by Dan Daley
Mike Molenda has been the guitar’s editorial anchor almost as long as the instrument has been the category anchor of MI sales. In his youth he spent more time than might have been healthy at Bay Area music venues like the Fillmore, Winterland, The Family Dog, and the Avalon Ballroom, but he was there during the heyday of San Francisco’s music moments (which lasted longer than the commemorative TV-movies sure to come out next year to mark the Summer of Love’s 50th might suggest). His destiny was fulfilled was when he answered a newspaper ad for an assistant editor’s gig at Electronic Musician magazine in 1990. “I didn’t really want the job, so I got it,” he says, recalling his Zen du jour. By 1992, as editor-in-chief, he helped guide the publication from its roots as a computer-technology magazine to what was widely regarded as the first magazine to evangelize the burgeoning home-recording market. In 1998, he applied that same touch to Guitar Player magazine, where he made key content and graphic-design changes and nearly doubled circulation within a year, reaching close to 200,000 at its peak. And there he remains, the Zen of the moment his Linda Ellerbee-meets-Kurt Vonnegut-by-way-of Hunter Thompson guiding aphorism — “So far, so good…” — still lighting the way forward.
Here, Molenda answers a few questions from GAMA.
GAMA: How would you sum up the year gone by when it comes to technology trends for guitars and guitar accessories? Has it been a period of innovation, retrenchment, caution, optimism?
Mike Molenda: There have been spurts of innovation — Line 6’s Helix, the continuing acceptance of the Kemper Profiling Amplifier and Fractal Axe-FX, and so on — but, overall, I feel like 2016 was a bit of a “let’s wait and see” type of year. It was like, “What do we think players want and will buy?” rather than, “Let’s blow some minds with some tremendous evolution that may initially scare guitarists, but [that] will ultimately change the way guitar players approach their tones and techniques.”
GAMA: How has the balance changed, in terms of sales and market share, between the big guitar makers and the legions of boutique manufacturers? What are the market dynamics between them now?
Mike Molenda: I’m certain the big guitar makers still hold the edge in sales by a large margin. They have the marketing budgets and the distribution, and, quite frankly, the inventory. Boutique makers tend to produce small-batch unique guitars or upscale and/or super-affordable renditions of Telecasters, Stratocasters, and Les Pauls. Unlike boutique pedal makers, I don’t see boutique guitar manufacturers [challenging] the majors with innovations and/or uber-public-acceptance that would cause the big companies to take note of things they should change, in order to produce more boutique-like guitars. I personally love it when a small shop such as Dream Studios designs strange-looking beasts, or some wacky Swedish inventor makes a guitar completely out of graphite, but I doubt these unique instruments change any market dynamics at this time.
GAMA: The accessories sector has continued its steady if unspectacular climb — NAMM says the category, which includes tuners and other guitar frills, grew 3 percent in 2015, thanks a “nearly insatiable demand for the latest accessory that enhances the performance of their instrument.” What are the items that pop out to you under the guitar accessories rubric in the last year? What trends have you noticed?
Mike Molenda: Interestingly, a lot of innovation in the accessories field came from string companies such as D’Addario, Elixir, Ernie Ball, and La Bella, among others, all seeking new formulations to improve string life and tone. And, oh yeah, groovy little headstock tuners continued to flood the market. New string formulations certainly helped drive interest and sales and was, I believe, the biggest trend in 2016. Most of the enthusiasm appeared to be in the stompbox market, with scores of crazy boutique and major-manufacturer releases. It seems garage inventors and professional effects companies were in overdrive mode (sorry for the pun) to produce wackier or more refined versions of fuzz pedals, delays, loopers, distortion boxes, reverb processors, modulation devices, and so on. There were definitely strange and useful accessories — such as the Backbone Guitar Resonance Enhancer — but these products were all over map, rather than representing a cohesive and trending product line.
GAMA: While they may technically be part of the accessories category, stomp boxes and other guitar processors are really a universe unto themselves, with boutique developers coming up with products that can look like works of art. What do you find interesting about this group of products now?
