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Embracing the ‘Folkternative:’ ‘Non-guitar’ Fretted Instruments Making Waves in 2018

by Christian Wissmuller • in
  • Roundtable
  • September 2018
• Created: August 31, 2018

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Many point to country music (and “pop country,” as purists refer to some artists) and bluegrass as two main drivers of the recent resurgence in acoustic (and, to a lesser extent, electric) guitar sales. Folks see Casey James, Punch Brothers, Kenny Chesney, Old Crow Medicine Show, Taylor Swift (I know, I know – she used to be country-ish, though) playing guitar and that inspires them to pick up a six-string.

Makes sense.

But what about those “other” fretted instruments associated with these styles of music. Are dobros, mandolins, resophonic guitars, banjos, and the like also seeing increased interest from players and MI customers? MMR recently chatted with representatives from five key suppliers of these types of instruments to get their take on the state of this market segment and expectations for the coming months.

Other than hip-hop, R&B, and dance music, country has been the genre most consistently on the charts for the past many years. How has this been impacting interest in, and sales of, other fretted instruments related to country music, aside from the guitar?

Justin Grizzle: Gold Tone has been the “go-to” for country musicians for the past 20 years. Particularly in the past four-to-five years we’ve seen an increase in our “folkternative” instruments in this new age of country music. Bands like Kenny Chesney and The Band Perry are using our Bouzouki, Octave Mandolin, and 6-string Manditar (guitar neck on mandolin body) to add texture to their music. Bands like Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Jake Owen are using our 6-string banjos for creating unique and/or traditional sounds. The song “Neon Light” by Blake Shelton really highlights how they are using our BT-14 (14” banjo pot with a 6-string guitar neck) to get a real “plunky” sound that creates a melodic lead line throughout the entire song. We are seeing more country artist looking for ways to make their music stand out by adding more instrumental dimensions. When other musicians see these artists with unique instruments or hear different sounds on the radio they seek out those instruments.

On the more traditional side of country music we are still seeing a good variety of Gold Tone Banjos and Paul Beard/Gold Tone resophonic guitars being sold and played in the industry/marketplace. Players from bands like Alan Jackson, Luke Combs, Josh Turner, Rascal Flatts, and several others really rely on Gold Tone as “road worthy” instruments. This impacts our sales directly because word travels quickly among the musician circuit and within retail stores about which instruments will get you the most “Pluck for your Buck.”

Travis Atz: Both banjo and mandolin have been hugely affected by this. Recording King banjos and The Loar mandolins have found their way onto all kinds of country cuts. For example, if you see Darius Rucker on tour, you’ll see a Recording King banjo come out for “Wagon Wheel.” Things like that have driven increased interest in other traditional instruments besides guitar. The crossover potential is huge also – and this is in both directions. Current country chart hits share a lot sonically with rock and R&B, so now you’re hearing banjo and mandolin slide over into these other styles as well, and even into lounge and electronic music. The listening public at large is getting more accustomed to hearing banjo trebles, mandolin courses, or slide guitar playing, in large part thanks to the chart popularity of modern country. This has increased sales of all of these “auxiliary” instruments, for sure. Country music as a genre has also fragmented considerably. In addition to pop-country and traditional artists, we work with a growing group of younger players who combine all sorts of “traditional” country and bluegrass instruments for a new Americana/folk/rock/country mishmash that’s totally awesome. Check out bands like Banditos, Shovels and Rope, Whiskey Shivers, Sammy Brue, or Old Crow Medicine Show for a taste of how diversely these traditional instruments are being used.

Paul Beard: Country music continues to morph, borrowing from other genres of music and non-traditional country instrumentation. This is also true of bluegrass and Americana music in general. Because of this diversity, more people are drawn to genres of music that they may not been interested in by label only. Resonator guitar is now being used in bluegrass more than ever, as well as in country music. I feel that we are living in an incredible time of growth and creativity in the music world.

