After setting the stage at their 2019 Namm appearance, it was clear that Gibson — the now 127 year old Guitar company — was back in business. James ‘JC’ Curleigh, the President & CEO of Gibson has helped the company reemerge after its 2018 battle with bankruptcy, and has further taken it into innovative and aspiring new territory. And for a company that spans over 12 decades, progressing towards the future is not necessarily an easy task. “Let’s become a 125 year old startup,” JC said back in 2019, and it’s perhaps the theme or mantra that Gibson needed in order to stay relevant, all while continuing to honor their iconic past.
With regards to staying relevant, in no way has the guitar been left out of the modern music industry. In fact, the overwhelming interest for the instrument, specifically over the course of the pandemic, has played a significant role in Gibson’s recent success. Guitars sales have quite literally boomed over the last year, and consequently a new and ambitious generation of guitarists have been born. Taking as what JC describes as ‘positive advantage’ of the surge, Gibson saw the launch of their new Epiphone collection of “Inspired By Gibson” guitars, which offers new and beginner players the essence of a high end guitar (i.e. a Gibson Custom Shop) but at an affordable price. The timing of this series is rather impeccable, and in many ways selling affordable guitars is the antithesis of what Gibson has been known for, at least prior to the company’s relaunch in 2018. Up until then, Gibson’s reputation has been built around the quality of the their vintage and custom shop guitars, which are still some of their most sought after and revered products.
Taking it another step forward, Gibson has now moved into the digital realm with their newly released Gibson App. The app boasts a number of features from instructional guitar lessons to exclusive access to Gibson TV, and possibly the most innovative feature; access to a virtual guitar tech. All of this ties in well with Gibson’s new found mantra of pushing towards the future, but not forgetting their renown legacy.
Speaking more about the app and the unprecedented guitar sales over the last year, Gibson CEO & President, James ‘JC’ Carleigh, has offered some insight on the recent guitar craze and the new innovation taking place at Gibson.
When did it initially occur to you that guitar was becoming a massive hit in the pandemic?
So literally a year ago we got notice of this pandemic and how it was going to affect us and what it meant. Then all of a sudden within weeks we had our factories shutdown, ninety percent of dealers around the world, let alone just in the U.S., were shutdown and we’re just saying “wow.” The future is unknown, and there were way more questions than answers. And of course all of the focus goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, it’s about shelter, health, and safety which is real. Then sometime in June-July people were like “okay, it’s been a few months, I have toilet paper and I get that this is real, but I got a little bit of time.” And I say this in all respect, that COVID crisis turned into to COVID creativity for a lot of people. Whether that was “hey, I’m going to organize my photos, I’m going to learn cook,” or “I’m going to play guitar.”
Around July and August, we started noticing that dealers were opening up and online [sales] started going crazy. People were like “well, I’m not going to go into a store but I guess I can order a guitar online.” With the quality of engagement online where you can actually see the guitar and components, everyone stepped up and said “this is an unprecedented time for a surge in music, specifically centered around the guitar.” Let’s try to serve that surge but also take positive advantage of it, not just by making and selling more guitars but let’s really foster this next generation of guitarists coming in, whether their beginners intermediates or experts and that’s when we noticed it.
My mantra, one year ago almost to this day, was let’s plan for significant impact, but let’s continue to prepare for future opportunity. That might sound like a ‘CEO cliche’ but it was very real for us. We started planning the Gibson Garage, we started thinking about what Gibson Gives could do more in a time of need for artists and musicians. We started creating our innovation platform around the Murphy lab and a few other things we’re doing in our facilities, and at the same time as we’re developing these innovation platforms we also said “let’s continue to inspire guitarists at all levels.”
So we have the Gibson range and that was in motion with a lot of cool signature guitars that we launched, and then we had Epiphone, which was perfectly positioned timing wise with the whole new Inspired By Gibson collection. All of our guitars and collections were ready to roll and then we back that up with Gibson TV and the Gibson App that we launched. We have the balance of what I’d call innovation and inspiration and the center point is the guitar. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of not just selling more guitars to more people but of actually supporting, nurturing, and contributing to their quest to become a musician, which is really cool.
What has business and local interaction been like since moving the Gibson HQ into the heart of Nashville?
So 2 years ago I declared we were going to triple down on Nashville, and what that meant was we were going to move our offices into the center of Nashville. We’re there now at the Cummins Station, the big amazing iconic brick building in the center of Nashville. We then moved our Memphis facility that made all of our ES guitars to Nashville, and then the third component was this Gibson experience. I think within a year after opening it’ll be a top 5 destination for music lovers in Nashville, and that’s a big statement, but I really believe that having seen it now and seeing the energy behind it.
So that was the triple down in Nashville, and of course we’ve engaged with all the right folks in Nashville whether that’s the musicians or the venues, or even the quite frankly the governors and mayors, and they’re loving what we’re doing. What they care about is “are you helping to contribute to the reputation of music city?” And hands down absolutely yes, we’re creating jobs, we’re growing, and we’re being good citizens of the Nashville and Tennessee community with Gibson Gives.
How do you view the evolution of the guitar in the current music industry, but also more specifically in modern rock and guitar based music?
