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Signature Style: Artist Signature Series Guitars Connecting with Players in 2017

by Christian Wissmuller • in
  • Roundtable
• Created: September 7, 2017

We catch up with representatives from seven major suppliers to learn about what’s hot in Signature Series guitars…

What are some of the unique benefits that signature series instruments provide – both for a brand and for retailers?

Judy Schaefer: Authenticity, audience/reach, and trust. When someone is willing to put their name on a guitar or amplifier, they are into it. Period. An artist is not going to endorse a company or a product that they don’t believe in. It breathes authenticity into the gear and gives potential customers an immediate understanding of what the guitar or amp is. With that, the audience is also immediately bigger. People who may not have heard of a brand will hear about it when the artist tells their followers about their model. But all the numbers in the world don’t matter if the authenticity isn’t there to build trust in the customer’s mind. Full circle.

Dennis Webster: Aside from the privilege of creating an instrument with the input of a respected artist, the benefit of a signature instrument is that it allows us to put a familiar face to the brand, and to give the instrument its own unique flavor. It also helps musicians match an instrument to a style, which lets them tailor their own sound according to the direction in which they want to take their music.

Brian Ball: Signature instruments present an incredible opportunity to collaborate, design, and build an instrument that improves the artist’s ability to play, write, and perform to the best of their ability. We also believe that there’s always a story to tell with the artist, which brings a great opportunity at retail that a standard production model doesn’t have. Retailers also have opportunities in-store to merchandise the artist’s name and likeness.

Monte Montefusco: Since the birth of the camera, the public has had a fascination with emulating pop culture icons. The guitar business has been no different. In the early stages of considering guitar playing, the curious are inspired by the music of an artist. The typical first step is mimicking your favorite musician. If the artist inspires you to consider guitar, a signature model can be the catalyst to get the budding musician off the couch and into their local guitar shop.

Dick Boak: Well, I have to say that working with specific artists brings fresh perspectives and fresh ideas that are very pertinent to how the instruments are actually used in the studio or on stage or in songwriting. Each artist brings completely different set of requirements. And it also challenges us to venture into new areas that we would never pick to venture into, on our own in an isolated environment. So I think that’s one of the very important aspects of these models. Of course, if you’re working with an artist like Crosby Stills and Nash or something like that that, there is a chance that you can hook into the fan base to the people who may want to get one of their guitars.

Justin Norvell: People always get into music because they look up to another player, whether it be their style, the songs they write, and there’s always a puzzle that’s trying to be unlocked, or a code that people are trying to decipher [for] finding their own sound. Being able to have an instrument that is a peek into that tone or a peek towards what you’re trying to achieve is super valuable. For Fender, particularly, our instruments are way more modular than most manufacturers, so they’ve been much more heavily modified over the years, and a lot more is possible. We’re really able to showcase what’s possible on Fender instruments via these creative signature models that we have.

Mike Orrigo: I feel that signature guitars are the ultimate statement to the market that demonstrates our brand’s deep working relationship with some of the most influential and important guitarists and bassists around the world today. By partnering with these incredible artists on unique and exciting products, our brand is able to benefit in many ways. One way I would use as an example is by crafting a signature product, you may turn someone who may never have considered your brand before to the product, just based on the connection of the instrument with the artist. This example could also be applied to retailers as well I feel, as certain artists are usually the reason a person will gravitate to an instrument in their life. A signature model is often the gateway for some consumer who later become customers for life.

How does your brand go about cultivating relationships with these artists? Do you approach them, do they approach you, or is it just an organic evolution of the relationship between supplier and musician?

BB: Many of our signature artists start with a connection and relationship between the artist and our family before cutting any wood. My dad, Sterling, is godfather to many our signature artists’ kids and, in many cases, there’s a very close personal relationship with the artist. Albert Lee and Steve Morse have been with us since the very early years that we were manufacturing guitars.More recently artists like St. Vincent played an Albert Lee guitar live prior to wanting to create something fresh and new that fit her identity and playing style. In most cases, the artist plays our strings and shows interest in working with us on the Music Man side and the relationship cultivates form there.

MO: I would say it is more organic than anything. Personally, I try to be as open as approachable as possible, and I’ll go out to as many concerts and shows as I can in order to meet artists and build relationships. As an artist’s own personal career develops over time, their relationship with us can also grow more intertwined as well, and it’s that type of organic growth can often lead to signature models.

JN: It’s a super organic process back from the early days of Fender. We’ve always test-piloted out guitars and basses and amplifiers with artists. We have a large artists relations group, and we’re constantly talking and listening to the arts community. These requests or opportunities come up very organically. Typically, it happens every which way, where the artist approaches us, where we approach the artist about it, we’re building them guitars and people start asking on social media, “Why don’t you do a version of this guitar?”

MM: Taylor does not actively pursue converting players of other brands. We feel the guitar is a tool to create with and the artist should use the instrument they feel suits their current style. We often encounter players who have been strumming a Taylor guitar for years, loved the instrument, loved the customer service they received, and then found themselves on the charts. We also embrace up-and coming Taylor players and have had quite a few new faces perform on the Taylor stage at the NAMM show. Two of those “up and coming” musicians who have performed on the Taylor stage, Jason Mraz and Taylor Swift, currently have Taylor Signature Series guitars.

