Last Word

When contributing to, and reading, this month’s cover story, I was struck by how strong an emphasis folks were putting on the “individuality” and, specifically, “custom” nature of their guitars:  “Custom shop-style instruments,” as St. Blues describes their guitars;  “WE ARE A CUSTOM SHOP” Metalin’ Guitars states (yes, in all bold letters) on their site. Sure, smaller operations are, by nature, bound to be somewhat “custom workshop-type” operations, but the appeal that distinctive, outside-the-norm instruments holds for players – and guitarists, in particular – got me thinking about an earlier MMR feature.

In August of 2010, I wrote a cover story on aftermarket pickups (‘Retailers – Pick Up the Pace’), which explored the appeal of this type of guitar modification. One subtopic that came up while examining the subject was the relationship that merchants can develop with customers by becoming “partners” in facilitating guitar “mod” ventures. The idea being that if you or someone on your staff can be that knowledgeable resource for the local guitarist who’s tweaking his or her axe, and if you have the gear in-stock and priced to move, you can set yourself up for years of repeat sales. Also, you’ll likely find yourself with a loyal customer who’ll spread the word about how great your operation is. Pretty much nothing but upside.  As Billie Pirie of Fender said within that article, “I can’t think of a better way to repay a customer than to say, ‘Hey, man – I’ve got a drawer full of pickups here and there’s going to be a set that’s going to make you love your guitar more.”

Another comment from that piece that really stuck with me was from Frank Falbo, then of Seymour-Duncan, who asserted, “Every guitarist, if they stick with it long enough, will replace their pickups. It’s just a matter of time.”

That’s just conjecture, but it’s not baseless. As further anecdotal evidence, I spent a good five or ten minutes just now, mentally going through a list of all my serious and semi-serious guitarist friends (I was counting on my fingers and everything – It either looked really adorable or sort of sad), and I honestly can’t think of a single player who hasn’t done some type of hot rodding to their guitar.

Why is that? Well, for one, it costs a lot less to fiddle with the pots or re-fret the neck than it does to buy an entirely new guitar. Virtually every instrument can be improved upon, or will need some type of repair or replacements at some point. For another thing, it’s just… fun. Anyone who’s ever built anything knows the satisfaction of being able to look at something, hold something – or in the case of guitars – play something, and say, “I did that!”

This larger topic – customization of instruments and how retailers can take advantage of the inherent profit potential – is one that the editorial team over here has periodically discussed and I suspect we’ll do something more in-depth on the subject at some point, but: back to guitars. Because, while many instruments can be altered after purchase, there’s just so much that guitarists can do to their rigs (and so many related products retailers can sell to them).

Back when I was gathering information and quotes for that August ’10 article, I was scheduled to have a brief, five or ten-minute phoner with Frank Falbo, but we wound up gabbing for closer to an hour. I’d just refinished a Gibson Melody Maker of mine, swapped out the pickup, tuning machines, truss-rod cover – the whole deal – and Frank is an experienced player and designer of all things guitar-related, so we had plenty to talk about.

When penning this editorial, I decided to again reach out to Falbo – who’s now crafting his own instruments: Falbo Guitars ( – to spitball further about guitarists and their propensity for modding their instruments.

“How does [a retailer] get the average customer to become like me: swapping pickups, hardware, frets, rotating necks and bodies around like musical chairs?” asks Falbo. “Simple. Just mention it. Guitar customization only requires the power of suggestion. Every time you see a customer gushing over their guitar, say, ‘Think about strap locks, my friend,’ because it speaks to the desire to protect their prized possession. Now you are someone who cares about them. There is no selling involved.”

Personally, I have that “guitar customization guy” (or, more accurately, two guys) – Jim and John Mouradain of Mouradian Guitars in Winchester, Mass. One of the funny/counterintuitive reasons I’ll always go to them – apart from their phenomenal work – is because they’ve helped me learn how to do things that I’d otherwise be paying them to do. When I went in with a bass that I’d totally botched the pickup installation on, Jim not only fixed my sloppy, solder-covered mess, but he showed me how to do it correctly the next time. That built a relationship.  The next time I decide to install a tremolo or switch out the bridge saddle, nut, control knobs, or whatever else – and I will – I’ll be going to Mouradian to buy the parts or have the work done.

Falbo can relate: “To this day, I’ve remained friends with the hot rod shops who had the patience to endure my wide-eyed questions as a teenager. Now I have people ask me for advice all the time, because they know I know. Be the person who knows.

 “I feel like the guitar customization market is a fraction of what it could/should/will be. And there’s so much money on the table here, because a lot of this stuff costs the price of a good dinner, or a few mochas. This is about building relationships, building a reputation for having the answers. If you recommend a locking tuner upgrade, and the player’s guitar is now easier to tune, you’re a hero. It’s a win/win.”

If you’re a guitar retailer – especially in a medium or large market, with a decent population of semi-pro to pro players – and if you’re not currently providing the goods and services that would allow you to be the neighborhood’s go-to hot rod mecca, you are leaving that money on the table. Because serious guitarists like to play around with their instruments and make them their own. You will make those sales. It’s only a matter of time…

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