Alex Skolnick: The Great Gibson

November 16, 2010
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Exhausted from a long recording session the previous day, mentally prepping for an upcoming tour the next week and granted one day of free time, there were places I’d rather be at 11am on a crisp Fall Thursday morning—relaxing at a quiet neighborhood coffee house; enjoying the sanctity of my Brooklyn apartment and its books, paintings, and vintage guitars; or going for a run in the park. Instead, I found myself packed into a crowded theater within the Hard Rock Cafe theme restaurant, right smack in the middle of Times Square. Why? Because it’s not every day one gets an e-mail invite that is written in bold ‘stencil’ font, has the feel of a classified military document and says this: 

GIBSON INVITES YOU TO WITNESS A REVOLUTION.

Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar Corp, will address members of the press, artists and fans, with an announcement that will change music forever.

This is more than a press conference. More than an event. THIS IS AN UPRISING!

Revolution? Uprising? Change music forever?

Those are some pretty strong words. The first words that came to my mind were, "Give me a f**king break." At the same time, I was curious. After all, Gibson is the "Coca-Cola"of guitar companies—the biggest in the world, the most recognizable brand name, and the one with arguably the most historical significance (although a case can be made for Fender Musical Instruments—the "Pepsi" of guitar companies). Surely Gibson wouldn’t make statements like this without having the goods to back them up. Right?

After checking in at the door, my manager and I grabbed one of the last available tables, joining the fray of music biz folk clamoring to see what the fuss was all about—journalists, music retailers, guitar enthusiasts and over in the right corner, posing for pictures, a famous Gibson endorsee and childhood hero of mine: original Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley. As random acquaintances began coming over to say hello, it felt as though the annual Winter NAMM convention was starting three months early.

Then the lights went down, and an announcer introduced Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, whom I’ll hereafter refer to as, Mr. J. Casually dressed in an official denim jacket and khakis, the balding Mr. J looked like a 50-something business type doing his best to look ‘hip.’ He appeared from behind the giant movie screen, hopped off the stage and walked the floor amongst the puzzled people in the front row. Taking his place in front of the left side of the stage, he looked up at the screen and, skipping all formalities, began speaking into the microphone as the slide show began: 1877—Thomas Edison invents the worlds first phonograph machine. (Cue to next image): 1894—Orville Gibson sells his first  instruments, launching Gibson Guitars.

Thus began the photographic retrospective of strategically chosen musical and technological milestone achievements, including the first power tubes, first Moog synthesizers, and more recently, the creation of Blue Tooth (sic) technology. The majority were Gibson guitar innovations including the early L series archtops, the first humbucking pickups (designed by Seth Lover for Gibson) and Les Paul’s initial solidbody prototypes. This chronological slide show effectively conveyed a message that what we were about to witness would be next in line—a "game changing" creation sure to live up to all the events depicted on that screen.

Where was he going with all this? Would Gibson deliver on their promise? Were we actually watching history in the making?

As the slide show ended, Mr. J began pacing back and forth, practically disappearing in the darkness. He would have been invisible had it not been for his height (Mr. J is well over six feet tall). The crowd quietly murmured above the awkward silence until, in the tone of an NBA coach riling up his team during half time, Mr. J launched into a diatribe about today’s guitars, including those of his own company, describing them all as inexcusably dated: They’re based on 1950’s technology, for god’s sake! Have we no shame? Where’s the spirit of all those legendary innovators? What about all the breakthroughs in computer and cell phone technology? Why not guitars?! Isn’t time we take instruments forward again, into the future? Hasn’t the time has come for—REVOLUTION?!!

That’s when things got a little weird ...

Mr. J stopped pacing for a moment as an assistant handed him a guitar. Like a magician showing the crowd his black magic hat, he held the instrument up for all to see—it looked like a classic red Gibson SG. Grabbing it by its neck, he raised it high above his head like an oversized hammer at a carnival. Then, in a tone reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, the part where he shouts out "You can’t handle the truth!" Mr. J. defiantly declared "This is the past!" 

I couldn’t help but wonder, "Is he gonna do what I think he...."

No sooner had this phrase formulated in my mind than Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitars, began smashing the red SG against the stage like a frenetic madman. Lacking the physical strength to break it in two, he tossed the wooden corpse as far as he could onto the side of the stage—it landed with a ringing thud. As the crowd gasped in a mix of bemusement, shock, and unmitigated horror, he clamored, "And THIS is the future!" The screen lifted...

