It is hard to escape the guitars at NAMM 2018. When you walk down the lobby of the main building there are vintage guitars in glass cases, guitars under construction, photos of famous rock stars playing famous guitars, custom art-piece guitars, and about every 5th man or woman you pass is toting a guitar case. Turn into Hall D and you run into Rickenbacker, Ibanez, TAMA, Alhambra Guitars, Ernie Ball, and of course Martin. As you stroll the aisles you pass walls full of ukuleles (very big this year), guitar cases, picks, amps. Or you can stop into the Martin guitar house – which is what it feels like — sit down on a stool, take down your favorite model and strum away. Or you can get lost in the boutique Guitar Showcase rooms up the aisle.
Now this is not to say that majority of NAMM is not dedicated to technologies – it is. There is so much technology here that the Convention Center had to build a new hall, North ACC, to accommodate brands like Roland, V-Moda, Electro-Voice, SAE-Audio, L-Acoustics, Bose and Pioneer Pro Audio. And this is in addition to the other three halls full of microphones, speakers, lighting, software, DJ rigs, Ableton – you name it. And of course there are the NAMM Tech Awards. But it is the guitars that attract the crowds.
This is good news for the business. Electric guitar sales have been off in recent years as hip hop and synth music displaces rock with young audiences. And ukulele sales are through the roof. But all of that fades when you take the escalator to the third floor of the main halls and enter Fender World.
Spit in several large rooms on both sides of the building to accommodate the many variations of Fender guitars and equipment, Fender has created fret nirvana. Walls and walls of guitars – some are one-of-a kind with multi-thousand dollar price tags on them and others are the latest production models. A stage at one end of the north side of Fender World features a full day of demonstrations by Fender experts and some guitar hero stars. Stools placed throughout the rooms are occupied by men and women testing, acoustic and electric guitars of their dreams under the watchful eyes of Fender staff. Videos of famous Fenders being played by famous people abound, along with screens showing how a Fender is lovingly assembled. Guitar heaven – except that it is so packed you can hardly move. It seems everyone wants to play with a Fender.
If you have the strength to squeeze out of the Fender World, Gretsch beckons across the aisle. Not as large as Fenderworld, the Grutsch environment is equally crowded and equally noisy with demonstrations and individuals trying out new models. Then take the stairs down one floor and fall into Taylor guitars, where I bumped into Binx and Gary Holt of Slayer. Across the aisle is D’Angelico Guitars, Godin Guitars and rooms dedicated to smaller, high end brands of guitars like Paul Reed Smith, Zematis, and Greco. The one brand not here is Gibson which opted out this year.
Second only to the fretted instruments in popularity are keyboards and pianos. When you walk into Hall A you have Casio on the right and Korg on the left, both with demo stages and people trying out their licks on the newest equipment. Or you can wander farther into the hall for Kurzweil, NORD or other brands. But the real center of keyed instruments is Yamaha World, so large it had to be located across the plaza and takes up a huge section of the Marriott Hotel.
When you first walk into the Marriott lobby, you are greeted by a brilliant white grand piano set on a dais next to a wall-size video screen. As the piano plays – anyone can sit down and play it or it can play itself – a moving image of the sound waves emanating from each hammer and string dances across the wall. Projected in the shape of the piano, you can watch the player’s fingers hit the keys and see the sound waves ripple out from each key. As various artists took their turn on the bench the Yamaha staff were able to record each one’s first riff and then play it back to accompany them on subsequent riffs…playing with themselves. A hard drive, switches, pneumatic pumps in the piano do the work.
Down the hall is the entrance to Yamaha World, an oversized ballroom filled with grand pianos, baby grands, uprights, keyboards, synths – everything Yamaha makes with keys. Along one wall are computers and video screens showcasing Yamaha virtual music software. Demonstration stages are sprinkled throughout the room, each with a Yamaha artist or a known musician playing and teaching. And of courses, there are dozens of people working the keys of the floor models themselves.
The room is so large that, although there is a cacophony of music rising from it, as you stand close to each instrument, you can hear and focus on it – the other instruments become background sound. It is easy to get lost in Yamaha World, or just sit in the lobby and watch the while piano project is music, a nice break in Day 3.