Histories of the 50-year ascendancy of the guitar from "hillbilly" instrument to the mainstay of popular music typically cite a number of factors: the folk music boom of the 1950s; the inventive genius of Leo Fender
and Les Paul; Bill Haley and the birth of rock 'n' roll; and, of course, the Beatles. Overlooked are the efforts of behind-the-scenes players like Jack Westheimer. Although the name Westheimer doesn't register in the consciousness of guitar players,, he has done as much as any single individual to nurture a booming guitar market. His contribution: high-quality, low-cost instruments from Asia that made the guitar readily accessible to millions of beginning players.
The guitar market Westheimer confronted in 1958 had two distinct tiers: exquisitely made instruments from Gibson, Fender, and Martin that were priced out of the reach of beginners, and low-priced instruments made by Kay and Harmony that, while affordable, were tough to play. At their peak Kay and Harmony collectively produced nearly a million instruments a year, yet if you want to know just how difficult they were to play, consider the fact that there is no after-market for the original Harmony or Kay guitars; the instruments are invisible on eBay or any other used/vintage guitar channel. Against this backdrop, Westheimer helped nurture a cadre of Japanese, Korean, and eventually Chinese manufacturers who introduced a line of instruments that were simultaneously playable and affordable.
As president and founder of the Westheimer Corporation, Jack Westheimer is best known in the industry for his Cort line of guitars and the newly introduced Basix percussion line. However, in his work with numerous Asian instrument manufacturers he has supplied millions of guitars under a myriad of different brand names to manufacturers and distributors around the world. It's impossible to calculate the precise number of guitarists who got their start on a Westheimer instrument and went on to trade up, but it's safe to say that his instruments truly helped seed the market.
Tracing Jack Westheimer's 45-year career provides an encapsulated history of the evolution of Asian instrument manufacturing and the globalization of the music industry.
Jack Westheimer's first job was keeping track of billboard advertising with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Within a year, though, he managed to work his way into a better job with a Thompson client, the Worldwide Sporting Goods Company. The year was 1956, and Worldwide Sporting Goods was in the midst of acrimonious labor negotiations at its Chicago baseball glove factory. Unable to reach a workable settlement with the union, Bill Barnett, company president, traveled to Japan, where he worked out an agreement to have fledgling Mizuno Sporting Goods build his "Hall of Fame" line of gloves. Ninety days later Japanese-made gloves were being placed on the shelves of sporting goods retailers nationwide.
In 1958 Worldwide Sporting Goods had new owners, and Barnett and Westheimer were out of a job. Barnett had been so impressed with the manufacturing prowess of Mizuno that he decided to make another trip to Japan and see if he could find another product line to represent in the U.S. He persuaded Westheimer to join him in the venture. Barnett spent the next three months touring Japan, sending Westheimer samples of sporting goods, fishing reels, and a variety of electronic products. One day a box arrived from Tokyo with a pair of tunable bongos. "I was so busy trying to see if there was any market potential for the other products that I set the bongos aside in a corner," recalls Jack. "I thought that Bill had picked them up for his teenage daughter. A week later he called and asked what the response to the bongos had been. His brother Larry had a music store in Reseda, California, and had told him that he couldn't keep bongos in stock."
Days later Jack hit the road with a pair of bongo samples in the back seat of his car. After calling on every wholesaler between Chicago and New York, he returned home with orders for 2,000 bongos. The response was sufficiently encouraging that Barnett placed an order for 5,000 with the Tokyo-based manufacturer Pearl Drums. Within a year Barnett and Westheimer had augmented their bongo line with Pearlmade drums carrying the Kingston brand.
Offering a compelling combination of quality and value, Kingston drums sold well from the start, and wholesalers soon began asking Westheimer what else he could supply. Arthur Godfrey's television show had created a ukulele boom, so Westheimer and Barnett searched out the Iida Co. in Nagoya and contracted with it to supply 3,000 ukuleles a month. The ukes were another hit and were followed in 1960 by the line of Cortez guitars.
In the early '60s the burdens of rebuilding the destruction of World War II still weighed heavily on the Japanese economy. However, what the country lacked in monetary resources it more than compensated for with energy and drive. At the guitar factories housed in modest buildings in Nagoya, Westheimer recalls there was a "do anything it takes" attitude to succeed. The biggest hurdle he faced initially was getting fledgling manufacturers to understand exactly what a guitar should look like and how it should sound. "In those days going from Japan to the U.S. was a 28-hour flight, so very few people did it," he explains. "Most of the people working in the factory were isolated from the rest of the world, had never seen a guitar, and had no clear idea what the finished product should look like." To overcome the problem, Westheimer brought an ex-Gibson factory manager over to Japan to help train employees and shipped over scores of U.S.-made instruments to illustrate quality levels. He also stalked the factory floors, cajoling foremen never to lose sight of the fine points of construction. A particular challenge he addressed was lighting. "In post-war Japan, electricity was so expensive, most factories used only skylights and a few fluorescent bulbs," he recalls. "You can't build a good guitar if you can't see what you're doing, and I worked hard to persuade them that an investment in better lighting was money well spent."
As the popularity of the guitar grew in the early '60s, Gibson, Fender, Martin, Harmony, and Kay added factory shifts but were still unable to keep up with the surging demand. The resulting shortage created a perfect window for Westheimer's emerging Japanese partners. Retailers were so desperate for product, Westheimer recalls, that "they'd buy anything with six strings on it. It allowed us to build sales while we were improving our quality."
In 1965 Bill Barnett retired after suffering a heart attack, leaving Westheimer in control of their importing business. By that time the company had relationships with a network of factories throughout Japan and was supplying instruments to the majority of U.S. wholesalers as well as to Sears. Impeccable quality and an irresistible price made his offering of Japanese guitars and drums a relatively easy sale. But two significant events dramatically altered the status of Japanese manufacturing.
