Retailers – Pick Up the Pace!
In our last issue (July), MMR explored the opportunities presented – for both retailers and consumers – by replacement guitar cabinet speakers. It was noted that the tonal variations and potential for “customizing” that speakers offer are today being recognized in much the same manner which lead aftermarket pickups to first become a hot commodity back in the ‘70s. With that in mind, we decided to take the pulse of the pickup market in 2010 – what’s new, what’s popular, what’s the appeal for both MI storeowners and end-users?
Perhaps the biggest lesson to be taken away from both of these reports is the importance of creating a consumer who is, by nature, bound to represent repeat business. If you can successfully “hook” a musician on the possibilities (and downright fun) available through modifying their gear and individualizing their instruments and rigs, you’ve opened up a can of worms that is likely to stay open for a long while. The kid who successfully swaps out the factory issue pickup on his entry level solidbody electric isn’t likely to stop there – expect that same customer to come back, over and over again, for: pickguards, machine heads and tuning machines, saddles, nuts, more pickups, et cetera.
So the upsides seem inarguable, especially in an econimic climate in which a musician is much more likely to feel comfortable about multiple mid- and small-level purchases, dollar-wise, than big-ticket commitments, such as an entirely new instrument. How to really capitalize on this potential, then? Sure, the first step would be to make sure you actually have the product available, in-store. But to really make an impact, it takes more than just plopping a few pickups in a counter display. If you, or someone on your staff, can be knowledgeable enough to answer the nuts-and-bolts questions a customer may have about pickups, in general, or effectively outline the differences between specific options, it makes a world of difference. But going even further helps create that “lifer,” and guides that consumer into a culture which encourages and celebrates modification (and, consequently, more sales for you).
Don’t just sell that kid a pickup for his entry-level solidbody – help him install it, tell him where to buy a soldering iron and other essential tools, show him the basics involved in the process. Maybe drop a few hints about all the other gear you have in stock right now that he might be interested in that would further individualize his instrument. And when that same kid comes in, a year later, asking about refinishing guitars, have some knowledge about nitro and poly finishes and be able to offer some leads as to where to go to get supplies. To make the most of this potential repeat business, become more than just the store that carries the product – be a mentor, a partner, a true resource.
Below are some observations and feedback from some of the key names in pickup design and manufacture today.
MMR: What trends have you been noticing in the pickup market?
Frank Falbo: As in most industries right now, the trend is: value. Most guitar manufacturers have found ways to push value farther than ever, and pickups are no exception. For a company committed to USA manufacturing, the challenges are even greater. The average cost of a US-made replacement pickup has under-indexed the rate of inflation by 66 percent. Luckily for us, process and quality improvements have always been a priority, so many of the efficiencies we enjoy today were initiated during the high growth time of 2006-08. Now we reap the rewards, rather than playing catch up, or cutting corners, which is not in our vocabulary.
That job is never “done,” but we’ve been able to remain competitive, even with companies marketing Asian-made pickups for less, while still maintaining the integrity of our brand as more high cost boutique winders enter the field.
Billy Pirie: The trend in the market is that not everybody is out there spending tons of money on big-time products and such, however the boutique market is doing really well. Folks are looking for something that’s very, very personal, but not necessarily super expensive. Lower priced goods that are branded with strong names associated with them are seeing a lift in the marketplace. Fender’s enjoying that as well. We’re noticing a good momentum in the pickup marketplace. Certain SKUs that are staples – the original P-Bass pickup, for example – are doing real well.
Scott Wunschel: We are seeing a growing demand for 7- and 8-string pickups from artists and consumers. We have a very good selection of 7- and 8-string pickups now and see the potential for a few more in the near future. In fact, we are working with an internationally known guitar player on a brand new 7-string model for his signature guitar. This came out of a meeting at the Winter NAMM Show this year, so there is a current demand.
Pekka Rintala: Compared to previous years, more guitars sold in stores have pickups installed at the factory, so the OEM sales are bigger and aftermarket sales are not as big as they used to be. There are still some high-end brands that prefer not to install pickups; they will leave that option for the customer after they buy the guitar. There are also many players who will buy a guitar and decide to upgrade the pickups after playing it for some time.
Jason Lollar: Players seem to be moving back towards the “classic” tones. Less gain, more note clarity. Obviously, that’s a generalization, but we get far more requests for pickups that are not really “hot.” You can find so many great, vintage-style amps these days… I think many players are re-discovering the beauty of a responsive amp and a clear, dynamic pickup. These are tones we’ve always built towards… It’s what I prefer to hear.
