Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - October 2018

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Secret Music Retail Disaster Looms: Peak Guitar?

 After examining many videos of the literally hundreds of guitar factories in China, and seeing thousands of guitars stacked in each, I wonder "where do they all go...?"

My '82 Japanese made Squier Strat bought used in the 80s.  "Entry level" in 1982, now "vintage-quality". 

 Obviously somewhere, the world is a big place.  There are countless "developing country" export markets.  But I'm going to limit this discussion to "here" in the U.S..

 I've referenced "peak guitar" previously, but not in this context. Solid body guitars have been built routinely en masse since the mid-1930s.  I don't have production numbers, but let's say the "modern era" began with the Stratocaster in 1954. 

 There has never been a "guitar shortage" relative to demand.  So consider that demand was met every year since 1954.  Almost 65 years of consumer demand met. That doesn't mean it was 1:1, and exact number built relative to demand, obviously there would be an overrun every year, but let's ignore that.

 Another way of looking at that is that since the population has drastically shot up, and demand for guitars has been more or less a constant thing,

 Relative to 1954 64X consumer demand has been built (at least).  In other words, there are at least 64x as many guitars floating around today than in 1954.

 Yes, I know: all guitars don't make it to retirement behind a glass case in some Yakuza's mansion in Japan one day like a '58 'burst Les Paul.  But I would argue that the surplus not sold greatly outweighs those given to have been "broken", or "lost" somehow to the aether.  In general, there is a t LEAST 64 times as many guitars in the universe today than demand wanted in 1954.

Population in the U.S. in 1954 was about 150 million.  Today it's estimated to be between 350-400 million.  A bit more than 2-3x as much, let's say 3x.  Then, let's say that half of the guitars sold in the U.S. have evaporated into thin air somehow, leaving a 32 year production run versus 1954.

 In this imaginary context let's equate 400 million people today to then, 3X as many.  3 1954's to one 2018.  You still have over 25 years at least of guitars sold beyond human demand today.  These days a million guitars or so a year are sold in the U.S. alone.  But let's say it's half that, not as many sold in the 60's as now.

 That would yield at least 10 million guitars in a category of  "still exists, was wanted by somebody as "consumer demand" at some point".  That's obviously not all the guitars built or sold in the U.S..  Just a very conservative number of  "how many viable guitars are there in the wild, in the personal possession of someone in the U.S.".  I'd say it's much higher, but let's say it's 10 million.  What does that number mean?  It's not exact, it's not even clear what it entails aside from the claim that at any given time floating about I'd say there are at least than many guitars "in circulation".  At least.  I think it's something of a buffer figure: for the 1.5 million sold every year in the U.S., there was probably something like 10 million to be had, easily, used I'm guessing.

 I don't know how many used guitars are sold on Craig's List, Ebay or  But I'll step out on a limb and say that there must be at least .... 30-40 million viable guitars around in the U.S., if not more.  I'm going to say 50 million.

 I'd like to think that means around 15% of the population plays guitar.  I think it could be higher than that.  I think for the past 10 years we've seen the guitar replace the piano as "the instrument every child has to learn as part of being a well rounded individual, learning a musical instrument".  Cheaper and more portable than a piano, a certainly more relevant these days and motivating.  But it wouldn't be every single child in the U.S.?  On the other hand, the amount of people aging that do play guitar I would claim is increasing year by year for the same reason.  Gen-X and younger, we were the transition era from piano to guitar as the Instrument our Parents Wanted Us To Be Able To Play.

 What am I getting at with all of this?

 Solid body electric guitars in general, don't vanish.  All of the above aside, there is 50+ years of electric guitars around somewhere.  They *accumulate*.  And while the "nice" ones accumulate value, most don't.

 And with 50 years worth of guitars - millions - my question is, "how many more guitars are there in the U.S. relative to consumer demand?".  I think a whopping amount more.  Go on Craig's List, plenty of nice guitars being sold.  Unfortunately, everybody seems to want almost what they paid for their instrument ....

 ... The gist being this:

 At some point it will be Common Consumer Awareness that "guitars are everywhere!".  In reality one should get around half new value for used gear; this will become self evident at some point, and the used guitar prices will reflect this. What is presently maybe a 10:1 margin will grow. 

