Gibson‘s new CEO, James “JC” Curleigh, discussed the company’s current plans and vision to the Guitar Center. Read them here:
This is an exciting and energetic time because Gibson has gone through some interesting times and here you are about to breathe, let’s say, new life into the brand and have a new vision…
“You know, we’ve been synonymous with creating and shaping sound for 125 years. And that’s across every generation, every genre, every gender…
“And so, when we look back at our historic, storied, iconic past, we say, ‘You know what’s really gonna be our quest in our mission moving forward? It’s to shape, create sound through future generations and genres and genders.’
“And if the last few months is an indicator of our state of readiness to start hitting our mission, I feel pretty good right now.”
Your background – you were the president of Levi’s, which is also an iconic brand. And here you are now, at the helm of this iconic brand, Gibson. How do you feel about that and what do you feel your mission is?
“It’s great. I mean, it’s amazing. I was at Levi’s for many years and I’m so proud of what we, as a team, accomplished there. Levi’s stands as one of the leading lifestyle brands. It’s introduced itself to a new generation while at the same time, it’s kept its loyal Levi’s fans wanting more Levi’s.
“And guess what? That’s an awesome playbook for an iconic American brand like Gibson – to say, ‘How do we give our loyal fans, the Gibson fans who love us and never left us – how do we keep them in Gibson?’. And guess what? We got a lot of cool guitars here [at NAMM] to show them.
“How do we get the fans that say, ‘Hey, what’s going on a Gibson? I kind of left you, am I coming back?’… Guess what? Come back and check it out because we got more for you.
“And then what we’re all excited about is that next-generation fan, the fan that sees that music is cool, they want to play something and they get introduced to it whether it’s through Epiphone or Gibson.
“And we get that leap into guitar playing and into Gibson or Epiphone, and then all of a sudden you got a fan base that’s reenergized again.”
Gibson is just the kind of brand that never seems to go out of style. You have some of the greatest guitar shapes. And the way you’re able to make them always interesting every year, I imagine there’s a lot of things that you’re cooking here…
“Yeah, I think that’s always the absolute balance point when you have an iconic brand: how do you stay true to your DNA? And really, when you call it ‘classic,’ like, make your classics classic – be true to the historic specs, go back to those eras that everyone reimagined what could have been today and deliver it.
“And then at the same time, I do think there’s an opportunity for us to take some of the modern dynamics of technology and parts of innovation, and build those into guitars that say, ‘Hey, is there’s a contemporary approach to playing and listening and creating sound?’. There’s also a classic approach, and Gibson is perfectly positioned to deliver both of those.
“Being iconic and innovative at the same time is what our job is here. And nothing happens more to deliver that vision then when someone gets up on stage and play. And our vision is so simple: we want to be the most relevant, we want to be the most played, and we want to be the most loved guitar brand again.
“And if the last 125 years is an indicator that we can we can do that, I think we’re on the right path.”
I don’t think you have much of a hurdle trying to get to be the most beloved guitar brand again, but I think – as you said before, it’s delivering, I think that’s a really important thing that you’re saying here. Because your mission and what you’re doing now is also rather personal – you’re not only [a fan of] the brand, but you were also a player as well. You’ve had Gibson’s before. Tell me a little bit about that.
“I’ve been playing guitar for a long time. I grew up in a family where my mom played her Epiphone. I can remember coveting and getting my first Gibson Les Paul and then a J-45, one of the vintage ’60s replica J-45s. My son now has it.
“Christmas at the Curleigh household was awesome because everyone’s now got their own Gibson guitar at the home and we get the family band going – it’s just amazing. It’s just so energizing…
“And less about me and my journey, I can tell you, the Gibson team have been on this journey and they face some obstacle courses, but I can tell you that the pride, I think everyone grew a foot taller in the last couple of days, showing up and preparing to show the future of Gibson.
“And I’m actually most proud of the team. When we said, ‘Hey, we’re going to NAMM. It’s a couple months away. What do we got?’. And everyone said, ‘We got more than you think, JC.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, how do we know that?’.
“And all of a sudden, we started seeing things appear and today we stand here – the Custom Shop are delivering probably the most amazing array of guitars we’ve created in that period of time. We’ve got new acoustics we’re launching, we’ve got a whole focus on our hollow-bodies and then, of course, no Gibson would be complete without the Explorer and the Flying V and then the Les Paul is absolutely there.
“And it all comes to life when people start rocking on the stage. You know, one kind-of philosophical approach is, ‘How can we take our heritage and all that earned iconic status and lean into the future?’ – kind of think about us as a 125-year-old startup, you know, and get that energy of a startup and that focus that product matters again and connect in ways that we want to connect with our fans and ways that they want to be connected with.
“It wasn’t daunting but I do think the one thing that was the biggest surprise – it’s the true love of the Gibson brand. I’ve had many friends, many competitors, many colleagues come and say, ‘We’re with you. What do you need?’.
“I had dinner with [ZZ Top‘s] Billy Gibbons, who’s just a legendary… has one of the legendary guitars of Gibson, and he just said, ‘JC, you and the team took a brave step moving forward and you got to know that we’re all with you every step of the way.’
“And for someone like that to say, that was the probably the thing that gave me the most encouragement that we’re gonna be aggressively patient, but Gibson’s gonna get back on track, and not just back on track: back to where we should be in the first place – the most iconic guitar brand in the world.”
The CEO concluded:
“Thank you for everything. I just want to give a shout-out to all the Gibson fans, man. You know what? You guys stuck with us and we’re gonna do you proud – not only from the past representing our classics, you’re gonna see some new stuff and you’re gonna hear it from our artists so thank you guys for sticking with us and we’ll see in the future.”