Kent Armstrong: Players are becoming more discerning and tone has trumped raw power as players’ tastes have evolved. Note articulation/separation, touch sensitivity, and smooth response are more in demand with less attention to distortion. The trend toward smaller, low powered amplifiers has also helped bring our pickups’ tonal qualities to the forefront. Players also like the no-mod necessary swaps. Retrofit pickups like our P-90 in humbucker size, Filtertron in humbucker size, and humbuckers in single coil configuration are attractive options for those who want to change the sound of their instrument without making major modifications.
Rod Rose: Players are looking for top quality pickups at more affordable prices. Most low priced instruments that are sold in stores are equipped with offshore electronics and they don’t cut the mustard. Dealers all over the world are telling us that they are swapping these pickups for our handmade pickups and the customer walks away very happy.
Noticing this trend a few years back, we redesigned some of our pickups and jack assemblies to make them easier to manufacture and launched our Player Series of pickups. With this new series, musicians and players are getting the same great sound from our pickups that they always have in the past, and with a wide array of natural sounding pickups retailing under $100, they are also getting great value. Interestingly, as well, it seems that more country and bluegrass players are starting to plug in and use our pickups, as they find that most venues are so loud that they can’t hear themselves play if they just use a mic.
Chris DeMaria: Things are definitely going the way of simpler, more elegantly designed systems that are non-intrusive, ergonomic, and intuitive. A lot of customers are willing to sacrifice some features for a system that is more elegant and discreet. Of course, we still want to offer the best in sound, performance, and features, so we developed the new F-1 Aura Series for Martin, which has been wildly popular.
Every once in a while something new and interesting comes along – usually pickup systems that combine multiple sources or attach somewhere differently, but customers – especially performing artists – still come back to the piezo-style undersaddle pickup systems. In demanding performance situations, especially at high volumes, the piezo undersaddle bridge pickup remains the most dependable, consistent and dynamic solution out there.
MMR: What technological innovations do you feel have had – or will soon have – significant impact re: pickups?
Pirie: That’s an interesting topic, because in some respects we’re still using essentially the same technology that was in place decades and decades ago. You can say, “These pickups are space-age!” but are we talking the Mercury Rocket or the Space Shuttle? You find a vintage PAF or a vintage pickup out of a ’54 and there’s something magical about it. Then again, we do have some truly technologically advanced pickups. I am seeing some companies out there that are doing more and more with active circuits that don’t hit the front of the amp so hard. It’s more about retaining that absolute vintage vibe. With active pickups you can get around some of the problems of longer cables or extensive pedal-boards. Some of the newer pickups retain that nice passive dynamic range, but boost the signal without affecting the tone.
Wunschel: Solderless installation. Rob Turner, our founder and president, developed our Solderless Install System™ for our active product and accessories that is revolutionary. It makes the process of installing pickups a less intimidating and time consuming process for players, techs, luthiers, and guitar manufactures. Rob took his Quik-Connect ™ system one step further by incorporating a main power-bus that pickups, pots, and switches connect into and then a cable slides on to the output jack. There are far too many different types of guitars and electronic configurations in guitars to simply assume one size fits all, so soldered components are still available on request. We see other pickup companies following our lead. Giving more control to the player is the future of pickup installation.
Lollar: Nothing really stands out. I’ve seen experiments with optical stuff, digital modeling, and custom switching… lots of ideas. In the end, it has to sound right. For the most part, players know what they want to hear. All the technology in the world won’t help if they can’t get the tones they’re after.
Rose: We have very recently released a new Archtop Guitar Pickup, the AT-04. We found that most archtop guitar pickups shared similar design issues: they were hard to fit to the instrument, difficult to cut down if one had to match the required lower height of some older archtop instruments, and in many cases the pickups were not all that pleasant to listen to. With the new design of the AT-04, we’ve basically separated the two post areas of the lower part of the bridge from each other by employing a much more resilient and flexible link between them. The upper saddle of the bridge now much more easily transmits string vibration down through the saddle to the pickup sensor than it was able to previously which gives us a better sounding pickup (and also makes an instrument sound better acoustically as well). The pickup sensor, which adheres to the underside of the saddle, is removable so that the saddle may be modified as required after which the sensor is easily reinstalled.