First, in 1969 guitar sales abruptly slowed around the world, transforming product shortages into an inventory glut almost overnight. Scores of marginal Japanese guitar makers were forced out of business, and Westheimer remembers, "All of a sudden we were working a lot harder." Second, in 1972 President Nixon eliminated the gold standard, and the Japanese yen went from a fixed rate of 360 to the dollar to a free float. The agreement was signed on a Sunday, and Westheimer says, "The following Monday the yen was trading at 300 to the dollar, and we eventually had a 20 percent price increase."
These events didn't have an immediate effect on Westheimer's business. The early '70s were a time of significant inflation, and the buying public had become accustomed to regular price increases in all goods and services. This made it easier for Westheimer to pass on the costs associated with the appreciation of the yen. Even after the 20-percent price increase, his products were still competitively priced. He concluded, however, that currency appreciation was eventually destined to force Japanese manufacturers out of the entry-level price points.
In 1970 Westheimer had made his first visit to Korea to meet with Y.H. Park Sr., then an executive with the now defunct Soodo Piano Company. The meeting led to a deal for Soodo to produce a limited number of guitars under the Kingston brand. Three years later, after Soodo Piano folded, Park's son Young Park approached Westheimer about a joint venture to build guitars. "We had helped Japanese manufacturers get in business, but here was an opportunity to take an equity investment and really partner with a factory," recalls Westheimer. "It was just too good to pass up." In 1973 Westheimer and Young Park launched the Yoo-Ah Company, which means "You and I" in Korean, and began building guitars under the Cort trademark. Operating in a tiny facility with machinery purchased at the Soodo Piano bankruptcy auction, the company initially produced two models of electric guitars at a rate of 4,000 units a month. "In all the years I've been in this business, I've still never seen anyone produce as many guitars in so little space as the first Cort factory," states Westheimer, paying tribute to Park's manufacturing skills.
The partnership with Park has proved to be one of the best business decisions of Westheimer's career. Over the past 30 years Yoo-Ah, now operating under the Cort name, emerged as one of the world's leading guitar manufacturers, with annual output of approximately 400,000 units. The company steadily added manufacturing capacity in Korea until 1992. Then the combination of rising costs and difficulties with labor unions prompted Park to search for new production sites. Presently the company has effectively hedged its bets with an acoustic guitar factory in Dalian, China, and an electric guitar plant in Surabuya, Indonesia. This combination of Korean, Indonesian, and Chinese manufacturing facilities give Cort the ability to produce a full range of products at just about every price point.
Cort's selection of factory sites has been a very deliberate process. Dalian was chosen for an acoustic guitar factory because of its relatively cool and dry climate. Westheimer states, "In our experience we've found that when you build acoustic guitars in tropical climates, you have cracking and finish problems when you ship them worldwide." Surabuya was chosen because of its proximity to a broad range of woods used in electric guitar production.
Having helped start guitar production from scratch in Japan, Korea, China, and Indonesia, Westheimer enjoys a unique industry perspective. He says that thanks to the relatively recent availability of computer-controlled production equipment, the task of launching a new factory has gotten far easier. "When I started going to Japan to get quality levels up, you had to train everyone in the factory one at a time, and it was very time-consuming," he states. "With the automated equipment you still need skilled labor, you just don't need as much of it. When we set up the plant in Dalian, we shipped in the same machinery we use in our Taejon, Korea, plant, sent over 11 foremen from Korea, and we were up and running in practically no time."
Improved production equipment has made it easier to operate a factory, but Westheimer states that in 40 years the key quality problem hasn't changed much at all. "From the beginning, people could make guitars that were attractive to look at," he states. "The big problem has been to get them to make a musical instrument that sounds good. That's an area we've spent a lot of time on, and I think it's our competitive edge."
Guitar production in Japan and Korea followed a very similar trajectory. Both countries used low labor costs to enter Western markets. As labor costs increased in both countries, they lost much of their competitive edge in the guitar market.
Will China and Indonesia evolve in the same way? Westheimer offers an emphatic "no." He continues, "There were two factors driving up costs in Japan and Korea. The first was a labor shortage. In both countries there weren't enough people willing to do what they call '3-D' jobs: ones that are dirty, dangerous, and difficult, like working in a guitar plant. Why work in a guitar plant when you can make more money as a waiter.'? In Korea you had the added situation of very strong labor unions that made it difficult to operate efficiently." Providing a contrast with China, he adds, "I recently heard the Chinese Trade Ambassador explain that unemployment or underemployment in China is equal to 250 million people, or twice the entire U.S. workforce. With numbers like that, it will be a long time before there's a labor shortage. The Chinese government
believes that strong labor unions reduce employment levels, so there won't be union problems either. Finally, land in China remains very cheap. Put it together and the problem isn't rising prices, it's keeping prices from going too low."
A New Drum Line
Westheimer's latest venture is the Basix drum line. Representing a joint venture with Gewa, a leading German distributor, and the Wei family of China, Basix offers a broad-based drum line produced at a plant in Bazhou, China. The line currently includes drumkits ranging in price for $495 to $3,000 and a variety of percussion products. Westheimer is particularly excited about a five-piece lacquer-finished kit priced to retail in the U.S. for around $795. With the outbreak of the SARS virus and travel restrictions throughout much of Asia, this spring Jack Westheimer did something unprecedented in his lengthy career: He canceled a trip to China. It was a decision he made reluctantly and only after much deliberation because after 40 years he still relishes the business of dealing in guitars and drums. The industry should give collective thanks that Jack is still on the job, because his efforts ensure a continuing supply of high-value products that seed the market.