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Hot-Rodding: Aftermarket Electric Guitar & Bass Products are Burning Up

by Christian Wissmuller • in
  • August 2018
  • Current Issue
  • Roundtable
• Created: August 6, 2018

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Just as it’s usually a safe bet that most longtime, serious (or semi-serious) electric guitarists and bassists own more than one of their chosen instrument, it’s equally likely that the dedicated player eventually “tinkers” with his or her guitar.

The reasons can be purely practical (“This tuning peg broke. I guess I’ll try and replace it myself.”), aspirational (“I think my guitar would better suit my style of playing if I swapped in an active pickup.”), aesthetic/personal (“I’m going to refinish this bass, get a new pickguard, new truss-rod cover, and new knobs!”), or some combination of the three.

While the gear involved in modding a guitar or bass isn’t usually of the “big ticket” variety, these items can represent consistent business from that most wonderful breed of beast: the repeat customer.

Be it bridges, replacement necks, repair equipment, knobs, pickups, tuning pegs, nuts, tremolo systems, or anything else that allows a player to express his or her individuality, it’s a safe bet that if you stock, display, and promote these things effectively, you’ll set yourself up for consistent sales for years to come.

We recently spoke with representatives from eight major players in this market segment, all of whom noted that guitar modification – hot-rodding – is definitely on the rise.

What do you think is the primary reason why players modify their electric guitars or basses after the purchase: to truly improve the instruments, to customize and personalize

them to make them “theirs” in a unique way, something else?

Rick Rosenberg: Being a guitarist and composer/songwriter myself I would have to say it’s a lot about personal preferences regarding tone and how one plays. For example, I can’t tell you how many different pickups I have tried on different guitars, unless they are vintage. I’m always experimenting to get to the sound I feel best represents the sound I’m looking for from that particular guitar for the work I’m on at the time.

 

 

 

 

Steve Wark: It is probably a 50-50 split between wanting to improve the sound and playability of their guitars, or to make their guitar unique – personalize and make it their own. We sell so many parts to improve or change the guitar and also many parts just to dress it up or down.

James McCaffrey: All of the above. For some, it is primarily personalizing an otherwise stock piece to match one’s desired sound or look to make it feel and act like their own. It can add functionality that is not offered from the factory: swapping pickups, adding treble-bleed circuits, coil taps, and other electronic upgrades give the instrument more of a variety of tones for different applications. The popularity of custom pickguards, knobs, and accessories has gone through the roof over the last decade because people want to also make a visual statement with their instrument as well, whether it is to match their musical style or just how they dress.

 

 

 

Chris DeMaria: The answer is: all of the above. Part of what drives our industry is people looking for something that suits their needs or satisfies an issue or problem that they might have with another product. Part of the fun and the thrill for our industry’s customers is the thrill of the chase. People do want to personalize their instrument, to suit their personal taste, their certain personal need.

Scott Wunschel: We think it’s all of that! That’s what makes musicians the greatest creatures on earth! We offer multiple tone options along with different color caps and even knob options. We want players to find their tone and have the look that fits their instrument.

Larry Davis: I would say that it is a combination of those things bearing in mind that: 1) the more easily the modification is able to be made increases sales and; 2) if it is reversible are key factors. Most guitarists are tinkerers and capable of turning a screwdriver, but electronics are sometimes a little trickier and handling a router is a completely different story.

Jon Croft: Mojotone supports the performance upgrades, and we believe that when guitar players feel that they are sounding better, they will play better.

Richard Bussey: There are only 12 notes in a chromatic scale, so I always believe that guitarists are looking for ways to stand out, be it aesthetically or tonally, when it comes to modding a guitar. Really, guitarists just want to have a guitar that feels like their own by personalizing the instrument, versus improving on the product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In terms of aftermarket electric guitar and bass parts, or gear related to “hot-rodding” guitars, what are currently your best-sellers and why do you think that is?

RR: Our MasterTint, GluBoost Glu Dry, and Fill n’ Finish products for techs looking to repair dings and dents and get a perfect color match.

CD: Fluence [pickups] is becoming a significant part of our business. The amount of growth in that business, year over year, has been exponential. Midway through 2018, we had already far exceeded what we had sold in all of 2017. A big part of that was a lot of early adopters – and that includes consumers and guitar brands. More and more guitar builders are choosing Fluence. There’s definitely a groundswell, a buzz out there about the pickups, and I think a good portion of that is driven by a lot of the artist activity. So definitely Fluence. When we’re talking about acoustic pickups, our Matrix is still a huge seller for us. Our Soundhole pickup family, our Neo-D, are all very big sellers.

