Gibson Guitars

Guitar Globalization

Ex-Rage Against the Machine axman Tom Morello decides to Rock Against the TPP.

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Tom Morello perfotming at Nokia Theater, New York

President Barack Obama has taken his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pitch on the road, hoping to rally support for the controversial trade deal. Meanwhile, ex–Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello has kicked off a politically fueled road trip of his own. With the support of nonprofit Fight for the Future, Morello's own Firebrand Records, and a musically diverse lineup of ideologically unified comrades, the nationwide Rock Against the TPP tour will compete with the president for hearts and minds with the ultimate goal of stopping "the biggest corporate power grab in history."

For the Morello militia, no sphere of civil life is safe from the ravages of trade. "If it becomes law, the TPP…poses a grave threat to good-paying jobs, internet freedom, the environment, access to medicine, food safety, and the future of freedom of expression," the tour's website warns hysterically.

But the very concept of "rocking" against the TPP has an unavoidable irony embedded in it. To rock, one must have a guitar. And the reason so many Americans own guitars today is thanks, in large part, to past trade agreements like the TPP.

The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, adopted in 1960, was the first nudge toward opening up trade relations between the two historic enemies. By the following decade, Japan-based Ibanez had started experimenting with the electric guitar template pioneered by U.S. monoliths Fender and Gibson.

This happened to coincide with mounting consumer dissatisfaction with the latter two brands. As the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards explains, for Fender and Gibson, "the quality started dwindling in the '60s and '70s. And after a decade or so, Japan realized they can make them better." The Ibanez products, cheaper and of superior quality, suddenly enjoyed consumer favor. The shifting industry landscape also inspired new U.S. upstarts to enter the market, most notably Mesa Boogie and Peavey Electronics.

By the mid-1980s, through corporate restructuring spurred on by their burgeoning competitors, Fender and Gibson had regained the status they command to this day. "Evil investment firms came in," Edwards jests, "and, seeing that these companies were undervalued and poorly managed, bought them out." Soon after, they reintroduced the brands, stressing their return to mid-century quality standards. "That's how capitalism works."

But the relaunch had a dark side as well: Gibson filed an (unfruitful) lawsuit against Ibanez on imitation grounds, alleging the Japanese brand had defied trademark laws by imitating Gibson guitar headstocks. And the U.S. enacted barriers in response to what was perceived as excessive "dumping" of imports. A self-immolating overreaction, this move stopped the flow of cheap electronic materials coming from Japan and significantly raised the cost of production on manufacturers in the U.S., for a time handicapping their competitive virility in the marketplace.

In the 20 years since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the value of America's imports of musical instruments and supplies has outpaced that of its exports by 530 percent, according to a recent study in The Music Trades. But while woodwinds took a hit, string manufacturers have actually enjoyed a trade surplus. Access to foreign markets led to "increased employment at U.S. guitar plants over the past two decades," the authors note.

Even so, the deficit-vs.-surplus matchup is an inaccurate way to measure overall outcomes. Implementing protectionist policies, such as tariffs and quotas, to reduce trade deficits has backfired for the music industry in the past. In addition to the risk of instigating a trade war, which would in turn harm the value of our exports, protectionism relies on the fallacy that consumers would be inspired to buy out of their price range if only the cost of cheap imports they've gotten used to were increased.

It's fortunate then that Morello, who sports a hammer-and-sickle Communist Party sticker on his guitar, hasn't entirely gotten his way. While mazes of trade restrictions still exist, the free movement of goods and labor has sparked an explosion in variety of style, quality, and cost, empowering all consumers, not just the wealthy. Fender, for example, manufactures most of its pricier high-end guitars in Corona, California, while basing its downscale Squier subsidiary below the border. Gibson's strategy is similar: That company's more expensive guitar models are produced in Nashville, Tennessee, while its cheaper counterpart, Epiphone, assembles its instruments overseas. Meanwhile, the boutique guitar revolution has been precipitated by a groundswell of enterprising craftsmen, accommodating the demand of serious virtuosos and hobbyists with penchants for unorthodox aesthetics and intimidating price tags.

Allowing manufacturers to access cheaper inputs for the lower rungs of their output means more guitars, more guitarists, and more protest anthems. The Rock Against the TPP tour is a friendly neighborhood reminder that you don't need a distortion pedal to peddle distortion.

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45 responses to “Guitar Globalization

  1. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

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  2. I’ll say it again, free trade agreements shouldn’t have to be thousands of pages long.

    These are more crony capitalist agreements than free trade agreements.

    1. TPP especially fits the crony-capitalist label. We already have substantial trade relations with the TPP countries.

      One of the worst features of TPP, sufficient to justify rejecting it, is blocking reform of our dysfunctional, parasite-enriching Intellectual Property (IP) law, eg: software patents, excessive copyright terms, and outrageously inflated statutory damages.