A short while ago we introduced our latest generation of endpin jack preamp, the Artist II. This unit is significant in that it is the only endpin jack preamp in the world that can run from a 9-volt battery on board the instrument or be run from phantom power (of up to 48 volts D.C.) supplied from a PA system or amp. The Artist II’s are all 2-channel preamps with trim pots on the circuit board for setting maximum gain per channel and the preamps may be outfitted with thumbwheel volume controls for each channel.
DeMaria: When all is said and done, what Fishman is really striving for is transparency in tone. The best use of digital technology, particularly in preamps, is to have the instrument sound as good live as it does in your living room or studio. Our focus has been to refine our pickup technology so that it delivers the best results with our Aura Acoustic Imaging technology. When it comes to innovation in preamps, it’s not about re-creating the voice of what we think an acoustic instrument should sound like, but about getting that instrument to sound natural and transparent in every performance situation.
Armstrong: We’ve been very successful in coming up with new ways to cancel hum in vintage pickup designs without getting away from the classic tone. I’m currently pioneering new processes that allow winding pickup coils without using a conventional bobbin and addressing the traditional magnet structure in others designs. We don’t want to give up any trade secrets but users will be pleasantly surprised at the tone that can be achieved.
Rintala: There are some new materials and new applications on old materials that have been used in the last few years to improve the sound of the instrument. There have been some developments on the pickup itself and also the electronics on the preamp are more sophisticated than just few years ago. Instead of using one sound source, combinations are used to get more natural sound, definition and nuances of the instrument.
Falbo: We’ve had quite a few in recent times. The Blackouts are lower noise/higher headroom active pickups made for today’s amps and tones. Significant impact is an understatement. They have been a game-changer. P-Rails quickly became a top seller, which says a lot about the consumer’s ability to embrace new concepts, but I believe a lot of that is rooted in the authenticity of the design. Rather than “voicing like” or “modeling” a P90, there is a real P90 inside there. Our new Stack Plus designs are super low noise; each one is hand-calibrated to perfection. The patented design allows us to wind the top coil strictly for tone. That’s been quite freeing.
Category-wide there have been significant advances in solderless installation, some good, and some proprietary. I think everyone would agree that solder is best. It’s our challenge to produce something simple and reliable in spite of that. Every solderless junction introduces its own failure percentage. The more you have on one single instrument, the higher the risk for failure.
MMR: What types of product have been most successful of late?
Falbo: The artist pickups are turning out to be very successful right now, and I think that’s partly due to the integrity of it. We don’t just put someone’s name on an existing product. These products are truly dialed in to deliver the artist that last five percent difference that makes things perfect.
Rintala: On OEM level our preamps with built-in tuner have been very successful. We have launched two different style preamp systems, A and T series that both have a tuner built in.
Our single and dual input endpin preamps, B-Band A1.2 and A2.2 have been the biggest sellers on aftermarket sales. They require minimal modification to the guitar so they are easy to install and you don’t need to cut into your guitar to install one of them. The preamp, battery and other parts are attached by Velcro or two-sided tape. They also offer volume and balance controls that are installed at the edge of the soundhole by two-sided adhesive.
Lollar: We consistently sell the big four: S&T-style single coils, P90s and humbuckers. Our P90s really put us on the map, but we’re doing really well with our entire line.
Armstrong: Kent Armstrong hand wound and factory wound Jazz pickups have long been established as the industry standard with major archtop guitar manufactures as well as small boutique builders. The vintage market is very strong and newer, “hotter” pickups like my “Motherbuckers” are selling equally well. The DIY market is strong, so pre-wired pickguard assemblies are hard to keep in stock.
Pirie: The basics. When we think about Texas Specials, which is our hot single-coil set, it’s very mid-rangy, but it gives you that extra bite. ’57s, ’62s are always strong, Texas Specials are always strong. We’re seeing good movement in the bread and butter selections of our line. Our burden and challenge is to consistently supply the market.
DeMaria: As far as pickups go, our magnetic soundhole pickups are still very popular – especially for players that want the option of taking it out when they’re not performing – but our Matrix undersaddle pickup is still the flagship of our line and works flawlessly with Aura products.
Wunschel: We are primarily known as “The Active Pickup” company largely due to the number of high profile players such as Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammett, and Kerry King that play our product. Twenty-five years ago active pickup technology was a crazy idea that never had a chance. Now going into our 35th year with dealers in 65 countries, and an artist roster of some of the greatest players in the world, developing the active pickup technology was clearly the right decision. Mind you, we have an excellent passive product line up that does very well for us and we continue to develop new product such as the SRO Series, tested by touring and recording artists.
