Customized Instruments

CUSTOM DESIGNED

 Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

January 2005

Wish you could play the electric guitar like Angus Young or pound the drums like Mike Bordin?

While they may not be able to guarantee you a spot in the AC/DC or Ozzy Osbourne camps, major music instrument manufacturers like Gibson and Yamaha are striving to bring you one step closer to realizing your dreams with their exclusive lines of signature, custom-made instruments.

“It is our finest stuff,” proclaims Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and CEO of the Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp., whose product line also includes the familiar Epiphone, Kramer, Baldwin and Slingerland brands of musical instruments.

“Virtually every model that comes out of that business is hand-built because they’re constructed in very tiny quantities. They are the vanguard of our production line.”

And they appeal to the diehard fan, whether you’re an aspiring musician or an avid collector. With the right amount of cash, you can wail along to “You Shook Me All Night Long” on your Gibson Angus Young Signature SG electric guitar ($1900) or use your Yamaha Mike Bordin SD-6455 MB snare drum  ($1079) to ride the rhythm of “Crazy Train.”

According to Joe Testa, artist relations of Yamaha Drums, the sound of a signature instrument is just as important as its appearance.

“When you’re talking about a signature snare drum, it’s supposed to capture the sound of that particular artist,” explains Testa, whose division imprints include customized products by renown drummers Manu Katché, Dave Weckl and Steve Gadd. “If you’re a fan of that artist, one would think that would help sell that drum. That’s the thinking behind it.”

Jimmy Chamberlin, the Smashing Pumpkins alumnus who recently launched a Yamaha signature snare drum of his own – the SD-2455JC ($699) – says reputation carries influence.

“One of my favorite drums to this day is an old Gene Krupa Radio King,” states Chamberlin.

“As soon as you hit it, you know it’s his drum.  That’s what you do as a young drummer — you emulate your heroes. And anytime you can get your hands on some of their gear, it just gets you that much closer to the mark.”

Gibson’s Juszkiewicz estimates that custom and signature lines represent only a tiny fraction of his company’s annual sales of $300 million – “less than 5%” – but the product associations with such icons as Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney, Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs offer instant credibility.

“To have an artist like Paul McCartney or Jimmy Page associated with Gibson just reminds people of the quality,” says Juszkiewicz, “We acquire the professionalism and the musicianship of people like Les Paul — who at the age of 90 is still out playing every week — and B.B. King and Joe Pass, guys who are exquisite instrumentalists.

“Equally, the brand stands for excellence, and artists acquire some of that prestige through our relationship.”

But are they paid for that relationship?

“We don’t pay anybody to play Yamaha drums,” admits Joe Testa. “Never have. Once you do that, you dilute the whole meaning of an endorsement. It’s embarrassing to say, ‘We had to pay this guy to play our drums.’ Al Foster and Steve Gadd have been with Yamaha for 30 years because they really believe in the product.”

That’s not to say some financial consideration isn’t a factor. When Paul McCartney agreed to partner with Gibson to issue his Epiphone Signature Texan, the former Beatle only warmed to the idea as a charity fundraiser.

“When we presented it to Paul in the right way, which incorporated benefiting Adopt-A-Minefield, it really made sense to him,” says Pat Foley of Gibson Custom, Art And Historic, who liaised with the living legend on behalf of Epiphone.

“A signature guitar to him is an honor, but it’s not something he needs to add to his legend.”

When Serial No. 001 rolled off the production line 18 months and three prototypes later, Sir Paul auctioned the guitar and raised $50,000 for Adopt-A-Minefield.

An additional consumer incentive is the hands-on involvement of artists throughout the process. Jimmy Page personally selected and tested the first run of 25 Les Paul Honey Burst guitars – but not before spending years helping Gibson perfect the instrument.

“We did a Jimmy Page reissue that had a very unusual electrical set up involving a lot of switching,” Henry Juszkiewicz recalls. “Getting it right took the better part of four years to satisfy him.

“But we’re highly committed to ensuring that the instrument you buy is exactly the instrument the artist is playing. It takes a lot of work to do that.”

Juszkiewicz says a Gibson custom-made signature guitar is also a good value for investor: just recently, Christie’s auctioned a Gibson SG electric played by George Harrison for $567,500.

“On average our Gibson guitars have appreciated 12-17% annually,” says Juszkiewicz.

As far as signature artists are concerned, Jimmy Chamberlin says the advantages of his Yamaha association range from access to a community of musicians to a natural outgrowth of his current career.

“As time goes on and I’m touring less, I’d like to wrap my head around more developmental drums and get more into the Yamaha R&D department,” says Chamberlin, who premieres his signature snare on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex’s upcoming album Life Begins Again.

“But the snare drum is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll do more snare drums. Then ideally, I’d like to see a Jimmy Chamberlin kit down the road.”

