The world comes to NAMM. A maker of a guitar fretboard cleaner from New Zealand (Boogie Juice by name) is elated to announce he’s found a distributor for his product—in Thailand! A family of Greek bouzouki makers has, for the first time, flown from Athens to Anaheim. China’s presence grows greater year by year. Every January, the National Association of Music Merchandisers welcomes thousands of sellers and potential buyers from across America and around the world to the Anaheim Convention Center. Like any major trade show, it’s an opportunity to see what’s new, as well as what once-promising products have vanished, due to public indifference. Suits with bulging briefcases sit at tables, dealing, while musicians roam the halls, hungrily foraging for gear offered at the `show price.’
Those deals are ever rarer at a show officially closed to the public (many attendees get in thanks to presenter guest lists). It’s refreshing, then, to meet a company at NAMM which goes against the exclusionary grain. With a name like Hell Guitars, you’d expect its founder to be darkly decked in Goth metal drab, pierced, plugged, and tattooed. Instead, Michael Evanston is unadorned and unassuming: He could pass for a commercial artist or graphic designer, which he was before leaving his native California for Japan to (in his words) “get away from it all.” He took with him his design skills and a love for guitars. Both come across in instruments inspired by three classic American electrics, Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster models and Gibson’s SG. Anyone familiar with the originals will see both the stylistic sources as well as Michael’s nuanced differences. (His attention to detail is evident even in the picks he designed, shaped for a `user friendly’ grip.) The three models of Hell Guitars –the Bender, ZeroDot and No. 2–are the crowning glory of a company which also offers strings, picks, and accessories like creatively embellished pickguards directly to musicians at affordable prices. “I’m not a fan of the business,” says Michael. “If I sell my guitars through a distributor here, they’ll have to go for at least a grand. I like to keep the price low and sell directly to the players.” Players, judging by online testimonials, love it, too.
Guitars designed by a Californian in Japan are assembled with parts both British (the pickups) and American (the hardware) in South China. “I checked 20 different factories before I chose this one,” says Michael. “The owners are Taiwanese, and in terms of both how they treat their workers and how they treat the environment, they’re terrific to work with.” Product quality has led several name-brand American guitar companies to the same factory. The difference with Hell Guitars? Design and price. Hell Guitars are pro-level instruments available at near-beginner prices. Could Michael’s alt-business idealism be contagious? It’s hard not to like a company which offers this motto: “Peace, Love, Guitars.