Now, before we get into the Frankenstein-like creation that lay behind that screen, a few words about what we’d just witnessed: smashing a guitar is a contentious gesture under any circumstances. It’s one thing if we’re talking about the Clash, Paul Stanley of Kiss, or most famously, Pete Townshend of the Who—and even then, it’s debatable. While I, as a fan, have never had a problem with these undeniably great rock bands smashing instruments for their grand finale, I’ve known many musicians—clearly more socially and environmentally conscious than myself—who’ve been bothered by it. But the head of Gibson?! What kind of statement does that make? One would assume that the guitar he destroyed was one of Gibson’s lower end SG’s (let’s hope so), but in Mr. J’s hands, it was nonetheless representative of all that Gibson has ever stood for. 

As the makeshift curtain lifted towards the ceiling, a mist of smoke shrouded that which had just been unveiled: a petite, gleaming electric guitar with three shiny chrome pickups, four toggle switches and several knobs (one of which lit up). Bringing to mind what they thought the future would look like in the 1960’s, it resembled a gadget from the animated series The Jetsons—the size was perfect for the tiny hands of George Jetson’s son Elroy and with its feminine reddish/orange hue, better suited for a girl-band fronted by George’s teenage daughter, Judy. 

Mr. J (Juszkiewicz, not Jetson), then formally introduced us to this colorful concoction: the Gibson Firebird X.

No sooner had we been given our first glimpse of Gibson’s baby monster than the screen came back down and a new slide show started. This one featured close ups of the model—Mr. J’s new pride and joy—one of which he had just been handed. In one hand he awkwardly held the guitar, in the other hand, a microphone, which he’d often forget to speak into. Describing the Firebird X’s thousands of pick-up configurations, third party ‘apps,’ audio interface, wireless Bluetooth footswitch, robotic tuning pegs and more, he resembled a budget impersonation of Apple CEO Steve Jobs introducing the iPad.

According to Mr. J, every sound you could ever want, electric and acoustic, is right here in the ‘engine’ of this instrument. You want a 1970’s Les Paul Standard with a Seymour Duncan ’59 pickup? It’s here! You want a pre-CBS Strat with split humbuckers? It’s here! You want a Martin steel-string guitar with Fishman Transducer coils? It’s here! You won’t need those guitars anymore! And effects: Delay? Flange? Chorus? Phase? It’s all right here!

I couldn’t help but think of this TV commercial from my youth—an ad for Prego Spaghetti Sauce.  "Just as good as homemade" they said, with all the ingredients "Mom" would use. Parsley? Basil? Oregano? IT’S IN THERE!

Bulls**t. No jarred, canned or otherwise pre-packaged spaghetti sauce can ever capture the freshness, essence, and vitality of a lovingly homemade pasta sauce by a real Italian mom (or any good cook for that matter). And no great vintage guitar, Gibson, Fender, Martin or otherwise, can ever be replicated in the form of a digitalized, turbo-charged super-guitar. Sorry, not going to happen. Why? Because replication can only take place through processing—and the more processed something is, the more the original quality is lost, whether we’re talking guitar tone or spaghetti sauce.

These thoughts would unintentionally be proven right only moments later, during the Firebird X’s official product demo. As Mr. J barked out "We want you to join our revolution!" his words cueing the screen to rise yet again, the makeshift curtain revealed, standing in the mist... a chubby, middle aged guy from the factory. With his short dark hair, moustache, and miniscule Firebird X resting upon his belly, he made the guitar look like a plastic toy, as if it were a game controller for Rock Band or Guitar Hero. He proceeded to demo the instrument for us.

Now, I’ll be the first to describe this guy as a very good player—effortlessly gliding from hard rock to blues, to country and other styles. He seemed like a nice, down to earth, unpretentious fellow, an "average Joe." Unfortunately, his demo fell flat flat, for a couple reasons: First, it was underwhelming from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Let’s face it, image and style isn’t everything, but it is a part of the equation, especially when we’re talking about rock guitar. Gibson has plenty of great pro players on its roster (Slash, Zakk, Frampton etc..) that would have not only played well but added star power—where were they? With all due respect, it was a bit awkward to look upon that smoke-filled stage and see this supposed "guitar of the future" played by someone who barely moved and looked less like a performer and more like a plumber (or a portly waiter from Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy). Secondly and more importantly, everything we heard sounded as though it came from one of those tiny handheld micro-processer/headphone amps, like those made by Zoom and Korg. As an endorsee of one such product, the Korg Pandora PX5D, I find these units wonderful for certain applications, such as warming up, working out ideas and dressing room jams—but not for live performance or serious recording. While the convenience of these types of processers is amazing, the pre-packaged sounds do not come anywhere near the tone of genuine rigs created by state of the art guitars, real amps, and quality effects pedals and racks. From what I heard, neither does the Firebird X. 