 

 

 

Scott W: We have so many options now and even more being developed, but at the end of the day the 81 and 85 remain at the top. They are the classic duo that players got behind back in the ‘80s and are still in high demand today. And we have different cap color options and metal cap options so players can get the look they want. We are not just “the black pickup company” – we’ve had to expand our horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

JC: Mojotone supports what we call the “Build. Modify. Repair.” market where professional guitar techs, repair shops, retailers, guitar builders, and the DIY consumer [are] using products we manufacture and support to build, modify, and repair a guitar-related project. The demands of each of these segments is unique to their respective application, but, by and far, our custom- made Vintage Taper potentiometers are a best-seller, as well as our Quiet Coil pickup series. Both of these sell well due to their quality, value, and solutions that they provide. The Quiet Coils have been popular for guitar players who desire vintage single coil tones without 60 Cycle hum. Interesting to note as well: we sell a large volume of pickup parts to customers who want to wind their own pickup.

RB: Replacement Necks have been on fire for Fender. Our necks sell very well because they are genuine and authentically Fender. They come from the same factories that produce our guitars and these necks are scheduled for use in actual guitar production. A neck you buy from Fender could have ended up on a guitar on any other day.

LD: Our pickguards represent a very large percentage when the goal is “personalizing” An instrument, visually or electronically, with little work other than loosening strings, mounting screws and in many cases transferring electronics carefully from old to new. We also have world-famous Kluson Tuning machines and hardware which is extremely successful, offering many aftermarket and OEM parts that improve performance of the instrument and enhance appearance.

 

 

 

 

JM: The Floyd Rose Tremolo has been a staple for almost forty years now because there is a definitive function: it provides tuning stability during the most intense usage. Floyd created something that was entirely necessary by the end of the ‘70s. As the guitarists became more exploratory (and brutal!) with their instruments, the instruments had to keep up with the guitarists. Even in today’s times where guitar music is not as on top of the charts as it once was, the Floyd Rose remains a tool in the industry used by guitarist of all styles because of its unrivaled reliability. In the last decade, a close popular second for us has been upgradable parts. By upgrading a tremolo block to brass, tungsten, granite, or titanium, you can add sustain or midrange clarity that differs from the stock block. Noiseless tremolo springs can quiet noisy springs. New tools like the Hollow Points make intonating the system easier. Push-In arms make screwing them in and out a thing of the past.

SW: Allparts has so many unique parts and such a wide variety of most categories, that the best-sellers would be a long list. The necks, Tremol-nos, Buzz Stops, Electro Jacks, and the Tone vise devices are a few of our products that are always top sellers. Of the folks who buy these aftermarket products do you think most players do the installation and modification work, themselves, or do they hire professionals, or a mix of the two?

 

 

 

 

JC: Mojotone sees a very good mix of both the professional tech and the DIY enthusiast.

JM: Definitely a mix of the two. As Floyd Rose, we don’t recommend that anyone cuts up the body of their precious instrument if they aren’t familiar with the process. But there’s no doubt they can put in titanium insert blocks, even if they’re new at it.

RB: With all the videos available online, it’s becoming easier for players to act as luthiers on their instruments, but, personally, I’m still a fan of going to a professional for major installations and changes on gear.

LD: It is a mix of the two and very dependent on the complexity of the modification being performed and the skill level of the individual wanting the work done. We always advise a customer that if they are unfamiliar with a process they should take it to their local shop to have the work completed by a professional rather than risk damaging either the instrument or the new part.

CD: I don’t know the answer to that. I will say we provide wiring diagrams and installation instructions and all that’s supported online. We’ve got our support team here that has helped people throughout the years with product installations and any sort of troubleshooting. But we do recommend a professional installation.

Scott W: We’ve made pickup installation easy for both options by going solderless back in 2009. We include the pots, output jack, and cables with each pickup for easy “plug & play” installation. End users can do it, themselves, or in many cases they have “a guy” who does all their work. We’ve put the power of options in the users’ hands.

RR: There may be some small mix of which we are unaware, but I would have to say that repair techs are the ones who use our products on a regular basis. They can not only repair store inventory, but also make a lot of customers happy with color matched repairs, which has not been available until now, not to mention that it adds a whole new income stream to their store doing color matched repair work. Also, this is what we are about: getting the customer off the internet and into the store for the stores to have more and to prosper.

SW: Definitely a mix. There are so many parts the end user can install, but there are also those parts that only an experienced repairman or luthier can install correctly. Of course, that doesn’t stop many guitarists – they try to do it themselves only to be disappointed by the result. Plenty of guitarists have a collection of guitars and have learned through trial and error to do many repairs and modifications themselves with good results.

What would you consider to be the “easiest to use” product that you offer in this category?

RB: The great thing about Fender guitars is that they were originally designed to be modular, meaning that many of our parts are easily interchangeable. Cosmetic changes (pickguards, knobs, strap buttons) are the easiest to replace.