  3. RATTPP, obviobviously.

  4. There is no such thing as a trade deficit.

    0. Dollars out equals dollars in, by definition, unless those wily foreigners are burning the dollars they received in exchange for the goods they sold to Americans. The only way to use those dollars is to buy something else, and eventually those dollars have to buy American goods.

    1. The number is a meaningless accounting trick, counting some things and not others, for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Ie, its cooked.

    2. The number is for trade with a single country, which is as meaningful as toting up your trade deficit with the local grocer: either you work for the grocer, in which case you have a huge surplus, or you don’t, in which case you have deficit.

    I, personally, wish the TPP would sink without a trace. We could reduce tariffs unilaterally and improve our economy on our own, without caring if other countries want to reduce their tariffs. They would only be able to see us more if they also bought more (see #0 above), and we wouldn’t get the horrendous baggage of the TPP, such as forcing all other signatories to follow US copyright law.

    1. I’ve never understood the idea of trade defecit. Like China is turning too much of our money into things we would rather have? Or is it about jobs? The only way there could possibly be something I might call a defecit in a trade is if there’s coercion involved. I honestly don’t understand what that meme is supposed to mean

      1. It took me a long time to figure it out. My reaction when I first heard about it was, how can you possibly have an imbalance? What do foreigners do with the money they get when we buy their products? It has to come back.

        Then I learned of the accounting tricks, and I think it was just one more brick in the wall of political duplicity. Certain transactions do not count. Now I may have this backwards or inside out, but suppose Toyota builds a factory here for $1B. That counts in the trade deficit. But suppose they instead buy a factory here for the same amount. That does not count. It goes into a different set of books. (Like I said, I may have the example backwards, or it may be some third way which does not count.) Or it may be buying US Treasury bills which doesn’t count. Thus the trade deficit, a completely artificial bit of nonsense that would do Hollywood or the Mafia proud.

  5. “Morello, who sports a hammer-and-sickle Communist Party sticker on his guitar”

    I suspect that those Millennials who think George W. Bush killed more people than Joseph Stalin form part of Morello’s fan base.

    1. Morello’s the guy who genuinely thought he could stop the Iraq War if he wrote a good enough song to protest Bush.

    2. He’s really nothing special on guitar , unless you judge someone only by how fast they can regurgitate minor pentatonic cliches. Most of us call that “practice”

      1. That’s funny!
        Now I have to get back to my practicing my Major, Minor, Mixolydian, Phrygian and Dorian scales so I can play along with some Zappa.

  6. Always a pity when talented people are such complete and utter morons. Can’t stand Rage Against the Machine but Morello’s work with Audioslave is terrific.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gO3BVyZXQwg

    1. That first album rocked.

      I’ve always suspected that Morello and his ilk don’t quite send the political message (outside fellow travelers) that they think they send.

      1. No, in fact one could say that people who sport communist sticklers while they “Rage Against the Machine” do not truly understand how menacing, evil, and destructive the communist machine really was/is.

      2. Yes, session musicians are great. More talent, less baggage. Can’t say I’ve listened to much Rage Against the Vending Machine though.

  7. Tom Morello is a dumb cunt, and his music sucks.

  8. Morello is a communist. For some reason (I would say mostly due to leftists largely controlling education and the media), supporting communism is not looked at in the same way as, say, supporting Nazism. It most certainly should.

    1. They are most assuredly the same thing. The same product with this different commercials.

  9. I applaud Vincent for trying to inject a market-analysis dimension into the argument here. I’m not sure it goes very well (call it a B-; the pun at the end took off at least a half-grade); its always difficult to intertwine a discussion of complex market-evolution with a simpler-narrative like “More Trade Always Good”. I’m not sure the story here necessarily bears that out, although there are definitely angles to it that help illustrate the point, at the least.

    I think the simplest point is that “the US consumer has consistently benefited” from overseas trade/competition; there were moments where US companies nearly went under, and where product quality actually *did* decline due to flooding the market with cheap foreign-made goods… but in the longer run, the consumer has reaped rewards, and American companies have adapted and responded in ways that would likely never have occurred without the opportunities that global trade created.

    guitars aside – i think its also probably notable that (affordable and available) Japanese products significantly influenced the changes that took place in music from the 1980s to now. Technics turntables and Akai samplers have probably been more influential to American music than Gibson guitars in the last 30+ years.

    1. Oh, and fuck Tom Morello.

      1. You mentioned African music from the 70’s a few weeks back. I’m sure you know Fela, but have you checked out the solo stuff that his drummer Tony Allen has done? His solo stuff from the 70’s is awesome, like Jealousy and Progress, and some of his newer stuff like Black Voices, Psycho on the Bus, and Secret Agent albums are really good. He is one of my all time favourite drummers.

        1. have you checked out the solo stuff that his drummer Tony Allen has done?

