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Guitar sales soar amid pandemic, boosting Sonoma County instrument makers, retailers

In recent years, the guitar was considered by some to be left for dead, an outmoded relic of the rock star era.

Sales of them had plummeted and cornerstone manufacturer Gibson and retailer Guitar Center filed for bankruptcy.

But as people continue looking for homebound hobbies during the coronavirus pandemic, those of all generations are dusting off six-strings tucked away in closets and buying new guitars and musical equipment.

That’s sent revenue soaring for guitar makers nationwide and provided a shot in the arm for Sonoma County’s cottage industry of fretted instrument manufacturers. Local guitar shops, meanwhile, have sought to adapt to meet this new demand, which is largely attributed to surging online sales.

Rob Turner, founder of Santa Rosa-based EMG Inc., a company specializing in making electric guitar pick-ups, key components in transforming the vibrations of plucked strings into amplified sound, said some product orders are backed up for as many as 12 weeks.

“It’s gone insane,” Turner said. “I’m not kidding you, it’s absolutely insane.”

The company’s digital sales have doubled since the start of the pandemic last spring, while orders from guitar makers that install the pick-ups in their instruments are up almost 50%.

Fender, the legendary Southern California guitar maker known for instruments played by Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, uses EMG pick-ups in certain models. In November, Fender said it expected sales to jump 17% from 2019 to over $700 million when 2020 figures are finalized, according to CNBC. Other popular manufacturers such as Gibson, Martin and Taylor also have reported a pandemic sales boost.

Dave Cafiero, general manager of Petaluma ukulele maker and importer Kala Brand Music Co., said a renewed interest in learning to play an instrument by grade school students and adults alike is also spurring sales of the guitar’s smaller cousin.

“Right now, I think people have more disposable time,” Cafiero said. “This is something people already wanted to do, and now they have the time to do it.”

But that boost hasn’t come without pandemic-related difficulties. Cafiero said that even after the company was able to operate again after an initial shutdown this spring, widespread shipping delays have remained a drag on business.

“We definitely saw momentum in our sales, but the challenge is that our supply chain has been disrupted,” he said.

In addition, many of the mom-and-pop music shops the company distributes to are struggling to stay afloat while contending with public health restrictions, as well as competition from large online sellers such as Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend, which are reportedly seeing huge spikes in sales. Those digital retailers often can advertise instruments and gear at lower prices, in part by shipping directly from manufacturers.

With people increasingly shopping online, Tall Toad Music in Petaluma has pivoted to selling more instruments through its website, including to many buyers outside of the Bay Area.

“We’ve gotten into more high-end stuff,” owner Charles Cowles said. “We’re selling $5,000 to $15,000 guitars, and there's not too many people in Petaluma who want to buy those expensive instruments.”

After being forced to temporarily close its doors in March, the store took out an emergency loan, helping offset losses. And despite state and local stay-home orders limiting store capacity to just 25%, the shop still has its fair share of in-person shoppers.

Steven Cozza, 35, stopped by the Tall Toad last week to buy strings for an old acoustic guitar that had belonged to his father. Cozza made it a New Year’s resolution to learn to play classic rock songs by Tom Petty and John Fogerty while he’s stuck at home in Petaluma.

“My grandpa was a professional violinist and he played in the ’60s with some of the big bands; he played with Sinatra,” Cozza said. “I’ve always (struggled with) music, and then I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to give it a shot, I’ve got to learn.’”

Dustin Heald, co-owner of Stanroy Music Center in Santa Rosa, said that at the start of the pandemic, he saw a rush of customers coming in with long-neglected guitars for repairs. As the crisis has dragged on, it’s a dedicated group of local musicians that’s been key to sustaining the 74-year-old shop, he said.

With shopping patterns clearly shifting, Heald is considering beginning to sell his inventory online. Still, he’s skeptical of those predicting the demise of brick-and-mortar music stores.

When buying a new instrument, Heald said, many musicians still covet the chance to discover a “personal bond” with a guitar, bass or saxophone before taking it home. On top of that, the digital buying experience is no replacement for the community local shops can provide.

“I just see so many examples every day of how people appreciate us,” Heald said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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