 

 

 

David Bandrowski: We have a number of high profile country artists who use our banjos – artists such as Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Eric Church, Zac Brown, and more. These artists using our banjos have definitely impacted our sales in a positive way and the popularity of country music has definitely helped drive our sales up. The popularity of folk rock bands such as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers has also played a huge role in driving sales of banjos. What is interesting is that a lot of these players are not necessarily trying to sound like Earl or Bela. They are just finding a way to play the banjo in a way that works for them and the song.

Tom Bedell: The mandolin has certainly benefitted from continued growth in country music, Americana, and bluegrass. Weber is unique in that we also specialize in the entire mandolin family of larger instruments such as the mandola, octave mandolin, and mandocello. While we certainly see growth in mandolin use within the country genre, we’re also seeing additional growth in these larger body shapes which open new doors for performers looking for additional sound and tone options. These larger body shapes are actually opening doors in many additional genres such as classical, blues, punk, rock, et cetera. These are not just country and bluegrass instruments anymore.

Bluegrass is also a force to be reckoned with. To what extent is bluegrass culture and its steady popularity contributing to today’s market for these instruments?

PB: Bluegrass has been embraced by a young generation, as witnessed by the number of college-aged folks who play. These young super pickers are unencumbered by traditional roots or expectations. Experimentation is not a concept, it’s the new expectation.

TB: Bluegrass is certainly growing and in some instances segmenting and changing depending on which part of the country you are talking about. As some newer groups take bluegrass more mainstream, we see the influence of the genre on potential mandolin buyers. At Weber, we’re focused on “perfecting tradition.” As the phrase implies, staying traditional and building the best playing and sounding traditional instruments is really central to our core. Naturally, this resonates with the bluegrass genre and players as they are largely a traditional instrument-focused demographic.

DB: Without a doubt, the 5-string banjo has always been a core instrument in the bluegrass genre, and so, makes up the lion’s share of the banjo market. When someone decides that they want to try banjo for the first time, they are normally faced with a couple of options as far as styles. Bluegrass is one of those styles and since it is the most well-known banjo music, most will gravitate to this style first. This is also backed up by the impressive selection of learning material available in this style. So the growing popularity of bluegrass definitely helps drive our sales.

 

 

TA: We’ve always seen bluegrass as a musician’s genre as much as a listener’s. There’s a strong family tradition in bluegrass, so many bluegrass artists grew up playing music with their families almost since birth. The result of weaving music so closely into life at such a young age is that many of the players grow up to be absolutely jaw-dropping musicians.

Musicians gravitate toward great players, and bluegrass is full of them. With the new generation of players, though, young’uns are changing some of the traditions. We see a lot of younger banjo and mandolin players who are leveraging the internet to draw attention to the traditional (and non-traditional) music they’re making. It’s the perfect marriage of vintage and modern, and a solid case study on how to keep classic genres vital and fresh.

JG: Bluegrass music is awesome! The bluegrass culture has really opened its arms to Gold Tone and allowed our banjos to become a household name within the community. We are forever thankful for that! Wayne and Robyn Rogers (Gold Tone founder/owners) are Bluegrass musicians and took that “players aspect” into creating instruments with the player (and their pocketbook) in mind. I think the question sort of answers itself. The reasons these instruments are still selling is because of the “culture and its steady popularity.” The steady popularity is due to the culture of musicians that stay true to the instruments that make bluegrass music. Like they say: “How many bluegrass musicians does is take to change a light bulb? Four – one to change the bulb and the other three to complain because its electric.”

With that being said, there are other bands that are transitioning bluegrass music and making it appealing to different genres that may not have listened otherwise. Bands like GreenSky BlueGrass and Leftover Salmon are introducing and peaking the interest of millennials to a type of music that has bluegrass roots. It is important to keep these instruments in the forefront of music no matter the style in which they are being played.

Of these country- or bluegrass-related, “non-guitar” fretted instruments offered by your brand, what are your top sellers at the moment?

