The past two decades of pop music, defined by a shift towards electronic instrumentation, have not been kind to the guitar. There is little place for guitar playing in today’s chart-topping singles. The instrument has fallen out of favour, and manufacturers have faced steadily declining revenues – from 2008 to 2017, sales dropped over 30 per cent annually. However, there are indications that the recent downturn may be cyclical, not chronic.
Market research firm IBISWorld reported modest guitar manufacturing growth over the past five years and is projecting the trend to accelerate through to 2022. That document correlates guitar purchasing habits to discretionary income, which is on the rise. Music industry insiders point to another, possibly more sustainable and certainly more compelling reason for the instrument’s rebound.
Guitar companies are expanding their target audience to include both genders and all people around the world. Mass media reflects this initiative for a more diverse appeal. Despite music charts, largely dominated by heavily produced, electronically generated tunes, a cursory exploration of YouTube confirms the enduring popularity of guitars across genders and geographies.
Quality guitar manufacture, or luthiery, is a traditional craft requiring an extraordinarily high level of skill. Many of the world’s most iconic guitar brands are family businesses. Interestingly, the electric guitar was invented (or at least first marketed) by a family business.
Here’s a list of the top ten family-owned guitar companies, from most recently founded to oldest:
Handcrafting guitars in his Annapolis attic and befriending roadies to gain access to the world’s most renowned players, Paul Reed Smith founded the acronymic company in 1985. Carlos Santana, Jimmy Buffett and John Mayer play PRS guitars, which are known as some of the world’s finest electrics in the niche-upscale market.
Hisatake Shibuya founded Electric Sound Products as a components manufacturer for guitars and basses. A few years later, ESP started developing its own high-quality guitars, but design elements that closely resembled those of the large American brands kept ESP from legally exporting to the US market.
In 1984, a parts deal with hard-rock and heavy metal guitar builder Kramer opened the door, and by 1986, ESP was selling their guitars in America.
ESP remains popular today with heavy-metal guitarists, thanks to their continued use by bands including Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax.
Taylor, based in California, has a reputation for building high-quality acoustic guitars. A pioneer in guitar construction, the company is known for innovative technology; the patented “Taylor Neck” is recognised throughout the industry.
In 1972, Bob Taylor partnered with fellow employees Kurt Listug and Steve Schemmer to buy and rename the business Westland Music Company. Later, they adopted the name Taylor Guitars in the interest of branding. Today, Taylor employs over 900 people and distributes to 60 countries. Notable artists include Taylor Swift.
In 1972, Robert Godin began building and marketing guitars in Quebec, Canada. He developed the popular Seagull acoustic ten years later, a sub-brand designed to provide high-quality components at a reasonable price point for working musicians.
Godin guitars are one of North America’s most popular brands and are manufactured using locally sourced wood. Robert Godin’s sons, Simon and Patrick, have joined the business, which now has six subsidiaries: Seagull, Simon & Patrick, Norman, LaPatrie, Art & Lutherie and Godin.
Mosrite of California
Apprenticing at Rickenbacker, Semie Moseley developed the “German Curve” body style that would later characterise his own guitars. Mosrite of California was founded in 1956 by Semie and his brother Andy Moseley. The company’s name is an amalgamation of their surname and the nickname of their principal investor, Reverend Ray “Boatright”.
With unique and unusual features such as ultra-slim, double and zero fret necks, Mosrite guitars became a favourite among artists in the 50s and 60s. Soon, Mosrite instruments were some of the most sought-after boutique guitars in the world, thanks to an endorsement by the Venture’s Nokie Edwards, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson and Johnny Ramone.
A series of disastrous business deals resulted in Mosrite filing for bankruptcy by 1968. Semie struggled to revive the company until his death in 1991. Semie’s daughter, Dana, continues in her father’s footsteps, and Semie’s wife, Loretta, began selling custom Mosrite models in 2008.
Founded in 1931 by Adolph Rickenbacker and George D. Beauchamp, the Los Angeles company was the first to specialise in electronic instruments and is credited with inventing the modern electric guitar.