DB: I think all of the above. Prior to about 1995, if an artist called up we pretty well sent them away to a dealership. We don’t want to interfere with our dealer’s business. I think it was Stephen Stills whose guitar tech called to buy a guitar case and, in the process of that, they said that Stephen really wanted to do a signature model. So there is the artist actually putting it on the table for us. Then there was another situation where Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits who would always played other brands and always had things given to him. He was in his publicist’s office and his publicist was also our publicist and in the office he picked up an Eric Clapton Signature Guitar that we had done with Eric and he said, “Well, this is better than anything I’ve ever had in my life!” So the result was that we worked with him. And sometimes it’s a situation where we notice that an artist has played one of our specific guitars – someone like Hank Williams with a D-28 or Paul McCartney. They’re playing a Martin guitar all their life and we approach them with the idea of paying tribute to them in a mutually honoring fashion.

DW: It’s a combination of the three. Partnerships with our guitar artists are more often a matter of our approaching them, but never with a “hard sell;” there’s always an existing, mutual sense that the artist and we share a common vision, and that a partnership would result in some exceptional handiwork.

JS: As you could guess, there is no “one way” these relationships form. Sometimes we approach artists, sometimes they approach us. No matter how the relationship comes to be, in the end it is a marriage between artist and brand that should be mutually beneficial. We call our artists family and value every person who picks up a PRS as such.

For your company, what are some of the current artist signature series guitars that are generating the most interest?

JN: Well, in the last year we released an Edge Stratocaster and a bass from Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but this last Summer NAMM show, we actually released five signature models: the Brad Paisley Telecaster, Jimi Hendrix Monterey-inspired design, George Harrison Rosewood Telecaster, and Ed O’Brien Stratocaster, who’s in Radiohead.

MM: Arguably, no one in recent history has promoted guitar playing and its importance in songwriting than Taylor Swift. We have been fortunate to be associated with Taylor since the beginning of her career. From her signature Baby Taylor to her use of 600 Series and koa guitars during her concerts, she has given rise to a new generation of inspired strummers.

JS: The SE Mark Holcomb model that we introduced last year continues to be a hot guitar. Mark Holcomb, from the progressive metal band Periphery, has a very gear-centric fan base. He also does a phenomenal job building relationships with his fans through social media and dealer events. Anything with Mark Tremonti behind it is always strong, as well. Tremonti is just respected so thoroughly and has a wide range of fans. And, of course, the J-MOD 100 amplifier and Super Eagle guitars that we have released with John Mayer. Mayer is a phenomenal talent – it would be pretty hard to do anything with him that fails to get noticed!

MO: At Ibanez, we are very proud of all of our signature models and are very honored to have one of the strongest signature artist rosters in the industry. Some recent models that have been notable recently are the 30th Anniversary JEM models, celebrating our 30-year relationship with Steve Vai. We also recently celebrated our 40- year relationship with George Benson and his signature Ibanez GB10 guitar with several commemorative limited edition models.

BB: John Petrucci’s signature series continues to be a grand slam for Ernie Ball. I’ve read articles about how there aren’t anymore guitar heroes. I think John Petrucci (amongst others) is defying that notion – and not just domestically but on a global scale. His instrument transcends genres and has a wider appeal than most would guess when considering the artist and the unique design elements that go into the Majesty. St. Vincent has generated a ton of buzz for us and has brought in a new player that previously may have not considered Music Man as an option. Steve Lukather’s guitars continue to do very well and his gigs with Ringo Starr have only heightened his profile. Lastly, the Valentine signature model has been the real gem/sleeper in the line. I think we effectively designed a guitar that fit him perfectly, but meanwhile has both traditional and modern appointments that have appealed to a ton of players.

DW: One example is the Pacifica 1611MS, an electric guitar developed in collaboration with Mike Stern. It’s been refreshed with an exclusive Yamaha wood treatment and finish; IRA (Initial Response Acceleration) technology shakes off the stress often found in new guitars, and makes it extremely vibrant and responsive. The one-piece maple neck is oil-finished for better comfort. Each one comes with a certificate signed personally by Mike, to show that the guitar has been crafted exactly to his specifications.

Have you noticed any specific practices – marketing, display, promotion – which dealers with particular success in selling signature series guitars employ?

DW: The most obvious and basic must is making sure they’re in stock, and making all customers aware of the special piece you are displaying. If the manufacturer is offering special display materials, take full advantage of them and use them to promote the piece. Ensure that your sales staff knows and understands the guitar, what makes it special, and how this will benefit the customer. Being able to sell the story of why the signature instrument is special and how the artist gets their sound from the instrument is key.

