At the outset, I should confess that I love guitars. I don’t just like them. I don’t just have a passing interest in them. I genuinely love everything about them: the way they look, the way they feel and the way they sound. If I’m not looking at them or playing them, the chances are I’ll be listening to them or reading about them. In fact, my emotional response to guitars veers dangerously close to obsession.
And judging by the turnout for the Birmingham Guitar Show every year, I’m not alone. Visitors are clearly identifiable as they converge on New Bingley Hall on show days. The constituency is predominantly male, usually middle aged and typically decked out in what was considered stylish in whatever decade they were adolescents. So it’s the place to be if you want to spot stringy pony tails, leather bomber jackets and cowboy boots. The Fashion Police could clear their cold case files in a weekend. Among the usual suspects are also a handful of young lads with their dads, one or two knots of gangly teenagers who think they’re in a band and even the odd long-suffering girlfriend, trailing grimly round with her beau to ensure he doesn’t blow the engagement ring money on a Chinese Les Paul copy.
As an aficionado, there are three fundamental reasons for attending a guitar show. The first is that you get to see and hear the exotic new gear you’ve previously only pored over in guitar magazines or during your many hours online. (Yes, guitar porn really is a thing.) A bonus is that as you move through the exhibitors’ stands, you amass a library of glossy catalogues and brochures that will serve only to feed your addiction. The second is that you can get up close and personal with instruments that have such astronomically high price tags that you daren’t even allow yourself to dream about ever owning them. The third is that there are usually “Special Show Prices” on everything from patch cables to Marshall half-stacks that offer substantial discount certainly on high-street prices, and possibly even on internet deals.
My friend M, who has to remain anonymous for reasons that will become apparent, asserts that it is a punter’s duty at any guitar show to buy enough guitar-related items for the savings to exceed whatever he’s paid to get in. There is a certain logic to this, which is all the more persuasive if you’re one of the thousands afflicted by GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome).
Consequently the seasoned attenders will quickly scope out the three-for-a-tenner deals on strings, the low-priced clip-on tuners, fold-up guitar stands, cables and gig bags. In the course of a leisurely half-day’s browsing, they will amass a goodie bag of bits and pieces and congratulate themselves on having saved twenty quid. The fact that they’ve had to spend around £50 to do so is neither here nor there.
Some visitors, however, are more focused. They’ve come for a specific item and are not to be distracted by baubles and trinkets. These are the serious purchasers. They know they want a PRS Custom 22 with bird inlays, or an Orange Rockerverb head or an Auden Chester with cedar top and rosewood back and sides, and they want to pay substantially less for these high end items than they would in store. You can easily spot the type. They are early birds, and are usually leaving the venue as the rest of us are stumbling blearily up from bus stop and railway station. They are carrying square-cut cases, or cradling cardboard boxes with alluring logos screen printed on them. They are trying to look nonchalant but succeed only in looking smug.
Speaking of which, I bumped into M just inside the entrance doors this year. He looked flushed and a bit jittery, as if he really wanted to do a little dance but was restraining himself. I recognised the signs. GAS had clearly got the better of him. It was thirty minutes after the doors had opened and he’d already bought two electric guitars which he’d just stowed under a fleecy blanket in the boot of his car. A faraway look came into his eye as he described them to me in loving detail, enumerated their features, lingered over the lushness of their finishes and positively glowed at the deal he’d managed to strike on the pair.
“Yes, but how are you going to get those into the house?” I enquired. “Won’t there be awkward questions?” His eyes sparkled. “That’s the beauty of it,” he grinned. “She’s gone to her sister’s for the weekend. They’ll be slotted in amongst the others in the spare room by the time she gets back and no-one any the wiser.” Good job he ticked the box for no publicity.
The success of any guitar show depends of course on the range and profile of its exhibitors, and these usually fall into three clear demarcations: the dealers, the artisans and the major manufacturers.