Scott W: By going solderless we’ve made every EMG pickup easy to install, but I feel the pre-wired pickguard Pro Series systems are really quick and simple to install. Our DG20 David Gilmour Pro Series is still a top seller and I have seen it installed in less than 10 minutes.

RR: GluBoost Accelerator. You just spray it on a CA or Finish product like Fill n’ Finish and it almost instantly dries smooth and clear as glass.

SW: Knobs are almost foolproof once you know what the shaft style of the pot is. If it is a direct retro-fit, tuning keys can be a simple installation along with some tailpieces and pickguards.

JC: Any of the Mojotone Solderless Prewired Pickguards are quite easy to install. Customers love them.

LD: In my opinion pickguards that don’t have electronics attached to them, like a Les Paul or a Jazz Bass, can take a few minutes and the immediate rewards of the modification are complete. Changing out strap buttons in favor of strap locks. Tuning machines can also be a simple process, depending on the type and if the specs for what is being installed match the originally installed hardware.

JM: For Floyd Rose, the easiest would probably be the new Rail Tail Tremolo. It is a replacement for 6-point tremolo systems that actually uses a rail as its rotation point and requires minimal time and skill for installation. As an entirely brass piece, it improves tone while offering more tuning stability without the need for a locking nut or cutting off the ends of your strings. It is quickly becoming a popular DIY upgrade. We also distribute KTS Titanium which makes replacement components made out of – you guessed it – titanium. Anyone can swap out their existing saddles, T.O.M., or traditional tremolo without needing a tech to do any additional work to make it fit.

CD: With the Fluence pickups, it’s a little bit different since they are powered by a lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack or by a nine-volt battery, so there are a couple of extra steps in there. But I think that all of them are fairly easy in the hands of a qualified repair person or installer.

Conversely, what would be the most challenging, requiring the most skill?

LD: I would say installing and slotting a new nut. While it is one of the more commonly changed parts on a guitar it can have a great effect on tuning stability, playability, and tone depending on the material type chosen (brass, bone, or synthetic). Tasks like refinishing an instrument or routing a body to accept different hardware require highly advance skill levels plus the proper equipment.

JM: Putting in a “full-floating” Floyd Rose Original or Pro would be the most challenging mod as it requires a relatively involved knowledge of woodworking. The bridge needs a route to be cut into the body so that it is countersunk.

CD: Installing pickups for acoustic instruments may be trickier. The Matrix, for example, requires that the saddle be taken down evenly, so that it sits perfectly flush in the saddle slot on top of the under-saddle pickup. In the case of our Resophonic pickups, those need to be fitted a certain way by people that have experience working with Resophonic guitars.

Scott W: That would be our Piezo saddle pickups and our Bajo pickups, which take a little more time to install. Because the output jack needs to be installed these systems really should be installed by a professional. It saves time and gets the install done right the first time.

RB: The most challenging modification, in my opinion, is anything that requires soldering. I always leave my electronics (pickups and wiring) to a professional luthier.

RR: Ding and dent repair. One has to have the hands to do good ding repair work and get it right.

SW: Frets, for sure. The frets are so important to the playability of the guitar, but most guitarists believe they are just hammered in. We also sell fingerboards and truss rods – neither one do we recommend for the amateur.

JC: This is tricky question because we offer parts that can be wired in any number of ways. I am certain somebody has installed some custom exotic combination of pickups with split coil, out of phase, and a mid-boost installed that was soldered beautifully.

Have you noticed any particular methods or approaches to display and promotion being embraced by dealers who are especially successful at moving these types of aftermarket guitar and bass parts?

RR: We tell dealers to try a ding dent repair service either as an add-on service to guitar set ups or other adjustments. Additionally, we even suggest combining the ding repair work with a 5% coupon to shop around the store or even give an extra free or a discounted set of strings with the set up and/or ding repair work. We feel that the guitar techs in the store are often not recognized as a special talent and an added revenue stream for the store. Another item we recently brought out in lieu of this is our Mark and Mask System which was specifically formulated to help the repair guys and luthiers do their work with that much greater ease and speed thus making repairs that much easier. Really, ding and dent repair should be at the top of the list for repair techs and stores.

SW: The successful retailers put guitar parts in sight for the customer to see. Sometimes a guitarist is in the shop to by strings or just to hang out, but when they see the parts they remember projects at home or they imagine those knobs that go to 11 on their guitar. It reminds them their pot or jack has been crackling and they buy them. Our customers that display our parts always comment on the easy sales at a great margin.

