Invent / Grow / Scale: An Interview with Ola Strandberg & Ed Yoon
Over the past few years, I have become somewhat infatuated with the idea of perfecting electric guitars. From meticulous setups to completely replacing and upgrading most of the components, I firmly believe that a guitar is only as cool as you make it and can almost always be improved.
At the NAMM show earlier this year, I discovered the .strandberg* booth and my entire scope of what was important in an electric guitar shifted. I realized that yes, you can upgrade and customize any traditional electric guitar to your heart’s content, but you will still be working around a number of inherent design issues. The .strandberg* guitars were fundamentally different and every design improvement just made complete sense, both from a technical and ergonomic perspective.
Ola Strandberg took it upon himself to reimagine the electric guitar, transforming the instrument’s weight, shape and feel. He has been building the .strandberg* brand over the past several years, bringing it from a hobby he started for fun to the multi-national presence that it is in today’s modern guitar industry. Just this year, Ola was able to introduce .strandberg*’s first production guitars,, the OS line, which was made possible by his connection with Ed Yoon. In this interview, we will talk with both Ola and Ed about their backgrounds, how .strandberg* began, current innovations and scaling up.
CL: Ola, What did you do prior to building the .strandberg* brand?
Ola Strandberg: I went to school to become a mechanical engineer, and my first job was actually in that space. I worked for 4 years in the late eighties for a MedTech company in their R&D and prototyping department, and acquired not only CAD (Computer Aided Design) skills, but also really learned from the ground up and got first hand experience how to machine parts using various techniques. Two houses down the road was the Swedish Charvel/Jackson distributor, so I would pass by there on the way home from work and do setups and repairs for them. In addition, I did repairs for a music store in town. When the machines I designed at work started requiring more and more computer control, I decided to pursue that instead (greatly simplified long story short) and got a Master’s degree in Computer Science. And with computers + family, I put guitars on the shelf. So I’ve had a long career in software and high tech, starting as a developer and finishing in marketing. At the time of the inception of what is now the .strandberg* brand, I had a software role at a Biotech company that also had a hardware component. I spent my lunch breaks, evenings and weekends in the prototyping shop, dusting off my old milling and turning skills. Later, the company that did the early serial production of my hardware was the company that did the same for the day job – it turned out that the head of Engineering there was a musician, so he was intrigued by my ideas. My most recent job had to do with monitoring side effects of drugs on a global scale for a center in the World Health Organization. The last year and a half, as Strandberg Guitars was growing, I was taking more and more time off, to leave completely only in February this year (2015).
CL: What inspired you to re-engineer the electric guitar? What made you want to focus on ergonomics specifically?
OS: Coincidence, really… I didn’t intend to. I’ve always loved innovation and breaking new ground – my various day job roles have always revolved around this. Requirements gathering, working towards meeting market needs, prototyping, design & construction, launch and then refinement. I’ve always been the one that “figured it out” first and often come up with outside-the-box type solutions. I’ve never felt the need to do what you’re “supposed to do” or look at what others are doing. For better and for worse.
So after having quit a crazy job and winding down from that, I found myself with spare time and a came up with the idea to build myself another guitar after a 15-year hiatus. I knew I wanted to make it headless because I once owned a Hohner Steinberger copy and loved the technology behind the hardware. But when I set out to buy hardware, I found that there was none to buy. I grew up in a family where if you couldn’t find or afford something, you made it yourself, so the leap to doing that was pretty natural. While browsing the internet for parts for headless guitars, I had stumbled on this community of ergonomic guitar builders, who seemed to be doing some cool and innovative stuff. But they were “all-in” type of guitars, focusing 100% on ergonomics at the expense of looks, but still staying within the tradition (I know that sounds contradictory, and it is).
Despite only ever planning to make a single guitar for myself, just to make it interesting, I dreamed up a product concept called the “Ergonomic Guitar System”. This was a set of modules made to be retrofit on an existing guitar to make it more ergonomic:
– a set of lightweight string locks that one could mount in place of tuners at the headstock
– a lightweight headless tremolo system that had Floyd Rose dimensions
– and as a second step, a torzal twisted replacement neck made from carbon fiber
And as a “gold standard”, I designed a guitar that would appeal to me aesthetically, that featured all of these parts from the start.