After the departure of his partner, Adolph Rickenbacker sold the business to Francis C Hall in 1953. Hall had been a key figure in the development and distribution of Leo Fender’s electric guitars, and under his influence, Rickenbacker introduced innovative designs through the 1950s to capitalise on the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Beatles’ use of Rickenbacker guitars in the 1960s made the brand a household name. Since then, artists including Tom Petty, R.E.M. and Tame Impala have continued to drive Rickenbacker’s popularity. The company became RIC (Rickenbacker International Corporation) under Hall, who retired in 1984. He left the business to his son John Hall who, along with his wife Cindalee, remains the company’s sole owner.
Matsujiro Hoshino founded Hoshino Gakki, a sheet music and musical products distribution company in Nagoya, Japan. In the 1920s, the company began importing classical guitars made by Spanish guitar craftsman Salvador Ibáñez. Hoshino Gakki began manufacturing their own guitars in 1935 using the brand name of the renowned Spanish maker.
Ibanez came to prominence in the 1950s, their sales driven largely by the popularity of rock and roll. By the 60s and 70s, the company had transitioned to producing high-quality replicas of iconic American brands like Fender and Gibson. Ibanez’s relatively inexpensive high-quality guitars are played by Pat Metheny, Kiss’ Paul Stanley and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
In 1883, Friedrich Gretsch began manufacturing banjos, tambourines and drums in Brooklyn, New York. When Friedrich died in 1895, his 15-year-old son, Fred, took control of the business and went on to make it one of America’s leading importers and manufacturers of musical instruments by the early 20th century.
In 1954, Gretsch released the Jet solid body electric guitar, which was later endorsed by Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, Pete Townshend and Brian Setzer. The company continued to expand through the early 60s, until, unable to find an heir, Fred Gretsch sold the business to Baldwin Pianos in 1967. Baldwin changed style elements, manufacturing locations and management, which resulted in diminished sales through the 70s and early 80s.
In 1985, Fred W Gretsch, great-grandson of the company’s founder, regained control of Gretsch, which was no longer manufacturing guitars. He slowly reinvigorated the brand and, in 2002, made an arrangement with the Fender Corporation to provide greater distribution.
The brand behind Sir Paul McCartney’s famous violin bass guitar was founded in 1864 by Karl Höfner, a violin-making apprentice. Over the following decades, the company’s reputation grew significantly throughout Europe, prompting Karl to enlist his sons’ help.
Höfner began building its first guitars in the 1930s. With the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, the company expanded its production capabilities to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for guitars, which, over that period, accounted for 50 per cent of the company’s stringed instrument sales. This changed in the 60s, as European import restrictions relaxed, and the company was forced to compete with American guitar manufacturers.
In 1994, Höfner was sold to British music company Boosey & Hawkes and then sold again in 2003 to the British investment consortium The Music Group (TMG). After only a few months, however, the music conglomerate sold Höfner to Klaus Schöller and his wife, Ulrike Schrimpff. Klaus had been the company’s general manager, while Ulrike had been the Finance Director, since 1995.
Investing heavily in the company’s future and incorporating the latest in renewable manufacturing techniques, the family firm has rebounded.
The son of a Cabinet maker, C. F. Martin Sr studied violin and guitar-making with Johann Georg Stauffer in Austria. Martin was frustrated by the guild system, which restricted cabinet makers from producing and selling guitars. He immigrated to New York and founded a guitar company there in 1833.
Marketing innovations like the adjustable neck and the “X” bracing system, Martin steadily expanded. After C.F. Martin Sr’s death in 1873, his son, Christian Frederick Jr, oversaw the family business until 1888 when he unexpectedly passed away, and the third generation was forced to take control. At just 22, Frank Henry Martin made the bold move of terminating an agreement with their main distributor, which proved profitable. Through the 20th century, the C. F. Martin Company enjoyed significant growth, helped in part by the ukulele craze of the 1920s. In the latter half of that decade, Martin developed the 14-fret guitar neck that would become industry standard for steel-string acoustic instruments.
Since then, the company made several acquisitions including Fibes Drums, the A. B. Herman Carlson Levin Company and the Darco String Company. Christian Frederick Martin IV of the sixth generation became CEO and Chairman of the company’s board after the death of his father in 1986.
Pop icons from Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan to Ed Sheeran have played Martin guitars.