One of the beauties of the electric guitar as a musical instrument is the pure, organic quality, despite the fact that the sound is amplified. When guitar tone is done well (Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, David Gilmour, Brian May, and Slash being among my personal favorites), our ears are still able to decipher the distinctions of the naked wood through the layers of tonal clothing. In this sense, electric guitar tone is like a fashion statement: ultimately a body (human or guitar), is the core, the solid foundation—"solidbody," if you will. Any layers, whether sonic or fabric, should serve the purpose of accentuating, not hiding, that which lies underneath. From that demonstration, I got no sense of how the Firebird X—the guitar itself—even sounded underneath its internal labyrinth of technology. 

As the guy from the factory wrapped up his product demo, one thing was certain: his boss’s claim that this guitar would render other guitars irrelevant, incite a revolution, and change music forever appeared to be steeped in delusion. For us in the audience, the giant box under the Christmas tree turned out to be a lump of coal, or rather, a lump of coils. And the next time Mr. J cries "wolf," we will be not running to the scene, but going about our day as planned.

Nonetheless the Firebird X seemed like it might be a fun little gadget to own—worth having not to replace any other guitars, not to play in concert and certainly not to represent the future of music, but as a potential tool, for jamming, songwriting, home recording, etc. Perhaps it would be worth it to pick one up at some point? 

Just then, Mr. J opened the floor to questions and someone asked him the inevitable: "How much is it?" The answer? $5,000. No thanks.

We got up and left. 

At this point, it’s time for a disclaimer: I endorse Heritage Guitars. Heritage builds fine handcrafted instruments in the original Gibson plant in Kalamazoo, MI, and is considered to be the David to Gibson’s Goliath. However, the history between these two companies is none of my business and has no impact on my assessment of the Firebird X. At the risk of sounding like those who say, "Some of my best friends are [insert ethnicity, creed etc...]," I proudly proclaim: some of my favorite guitars are Gibsons. When it comes to Gibson, I have no axe to grind (or more appropriately, no chisel to sharpen).

Leaving the Hard Rock, we walked back into the bustle of 42nd St, ready to get back to our lives and reflecting upon all we’d just witnessed. It was difficult not to feel a bit concerned for the future—not the future as embodied by the new Gibson Firebird X—but for the future of Gibson itself.

During these trying economic times, instead of developing exorbitant, overpriced, computerized guitars (not to mention tribute models that most potential buyers will never be able to afford, such as the $9,000 Randy Rhoads Tribute Les Paul), what Gibson needs to do is put its energy back into doing what it used to do: create timeless guitars, not futuristic ones, and offer them for prices that, if not low, are at least fair. Instead of flooding the racks of retail stores with watered-down versions of the classic models, such as the current crop of cheapened, hollowed-out Les Pauls mass produced on the assembly line (for the same prices previously designated to the hand-built models), these inferior instruments should be properly labeled and priced as "entry level" or "discount," not passed off to unsuspecting buyers as the real thing.

If there is any hope for Gibson's future, it lies not in its current bombastic leadership, not in its global mass production assembly line factories, but in the hands of those at the little Gibson Custom Shop, where a supremely talented group of master craftspeople continues to painstakingly and lovingly create instruments in the best tradition of Gibson. During a tour stop in Nashville earlier this year, I had the privilege to witness these men and women at work—it was like watching a team of modern day Michelangelos and Da Vincis in action. These anonymous, humble folks represent nothing less than the soul of the company. Their stellar creations should be priced like they used to be—worth spending a few more bucks on but not contingent on the buyer being in an upper tax-bracket. By bringing the costs of their genuine Custom Shop items back down to Earth, presenting (and pricing) the mass-produced assembly line models for what they really are and focusing on remaining "timeless," Gibson could help get more guitars in the hands of players at all levels, remain profitable and earn back something much more valuable than sales figures: it’s integrity.

Some final thoughts: The type of revolution brought about by the Gibson Les Paul could never have been announced or predicted in this manner. I don’t get the sense that the late great Les Paul (the man) introduced the Les Paul guitar for "revolution" as much as innovation. I can’t picture the warm, self-deprecating Les publically destroying another instrument to make his point. It was the sounds created on the Les Paul over a period of decades, and the musical movements associated with them, including Les’ own country and jazz mix in the '50s, Peter Greene’s electric blues in the '60s, Jimmy Page’s psychedelic textures in the '70s, Randy Rhoads' classically influenced metal in the '80s and Slash’s bluesy, thematic solos in the '90s which, in combination with the design of the Gibson Les Paul, would one day be looked back upon as revolutionary.

I could be wrong, but I just don’t see the Firebird X ever catching on with relevant artists and movements in such a way. Even if it were to catch on (which I think it won’t), my guess is that the Gibson Firebird X would take its place alongside the Keytar (strap on keyboard), a campy vision of the future that became dated before it even left the showroom.

 

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