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Guitar Spotting at the Grammys and Guitar Economics

1960 Airline /Valco 7219 - front

I watched this years Grammy awards and spent part of my time doing what I always do when watching guitar players on television. I played guitar spotting. How quickly could I name the brand and model of the guitars on stage? I’ll admit that I’m slipping and a few threw me. I blame poor camera angles, cutaway shots where there wasn’t enough time to see and poor lighting. Still several interesting guitars were on stage.

Dropping the names of the guitars I saw at this years Grammys is only part of what I wanted to share today. The other part concerns economics and how that affects the guitars you buy and the guitars that appear on stage. But first, interesting guitars I saw.

Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach performed with his Supro guitar. Supro was one of the National brands. I didn’t recognize the model but accourding to the Wikipedia it is a Supro Val Trol. Like many National / Supro / Airline / Valco guitars, it has a fiberglass body.

Gretsch Duo JetBruno Mars played a Gretsch guitar. Looked like a Duo Jet in Cadillac Green.

Ed Sheeran played a Little Martin acoustic, essentially a travel guitar, while performing with Elton John.

Wesley Keith Schultz of the Lumineers played an old beat-up Guild archtop. The guitar had a single pickup and no cutaway. I couldn’t identify the model. However, Fender has recently started re-issuing Guild electric guitars including hollow body archtops.

I saw some great looking guitars among the backing bands, including PRS models and someone playing a Collings thinline I-35, essentially a high end guitar inspired by the Gibson ES-335.

So what do the guitars chosen by Grammy performers have to do with economics?

Well, what struck me was the number of guitars playing an instrument out of the ordinary. There were plenty of guitarists playing Martin Dreadnoughts or Fender Stratocasters. But I enjoyed seeing guitarists choosing something out of the ordinary. It’s not something you could easily do yourself. These guitars aren’t in production. They may be vintage instruments.

Let’s take the Supro played by the Black Keys as an example. It is a rare and vintage guitar. You can’t just order one from one of the large internet retailers. Valco / Supro went out of business long ago. Guitar companies aren’t going to build guitars in that style because there isn’t enough demand for them. Guitar companies want to build guitars that will sell quickly and get as much for those guitars as they can.

If you are a begininng guitar player you probably want a guitar that is like the one your friends or heros are playing or what you can easily find for a good price. Maybe it’s a Stratocaster. But a few musicians, often those on a leading edge of a trend, intentionally try to be different and unique. They start trends. If they create enough of a demand, then someone will build a reproduction – or at least a similar style guitar to take advantage.

Still, few large companies will take that risk unless it is a re-issue of one of their own models. On the other hand, there are companies who resurect defunct brands or re-issue old models. Eastwood guitars re-issue a number of Airline fiberglass models. Supro and Airline models often are nearly identical except for the name. The economics are that you can sometimes make money selling a niche product.

I wish guitar makers gave us more true choices in guitars. Not just different colors different pickups, but real differences in design and tone and attitude. But guitar makers won’t do that unless they can make money. So your best hope is for award winning musicians to play interesting instruments and for the guitar companies to notice.

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