NAMM: A Day in the Musical Candy Store

By Michael Finkelstein

The legendary NAMM show convened for four days between Thursday and Sunday, as it has for many Januarys running, at the Anaheim Convention Center. I’m sure it’s been said before, but the NAMM show is an event you’ve gotta get to at least once in your life…if you’re lucky enough to be invited. You’ll be the kid in the candy store, with access to all of the amazing products that you’ve seen online, heard the buzz about, and perhaps tried via a friend. Throughout the hall, there are seminars and workshops to attend given by cutting edge people. It’s literally like walking into a google search of your favorite music merchandise. Everything is pretty much in there if you seek it out. Celebrities,

Jet Age Arena

amazing players, and colorful rock n roll types abound.

Over four days the NAMM show attracts somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 people. If you have an agenda, and you want to do it right, it will take some pre-event research, or perhaps a walk through day to actually scope out everything on the four floors of the convention center to plan the next day’s itinerary. Then follow-up on your interests the next day as every booth has super well-informed, and accommodating people to help convince you to carry their products.

I arrived Saturday in the middle of a throng of traffic…and I wound up parked several miles away and shuttling in past Disneyland from at the Honda Center. My check-in was in the lobby of the old Anaheim Arena, with its jet age architecture. Once upon a time in the 70’s, this place was an important stop on the rock circuit. The Faces recorded a live album here in their heyday. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention rocked this place many times. Now, it was full of booths and displays, but they weren’t getting quite the foot traffic of the main room. I made sure I walked through the hall that would have been the stage entrance back in the day. Ron Wood and Rod Stewart would have been at their brash best right here, 45 years ago with the Faces…

The very first thing that grabbed me in the main room was called the Moog interactive Island Electronicus, a rather faithful recreation of the site of several 70’s happenings thrown by hipster/huckster David van Koevering on an island in Florida. Originally, there would be a band onstage and the audience could participate with the newly invented synthesizers, in beautiful analog tonalities. At the NAMM display, there wasn’t a band set up but there were many stations, with pillows, rugs, plants, books, tapestries, individual synthesizers and control boards, and keyboards for maximum audience participation in the jam. There was even an astro-turf lawn to recreate the Florida island vibe. Great stuff!

My light agenda for the day centered on scoping out what was new with guitars and basses, and the tangents that would arise along the way. While most would think of the bass as a four-string instrument, it has evolved into more than that. Now, companies like Schecter, Ibanez, and Fender have made sure that the new generation of 5-string, and 6-string basses present a new range of pitch and tone for bass players. I was very keen to go see what Alembic had to offer but, sadly, they didn’t participate. Still, there was much to see in the way of basses. Up on the third floor, it was a crowded scene at the Schecter suite. Would you believe they make a four string bass with its low strings over the fretted half and its high strings over the fretless half of the fingerboard? A hybrid fretboard! Gotta be precise on those frets, but what a cool idea.

Jose Hernandez works the 7 string

I made a point of dropping in on the Godin suite. They seem to always have great music happening in their room. This year was no exception. It seems they have a new acoustic seven-string guitar, which the amazing Jose Roberto Hernandez was demo-ing in a jam. He was truly making the thing talk with beautiful simultaneous bass lines and jazzy guitar chords. This points out a win-win situation for a sponsored musician and their sponsor. They build him an instrument that he will surely make appealing to anyone who hears him play it. The Godin rep was just beaming as we all took it in. Across the same room we had a trio of some very serious flamenco guitar music beginning. It can get a little overwhelming, in the best of ways, with so much compelling music going on in every direction but that’s how it is at the NAMM show.

NAMM 1
Live 3D blueprint of a Strat

No trip to the third floor would be complete without hitting the Fender exhibit. Fender really does impress at the NAMM show with a huge and involved presentation. Just a bout all of the dozens upon dozens of the Fender models from Aerodyne basses to Bass VI’s to a George Harrison rosewood Strat were accounted for. But there was so much more. There were some nice demos of their amp capabilities…like how to pull Neil Young like distortion out of the gain channel on their amps. There were solo blues performers demo-ing their acoustic guitar amps. Fender even did a 3D presentation of the blueprintof a Stratocaster with each part suspended from above on chains. Very cool.

The Fender Custom Shop spiced up the room in a big way. Many one-off creations hung there attracting gazes and approving nods by the minute. Some of the most impressive work by the Custom Shop was done in producing brand new Strats, Teles, P-Basses and Jazz Basses to look like they were weathered for about 50 years, right down to the relief in the chipped paint. Who knew that beaten up, big-time would become worth Custom Shop prices.

NAMM 2 yellow guitar
Brand new guitar from the custom shop

The matrix that holds the NAMM show together is the ongoing presence of fine music everywhere you turn. You literally can’t walk 100 yards without hearing something that your ears want to follow. Most booths big enough to hold a stage had done equipped with drums, amps, and a PA. Name artists came in to jam, scheduled and unscheduled, throughout the day. The vibe at these jams is much like watching a street musician tearing it up. People savor and share the moment as none of these crowds could ever really exceed about 100 people, so everyone is in on it together.

I chanced to see a couple of great jams, one at the D’Angelico suite featuring Jeff Baxter of Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers fame playing some gorgeous jazzy blues on their stage. But, I believe the most satisfying jam I saw was at the LaBella string booth on the first floor. There, we had four guys playing Armenian folk music on an electric violin, an oud, a cabron, and a six string bass. It’s a beautiful thing to see four guys with so much talent dish it out equally with so much skill in the delivery. And, man, could bassist Vik Momjian play the six string tastefully. It was so much fun to watch! I later got to listen to him a bit more at the Michael Tobias bass booth as he tried a couple of their gorgeous six string basses. His playing on those basses was inspiring to put it mildly.

And, then, before I knew what was happening, the houselights flash, it’s 6:00pm, and it’s time to leave the hall. Quickly. That’s also when the folks with the invites to the corporate parties really begin to cut loose…and when folks like me join the masses to catch the shuttle back to our cars and resume the freeway dance back home. But, what a fun day in the candy store it was.

******

Photos by Mike Finkelstein

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