Mike Molenda: Boutique pedals are in another period of mass appeal — at least as far as production — with mad scientists working out of garages or bedrooms, major companies partnering with boutique makers (such as DigiTech), and established companies revamping their offerings (such as the BOSS Waza Craft series). The interesting bit for me is that the major manufacturers still have the sales edge — due to their marketing budgets and distribution — but the true boutique makers are certainly inspiring and changing the pedal-business mindset. Some major makers have complained that players don’t consider their mass-market pedals to be as sonically cool as those made in someone’s garage. Obviously, major companies can make awesome-sounding pedals, but those major manufacturers who want to fly with the “cool kids” in social posts and pedal forums absolutely have to address some of the elements that compromise a boutique mindset. For some players, a conventional overdrive or delay simply doesn’t do it for them anymore. They want weird and feral and singular and wacky. Boutique makers can be solitary and bizarre, while major manufacturers tend to play it safe and produce effects with a broader appeal. I think that big-company strategy has been changing throughout 2016, and it’s the garage scientists that have led the charge.
GAMA: In the bass department, what have you been seeing? Bass guitars are often competing with synth bass on pop records — has that dynamic affected bass guitars as a category?
Mike Molenda: Bassists are interesting creatures, and the market doesn’t seem to live or die on the needs of pop-music production. I think that’s almost a sideline for a lot of session players — “Hey, I’ll take the gig if they want me to play synth bass, but I’m not giving up my Precision.” And if the producers are the ones doing the pop-synth-bass parts, then that doesn’t even cause a wrinkle in the bass-playing community. On the BASS PLAYER magazine side, I see a steady flow of upscale basses made from exotic woods that bassists continue to drool over, as well as lightweight/high-power bass amps. The editors are hardly ever interested in reviewing synth-bass products. In addition, we cover a ton of jazz, funk, heavy metal, and rock bassists doing the interesting records populated with killer bass lines that bass players get all weak in the knees over. I don’t believe they think much about conventional pop-record production — no matter how those bass lines are recorded — because, for the most part, those bass lines don’t really inspire them.
GAMA: Is the guitar as iconic for young musicians today as it was for previous generations? How are Millennials integrating guitars into their lives? Have they been developing new techniques of their own?
Mike Molenda: The current culture proves that the guitar is not iconic or cool for young people — certainly nowhere near the glory [days] of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Young people don’t tend to gravitate to the guitar, and if they do, they typically give it up after a few months. This is a major concern for the guitar industry: How do we attract new players and keep them playing? For the Millennials who do play seriously, I’m finding a ton of women embracing the guitar in all styles, as well as crazy young shredders. I wouldn’t say these players are developing any [truly] new techniques, but they are certainly rabid about technique — which is a great thing for a magazine such as GUITAR PLAYER, which needs to constantly educate, inspire, and surprise its reader community.
GAMA: What’s new and interesting when it comes to acoustic guitars these days? NAMM noted a 3.2% decline in unit sales last year but an increase of 2.6% in dollar value. What’s behind that?
Mike Molenda: The “unplugged” scene ebbs and flows, of course. We may have reached a plateau last year for conventional-wood, budget-oriented guitars for strummers and singer/songwriters. On the other hand, manufacturers such as Taylor, Bedell, Seagull/Godin, Fender, and Epiphone are making beautiful acoustics from sustainable and/or exotic woods that cost more than the typical budget box, so perhaps that is driving more higher-end sales. It’s thrilling to see something that looks new and exciting and different, and that helps drive reviews in our magazine, as well as interest from the reader community. Guitarists can be criticized for always hugging convention (tube amps, etc.), but, sometimes, I feel that those some guitarists can get a bit tired of the same old same old.
GAMA: And finally, the vintage-guitar market: What’s new in that category?
Mike Molenda: Ha! I have absolutely no idea. I’m supposed to ferociously support the push for new gear!