pawn shop and my non-musical Dad commented how extremely well made it was.     Does anyone else get the idea that Gibson has always tried to give us an instrument as well made as it can be, at a price we could afford?  All guitar makers on earth have shown us some crappy instruments through the times. But also some real keepers.   It is a monumental task to provide a quality product year after ever-changing year and still keep a loyal following of your products.    All I know is, through 52 years of buying and playing guitars, mine still say Gibson on the headstock.    And those of us who are still playing our Gibson guitars, will find that now or later, more-than-likely, when we go looking for another one, only a Gibson will be good enough.   Go Gibson!
bill5  |  May 11, 2018 at 8:17 pm
I'm sorry but I can't stand spin doctoring and making excuses for anyone, including an entire company, and that's all this is.   This company has been mismanaged for a long time while their product line has been overpriced with lesser quality and poor customer service; they had it coming.  And I couldn't care less how old the company is; totally irrelevant.  PS, I wish their employees no ill will but have absolutely no financial or ethical responsibility to them, so telling me to support this company to help them  get along is absurd.  PS #2, I am hardly rich myself, so I go where I get the best bang for my buck. If that's a Gibson, great; if not, I'm buying elsewhere, so let's put away the violins.  If Gibson wanted more business, they should have managed the company better and made a better product for a better price. 
C_serpent  |  May 09, 2018 at 12:01 am
A tragedy! Gibson is joining the even more iconic American musical instrument company, Slingerland, as a symbol of better times past. Wish we could bring back all the best instruments, that were played by the greatest musicians. Aw shucks!  :-(
JimmyplaysGibsonSG  |  May 08, 2018 at 11:36 am
It must go on with Gibson! It would not only be a desaster it would be tectonic shift bringing the whole (music) world out of balance. The balance between the Fenders and the Gibsons brought us through our youth until these uncertain days. Who can imagine that the grandchildren of Slash or Angus Young are playing Rock‘N‘Roll with anything but their beautiful Gibsons?
L.A. Nights  |  May 08, 2018 at 9:32 am
‘Any product that is hand made is going to have ‘characteristics’ that may be viewed as flaws.’ To my ears, pickup pole pieces that are not correctly aligned with the strings is absolutely unacceptable on any guitar that will be played by a professional.
Mandoist  |  May 08, 2018 at 2:43 am
I wrote a lengthy message just now. I encourage the Moderators to post my letter. It is Truth, and it is an important factor in Gibson's current state of affairs. Everything I wrote can be, and has been in the past, substantiated. It's a hard Truth in some ways, but that's a part of life. In the end, i suspect my information will not appear as it does not reflect well on CEP Henry J. so be it. Moderators -- please 'man-up' and post my letter.
Mandoist  |  May 08, 2018 at 2:39 am
Author, Mr. Jarrett, obviously has a place in his heart for this historic company. However there is much amiss about this version of the Gibson guitar Company, although I do get his point about not "kicking" such an entity while it is down. 
Intentionally or unintentionally, I believe Mr. Jarrett has missed a major issue regarding the Gibson Company's woes. That being the CEO. Perhaps author Jarrett is not comfortable entering that territory? However I have nothing to lose since I am semi-retired from the music business. So here's what I know first-hand...
You can 'thank' CEO Henry Juszkiewicz for 99% of Gibson's woes. When he took over the company (1986?) his 2 partners were the brains behind bringing Gibson's quality and integrity back from its downward spiral. Since then, ol' Henry has proven his aggressive, obnoxious, unilateral actions and politically in-your-face behavior to be detrimental to the company's evolution. So much so that he seemingly thought he could do as he pleased in turning a blind eye to Federal regulations re: exotic rainforest woods and more. Ultimately, he got caught in his web of deceit.
In addition, Henry J. has over-invested and made terrible unilateral decisions regarding electronic technologies in recent years... and losing millions of the Gibson Guitar Company's dollars and investors in the process.

I have wished for his removal for the past 15 years. However he is so obstinate and self-serving that even his creditors in recent months have not been able to convince Henry to leave.
My love for the Gibson quality brand has never waned. I have several worthy, talented and dedicated-to-the-craft colleagues who have been employed at Gibson for decades. They are some of the world's best luthiers and repair men and women. My personal focus is on their acoustic instruments. I have owned one of the relatively few F5 mandolins from the 1922 - 24 Lloyd Loar period since 1986. I trust no one but a couple of the folks at Gibson to work on it... and they have. It is an outstanding workforce which maintains Gibson's mark of excellence behind the scenes.
Author Jarrett mentioned the Gibson motto from the WWII era: "Only A Gibson Is Good Enough". Ironically, placing the decal of the 'banner' logo and motto was the brainchild of one of the female employees on the production line. She placed that banner logo on the guitar peheads which only appeared during the WWII period. She was one of many housewives-turned-luthiers/repair persons in the Kalamazoo, MI area  who collectively carried the Gibson company on their backs during those war years. These women may even have saved the company financially by keeping production lines in limited operation at that time in our history, when the men were called to action overseas. The guitars they made are now most often referred to as the "Banner Guitar". 
An exhaustive study of these women's unheralded work and more was published several years ago -- a fantastic, in-depth book: THE KALAMZOO GALS: A Story Of Extraordinary Women and Gibson's Banner Guitars of World War Two" by John Thomas.
Not so unintentionally, the part these women played in Gibson's history is noticeably absent from literally every Gibson history book ever published to date. Not a flattering reflection of the Gibson Company's 'Boys Club'. 
Other than that slight on the 'Kalamazoo Gals', I have no negative feelings about the Gibson brand, nor its Heart & Soul (the employees on the ground). But I despise CEO Henry J for his consistent blaming of others, for his nastiness and defiance shown toward his closest business colleagues and stockholders, his Holier Than Thou attitude while speaking in public and in private. Until the company finds a way to rid itself of this negative force, I shudder to think what the future holds for this iconic 118 year old American institution. 
My hope is that the Gibson Guitar & Music Company will rise above this financial mess and persevere, somehow, and in spite of its "leader".
Nathan321  |  May 07, 2018 at 7:40 pm
Coke is a weird example, given it's a multinational company with a bunch of minority-owned subsidiaries some of which would likely survive well enough in the event of a hypothetical bankruptcy in the US parent company. Even if the flagship Coke drink were taken off the market those bottling companies in other countries are making a lot of money from other products.
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