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This New Era at Gibson

by Mike Lawson • in
  • Features
  • July 2019
• Created: July 10, 2019

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Full disclosure: I worked (for only) about three years at Gibson, in the 1990s, and left there (the first time) on good terms. I got to do cool things, work with A-list artists, market great guitars, work with awesome dealers, and much more. I made lasting friendships with some of the best people working in the MI world. I think most people who work at Gibson, and are musicians, do so because they love the products, the brand, the history. People develop brand loyalty from an early age. It becomes part of their identity. I was a Coke, Levi’s, Ford, Gibson guy. Some people are Pepsi, Wrangler, Chevy, Fender people. Brands resonate, people stick with them. I saw a lot of whacky stuff, but didn’t leave the company disgruntled. I stayed in touch with both Dave Berryman and Henry Juszkiewicz, and was occasionally party to helping them out with things for the next dozen years or so, from loaning my guitar to Epiphone to use as a model to make their reissue of the Les Paul Signature model, to introducing Henry to Hector Ruiz, then CEO of AMD, when he learned I was consulting Hector on digital audio initiatives.

Second Tour of Duty

In 2008, I made an ill-fated return that lasted, literally, a few weeks. The first thing said to me by Henry the day I reported was, “Well, you work for me again, so I don’t have to be nice to you anymore.”

I thought he was kidding. Former co-workers warned me; people questioned my sanity. Looking back, I do as well. I stepped back into a very unhappy place. My nanosecond next round at the company did not end well. I still have the disturbing, very personally-directed email sent to me that led to my departing as quickly as I accepted the offer to come back. But regardless of how I felt after that, I was always on good terms with the other owner, Dave Berryman. I’ve always wished the best for the brand. This setup a very personal inner conflict. I’ve played this line since I was a teenager.

Out of my 50-plus guitars, two-thirds are Gibson/Epiphone models of varying vintages. I love these guitars. Personal, lifetime brand affinity. No need to expound. The job site GlassDoor.com is full of reviews, and most are stunningly accurate with a similar theme. They overwhelmingly didn’t approve of the CEO, but love the brand on a very personal level. That was how I felt, too.

Guitarmageddon Approaches

I couldn’t see myself buying many new Gibson products for the past decade, especially with the disastrously-awful 2015 line, which Henry once described as having had a “soft reception” by the market. Robot tuners became standard on most everything.

Henry demanded most fretboards be widened, while the nut slot width stayed the same for the innovative zero-fret adjustable brass nut, an idea designed by the talented Frank Johns.

In 2016, a popular dealer in upstate New York practically begged me to buy a new 2015 Les Paul Junior for well below cost, stuck with so many. I did. I wanted to see how bad things had become. I opened it up and saw the plug-and-play circuit boards to connect the pots and pickup. I replaced the brass nut with a retrofit synthetic adjustable nut. I put white button machine heads on and hand-wired 500k pots with a bumblebee capacitor. Though odd to play from the fretboard width, the tone is now on point.

Bankruptcy in 2018 was inevitable for Gibson. So many bad decisions, from incessant lifestyle branding attempts, to consumer electronics, instrument company acquisitions nearly always shuttered, quality issues, price increases, unhappy dealers and consumers, venue naming rights, tour buses and, well… it is a big list of bad choices.

I was skeptical when I saw Gibson at Summer NAMM in 2018. Henry was still CEO; they were still in bankruptcy. Handing out “I support the new Gibson” hats was not going to change that, even with nice looking guitars on display at the show again, after years of not fully or even exhibiting.

Gibson then emerged from bankruptcy by fall with no debt, divesting non-core acquisitions, returning to its roots with new management. I waited. At Winter NAMM 2019, for the first time in many years, Gibson exhibited and invited all NAMM attendees to see the exhibit. I tried to get a look at the guitars, but the room was so packed, it was difficult to navigate. I spent time outside of it reminiscing and getting insight on the new management from a few employees I knew, who had been there for decades. They were cautiously, but enthusiastically optimistic about Gibson’s prospects.

