Sign Here: Artist-signature guitars have their own narrative – one that can be helpful to retail

by Dan Daley • in
  • Issue Articles
  • June 2018
• Created: June 11, 2018

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The role of the signature artist-model guitar in MI retail has changed along with the culture of the guitar.

For years, the artist’s name was the main or even the sole attraction to the buyer. However, the many hundreds of signature models coming to the market over the last several decades combined with the diffusion of music genres and of the notion of the guitar hero itself have changed the nature of what a signature model is.

“Even five or ten years ago, it was more of a name game – you’d do a guitar with an artist’s name on it and you’d expect their fans to buy it,” says Joe Naylor, founder and designer at Reverend Guitars. Now, he says, as music and its heroes have become more niche oriented, consumers are attracted less by the marquee value of its namesake and more by the specific design and function features that distinguish a signature model. The signature guitar is also a way to get a new guitar model above the noise floor of an increasingly crowded guitar marketplace.

That said, however, each signature model does advance the craft, the art and the commerce of guitars, making the entire process one worth looking deeper into.

The Detroit Shuffle

Pete Anderson’s signature PA1 hollow-body model, one of two that Reverend Guitars markets under his name along with the Eastsider solid-body guitar, came about after the Detroit guitar company drew up a cheeky advertisement featuring Kid Rock, another Detroit native, flipping off what’s known to some as the “Detroit peace sign.” Anderson sought out Reverend founder Joe Naylor at the company’s booth at the 2005 NAMM Show and gruffly asked who was responsible for the offending ad. Naylor, girding for a verbal barrage, acknowledged it was his idea, to which Anderson blurted out, “I love it!”

The guitarist, sidekick to country-music iconoclast Dwight Yoakum and as it turned out who grew up around the corner from what would become Reverend Motor City headquarters, would be ready to do a custom guitar two years later, drawn to Reverend by its ballsy sense of humor.

Naylor remembers him as picky perfectionist who knew exactly what he wanted. That turned into a year and a half in which prototypes of the guitar, made from Naylor’s hand-drawn blueprints on 18 by 24-inch drafting paper and sent back from Reverend’s Korean manufacturing subcontractor, began to more precisely reflect Anderson’s requirements. Chief among these was the need to play loudly and with good sustain but without feedback. As it turned out, Naylor’s first attempt at bracing the inside of the guitar addressed the sustain and feedback issues, but added too much weight to the guitar. Trimming the bracing solved that and also led to the development of Reverend’s Uni-Brace, a feature now used on all three versions of the signature hollow-body. Other features unique to Anderson’s guitar include a bushing-mounted bridge and a 15th fret neck/ body joint for better high-fret access.

The process of creating Anderson’s guitar, which is one of 23 signature models in Reverend’s inventory, is typical of the narrative behind most signature axes, says Naylor. The economics are simple and straightforward – a five-percent royalty on the wholesale price of the guitar to the artist, who’ll also generally hang onto an early production model (they are also supplied additional guitars for touring), as well as an agreement to use the guitar on stage and in the studio, with a willingness to be photographed doing so and to talk about it in interviews. The guitar brand is generally able to add a premium of between 10 and 20 percent to signature guitars, which helps offset the cost of prototyping and focused marketing. Both artist and manufacturer benefit from the direct synergies and cross-promotion of each other’s brands, as well as any collateral benefits, such as the development of the specialized bracing, in the case of the PA1, now celebrating its 10th anniversary and which has become the best seller among Reverend’s signature guitars.

“It’s a matter of finding a good fit between artist and manufacturer, both in terms of what can be accomplished and in terms of being complementary to our brand,” says Naylor.

Americana Icon

Grammy-winning Americana icon Jason Isbell debuted a signature Martin D-18 last year. While it’s closely modeled after Martin’s Golden Era series, Isbell’s guitar reflects a lot of knowledgeable detail that Fred Greene, Martin’s senior director of product management, says is typical of Martin signature artists. For instance, Isbell asked for an Adirondack spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and rear-shifted scalloped bracing, as well as hide-glue construction, a feature particular to Martin’s Authentic series guitars that dissolves into the grain of the wood and creates more resonance throughout the instrument. Isbell also chose a thin finish and left off the pick guard, design details that combine to add volume. The guitar’s aesthetics are topped off by a reproduction at the 12th fret of a tattoo Isbell and his wife share. “There are some signature artists who are very, very guitar savvy,” he says. “Jason is one of those,” along with several other Martin endorsers like Seth Avett and John Mayer.

Martin’s signature agreements are fairly typical for the industry, regarding terms, prototyping and royalty rates, says Greene, but he add that they tend to “start with a handshake and go from there.” Martin approaches most of its signature artists themselves, looking for musicians who fit the brand’s image – the Americana genre’s assertion of authenticity makes it fertile ground, though the company will also look at how an artist can help it gain traction in music sectors it wants to increase its presence in. Artists sometimes approach the manufacturer, but Greene says they are wary of those just looking for product placements. It’s important, he emphasizes, that an artist already have “an emotional relationship” with the brand. “We’re looking for influencers,” he says.

Once in agreement, the process generally begins with a visit to the Martin museum at its facility in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. There, Isbell, his band The 400 Unit, guitarist Sadler Vaden, and guitar tech Michael Bethancourt sat down and played an assortment of guitars, including a pre-war D-45 and a D-18 that belonged to Kurt Cobain.