Rose: Our Player series was introduced at the recent Winter NAMM show and has taken off. We currently feature 16 different hand made pickups that retail for under $100. Outside of the Player line, the HFN series for guitar is our top selling pickup, closely followed by our banjo, resonator and our new RB series for upright bass.
MMR: What’s the appeal of aftermarket pickups? Who tend to be the end-users?
Pirie: Not usually beginners, but somebody who wants to personalize a guitar that they enjoy playing – those are the people who buy aftermarket pickups. There’s a myriad of different options out there. The customer could be just about anybody. It’s about changing the guitar without spending a grand, two grand, five grand on an entirely new instrument. There are so many different flavors and fun things that people can do. What folks look for, especially in this strange economy, is brand. Brand is king right now. However, we are seeing more and more people making accessories and pickups and putting product into the marketplace. Since we started this [economic] mess, everyone’s talking about how accessories can be the answer. The old adage is that everyone’s got $20 in his or her pockets. Every customer wants to walk out the door with something.
We’re doing really well and that’s because we’re seeing accessories take off. We’re seeing our dealers calling out for things that maybe were a little bit soft in the past because we had been seeing a huge upswing in guitars for a number of years and now that market is maybe a little soft due to a hard economy.
I cant think of a better way to repay a customer than to say, “Hey man – I’ve got a drawer full of pickups here and there’s going to be a set that’s going to make you love your guitar more.” It’s fun, it’s creative, and you’re going to find something that works for you. What’s really cool is the whole idea of exploration and, “I did this!”
Falbo: Every guitarist is an end-user. It will only be a matter of time. Even someone who purchases a guitar that comes stock with Seymour Duncans is our end-user, because they have recognized that the pickup makes a difference. It was part of that purchase decision. They plugged it in and it sounded great. Every guitarist, if they stick with it long enough, will replace their pickups. It’s just a matter of time.
Wunschel: The appeal is finding the tone you want as a player. Players are always looking and listening to what’s out there. Players check out a forum, Blog, or YouTube of something and want to find out more. From beginning players to professional guitar builders, there is always the desire to look into new tone options. We believe in technology, empowerment, and performance, which I think translates to all end-users.
Rose: The appeal of after-market pickups is that the quality of sound of the after market units is much better than most factory installed equipment. We find that most factory installed pickups are lacking in realism, or have that famous piezo quack that scares the ‘you know what’ out of people. We strive to make an affordable pickup that brings out what your instrument has to offer.
A couple of years ago, we had a customer install our HFN-C-Artist into his classical guitar. He asked us what to expect and we told him he would get what his guitar produces, only louder (through his amp). At first he was ecstatic about it. After a few gigs he was told by various sound people that they didn’t like the sound of his guitar. He phoned us up and asked if he could return the pickup and of course we said it would not be a problem. A few weeks later he called and thanked us for the great pickup. Confused we asked what had happened and he explained that we were correct in saying that the pickup would give him what his guitar produced and he realized he did not have a very good guitar. Once he swapped the pickup into a better quality guitar, he started to receive the compliments he was hoping for and as a bonus started to get more gigs.
There seems to be a wide variety of end-users out there, from the person practicing in their basement, to students trying to make a buck to the band that tours for 200 shows a year. Everybody is looking for a natural sound, at an affordable price for his or her acoustic instruments.
Lollar: Working with builders has always been a very important area for us. They tend to be very picky about what goes into their instruments, and they can try everything. If we can make them happy, we know we’re on to something. We also work with a wide variety of musicians: bedroom hobbyists, pro and semi-pro players, weekend warriors, etc. The common thread is they all have an idea of the tones they want. My job is to help them find those sounds. Ultimately, that’s the appeal of a custom pickup. Finding the right tool for the job.
Armstrong: That’s a good question, really if you look at my long history and the legacy of my father, Dan Armstrong, I feel I’m one of the originators of the aftermarket pickup. Back in the day you couldn’t find aftermarket guitar parts so people like me had no other option than to wind their own. Kent Armstrong end-users run the full musical gamut, from Jazz to metal and with so many companies making aftermarket pickups it just comes down to what style music and personal taste.
DeMaria: Fishman supplies pickup and preamp systems to over 50 guitar makers around the world, so there are a lot of choices for instruments with factory-installed electronics at every price point. Some people are looking for an instrument “right out of the box” with an onboard system that gives them all of controls at their fingertips, while others may have an aversion to side-mounted electronics on an acoustic guitar. It’s all a matter of personal choice.
