NAMM 2004 Tech Overview
By Dave Schwartz davybass@dabelly.com
Photos by Dan Quinajon and Dave Schwartz

It's January.  It's Anaheim.  And this combination can mean only one thing. The Tom Bradley terminal over at LAX is going to be even more active as the journalists of the world descend on sun drenched Southern California for the annual winter addition of the International Music Merchants Association (NAMM) show.

Each January, music manufacturers open their vaults and present to the world their latest creations.  And to be sure, NAMM is no small event.  The larger manufactures can spend millions to insure a successful product launch.  Everything from big name endorsements to after-hours parties leverages the attention of the international media.  And this year was no different-- plenty of glitz, plenty of glamour and a fair helping of skin invited the world to the convention. 

Given the huge number of manufacturers it would be impossible for me to cover every significant announcement, but I will endeavor to offer you an overview of the four-day event. 

Thursday

Thursday morning I attended the Sabian press conference announcing their new line of Paragon Drumset Cymbals and their newest endorser, Neil Peart.

Commented Dan Barker, Sabian president, "This is a very proud moment for Sabian, especially for those on our team who make the cymbals. The fact that Neil Peart's decision to switch to Sabian was based on Sabian cymbals he heard friends playing makes it very evident that above all other matters, it's the quality of the sound that counts."

Peart worked with Sabian to help create the Paragon line commenting, "to be invited to design a cymbal myself was like being invited into the kitchen of a fine restaurant to direct the chefs- - I may know what I like, but it doesn't mean I know anything about making it!"

The results speak for themselves and to top it off,  the Paragon line is available in an assortment of sizes. 

Sabian also announced that they have teamed up with legendary drummer and composer Jack DeJohnette to create a new and different percussion instrument, Resonating Bells.  The bells can be played individually or in a piano-like fashion and are available in a complete C-to-C octave set. 

The Sabian press release states: "The bells are hand crafted into a dome-like design using solid B8 bronze, the octave of bells is strobe-tuned to A=442. The frequency spectrum produced by these bells when struck with a medium-hard marimba mallet has a strong, resonating fundamental pitch with a limited amount of overtones. When played with a drumstick the response is more focused and penetrating. The sounds of Resonating Bells are unlike those of any currently manufactured instrument. The bells may be added to drum and percussion setups for colorful sound effects or playing melodies. DeJohnette mixes the definite pitch of the Resonating Bells with the indefinite pitch of his drum and cymbal setup by positioning a full octave of bells atop his cymbals using 3- and 5-note mounting bars."

For more information on the Paragon Cymbals, the Resonating Bells or the rest of the Sabian product line, visit their Web site at
http://www.sabian.com/

I wandered upstairs to the Fender room to take a look at the new 50th Anniversary 1954 Stratocaster.  Fender and that other premium guitar manufacture, Gibson, have rooms up off the main convention floor.  Some may argue that they miss a substantial amount of foot traffic, but neither company seems to mind.  Their marketing strategy proves that if you build a quality product, the public will seek you out. 

Starting January 2004, Fender will be offering faithful replicas of the guitar that changed the world, the 1954 Stratocaster.  These instruments are being manufactured in limited numbers on many of the same machines and utilizing methods proven 50 years ago. Fender will also introduce two new modern commemorative models: the 50th Anniversary American Series Stratocaster and the 50th Anniversary American Deluxe Series Stratocaster.  I have to tell you that these are really great looking guitars and the craftsmanship is apparent in every detail.

Whereas I enjoyed checking out the '54 reissue, for me the big draw in the Fender room came from the Custom Shop.  This year, Fender will offer a Limited Edition Stevie Ray Vaughan Tribute Model "Number One" Stratocaster Guitar. These guitars have been commissioned to the Custom Shop by the estate of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and only 100 replicas will ever be built.  I took a good close look at this guitar and the attention to detail was amazing-- from the pick gouges in the wood to the mounting of the pickups, the untrained eye would be fooled by these reproductions.  Check it all out at http://www.fender.com

Friday

So much for the peace and tranquility of Thursday!  The first day of NAMM is always the quietest, the crowds are small and there are few distractions,  but this year, Friday was very busy.  Many of the companies anticipated the masses and had their endorsers out in force to help build excitement.  Joe Walsh was over at the Paul Reed Smith booth signing autographs. Allison Robertson of The Donnas was at the Marshall booth doing the same.  Serj Tankian from System of a Down was walking the isles, checking out the new gear.  Jazz bassist Bill Dickens performed at the Dean Markley booth and soon after Ronnie James Dio signed autographs.  Even C.C.Deville was spotted standing out front of the Tama/Ibanez booth hoping desperately to be noticed.  In the end, he had his share of fans too!

On Friday morning I cruised over to the Dean Guitars booth.  Dean has been around better than 20 years.  They build a respectable product geared toward a younger audience.  As a result they have a slightly different marketing plan than the big boys upstairs.  For Dean it's skin, skin and more skin!  An assortment of attractive young ladies was brought in to help remind us why young men want to learn to play guitar.  Their marketing plan was quite effective.  So much so that I almost lost track of their new product line!  Yes, I was captivated by the performances of several endorsers and of course there were those young ladies.  But I did manage to check out the new line of guitars and basses.  I particularly liked the finishes on the Avalanche and Custom guitars.  The Edge Pro and Jeff Berlin
Signature Basses were spectacular as well.  Unfortunately the Internet can't do justice to a guitars finish.  Nonetheless I encourage you to check out the site. http://www.deanguitars.com/

