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Acoustical Surge : Unplugged Is In, Electric Is Out: Unamplified Guitars Back on Top


ANAHEIM — People aren't buying as many new pianos these days. Clarinets and trumpets aren't doing so well either, what with all those school-band budgets running in the red.

And despite the guys with the big hair and the leather trousers running around on MTV, even electric guitars are down.

What is selling are unamplified, acoustic guitars: Old-fashioned, folk-singer-guy-with-a-crew-cut, let's-have-a-hootenanny-type guitars.

Just five years ago, all the world's guitar makers shipped only 250,000 acoustics to U.S. stores. Now it's 400,000.

In the late 1980s, for the first time ever, acoustic guitars were outsold by the more modern electric ones--many of them rakish heavy-metal shark fins in exotic colors that exist nowhere in nature. Now the acoustics are back on top.

Consider Kent Everett, a small guitar-maker from Atlanta. Everett manned a tiny booth at the National Assn. of Music Merchants trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center over the weekend and complained about how he had to switch to electric guitars in the 1980s because his acoustics didn't sell.

Now he sells every one of the 60 acoustic guitars he makes by hand each year. And at an average $1,800 a pop, they're not cheap. Among his customers are one of the folk-singing duo Indigo Girls and the guitarist for the rock band Kansas.

"I'm not getting rich," says Everett, 37, who has the credentials for a hip business like guitar manufacturing--including dropping out of college and motorcycling cross-country in his youth. "But I'm making a comfortable living, even with spending $10,000 a year for advertising.

"And I'm a much happier guy making acoustics."

Or consider the venerable Martin Guitar Co. of Nazareth, Pa., across an acre or so of guitars and upstairs from Everett at the trade show, which ended Monday.

Martin has made guitars since 1833 for everyone from folk singer Don McLean to the bluesy Bonnie Raitt to Gene Autry. Martin--whose most expensive production-line guitar retails for a scary $7,000--is to acoustic guitars what Roll-Royce is to cars.

Even Martin, though, ran into serious trouble in the early 1980s as electric guitars overwhelmed the quieter, more sedate acoustics.

By last year, though, Martin says it was having its best year ever.

Because the guitar business is relatively small--$400 million worth of sales, or less than a fifth the $2.2-billion cost of a single Stealth bomber--hardly anybody outside the business notices whether it's doing well or not. In fact, hardly anybody noticed the passing of this uniquely American industry when--in the 1970s--most guitars started being made in the Far East. Today, only a fraction of all the world's guitars are made in the United States.

"We've been around over a hundred years, and we just made our 500,000th guitar," says Richard DeWalt, Martin's national sales manager. "The Koreans probably make that many in a year or two."

Indeed, if the 900 or so exhibitors at this trade show hadn't been so busy selling, they would probably have agreed that a big theme this year is the contrast between instruments so high tech they'd look at home in "Star Wars" and stuff so retro it could be in an Elvis movie.

At the Roland Corp.'s exhibit, for instance, you can plug an electric guitar into a book-sized purple box and--presto!--out comes the keening, synthetic wail of a synthesizer.

Over here is something even snazzier called the Intelligent Synthesizer, a keyboard that can produce the sound of any instrument, including eight kinds of drums. Press another button and the machine will even harmonize with what you're playing. There are as many computer terminals in this room as there are keyboards.

In fact, even IBM had a booth at the show, where IBMers in black T-shirts and jeans grooved to the fab sounds being pumped out via CD-ROM.

Clearly, when they get the information superhighway up and running, it will have a soundtrack.

Then there are outfits like Tube Works.

Guitar amplifiers, like radios, once used vacuum tubes to control the flow of electricity. In the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturers began using less expensive, solid-state transistors.

Transistors made amps cheaper and more convenient--the glass vacuum tubes, after all, broke or burned out. But aficionados declared the new amps to have a colder, thinner, less luscious sound than the old tube amps.

In the late 1970s, a guy named B. K. Butler began making a little foot pedal with a tube in it that a guitarist could hitch up to his transistor amp to get a tube-type sound. (In fact, you can still buy one for $165.) But six years ago, Butler's Tube Works in Denver went the distance and began making tube amplifiers again. Some of them even look like old amps that might have been used by the Ventures or surf guitarist Dick Dale.

The amps, though more expensive and decidedly retro, are even popular with youngsters.

"Kids know all about tubes these days," says Brad Lillard, a salesman for Tube Works.

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