End of an Era

After the 1970′s dark ages of American Guitar Building we’ve seen a resurgence of build quality, fit & finish led by smaller scale manafacturers such as Hamer and then in more recent years PRS. 

These companies have arguably made the emergence of smaller high quality American luthiers possible.

Name’s like John Suhr, James Tyler, Gene Baker and Tom Anderson. These guitars are all small production runs and exceptionally made and have now become realistic quality alternatives to the big two. Although PRS’ market position now makes them as much a player as Fender or Gibson.

I’m shocked to discover that Tom Anderson has decided to close his small operation and scale back to him just being a custom builder. There have been many rumours on the internet concerning this, mainly speculating on his health, but in a statement on Anderson’s website, he has simply stated he doesn’t want to be a businessman anymore. He Just wants to build guitars.

Whatever his reasons its worth noting how globalised the guitar industry has become since Tom Anderson started winding pickups for Schecter back in the early 80′s, back then Fender & Gibson were on their knees, but now the resurgence of these two brands since 1990 means they have expanded and now own so many brands that were once competitors. While flicking through last months Guitar World, I saw adverts in the first few pages for Charvel, Jackson, Gretsch & Guild all companies the mighty Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has aqquired in recent years and all made in the same giant factory, or outsourced abroad.

When just one company is buying up all that advertising space, its going to have a lot of power. One has to wonder if theres any chance of objective reviews anymore? The continuing sycophantic ramblings of certain reviewers in some guitar magazines have seemed a light year away from my own experiences of either owning or playing certain guitars in shops (My Washburn Mercury folded up after 2 weeks of ownership and the bridge appeared to be made out of the metal used for pub ashtrays, but back in 1994 Guitarist said it was an ideal midrange rock axe – It wasn’t and since then I’ve treated glowing reviews with a healthy dose of scepticism)

Journalistic integrity aside, the real issue facing a small or medium guitar builder with a global reputation is now copyright.  After the Gibson Vs PRS Singlecut debacle in 2004 and with Fender now attempting to copyright the body shapes of the Strat,Tele, P & Jazz basses. It’s only a matter of time before either lawsuits start to fly, or licensing agreements have to be negotiated.

Anderson are famous for Strat & T type body shapes, but now have their own design in the Atom and have recently designed their own neck/body join.

But with PRS now firmly establishd as a ‘big’ guitar company with a cheaper offshore guitar range and ErnieBall/MusicMan are rumoured to be replacing the discontinued SUB range in favour of a Korean made midrange line to compliment the OLP range of budget instruments. It looks like the only way to carry on making guitars is to cater for a wider market.

Its interesting to think that Mr Anderson has looked at these bigger companies and seen what the future will bring, and he’s not happy about it. Grow into a global player and expand to the point that your slapping your brandname on a guitar made by people who make them for all the other ‘big’ brands….then theres marketing and focus groups, PRS’ marketing dept know how many artists on VH-1 use their guitars by percentage?….. Mr Anderson has decided that this is not for him and chosen to walk away.

Whatever happens next, his legacy is 12,000 instruments built in the last 20 years and a reputation second to none. It’s worth noting that Anderson’s total annual production is only 25% more guitars than Fenders ‘Custom Shop’ makes in a month!

Expect used Anderson secondhand values to go through the roof. But my final thought is this… one has to wonder if the continuing globalisation of the guitar industry continues at the current pace, how much choice in new instruments will we actually have?

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