A few people have asked me what I think should happen to Gibson if they can’t refinance their debt and they need to restructure. I used to write for Gibson, I own a Gibson, and everyone I worked with there was great.
But the brand is clearly off track. The overwhelming public perception is that Gibson’s management is pushing too hard towards the future at the expense of the past. It’s true that guitarists today don’t necessarily want exactly what players were buying in 1954. But too much deviation from what people expect of Gibson is a turn-off for many players too. Gibson’s current approach is a bit of a re-set from a few years ago when every Gibson USA model was shipping with robot tuners, but public missteps like the Firebird X (which was actually a really fun and great-playing guitar if you ever got a chance to play one) are still fresh in many players’ minds. Add to this Gibson’s quite public issues with imminently due financial arrangements, and it looks like something has to change.
So if Gibson can’t refinance that debt to its satisfaction and has to downsize in order to continue, where should they start?
To begin with, I think they should sell off non-guitar brands. So long, Philips. See ya, KRK. Toodle-oo, Baldwin. Take a walk, Cakewalk (actually, Cakewalk was just sold last week). Catch ya, TEAC. Onkyo, Slingerland, TASCAM, etc etc etc. It was a cool idea, but that debt won’t wait forever, and rightly or wrongly there’s a feeling in the guitar community that Gibson leadership is spreading itself too thin over too many brands. Guitarists tend to buy with their gut; if they feel queasy, that sale won’t be easy.
Sell Steinberger. Headless guitars are way in vogue right now but Gibson isn’t really doing anything particularly spectacular with the brand. Perhaps the sale of the division would net more than current guitar sales.
Sell Valley Arts Guitar. A once-great brand that has been buried at Gibson but could easily compete with the Suhrs and Andersons of the world in the right marketing hands. Remember when Steve Lukather and Larry Carlton played Valley Arts? They were highly desirable guitars in the late 80s and early 90s. But the brand doesn’t belong at Gibson.
I don’t think Gibson needs to sell Kramer, but I do think they need to put some serious effort into the brand. Kramer should be competing in the same space as Schecter, Charvel, Jackson, ESP, Ibanez and other brands like that. But they’re not. The website’s most recent news item is from 2015. The guitar and bass range has been stagnant for a long time.
Either sell Tobias or take it seriously. That brand could compete with Mike Lull, Mayones, Lakland, Sandberg, MTD of course… instead you never see them anywhere played by anyone any more. And the Tobias brand is under the Epiphone banner, which doesn’t help its prestige.
You own Maestro. Where is it? Oh yeah, you’re using the brand name on $65 acoustic guitars at Walmart instead of to sell thousands of fuzzboxes and Echoplexes to a hungry market. The players are there and they want the gear to be readily available. They’ll even pay more for it if it’s handmade and boutique.
Oh and hhey how come there are dozens of companies making resonator guitars but you own the Dobro and are just using it to make sub-$1000 models under Epiphone, as far as I can tell? With the current continued strength in country, Americana and folk, plus an underground blues scene that is stronger than folks realise until it sells out Bluesfest, supporting Dobro properly seems like a no-brainer.
So what about Gibson itself? What do I think they should do? Well, for starters, people do still want more or less traditional guitars from Gibson. It feels to me that Gibson USA should focus on making Les Paul Standards, Customs, ES-335s, SGs, Explorers… the bread and butter, maybe updated a little for neck strength and playability because it’s not 1958 any more, but not robot Transformer guitars that you need to charge and proprietary electronics that prevent you from swapping pickups.
But there is a place in the world for Gibson innovation. I truly believe Gibson has done some great things, especially when you pick up a Les Paul Standard HP with its compound radius fingerboard and versatile electronics. So take that spirit of adventure and create a new division. Maybe call it Gibson Modern, explore the futuristic stuff, but be realistic about demand from customers and expectations on dealers. Keep its R&D budget separate from Gibson USA so you’re not jacking up Les Paul Standard prices to pay for the development of LCD screens instead of fretboard inlays or whatever. Don’t lose the passion for progress, but don’t force the buyer into it. Again, guitarists buy with their gut, and they’ll accept small degrees of change at a time but not rapid swings.
As for Epiphone: keep on doing what you’re doing! Epiphone generally seems to be very strong. Maybe consider – gasp! – letting Epiphone use the Gibson headstock. It might be time. It might be the deciding factor between a buyer choosing an Epiphone Les Paul over an LTD Eclipse.
Also, review your social strategy: don’t be so scared to tag OEM partners or feature smaller artists in social posts. Artists and partners want to work together to help you and them sell stuff.
Finally, you know you have a quality control issue. I’ve seen guitars come out of the box at stores then go straight back because of some flaw. When you find a great Gibson, it’s unbeatable. Be as strict on QC as PRS and Yamaha, who are notoriously tough on themselves.
Anyway, whatever happens, I hope the folks I worked with at Gibson are okay, I hope the workers have stable jobs and I hope every Gibson that leaves the factory is as perfect to play and listen to as mine is. Henry Juszkiewicz has vision and ambition, but perhaps he needs to back his foot off the gas just a little bit and let the market tell him what Gibson needs to be, then adapt his ideas and drive to that, instead of trying to force market changes, as we saw with the ‘all robot tuners’ situation a few years ago.
And if Gibson ever need my writing skills again, I’d do it in a heartbeat and help to spread the word about what I hope is a very bright future, because if you’ve played a great Gibson, you would know that this company is still capable of making some of the greatest guitars in the world.