This was all during Christmas holiday 2007, and I started blogging and posting on forums about my project shortly thereafter. I made my own prototypes and experiments of the different components with frequent posts and updates. I also invited others to participate in the design process.
Before long, other builders started contacting me wanting to buy the hardware. So, I started making it. First just 15 pcs, then 100, then 100 more, 200, and so on. I sold them basically at a loss, but I was doing it for the fun, and not for profit. I got halfway through making a mould for the twisted neck, but lost patience and abandoned the carbon fiber idea. And then finally, 2.5 years into it, I was able to actually build the first “EGS” guitar, but with a conventional neck. It won “Guitar of the Month” at the projectguitar.com forums, so that was a pretty big encouragement, and I built three more guitars trying out various concepts. I had gotten in touch with Rick Toone, who was exploring new neck shapes, and we collaborated on some aspects in these early days and had big plans about revolutionizing lutherie.
And then Chris Letchford of Scale the Summit contacted me after having seen my work on projectguitar.com and asked if I could build him a 7-string guitar. I was barely aware that such a thing existed, but I said yes of course and he received guitar #5. He was constantly touring and exposed it to other musicians in the genre, like Tosin Abasi, and the rest is history… All that these guys had to turn to was superstrat type guitars with an extra string added to it, so they were a little more receptive than the typical guitarists when it came to something that didn’t look “normal”.
If I had done it by the book and started with market research, none of this would have happened. No one was asking for it specifically, and I was actually quite hesitant about how to play the ergonomic angle in the beginning. I thought it might not be “manly” enough, and it was never talked about. But it turned out that a lot of these guys practice 16 hours a day 7 days a week, so repetitive stress injuries are a fact!
CL: Ola, as I looked into the history of .strandberg*, I saw that the majority of your designs are under a Creative Commons license. The exception being your Endurneck profile, for which you hold a patent. Care to walk us through your experience in patenting the Endurneck and why you decided to go that route rather than Creative Commons?
OS: It has been an evolution. As I started, it was only a hobby, and I genuinely enjoyed the collaboration with others, as well as selling the hardware to other builders and seeing their completed builds. It was like having pen pals all over the world! My “company” tag line at the start was “Innovation & Collaboration”. And the license has a “Share Alike” requirement, so each licensee has to publish their enhancements under the same license. So, in theory, it would drive and enhance innovation around the development that I started. In practice, I haven’t seen a single stated attempt to actually enhance the designs from a feature perspective. There have been lots of straight copies, and some variations. But it has brought me a lot of joy personally, and I do believe that it has increased the acceptance of oddly shaped headless guitars just by the fact that there are more of them in circulation. What is really odd is that there are also quite a few unlicensed commercial and non-commercial copies out there. Even after contacting the “offenders” in the most friendly way informing them that licensing is free, etc., these individuals/companies choose to not respond.
Originally, the license had no restrictions and even commercial use was allowed. Sadly, with the increased popularity and growth of the brand this was misunderstood/abused, and there were instances where companies claimed to build “Officially Licensed .strandberg* Guitars”. As I started to realize that there was a business beyond the hobby, I felt that I had to start taking these considerations into account and limit the license to personal non-commercial use only.
When the EndurNeck was born, I was even further along mentally that maybe there was indeed a budding business opportunity here, and creating intellectual property is a way to build value in the company. But in all honesty, a lot of it had to do with just trying out the process. In my previous day job roles, I had done some work reviewing existing patents for so called “Freedom to Operate” and I wanted to try and write my own patent text and make it as strong as possible – “how hard can it be?”. In that respect, it was just another challenge I set myself, to see if I could pull it off. So it didn’t cost me anything beyond the filing fees, which is usually the big hurdle for a small business. And it just sounded cool to say “Patent Pending” at the launch…
CL: Do you feel that manufacturing restrictions force design compromises? Both in small and large scale production?
OS: For me it did in the beginning. The setup cost for any part is usually so high that the material cost is almost negligible. You’re paying for programming for each part once, but then you’re paying for setup for each run, and then the machine time involved in making the part. So when I started out, I really did everything I could to minimize the number of manufactured parts. If there was a standard part that could do the job, I would buy it rather than make something similar but potentially more elegant. Also, this drove the design of the entire modular concept, since I early figured out that I wanted to do custom multiscale instruments as well as extended range instruments that could have more strings than 6. Just making and stocking each bridge version would be too costly.
