Henry Juszkiewicz of Gibson
SINGLE-MINDED, CONTROVERSIAL, VISIONARY. ALL OF THESE THINGS AND MORE ARE TRUE OF THE MAN WHO’S BEEN AT THE HELM OF GIBSON FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS, HENRY JUSZKIEWICZ. NOW, AS THE COMPANY STANDS AT A HISTORIC CROSSROADS, AFTER FILING FOR CHAPTER 11 BANKRUPT
There was, for many, a sense of the inevitable when news broke that Gibson were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect creditors while it restructures the business. For critics of the company, it was a longprophesied day. Keyboard warriors everywhere took to forums and Facebook to rail against what they perceived as a self-inflicted injury. Gibson’s 2015 product line came in for particularly heavy flak. Intended to encourage new players to the brand, Gibson USA’s 2015 electrics sported an automatic-tuning system, wider necks and a brass nut – non-traditional features that were intended to make playing easier. For many among the Gibson faithful, however, the modifications were akin to putting a baseball cap and sneakers on Michelangelo’s David. The ensuing backlash cast a shadow over all that the company tried to achieve in the months that followed.
The strength of that backlash is explained, in part, by the raw emotional power of the company’s heritage. Somewhere in the heart of every guitarist there is a little piece of hallowed turf that belongs to Gibson. If you grew up playing guitar at any time between the 1950s and the 1990s something special happened when you saw a Gibson in a shop window. Your heartstrings thrummed and you took a moment to simply stand in the street and wonder what it might be like to own one. Or maybe one fine morning you walked into the shop with a wallet full of notes and actually took the plunge.
The act of owning a Gibson for the first time seemed both a rite of passage and a long-awaited arrival at a longed-for place. Guitar’s biggest heroes played Gibsons, classic records were defined by the sound of PAFs screaming angelically through Marshall stacks – while the guitars themselves possessed an intoxicating blend of elegant form and potent function. Gibsons were always a little more expensive than the guitars of other brands – but that only made them the more desirable.
It is, arguably, that very love of Gibson’s heritage that provoked some to anger as the Nashville-based company sought to overhaul its core products in order to reach new players in 2015. But Gibson was in the dock for other perceived wrongs, too. Some critics alleged that the company’s quality control had become patchy, while others still complained that the company’s flagship models – especially the high-end products of its Custom Shop – were prohibitively expensive or had morphed into offbeat, tech-enabled variants that offered features, such as built-in effects, that no one seemed to be asking for.
Amid all the sound and fury, Gibson sold more than 170,000 guitars last year and saw sales rise by 10.5 per cent since January 2017. So with its core business seemingly firing on all cylinders, why did Gibson find itself filing for Chapter 11 this May? For the answer to that, we must turn to the man who was the architect of Gibson’s salvation in the 1980s and who remains at the helm of the company today: CEO Henry Juszkiewicz.
Three decades into his tenure at the top, he remains an impassioned fan of Gibson’s heritage – but also a fervent believer in the power of innovation. It was this belief that prompted Gibson’s entry into the uncharted waters of consumer electronics, a move that would have more far-reaching consequences than any automatic tuning system or neck profile ever could.
Given his central role in the events that have unfolded, it’s ironic that Henry Juszkiewicz’s commentary on Gibson’s guitar-making future, post-Chapter 11, has so far been muted. As you’d expect, he has been very active in making the bigpicture business case that the current upheavals will leave Gibson stronger. But what kind of guitars will it make? And will it be ditching robot tuners and re-examining its pricing?
We wanted to know the answers to these questions, so we did the obvious and asked if he’d talk to us about it. To our surprise, the request was granted and we were given a 30-minute slot to talk frankly with Gibson’s CEO about how we got here, what happens next and what all this means for the kind of guitars we’ll be seeing from the Nashville-based company in coming months and years. Here’s what he had to say.
“Somewhere in the heart of every guitarist there is a little piece of hallowed turf that belongs to Gibson”