NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Resting in its case atop a desk at the corporate headquarters of the company that makes Gibson guitars is a technologically head-spinning model that Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz describes with parental pride.
The craftsmanship that went into Gibson’s Firebird X “hexaphonic” limited-edition electric instrument is obvious. Less apparent is its ability to do just about anything short of brewing a cup of coffee.
Advanced sampling technology allows it to sound like any one of dozens of vintage electric or acoustic guitars at the touch of a button. A player can also quickly shift among any number of conventional and unconventional tuning setups at the touch of another button. And, thanks to automatic tuning technology, a musician needn’t worry about the instrument going out of tune.
And that’s barely scratching the guitar’s high-gloss surface.
“This has got more technology than you can shake a stick at,” said Juszkiewicz, 64.
The guitar serves as a glistening example of the strategy that has driven Juszkiewicz since he bought the company in 1986: to gradually remake Gibson into a lifestyle brand.
His methods — rapid expansion, a planned West Hollywood outpost and a reliance on technology — have sometimes been met with skepticism or even legal challenges, but none of the resistance has deterred his desire to become, in his words, a powerhouse on par with Nike.
Such an aggressive approach is necessary, he says, as long-standing companies such as Gibson, Fender Musical Instruments and C.F. Martin & Co. face a conundrum: How can a guitar maker survive in a world largely void of old-school guitar heroes?
The biggest hits nowadays often result from elaborate studio productions — unlike the 1960s, when rock gods such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and guitar-centric bands such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and others were at the forefront of pop music.
Juszkiewicz negotiated a similar path in the mid-1980s — when he undertook his mission to revive the Gibson brand, which today generates about $3 billion in annual revenue.
At that time, he was up against the onslaught of electronic keyboards, synthesizers and programmed sequencers that were de rigueur in 1980s pop music. He survived, in part, by putting the spotlight back on the iconic Les Paul guitars and creating a clear delineation between Gibson and its subsidiary Epiphone brand, stemming the tide until the grunge wave helped revive guitars in the 1990s.
Having earned a master’s in business administration from Harvard while still working for General Motors, Juszkiewicz combined his Ivy League business-school education with a lifelong passion for rock music when he took the reins at Gibson.
But even with that background, the guitar industry remains as much art as science. Making things even more complicated is that Gibson’s competition comes not just from other guitar makers but from its own vintage creations.
“Personally speaking,” said Jeff King, lead guitarist for country star Reba McEntire’s touring band, “if I’m going to spend 10 grand on a Les Paul, I’d want it to be an older vintage one, a player’s guitar, and hopefully one that would retain its vintage value. The newer ones — you’d think they’d be better with all the new updates and the manufacturing gear they’ve got today. But I’ve never had the urge to pick one up, no disrespect.”
That’s one example of how the technology of guitar-making can still be trumped by the psychology of guitar-playing.
Another case in point: The self-tuning guitars that Gibson pioneered in recent years tripped up the company when Juszkiewicz insisted that the technology be rolled out on a broad swath of its models, turning off some traditionalists.
“Technology is a wonderful thing,” Juszkiewicz said. “But technology doesn’t always sit well (with consumers), mostly because there’s not enough marketing dollars to let everybody know what it’s all about.”
Juszkiewicz’s grand plan for Gibson is rooted in the start of his association with the company: to do for music what Nike has done in the world of sports.
The company’s latest business motto —“Play. Record. Listen. ”— reflects Juszkiewicz’s aim to plant its flag in all corners of what he often refers to as “the music lifestyle.”
In recent years, Gibson Guitars morphed into Gibson Brands, the parent company of a growing array of instrument makers, recording equipment, playback hardware, studio software and other consumer electronics products.
The company now also has an acoustic-guitar division in Bozeman, Montana; another electric-guitar plant in Memphis, Tennessee; and a digital technology research-and-development facility in Cupertino, California.
Juszkiewicz also snapped up the former Tower Records site in West Hollywood with the intention of developing it into a high-profile flagship new-products showroom.
Gibson’s biggest acquisition yet was the 2014 purchase of the Philips audio and home entertainment division of 126-year old Netherlands-based Royal Philips, the consumer-electronics company that, along with Sony, was instrumental in the development of the audiocassette, the compact disc, the DVD and Blu-ray home-video formats.
“The first question we get about that is, ‘Why would a guitar company do that?’” Juszkiewicz said. “The fact is, we don’t see ourselves as a guitar company; we see ourselves as a music lifestyle company.”
The Philips deal took Gibson a huge step in that direction. Yet it also put a severe strain on Gibson’s finances.
“Overnight, we tripled the size of our company,” Juszkiewicz said. “That’s been a challenge. But I felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
For one, it delayed the development of the Sunset Boulevard site, although Juszkiewicz said he expects to have that back on track this year.
In fact, he considered the purchase a bargain at something on the order of $135 million. Ripples from that purchase continued into 2015 and 2016, causing Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s ratings firms to downgrade the company’s financial ranking.
Within the past year, however, things have started to turn around.
“The principal thing is they’ve been able to refinance revolving credit,” said Kevin Cassidy, senior credit officer for Moody’s, which hasn’t formally updated the high-risk assessment it gave Gibson in August. “That will help.”