Now that I’m further along, I sometimes find the opposite: I let myself be restricted by my original means/budget of manufacturing, while it is suddenly possible and feasible for me to both prototype and then manufacture much more specialized parts. So now it’s not so much manufacturing restrictions as it is cost restrictions. The price tag on my guitars is largely due to the high hardware cost, which is due to material choices and the fact that it is machined and not cast. Complex operations involving small tools, such as engraved logos, etc., all cost machine time.
CL: It seems that one of the only traditional aspects of a .strandberg* is the fact that it’s constructed from wood. This has shown to be a sustainability issue for the guitar industry in the past. Have you looked into composites or other materials?
OS: My original plan for the “Ergonomic Guitar System” was a composite neck. I was intrigued by it from the project perspective but also from the perspective of my limited means of woodworking at the time. It just seemed like an easier way of producing necks serially. At the time, I wasn’t too aware about the intricacies of sourcing, purchasing and storing wood from multiple sources for production, and then build guitars that are subsequently shipped all over the world. Only to be taken on the road by their owners. To me, composite are very appealing for four different reasons:
- reproducibility over time, namely that not only is each instrument in a batch “the same”, but instruments across batches are “the same”
- consistency, namely that with a mould or plug, each part will come out the same every time. (This is only true as long as the process and raw materials are maintained carefully, so can certainly go wrong as well)
- stability/imperviousness to climate and weather conditions, i.e. the guitar will behave in a predictable way always
- sustainability, i.e. no rainforests were cut down to produce the beautiful instrument
Point 1 is more or less impossible with organic materials. Not going into a “tonewood debate” here, but there is no doubt in my mind at all that two seemingly identical guitars can sound different based on the materials and the actual individual pieces of wood that were used. Even two guitars cut from different parts of the same tree can (not saying “will” because there are many confounding factors) sound different. Point 2 can be more or less achieved by using CNC machines. And point 3 is very appealing. With fairly large serial production going on, there’s always some support issue involving wood quality pending. The bigger and more competent manufacturers have this under pretty good control, but with any organic material, things still go wrong. And with small scale building and purchasing different pieces of wood from different places, and going a lot on stunning looks rather than structural stability, a lot more can go wrong. After all, most of the desirable appearances of wood are a result of defects in the wood. And point 4 is very important. Nowadays, there are reasonably controlled alternatives for purchasing, and suppliers that take great care in ensuring that wood is grown in a sustainable way. But I have been approached by suppliers several times letting me know that they can easily supply protected species.
With the vintage guitar market booming, I was thinking about if there will ever be relic’ed .strandberg*s out there? How will they age? Will you be able to walk into a pawn shop and pick up a “magical” one 50 years from now? I keep hearing stories from guitar players about this. I have also been told more than once that the guitars that I have built personally have a different feel than the ones coming out of a factory, despite having run the exact same CNC programs. This made me realize that these things are really builder problems. They’re not player problems. Sure, no one actually wants a wonky guitar on tour, but so many still put up with it due to the X factor of that particular guitar.
So I’m looking into other avenues now, such as acetylated wood and laminates, which will address all the problems but will hopefully not eliminate the benefits of being wood. Wood that is farmed for these purposes actually benefits the environment rather than put a stress on it.
CL: I noticed you’ve been making progress on the Boden bass. How long has this project been in the works? Did the bass present any unforeseen challenges?
OS: Wow, it’s been in the works for the longest time. I started out with the hardware, and I had 9 pieces made. Later, I was talked into selling 5 pieces, and just the thought of having to build a 4-string bass as the first one then held me back for years. Then I designed a bass around the Varberg concept, with layers of wood, and additional means of shaping the tone, which was kicking around for a few years while I was busy making guitars and growing the company. And having tried to put the Varberg into serial production, I learned the hard way that some things one should just stay away from. It’s an incredibly complex build, with each layer having to be milled from both sides, and so on. So “5 minutes to midnight” I redesigned the whole concept on the Boden platform in order to have at least a chance to produce it later. I had many concerns, like would it have even response across the entire frequency range? Would it have the sustain of traditional basses? Would the EndurNeck work on a bass?
So far, the feedback has been amazing, and I have had nothing to worry about yet. I have put on a heavy string and tuned to a low B and it works fine, but I still have to build some actual 5- (and likely 6-string) prototypes to make sure that it works overall.
CL: Have you entertained the idea of building a .strandberg* acoustic at all?
