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Report on Business How Montreal’s Godin Guitars strummed its way to the top

Simon Godin, left, Robert Godin and Patrick Godin. Sons Simon and Patrick are carrying on the guitar manufacturing business started by their father Robert in Quebec.

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The era of the modern guitar started with the Ventures, clean-cut guys appearing in fuzzy, televised black and white. A quick introduction by Dick Clark, and they were off playing their quasi-surf-music 1960 instrumental hit Walk, Don’t Run on Fender guitars, bending strings, adding tremolo, turning the guitars into lead instruments and ushering in a new guitar culture, or so says Canadian guitar manufacturer Robert Godin.

For others, it was a different story, maybe going further back to country-and-western great Merle Travis and his amplified, solid-body prototype in the late 1940s. Or to the indefatigable player-tinkerer-inventor Les Paul and his electric guitar-drenched 1951 version of How High the Moon with Mary Ford. Or Muddy Waters with his howling Telecaster, Buddy Holly quick-strumming his space-age Stratocaster, the early Beatles and their Rickenbackers, or Bob Dylan committing the sacrilege of trading his acoustic for his own Stratocaster at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

The point being, as a teenager in Montreal in the 1960s, Mr. Godin wanted to be a part of that evolution, revolution.

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And that sheer variety of guitar styles and uses has been his business ethic since.

Six different brands operate today under the banner of Godin Guitars, based in Montreal and one of the largest manufacturers (if not the largest) of North American-made guitars. Some other giant brands, notably Gibson and Fender, produce some of their lower-end lines in Asia. (The tightly held guitar industry makes verifying actual manufacturing numbers difficult, even for industry insiders.) Godin has more than 250 different models now in its catalogue, all made in five factories in Quebec and one in New Hampshire.

“Over the years, they focused on a lot of little things, and it has really worked for them,” said Grant MacNeill, founder of The Twelfth Fret, a guitar store and repair shop in Toronto. For instance, the company hasn’t ignored smaller dealers, while much of the industry has shifted its attention to big chain stores. Godin has started shipping directly to dealers, circumventing distributors in a number of countries, and it has focused heavily on affordability, with many of its models under $1,000, Mr. MacNeill said. "They are very refreshing.”

Yet, such a wide catalogue belies a certain mindset at Godin.

Guitarists tend to have a traditionalist streak, and so does the guitar industry. In his biography of Les Paul, Leo Fender and the dawn of the electric guitar, writer Ian S. Port in The Birth Of Loud notes how Gibson made guitars they wanted musicians to aspire to. At Fender, the company’s somewhat more workmanlike designs also provided musicians with a certain tone and feel that Fender was after.

The idea at Godin, though, has been to build guitars specifically for what players weren’t otherwise finding, to cater to their needs, not vice versa – and at different price points.

People buy a guitar for its looks first, for its feel second and its sound only third, Robert Godin says.

“Yeah, we are very diverse,” Mr. Godin said by phone, in the enthusiastic way he always talks about guitars. “We do jazz guitars, rock. We do Latin, a lot of guitars for Latin music. We do an oud [typically an 11-stringed instrument with a Middle Eastern heritage]. We do all the small instruments, like mandolins, ukuleles. We made our own niche.”

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To manufacture such a wide, specialized assortment, Godin has had to rely on a high volume of production. Mr. Godin wouldn’t divulge how many instruments the company makes overall per year (“you see, I don’t publicize my numbers, because of too much competition, and they all want to know”), although in the past, he has mentioned roughly 200,000 a year, each model targeting a certain kind of music and customer within the various divisions.

Generally, Godin is the company’s main brand with electric guitars and many of the specialized models. Its Seagull division produces innovative acoustic models. Simon and Patrick (named after Mr. Godin’s sons who now run the company) are more traditionally crafted acoustics. Art and Lutherie is more of an entry-level acoustic line, to which the company has paid a great deal of attention. La Patrie are its nylon-string guitars, from more of a classical tradition, but with a feel adapted subtly to players coming from a steel-string background or who play flamenco and other Latin music. Norman Guitars is the first Godin line started in 1972.

“It’s very hard for us, because for sure we want to please most of the guitar players, because there are a lot of Godin fans out there,” said Robert’s son Simon Godin, the company’s chief executive. “Godin started with its own image,” with models such as the Acousticaster, which is half-electric, half-acoustic, which resembles roughly the shape of a Fender Telecaster, but not really, and the Multiac, particularly popular for Latin music.

“More and more, people want a traditional look. We cannot go too far from what exists already,” said Simon Godin. For a company based around innovation, that traditional bent can be confining. It can feel limiting, he said, “to make a guitar that looks like another brand, but this is what guitar players are looking for. They want a solid guitar that sounds good, the action is there [in terms of the height of the strings, in other words, its playability], and the tone and sound, at a certain price point.”

As his father Robert Godin has found from experience, people buy a guitar on looks first, for its feel second and its sound only third. So much of the innovation in the industry is in the relatively hidden details, the electronics, the radius of the neck, an exceedingly subtle change in the cut of a guitar, the quality of the tuners in keeping the instrument in tune, and so on.

Back in the mid 1960s, when he was operating a custom guitar shop, refurbishing guitars for the new rock era, updating a guitar could even simply involve swapping the heavy electric strings of the day for lighter, bendier banjo strings, just as other young rockers were doing elsewhere, to get those string-pulling blues wails.

'More and more, people want a traditional look. We cannot go too far from what exists already,' says Simon Godin, the company’s chief executive.

But on a weekend hunting trip in his early 20s, Mr. Godin met Norman Boucher, a woodworker who made window frames, who was about 60 at the time. They began making acoustic guitars under the Norman name, and the company has faithfully continued manufacturing in the region, bucking the pressure to produce overseas. The company, with about 700 employees, contends that it’s mostly about quality assurance.

“We want to be able to follow the production, to make sure the quality of the guitar is stable,” said Simon Godin. No two strips of wood are identical, and instrument making is a process that is difficult to rush.

Take the first step: drying the wood. “It takes two years, depending on what kind of wood and how wet we received it. We’re getting a lot more efficient. But yeah, it might take, depending on the model, between six and 10 weeks of production [to make a guitar]. Overseas, it can take two weeks," he said.

“Most guitar players will hide three or four guitars under the bed. Because when you’re a guitar player, you want an electric, you want an acoustic, you might want a 12-string, a nylon string."

Even if there are a lot of guitars out there, used for all manner of playing and taste, "Godin is for sure one of them,” he said.

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