DB: Our Goodtime 5-string banjo is always our highest seller due to the fact that it is our most inexpensive banjo. Even though this is our most inexpensive banjo, it is still made in the same shop as our upper-line banjos which is located in Spring Valley, California. Hence the quality, tone, and playability is of the same standard as our more expensive instruments. The Goodtime 5-string openback is also the core model for the rest of the Goodtime line, which can include adding a resonator, a tone ring, or even a 12” rim if that is what the customer prefers. Our 6-string banjos are also very popular with the country crowd, as these banjos are tuned and played just like a guitar but feature a banjo tone. The new Goodtime Six R banjo is going over very well. A lot of our country artists have been playing our Boston 6-string banjo, which is very popular. However, the $2600 price tag is not always within everyone’s reach, so the Goodtime Six R is a great alternative for anyone looking to stay under the $900 mark.

JG: The AC-1 Banjo, M-Bass (this has been our top-selling instrument for the last five years), F-6 Guitar (tuned E-E just like a regular guitar), CC- 100R – Gold Tone staple 5-string banjo, Little Gem Banjo ukulele, AC-6+ Banjitar w/pick-up, Paul Beard Signature Dobro, Mandocello with pickup, Bouzouki, and the OB-150 Professional Bluegrass Banjo.

PB: The Beard Deco Phonic line is very popular as it offers a variety of American made models starting at $1,600, and Jerry Douglas signature models with the Fishman Nashville pickup starting at $3,900. It’s interesting to note that these best-selling models represent two different price points in the market. This is proof that there is continued growth for non-guitar fretted instruments as we see customers upgrade to higher priced models.

TB: The ultimate country or bluegrass instrument series we are building would be the Yellowstone Series. Within, the F14-F (F style) mandolin is hands-down the most sought after. From there, and within the series, we see quite a bit of interest in the Octave with many musicians. In fact, Keb Mo just picked up a Yellowstone Octave to incorporate in his performances.

TA: The Loar Honey Creek Mandolins have been selling like crazy, and the road-ready Recording King Madison Banjo line has been doing really well for us also. The Recording King Rattlesnake Resonator Guitar is relatively new, but has been a great success right out of the gate. We’re selling every single one we build. The top line Recording King Elite banjos have been selling really well, too. Their longer scale length gives them extra punch to cut through the mix in modern country or pop.

Have you noticed any “best practices” being enacted by dealers who are particularly successful selling these types of instruments?

PB: Yes. I have dealers that recognize many consumers want the flexibility of an on-board pickup system, even as a beginner player. Those dealers will order resonator guitars with pickups as a stock item. This works well for resonator guitars, as it creates a different, sonic pallet when amplified. Also, dealers do well when they can demonstrate how “guitar like” a cross-over or alternative instrument can be when played. Showing a guitar player a familiar tuning on an unfamiliar instrument can give the customer that instant feeling of success. Getting the customer to realize their potential on that instrument is key.

TA: Where we’ve really seen the most success is when we partner with a dealer to create a dedicated space in their store. Recording King and The Loar can create a great 5-hook destination on your wall that covers the breadth of our lines and delivers great sell-through. Dealers who show our $200 flat top, $179 lap steel, $300 resonator, $250 banjo, and $300 killer F-style mandolin can easily qualify their customer, then quickly connect them with the right instrument. Our research shows this setup delivers an optimal combo of small footprint and high profit. We’ve recently added RK and The Loar accessories – straps, steels, bags, thumbpicks, et cetera – that have become great money-makers for our dealers. We make sure all our accessory offerings are aligned with our products to help keep brand identity consistent.

Many of our dealers have taken advantage of our Pickup Install Program, too. We install high-quality Fishman and LR Baggs pickups into many of our banjos and mandolins in our U.S. workshops, to order. The unboxing experience when you open that case and the customer sees their instrument with custom-installed pickup directly from the workshop is awesome. It makes the customer happy, the dealer look good, and allows the player to head right from the store to the stage. More and more artists are using our instruments to add texture in the live format, so the ability to offer our products with professional level pickups is giving us a tremendous sales lift.

TB: Over the last year, we have worked very hard to refine the color work of our instruments. The Yellowstone finish was updated and released at Summer NAMM in 2018. This new finish is very traditional, and as a result, the instrument has been very well received by the mandolin community, artists, and dealers. The point is dealers carrying very traditional and well-built mandolins are going to see higher turnover than instruments that don’t fit the traditional needs.