Could the guitars I love and have played for so long really be in the hands of management who want the best for them, return to original standards, have sane modern improvements that don’t profane the originals? Will Gibson become the place to work that we hoped it would be when we took our jobs? Will dealers be courted, treated with respect, have reasonable expectations? Can this brand make amends with its fanbase which saw quality nose-diving, even Amazon-only cheap “Gibson” models created, and diverging from the things that made these guitars a legend?

The End of the Beginning

Bankruptcy is an ugly process. Emerging from it takes new investment, leadership, and a court-approved solid plan for moving forward. In April, Gibson held a press preview in Nashville. The event featured a walk-through of the line by James “JC” Curleigh, president and CEO, and chief merchant officer, Cesar Gueikian.

Cesar explained the new “Original Collection” of guitars which includes the Les Paul Standard ‘50s, Les Paul Standard ‘60s, Les Paul Special in TV Yellow, Les Paul Junior in Tobacco Burst, the SG 61 Standard with factory stop-tail, Maestro and Sideways vibrolas, SG Special and Junior, the ES-335 Figured and DOT, Firebird, Flying V and Explorer, as well as the J-45, Hummingbird and J-200.

Most questions were answered by looking at the guitars, picking them up, playing them, and by Cesar, before I asked. My first impression was they looked like Gibson Custom Shop models. Gueikian explained to everyone the differences between them and the spot-on replicas being made at Gibson Custom, and some of the differences are subtle historically-accurate things that would make little difference to players not interested in buying modern replicas with long neck tenons, or pinpoint accurate appointments.

The first thing I noticed was that the finishes are superb. From the “bursts” to the coloring of the cherry stain, thinner binding, the spot-on TV Yellow, the guitars looked stunning. No more plug and play. All hand-wired.

Prices went down. I had a really good feeling about what I had seen and heard. As a brand devotee, as a player, I was actually excited and trying to decide whether I wanted to buy the TV Yellow Special, or the SG 61 Standard with the sideways vibrola. It has been a long time since I looked at a new Gibson like that. Cesar invited me to the plant. To say it is different than my times there is an understatement. Though some of the re-doing in the layout of the factory was a result of getting back into production after the flood of Nashville, significant things happened in just the past six months. The management took advice from employees on improving workflow and safety. They completely separated the paint areas from the rest of the factory. Guitars are no longer exposed to dust from woodworking during the finishing, installing sealed double-doors to separate the areas, investing heavily in a factory-wide dust removal system. In the 1990s, a lot of guitars constantly were in repair or waiting to be cut up and put in the dumpster. Now, very few were not making it through production, with numerous QC checks along the way to prevent damage.

Something I’d never seen in that factory? Happy employees walking up to senior management feeling free to discuss things, giving hugs and high-fives. I’m not saying everything is nirvana.

It’s still a workplace and a factory, but the dark cloud and sense of foreboding seemed gone. I recall corporate would always call us at the plant to warn us that Henry was coming over. Those days are over.

JC and I caught up again by phone. I wanted to know about his take on the changes and future. He said the focus at the plant was on quality: “We invested heavily in dust management, dust collection, dust elimination, and dust measuring as well. You can actually measure dust.”

He said, “… we used to touch guitars in progress about 74 times. Now we touch them less than 30 times because we found a way to sequentially line them up much smarter, move them around which significantly reduces dings and dents. We invested in high-quality lighting throughout the factory. We’ve been letting the team on the floor come up with smarter ways to improve productivity, quality, flow, and safety. We did a complete safety audit and invested significantly into upgrades. We covered all that in the last six months. We took everyone up to a certain base pay level, which hasn’t been adjusted for years. We added a 401k company matching plan.”

What About the Dealers?

All that sounded great to me as a fan and former employee. Employees seem to be happy and the factory has probably never been in better shape, the product is on point. The management seemed to care. But the product and happy employees are only two parts of four. The next are dealers and consumers. Gibson was notoriously difficult to do business with and I wanted to know how that was changing.

For starters, Gibson is now opening up Epiphone-only dealers. They are not requiring huge buy-ins of all lines. A lot has changed in becoming a dealer.

JC said, “[It] used to take months to go through this arduous obstacle course of authorization. We now open up customers in less than five days. From the time you say, ‘Let’s go,’ getting authorized is five days, provided the dealer does their part. We have a conversation to say, ‘Over time, what are your intentions with Gibson, how much share can we have of your guitar business?’ If our average market share in the premium sector is 30 percent to 35 percent, then we would expect over time to get that sort of market share in a specialty dealer store.”

