How an iconic guitar company went broke

By Keith Pereña

From an early age, I took comfort in both the discordant, wailing sounds of an electric guitar and the sound of an acoustic, akin to the sounds of angels. Even now, whenever an iconic riff comes up on my music player — say, AC/DC’s Back in Black — I imitate Angus Young as he held his Gibson SG and played the introduction to the song. This interest in ‘air guitaring’ culminated in one video gaming fad during the early 2000’s: Guitar Hero.

At the height of its popularity, Guitar Hero allowed players like me to play rock standards using a digital avatar. My avatar back then was Guns ’n’ Roses’ very own guitarist, Slash, and he was armed with a cherry red Gibson ES-335, which in turn looked like the one Marty McFly used in the film Back to the Future. Seeing my digital rockstar play through Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll, I began to yearn for that cherry red 335. My first trip to a guitar shop grounded this dream because back then, the price of one cost as much as my school tuition.

But the Gibson magic never faded. Even now, as an adult working in Dubai, there is something about holding a Gibson. It was here when I first got the chance to play one.

Last month, Gibson filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. My heart fell when I heard the news. How did the guitar that has equipped all my heroes go under? The writing has now been on the wall for a long time. Musicians in the guitar community have criticised the brand for jacking up prices of even basic models, as well as introducing a ton of features that nobody asked for, such as ‘robot tuners’.

But one can’t really blame them for exploring new features. According to The Washington Post, the electric guitar industry is dying because of the lack of heroes. And in a world where every guitar does the same thing (i.e. make sound), they wanted to be different. This proved to be their downfall. The added tech further increased prices and kept the guitars from players. With fewer buyers, and the company in debt, the bankruptcy wasn’t entirely unforseen.

Once, at an open mic in Dubai, I had wanted to perform, but my guitar was undergoing maintenance. Enter Freddie, a friend who was also performing that night. As we chatted, I noticed he was holding a Gibson acoustic guitar. Seeing his Gibson reminded me of watching John Lennon play his J-160E while filming A Hard Day’s Night. We had a conversation. Freddie lent me his guitar.

As I put the guitar strap around my shoulders and rested the instrument on my chest, I smelt the wood, aged and gearing to tell a story. I admired the workmanship and the patina surrounding the brand’s name adorned on the headstock, sans robot tuners.

In the process of introducing me to the instrument, Freddie mentioned that he inherited the guitar from his grandpa. Hearing this, I strummed the guitar once and there it was: the sound of the acoustic permeated the restaurant. It transported me to a time when Freddie’s grandfather might have used the same guitar. As I played on, the guitar took me on a trip through time. At one point, as I made it through the first few bars of I Saw Her Standing There, I felt the power of John Lennon coursing through my fingers.

Suffice it to say, my first tryst with a Gibson guitar was more than just picking up an instrument and playing it. It was akin to being at arm’s length with my guitar heroes. That experience might have been the last. The brand will take a while to get its feet back on the ground, if at all, and I hope it does.

And when it does, Gibson gets back to its roots. A brand that has been the proponent of the guitar age since the 1900s, Gibson ought to strive to create more affordable guitars sans technology to usher in a new age of heroes. Why without tech? It reminds me of this video I saw about manual transmission automobiles. The clip said: “We drive a stick shift because we feel a more intimate experience with the machine, it becomes more than an object, it becomes family”. And that’s what guitars ought to be. Ditch the robot tuners. Let’s get a new generation to love not machines, but instruments that belong to us the way family does.

Keith has an affinity for archtop guitars, preferably red

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