These were chosen because they fit Isbell’s initial parameters, such as volume, but as the process progressed they’d find various esthetic and performance elements that he also liked, such as barrel shape of a 1939 neck, and Schaller tuning machines, with Greene taking notes along the way.

“They’re taking esthetic and other elements from a variety of guitars, but it’s really like designing a guitar from scratch, because there are so many possibilities and combinations to choose from,” says Greene.

Some of these choices are detailed and personal; for instance, Isbell was taken by the rosette from a rare Ditson 111. The tattoo was important for the same reason, but it also acts as the signifier that this is not a stock D-18. “It lets buyers know immediately that this is a personally designed guitar,” he says.

Part of Greene’s task is to also let artists know what might not work, such as a T-bar truss rod, which cannot be adjusted. “If it’s a guitar that’s going to stay in the home or the studio, where the humidity and temperature are pretty constant, then that’s fine,” he says. “But it could be problem if they want to take it on the road.”

Once all the specifications are achieved, manufacturing runs are decided. Some, like Isbell’s D-18, priced at $4,799, will remain open ended, letting the market determine that; John Mayer’s signature D-45, by comparison, was limited to 45 copies at $16,000 each. “John wanted a collectible and scarcity established that,” says Greene. “Jason wanted a premium guitar but one that was affordable.”

Fender’s Other Eric

The Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline, revealed at winter NAMM in January, is the third signature collaboration between Fender and the seven-time Grammy nominee, who won the award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1992. It also represents the 30th anniversary of the signature-guitar program for the brand. Thus, the process of creating the new $1,999.99-listed guitar, which features Johnson touches like a two-piece alder body with countersunk screws, a vintage-style tremolo with silver-painted block, and a thin headstock with vintage-style staggered tuning machines, followed a familiar script, one that minimized the time that had to be spent working in person at the company’s Custom Shop in Corona, California where its signature guitars are made. “Fender and Eric have worked together before, so we had a good, organic working relationship already in place,” comments Justin Norvell, SVP of Fender products. The new guitar went through an estimated one dozen prototype stages, each one overnighted to Johnson at his studio in Austin or on the road when he was on the touring (and he was on both almost constantly since the process began in 2015, as he was recording and then touring to support 2016’s EJ album and 2017’s Collage LP).

What was a bit different in this particular  case, as a result of the remote collaboration, was that the prototypes were making their way onto social-media videos, as fans recorded Johnson playing the progressive iterations of the guitar live, with Johnson posting some videos himself. It wasn’t a strategic marketing leak, Norvell assures, though it did begin to generate interest in the axe as much as 16 months before its planned introduction. “If we had orchestrated a leak we would have done it lot closer to the release date,” he says. “But it was OK because it was real – Eric was getting inspired by the guitars.”

Fender’s signature-model run sizes will vary by artist, and most will have limited manufacturing runs, either because interest may wane or the artist intended it as a collectible product. A few, such as those bearing names like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, become perennials. However, the concept is also leading to the development of signaturized accessories, likely later this year, although a Fender spokesperson declined to specify further.

How Retailers Win

Retailers can derive additional benefits from signature guitars. “It opens the door for discussion about unique features [and] the design goals, and provides an interesting story behind the guitar that the retailer can use as part of the sales pitch,” Naylor says. Greene notes that retailers benefit from signature axes because “they legitimize a product,” and act as shorthand for buyers’ own aspirations. “A salesperson can ask a customer who they listen to, who they like, and a signature model might contain many of those elements,” he explains. Fender’s Justin Norvell suggests retailers look at signature models as ways to create initial relationships with new players, using their affinity for a particular artist to connect through their named guitar.

Similarly, new models of the same artists’ guitars over the course of years also offer a sense of continuity and professional growth with that artist. “Most people who start on guitar start playing because of an artist they admire and want to emulate,” he explains, likening the connection to that of athletes and their sponsored sports gear. “The signature guitar is what brings them into the fold.” However, a walk through the last NAMM Show suggests that we may be nearing something like “peak signature,” with hundreds of models named for guitarists throughout the show floor. Greene says that’s being driven in part by more regional brands signing up more and more local and niche guitar heroes. “There is a saturation point, and that’s something we have to be careful about,” he says. If retailers adroitly follow the same advice, they can leverage the signature- model guitar as a solid sales avenue.

Making Eric Johnson’s Guitar Everyone’s Guitar

Calling from Lubbock, in the middle of the Texas leg of a tour that sees him both supporting his new Collage LP and revisiting 1990’s classic Ah Via Musicom album, Eric Johnson says by the time he got to his third signature guitar, he wasn’t sweating the small stuff anymore. “On this one, we had quickly figured out the neck and the pickups,” he says. “What we focused on were the woods and the width of the body. This guitar is very close to the others we’ve done but it’s the first semi-hollow body.”

Johnson says this model, made by Fender’s Custom Shop, owes some of its inspiration to the Gibson 335, an axe he says “I’ve always loved,” but it keeps much of what’s gone into the two previous Stratocaster variations he’s done. It also maintains Johnson’s humility when it comes to signature models. The single F-hole is the biggest indicator that this guitar is special, but to find out it’s his you’d have to look closely at the bolt plate on the neck, which is inscribed simple “EJ.” “It’s my ideas in this guitar,” says Johnson, “but we didn’t make a big thing out of saying that, because everyone needs to find a way to make a guitar their own.”

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