OS: Yes! It’s on the shelves also waiting for that day when I magically have spare time on my hands… Let’s leave it at that.
CL: Your artist roster is quite impressive, featuring some of the most prominent names in progressive instrumental music. How were you able to build it so quickly? What do you look for in an artist before considering endorsement?
OS: I was very fortunate with the timing of my guitars becoming available and the rise in popularity of extended range guitars (7- and 8-string guitars), I think. The Boden design is different enough to make people look twice but not different enough so that people are put off. So they pick it up and immediately react with: “Oh, it’s so light!” “And the neck shape!” “Hey, it doesn’t feel weird!” and then they can’t help trying it out. If it was all looks, or gimmicks, I guess it wouldn’t have happened, so I do have faith in that it’s a good product.
All of our artist relationships are built on the fact that the artist prefers to play a .strandberg*. Our agreements are non exclusive and are null and void should the artist no longer prefer playing a .strandberg*. We don’t enter into any relationships until after the artist has actually tried one, despite some being almost offended by not just being offered free guitars. But like any endorsement deal, we need to each have something to offer the other, so it’s a mutual relationship. We’re blessed to have been able to strike up relationships with some stunning artists that are still early in their careers and it’s amazing to be able to support them and follow their successes.
CL: As .strandberg* guitars became more popular, it was time to scale up manufacturing and distribution beyond Made to Measure builds and the Custom Shop. I’m guessing this is where Ed comes in?
Ola Strandberg: Certainly, setting up actual serial production was the key to establishing the brand and building a viable business. It was getting this third component up and running that finally made me quit my day job. We’re still finding our way in terms of distribution trying to reach a balance between direct sales and support vs working through distributors or dealers in countries where we don’t have direct representation.
Ed and I met at the NAMM Show and just started talking. This was at a time when we were still in the planning stages of scaling up, and it didn’t take long before Ed was back at the booth a second time, now with an R&D person from one of the bigger manufacturers. So, he clearly proved a potential value very quickly! We kept talking and discussing during the following year, and when it was time to launch the Boden OS line, it was natural to ask Ed if he would consider becoming the US representative. He’s a workaholic, so adding a new job on top of his industry day job, rock band manager job, and consulting gig was not a problem… He’s joining full time from January 2016 and will take over a lot of the operational aspects, with the intention of freeing me up to do more R&D. Ed’s experience from Fender, Tone Merchants, Suhr, etc., is invaluable since I actually don’t have any experience at all from the music industry. Although I think this has sometimes been an advantage, we’re now getting to a point where we have to “play by the rules” and behave predictably.
Ed Yoon: As Ola mentioned, we met at the 2013 NAMM. I sought out to check out the .strandberg* guitars after I picked up Guthrie Govan at the LAX airport a few days earlier and told me that he got to try them a month earlier at the Uppsala Guitar Festival in Sweden. I remember his exact words: “They weigh nothing and resonate like crazy.” Well, when Guthrie says something like that I knew I had to investigate. I was still managing the Aristocrats at the time (I still manage the band’s label business) and doing some consulting work for large Asian guitar manufacturers but I had always been on the lookout for something more interesting to do.
So I checked out the guitars at NAMM, introduced myself to Ola, and we started talking and stayed in touch while I got a job at Guitar Center corporate to set up and run the QC and setup operations for the company’s private labels brands guitars and other stringed instruments. The .strandberg* guitars really fascinated me as I had always been interested in innovative cutting-edge design electric guitars although I certainly appreciate and love the classic guitars such as the Stratocaster and Les Paul as well. After all, I did work at Fender for over 10 years.
Still, the guitars that always interested me the most were more of the “modern” variety – Steinberger, Parker, Brian Moore, and Suhr, for example. So when I saw .strandberg*, I thought, “Wow. This is the kind of guitar and guitar company I’ve always wanted to be involved with.” So, as time went by, I stayed in touch with Ola and we even hooked up in Seoul, Korea while he and I were both there for our respective business reasons. This is when I learned of Ola’s plan to develop and manufacture new models of the Boden line at the World Musical Instruments (WMI) factory in Korea.
