By Amanda O’Mahony
At one time, being situated in Hall E at the NAMM show might have been considered a near-punishment for new exhibitors, but this area of the show floor has definitely come a long way since then. This year at the NAMM show, not only were new exhibitors showcased there, but some relatively well-known companies were stationed in the bustling hall, as well. It was even heard on the floor that, if you wanted to know the future of the industry, a quick check of Hall E would be a good place to go. This certainly benefited the first-time exhibitors to whom The Retailer spoke.
Our annual “Class Of” story highlights some of the first-time NAMM exhibitors that were must-see companies at the show and that, in addition, help to discern where our industry is going. Although these companies are not currently “household” names, it is quite possible that they are the wave of the future and, thus, names you should get to know. If nothing else, these companies might very well give a positive outlook for innovative ideas in the music industry in general.
The Retailer spoke to Steve Jonas, musician and Co-Owner of Pete Schmidt Music Accessories, maker of a handcrafted accessory line that includes guitar and bass straps and gig bags. These accessories have three layers of premium leather, and are double-stitched for style and stability. The Owner, Pete himself, lives in South America, where he personally chooses the leather that goes into the products made by skilled artisans from the area. A product showcased at NAMM—the Pinnacle Series—comprises leather straps with .950 sterling silver inlay and semi-precious stones. The durable but lightweight cowhide gig bags offer leather handles, straps on the back and inserts on the interior of the case to protect strings and electronics. And with a price point lower than many competitors, the product was garnering quite a bit of attention. “People that are coming by and talking to us are extremely positive about the product, and are not sticker shocked. The rumors were that, because the economy is bad, you couldn’t sell anything but a $20 guitar strap. That just isn’t true,” stated Jonas.
A common concern for parents of musicians and music enthusiasts is protecting the hearing of their children. In comes Em’s 4 Kids, a company with U.S. distribution in Culver City CA, whose focus is just that. Director Daniel Gibney explained the drive behind the product: “We came up with the idea for kids’ earmuffs, because people say, ‘I have a baby that I want to take to a rehearsal or a gig. What can I use?’ As a drummer, I’ve damaged my hearing slightly. I don’t want my kids or anyone else’s to damage their hearing.” Em’s 4 Bubs are earmuffs designed for newborns to 18-month-old children. These use a headband that slips into a set of disconnected earmuffs, allowing the possibility for upgrade as the child grows. The headband design also disperses pressure evenly to protect babies’ soft heads. The larger size and original design, Em’s 4 Kids, is a child-size set of earmuffs for older children who cannot yet wear standard-size headphones. These earmuffs can be purchased in store or on their Web site.
Rocket Sticks were enhancing players’ techniques on the show floor, said Rad Brdar, President of Rocket Drumsticks. As a drummer, Brdar invented a drumstick last year that has a patented T-grip for maximum control. The lever offers absolute stick control, which ensures the sticks won’t fly out of a player’s hands. Brdar explained, “For performers that solo like crazy, it’s the best in the world, because you’ll never exhaust your hands. Your hands are always refreshed going from contraction to relaxation. When you turn your wrist over with the T-grip, you use the muscles this way. And, when you turn it over, you use the muscles on this side. When you go back and forth, they refresh and you regrip.” The product is made of American hickory from Washington State, which is then shipped to Shanghai, China, where the sticks are manufactured. With the catchphrase, “Rocket Sticks turn your wrists into rockets,” Rocket Sticks are ready to come back even stronger to next year’s NAMM show.
Although most newcomers were found in Hall E, a few, such as Origin Amps, a company based out of Chicago IL, were found in other halls. According to Bill Banks, the representative with whom The Retailer met at NAMM, this was the debut year for the Origin Amps line, but the company’s second year as a whole. And the experience was very positive. “The first year, we just tried to get our name out there. The second year is nice because people are looking for us and hoping to see us, so we wanted to have a presence. We had a press conference yesterday, which got some people interested. We also had some contacts made prior to the show that have all made appointments. We’re enthusiastic about that,” he said. They offer a full line of amps (minus bass), including acoustic amps, practice amps to full-size rigs, and a multi-purpose PA amp that charges on a battery pack for portability. One component of the series is the Blood Line, which offers classic form tube amps in sizes from five to 50, ranging in MSRP from $179 to $579, respectively.
Sometimes, innovative products are almost invisible to the naked eye, as was the case with Mesa AZ-based Pick Grips. This, however, works in favor of, rather than against, the product. The company’s product is a foam guitar pick holder with a special adhesive on the back that molds to your guitar. In speaking with Bac Tran, he explained, “For guitarists, it’s ideal. If you’re a stage performer, you can be away from your mic stand, where you’d normally have your picks, and can throw some out to fans and still have them right where you need them. Guitarists love it. They’re like, ‘Why didn’t anyone think of this before?’ It’s so simple, but it’s very useful.” It can be affixed to any clean, flat surface and then peeled off several times and can still be reused. To ease the minds of musicians, the holder won’t damage the instrument’s finish. It comes in a variety of shapes and colors, and can be custom imprinted with a band or company’s name, or a logo for promotional purposes. The product comes in singular pick holders or is offered in a longer strip holding five picks, which can be altered according to the player’s need.
As an instructor—English by day, guitar by night—Pasco Rowe, Owner of Chord Dice, knows all about reaching students with innovative ideas. “This is a great songwriting strategy built out of a necessity as an instructor. It works well in my private lessons in my studio, because the kids love to roll the dice. They get excited about it. They can’t play the F# diminished chord, but I’ve got an eight-year-old who knows where the F# is on the sixth string,” he explained. The Chord Dice is an eight-sided die with all seven chords of the diatonic major key scale, plus one side with a wild card. With a three-step process, anyone can write songs within seconds: just roll the dice, form the chords and play new songs. Without teaching an entire lesson on music theory, it allows students to learn the basics and write songs at the same time.
