Acoustic NAMM, Winter, 2010

By Larry Rosenberg

Second in a series of annual reports exclusive to Folkworks

NAMM_2010.jpgThe end of year, beginning of winter, holidays are over and January has again arrived with the new year. For the last four years, this time has brought my opportunity to attend the Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, California, as a free-lance reporter, and thereby kick-off my own musical events calendar in a very grand style.

NAMM stands for "National Association of Music Merchants," although NAMM organizers are quick to stress that since its origin in 1901, NAMM has become "the trade association of the international music products industry," and the long form of the name is no longer used, in favor of simply "NAMM." NAMM hosts two giant trade shows each year, one in Anaheim in January, and another in Nashville, in June (called, of course, "Winter NAMM," and "Summer NAMM"). The winter show is by far the larger of the two events and is among the largest, if not the largest, music industry trade show in the world. The show is not open to the public and is intended to bring music industry retailers and wholesalers together for their mutual benefit and the overall growth of the music merchandising industry.

Last year, I began to cover The NAMM Show exclusively for Folkworks with an eye toward developments in acoustic music, as contrasted to "electrified" music, to quote Pete Seeger, since I take the liberty of presuming that virtually all readers of these pages share such musical interests. Therefore, although I must disclose that I do own a few electrified instruments and have actually been known to play them, I will leave that subject for another time and I'll talk about an inexpensive Dean Markley pick-up for hollow-body acoustic guitars with a standard sound hole, but I'll leave discussions of the literally many thousands of solid-body electric guitars, amplifiers and related, and not-so-related, accessories previewed at NAMM for another time.

Even with this more tapered focus, The NAMM Show is so large that I must again apologize, this year, for any worthy products or services that do not make it to this report (and there are many), either because I missed them, or because of the editorial limits of time and space. That being said, let's go on to what I did see and think was worth mentioning here.

Probably the most exciting development I found this year at NAMM in acoustic music was nothing more than a publicity and educational campaign being promoted by The Deering Banjo Company called "5 String Banjo for Guitar Players." I'm a banjo player and right after, "Can you play that tune from ‘Deliverance?'" (it's called ‘Dueling Banjos,' and, yes, I can), comes the inevitable question from guitar players, "It it hard to learn to play the banjo?" I always tell them that they already know how to play the banjo because in the standard (open G) tuning most common in bluegrass, but also very common in folk, traditional and old-time styles of banjo playing, there are three strings shared with guitar standard tuning, DGB, and the next string, the 1st , on the banjo is D, while the guitar is simply one whole step higher at E. Further, the banjo when thus tuned is in an "open tuning" which allows the banjoist to play all the major chords with a simple moving barre across the four long strings, so starting to make music with a banjo is something less complicated than advanced calculus and more like playing folk music. If not "instant gratification," satisfaction is not long in coming to the guitar player who plays a banjo.

I have given this somewhat extended explanation in the conviction that the guitar is the most common musical instrument in the United States, if not the world, and there is almost no one who does not have some experience with using a guitar to make music. To those of you, and to anyone else, I say don't hesitate to try your hands at banjo playing, as well.

I am pleased that Deering has now launched a promotional and educational campaign aimed at guitar players using this same information as well as chord charts and an essay chronicling the "Confessions of a guitar player ..." who has discovered the "... magic of the banjo." NAMM_2010___2.jpg

There are many excellent banjo manufactures represented at The NAMM Show and most, if not all of them, feature reasonably low-cost, and very playable models, as well as exquisite works of art for those not on a budget. With the "entry level" models from these very reputable companies, I have come to trust that you will get 80% of the sound of a top priced model for 10% of the cost. How much you need, or want to pay for, the remaining 20% is a very personal decision, as are the design and ornamentation of the banjo which will add most of the cost to the extra luxurious products.

In addition to promoting their educational campaign for guitar players, The Deering Banjo Company continues to be an innovator with their relatively low-cost, high-quality, "Good Time" line of banjos. The original Good Time was designed to be a reasonably priced, no-frills, instrument with an emphasis on function. This year at NAMM, Deering displayed an open-back Good Time Banjo with a removable electric pick-up which is attached to the underside of the banjo head. If your traditional banjo playing is starting to draw an admiring crowd, you might want to consider this banjo and an amplifier so that you can be heard by one and all.