JN: It’s really about the retailers who know who their customer is and what the players or their customers gravitate towards. In the last ten years, being able to utilize social media and connect and hashtag to engage fan clubs and fan pages, things like that really helps build a target towards those types of consumers. There are also many consumers who [like] signature models. It’s not always someone who is a superfan of that person’s particular body of work – it might be someone who just gravitates towards this instrument or the features that were chosen, which is one of the reasons why [in] a lot of our signature models, it’s something that’s a little bit more understated, where it’s less about copying someone and more about pulling some inspiration from someone and being able to do your own thing with it.

JS: Let the artist do the talking. Whether that means a clinic at the dealer’s store, well-produced video of the artist with the product, or even an image at the store display level with (or without) a quote, use the built-in authenticity and understanding that comes with signature models to establish trust with the customer. Also, understand the artist and the fan base. On one hand, sell the metal artist’s model to a metal fan – of course. On the other hand, don’t be boxed in to thinking that only fans of the artist or band will want the guitar or amplifier. Some of the best artist models are also just well designed, well thought out pieces of gear at the end of the day.

BB: Retailers that have the best websites and social media content usually do the best with signature guitars. High-end photography typically helps and the ability to digitally target fans of the artists they are promoting can work wonders. And, most importantly, the dealers who stock the full line that covers the entire signature line usually have the most success.

MM: One of the better marketing l ideas I have seen is the creation of an in-store display featuring the artist guitar with accessories (strap, capo, picks) the artist uses coupled with a collection of songbooks featuring the artist. The songbooks often have a familiar album cover or an image of the artist. This imagery helps pull the customer over to see all the gear associated with the artist.

Any recent or upcoming artist guitar models you’d like to discuss or preview?

MO: One product that is particularly exciting is the new Ibanez TCB1006 signature bass. This bass is based off of the iconic bass that Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner uses as his main instrument. I don’t think that there has ever been a bass so unique made available to the public before. It has been painstakingly recreated and will be available to the market shortly.

JN: I think I would leave that to the JMJ [Justin Meldal-Johnsen] Bass. What’s interesting about that is the Mustang bass was originally a student model, and he is an expect studio musician, he’s a Grammy-winning producer, music director, he’s in Nine Inch Nails, and toured with Beck for years. This is a highly designed instrument that is modeled on his vintage 1966. The other one would be the Ed O’Brien, which is coming out later in the fall as well. And again, it’s a Stratocaster but it’s built and modified to kind of achieve a dreamy, sound-scape-y textural nature like what Ed O’Brien does within the Radiohead world. I’m super excited about both of them.

JS: I can’t divulge the details of what is coming, but I can say with complete confidence that 2018 is going to be a great year for signature models and PRS. I am truly excited about the gear we have lined up!

BB: None at that moment, we will have some exciting news to share but it’s premature to do so now.

MM: At Taylor, we firmly believe every player is an artist. We support this by constantly refining and evolving all of our guitars to provide the best possible playing experience for the musician. This year we piloted a new concept, Artist’s Choice, with legendary guitarist John Petrucci. The Artist’s Choice instrument is a standard Taylor model, in John’s case a Taylor 916ce, which he uses without any modification. We will continue to explore this concept as we look to the future.

DW: We’re getting a lot of attention with our newest signature guitar, the LJ16BC Billy Corgan Jumbo Acoustic Guitar. Billy chose the LJ16R acoustic model from the Yamaha L Series as the foundation; at his request, we made a few sonic changes: a slight emphasis on the upper-mid harmonic frequencies creating a better listening experience for the audience, and a bit more detailing in the low-mid range to help round out the balance to complement his playing style. Other personalized Billy touches are brass bridge pins, TUSQ nut and saddle, GOTOH opengear tuners and a unique “Zero” head stock logo.

Are there any significant shifts in this particular market segment of late? Any notable trends as it pertains to signature series guitars?

BB: I don’t think there’s been any significant shifts, other than I think consumers are more open minded to try out signature instruments that are different and unique, as opposed to the ones that feature traditional shapes and designs.

MM: A major driver of artist model sales is the release of a new album and subsequent tour. Live concert revenue is up over 30 percent in 2017, so we should all expect a rise in artist model sales as we head towards the upcoming holiday season.

DW: The Billy Corgan LJ16BC is the first signature acoustic electric model Yamaha has produced in almost 15 years. Just released at this year’s Summer NAMM show, this limited- edition signature model has created a stir!

JS: The biggest trend I notice is the artist playing a larger role in the gear design. I think there was a time when artists largely played stock models – maybe a color or a pickup that was unique to them – and those became their signature models. Now, it is a much more collaborative design process… from the body shape of a guitar to pick up voicing to fonts on an amp panel, artists are truly investing themselves in the process and the products. There is also a shift in the marketing. With social media being what it is, the artist/fan connection is much more intimate now than in the past. It is becoming less about seeing yourself in a print ad in a guitar magazine you maybe grew up seeing your heroes in and more about being authentic and making millions of one-on-one connections.

JN: I think there are more models of more current bands and relevant bands and less of just mining a historic vein, which was just a trend of the past, and making sure that there’s a lot of genre and instrument platform diversity. We want to keep consumers and players engaged and inspired, and that’s kind of the real goal here.

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