Singers For Hire

Singers For Hire
ACTS FORGE AHEAD WITH NEW VOCALISTS AND ENJOY NEW SUCCESSES

October 08, 2009 — 12:00 am PDT

Nick Krewen / GRAMMY.com

At the apex of Styx’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the Chicago rockers’ Top 10 hits came from a single songwriting source.

Not only did cofounder Dennis DeYoung pen such Styx hits as “Lady,” “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Mr. Roboto,” but his signature vocals played a considerable role in the band obtaining significant radio exposure and amassing catalog album sales of more than 17 million units.

Today, however, those attending a Styx concert won’t be serenaded by DeYoung, who left the band after an acrimonious split in 1999, but by Lawrence Gowan, a Canadian vocalist/songwriter.

Just don’t call Gowan a replacement singer.

“I would definitely balk at the term,” says Gowan. “I’m into my 11th year, and we’ve played over 1,500 shows at this point. I joined this band not under the auspices of replacing anybody, but because they needed a new member. I’ve played more shows with the band than the former lineup.”

In light of Gowan’s addition, Styx has undergone a transformation and although some DeYoung songs are still performed, notably absent from the set list is “Babe.” “Dennis made a very strong point of saying that’s a song he wrote for his wife, so I feel that’s his song and he should sing it,” Gowan explains.

“It’s so much more a true, classic rock band now,” says Gowan of the new lineup, which includes cofounders Chuck Panozzo and James “J.Y.” Young, veteran member Tommy Shaw and relative newcomers Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman.

If longtime fans are complaining about DeYoung’s absence, they certainly aren’t showing it at the box office: Styx is in the midst of a 2009 North American tour, playing everything from casinos and theaters to outdoor sheds and festivals. And in 2004, Styx, along with tourmates Journey and REO Speedwagon, grossed more than $17.2 million over 43 concert dates.

Speaking of Journey, the multi-platinum band now features Filipino lead vocalist Arnel Pineda, their third singer since Steve Perry departed in 1996. With Pineda fronting hits such as “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms” and “Any Way You Want It,” Journey emerged as one of Billboard’s Top 20 moneymakers in 2008 raking in $44.8 million, just short of Taylor Swift but ahead of Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West. A new studio album, Revelation, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in June 2008.

Interestingly, Pineda says that one of the reasons he was hired was to ghost Perry’s sound.

“We have to make sure the hard-core fans will be satisfied listening to the songs,” said Pineda during an interview with the Marin Independent Journal. “They’re so used to Steve Perry’s voice, so we have to be really close to how Steve Perry has done it. That’s the hardest part.”

A number of bands have flourished in the wake of vocalist departures. After the tragic death of Bon Scott in 1980, Australian rockers AC/DC bounced back with Englishman Brian Johnson and scored the biggest-selling album of its career with Back In Black. British progressive rockers Genesis survived the post-Peter Gabriel doldrums with such platinum sellers as Duke, Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch, thanks to the seamless integration of Phil Collins as lead singer.

And Van Halen lost no momentum when Sammy Hagar replaced the ostentatious David Lee Roth for 1986’s 5150, and continued to sell millions of albums and fill stadiums throughout the world into the 1990s.

Whether the departure of a singer is amicable or acrimonious, vocalists are usually the biggest risk factor in determining whether a group can survive the adjustment.

“It really depends on the individual act,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar magazine. “Some of them are surprisingly successful, especially when you consider that the lead singer may well have been the focal point of the band.”

More recently, ’90s rock act Alice In Chains forged ahead with new co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall. The group has released its first new album following the death of original lead vocalist Layne Staley in 2002, Black Gives Way To Blue, which debuted this week at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The re-emergence of Alice In Chains began with a series of concerts in 2006, all with the blessing of Staley’s family. DuVall, a friend and collaborator of founding guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell’s for almost 10 years, was invited to participate and eventually found his place in the band.

“They lost a brother, but they gained a brother…. And I gained a new family,” DuVall told the Associated Press. “I think when people see it and they see the truth in it, it presents a profound metaphor for how all of us can rise above tragedy if we choose to.”

Whether it’s nostalgia or the music that drives the fans’ continued support in the face of these major personnel changes, Bongiovanni says there’s one common element these acts deliver in order to thrive and survive.

“The ability to put on a good live show,” he says. “That’s really key — and provide a satisfying experience for their fans.”

Gowan certainly feels that the live experience is largely responsible for Styx’s continued success. “I think every single audience member has a different agenda, but if they have one thing in common, it would be that they want the concert to take them to a different place then they were when they walked into the door,” says Gowan. “That’s probably my best contribution to the band so far. We are such a live entity, and people are looking for a great concert experience, and we are able to provide them with that. I know we can deliver every night.”

Singers For Hire | GRAMMY.com