Sonoma County musical instrument maker group thrives even in the digital age

“It goes in stages. … We had a downturn for a while, but it seems to be back to where it was,” said Rob Turner, CEO of EMG Inc., a Santa Rosa guitar pickup maker, the pickups in the body of a guitar. which pick up the vibrations of the strings and convert them into electrical signals that can be transmitted to an amplifier to produce sound.

“Things are good. Things are going really well,” Turner said of his recent venture. EMG manufactures about 1,500 guitar pickups a day and ships products around the world, including to factories in the United States. overseas where a large number of guitars are assembled.

His company was founded in 1976. Turner believes Sonoma County became a haven for musical instrument makers “because a lot of hippies were looking to get back to the land” because manufacturing in San Francisco was too expensive. An available labor force in agriculture also meant a good supply of workers, he said.

EMG has benefited from its artist endorsements, particularly Metallica as guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo use all of its pickups. The world’s most popular heavy metal band vouching for your product creates buzz that translates to increased sales when amateur musicians purchase the products.

“Our business depends on the guitarist taking it to the next level, if not the next two levels,” Turner said.

There is some hope for the future as some local school districts have recently invested in their music programs, a key demographic for 10-19 year olds.

“This age group encounters music lessons in school and may decide to pursue music further outside of the curriculum,” according to IBISWorld, the market researcher.

Last year, schools in the city of Santa Rosa won a $1 million grant from the state to expand their music program, with 80% of the money used to purchase musical instruments and equipment. music.

“It’s not a source of food for the high school orchestra. It’s a source of nourishment for the human soul,” said Steve Shirrell, co-owner of the Stanroy Music Center in Santa Rosa. “It’s great that they have this opportunity.”

Sonoma County is also home to many independent music stores that survive, although customers can get most products digitally but prefer to buy locally rather than through Amazon or another digital outlet, he said. declared.

home manufacturing

At Kala, the ukulele company is able to manufacture ukuleles in Petaluma with a team of 10 working on its most expensive ukuleles, producing 60-70 per month. These products include those made from woods, such as Honduran Mahogany and Hawaiian Koa, and come with an ultraviolet finish that is finely sprayed on top of the instrument to produce a more vibrant sound. The high price allows production to be done here rather than overseas, where much of their other instruments are made.

“We’re trying to increase those numbers,” Upton said of the expensive parts. It also has smaller distribution centers in Hawaii and Virginia. “People want them.”

Innovation has also played a key role in the company. Ten years ago, Kala introduced the small scale bass – which she calls a U-bass – available in four and five strings. It proved to be a hit with bassists such as Bakithi Kumalo (Paul Simon), Ira Coleman (Sting) and Jim Mayer (Jimmy Buffett).

As its brand grew, Kala also decided to keep much of its work in-house rather than relying on numerous contractors. He creates his own educational videos. It also teamed up with a digital partner to ensure its smartphone app would keep players engaged and their instruments tuned correctly. An annual subscription costs $35 and comes with an interactive songbook of 1,700 songs.

“They don’t have to spend a lot of money to learn how to play,” said Joy Cafiero, Kala’s marketing manager.

The brand has its own clothing line and its products are featured in surf magazines. Kala also promotes the portability of the ukulele, noting that it can be carried and used on the beach or in the mountains. The goal is to make people think of Kala when they think of ukuleles.

“It’s definitely a community instrument,” Upton said.

The ukulele market is expected to continue to grow because it’s easy to use and learn – unlike the piano – making it a good entry-level instrument for young and old, he said. Competition should therefore intensify.

“I think once something is successful…there’s a lot of people who want to copy what you’re doing,” Upton said. “That’s all we do.”

You can contact editor Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or [email protected] On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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