Also, there are a lot of popular guitar models that don’t come standard with any electronics at all. Our aftermarket pickup business serves those customers who bought a guitar without a factory-installed system but decided they wanted to add a pickup at some point afterwards. Again, it’s a different customer. Our Matrix Infinity is still the best selling pickup & preamp system on the market – especially as an aftermarket add-on. Most of these customers don’t necessarily want to cut a hole in the shoulder of their instrument, so most of our aftermarket systems are more discreet and less intrusive – which is especially appealing to the person doing the installation!
The end-users for our aftermarket pickups are basically anyone looking to plug in their acoustic instrument.
Rintala: The appeal of aftermarket pickup is that the player gets to choose the right kind of a pickup to suit their playing style, playing situations and the right pickup to fit their guitar. The end-users range from beginners to professionals. Professionals select a right guitar that plays well and sounds right acoustically. Then they will choose the right pickup that will work in this guitar and make it sound right plugged in as well. Also we get a lot of players that want to upgrade the electronics on their old guitars.
MMR: Compared to this time last year, are sales up, down, level?
Wunschel: It is a better year, to date. Much of that has to do with over the counter sales getting a boost with our lineup of new products and our transition to a solderless installation. We feel the year will remain strong and with all of the new products in development – we’re not slowing down. We have re-branded, re-packaged, re-invented how installation is accomplished. There’s so much more to come, and it’s only mid-year.
DeMaria: Sales are up significantly from last year.
Falbo: Sales are up across the board. We’ve fared well in most economic times. If guitar sales are down, our OEM business will follow. But as we all know, OEM generally represents a smaller GM percentage. Our OTC business, however, tends to flourish during those very same times. Those same customers who are delaying that new guitar or amp purchase are still looking for ways to upgrade their tone. We provide exactly that, and perhaps to the broadest base of customers. This is important because even when different genres of music influence purchasing trends, we’re right there with that product. We also released and continue to release a lot of innovative new products, which increases awareness.
Rintala: Sales are up.
Lollar: We’ve had steady increases since we started selling, and this year is no different.
Armstrong: Yes, demand for Kent Armstrong pickups has steadily grown in both the retail and OEM markets. My pickups have always had a strong following in the traditional blues and jazz circles, but more and more rock players are finding out just how much tone they can get out of Kent Armstrong pickups. I’m not big on hype, these are just great sounding pickups and word on the street is consistently good.
Rose: In dollar value we are about the same but if we factor in our lower prices this year our sales are up about 15 percent, so we are very excited about this and are hoping that we keep on moving forward.
MMR: Any closing thoughts, comments?
Falbo: There are lots of new and renewed pickup makers, from one-man winders to guitar manufacturers. It’s no secret that accessories can help float the boat during slower times, and I think everyone reacts to that and rushes to the marketplace. But in a neutral or growing economy, the best use of resources is generally to use experts in their respective fields to maximize your ROI, as well as capitalize on their brand recognition. That sentiment will return in time. And as the job market opens up, many with “garage chop shops” may trade in their full time experiments for steady work, relegating the chop shops to second jobs or hobbies.
Lollar: There are a lot of great pickup builders working today, making really good sounding stuff. We’re always trying to find ways to improve our products and stay ahead of the curve. Players have an amazing amount of choices and options, now more so than ever. No excuses for bad tone!
Rintala: In the past couple of years, the ukulele seems to have gained a lot of popularity. We just introduced a specific pickup and preamp systems made for ukulele. Ukulele is a small and light instrument so we designed a pickup system that is small and light, yet it amplifies the instrument truthfully. We have three different ukulele preamps, one endpin preamp and two sidemount preamps with a built-in tuner. They all use lithium disc battery.
Also we are expanding the B-Band product line this year. We introduced the new B-Band UROS Acoustic Amplifier and B-Band TUN-A desktop tuner. Both will be available this summer.
Armstrong: We have seen many recent designs of active pickups, active electronics, light beam pickups, piezos and capacitance driven pickups. All are technological wonders but none of these innovative designs seems to have the ability to dethrone the magnetic pickup. Some things just do not need to be improved upon.
Rose: As long as people are playing acoustic instruments, there will be an after market for pickups. Our biggest concerns are producing and manufacturing handmade pickups and preamps in Canada that are affordable for everybody, and still being able to pay the rent. There are a lot of options out there, but we think our quality and customer service makes a difference over a lot of the competition.