According to Grayson Murdock, EZ Guitar Trainer went out to Anaheim because the NAMM show is the largest music instrument industry expo, and the company wanted to get out, meet people and make connections. The product, he explained, is an easy grab for musicians and a helpful product for beginners just starting out. The EZ Guitar Trainer is a static-cling strip that you can slide underneath the strings, and wrap around the neck of the guitar. The strips attach to themselves, so there is no adhesive to damage the guitar. The strips have color-coded dots that show the player exactly where to place their fingers to play chords. With three different strips sets—the major, the minor and individual notes—the product can be used by players who just wish to play or by music teachers who want to delve a bit further into music theory with their students. The company explained that sets for country, rock and ukulele would be offered in the future.
Some new companies were even finding their products used by other manufacturers within the booths at the show. One such product, The Strumbuddy, draws on the conventional idea of a music stand and incorporates the latest technology to create a new idea in products. The Strumbuddy comes in two models: The Strumbuddy Troubadour and the Strumbuddy Sing-Along version. The product is magnetic and designed to hold a smartphone to the instrument, providing professionals with easy access to any app used in performing. The Troubadour attaches to the guitar headstock for professionals or recreational players, whereas the Sing-Along attaches to a microphone stand for professionals. As a guitar player, Tony Jurewicz recognized the need and opportunity for such a product. He said, “The industry is coming back. I’m seeing more new product on the shelves. Over the last couple of years, I noticed the same amps, basses and guitars on the shelves, but, now, I see some new product there. I realized the time to present the product was now.”
Another company The Retailer visited while on the floor was IsoAcoustics, a speaker accessories company out of Canada.
At 6.0”Wx7.5”D, the ISO-L8R155 is specifically designed for all four- to seven-inch near-field studio monitors. The stands have a height of up to nine inches to raise and tilt high-frequency tweeters to ear level. These desktop and bookshelf stands are designed for pro audio monitors weighing less than 30lb., are offered in tubing lengths of three inches and eight inches, and feature eight isolators within the unit itself. The speakers float in “free space,” as the stands decouple low frequency vibrations from the supporting surfaces, unlike traditional speaker stands. The company developed this design believing sound quality is critically important. President Dave Morrison explained, “The listener’s ears are typically 20 inches above a desktop surface. So, when using smaller speakers, the taller tubes are important. To be able to tilt it, and angle it up and down, you can adjust it so the tweeter is at ear level. With this patented isolation system, the bass frequencies are decoupled and the overall sound quality is improved.”
With so much technology continuing to be released constantly, it is only logical that these technologies would be incorporated into music products. The company gPad Music employs these latest developments with its product. This inventive design enables a user to take a musical instrument app from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch out of the lap or palm and put it into the body of a real instrument. The models on display at NAMM were the electric guitar and the ukulele, but the company said there are already more designs in production. And, according to Dennis McKee, the products were already receiving a lot of buzz. “Our response has been fabulous. We have had the opportunity to be interviewed many times at this show. We have had four or five on-camera interviews, one with our local television station that aired yesterday morning. We did a spot yesterday for NAMM as one of the new innovative products they wanted to showcase,” he enthused.
What one does not expect when speaking to a new company is that a familiar name is behind it, but that is exactly the case with GJ2 Guitars, made in the U.S.A. by Grover Jackson. As is obvious from the company’s name, all the guitars are handmade by legendary guitar craftsman Grover Jackson with a small team in Laguna Hills CA. The Arete platform, meaning excellence in its native Greek, share a common characteristic: they’re all neck-through-body guitars. The company makes its own pickups, knobs, pickup surrounds and anything else it can for the guitars for an experience exclusive to the company. The guitar with the largest price point offers a solid rosewood body and neck with a titanium Floyd Rose tremolo. CEO Jon Gold explained just how important the company considers it to be to give a special experience to each individual customer. “We’re putting together a package that, if someone gets one of our guitars, they’re getting an experience. We’re charging premium prices for premium products. Just the fact that people can get a guitar made by Grover Jackson is an experience in itself.”
One of the main draws for attendees is the spectrum of new product, and this goes for dealers and representatives as well as for performers using the equipment. So, it is no surprise that musicians were drawn to the Knaggs Guitars booth during NAMM. The Knaggs Guitar lineup features several separate models: the Chesapeake series electrics “Choptank” and “Severn,” the Influence series electrics “Kenai,” “Chena” and “Keya,” and the Quebec series acoustic “Kipawa.” The Chesapeake electrics come with a 25.5-inch scale length, rock maple neck, and rosewood or maple fingerboards. Influence series models feature a 24.75-inch scale length, three-on-a-side headstocks, carved maple tops on mahogany bodies and a proprietary bridge design, driving the sound into the center of the body and, thus, creating a response and harmonics only the player can feel. These upscale guitars adapt classic design elements, but with a modern, luxury twist for the most consummate performer; and, they feature proprietary bridge designs. Peter Wolf, Co-Owner, explained the response they received by attending: “It was our first time exhibiting, so we’ve been meeting with friends and peers from all over the world. We’ve seen a lot of dealers, distributors and artists. There’s a great interest in our instruments, and it’s been very good so far.”
These companies are just a smattering of the newest exhibitors this year at NAMM. According to nearly all accounts, 2012 was even more successful than 2011 was. Hopefully, when class is back in session in 2013, these companies will be in even bigger and brighter booths, and there will be a fresh onslaught of new products and technologies about which musicians and music lovers can be excited.