Thursday, June 4, 2009

Dinner with James Tyler of Tyler Guitars

I met Jim Tyler in 2000 when I and a friend attended the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Los Angeles. We were interested in becoming the Tyler guitar distributor for the region and so we arranged to pay him a visit at his small guitar facility on Sepulveda in Van Nuys.

Over the phone he had given us directions to look out for a certain burger joint and to make a turn down that road. It took us a while to find his shop.

Further up the road we were greeted with a small single-storey building with corrugated zinc walls and a small rather inconspicuous shop sign.

Jim graciously showed us around his facility. One of his workers was busy hand-sanding a newly routed body to the soundtrack of a Beastie Boys CD playing on the boombox, which was met with some consternation from Jim.

Much of the work at that time was being done by hand. Notably lacking was any kind of CNC machine or computerized router -- it was very much a jig and bandsaw operation. Jim spoke about the cost of investing in such a machine and how he would have to massively step up production from the current 20-odd guitars they were building every month, just to pay for the machine. (Although I gather the company has since made some investments in CNC armory.)

The wall over Jim's workbench was covered with pictures and autographed memorobilia. Including an old picture of himself in another incarnation as a long-haired Strat-wielding guitarist in a rock band. Meanwhile on the bench, a guitar on which he was dressing newly-installed frets, patiently awaited his return. Jim did a lot of the fretwork on the guitars himself.

I also had the opportunity to plug in and play a bit on the Tyler Psychedelic Vomit #1. The strings were really dead as it had been up on the shopwall for goodness-knows how long, but all the chimey, resonant characteristics were still there.

At 630pm we made the drive to a restaurant on Sunset in Jim's old Mercedes.

Over dinner Jim revealed much about the insider goings-on of the of the guitar manufacturing world. He spoke fondly of his days at Schecter in the 70s and early 80s where he and Tom Anderson both got their start before venturing out on their own.

I asked him about the Tyler Studio Elite that I owned, mentioning how the pickups seemed to be very similar to Anderson's design both in look and tone. He attributed that to the design commonalities he shared with Anderson, based on their time at Schecter. I also asked him about the unusually girthy neck on my guitar to which he humorously replied that it was probably a reaction from his chewing out one of his workers for carving several necks too thin.

He talked about his display booth at the NAMM show and how he had been chided(!) by one of his Japanese distributors over a new line he was planning on releasing -- a more modestly priced TG range with a new headstock logo he was intending to manufacture overseas. Although since then a Japanese-made Tyler line has appeared.

He became slightly animated on the topic of guitar endorsements, and mentioned how he adamantly never gave any guitars away for free. He mentioned artist endorsement fees and how some signature models were often not truly representative of the guitars the endorser actually played.

He also raised a sore point about how he had been approached several times by a well-known US guitar magazine who had asked him for a free guitar in exchange for a favourable review. It was also apparently the reason why his guitars, up to that point, had never been featured in a US guitar magazine. Or why, in his company's history, he had placed literally less than a handful of advertisements in these guitar publications. And, he reasoned, he wouldn't have been able to keep up with the orders anyway.

It was clearly not just about the numbers or the bottomline.

I walked away from that meeting feeling a little buzzed. It might have been the wine, or the fact that he had given us the dealership for his amazing guitars.
Most of all, what I did walk away with was that if one had a clear, uncompromising vision and a truly great product, the world will beat a path to your door. Marketing and publicity be damned. More power to you, Mr Tyler.

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