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2015 Winter NAMM
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Classic Drummer Jokes
Amazing Guitar performances
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Uke Phenom Jake Shimabukuro
Links of Special Interest
A tribute to Herman LaDone

2015 Winter NAMM

Where do I begin?  Breaking away from a particularly snowy New England winter, I scored a MEDIA PASS to Winter NAMM 2015 while I was gong to be in LA for another speaking engagement.  NAMM is the annual mega show of the National Association of Music Merchandisers.  This is where all the industry stalwarts and new entrants who invent, design and produce musical instruments and related sound reinforcement gear and accessories come to display their newest line of merchandise in hopes of securing big time orders form the front line retailers.  Whether a Guitar Center floor salesperson or the proprietor of a local music shop, a professional musician or just gear fanatic who scored a ticket like me, it’s the event of the year to see, hear touch and play all the latest products that for so many today, can’t be done before the package arrives in the mail from an online order.  In a world of youtube and blogger product reviews, how exciting to have the opportunity to touch and feel the inventory, talk to the product designers and industry leaders - who to a person are musicians who are living the dream of making a living in the music trades in some form or fashion.

Reading so often before in the various Music publications like Vintage Guitar Magazine, Premier Guitar, Guitar Player and more about the annual best new merchandise for NAMM, finding my self in LA for the annual extravaganza, I could not resist the opportunity to attend and share my experiences with the members.  I knew going in, that the Anaheim convention center with 3+ levels of ballrooms and convention spaces, may be impossible to take in the entire floor of displays in the day and half I had to attend this year’s show, so I set out on a mission to hit several personal favorites with the hopes of passing by some new and exciting products that were otherwise totally off my radar. Turned out to be a terrific strategy.

Upon arrival late Saturday (Day 3 of 4) I approached the venue from south gate areas and after validating my entry badge, I immediately stumbled on a stage with fantastic local talent playing some guitar oriented rock and roll.  Then there was the gauntlet of local Food Trucks set up outside the convention center to satisfy the voracious musician munchies in an authentic Triple D fashion.  Then set ahead between the palm trees and water fountains, the tens tory high entrance to the Anaheim Convention Center.    Let’s go inside!

Prior to arrival, I had pencilled a short list of preferred vendors I could absolutely not miss.   Some 30 vendors made this list.  With some online convention website tools I was able to identify the vendor booths in advance, but it was clear upon arrival and review of the convention center floor plan that the best strategy was going to just set out without a plan and attempt to walk each convention floor in a methodical pattern to get my bearings and establish some familiarity with the battlefield.  Having been delayed on my flight into LAX, I only had one and half hours left on Saturday before the show closed for the day to try to walk the 4 levels.  The booths were nothing short of spectacular as I commonly witness at other industry trade shows.  Although the booth by booth experience can be exhilarating, the combined effect of the disparate designs and associated audio ambiance can be as disorienting as walking a Vegas Casino gaming floor.  The biggest differences being less bells and more light here at NAMM.

All the biggest industry names were verified as being in the house.  The first floor Hall A had a heavy electronics flavor the likes of pro- audio, digital audio recording, video and everything music production, but I learned quickly not to expect all like kind to be together.  For every cluster of product theme and type, there would be a surprise exhibitor of different genre.  My experience with trade shows does suggest that over time, vendors work their way up in priority of strategic placement based upon years of attendance and money spent for booth size.  So it is quite common to find the occasional ugly duckling in the gaggle, typically a newer product entrant just earning it’s bones on the ladder of industry competition.  It didn’t take long before reaching the “Hall” separations from A to B, B to D, etc. and realize that my efforts to attend were well worth it.  Being a gear guy, it’s like being in the OZ of musical equipment, a candy store but of Wonka land scale.  The ultimate mega store with EVERY level of gear from student to boutique and platinum lines.   Best part - you can look and you can touch - worst part - you can not buy, at least not one off and leave this store.  As a media pass entrant, I’m being teased.  The Merchandiser NAMM Members however are there to place their orders for the coming sales cycle and man was I jealous.  But all said - I would probably end up getting home, being soon served with divorce papers if I had the privilege of putting anything on my credit card and shipping it home.  So the bitter sweet is for the better.

