Every time I pick up my Fender Precision bass or Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, which these days is pretty much never, I am reminded of the fact that they are both American made.
The workmanship is immaculate, so good in fact that I may not have touched one for months, but the tuning stays where it was—not one microtone lower than where I left it, even in Delhi’s burning temperatures.
American-made electric guitars from certain brands, particularly those made in the 1970s (because that was the golden era of rock music), are sought after because of their fabled perfection.
The rosewood or maplewood of the fretboard is silky smooth, sensitive to the slightest touch after being mellowed and tempered for months, then sandpapered and polished.
Obviously, there’re only a finite number of these guitars, and each is numbered for authenticity and traceability.
Donald Trump reminded me of the beauty of American guitars with his declaration of trade war on China. That’s because today, the Asian giant is also the world’s biggest manufacturer of western musical instruments, including, of course, guitars.
This is a story going back to the 1980s, of those that stepped up in the wake of a slow decline in demand for guitars in the West.
There are several reasons for this decline. At the start, it was rising labour costs, which prompted guitar makers to look elsewhere to set up operations—Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and China.
It could have been India (after all, we have some of the best luthiers in the world), but that’s another story.
Now, a long article in the Washington Post suggests the absence of guitar heroes as a reason (guitar god Eric Clapton is arthritic)—the decline of the “guitar culture" in America in other words.
Picking up the guitar and learning to play the blues has long ceased to define the rite of passage to coolness for American teenagers.
Others have cited the growth of electronic music and the age of instant gratification, coupled with the exit of the baby boomer generation.
But to my mind, it is all to do with the rise of China, with its unrivalled mass manufacturing skills that still feed the dreams of teenagers, perhaps less so in the US than in other parts of the world such as India.
Globally, musical instrument-making has long been considered a rare and precious skill that only some have, needing years of experience, an eye for beauty, deft fingers and a really good ear—which is why top quality guitars are so expensive.
China has turned this notion on its head.
“If you go to a factory in China, as I do, you’ll see a large number of workers, many of them women, their heads down over the instruments, an assembly line working on everything from inlays to pegs, including quality control," said Anthony Gomes, who is in-charge of purchasing, procurement and operations at India’s largest music store chain, the family owned Furtados.
The Gomes family began the business back in 1865.
Although Korea, Indonesia and Mexico continue to make and export instruments, the Chinese have raced miles ahead.
In the process, the Chinese have filled a massive vacuum, not just in the West, but also in markets all across the world—from India to Indiana—and not least in China itself.
According to the industry research website, Ibisworld, Chinese musical instrument manufacturing is an $8 billion industry today, powered by 258 businesses, growing annually at 10% from 2013-18, and accounting for 80,000 jobs.
It is export oriented, but the share of exports has declined from 69% in 2005 to 46.1% in 2011 and is expected to account for 20.3% of industry revenue in 2018, it says.
Best-selling guitar brands such as Alvarez, Blueridge, Eastman, Epiphone, Fender, Gibson, Guild, the Loar, Luna, Ovation, Recording King, Sigma, Washburn and Yamaha—to name only a few—all manufacture their guitars, or components of them, in China.
In addition, there’s the entire range of orchestral instruments—woodwinds, strings and piano.
Market research analysts Technavio projects a 2% annual growth rate in the global guitar market alone between 2017 and 2021, powered by more online learning opportunities.
Emerging markets such as Brazil, India and Taiwan will be a major factor fuelling the sales of acoustic guitars, particularly classical acoustic guitars, it says.
Much of this growth will come from within China, a country that has been focusing on spreading music education among 10-15-year-olds and where “buying an instrument has become a thing of household aspiration", said Gomes.
Just last week, reports said the Chinese company, Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co., is looking to purchase Westminster Choir College, an elite American school that trains students for careers as singers, conductors and music teachers, for $40 million.
The legendary Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa have conducted its choirs, it said, adding that this “government-controlled" Chinese would-be purchaser used to be known as the Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Structure Co. just weeks ago.
I have a piece of advice for Donald Trump: if you want the best for America, roll back those tariffs and pick up the guitar. Go visit an American guitar store (they’re really struggling out there), walk toward a gorgeous acoustic that winks at you, pick it up and strum it. Chances are it would be the product of American design and Chinese labour.
It’s never too late to be cool. This canard that coolness is the preserve of libtards is just lies. You could be as cool as Bill Clinton (saxophone), Tony Blair (electric guitar, Dead-head) or, going back just a little further, the amazing Ignacy Paderewski (piano). All you have to do is pick up that guitar.
Rock n’ roll, not weapons of war, are America’s greatest export. Make love not war, Mr President: in a manner of speaking, you couldn’t get more American than that, could you?
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1