JC: It always comes down to the people in your store. No matter the promo, no matter the display, an engaged and enthusiastic crew makes all of the difference. The stores that are doing the best with Mojotone Parts & Pickups are the stores where someone on the floor is talking to customers about gear, and most importantly the gear the customer currently owns. Not every guitar player is ready to buy a new guitar, but as seen by the explosion of the pedal market over the last few years, many of them are looking for ways to liven up their rig. Mojotone provides solutions, and in the case of repairs it’s pretty straightforward. Something quits working, it needs to get fixed. In the “modification” or “upgrade” side of the equation, an active listener with sage advice will make all of the difference by offering quick and simple ways to make their customer’s guitar be “new” again.

 

Scott W: Because we invested in video production and have created over 300 videos (and counting!) showcasing our pickups, dealers have tone videos available for EMG product pages on their website. We have found it to be very effective. Customers will often reference videos that persuaded them to purchase. Retail stores that offer free installation with purchase always help close the customer on upgrading their pickups and electronics.

RB: Parts are very difficult to merchandise in stores. In my experience, the key to selling parts is having a lot of them. It may sound rudimentary, but you need to have a lot of product options and a strong depth of inventory in order to fulfill customer demand or else players wind up turning to eCommerce for their specific needs. These parts will turn slower, but it gives the retailer the chance to upsell a high margin, in-store installation opportunity.

CD: You know, that’s a really good question. We firmly believe that there’s a viable brick and mortar marketplace out there, but part of supporting that – and this even goes for the e-commerce partners – is that we go out and we do training, we do events, we do clinics, we also have an online course module called “Up to Speed” where we encourage employees and product dealers all over to take these learning modules, so that they can better understand our brand, the unique selling propositions of Fishman products. The days of putting your product out in the marketplace and just expecting that something will happen are long gone.

JM: Absolutely! One method is through industry influencers: when a popular artist or a noteworthy guitar tech uses a component, that allows many people to see it in action by someone they trust or look up to. In the age of the internet, it can be one video that propels something that would otherwise be a hard sell to the forefront. Since we are dealing with sonic instruments, it is hard to imagine a time when someone had to decide to buy a product based on a print ad or hunting it down in a music store. Now you can see and hear it demonstrated by professionals and amateurs without leaving the couch. And this makes all of the small things more attractive.

LD: We have several dealers who carry specific guitar brands and buy pickguards from us to dress them up before selling them, which has given them positive results and adds value and personalization at the point of purchase. Having resources available online such as videos that demonstrate the installation of parts and the resulting benefits helps generate interest and helps drive traffic. Some of our best customers create a “parts wall” as a display of some of the more common parts like knobs, switches, pickguards, pickups, and tuning machines near or behind their [register] which puts it in front of every customer who visits and incites add on sales.

Have you noticed any significant trends in this market segment in recent months – either on the consumer, retailer, or supplier sides?

RR: We see many repair guys now doing seamless color matched repairs and loving the results but most importantly, the customer doesn’t go away disappointed because they have a ding repair lacking the original color of their instrument.

JM: We’ve seen that more people are interested in modifying their existing instruments than ever. An important point to note is that since the 2008 financial crisis, guitar sales have never fully rebounded. There are still as many guitar players – if not more – in the world, but this means that a measurable percentage are holding onto their instruments and hot-rodding them rather than going out and buying new ones.

Scott W: We have seen a definite increase in business all around. Our new Retro Active line is gaining steam in the market. They feature a traditional open-coil look, but are active pickups. Players are embracing the concept and we continue to grow the line. Soon we’ll offer switchable pre-amps so players can change their tone by simply swapping the plug-on pre-amps.

RB: With the increase in electric guitar sales, we anticipate aftermarket parts will continue to see similar gains. As customers buy more electric guitars, they’re going to want to find their voice and look, and modding is the best way to do that.

LD: For the past four consecutive quarters, we have noticed an uptick in larger ticket item sales across all categories we specialize in]. We have noticed considerable attention being paid to the new products Kluson has introduced in 2017-18.

JC: At Mojotone we have noticed that people want to learn more about how to fix or work on their gear. Different kinds of players have different styles et cetera, but fundamentally there is a universal desire [shared by] these players to be able to make their guitar work and play the way they want it to.

CD: It’s a great place to be for a lot of companies because those products tend to be within the price point of what an impulse buy would be. As far as trends, we’re seeing things get smaller and smaller. We’re seeing more and more products for Bluetooth. I think on the acoustic side, we’re seeing more and more people who are just really, really serious about their tone. I’d say the acoustic players are really embracing gear more than ever, whereas before it was just the opposite before that.

SW: Acoustic guitar sales have been strong and we notice with the demand for parts that are specific to acoustic guitars. In the past, a surge in acoustic guitars usually translates into more electric guitar sales. We have many parts for acoustic guitars, but electric guitars use so many more parts and there is more upgrades and variation.

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