Notably absent form the primary first floor mega halls, were the largest of guitar brands.  Gibson, Fender, PRS not present, yet.  Plenty of great brands though, from Martin, to Rickenbacker, Ernie Ball Music Man, Guild/Cordoba, Ibanez, Marshal and Vox, Seymour Duncan, LR Baggs, Dimarzio, Fishman all with enormous displays often walled in with 8 foot booth surrounds making billboards along the corridors of the conference hall with entry ways to bring you into their lair and off the jam packed floor. Wow,  music stores each and everyone, with every product offered by the brand, no product line absent from display and accessibility to inspect.  The ultimate 3D experience - real life stuff you can touch and feel.   But not to be bogged down with only 45 minutes left on my first day,  with a venture to the upper levels it all made sense.

Those missing titans were relegated to “suite” level almost private rooms and entire sections of the upper levels where exclusively assigned to these companies.  Poking my head into Peavy/Composite Acoustic, Roland and Boss, PRS, D’Angelico, Fender and Gibson as the clock struck 6, the anxiety of being overwhelmed with enthusiasm and my environs, I left the convention hall with a sense of calm looking forward to my next day.

Back at my room, I pulled out the conference floor map and quickly made notes on the site maps circling every specific booth I could not leave LA without stopping in to really check out the gear, talk to the product specialists and set my sites on future must have additions to my arsenal back home.    Those initial 30 companies was boosted by a few I caught on my initial gauntlet preview.  Getting to bed early still on east coast time, I knew I’d be up early to be the first one in for the big day.

Sunday, (Day 4 of 4 of the show).  Although I was hopeful, but not expecting to be successful, it turns out I was the first in line for the start of the Sunday.  With the super majority of the attendees being real life musicians and being that most come form all parts US to Los Angeles, on a Saturday of NAMM weekend, there is no shortage of amazing musical venues within blocks extending out 50 miles in all directions to catch live entertainment often guaranteed to have music celebrity sit ins and jams.  So I guess if made sense that, me having gone to bed early and everyone else out late and partying, that I’d be first in line.  It certainly paid off.  My first hour I targeted the big ones (Fender, Gibson & PRS) to see how far I could get before the mega crowds rushed in.  It was perfect strategy.  I was able to shuffle in to virtually vacant display areas for all three brands and enjoyed an uninhibited tour almost like being in a quiet museum with some true artwork on display.  There were also lots of intimate and spontaneous jams happening on the gear, but unlike the peak times, the impromptu performance by no less that professional if not celebrity level musician was comfortably and musically audible.  This was the real opportunity to appreciate some nuances of tone that simply can’t happen during the rush hours.  Nothing worse then the more typical guitar store experience of the head bangers blasting out noise in 7 part dissonance from each other. 

Although there was really nothing super eventful in the 2015 lines for the big three, there were plenty of quality US made product that were there for the trying.  An experience so seldom available for a consumer of the quality gear as most stores can’t afford to have the high end gear in inventory.  Although I am privileged with my business travel to have the opportunity to stop into many of the countries greatest boutique stores from Rudy’s and Umanov’s in Manahattan to Chicago Music Exchange, to Truetone and Norman’s Rare in California, there are always limitations as to what’s “in stock”.  But not at NAMM.  They’ve pretty much got one of everything.   It’s now getting close to noon, but I’ve really nailed it on the big three.  Now I can begin to move my way around for the balance of the day.  