The Ernie Ball booth is another great destination at NAMM.  They always take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the convention by decorating their booth in some of the most unusual ways.  This year's theme was "Pirates of the Caribbean."  The large section of a pirate ship built as part of the booth was the only thing that could've eclipsed the strange sight of salesmen in pirate outfits. Even Sterling Ball was in the spirit donning a captain's attire replete with a guitar headstock in place of a hook. But all of this wasn't a surprise, Ernie Ball has a long history of strange marketing themes.  Last year they celebrated the '60s as hippies.  Several years back all of the salespeople were dressed as either Elvis or Marilyn Monroe.  But with all this distraction there is information and opportunity.  The salespeople are most helpful and there are always has plenty of guitars on hand to play.  But Ernie Ball isn't only about guitar strings.  They also offer a large selection of amp hardware, cables, plugs and connectors.  For more about Ernie Ball check out their Web site at http://www.ernieball.com/

This year we heard quite a buzz about the Korg PXR4.  This isn't a new item.  In fact, it was first introduced at the summer NAMM session in July, 2001.  In case you're not familiar, the PXR4 is a handheld four-track digital recorder, which records directly to SmartMedia cards.  The unit features three recording modes: standard, high-quality and economy, afford maximum flexibility by enabling you to select the one that's right for the task at hand depending on the recording quality and time you need.

Features like eight virtual tracks per track allow you to record multiple takes of the same track and select your favorite one. It's also the world's first pocket-sized multi-track recorder to deliver full editing capabilities.  The PXR4 offers a full-sized complement of I/Os. For inputs, there are a 1/4" jack with a hi/low impedance switch plus a stereo line/mic input. For outputs there are a 1/8" stereo out jack, a stereo headphone output and a USB.  The PXR4 also boasts a full complement of 77 different built-in effects. It's equipped with 100 "factory" multi-effects programs (with up to five effects used at once!) and enough room for an additional 100 user programs.

If that's not enough, Korg added 55 different rhythm patterns (and 32 metronome patterns) that use high-quality PCM sounds. The patterns range from simple to complex and include rock, funk, big beat, house, reggae, hip-hop, R & B, disco, dance, jazz and more. You can use a rhythm pattern as a recording guide, or create the actual rhythm track for your song!

The PXR4 is packed full of options and to our surprise it will support a 12 hour play time on two AA batteries and the sound this unit produces is amazing.  For more information, check out http://www.korg.com

Friday night we attended the Sabian party.  Entertainment was provided by The Dave Weckl Band; Living Color; and Renata Neto with Joey Heredia and Friends featuring Joey Heredia, Marco Mendoza, Karl Perazzo, and Raul Rekow.  Lifetime achievement awards were presented to several artists, including Carmine Appice and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie. 

Saturday

Traditionally the busiest day at NAMM, Saturday can also be the most interesting, as you never know who you'll bump into.  Past years' surprises include Gene Simmons and Stevie Wonder.  This time we found George Clinton walking the isles, as well as Paul Stanley in full KISS makeup over at the Ibanez booth signing autographs. 

As much as NAMM can be fun, it's also work.  I made it back upstairs, this time to check out the Gibson room.  I mistakenly bypassed the room Thursday due to time restrictions.  It wasn't much of a surprise to see that you could hardly get in the door Saturday.  It was a real challenge to get in and have an opportunity to browse the new guitars. 

This year the Gibson Custom Shop introduced eight new models, including the long-awaited Jimmy Page Signature Les Paul. With specs culled from in-depth research on Jimmy's original #1 Les Paul and featuring an aged finish, the Custom Shop replica of Jimmy's legendary instrument will initially be available in a Limited Edition of 150. An unlimited version of the Page Signature Les Paul will also be available with a Custom Authentic finish.

Jimmy Page isn't the only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member to align himself with the Custom Shop in 2004.  The Duane Eddy Signature Model, the Zakk Wylde model (Camo Bullseye Les Paul) and let's not forget a signature model from Slash. 

The Custom Collection will also have several notable additions in early 2004. On the archtop side, the L-10 will replicate an instrument that was originally custom-ordered by Les Paul in 1938, but which ultimately belonged to Chet Atkins. There will also be a new version of the L-4CES, this one featuring mahogany back and sides, as well as a newly rolled out ES-355. On the solidbody side, the Les Paul Elegant Figured Top makes a return to the lineup, as well as the "new-to-the-Custom-Shop" EDS-1275 and Les Paul Custom.  Check out all these guitars at http://www.gibson.com

And let's not forget the little guys.  For all of the larger more established companies there are dozens of smaller manufactures struggling for notoriety.  I spoke with several deserving companies but can only feature a couple here. 

The first is Coloriffic Pick Guards.  This doesn't sound like a very glamorous product, but to be honest, their little booth in the basement of NAMM really caught my eye.  They make pick guards for a wide assortment of guitars and basses.  The guards feature an assortment of graphics from patriotic to snake skin or bird's eye maple.  They're scratch resistant and extremely durable.  And although I don't think I would put one of these on my vintage guitar, they are certainly a great way to add some attitude to your daily player guitar.  Their Web site is a great resource to find a dealer near you.   http://www.coloriffic.com/

And the last manufacturer I will feature is Shark Tooth Picks.  When I played live I found that, because my hands sweat so much, I often dropped picks.  As most of you know it's a real pain in the ass.  Shark Tooth is working to resolve that problem by designing a thumb wrap that helps the player maintain control of their pick.  I received a nice demonstration at the booth, but to be honest I didn't play with one.  Again, check out the site.  http://www.strum-n-comfort.com/pages/720165/index.htm

Sunday

Sunday was my day of play.  I took the time to leave my notebook and tape recorder behind.  As I said, NAMM can be a lot of fun and if you ever have the opportunity to attend, you will understand.  I would like to extend a special thanks to all of the artists and manufacturers that I spoke with.  We will see you next year. 

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