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Making Music with U.S. Manufacturing

Fender Musical Instruments is currently celebrating the 60th Anniversary of its iconic Fender Stratocaster guitar manufactured and first sold in 1954 (think Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Radiohead). A significant number of guitar manufacturers are located in the U.S. such as Fender, Taylor, Gibson and Rickenbacker. IBISWorld estimates the annual US market for acoustic and electric guitars as $917 million with an annual growth rate of 1.8% since 2009.

A recent LA Times story by Ronald D. White (a multi-media piece) caught my eye with the headline Made in California: Fender an instrument of a changing guitar industry. Who hasn’t played “air guitar” a time or two in their lives? I wanted to learn more about this iconic instrument and industry, which employs over 5,200 people across 263 manufacturers in the US. Here’s some of what I discovered.

Recent industry challenges have including slowing markets due to the recession, foreign competition, rising raw material costs and changing consumer tastes. Wikipedia alone lists close to 150 current or defunct guitar manufacturers, however industry analysts suggest that the top four companies account for 75% to 80% of the world market. It’s clear that most high-end guitars are still manufactured in the United States (Fender’s Corona, CA factory employs between 300 -400 people) while most low cost guitars are manufactured overseas. Exports count for about one-third of the industry revenue while imports satisfy close to 50% of demand again according to IBISWorld.

Obviously many guitars are a discretionary purchase and beginning in 2008 the rate of purchases declined significantly. At the same time, manufacturing labor costs for lower-end guitars drove manufacturing overseas for certain lines. The cost of wood has increased and a growing amount of music is being generated electronically– which reduces the need for an actual instrument. Here’s a short article interview with Fenders Interim CEO about their new market approach from

It is a market with many smaller manufacturers, each with their own approach to design and manufacturing. There is a good story to tell when I looked at what MEP centers have done in this space. The MEP program has assisted 11 of these manufacturers from Maine, to Georgia, Oregon and Hawaii. One is EMG, Inc. in Santa Rosa, CA, which makes related products, high-end electro-acoustic pickups used in electric guitars. As the company faced declining demand due to recessionary pressures, the Northern California center, MANEX, helped the company with lean manufacturing techniques to maintain quality while reducing manufacturing costs and creating three jobs.

Our Maine MEP provided assistance to Pantheon Guitars LLC in Lewiston, ME, a manufacturer of Dana Bourgeois guitars. The company employs 13 people, with 10 in production manufacturing. As a result of Maine MEP assistance, the company increased sales by $700,000 and increased throughput of finished guitars to nine guitars a week.

Taylor Guitars of El Cajon, California is also a great supporter of manufacturing and MEP having hosted two Manufacturing Day events in partnership with California Manufacturing Technology Consulting (CMTC) and MEP. Started in 1974, they currently employ close to 700 people between their U.S. and Mexico operations.

So the next time you are taking lessons, playing for fun, enjoying a concert by your favorite band, or watching a TV performance – it’s quite likely you are listening to U.S. manufacturing in action!

About the author

Tab Wilkins

Tab Wilkins is Regional Manager for Strategic Transition and Senior Technology Advisor at NIST MEP, primarily supporting Centers in the western US. Prior to joining NIST, Tab helped establish and run two MEP centers and has a varied background in non-profit management, leadership development and technology-based Economic Development.

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Nice article Tab! Shared MEP's guitar work with my son, who is a guitarist and has played Gibson, Taylor and Pantheon guitars most of his career. Back in 1989, one of my first small projects with CAMP/GLMTC was with a Cleveland area manufacturer of orchestral quality brass instruments. They were experiencing galvanic "etching" between their brass trumpet, cornet, tuba and french horn tubes and monel valves in high-end trumpets due to saliva. Musicians were complaining because the etching could be "felt" in the response and action of the trumpet valves. We were able to involve a Chemical Engineering faculty member from Cleveland State University (as our client had little to no experience in metallurgy) and make recommendations to solve the problem for the client and their high end customers. Sales and reputation were positively impacted. Keep up your good work, MEP!
David - sounds like a great project you guys did. It was fun to learn about this industry and I wondered if we have worked with others. Thanks for sending a note and best of luck to you and your son!
Admiring the time and energy you put into your blog and in depth information you provide. It's great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn't the same old rehashed material. Excellent read! I've saved your site and I'm including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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