Gibson hopes to open age of digital guitars

Monday, January 19, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As Gibson Guitar Corp. prepares to launch a new digital model, an advancement some herald as the industry's most sweeping technological change in 50 years, company CEO Henry Juszkiewicz can close his eyes and almost hear the notes.

"The defining moment will be when a certain lick in a popular song is out there, and it can't be done with anything else but a digital guitar," Juszkiewicz said. "It only takes one example to really inspire people."

That, Juszkiewicz predicts, will usher in the age of the digital guitar -- much the same way the Beatles and Rolling Stones inspired a generation of young people to pick up a standard electric guitar in the 1960s.

"It opens a whole new palette of possibilities," Juszkiewicz said. "It's a little bit like hearing stereo as opposed to mono."

Juszkiewicz knows guitars. A Harvard MBA who played in garage rock bands, he bought Gibson with two buddies for $5 million when it was struggling in 1986 and built it into a company with annual sales of $250 million in 2001. At one point, Gibson had fewer than 60 employees. Today, Juszkiewicz says it has 3,000 worldwide.

Traditionally, Gibson has catered to the upper end of the guitar market, though it offers more moderately priced instruments than it used to. The company's most popular guitar, the Les Paul, retails at about $1,300.

"The same people who buy Mercedes are our customers," said Juszkiewicz, dressed casually in a gray sweater and black pants. "The best people play Gibsons, the coolest people."

The demand for guitars has nearly tripled over the past 10 years. In 1992, 681,000 guitars were sold, according to Music Trades Magazine, a publication that tracks musical instrument sales. By 2002 -- the latest year for which figures are available -- the number had grown to 1.9 million.

"The thing about the guitar is that it crosses every demographic border," said Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades Magazine. "You see baby boomers who are over 60 now and it goes down to kids 10 years old and are just old enough to get their hands around the fret board."

Gibson plans to begin offering the digital guitar to the public in the first quarter of this year. It will cost $1,000 to $1,500 more than a standard model -- a price difference Juszkiewicz says is modest compared to new technology in TVs and other electronics.

Uses computer chips

The advantages of the digital guitar come down to sound and control. For 70 years, the electric guitar pickup has translated string vibrations into an electrical signal fed to an amplifier. The player can control the tone and volume, but output is limited to a mono or stereo signal. The signal itself is noisy by today's standards, and stray frequencies often cause an annoying hum.

"Some of the guitar pickups popular today go back to the 1920s," Juszkiewicz said. "We have not changed a lot in terms of the instrument."

The digital guitar uses computer chips to clean up the signal -- Juszkiewicz describes the new sound as traditional but "on steroids."

It allows the player to control the sound of each string. For example, the guitarist can have a heavy metal crunch on the low strings, medium distortion on the middle strings and a clean sound on the high strings.

But some question whether guitar players, by and large a picky lot who are attached to their vintage amplifiers and instruments, want six sounds.

"There are certain things it can do," said George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. "But what it comes down to is people want an electric guitar for soul. I don't see it taking over the world.

"The best sound comes from a traditional magnetic pickup played through an old-style tube amp," Gruhn added. "All of the newfangled stuff doesn't give the tonality that guitar players are looking for."

Juszkiewicz acknowledges consumers might be resistant at first, but he predicts that will change in the same way CDs replaced vinyl records and DVDs replaced VCR tapes.

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