          Absolutely. I picked up the “Secret Agent” album a few years back but never listened to it a lot – checked it out again over this summer and it has been in constant rotation since.

          I have a few records on vinyl (from the 90s i think) so don’t get listened to as frequently. (*I think they might have been collaborations that were more electronic-oriented, but can’t remember) I was always a funk collector, and my interest in the strict-afrobeat stuff tended to be sporadic. I really like everything i’ve heard from him tho, even more than the Fela stuff.

        2. Just flipped through some stuff and i have the older “black voices” record on wax. thanks for reminding me. I think its just that and then one or two 12″ things he did w/ Dub producers or something.

          1. I love the Black Voices album, i think it is his best since the Jealousy/ Progress era. I got to meet him once in Spain. What an amazing drummer.

    2. Cut it to 20 years and you’re probably right about turntables and samplers, on the other hand with the nu Metal wave in the early 2000s late 90s it becomes tricky. Pop has moved away from instrumentation but one of the best features of the current musical scene is the breadth of selection we have as consumers.

  10. I see that Tom Morello is playing a Fender Stratocaster, an instrument which is produced by a company that benefits greatly by having many of it’s instruments manufactured in foreign countries under exactly the kind of trade agreements he objects to.

    I’m surprised he doesn’t play a Rickenbacker, which is produced only in America, by a company with a CEO who largely shares his views.

    Of course, that may explain why Fender largely owns the electric guitar market, while a Rickenbacker, despite having had customers like the Beatles, the Stones, the Byrds, Deep Purple and Yes, is today largely a niche player which sells a relatively small number of boutique instruments.

    1. I see that Tom Morello is playing a Fender Stratocaster

      no, its just a parts-bin guitar. everyone makes that shape. and i’m pretty sure its an ibanez or ESP body/neck

      Rickenbackers also suck balls. You sound smarter when you’re just being racist.

      1. Can’t tell from the pic but I’d guess ESP, Ibanez are more angled on the horns, and those look like active pickups. Either that or it’s a hot-rodded to hell Fender. Which the irony of a communist hot-rodding a guitar is slightly beautiful.

        1. Why does Tom Morello need 23 guitar pedals when children are starving?!

  11. So Epiphone IS Gibson? Okay, that makes sense.

    I was talking to a singer last night who had an Epiphone Les Paul. I was a bit confused because I thought Les Pauls were Gibson.

    1. Epiphone is the cheap version of Gibson just like Squier and Fender. An epiphone Les Paul standard is generally much cheaper than a Gibson LP Standard.

    2. Epiphone is the cheap version of Gibson just like Squier and Fender. An epiphone Les Paul standard is generally much cheaper than a Gibson LP Standard.

    3. Epiphone is the cheap version of Gibson just like Squier and Fender. An epiphone Les Paul standard is generally much cheaper than a Gibson LP Standard.

    4. Epiphone is the cheap version of Gibson just like Squier and Fender. An epiphone Les Paul standard is generally much cheaper than a Gibson LP Standard.

      1. Epiphone is the cheap version of Gibson just like Squier and Fender

        Not to over-nitpick…*but*

        …that’s *generally* true.

        But the brand Epiphone pre-dated Gibson’s ownership; they were not always, “cheap gibsons”, they were just a different guitar maker. When Gibson took them over, some of their cheap discount lines became ‘Epiphone’ branded (eg. their cheaper LP’s & SG jrs etc.). When you go to someplace like Sweetwater, or Guitar Center, everything Epiphone-branded will probably just be cheap versions of the standard Gibson stuff.

        But their line of hollow & semi-hollow arch-top guitars are still considered “premium” instruments. Vintage ones go for $5-10K, and the higher-end new ones can still go for a couple grand. They do make cheaper-arch-top models, but even those are considered very good for what they are, and aren’t just ‘cheaper’ versions of gibson branded instruments.

  12. It is impossible to overemphasize how big of a twat Tom Morello is. If you have any doubt, read his own account of interacting with the staff at that bar in Seattle. It actually sounds worse than the accounts of the staff. He is an unbelievablely condescending douche canoe.

  13. “…you don’t need a distortion pedal to peddle distortion.” golf clap

    The fact that the TPP Agreement itself is classified with ridiculous restrictions on viewing it tells me there is danger ahead if it passes.

    Its deja vu “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it ? away from the fog of the controversy.” all over again. And you know how that is working out. And if you don’t, fuck you and your cadillac plan. That cadillac is gonna get stripped anyway if Hiliary gets the, gets the, gets the. It’s too vile a thought to express. I have standards.

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  17. “…who sports a hammer-and-sickle Communist Party sticker on his guitar…”

    Which should be about as socially acceptable as a swastika. Yet somehow it is not.

    Because being a Marxist means never having to apologize for genocide.leftist

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