NAMM 2016: A Critical Consideration (Plus Juicy Backstage Details)
It’s too easy to get jaded by The NAMM Show.
Especially for someone like me, who is way more interested in musicianship, bands, and players than in gear by itself (without musicians to talk about why they use it). So by the time I saw a second or third big-time musician waltzing the floors of the Anaheim Convention Center and rubbing shoulders with every gear geek on earth — among others, Nicko McBrain, Devin Townsend, and Stevie Wonder were there — I was thinking about something Howard Stern said recently to Adam Driver and JJ Abrams during the press cycle for The Force Awakens. That, like William Shatner or George Takei, now that you’ve been in Star Wars, you can go without being in any other movie for the rest of your life, and just make your bones going to conventions and signing autographs for weirdos.
NAMM is kinda the equivalent of that, but for metal, that cred can come from something as simple as having played as a fill-in drummer on an Ozzy Osbourne tour in ’85. The audience excited by those kinds of “convention musicians” is super weird: much like a Comic-Con or Star Trek convention, it’s a totally mixed bag of dad rockers in leather jackets, aging ex-groupies, goth kids, punks, Tosin Abasi nerds, dudes from the comments section of Sarah Longfield videos… you get the drill.
Only now we are living in a post-YouTube-whatever world, where some of the most important celebrities walking the convention floor aren’t musicians at all. Guys like Rob Scallon, Jared Dines, Fluff, and Glenn Fricker seemed to draw as much eye-goggling and attention as the freakin’ drummer from Iron Maiden. “Dude, is that Jared Dines?” “Isn’t that that dude who yells on YouTube?” and “Lol the Internet IRL let’s go take a selfie.” Meanwhile every company in the world is shelling out $$$ to keep people coming back to their booths — for example Sabian, who had a dude whose only job for 8 hours a day was to hammer cymbals in front of a moving crowd of bemused onlookers. Super weird.
So I decided to get over myself and delve into as much of the cool and weird stuff at NAMM as I could, of which there was plenty. Part of that was getting to hang with a bunch of great musicians in attendance – Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists and Sumac was there as a buyer for his drum shop Rufus Drums; Kevin Antreassian of Backroom Studios and the Dillinger Escape Plan; and Hugh Myrone, the softshred coolguy (unmasked). I also spent some time learning from some of the companies whose work I really respect, through the din of Guitar Center x1000 that is NAMM.
Like Zachary Vex of Z.Vex Effects. A learned engineer and machine history buff, Zach built a special candle-powered vibro-phase guitar effect using technology from the early 1800s, a mini stirling engine. Zach was a pleasure to talk to; an incredibly knowledgable guy who is like a magician of weirdo sound physics.
I was also really taken with Trick Drums’ new double-bass drum pedal, the Black Widow. It’s weird to me that Trick Drums aren’t more well known, especially in the metal community: their roster boasts some major players, including Dustin Boltjes of Skeletonwitch, Dave Witte of Municipal Waste, Daniel Williams of The Devil Wears Prada, and Jizmak of GWAR. What’s consistently impressed me about Trick is their tech, design, and manufacturing: I actually think they may have be the very best in the drum game in those respects.
Elegantly designed with actual, practical use-value for drummers, the Black Widow feels like a culmination of everything Trick has been working towards over the years. It’s one of the most well-built, versatile drum pedals I’ve ever seen.
I was really impressed with Charvel’s output this year. They’ve taken their classic model and added a whole bunch of unique switching options without gumming up the works with a complicated system that goes between coil taps, and phase in/out. Cool colors too, obviously.
Fender’s subsidiary companies have been doing interesting work all around. Though I’ve not had much of a chance to play one of EVH’s Wolfgang series guitars, they look and feel really great. And like with Charvel, they’ve been implementing nice little changes to their guitars to make them more practical and useful to actual working musicians (like placing the little gizmo that adjusts the truss rod at the base of the neck where it meets the pickup).
I unfortunately missed many of the performances, but passed by several while jetting between booths. And man, is that weird. Watching musicians play simultaneously naked without the rest of their bands, while also being buried under a complete wall of competing product demos and the sound of 10,000 Guitar Center customers playing “Enter Sandman.” So Myrone’s performance at the Vigier Guitars booth was, like, the highlight for me. Dude’s music is just fun, and in a way perfect for the setting. This was noon on the first day of the convention, and was probably my favorite part of the whole deal.
People have been asking me: Max, this is all well and good, but what is the State of Gear in 2016? What did you see at NAMM that blew you away, and what is up next for music gear?
While walking the floors of the convention center I wondered whether it was a coincidence that Jimmy McMillan shut down the Rent is Too Damn High party a few days before The NAMM Show began. Or if there is a relationship between The NAMM Show and how in the past few weeks and months we’ve seen the deaths of so many musicians of a particularly rebellious nature. I couldn’t help thinking about these things as I watched teenagers go in for selfies with Rob Scallon; metal elitists snicker sarcastically at certain companies’ booths; and grown men grab at instruments as though they were seven-year-olds in a Toys ‘R Us.
Then on Saturday night we went to see Zakk Wylde’s Black Sabbath tribute band, Zakk Sabbath, open for Arch Enemy at The Grove. We were late coming from dinner, and Vince Neilstein and I walked in during what would turn out to be the very last song of the set – it was “N.I.B.” I think, but might as well have been literally any other Black Sabbath song. Now, I haven’t cared about Zakk Wylde or Black Sabbath since I was maybe 12 years old, let alone the kind of guitar playing aesthetic and culture in general that Zakk has cultivated for the last three decades, but what I saw completely floored me.
I’m standing there next to Vince as Zakk begins to take his solo. We weren’t sure where we were in the set at this point, and I thought it was only the second or third song. It’s the usual Zakk playing, but all of a sudden the dozens-of-notes-a-second being pumped into me just shut down my mathcore-jazz leaning brain. It felt like I was stoned. I’m watching Zakk just go at these pentatonic runs with his muscles and wah-wah filter for so many minutes, as though he was obeying Ray J’s direction into the camera before his sex tape with Kim Kardashian begins, “When you jerkin’ off to this, go hard on ’em homie.” All I could think was this is fucking awesome. Zakk was going hard on ’em homie. I was ready for an hour and a half of this shit.
Then it ended, and like all great art, left me wanting a bit more.
So my answer to the question of the State of Gear suddenly became very simple: I take comfort knowing that there are guitar nerd players like Zakk out there, keeping the kind of music culture that NAMM promotes alive. It deserves to exist as long as it is this entertaining, ridiculous, and fun.