The times have a-changed, but the iconic electric guitar has managed to adapt for the online generation.
At Capsule Music, a vintage guitar shop on Queen St. W., a 1954 Fender Stratocaster rests atop the counter in its original tweed case. The guitar’s classic two-tone sunburst finish, protected by a Bakelite pickguard, reflects the red glimmer from a neon sign in the shop’s window.
The frets show years of wear — some might call it love — but it’s in remarkably great shape for a 60-year-old.
As technician John Dinsmore gently turns it over, a serial number shines on the back plate. Zero nine seven zero, it reads. By guitar standards, it’s a Stradivarius, a collector’s Holy Grail.
“It’s definitely one of the cleanest Strats I’ve ever seen,” says Mark Kesper, who along with his twin brother Peter, opened Capsule in 1997 in an 800-square-foot storefront overlooking Trinity Bellwoods Park. The guitar, for sale on consignment by a private collector, was purchased in 2011 for $88,000, more than $30,000 above market value.
This model was Fender’s sole commercial offering in its inaugural year. Buddy Holly owned one, inspiring a generation of guitarists when he played it on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. Seven years later, when Bob Dylan switched to the electric guitar, shocking concertgoers at the Newport Folk Music Festival, he played a Stratocaster.
In December, Dylan’s guitar fetched nearly $1 million at Christie’s.
Fender now manufactures 121 Stratocaster variants, from high-end Custom Shop releases worth up to $6,000 to entry-level Squier models selling for under $200. Despite a few modifications — the Bakelite is long gone — they look much as they did back in 1954.
But much has changed in the industry since the guitar’s original owner, a Texas farmer, purchased Leo Fender’s six-string innovation from Wood Music Center in San Angeleno, Tex. As sales have yet to fully recover from the recession (which saw a nearly 30 per cent drop), cost-cutting is an industry-wide concern, and web sales are slowly creeping up over brick and mortar stores.
After 16 years, the Kespers are closing the store and moving exclusively online.
Since 2009, Capsule’s online sales have jumped from 5 per cent to nearly 50 per cent, while retail sales, especially over the holidays, have dropped. Strings, once restocked weekly, are now ordered once a month. “People can jump online and get them cheaper elsewhere,” Mark Kesper says.
In the U.S., online transactions now account for 25 to 30 per cent of overall guitar sales. “At first I was pretty naive to it,” adds Kesper. “You mean someone’s going to give me money without having touched the guitar?”
Whether new or used, guitar shopping is not like buying a television. Despite consistent manufacturing, no two guitars are ever the same. “It’s a very tactile experience,” says Justin Norvell, vice-president of marketing at Fender. “The neck and body will resonate differently from guitar to guitar.”
While 24-hour return policies and secure payment methods have swayed hesitant customers, a younger generation of budding guitarists — although fewer in number — is also pushing this shift. “There’s no question they’re buying online,” says Kesper. “Those parents aren’t looking for that cool guitar we might have here. They just want a Strat or a Les Paul and they’ll locate the best price.”
Conforming to various budgets is one of the reasons Fender has managed to stay relevant, says Jeff Long, vice-president of Long and McQuade. “I think what Fender’s trying to do is be the guitar answer for all price points. They make great product, but you can get a lot of great product from a lot of different companies now.”
When Long joined his father’s company in 1980, Fender only produced a couple of Stratocaster models. “They couldn’t hit all the price points then,” he adds.
This month, Fender is releasing six commemorative 60th anniversary Stratocasters, including a reissue of the 1954 Strat — the one that promised tone “as new and different as tomorrow” — and the budget-minded Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster.
While major U.S. retailers like Guitar Center depend heavily on web sales, Long and McQuade, with more than 60 locations nationwide, and Steve’s Music, with three, have yet to see a major shift. Industry analyst Brian Majeski of Music Trades magazine says Long & McQuade’s online sales reflect 5 to 8 per cent of overall revenue. “It’s relatively small. It doesn’t even come close to generating the kind of income they make at their Bloor St. location.”
Peter Bruni, who has sold guitars at Steve’s Toronto store for more than 25 years, says that even though his customers still prefer to hand-pick a guitar, sales are down overall. “It’s not as crazy busy as it used to be. You hear a lot about the doom and gloom in retail and I guess it’s caught up with the music stores,” he says.
Mark Kesper says he and his brother tried their hardest to keep Capsule open. “Bless all my old customers, but it’s not the reality of the world anymore,” he says. Bruni calls Capsule’s closing a sign of the times.
As a customer walks in, asking about a specific guitar tuner, a veritable piece of rock history sits on the counter. Later, over the phone, Kesper admits his favourite guitar tuner is AccuTune, an iPhone app sold for less than a dollar.
“When the owner of a music store has his tuner on his iPhone, why would a customer come in and buy one?”