The Times They Are A Changing

The guitar industry has always fascinated me. Its existence and success is based primarily on a small number of guitars that are called Mainstream. Ask anyone who knows something about popular music to name an electric guitar, nine times out of ten; their reply will be a guitar that has long been associated with Mainstream. These guitars have been with us so long it is hard to comprehend any other form of guitar. What is Mainstream? My definition is any guitar designed by Fender and Gibson. They simply became Mainstream by positioning, and the association with iconic guitar players. However, as they became the guitars of choice for the majority of guitarists, manufacturers not associated with Mainstream such as Harmony, Kay and Valco sadly fell by the wayside. It is a similar story with pickup designers and manufacturers too. Companies such as DeArmond and Rowe Industries could not compete with Fender and Gibson as their single coils, P-90s and humbuckers became standard within the industry.

It is hard to comprehend just how significant Mainstream is to the guitar industry. Over the years, Mainstream guitar designs have been copied ad infinitum. They have also been adapted to suit individual market sectors, for example, the ubiquitous Stratocaster in heavy rock and metal. Recently, we have seen the emergence of the retro-vintage market where you can purchase your Mainstream guitar to look, feel and play as if she is fifty years old. There is also the signature model. From Jeff Beck to Stevie Ray Vaughan, the choice is unremitting. In addition, we also have the emergence of the Mainstream components and parts industry. From custom bodies and necks to bridges, pickups, tuners and pickguards, the probabilities for building your own Mainstream guitar are endless.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, why the majority of the guitar buying public can only visualise Mainstream as their only choice of guitar worth looking at and, subsequently, purchasing. However, things are beginning to change. Alternative Mainstream, as I have termed any guitar not remotely associated with Mainstream, are now becoming popular instruments of choice among current iconic guitarists. Dan Auerbach, Brendan Benson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Brittany Howard, Seasick Steve, Ian Siegal, Derek Trucks and Jack White, to name but a few, play Alternative Mainstream. They have rediscovered long forgotten brands such as Danelectro, Harmony, Kay, National, Silvertone and Valco. Time-honoured guitarists such as T Bone Burnett, Bob Dylan, Dave Grohl, Mick Jagger, Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmie Vaughan and countless others have also joined the club. Consequently, these old and rare guitars are now achieving greater notoriety as guitarists seek to emulate their heroes.

Pickup guru, Jason Lollar, recently told Bob G. Harrison and I that Alternative Mainstream is beginning to take hold in the States as guitarists, tired of having to choose between the same old, half a dozen, Mainstream designs or so, are looking to play something a little different. He complimented our work and stated that we are; “In front of the eight ball”, with respect to contemporary Alternative Mainstream design. Bob and I were thrilled that Jason holds us in such high regard. As if we needed further proof that Alternative Mainstream is gaining momentum in the States, Jason has recently launched a reproduction Teisco Gold Foil pickup which, as one would expect, has been well received by reviewers and guitarists alike.

From a personal point of view it’s so refreshing to see Alternative Mainstream finally get the recognition it richly deserves. However, please don’t think for one-minute that Bob and I don’t like Mainstream. We love Mainstream as much as you do. Indeed, the iconic ‘50s Gold Top, is one of our favourite guitars of all time. Out of respect for Mr McCarty’s and Mr Paul’s masterpiece and, to celebrate her 60th birthday in 2012, we designed “The Boogie Chillun”, complete with our Alternative Mainstream or should that be Mainstream “Breuer” pickup!

When Bob and I got together two years ago, we sat down to discuss how we would like our collaboration to develop. United in thought and passion for the Blues and Americana culture and design, we came up with one simple objective: To design from the heart and expand our creative capabilities. Bob and I firmly believe that Alternative Mainstream has now established itself within the guitar industry and, it is only a matter of time before the word “Alternative” can be removed from the descriptive label.

Inspired by what is happening in the States with regards to Alternative Mainstream, Bob and I agree, that not since the early ‘50s when the electric guitar was new, experimental and raw, has there been a better time to be involved in guitar design. To conclude, I shall end where I started by devoting the last few words to Mainstream and in particular; Fender, thereby closing the circle, paradoxically speaking. Recently, they have designed and showcased a number of really cool conceptual “Alternative Mainstream” guitars that, I hope, for the good of guitar design, will go into production or lead to other innovative work. The times are, indeed, changing and long may they continue. As always, many thanks for your time and support. SR

Vintage catalogue guitars are becoming evermore popular among current iconic guitarists who are looking for something other than Mainstream.