Being that I’m a native Korean who grew up there, I’m fluent in the language and understand the culture very well. I’ve had an interesting youth in that I went back and forth between Korea and the US a lot because my father was a diplomat. I actually attended elementary school, middle school, and high school in both countries. So I have a deep understanding of both cultures. Also, during my years at Fender from 1991 to 2001, I worked with large Korean guitar manufacturers like Cort, Samick, Young Chang and many smaller ones as well. So I started consulting Ola on an informal basis to help him navigate the business he was scaling up with the imminent production of the Boden OS line at WMI.
When the OS line was finally ready for introduction, Ola and I started talking more about US distribution and all the logistics that would be involved. Initially, since I had a full-time job at GC, I didn’t think I’d have the time to do it and we looked into having someone else handle the work but the more Ola and I thought about it, the more it became obvious that I needed to take on this job. As Ola said, I really am an incurable workaholic – just as long as it’s work I really want to do! And, soon, .strandberg* became a passion.
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to work at companies and deal with products I have passion for: Fender, Tone Merchants, and Suhr. I’ve also been fortunate to hook up with Guthrie Govan to become good friends, manage the Aristocrats, go on clinic and concert tours together, and manage his business affairs in the US. I also love working with large Asian guitar manufacturers and have friendships and working relationships with them that go back well over 20 years. So I can honestly say that I’ve literally covered it all within the guitar industry: from managing the guitar manufacturing supply chain all over Asia for Fender to marketing and selling boutique high-end guitars at Suhr and from running a high-end retail store to going on tours all around the world with Guthrie and the Aristocrats. So it’s been a very interesting and rewarding experience.
So right around the time I met Ola, I was looking for an opportunity to leverage and combine all that diverse experience and knowledge I had gained into a cohesive whole. I had hoped that my job at GC would evolve into something like that but my heart was definitely with .strandberg* from the beginning. So I took on the role of running .strandberg*’s US operations while I was still working at GC (even during my long business trips to Asia) and managing the Aristocrats’ music distribution business. It got kind of crazy for a while because the .strandberg* US operation just started, my role at GC was getting more and more expanded, and the Aristocrats released 3 new albums in a space of 6 months during the first-half of 2015.
But, eventually, I got over that hump and saw first-hand that the .strandberg* business kept growing and growing. Although I was doing fine at GC and enjoying the job for the most part, I felt that it wasn’t providing the opportunity for me to use all of my experience, knowledge and skills to their full potential while I could clearly see such an opportunity with .strandberg*. And that’s what I always cared about the most – not the money or material rewards. I’ve never chased money first. It always had to be something I was passionate about and if I did good there, then the money would naturally follow. That’s how I view it and I think that’s really the only way to be truly successful in this industry.
So Ola and I agreed that I could start full-time at .strandberg* in January and I gave GC a two-month notice to work through the company’s busy season and groom a successor for my position. GC asked me to stay on board as a consultant so I plan to maintain a good working relationship with the company on the side. Obviously, I’m very excited with this new start at .strandberg* and it’s also the role I’ve always cherished – to be the “COO” kind of guy running the operations from supply chain all the way through customer service and artist relations while the CEO – Ola in this case – mainly focused on product development and marketing. I have a great deal of interest in logistics and operations and study Apple’s supply chain management more avidly than NFL fans study their favorite football teams. I have even more interest in the military and logistics accomplishments of conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. I have read more than 40 books on each of these figures and even get into the mundane details of how they managed the logistics of feeding over a 100,000 soldiers and even more animals during their campaigns of conquest. You study how they did it and the things that we are dealing with in this industry don’t seem all that daunting anymore.
I will certainly be very involved not only with the factories (and we are looking at numerous sources all over Asia through my long-time connections) but with the distributors, dealers and end-customers as well. I believe that’s where my strength is – knowing how to work with the manufacturers and the production source as well as the customers, artists and the market. For me, the goal is to shorten that chain and make the flow of good products to the customers as smooth and seamless as possible while providing a great purchasing and ownership experience for the customers, which includes great after-market service.
CL: With so many build options offered on your Made to Measure guitars, how did you narrow down the measurements, components and materials that were to be used in the OS production line?
OS: The benefit of running the custom shop and building Made to Measures has been that we have had a chance to experiment and try many combinations, in a way that has been practically all funded. As we keep building our own expertise and experience, we have also been able to leverage each client’s experience in our dialogs with them. Many of our clients have owned or played tons of guitars before of course, and know what they want to try next. We listen and add our own experiences and then get to see the result first hand. So in developing the OS line, we simply picked the combinations that we thought would be most generally applicable.
