A trio of musicians joyfully playing Stevie Wonder’s jazz tribute “Sir Duke” on Chinese handbells, a tubist displaying his virtuosity, heavy metal dudes and dudettes in black leather jackets and torn fishnet stockings admiring coffin-shaped guitar cases and surprise appearances by scores of the world’s top rock, pop, country, jazz, hip-hop and classical players.
There aren’t many places to witness any of the above and in all likelihood only one place to see all of the above sharing the same space: the annual National Assn. Of Music Merchants convention, known to those in the music equipment trade as the NAMM Show.
Things got underway Thursday and continued through Sunday at the Anaheim Convention Center during the yearly confluence of business, music and indescribable cacophony from the simultaneous demonstrations of everything from electric guitars and amplifiers to grand pianos, at least 76 trombones and every other manner of band instrument to accordions, triangles, bouzoukis, microphones, deejay equipment, software, digital and analog electronic synthesizers and instruments and every size, shape and color of accessory under the sun.
It’s where manufacturers and distributors of all of the above hammer out deals for the coming year with retailers physical and virtual in hopes of getting their new instrument or gadget into the hands of consumers.
Such business mostly goes on behind closed doors of the office spaces in most of the hundreds of exhibition booths that utterly fill the 800,000-plus-square-foot interior of the Anaheim Convention Center with more than 1,700 exhibitors representing 5,100 brands — including more than 400 new this year.
Yet even that’s not enough, as exhibitors spill over to spaces in the adjacent Hilton and Marriott hotels, for tens of thousands of invited guests, it’s simply an eye and ear-popping celebration of musicians from amateurs to professionals use to make music.
Those toys can range from guitar picks that cost a dime through inconceivably sophisticated synthesizers or ultra-high end grand pianos that retail for the price of a luxury automobile or more.
Consequently, many manufacturers, all competing for attention of potential customers, bring out their biggest guns for each year’s NAMM convention to wow the massive crowds.
As of Friday, attendance was close to 100,000 registered participants. Final numbers won’t be available until Monday. The projected economic impact of ths year's show on Anaheim and surrounding regions was more than $91 million.
Fender Musical Instruments, the long-running company best known for its electric guitars and amplifiers, displayed a one-of-a-kind Telecaster guitar boasting 1,005 diamonds, 325 pearls, 38 sapphires and 20 feet of 18-karat rose gold wire inlay, designed and built by one of the “master builders” at the company’s custom shop division in Corona.
Meanwhile, downstairs at the booth of the C.F. Martin Guitar Co., celebrated for its high-end acoustic instruments, CEO C.F. Martin IV showed off a 100th-anniversary special-edition “Dreadnought” guitar that revolutionized guitar playing upon its introduction a century ago amid World War I.
El Cajon-based Taylor Guitars introduced the equivalent of the airline industry “black box” data recorder to assist guitar owners in caring for their instruments. For $79.99, Taylor guitar owners will be able to get the upgraded connector jack that comes with a sensor that measures shocks to the guitar, and also monitors humidity, temperature and even battery life, sending text alerts to the owners smartphones.
Among the celebrity guests that generated buzz from convention-goers this year included veteran rock singer-songwriter Graham Nash, recipient of NAMM's "music for life" career achievement award, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, the Roots’ Questlove, Dr. John, musician-producer-label exec Don Was and Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
Exhibitors often recruited heavyweights for demo sessions, including the likes of recording engineer Derek Ali, who has worked with rapper Kendrick Lamar and other superstar hip-hop acts, and heavy metal rocker Zakk Wylde, whose performance to introduce his line of Wylde guitars prompted a queue with hundreds of fans that extended down the convention center hallway on Friday.
Guitarist John Jorgenson, a member of the 1980s-90s country group the Desert Rose Band and who subsequently toured for years with Elton John, gave a performance for ESP/Takamine guitars on Friday afternoon, then headed downstairs to meet with the makers of a line of Greek bouzoukis that he plays.
“You find out all these amazing things you might never expect,” he said, after chatting with one of the manufacturers’ representatives about the connection between Gypsy jazz guitar great Django Reinhardt, Greek bouzouki virtuoso Manolis Hiotis and electric guitar rock god Jimi Hendrix. “This is what I love about coming to NAMM.”
The raison d’etre of NAMM is the big business of musical equipment sales, but those whose business is music also demonstrate their belief in music’s potential for something more than just making cash registers ring.
Representatives from Wild Customs guitars, a French guitar manufacturer, brought a long a one-of-a-kind custom electric guitar the company is raffling off in memory of the victims of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, where dozens of fans attending an Eagles of Death Metal concert were killed.
The guitar is painted red, white and blue in the colors of the French flag, and incorporates a sculptured metal eye with a single tear dropping down the face of the guitar. It also contains the French national motto “Egalite, Liberte, Fraternite,” (equality, liberty and brotherhood).
Raffle tickets were being sold for 10 Euro (about $11 U.S.), and the instrument will be autographed and played by Eagles of Death Metal front man Jesse Hughes when he brings his group back to Paris for a Feb. 16 concert, during which a winner will be announced. Proceeds will benefit U.S.-based Sweet Stuff Foundation that helps musicians and their families who struggle with illness and disability.
“We didn’t want to auction it off,” Wild Customs rep Blaise Rodier said. “Then it would just go to one rich person. This way, everyone has an equal chance. We would love to see it go into the hands of some young kid.”
The “kids” at NAMM are not necessarily chronologically young. At the Funguy Mojo Guitar booth, onlookers four to five rows deep looked on and cheered as a trio of bearded guys wailed away on two guitars and a drum made out of cigar boxes, part of a renaissance in recent years of homemade instruments.
It’s the kind of scene that might seem odd — anywhere except at NAMM.