Schwartz Does NAMM

Schwartz Does NAMM

Written by Dan Schwartz

I’ve just been to my 41st NAMM show. I’ve only been to a few CESs, about a dozen exclusively Hi-Fi shows, a bunch of AES, but NAMM… I just keep going. For many years I went for what was there, the new instruments and technology. But for the last 20 (at least, maybe more), I go for the people — there are folks I wouldn’t see any other way.

Also: the AES show keeps shrinking. But NAMM keeps growing — this year; the Anaheim Convention Center added a really large, two-story wing that accommodated all the technology exhibits which, in the dim dark past, were exclusively the domain of the AES.

In ye olde days — I mean REALLY old — the convention was held in a ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel, probably until sometime in the 80s. Those were quaint times. This year was the biggest yet, occupying an extended hall that is really four (much-larger-than-when-it-was-at Disneyland) halls, two smaller spaces and the aforementioned double-floor building.

The National Association of Music Merchants show is held every January in Anaheim, California

This year there was nothing revolutionary, but the increasing trend of professional recording equipment being shown at the National Association of Music Merchandisers show (as opposed to the Audio Engineering Society show) does say something. A huge part of the studios in NY have now closed, as real estate prices have seen buildings “re-purposed” or torn down, and quite a few of my friends have abandoned the town for other places. It feels as if the manufacturers of recording gear are going increasingly for a different market.

Steinway’s Spirio—sort of their Disklavier copy

As I stood in line to pick up my badge, Yamaha’s Disklavier System, playing an impressionistic piece I didn’t recognize, serenaded me:

The real live Yamaha Disklavier

I first stopped in at guitar builder Dana Bourgeois’ booth to say hi (my pass was from him). Typically, he had a number of pretty incredible acoustic 6-strings. I was happy to listen, but I’m no guitar player. Dana is from Lewiston, ME, and I don’t ever get by there.

Dana Bourgeois, luthier, writer, and lecturer

Dana Bourgeois, luthier, writer, and lecturer

Around the corner was Rick Turner, who immediately said, “Want to see ‘Best in Show’?” and took me to see: a chair. Yes, a chair, the Monchair: made of wood, with strings strung along the back. (All it needs is some method of strumming those strings automatically.) Its works are very straightforward — and very effective. (Although, even during it’s relatively quiet first hour, NAMM isn’t the quietest place to experience something like that.) It’s intended for therapy, and if I’d gone back to NAMM I would have paid it a visit each day.

Rick Turner sitting in a Monchair

Rick Turner, wearing his dictator-for-life badge, demonstrating proper sitting technique in the Feeltone Monchair

Turner had an array of 4, 5 and 6-string basses and a number of amazing guitars. I was particularly drawn to one quite beautiful bass, a Model One with a piezo bridge — that is, a bridge with a piezo pickup in it. He had brought a banjo with a new kind of pickup — actually a miniature microphone — to demonstrate how effective, how acoustically realistic, it is. It is. He and his son Elias have patented the design.

Rick Turner holds a banjo

Rick Turner’s banjo with a new kind of pickup

Then it was off to see Ned Steinberger to talk about the broken leg-rest on my very old ’81 L2 fretless. Ned informed me that the warranty had likely run out on the bass. Bummer, I say — it’s only 37 years old. (Ned is out of Nobleboro, ME, so I’m grateful for the once-a-year ability to check-in.)

Ned Steinberger of NS Design
Ned Steinberger of NS Design
Instruments by Ned Steinberger, NS Design

Instruments by Ned Steinberger, NS Design

I went by Michael Tobias’ MTD booth — he was, as usual surrounded by fans and appreciators. But it was far too crowded when I went by for me to see anything. Michael lives in Kingston, NY, although he used to have a shop right on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood, when I bought a 1960 Fender Precision from him.

Michael Tobias of MTD

Michael Tobias of MTD, which makes fine basses and guitars

In the “audio engineering” wing, there was a bit of interest for me. Ken Scott and Brian Kehew were there doing something-or-other for Sound Techniques, a resurrected brand of recording/mixing console that Ken used in the late 60s and early 70s at Trident Studio in London. No sense of how it sounds, though I saw that Ken actually did some mixing a bit later on. How, I have no clue, it was already so loud. Further along in the hall I chatted with two microphone makers (among other things),  EveAnna Manley of Manley Labs  and David Bock of Bock Audio, across the aisle from each other.

Ken Scott
Ken Scott, record producer and engineer, famous for being one of the engineers for The Beatles
Brian Kehew, musician and record producer
Brian Kehew, musician and record producer
EveAnna Manley of Manley Labs
EveAnna Manley of Manley Labs

David Bock of Bock Audio

I cruised in and out of Taylor, who used to build a fascinating bass, but no more. I don’t know who owns the D’Angelico name now, but whoever it is, they’ve decided to compete on the same turf as everybody else. It seems a shame to me.

D’Angelico guitars

My beloved Guild was there, having its 4th or 5th owner since being sold off by — who? Avnet? I can’t remember. Nothing really new, just reissuing the 60s, but the Starfire line has expanded a bit.

Guild has been making guitars since 1953

Late in the day I spotted the booth of my local (like, a mile and a half) guitar maker, James Trussart. I looked but, as I’m mostly looking at basses, didn’t see anything new from him. His metal instruments aren’t really to my taste, but I have friends who use them, and they’re very interesting to see.

James Trussart's P-bass

James Trussart’s P-bass (Fender Precision-style), made of metal

In recent years there has been a large booth that is devoted to boutique guitar builders; a friend of mine referred to as the arch-top booth, but this year, at least, not so many arch-tops. There was a fascinating guitar from Maxwell Custom Guitars of New Zealand with a sort-of arched top: it was actually carved on a CNC-machine. Its tone was sort of mid-rangy and quiet. More work to be done on that one I think, but a promising start.

CNC-carved guitars from Maxwell Custom Guitars of New Zealand

As I was on my way out, I had a flashback — the Gizmotron.  (The what? you say…)

Yes, the Gizmotron: a set of rotating wheels, mounted over a guitar or a bass’s bridge, that one pushes down individually to “bow” the string. First introduced in about 1979 (I was there) by Lol Crème and Kevin Godley, late of 10cc, following their duet multi-album set, Consequences — allegedly recorded as a demo for the device. They did four or five records, two of which I’m extremely fond: L and Freeze Frame. Both feature the original Gizmotron to great effect. (They went on to a not-insignificant career directing music videos, like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.”)  Anyway, the Gizmotron has been resurrected by a company in the Jersey ‘burbs of NYC, claiming to have worked out the bugs. I have no idea if that’s true, but I welcome it back. I hope it catches on a bit.

The Gizmotron features a set of rotating wheels that let you "bow" your guitar strings
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