Deering also featured an open-back Good Time called "The Crow" in honor of Steve Martin. This banjo has custom woodwork and comes with a copy of Mr. Martin's award winning CD of the same name featuring his original banjo tunes and songs, and a song book with banjo tablature and lyrics.

Deering, of course, continues to manufacture high-end quality banjos including the Vega line in different styles and models such as long-neck and tenor banjos, as well as many resonator equipped models designed for playing bluegrass music, and some of these banjos are considered to be among the best available.

Gold Tone is another quality and relatively low-priced banjo manufacturer represented at NAMM again this year which offers every style of 4 and 5 string banjo, and, in addition to banjos, also produces almost every traditional acoustic instrument, and some instruments it has come up with on its own that may become traditional instruments in the future. This year Gold Tone featured an entire "wall" of new instruments. Gold Tone also displayed its standard models and inventions, and refinements of some of its less common acoustic instruments such as cello banjos (4 string bass banjos) and banjolas (5 string hollow body banjos). If any company deserves recognition for the absolute number of different and innovative quality and low-cost acoustic musical instruments, Gold Tone would be the solid contender for first place.

OME Banjos displayed some of its line of "open-back, bluegrass and jazz" banjos with a style and artwork that recalls classic woodworking and instrument making of a long by-gone era. The banjos are by far some of the prettiest instruments around and OME's reputation for quality is also well known. An OME banjo is as much a work of art as an instrument for playing music, although it would be shame to neglect to use an OME banjo for the latter purpose.

As mentioned earlier, Dean Markley was at NAMM this year and offers a very inexpensive single-coil electric pick-up for acoustic guitars with (more or less) standard size sound holes called "ProMag PlusTM." While this is not a brand-new product, I think this no-tools required, removable pick-up deserves mention because at its $49.95 street price, it's inexpensive enough to be kept as backup for some occasion when it might be needed and it also just might be the answer for anyone looking to add amplification to their acoustic guitar.

Guitars are the most popular instrument at The NAMM Show and one can't go very far without coming to the exhibit of, or at least noticing, a guitar manufacturer. There are many, many, outstanding products from new and old companies, who came to The NAMM Show from both near and far. It would take almost an entire day, or more, to gather information on all the guitar products represented, and the majority of a day just to see all the acoustic guitars. So again with my apologies to anyone associated with guitar products or services not mentioned (and that, of course, is most of the guitar people). I will tell you that C.F. Martin & Co. had the best display of acoustic guitars at The NAMM Show and probably in the history of the instrument. Much of their current product line was exhibited and they listed prices ranging from just under $1,000 to $109,000. C.F. Martin produces a few moderately affordable guitars which are widely considered to the best on the market in their price range, at least for certain styles of play such as bluegrass. However, given a chance to consider the entire product line, including special models produced for artists such as Jorma Kaukonen ("Jefferson Airplane," "Hot Tuna"), it's possible, if even for just a moment, to leave budget concerns behind and to catch a glimpse of the width and depth of expert acoustic guitar making as a true art from in its own right. The fact that every one of these guitars sounds wonderful further guarantees that guitar players will continue to buy them and C.F. Martin will continue to produce them.

The C.F. Martin exhibit also featured live entertainment and I was fortunate to see and hear two time Emmy Award Winner (along with Cathy Fink) Marcy Marcer play her Martin ukulele. Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen was also scheduled, as were several other acoustic musicians. It should be noted that C.F. Martin has produced signature guitars for both Marcy and Jorma, and Gold Tone has released a Marcy Marcer cello banjo.

Of course, The NAMM Show is not just for promoting products of the big and already well-known music manufactures. There are many smaller exhibitors with a variety of sometimes very innovative products. One such company is Wheatware which produces bio-degradable products including picks and drumsticks. Wheatware says these products "Wear faster than plastic, but if thrown in a garden, they biodegrade into plant fertilizer in 90 days." Clearly an idea for our times.

The NAMM Show, Winter, 2011, will be here in less than a year and I'm already looking forward to being there. As I sais last year, if you have any comments or questions about this review, or anything you might want me to look into at next year's show, you may contact me via email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Larry Rosenberg is an attorney and editor-at-large based in the San Fernando Valley. When he is not practicing law or writing an exclusive for Folkworks, you might find him at the 50th Annual Topanga Banjo · Fiddle Contest at Paramount Movie Ranch in Agoura Hills, CA, on Sunday, May 16th, 2010.