Our Biggest Takeaways from the NAMM Show: Part I

In almost every consumer products category, there is a large, annual tradeshow that is visited every year by industry professionals. These tradeshows function as a platform to showcase new products and technologies, as well as give people the opportunity to hold discussions with others working in the industry. 

A few weeks ago, we visited the 2015 NAMM show in Anaheim, CA.  NAMM stands for The National Association of Music Merchants and is open to those who do relevant work in the music industry. This ranges from guitar manufacturers to pro audio software companies, and even extends to stage lighting equipment manufacturers, sheet music distributors, and metronome crafters. In fact, the most unexpected brand we saw represented was GoPro, who had a surprisingly large booth (they offer cameras that can be attached to instruments and performers). 

But despite being applicable to so many types of companies, it’s clear to anyone in attendance that guitars, as well as equipment/accessories associated with them, really tend to dominate the show. To any die-hard, guitar-playing enthusiast, attending the NAMM show is sort of like being a kid in a candy shop – and I, Colin King, Research Manager at Bovitz, Inc., got to be that kid. As overwhelming and exciting as it was, I was still able to strap on my market research hat and search for trends that stood out among all these guitar brand booths. 

After spending an entire day at the show, I came away with five main takeaways that encompass what I had observed of these guitar brands:

Note: From this point forward, a guitar brand can refer to any brand that manufactures a product or range of products with direct application to a guitar. Besides actual guitars, this can include amplifiers, effects pedals, cables, strings, straps, pickups, or anything else of the like.

1.  Extended-range guitars have become mainstream.

First, a quick explanation: your average guitar, whether acoustic or electric, has exactly 6 strings. And this has remained in the norm for quite some time. But in the early 90’s, 7-string electric guitars began to creep into the mainstream.  The 7-string guitar allowed players to extend their sound into the lower tonal range without sacrificing the higher end simply by adding a thicker string to the bottom of the usual 6 strings. At the time, these guitars were generally associated with Nu-Metal bands like Korn and Slipknot, and many considered them to be a gimmick. Some non-metal artists like Steve Vai utilized them as well, but they still failed to become a real mainstay among guitar players. As Seattle grunge music began to take the place of heavy metal’s mainstream popularity, 7-string guitars pretty much faded away along with it.

Now, it seems like extended-range guitars (ERGs) are more popular than they’ve ever been. Note: I’m referring to them as ERG’s rather than 7-strings because some companies didn’t stop at 7 strings – we saw a 9-string guitar at the Legator booth, and we’re certain we would have seen a guitar with even more strings had we roamed the halls for another full day. Rather than just being a gimmick among a handful of more extreme and esoteric brands, it seems like almost every electric guitar brand’s booth had at least one ERG (even Gibson now makes a 7-string Les Paul). 

It’s hard to say what exactly is driving this trend. It could be the rise in popularity of progressive heavy metal/”djent” bands that use ERGs (like Periphery and Animals as Leaders), or maybe it’s due to the rise in solo/bedroom musicians, who can now more aptly fill the sonic space without the need for a bass player. For whatever the reason, if you’re a guitar manufacturer and the highest number of strings you put on an electric guitar is 6, then you have some catching up to do.

2.  Artist endorsements are essential, even for large brands.

I want to do a quick exercise: if you’re a fellow guitar player, think back about what made you first want to play the guitar. I’m willing to bet that it had something to do with a guitar player you heard or saw that made you go, “Wow!  I want to be able to sound like THAT.” Guitar brands are acutely aware of this trend, and they make it work for them by endorsing artists.

While at the show, I tried envisioning what all the booths would look like if all the products were removed from them. No guitars, no amps, no pedals, just branded empty booths. And the one thing that stood out to me was that there were TONS of photos of artists using the products that were on display (oftentimes, the photos were larger than the products themselves). They could have gone in the opposite direction and created a display with a list of features, or a description of what their products sound like, but text just wouldn’t grab attention like a photo does. 

Plus, consider how difficult it is to describe a sound or tone, especially in a way that will differentiate you from other brands with similar products. Musicians will oftentimes use adjectives associated with texture or taste to describe sound – “This amp is a bit crunchier, whereas this amp is fuzzier, and this one is a bit creamier” – but these words don’t paint a complete picture and aren’t the most accessible.  But with an image of a well-known player using the product, you immediately think, “Aha! I will sound like THAT player if I use this gear.”  It conveys an immediate description of sound without any descriptive text. Not only that, it conveys a message of quality – “If it’s good enough for this player, then it’s definitely good enough for me.” Brands who know their products are already being used by musicians with legitimate fan bases should seek to turn that into an actual endorsement to maximize their marketing potential.