CL: Was World Musical Instruments at all hesitant to take on building Bodens due to it being such an unconventional guitar? Were other manufacturing locations considered?
OS: We did talk to a few manufacturers at the time and some turned us down. Several others, we turned down after our due diligence showed that they simply didn’t have the technical capabilities we needed. In order for us to be a competent customer to them, we need to understand the challenges they go through in setting up the production. If they propose to do it in a way that is too different from what we are used to, we can’t be that support. So even if their end result would probably have been the same, we said no. We’ve spoken to people that run national repair services for guitars and that have taken care of thousands of guitars of all brands in existence for over 20 years, and WMI-produced guitars are practically absent in their statistics. I can’t even disclose how the initial introductions to WMI was done because it would be a conflict of interest for the person who introduced us, but I’m very fortunate to have met people in the industry who believe in what we are doing and that have really helped out with no personal gain in sight. I do think WMI thought twice about bringing us on board, but they also saw the potential and took the risk.
CL: What were the biggest challenges you faced with the OS launch and scaling up?
OS: In order for having a large production capacity to be meaningful, we need means of selling them. Planning production of the particular models that will be in demand months later is a skill that I don’t have, and this will certainly be one of the top agenda items for Ed. Getting dealers to place order long enough in advance to meet demand as well as managing stock is completely new to me. And certainly, dealing with a manufacturer on the other side of the planet and with a completely different set of cultural references brings its own challenges. Again, I have been able to draw on a lot of old day job experiences with outsourcing, so it has been a largely good experience.
EY: There are always many challenges when working with the guitar manufacturers in Asia due to the language and cultural barriers and, due to my full-time job status at GC, I really haven’t had enough time with WMI yet. Good clear communications will be the key. It’s not enough that you just have guitar manufacturing or tech expertise. You have to somehow communicate, persuade and convince the managers and the workers there to build the guitars to your vision and that is a lot easier said than done.
There is no doubt in Ola’s and my mind that WMI can produce world-class electric guitars. That being said, getting excellent quality on a consistent basis is a challenge because the workers sometimes do not see or understand the details that musicians find important. So my task will be in helping them pay attention to the details and explain why these details matter. They are all very good at what they do. WMI’s employees have an average of 10+ years of experience and the company has been a successful OEM supplier for over 20 years. They have the know-how for sure. Now they have to have the know-why, if you get my drift.
In my mind, the best guitar manufacturers in Asia can build world-class instruments and it doesn’t really matter what country they are in. It’s about working with the right companies with the right combination of managers, workers, facility, machinery, and the attitude and the resolve to do a great job. And I like to work on the factory floor with the supervisors and the lowest-level workers, not just spend time in the meeting rooms with the top executives. That’s what I intend to do at WMI and other factories we plan to work with in the future. It’s about getting to know the floor-level managers and workers on the factory floor and then going out to dinner with them and have a few drinks together to build camaraderie, trust, and understanding for the future. That’s how I’ve always done things with the suppliers at Fender, at Suhr (with the Rasmus project) and at GC and that’s what produces great results – not just telling the president and a few other high-level people in a meeting room that this-and-that is what we want.
CL: One thing that I feel really sets .strandberg* apart is your connection to your audience and customers. It’s absolutely fantastic! Ed, I recall you even taking the time to post extensive updates in regard to the OS line on sevenstring.org. As the company continues to grow, will you be able to maintain this connection?
OS: The company started with my blog, which has been getting less and less frequent posts as the business has grown, and that is a constant nagging feeling of abandonment. The past 10 or so Made to Measure builds don’t even have their photo albums up yet! I think the biggest challenge for any entrepreneur is juggling priorities, and I certainly aim to shift some of mine back to where we started, and the evolution of that. This means addressing both the technical aspects of our future developments, but also now that we have a large following of actual players, there is just and endless resource of information, relationships and stories to draw from.
EY: Yes, I absolutely believe in the best customer service possible because that’s what I expect from companies that I admire. It’s what I learned on the job at Tone Merchants and Suhr Guitars. The main reason I left a rather plush and secure sourcing and supply chain job at Fender was that I wanted to be involved with the marketing, sales and customer service side of things. So after managing Fender’s OEM supply chain that had a volume of 50,000+ guitars per month spread out over 15+ factories, I jumped headfirst into the ultra high-end boutique retail business with Tone Merchants. I had no idea what I was getting into but I felt I wouldn’t learn unless I jumped into the fire.