The guitar has always been at that center of music culture, and sure there are different genres and different generations, but for 127 years, let’s call it fretted instruments, it was the mandolin, then it was the banjo, it was the acoustic guitar, and then it was that move into the jumbos and all of a sudden ‘the Log’ gets created, [one of the first solid-body electric guitars]. Then there was that magical Golden era of Gibson, which was in the 50’s with the birth of the Les Paul. All of that magical era sparked it, there’s been rock and there’s been obviously the whole country scene which is very guitar centric. But this is what we’re seeing now. Go to any festival and like everything in life, it seems we’ve over segmented markets — there’s a festival for everything. But what we’re seeing is there’s a return to authenticity and that authenticity comes through playing an instrument. The instrument of choice right now seems to be the guitar.
I have three kids, three teenagers, and I use them to see what they’re listening to and what they’re gravitating towards. And of course there’s always going to be that cultural zeitgeist of what’s happening that we know about on the Billboard Charts, but there’s also this interesting return to traditional festivals — there’s a Grateful Dead resurgence with University kids and I wouldn’t have called that. So we’re seeing pockets of this and you’re seeing artists who were very DJ centric that are bring up guitarist for their live mashups at Coachella, and you’re like “there’s a guitar, there’s a guitar.” You’re seeing Post Malone show up to the grammy playing a SJ-200, you’re seeing Taylor Swift playing her Gibson, you’re seeing Brandi Carlile at the Grammy’s doing a John Prine tribute playing her Gibson. You’re seeing this genre, generation and quite frankly this gender balance which is healthy, and I think there’s a lot of that next generation in this pandemic going “I’m going to start playing guitar.”
It get’s to the question of how long can a brand live off its iconic past? And as the president of Levi’s, we had to celebrate and make sure we were true to our iconic past but we had to lean into innovation. And I think that’s where we go next. What are the features and benefits of the guitar? One of them was just pure access to an Inspired By Gibson guitar where you didn’t have to pay $2,000 or $5,000 at the Custom Shop, and that’s why we launched the Epiphone Inspired By Gibson range. A kid can see Greta Van Fleet or AC/DC and go “god, I love that SG” when they can now get into it for $400, and with an amazing quality guitar.
We set up Epiphone to be for every stage and what we now know is that kid who’s 15 and saves up for their Epiphone SG, in five or six years they end up getting the Gibson. Then in ten years when they’ve made a little money, they end up getting the Custom Shop. So we’re setting up this lifetime journey, but at the same time those kids are connecting to bluetooth, they live in a lithium ion transportable energy platform. They live in a world where they can share things immediately and collaborate with their friends, so how do we participate in that? That’s where the Gibson App comes into connect the dots, and the Gibson garage, and that’s also quite frankly where new innovations will take place on the guitar.
Was this progression system of getting new players started on the affordable Epiphone guitar ranges, and then moving them on towards the more high end Gibson range, was this process something you had in mind right when you joined Gibson?
Yeah, and it’s my story. When I was a kid, my dad was a navy helicopter pilot and we didn’t have a bunch of money but we always had a piano, a banjo and an Epiphone guitar in the house. My mom said “one day I dream of getting a red Mercedes convertible and a Gibson Guitar,” and that was my parents’ dream. All of a sudden I realized that if you stare down the lifetime journey of guitarists, very few get the chance to start with a Gibson. So it’s an aspirational dream to start with, but now you can get an Inspired By Gibson and then basically it sets up the guitar journey, and that’s for both acoustic and electric.
Getting into the new Gibson App, what was the initial vision behind the new Gibson App, and what’s the roadmap look like for it considering the feedback you’ve gotten thus far?
Most companies that have a fanbase or a following have gone beyond social media into some type of app. So it wasn’t a question of should we do an app or not, it was a question of “what would be a meaningful, compelling and relevant app?” If our vision is for us to be the most relevant, most played, and most loved guitar company, then why wouldn’t our app be the most used and most loved [guitar] app? So we started there and then in really simple terms I was like “how do we connect the dots for players at all levels?”
If you’re a beginner you don’t know where to start, “how do I tune a guitar, how do I learn to play, how do I get inspired by artists, how would I go online and buy a guitar?” Then right through to an intermediate player who says “I want to get better at guitar,” there’s the Gibson App. And then, someone who’s an expert can say “wait a minute, you guys put in an amazing guitar tuner, Gibson TV, virtual guitar tech support, and then also connectivity to Gibson.com?” We started with the vision of ‘let’s connect the dots for guitarists at all levels,’ and at the same time we also realized this wasn’t about competing with Youtube instructors or others. It was really about saying “how do we compliment what they’re doing?” We also follow and support augmentative reality which is really an innovation, but it’s intuitive innovation. So we said “let’s do a virtual guitar tech, so someone could just sit there and set their guitar up with a real person.” So that was the inspiration, and the feedback has just been phenomenal.
Lastly I have to ask, what are some of your favorite rock and/or guitar based albums?
[Laughs] I’m laughing because I’ve got them all up on my wall, I’ve got nine albums in my office and I rotate them. One of my favorite albums of all time was Frampton Comes Alive (1976) just because here’s a guy you didn’t really know about, and he does a double live album. And by the way, there’s a Gibson guitar on the front of the album cover. When I was a kid I was like “I know that’s a Gibson!” And then I think it was KISS Alive! (1975) on the inside cover it said “KISS is the greatest rock n’ roll band and they only use the best, they use Gibson guitars and Pearl drums,” and I went “okay, that’s pretty cool” [laughs]. And then I’m a massive massive Foo Fighters fan. I think what those guys have done with getting through the Nirvana situation and regrouping, and now they’re like 25 years old as a band. Dave [Grohl] is just such an amazing timeless ambassador for rock music and just humanity. His trustee Pelham Blue 335 is always by his side, and as with the rest of the band we have a great relationship with them, so I’m loving what they’re doing.