By Mike Finkelstein
Anaheim, CA. For anyone who appreciates music, the NAMM show is a scene you simply must make once in your life, maybe more. NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convenes twice annually, once in the winter at the Anaheim Convention Center and once in the summer, in Nashville. It has become more than a convention, and is now a four day event attended by thousands, with awards given to distinguished artists and manufacturers, concerts all day outdoors on a huge stage, celebrity signings, ongoing celebrity jams, intriguing food trucks, plenty of free stuff, and a whole lot of entertaining people to watch.
I was struck by how many people appeared to be dressed in their rock star costumes. These folks must look like they are on or near a stage every day. The multi-color hair and bizarre tats and piercings are a long-term proposition, a commitment. Of course, that’s rock and roll and we do love it. There were even people in costumes running around simply to provide photo ops, but that felt schticky, a little like Hollywood and Highland.
Entry to NAMM is exclusive. Everyone who gets in must apply for and receive a badge to get through the doors. Physically getting to those doors isn’t so easy, either, as parking is at a premium. I had to park about a mile away from the site, and hoof it in. But it was a gorgeous day and I was with many other like-minded souls so it was cool…and free. Inside the convention center, vendors build a four story musical city, a multi-tiered grid of all conceivable music gear. And sometimes getting from one side of an aisle to the other is not unlike jaywalking in New York City. One must be alert as there are throngs of folks in constant motion on the NAMM floor.
Since so many manufacturers are represented under one roof, you can explore any curiosity on the spot, at the source. This worked out well for me. I cruised into the plush-carpeted Rickenbacker display, giddily strummed several of the shiny guitars, and inquired as to how pros actually deal with restringing their (in)famous 12-strings. These beautiful beasts are a well-known source of aggravation because the whole guitar must be unstrung and laboriously restrung even when one only string is a problem. But I was let in on the masking tape and long nose pliers solution to make things more efficient. Still, the ultra inconvenient “R” tailpiece will endure, as its design is classic and a part of an enduring image. Of course, the equally cool Ricky basses, have a much more string friendly design and will also stay the same.
Before going to the NAMM show I wasn’t aware that guitar straps actually come in sizes like shirts do. So within a short exchange of dialogue I had learned about strap sizing. I also learned that there are several names for the extension adjustment strap on a leather guitar strap (“tongue” was the best that I heard), that they are sold separately, and can extend a strap by as much as 12 inches. The big idea was that huge vendors only carry some of many things. There is more variety available if one goes straight to the manufacturer, online or in person, than if one goes to a big distributor.
I had a feeling there would be some pleasant surprises nestled into the NAMM grid. Would you believe that somebody developed a product that allows you to actually be heard playing air drums? Yes, a special high-speed camera program gauges your movements, anticipating which drums you are reaching for and attaches sound. Voila, you can be heard. It was uncanny to watch, like some sort of illusion.
One thing about the NAMM show, it borders on a muted din most of the time. There are so many displays where you can pick up an instrument to play and whether it was pianos, trumpets, or drums, there were usually a good dozen artists and regular folks just bashing away ecstatically. It’s a great way to make that much noise. The drum neighborhood at the end of the day was particularly lively. Big jam sessions up and down the block at every booth.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the NAMM show is that there are small concerts going on all the time in the booths. And a lot of these gigs are phenomenal. Sometimes it’s one person playing over a pre-recorded backing track. Other times it’s a whole ensemble.
These jams can get crowded but wow, if you have a good spot you’re in for a treat. I got lucky three times. Albert Lee was tearing it up at Music Man, and then I happened over to Godin guitars where Jose Roberto Hernandez and his friends were doing a sublime job of it. Beautiful guitar work from Hernandez, violin, acoustic bass guitar, and three hand percussionists made for some amazing, layered, poly-rhythmic music. Words won’t do it justice. On the other hand, I really couldn’t get a view of John Popper at Fender or of Doug Wimbash at Burgera.
The best jam I saw was by far at the Mark Bass booth. If you can believe it, about thirty of us got to watch as guitarist Frank Gambale and six string bass ace Alain Caron strutted their chops and soared into the stratosphere together. The grin on our faces, and on theirs, was ear to ear. One person in the crowd actually had to steady the keyboard from falling off the corner of the amp it was perched upon. It was that casual, and yet that good.
Up on the third floor the heavy hitters of guitar set up shop with lavish booths and lots of decor. This would be Fender, Gibson, ESP, Schecter, and Paul Reed Smith. ESP in particular, had some sculpted guitars that looked as impressive as they were close to unplayable for more than an encore…or a photo session. Paul Reed Smith exhibited some wild inlay work, too.
Gibson had a whole table of headphones and Les Pauls to play privately, much like you would see in the Apple store. They seemed to be pushing their self-tuning guitar heads, but hey, the one I played just got confused and like in some silly sci-fi movie, the tuning heads spun about, taking the guitar nowhere close to being tuned. Hmm…
At the big name booths I saw a whole lotta desks in sound-proof offices for making deals. People were here to deal and there was plenty of that going on. You literally couldn’t walk across the Martin Guitar booth without an obstacle course of office furniture. And interestingly enough, when I played one of their $6000 guitars, there was so much general commotion that I could scarcely hear what I was playing. It happens.
At six o’clock the lights dimmed as I was being serenaded with Norteno music and learning about Bajo Sextos and Bajo Quintos. That was a great little session. The show was over and it was time for most of us to trudge to our cars, while in the banquet rooms the VIP’s were just warming up for a night of music and awards. Just another day at the NAMM show. I was happily drained on the way home.
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Photos by Mike Finkelstein.
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