3.  New guitar heroes are emerging on YouTube.

The aforementioned guitar hero that inspires new players to pick up a guitar previously only existed on the radio or on TV, but now that’s changed. YouTube has provided a platform for anyone with a camera and an Internet connection to be discovered, and that’s exactly what’s starting to happen. Players are growing their fan bases online, and it seems like the most successful ones aren’t just posting videos of themselves playing songs: a lot of the most followed players are the ones also doing gear reviews and demos. This new wave of players provides an extra level that previous endorsees couldn’t do. Fans of these YouTube players are not only just getting exposed to certain pieces of gear, but the players will go even further and tell viewers more about the gear and why they like it so much. This provides a huge benefit for brands because the source of the information isn’t tainted by being forth by the brand (like a traditional advertisement). These YouTube stars have earned the trust of their viewers, and their recommendations hold more weight.

This new influence was present at NAMM, as many of these YouTube stars were there doing product demonstrations at booths. Players like Keith Merrow, Ola Englund, PhilX, Charlie Parra, and Ryan “Fluff” Bruce, who all arguably would not be nearly as popular if it weren’t for YouTube, were on the list of booth performers along with the likes of Alex Skolnick, George Lynch, Mike Inez, Satchel, and many other more “traditional” guitar heroes.  Some brands have wised up to this trend and have even developed signature models for some of these players, which could be considered the highest level of an endorsement.  The influence of YouTube stars is only growing, and their power to make or break a brand should not be undervalued.  

4. Companies are ATTEMPTING TO capturE the magic of analog             with digital.

The “analog vs. digital” fight is an old one, especially in the world of music. Many audiophiles dispute that nothing will ever match the fidelity of a traditional vinyl record, even though studies have shown the human ear to be incapable between telling the difference between the highest quality digital recording and the original analog one. But you could say that analog still wins out in the guitar world, as tube amps are still considered the gold standard in sound quality. Solid state (all digital) amps have existed for a while, but they are usually seen as the lower-cost, lesser quality option compared to their all-tube cousins. And even a lesser trained ear can usually spot the difference when these two options are pitted head-to-head.

In recent years, digital processing units have made a significant leap forward. Products like the Fractal AxeFX and Kemper Profiling Amp have finally legitimized digital amps in a significant way. Although these units are expensive (~$2K+ new, and you’ll still have to buy a power amp and speaker cabinet to match the volume of a real amp), they’re still a lower-cost option for a recording studio or professional musician who would otherwise have to buy many different amps to attain a comparable range of sounds. Even at the lower end of the price range, amp and effect modeling apps like Positive Grid’s JamUp and Bias provide low-cost options for modeling real tube amps with very impressive results. 

At NAMM, it was obvious that many companies are trying to get in on this as well.  Line6, Roland and IK Multimedia all had apps on display, all of which are meant to simulate an entire amp/effects rig.  Speaker cabinet simulators are even available to those who want to stick with their tube amp heads, such as ones from TwoNotes and Mesa/Boogie. It’s hard to say whether or not guitar amplification will ever go completely digital, as die-hard tube amp fans will likely stick to their guns no matter how good digital processors get. But it’s safe to say that digital processors aren’t too far away from being the most cost-effective and quality-equivalent option for players of all abilities.

5. The bedroom guitarist is becoming a more valuable target           than the performing guitarist.

The 2008 financial crisis had a large effect on many industries, and the music industry is no exception.  One outcome is that many people were forced to move to smaller houses and apartments in order to reduce living expenses. Having less living space as well as having to share it with others has forced guitar brands (or more specifically, amplifier manufacturers) to find quieter options for guitarists while maintaining the same quality products they would expect to find from much louder options. 

Besides the aforementioned digital processing apps, amp manufacturers have been developing other products better suited for the bedroom musician.  So-called “practice amps,” which are small-scale amplifiers suited for bedroom players, have always been around, but their quality has typically been on the lesser side because other steps are usually taken to get them to a more accessible price point. Now, it seems like amp manufacturers are finding ways to maintain upper-echelon quality in a quieter unit.  For example, many amps are coming with wattage attenuators, which allow players to reduce the amount of power used by the amp, resulting in a lower volume. Or they’re simply releasing smaller, lower-wattage versions of their more popular, higher-wattage amps. These “lunchbox amps” provide comparable sound quality at a more bedroom-friendly volume level.

In case you’re wondering why guitarists can’t simply turn the volume down on a high-wattage amp, it’s almost impossible to find a sweet spot between “off” and “floor-shaking loud” on any tube amp over 50 watts. Furthermore, some amps require the volume knob to be past a certain point in order to fully saturate the gain, so there needs to be another way to reduce volume besides just turning down the volume knob. So if tube amp manufacturers are losing customers to digital processors and apps simply due to the quality they offer at low volume, they desperately need a way to steal back some of those customers. 

That wraps up my high-level takeaways from the show.  Stay tuned for Part 2, where Mike Farkas will discuss brand product extension and the various forms it takes among companies.