JG: Yes, we have had several dealers adopt our Folkternative marketing concept and implement it in their stores and on their websites. For example, we have dealers that are stocking the 6-strings manditars and 6-sting banjitars, but display them in the guitar departments (not the folk or bluegrass) so they get exposed to guitar players. The concept is to stock these alternative instruments, but display them with the same style of its native instrument. So, you would show the Bouzouki and Octave Mandolin as a Folkternative instrument for mandolin players. We offer 20 Folkternative instruments for guitar player, and 10 for banjo players. We offer a Display Stand which only takes up four square feet of floor space (or can wrap around a pole) and holds 8-12 instruments. This give Gold Tone’s Folkternative instruments their own department or Gold Tone’s Bluegrass/Folk instrument their own department.

DB: Our best performing dealers are usually banjo specialists. They know the ins and outs of our product. They are active in promoting and talking to the banjo community. They know and understand how banjos work, the different types of banjos, and can really direct a customer towards the perfect banjo for them. They also tend to have a broader selection of banjos to back up their claim, allowing the customer to try a few different options.

The other side of this coin is we look a lot at the dealers who do not perform well. Occasionally, they genuinely struggle to develop a banjo market in their region. That does happen. However, more often than not, it is the expectation that they will just sell. We had a dealer call us just last week, dismayed at the fact that nothing had sold. [The banjos] were not listed on their website. They had not posted about the banjos on social media. No demo videos created. We then come to find out that they were hung way out of reach of most customers, so there was no incentive for them to even try them. This is an important point for any dealer looking to take on a niche product line like a banjo.

Are there any recent or emerging trends in this market segment that you’ve noticed of late? What are your expectations for sales of these fretted instruments in the coming months?

TB: As noted prior, we are seeing trending in traditional instruments and emerging interest in the larger body shapes. Players are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and create new sound and tone, and these larger shapes give them the ability to develop new twists on traditional sound and tone.

JG: Yes! Banjo ukes, metal body ukes, resonator ukes, and Folkernative ukuleles! Folkternative ukuleles have been popular for many years mainly because all the players that started on ukulele are looking for other ways to showcase their skills or stand out within their ukulele groups. I do not see this trend slowing down since ukulele is still one of the most trending instruments in the market. Gold Tone offers 15 Folkternative ukulele models in various body types and scale lengths. Our most popular banjo ukulele is the Little Gem banjo uke. They were a huge hit at NAMM this year. They are very affordable and come with a gig bag, tools, and point of purchase box.

DB: One definite trend in the banjo market is the explosion of growth for old time music/clawhammer banjo style playing. This would be the second style that newcomers are presented with when picking up the 5 string banjo for the first time. These type of players use openback 5-string banjos as oppose to bluegrass style players who use resonator 5-string banjos. Clawhammer is a great style to get into for a number of reasons. It is a fantastic style to play on your own. Bluegrass, on the other hand really comes to life in a band setting. Clawhammer banjo is also very rhythmical and very relaxing to play. I think there is an overall trend for people to look for more simplicity in their lives. To get away from gadgets, to be a little freer and more independent from the ties of everyday life. Clawhammer lends itself very nicely to this lifestyle, so we expect this segment to grow more and more

TA: Resonators are hot! We’ve seen a 150% sales lift in resonators over the past 12 months. We brought in a special run of metal body resonators that sold out in days. We also have four new wood body resonators for 2018, including a signature model from the legendary Phil Leadbetter. The Rattlesnake wood body resonator is one of our top 10 Recording King SKUs. On the sales side, the trend toward mainstreaming classic “auxiliary” instruments seems to be ongoing. We expect banjo, mandolin, and resonator sales to all continue to be strong. The increasing number of electrified folk instruments requested by artists has made our pickup install program an added bonus that keeps our sales strong and our dealers excited.

PB: I see that more people are willing to experiment with new voices of instruments. Baritone and bass resonator guitars are gaining in popularity, adding to the continued growth of resonator instruments in general.

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