The dealers are the backbone of the show; it’s the prospect of a bargain that pulls a large number of the crowd in. They generally have established premises somewhere and have brought in a selection of their stock that, for one reason or another, they want to get rid of. Whether it’s a Custom Shop Strat or a carton of trigger-action capos, it’s probably been hanging around the shop gathering dust for a few months and they need the room – or the cashflow. The heady atmosphere generated by a few hundred punters eager to save the price of their entry ticket is ideal for unloading surplus stock and there are certainly bargains to be had. But caveat emptor. Just because the big red card says “Special Price” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily cheaper than you could find it elsewhere. And, unless the dealer’s local, you’ll have a hell of a job returning it if it proves faulty or you just don’t like it when you get it home.
At the other end of the scale are the artisans, and I actually feel quite sorry for them. These are generally one- or two-person enterprises demo’ing high quality products that they’ve bet their life savings/inheritance/redundancy money will fill a niche in the market. Examples might be hand-tooled premium leather straps, iPad software that helps you write songs like The Beatles or bespoke guitar stands in highly-figured exotic woods. I feel sorry for them because however worthy, useful, ecologically sourced or ergonomically pleasing their wares are, they’re just not sexy, so their reps stand like the weedy lads who are always last to get picked for the football team, proffering their flyers more in hope than expectation as the crowds surge past them on their way to check out the discounts on Mexican Telecasters. However much sympathy you might feel, however, you must never, ever, catch their eye. Evince even the most desultory interest, and you’ll never get away. And, take it from me, you’ll never write songs like The Beatles, no matter how much software you buy.
The major manufacturers are, self-evidently, a massive draw as they parade their new shiny kit for the drooling masses. Here you’ll find the stuff of myth and legend: it’s like being afforded a glimpse into the house band’s dressing room in Valhalla; instrumental treasures crowd the walls, their bird of paradise gloss finishes artfully spotlit, while amplifiers crouch on the floor in semi-circular ranks, squat and important in their black Tolex coverings and glittering grille cloth. This, you ponder, is what you’d invest your salary in if you didn’t have a mortgage, a daughter at university or seventeen payments left on the loan for the conservatory. For a brief span, in this wonderland insulated from the realities of the weekly trip to Sainsbury’s and attending your youngest’s parents evening, you can let your imagination run free.
Not only that, but you’re positively encouraged to help yourself. Your heart’s desires are there, enshrined on wall hangers or leaning provocatively on floor stands, exuding a quiet confidence and humming with barely-suppressed power. “Play me,” they say. “Go ahead. Pick me up. Weigh me in your hands. Squint down my neck to check it for straightness. Strum a few experimental chords. That’s what I’m here for. Nobody cares that you’ll leave greasy fingerprints all over me. No one cares that you can’t afford me. To be honest, nor can most of the others who’ve had their arms round my shoulders. Just be careful not to fall for me, or you’ll never know another minute’s rest.”
Perversely, it’s once a guitar is in your hands that the anxiety really kicks in. What do you play? Some tunes are completely forbidden. “Smoke on the Water” is one; “Stairway to Heaven” is another. Whatever you’re tempted to try and fumble your way through, if it’s recognisable, you’d better get it spot on if you want to avoid embarrassing yourself. Look around you. Rising above the hellish cacophony of amps turned to 11, pre-pubescent prodigies are rippling effortlessly through arpeggiated solos learned note for note from Slash albums while their dads look fondly on and dream of what might have been. The question dancing in their eyes is all too clear: “Can I finally justify buying a Gibson?” Meanwhile spotty youths who’ve tuned to drop D are chunking out death metal riffs as their mates stand around them in a respectful semi-circle, eyes closed, swinging their curtains of lank hair in transcendent appreciation. Older guys, with an instrument precariously ledged on their swelling bellies, hit a single note somewhere above the seventh fret and bend it till it squeals. It makes them feel like Clapton, apparently.
At this point a door opens at the back, ushering in a draughty gust of reality. You’re not in a band and you haven’t got £2K burning a hole in your hip pocket. Instead you’ve got ten minutes to get to the station and it’s your turn to cook dinner. As you thread your way through the crowds to the exit, you cast a last wistful glance at the objects of desire you’re leaving behind. This time next year, you tell yourself, things will be very different.
Now, where did I put those catalogues?