The axes are swinging

Special to The Times

Distressed Stratocasters, vegan guitar straps, inverted devil horns and cheap sunglasses stamped the four-day NAMM Show at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The annual dam-burst hosted by the International Music Products Assn. (though the original acronym for the National Assn. of Music Merchants refuses to die) inundated the facility with gear displays, performances, networking and educational opportunities for 80,000-plus industry professionals and their fourth cousins.

This resilient tributary of the economy, in force since 1901, has swelled to the point where the gargantuan Anaheim edifice can no longer contain it. According to recent reports, barring construction augmentations, Anaheim may lose the trade show’s yearly $80 million in revenue after its contract expires in 2010. Meanwhile, the party rages on.

The event hit a boil Friday. Cue-ball-headed Kerry King of the metal band Slayer, standing adjacent to a cutout of himself hoisting a Marshall amp Atlas-style, turned his devil-horn hand sign upside-down for a succession of fan photos.


An even longer line stretched up to smiling guitar god Joe Satriani; hard-rock drum forefather Carmine Appice stolidly inked reams of memorabilia amid an unceasing din of attendees whapping skins and shredding frets on demonstration instruments.

Venerated jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock smiled and autographed patiently as a line of fans spilled out into the bustling aisle ways. Proto-rock guitar hero James Burton entertained NAMM pilgrims from the United Kingdom regaling him with praise for his work with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others.

One section of the floor was carved out for a “Godfather” scene, complete with a ‘30s-vintage black coupe. What did it have to do with music? “Nothing,” said an actor robed like a bishop, posing with faux mafiosi. “It’s just for fun.”

You might not have branded luthiers as global deforesters unless you beheld the acres of axes on display. But Boston-based instrument maker First Act, which in its 11 years has sold well over 1 million guitars, including kits, custom commissions and Wal-Mart mass product, has donned a conservationist hat. The company, which has pioneered nontoxic finishes, was hyping a new model wrought from laminated bamboo, the world’s fastest-growing wood.


Blond, totally tattooed Jodi Head picked up the progressive spin with her “vegan” guitar straps -- “Some of my friends,” said the cat-rescue activist, “wanted no-leather straps.” What about the ones she displayed made from real snakeskin? “Nothing against snakes, but they look good. Just no fur, no rabbit.” OK.

You want natural? You could grope the Ulladulla Aboriginal Art Gallery’s colorfully etched didgeridoos, many of which dangled tags reading, “Authentic termite-eaten.” The insects, rep Ramin Vahdani clarified, are actually white ants in northern Australia’s Arnhem Land: “Fungus attacks a tree, its center goes rotten, the ants follow the rot, and the tree becomes hollow.” Voila -- a wind instrument. Almost.

You could also acquire axes factory-chafed, like the “vintage"-looking line presented by mega-manufacturer Fender in its big armory. On vitrine display stood the very embodiment of six-string destruction -- the original gouged, chipped and finger-stained guitar of Eddie Van Halen, whose own signature series of Fender amps as well as dinged-up replicas of the “Frankenstein” guitar he created in the 1970s, received proper promo.

Though bars studded the exhibition floors, the real chugging didn’t commence till after the convention hall’s 6 p.m. close, at various vendors’ concert parties in adjacent hotels.

Pop-blues crowd exciter John Mayer headlined the Martin guitars’ party in the Hilton, where funk-metalers Extreme also rocked. Yamaha’s event with R&B; star John Legend at Disney’s California Adventure rose to a surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder.

Closing the Sabian cymbals party in the Sheraton (introduced by company founder Robert Zildjian growling, “Thanks for sitting through this garbage”), former Deep Purple bassist-singer Glenn Hughes etched a stunning career statement with his epic soul-metal trio -- Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith pounded a gut-busting groove, Jeff Kollman chopped vicious guitar riffs, and Hughes wailed like a prophet reborn.

Fender’s fete in the Marriott rolled out a lineup of historic endorsers: After surf kahuna Dick Dale roared through “Miserlou” on his backward-strung left-handed Strat, a demonstration of the million ways to play the blues arrived by way of guitarists Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Jimmie Vaughan (Fabulous Thunderbirds), G.E. Smith (“Saturday Night Live”), Greg Koch and Guthrie Trapp. Plus there were bassists Bob Babbitt (Motown) and Roscoe Beck, blues belter Myron Melford and burning steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar.

In the Hilton’s lobby bar, with bands sweating up a storm at each distant end, an overflowing mob pushed as close as you can get to mass suicide.


Muriel Anderson’s all-star guitar night with Gary Hoey, Lawrence Juber, David Grisham and special guests was scheduled for Saturday. And there was more. At the NAMM Show, there’s always much, much more.

One attendee told an instructive story of meeting the legendary studio drummer Hal Blaine at a previous NAMM Show. Blaine was sitting in a wheelchair.

“I don’t really need this thing,” he said. “It’s just for the event.”

Smart man.