The Boutique Guitar Showcase
The 2020 NAMM Show welcomes the return of the Boutique Guitar Showcase (BGS), a dedicated exhibit area celebrating the art of luthiery. NAMM sat down with the founder and curator of the BGS, Jamie Gale, to discuss the future of the showcase and the guitar in general:
As we enter the fourth year of the BGS, what can attendees expect?
Inspiration! The BGS is about contributing to the conversation of the guitar. Each guitar maker invited to the showcase is contributing to the conversation of the guitar uniquely. It may be through innovation, or they may be saying something that’s been said before from a unique point of view. There will be legendary guitar makers who have had broad influence over the industry and others showing at NAMM for the very first time. We are expanding the conversation to include other creative disciplines that intersect with the guitar as well. This year, in addition to the art installations the BGS is known for, we will have installations from architects as well. This provides the opportunity to explore the conversation of our craft and industry's evolution from a well-respected and globally relevant perspective.
From your perspective, what does the term showcase mean, what opportunity does it provide attendees?
To showcase is to highlight or shine the light on something worthy of conversation. Attendees can expect to find inspiration in the BGS. From the very first NAMM BGS in 2017, attendees came to this space and told me that they were inspired. Industry veterans who have “seen it all” come to the BGS and tell me that this is why they got into the industry and that they feel like they did when they first started. Motivation through inspiration. Isn’t that why we’re all here? The arts need to be inspiring, as does the industry that surrounds them. Beyond the excitement, my curation process also involves finding viable products that can be a part of the other businesses' success. After all, this is a trade show. BGS guitars need to be valuable to the musicians, retailers, press, etc. who attend the show looking to do business. There is a real opportunity here.
Who should attend the VIP preview?
The VIP preview is for retailers who are looking for boutique guitars to add to their inventory. The boutique guitar industry thrives on limited access. They must be hard to get. Their customers want guitars that their friends do not have. Savvy Boutique Guitar retailers try to arrive early and get these unique things ahead of the competition. That’s why we do a VIP preview one hour before the show officially opens. It is by private invitation, but qualified retailers can be added to this exclusive list by contacting me through their NAMM representative.
The BGS includes art displays; can you tell us about how these add to the experience?
These displays are physical examples of the guitar as an icon of contemporary culture that has exceeded the bounds of its utility. So, they must be larger than the guitar itself, illustrating in a physical way that the guitar is more than a tool to make music. The guitar is used in advertising media to invoke feelings that have nothing to do with the guitar as an instrument. It’s the guitar’s iconic status and the many things it represents that make it useful as a visual communication tool. We see it used to sell anything from cars to children’s clothing. I even noticed a guitar in the corner of an ad for a tea made from dried mushrooms…why? How might this help sell these non-musical items? The guitar is used here to connect to us on a deeper level. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
While the luthier and fashion community may seem disparate, there are many connections. Can you talk a bit about some of the intersections?
Well, the easy answer is style. Since the beginning of the folk movements now known as rock & country, we’ve seen singers wearing guitars. I don’t mean playing guitar, I mean wearing. Many of the most famous singers in history wore a guitar that was not mic’d or amplified in any way. It was a fashion accessory. The guitar is cool. Guitar players inspire fashion designers, and fashion designers inspire guitar players. Regardless of the musical capacity of a guitar, people will not play it if it doesn’t look right. The same is with fashion. How many times have you seen someone wear something that is simply a bad choice for the current weather conditions, just so they could project their desired fashion statement? Luthiers have to deal with these issues all the time. I have known many successful guitar makers who have had key endorsing artists tell them that their new job requires a different looking instrument. The musician’s job is directly connected to the fashion statement the band or lead artist wants to project. Sometimes this means that a guitar maker must conform to the desired image, while still trying to honor what the artist liked about their instruments in the first place. Of course, conformity is not the only variable. The opposite situation can be found when an artist wishes to project a unique visual statement and the guitar maker is tasked with making it musical. Perhaps the most recognizable example might be when Prince changed his name to a symbol. He commissioned a guitar maker to make this symbol into a working guitar. Other examples can be found with ZZ Top, Bootsy Collins, Matt Bellamy and other artists who wish to stand out from the crowd, rather than conform to expectations.
You are working on a new book, The Unwritten Future of the Guitar. Can you please tell us about this project and how it relates to the BGS series?
As a curator, I often think of the connections between things. The “why” and how they came to be. This, of course, leads to observations and hopefully a deeper understanding of the subject matter. I began to see the guitar in movements and observed just how often the guitar has changed and evolved. Somehow there is a feeling that the guitar is a certain way, attached to tradition and that it has somehow cemented into something unchangeable. This thinking has provoked controversial articles like the one printed in the Washington Post about the death of the electric guitar and a feeling within some that the industry is in decline. But, I don’t see it this way. The guitar has constantly evolved because it’s the people’s instrument and people constantly evolve—every generation since Torres in 1850 has had their guitar. There are more than ten unique guitar variations that are still produced today from the first 100 years of the modern guitar. It hasn’t stopped and I don’t think it ever will. There are peaks and declines, but each one lives on to some extent. The peculiar thing is that the guitar makers intended purpose for their design is often not accepted. Iconic designs like the National Resophonic guitar and Gibson's Les Paul were never really accepted for their intended purpose. It was the people/artists who decided what they would be. This is what inspired the working title of “The Un-written Future of the Guitar.” And, I try to represent these many different ideas and movements within the BGS. Anyone should be able to come into the BGS and find something they relate to. The people’s ideas live here, in the people’s instrument.
Tell us about what you are doing with the Parsons New School in NY?
An open conversation really. This is a world-renowned school for forward-thinking. The Boutique Guitar Showcase enTour will visit the New School in the fall of 2020. I hope that this fertile environment will foster fresh thinking within our industry. I hope that we will inspire them and they will inspire us. Creativity unleashed is my ultimate hope for this collaboration.
Beyond The NAMM Show, you have launched a series of showcases across the world, collaborating with many NAMM members (including Sweetwater, D’Addario, and others) in the process. Please tell us more about these collaborations.
In the very first year of the NAMM BGS, retailers came to me and said “Jamie, this is inspiring. We haven’t felt this inspired in a long time. Can you help us get this feeling in our store?” I dismissed it the first time, thinking that it was not practical to invite 30 guitar makers and their guitars to a retail store. The requests came again and again, so I set out to find a solution. In the end, it was decided that a small team and I could travel with a maximum of 50 guitars to retail stores. The first trial tour was seven events hosted by top Guitar retailers like Rudy’s Music in NYC, Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, The Guitar Sanctuary in Dallas and others. It was a success! So, the guitar makers asked if we could do more. By the end of the first year, we had done 21 events in 8 countries. We have just completed our third year of tours, which consisted of 25 events in 10 countries, and in 2020, we are expanding to Japan as well. Showing that there are so many amazing guitars being made all over the world is evidence of a movement and a real market. This has inspired retailers and their customers to invest further in the Boutique Guitar Market. Many leading retailers have told me that the BGS has given them the confidence to invest in the boutique guitar market and that they’re seeing success in their choice. We have also been approached by several top companies within our industry to partner in this movement, such as D’Addario, TKL, Seymour Duncan, Levy’s and BAM France. These companies have all sponsored the BGS enTour in 2019 and wish to develop their boutique guitar business further for the future. A key fundamental of the BGS is that we are stronger together. So, we continue to gather like-minded partners to accomplish things that we could not do individually. This all started with NAMM making an effort to bring these talented guitar makers into the vision, and The NAMM Show continues to be the place where we meet more and more like-minded partners. It’s my favorite time of year.