 In other words, it will become Common Knowledge that you can get a Perfectly Good Electric Guitar for half price, relatively easily, used. As it stands now, just about everybody knows somebody with an unused guitar in a corner of someone's house, somewhere.  At some juncture it will be just "the thing", Prices for cheap guitars used will be even less than half - at some point worthless as people realize....

 guitars are everywhere.

 What does that mean for guitar retail.....?


 China is building guitars faster than I can type this sentence.  At some point "soon" low-end guitar sales will fall flat, because of the above phenomenon.  China is speeding the demise by pushing this inevitability closer, flooding the market with hyper-cheap and quite decent guitars.  At some point in the future (presuming there is one...) - maybe 3-5 years from now, music retail will have to reckon with what will be seen as a "sudden loss of demand for guitars".  It will be dramatically, and ignorantly touted as something along the lines of  "guitar losing popularity?" when in reality it will just mean we've met Peak Guitar and the concurrently present population will just be finding guitars to start on in other places.

 In reality it could be a boon; more people will try guitar because "guitars are just laying around everywhere".  More people may end up being life-long players, and in turn buying better gear as they progress.

 ... but it's going to be hyper-annoying to read/hear people talking about guitar retail tanking, and hard for the remaining brick-and-mortar stores.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Entertainment Psychology and Practice

I don't use or recommend a book in the context of teaching guitar.

Because ultimately the trick to learning guitar is maximizing what is entertaining about it to you.

In the late 80's during the height of the hair-band metal technical guitar playing era, I could actually prescribe a pretty exact regimen for about a 1/3rd of my students.  They would follow it, and the following week be considerably better at what that regimen addressed.

 They were very, very motivated.  As in, I haven't seen that motivation since then; "people today" (who are standing on my lawn...) can't emulate that motivation, because it was the only time in recent music history where instrumental technique was high prized and actually commercialized.

 Back in that time on MTV - which for all intents and purposes was the entertainment equivalent of the internet for most people in that era - there was a few years where the dominant thing you saw on MTV at any one point in time was guitar-centric rock.  Not only that, but there would be a guitar solo featured heavily in the middle of the video: the guitar player was the star.  Literally.

 Women can't practice to look "as good as" Taylor Swift, men can try to workout to get that Arnold Swarzenegger physique, but it's not going to be the same.

 Guitar solos, on the other hand, was something you can work at and eventually mimic effectively "exactly".  You COULD be the same as the "star" on MTV.  You could walk around knowing you were special, able to do something that was put on a pedestal and respected on a global scale that made you unique.

 That did wonders for my business.  I started teaching in that era, and for many years I never faced the problem of having to figure out how to keep a student motivated.  I completely took it for granted.  I could do what the Famous Guitar Players Did, I could help the student do the same, it was very straightforward and focused.  Just about every student I had played in bands, and that continued for at least a decade into the 90's.

 Then it went away, although the desire to be in a Rock Band remained a pretty good motivating factor.  About half of my students would be in gigging bands, and some went on to making records and touring the planet.

 That went away as the record industry died in the 2000's.  So what remains now is a curious, diffuse mixture of wanting personal growth, a little bit of a rush of doing something special, and maybe a dash of rock stardom swagger thrown in.  But it's rather abstract and non-specific.  Nothing like "I want to get in a band and pull off guitar solos like the guy in (Insert Favorite Band Here)".

  In the year 2018 everyone has different motivations, different musical preferences, different schedules, different expectations, and an overall jadeness to the process of music.  Does "fun" mean a step above the Guitar Hero video game experience?  Is "fun" playing along with a song, or is "fun" being able to execute a single, stand alone piece of music?  Is "fun" having a professional skill set?  Is "fun" learning about how to make music from scratch and record it, or to be able to analyze it by ear?

 Everyone is a unique case these days, and it's super tricky for me as a teacher to prescribe a routine.  In the 80's it was purely a matter of mechanics.  These days it's a matter of trying to get the mechanical side of technique to move along linearly to expectation - which is tricky when the balance of "fun" and "tedium" is a ratio that's different for everybody.

 I insist that ultimately learning skills within the context of goals set by music recordings ultimately is the best way to go about things.  Nobody today is going to "practice" the mechanics of something for very long at all (particularly relative to the 80's) - but being able to get it out of the way while playing to music is easier.