On Saturday I poked my head into the D’Angelico room and Wolf Marshall was performing a great jazz standard set.  D’Angelico has been a company and product I’ve been intrigued with the last couple years.  I met Steve Pisano at the NY Vintage Guitar show in April 2013 visited their Manhattan GTR Store and D’Angelico Showroom on 28th Street.  Of the many asian import guitars they have really figured out how to design a beautiful guitar, execute its construction over seas in a high quality controlled way and produced guitars that simple play and sound amazing.  I purchased a 2014 EX-SS in Grey/Black last summer for the authentic jazz tone and beauty- just like the one on Superbowl XLVIII.  When visiting GTR Store, I mentioned how I’d be a buyer for an all ebony version with Gold Hardware.  They mentioned there were thinking about doing that color, but were leaning towards standard chrome parts.  I strongly advised otherwise pointing to a beautiful Gibson L-5 they had on the wall in Ebony with Gold hardware and Tortoise shell guard and they said they’d think about.Upon entry into their booth on the upper levels, boom, there it was EBONY with gold Hardware - It’s perfect.  Nice job guys.  It will be a winner for them I’m sure.  As an added treat, I caught an impromptu jam a a few pros checking out the new Acoustic line.  Great music, but as I perused the rest of their booth, I could help but think of the tragic Dean Guitar Story of my youth.

In late ’77/78 Dean Zelinsky of Chicago launch his original Dean Guitars, designing beautifully appointed and crafted Flying V’s and Explorer Z style guitars rivaling the degenerating quality coming out of Gibson at the time.  Through over the top sexy women themed advertisements and big hair band endorsements, he was top of the world, but founded in the quality of his product.  By ’82 he started expanding the line and went overseas for most production and it was the beginning of the end of the initial Dean Guitar run.  Later revived 10 years ago or so, it remains a primarily low priced import line of little interest to guys like me.  It’s only been a couple years for the D’Angelico guys in the game and having the rights to a very unique individual brand name associated with a man who made some of the most exquisite and sought after archtop guitars ever, the 2015 line has just exploded to include cheap acoustics and bass guitars in whacky colors and styles.  Not what I expected nor want to see coming from such a revered brand name.   I hope your not going to blow it guys.  Bitter sweet for sure.

I made my way back down to Hall A to revisit 2 booths, Quilter Amps and Electro Voice.  This past year, my friend Mario at Upscale Music in Newington CT turned me onto the new Quilter Amps.I have always bee a huge QSC power amp fan, having only recently parted with my original Powerlight amps from my DJ days.  I really like and own the K Series Powered Speakers from QSC as my new fronts and so I was primed for that Pat Quilter (The Q in QSC) was up to these days.  Interestingly enough, although I am a believer in the ultimate tone for electric guitars coming from tube amps, I am also a huge consumer of high quality high powered CLEAN amp tone primarily used for amplifying my acoustic guitars but also my archtops.   I am an owner of the Quilter Micro 8 - an amazing platform for all my super clean needs with just really smart and comprehensive performance features like the channels, eternal and expansion speakers, various voicings and all generating a very authentic guitar amp tone.    So I promised Mario I’d stop by to visit and sure enough Pat Quilter who’s somewhat of an eccentric,  was in true form with his King Tut headdress.  On my second attempt to get to him, I struck out again for a self introduction, but I did enjoy him jamming on Pedal Steal through his latest amp line with a couple buddies of his.  Eccentric - not so much.  I like to look at it as he’s a Promoter and of great products too.

Speaking of QSC, I stumbled on the Electro Voice booth to a real pleasant surprise.  I have been an EV fan for decades.  From my appreciation of the EVM 12L Guitar amp speaker of SRV preference, to the EV 1202 loudspeakers of my earliest DJ and Band days in the 1980's, I'm an EV fan, but I got distracted by the QSC K series powered speakers when I needed to move into the modern era of sound reinforcement last year.  I certainly was not the only one.  EV's booth this year had a sound proof listening studio set up specifically to highlight there 2015 entrant into powered speaker space at the affordability of the QSC K series.  The new Electro Voice EV EKX Series powered speaker hits the price point and the quality sound.  Be sure to check them out if you're in the market.  Sorry Mackie, but QSC and now EV are really eating your lunch in this space, once the consumer understands the alternatives.