Lower Prices… from Gibson?

“We recalibrated our pricing against external market dynamics, internal business dynamics, and we arrived at rationalized, reasonable pricing for what you get. We’re launching the G-45 for $1,000, a made in the USA acoustic guitar. We’re listening. ‘Hey, Gibson, charge the appropriate price.’ ‘Okay, we’ll do that.’ What we want [from dealers] is core representation of our range. There’s nothing worse than when someone says, ‘I’m an authorized Gibson dealer,’ and then a fan walks in and they only have two guitars. So, they have to have the core range, then let’s have an orientation of how we can grow to get to the certain share level. Dealers like that conversation. Then we put the right level of support with our dealer product specialists, we put the support with the internal relationship managers, and the rep starts to manage the accounts. This with a contract that’s got half the number of pages it used to have, and all the limitations, for the most part, have been removed. And if you’re not a custom shop, we’re not gonna force that on you. If you are electric only and you don’t do acoustics, we’re not gonna force that on you.”

‘Gibson Doesn’t Listen to the Customers’

I asked what Gibson can do to repair its relations with consumers. JC said, “I think the biggest accusation was no one at Gibson listens. Before I joined, I probably read 10,000 different website comments. And if there was one common theme, it was Gibson doesn’t listen. We started listening, and we came up with the Original Collection, back to historic true specs. We came up with a Modern Collection for modern guitarist who don’t want novelty on their guitar, they want true simple innovation to help them shape and create their sound. I mean, we’re not superheroes. Me, nor Cesar, nor KKR, none of us are trying to be superheroes. We don’t claim to be perfect. There are gonna be moments where we’re gonna make a decision, or something’s gonna happen and people will go, ‘Oh, what happened there?’”

‘So, what happened here?’

I’m glad JC recognizes they will make mistakes. I believe him. He comes across as sincere and believable. Sadly, just a week after our conversation, a clearly ham-fisted “Play Authentic” video about trademark infringement by other companies was put out, and then pulled from YouTube. The video featured Mark Agnesi, late of Norm’s Rare Guitars, who is now Gibson’s “director of brand experience.”

JC, this was a mistake. Nothing disappears from the Internet. I don’t know who approved this tone-deaf script or final video, but… I digress. And the timing – Gibson is off to such a great re-start. This set off an unneeded kerfuffle. Mandolin and other boutique tiny companies are up in arms. Negative press is popping up online again. This is a major distraction. Why now, just before Summer NAMM? Face palm.

Agnesi even rants about TV and film companies taping over Gibson’s name on the headstock. I’ve got news for him. A lot of times when that happens, it is because Gibson was approached, and were extremely difficult to work with, or refused and an artist insisted on playing their personal guitar when Gibson turned their noses up at them or their management. Or the producers didn’t want to infer an endorsement. This rant should not have been in this video and, frankly, this video should not have been made nor released.

It was weird. The next day, a story came out that Dean is being sued for their decades-old Flying V-style guitar. Who knows what is coming next? I absolutely agree with protecting the brand, the heritage, the legacy… but Gibson, you are under a microscope right now. Timing is everything. Messaging, crucial right now.

My Conclusion

I like JC and Cesar. They seem like affable, honest, intelligent, capable leadership with great intentions. If somebody called asking if they should take a job at Gibson, my new answer would be, “Yes, it is in transition, but poised for great things.”

The product is on-point. The prices are lower. There has probably never been a better time to become a Gibson or Epiphone dealer in decades and proudly stock once again high-quality guitars that live up to the legacy. If I were a dealer, I would absolutely look at carrying Gibson again now before my nearest competitor does. As a fan and player, I would tell anyone to try the new Original Collection.

On trademark policing, Gibson, there’s more to worry about from Chinese counterfeiters rampantly popping up again on eBay and Facebook, than the decades-old Dean flying V style guitars.

Protect your trademarks, do what you need to do, but remember, everyone is watching you. The dealers, the public, the competition. Closely. Please don’t muck this up. Gibson fans are counting on you. I love the prices, the new dealer programs, listening to consumers, and the new line. All good things in all good time. Do more of that.

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