About the “Playing Authentic” Gibson Campaign

I was just listening to Mike at 424 Recording (awesome channel about analog music recording gear and creative life in general – check it out) get pissed off at Gibson on the life stream. I thought about commenting, I thought about writing him (we are pen pals and I haven’t written him in a while) but in the end I decided to blog.

Here’s the backstory. Gibson recently released a video (I am not gonna link it) with some typical marketing bullshit about “playing authentic”. This video could have been some standard marketing crap we’d expect from Gibson. But near the end the video got weird. It started talking about how they are going to go after everyone copying their intellectual property, warning people who tape over the head stock on TV that such moves will not get them out of trademark infringement. They made it clear they are going after everyone from flat out illegal Chibson copies to mass manufactured Gibson looking cheapos to boutique builders who even think about making a guitar resembling Gibson. A weird video, if I have ever seen one. And on the heel of this, now Gibson is suing Dean guitars for trademark infringements. (And I am sure they are not the last ones.) Needless to say, the whole Internet quickly lost their shit, because it is the Internet. Gibson took the video down but it lived on like every teenage girl’s bathroom selfie lives on, because it is the Internet.

So let’s get my biases out of the way. I have tried to love Gibson since high school and I have failed. While I love the sound of Les Pauls and SGs, I never liked to play them. Today, I have an Epiphone Les Paul that I got because it came with my University logo on it. It is complete garbage but looks cool on the wall. Figure it is a better thing to get than a class ring. (Once I will finally have an office I will not have to move out of in a year or two, I may move it in there permanently.) A while back I picked up an SG (with the highly innovative and universally hated robot tuners) that was priced nicely. I didn’t even get to play it yet. It is sitting in the US (so can’t comment on this one but I was willing to spend money on it). I got it for quick changes between open tunings (something I always wanted to experiment with) and the mini humbuckers which I never really got to experience yet first hand. I also have a birth year The Paul which is certainly growing on me, but is far from the top guitars I reach for when I want to grab a guitar and play (though it may be #2 or 3). This said, my main instrument now is the mandolin and you cannot find a mandolin player who does not admire Gibson’s “authentic” 1922-1924 Lloyd Loar designs. Every bluegrass mandolin player plays a copy of such an instrument. We all cried when Charlie Derrington died who put Bill Monroe’s Loar’s back together when someone decided to break into his house and go at them with a fireplace poker. Ironically, directly as a result of Charlie’s death, I had the honor of holding one of the original ones in my hand (the one owned by Andy Owens). He said Gilchrist’s wait time is too long and since Charlie died he only trusts the Czech luthier Ondrej Holoubek to work on the mandolin. So he brought it to Europe and my friend and I decided it was worth driving to the next country to play the thing (even if it was just for 10 minutes at the airport). It is a truly magical instrument.

Finally, in the world of acoustic guitars I was always a Martin guy. But back in the late 1990’s my “uncle” from the American host family I had picked up an old Gibson guitar. Just found it somewhere through a friend. Wanted to learn how to play it. That guitar was so magical, it is difficult to describe. I didn’t even know what it was but even a decade later I was still dreaming of that sound, feel and connection I had with the instrument. That guitar turned out to be lower end model from the early 1930s. And I am trusted with it by the family to look after it until someone in the next generation can play it. Needless to say after this, it is an instrument I have a very special connection with. I had it nicely restored structurally and it plays like a dream today.

So, despite being a Fender and Martin guy, I also have a very special connection with Gibson instruments and respect for their history. That marketing bullshit about “playing authentic” actually resonates with me. But I also think people need to find their instruments wherever it comes from. I am sure Gibson would be unhappy to see my main electric guitar that is shaped as a Les Paul Junior (though from the neck pickup down it looks more like a Tele). And this guitar is the opposite of authentic. All those play marks came stock from the manufacturing bench. #relic #not authentic But it is the best guitar I have ever played.

And my Kentucky mandolin from the workbench of Eiichi Sumi is about as close anyone can get to ripping off an instrument, in this case, a 1922-24 Gibson F5 mandolin. Still, I always connected with it better than my friend’s authentic Gibson F5 Fern from the same general era as my Kentucky.

Gibson is going through rough times. They declared bankruptcy recently but it seems they are coming out of it OK. I worry about what the vulture capitalists will do to the company. Some suggested this move to sue everyone is their doing. This said, if you look into what happened to Gibson that got them in financial trouble, it is not their guitar business. Guitar business, despite some serious mishaps best represented by the robot tuners coming standard a few years back, is doing just fine. The previous CEO wanted to turn Gibson into a comprehensive music brand along the lines of Apple. They bought up brands who manufacture everything music related, some of which weren’t exactly the products of the future (like cassette and record players). Also, as evidenced by the 424 Recording live chat, people often forget that Gibson is a company that manufactures solely in the United States. Sure, they own Epiphone, that is made overseas but Gibson is made in the US. I hear complaints about Gibson’s prices but that has to be put into the context of a made in USA product. Earlier this year I got to visit Thomann and I played a single P90 double cutaway satin finish guitar that sell for $799. It was a great feeling and playing guitar if I’ve ever seen one. Almost took it home. Nothing fancy, one pickup, two knobs, pedestrian finish, nice looking mahogany though, but shown me another Made in USA instrument for $799. A few years back they managed to make guitars for even less ($400 street?), but admittedly, that was complete garbage. But they were trying and that is more than I can say for other guitar companies. Now do I think that the Chinese make worse guitars? Not necessarily. They have gotten very good. I envy the kids who pick up a cheap instrument today because they are excellent instruments. Do I think Gibson’s higher end line are overpriced? Sure. Do I think you can get better (and possibly cheaper), boutique alternatives that are made in the developed Western world? Absolutely. (I have one myself as my main instrument. But if you do this, watch for resale value as well.) But there is something about the will to keep the manufacturing jobs in the US, try to maintain quality while at it that I also respect. In the grand scheme of things Gibson is doing the right thing here and I admire that. And, as far as their guitar business is concerned, they are making it. The rest of the stupid crap was what got them into trouble. I hope this current reorganization will not drive them to Indonesia because it would be a shame to see a Gibson guitar with Made in Indonesia stamped on the body.

In the end, I guess, what I am saying is that, I am not willing to shit on Gibson for their “playing authentic” crusade. And I am rooting for them to succeed as a company. And I really hope they are not trying to get there by suing everyone. In fact, I really hope that this whole thing was nothing more than a publicity stunt and maybe an action to punish one company who has been bothering them for a long time. But I hope it ends there. If it was a publicity stunt, it was brilliant at that. Six months from now nobody will remember anything of all this shit that just hit the fan when someone at Gibson did something the Internet though was wrong. But “playing authentic” will be a slogan we will all remember and associate with Gibson. And while Gibson is trying to make it manufacturing in the US while keeping their prices below everyone else’s who haven’t bailed overseas yet (seriously, is there anyone left? Maybe Deering Banjos but I can’t even think of another – I don’t think Martin makes a sub $1000 instrument, if they do it is proportionally less than Gibson for sure), that is a slogan I have absolutely no problem with. They should own it because it is really theirs (and sure, also Fender’s) to own as far as the electric guitar (but also the contemporary bluegrass mandolin) is concerned.