The lower level seems to have a boutique guitar and product maker/acoustic theme and a ton of Ukelele’s this year.  My good friend from my home town of Meriden CT, siblings Jim Beloff and Phyllis Beloff Webb were there at the beginning of the revival of the Uke in pop culture across the globe.  Jim, a former Billboard Magazine exec took to the instrument out of his travels for business and fell in love so deeply he started writing the Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele music books published by Hal Leonard.  He even got to know another rule fan, George Harrison before George’s passing and enjoyed many a date collaborating.  Phyllis with her husband Dale got to designing a Uke for today, not dissimilar to the Ovation guitar with a synthetic back and sold work top and called it the Fluke.  This later 1990s early 2000’s birth of the Magic Fluke Co. has evolved to a full line of Fluke and Flea Uke’s and now a Violin and are in prototype of an micro electric bass.  Being “payers” in the music industry I had to take the time to visit their booth on the lower level just around the corner from another favorite of mine, Collings Guitars out of Austin TX, it was great to visit with Phyllis and meet her son whose also involved in the business. (See my story on Jake Shimabukuro)

The trip was ultimately complete as I revisited the Cordoba / Guild booth that I briefly toured the day before.  This time, however, as I wanted to be sure to see all the guitars, I had to ask a rather tall, business suit wearing fellow if he’d excuse me so I can look at a certain guitar that he had been innocently obstructing from my view.  Asking if he worked for Cordoba or Guild, he affirmed and we embarked on a conversation.  He seemed to be rather interested and insightful in my topic of most interest.  This was the recent acquisition of Guild Guitar Brand from Fender Music Corporation.  I had only recently become more intimate with the Cordoba brand as I was searching for just the right Nylon String guitar to replace my 1978 Ovation Nylon string that recently had a tragic and irreversible encountered with an extreme lack of humidity.  On a prior visit to a Los Angeles, I stumbled on the Cordoba 55FC thin line body acoustic electric made in Spain.  Unlike any nylon string guitar I had tried over the previous 6 months of this journey,  this guitar has the perfect balance of playability, audible and electric tone and without truly compromising the acoustic tone that I was looking for;  more of a balanced flamenco tone for 60’s style bossa nova jazz, the resulting compact size of the thin line made it the perfect guitar for me.  Ultimately acquiring one after some further research, I have previously no appreciation for the Cordoba story which is one I believe to be unique on today’s guitar game.  With this new found appreciation for Cordoba, when I heard they had acquired Guild, I said - “Wow”, what a perfect match.  The history of the Guild brand, the nature of their product line all fit as the ultimate compliment to the classical focused beginnings of Cordoba.  
So I was looking to press someone from the company on their good intensions and if they were thoughtful as to the perfection of the fit, but sincere to maintain what appears to be a company commitment to quality, yet affordability and accessibility to the consuming public.  This guy had a remarkable insight for someone working the trade show floor.  

Well as it turns out, this fellow happened to be Jonathan Thomas, President of Cordoba Guitars.  What a privilege.  He has been with Cordoba for over a decade and seemed particularly keen on the Guild deal.  Here’s the fun twist, he is second generation guitar brand royalty.  Turns out his father Larry Thomas is the former CEO of Guitar Center and Fender Musical Instruments Corp.   All makes sense.  Best of luck, Jonathan.  I think you have the makings of a great new era guitar company if you avoid the Dean mistakes and butcher the brand reputation by over producing low quality overseas production products.

And that’s a wrap for 2015 NAMM.  I want the thank the NAMM media team for graciously providing me with Media access and look forward to future shows when I can provide my audience with some insights into what’s new and exciting in the Guitar gear universe.

Stay tuned for some product specific talks on my BEST IN SHOW picks of the Digitech Trio Guitar Pedal and the Gator ProGo Gigbags.

Remember, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  Hello, my name is Wayne D’Amico and I am a Guitar Player.
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