Sonoma County Musical Instrument-Making Group Thrives Even in the Digital Age


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“It goes through stages. … We’ve been slowing down for a while, but it seems to be back to where it was before, ”said Rob Turner, CEO of EMG Inc., a maker of guitar pickups in Santa Rosa, the pickups in. the body of a guitar. that 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 good,” Turner said of his recent business. EMG manufactures approximately 1,500 guitar pickups per day and ships products all over the world, including to factories around the world. abroad where a large number of guitars are assembled.

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

EMG has benefited from his artist support, especially Metallica as guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo all use their mics. The world’s most popular heavy metal band vouching for your product creates a buzz that translates into more sales when amateur musicians buy the products.

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

There is 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 takes music lessons in school and may decide to pursue music outside of the curriculum,” according to IBISWorld, the market researcher.

Last year, schools in the city of Santa Rosa received a million dollar state grant to expand their music program, with 80% of the money being used to purchase instruments and music equipment. music.

“It’s not a power source in the high school group. It is a source of nourishment in 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 even though customers can get most products digitally but prefer to buy locally rather than through Amazon or another digital outlet, he said.

Home manufacturing

At Kala, the ukulele company is able to do manufacturing in Petaluma with a team of 10 working on their most expensive ukuleles, producing 60-70 per month. These products include those made of wood, such as Honduran mahogany and Hawaiian koa, and come with a finely sprayed ultraviolet finish on top of the instrument to produce a more vibrant sound. The high price allows production to be done here rather than abroad, where most 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 business. Ten years ago, Kala introduced the short scale bass – which he calls a U bass – available in four and five strings. It turned out to be a hit with bassists such as Bakithi Kumalo (Paul Simon), Ira Coleman (Sting) and Jim Mayer (Jimmy Buffett).

As her brand has grown, Kala has also decided to keep much of her work in-house rather than relying on a lot of subcontractors. He creates his own educational videos. It also partnered with a digital partner to ensure its smartphone app would keep players engaged and their instruments properly tuned. 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 learning how to play,” said Joy Cafiero, Kala 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 point 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 is easy to use and learn – as opposed to the piano – making it a good entry-level instrument for young and old alike, he said. Competition should therefore intensify.

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

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

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