 It's also informative from a rhythmic standpoint.  Doing something properly along with a recording that addresses a particular aspect of one's ability is really the only way to learn the "invisible" aspect of timing.  Learning the mechanics apart from matching it timing wise to the Real Thing is pointless!

 So the Trick is balancing the "practice" routine with what is at least marginally entertaining to you.  Which gets back to "what music do you really like?  Specifically?" and "what do you REALLY want to be able to do on the guitar?".  I'm not Vulcan, I can't read minds, you have to help me out on those questions!  Sometimes I can help the student out on it from a musicology standpoint, but learning to be honest with yourself is a good thing.  Do you *really* want to learn how to play The Currently Popular Song or do you actually like The Almost Unknown Song by One's Favorite but Unpopular Artist?  You'll learn much more within the framework of "what can be learned from that song?" because the entertainment factor will keep you motivated.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Open Letter to Roland Incorporated: Your Fatal Flaw

Dear Roland,

 You make, and have made, some really great products.

 The D-50 keyboard, the VS-880, pioneering guitar synthesis with the 303/707, and now through Boss the Katana amp line.

 I write this because I'm vexed.  I bought a Katana because for the price it seemed like a clever bit of kit for my guitar lesson business.  Very versatile, sounds pretty good, and it may even work as a throw-and-go amp with 50 watts and the 12" speaker.

 It has a fatal problem.  A problem that has plagued every Roland device in history.  So much so that there are a few of us professional musicians that KNOW this and avoid your products because of it.


This would be ok - on a floor pedal in 1988.

It can sort of be summed up as follows.

 Roland digital products generally have a lot of capability but with a less than adequate display interface and operation implementation.

 I'll avoid going into too much detail, anecdotes about the VS-880 "snatch mode", or the endless products where you get to "scroll" through a little led display. 

 I kinda get the feeling that there must be a "legacy Roland SDK" that is used to write all software.  The Katana has echoes of things that I saw in products from 20 years ago.  The anti-intuitive patch numbering, buttons that do double duty to "swap" functions to a different set of presets, and other things.  The big problem is that you decided to forego midi and require a bespoke footswitch to access more than 4 presets. 

 I can only get 2 presets at once, unless I go through the ordeal of pressing-holding etc..  In the Ancient Times before the Yamaha SPX-90 came out that was ok.  It's not in the year 2018.

 The double-duty knobs that switch function at 12 o'clock is a horrible idea.  That you can't get at both features at once makes it doubly worse.  A micro-tiny tap tempo button.  Not even an indicator led for which model is selected - it's like not only did you decide to go "retro" with an early-80's level of technology, you also decided to skimp on the hyper-expensive led (which cost you what - $.01?).  Peavey, Line6, various Chinese companies find it cheap enough to put display logic onboard for an LCD in entry-level beginner practice amps that cost even less than the Katana - there is no reason for this.

 So, one is never really sure what is going on with the Katana, even when plugged into the dodgy editing software with a computer.  The USER EXPERIENCE is diffuse and unpleasant.  To make matters even worse, I wasn't surprised to find the Katana manual looks like Every Roland Manual From the Dawn of Time: stereotypically dry and unhelpful.

 Line 6 is your competitor now, not necessarily because of a great sounding product, but because there has been some rudimentary thought put into the End User Experience, even down to the way the manuals are written.  It would be worthwhile to study and emulated them in that aspect.

 The Katana created a big splash based on price and capability, but I'm guessing that shine is becoming lack-luster as people realize in the day to day use it's just as frustrating as Any Other Roland Product.  I kind of expected the Katana to break that mold, I expected it at this point.  I was wrong, it's another clunky to use Roland product.

 So now I'm thinking of selling it, because while in theory it should be a great amp for guitar lessons, I'm basically just using it on one channel with one sound 99% of the time.  No, I'm not going to buy the footswitch that costs almost as much as the amp.  No, I don't feel like trying to switch it from a computer.  You haven't bothered with an IPad app - that might have sufficed, but no.

 I imagine the Roland Process is something like finding a New Capable Chip, throwing engineers at it to get the nth capability out of it, and then putting it in a box.  There is more to it than that IMO.  I'd imagine the perennial seller of Boss pedals keeps the money coming in, maybe I'm wrong, but it's a shame you can't couple capability with usability after all of these many years.