So I learned about customer engagement and providing good service. I genuinely wanted the customer to have a great buying experience because they often have a lot of questions about what gear will work the best for them. I learned so much that I would never have learned at Fender in a corporate environment. And I also learned that every player is different and that no single piece of gear is right for everyone even if you had a personal preference or bias towards something for yourself.
And I also learned that so much of a player’s tone is in the player’s hands, not the gear. It’s at Tone Merchants I heard two different players sound completely different through the identical gear – the guitar, the amp, the effects, and even the pick. And it’s at Tone Merchants where I met Guthrie when he was there to do a clinic and I realized that a great player can produce more sounds and play a variety of styles in a very convincing manner just plugged straight into an amp with no effects whatsoever than a mediocre player through a huge MIDI-controlled rack system. Observing what Guthrie did for the first-time up-close was a huge revelation and it was like a religious experience to me. He totally changed my perspective about guitar playing and gear. And for the better, of course.
I came to understand the unique characteristics and the needs of each individual player. You can’t just come up with something and say, “This is for you. It will make you sound and play better.” You have to listen to them and get an idea of what they’re trying to achieve and how they’re going to get there. After Tone Merchants, I took things to the next level at Suhr Guitars, working closely with John Suhr, a truly brilliant guitar mind who thoroughly understands the entire electric guitar signal chain from the woods used on a guitar to the capacitors in an amp and everything in between.
So I want to share this knowledge with the customers to help them find what they need and want to achieve in terms of getting the sound and the playability they envision. So, in essence, yes, Ola and I will be very engaged with the customers and we will work on connecting with them in a variety of ways to make getting and owning a .strandberg* a great experience. And we will certainly hire and work with like-minded people as we grow in the future.
CL: What product / music trend / technology are you excited to see in the industry in 2016?
OS: That’s a hard one to answer. As I’m still constantly immersed in daily operations, our own work gets first priority and I’m sure that most cool trends pass me by. I’m actually very excited that more brands are releasing multiscale guitars and headless guitars. I’m noticing that ergonomics is starting to be pushed as a selling point, which is also a great development. A market without competitors is either a brand new niche market or not actually a market at all. The fact that bigger players are now dipping their feet into this one greatly reduces my fear that it will all go away. As long as we can offer something unique, and hopefully better, it’s free marketing for us.
I’m certainly noticing that a lot of the traditional music industry is struggling, so I would imagine that 2016 will be the year when we see something new emerging. What is the uber of the musical instruments industry?
If I were to mention one piece of kit that I’m very excited about, it is the Cycfi Nu modular pickups. Ever since I had my hardware prototyped, I’ve been asking every pickup builder I have met if they could make me a modular pickup that will allow me to amplify extended range multi-scale guitar by just adding more units and placing them in the appropriate locations. Well, now it’s here and I can’t wait to try them out!
CL: Ola, what are three things you know now that you would tell yourself five years ago about building a business?
OS: I’ve been very fortunate to have had a long alternate career. I also received some advice along the way, and I listened to some of it. So I’m not sure I would do things that differently on the grander scale, but the three pieces of wisdom that I think have been most important for me personally have been:
– Keep your day job. Having had the freedom to take huge risks and still have food on the table has been invaluable, and allowed me to pick myself up from the floor after disasters, brush myself off and continue undeterred. It has also allowed me to build the brand and prove that there is a viable business before taking the plunge to make it my primary source of income.
– Calm down, things move much slower than you think. It’s easy to get caught up in an endless stress of meeting anticipated market demands, and feeling frustrated when things don’t move along as quickly as you thought. But the fact is that no one around you expects it to move as quickly as you do, and are just happy when it does move.
– Make the value of your time grow exponentially. As a one-man show, which many guitar builders are, your income is often directly proportional to the effort you put in. With success, you inevitably end up with more on your plate than you can manage. So when setting priorities for how to spend your time, you need to look at the return on investment. Spending 100 hours in setting up serial production can be worth the equivalent of 10000 hours of workshop time building guitars but then you also have to figure out how to sell them, which may require a completely new competence.
Click the videos below to watch .strandberg* endorsee Yvette Young of the band Covet perform songs Sea Dragon and Hydra on her custom Boden 7 string.
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