Even with the best will in the world, it's hard to think of many Britons who have made an impact on the international guitar business. Try to get beyond the (relatively small) contribution made by Jim Burns and you're immediately among the ranks of gifted, but essentially individual, craftsmen. But there is one grand exception - Trevor Wilkinson, whose name first became familiar twenty years ago and is even more prominent today, as parts and devices stamped with his imprimatur are turning up on an increasingly varied range of models from the USA, China and Korea.
If that level of success calls to mind a design studio near Malibu beach, Humvee in the driveway and hanging out with the stars, you couldn't be more wrong. Trevor Wilkinson lives and works in the wild North West. The North West of England. And how he got from here to there and back again is one of the more fascinating stories in the MI industry.
The Trevor Wilkinson brand first came to UK notice when his innovative roller nut started appearing on the more adventurous US guitars back in the 1980s. How had that come about?
'It all started when I was in Australia, where I'd emigrated. By about 1981, I'd started a couple of crash repair shops, but I'd had enough of cars and wanted to do guitars full-time. I started to build, repair and design custom instruments in Brisbane, and it was just at the time the locking trem had appeared. Floyd Rose was starting to hit and people were coming along with systems they'd imported from the USA, asking me to fit them to their Strats'.
Fitting Floyd Rose systems gave his designer's mind an insight into both what Rose's aims were and other ways of achieving the same results. Trained as a graphic designer, but fascinated with guitars all his life, and with a strong engineering ability, Trevor Wilkinson could hardly have been better suited to the task he set himself.
'I could see why Floyd had clamped the strings at the nut but there had to be a better way. So I came up with the roller nut. I made prototypes, applied for the patent but couldn't do any good at all with it in Australia. Everybody kept saying, you need to go to America. So, I think it was in September '84, I bundled my myself, my wife and our four year old daughter plus three suitcases onto an aeroplane and flew to America. Looking back, it was absolutely insane - I couldn't do it today. I didn't know a single person in America. I think it was just blind belief in what I was doing.'
Fortune, they say, favours the bold and it certainly did Trevor Wilkinson. On the second night in the country a chance meeting led to an introduction to Wayne Charvel.
'I didn't realise at the time that Wayne had sold out to Grover Jackson several years earlier and was working out of his garage in Redlands, but either way, I drove out the following week and immediately we hit it off. He liked the roller nut design, I ended-up moving out to Redlands and it went from there. I began contacting machine shops who could build the product, designed the packaging and started getting the product into production.'
Though he talks of these days in a matter of fact sort of way, it must have been anything but easy. Financially on his own in a foreign country, trying to underwrite a completely new idea, which he intended to launch solo, seems less optimistic than foolhardy - but somehow he succeeded.
'We found a guy who could make it, did some prototypes and then one day, one of the Ibanez reps came into the little repair shop that Wayne I had started. Ibanez at that time were represented on the East Coast by Hoshino, but by Chesbro Music on the West Coast. The rep saw the product, thought Ibanez might be interested and their sales manager of the time, Doug Goates, got involved. I made an agreement that he couldn't take it to Japan unless he took the distribution of it and off we went. It ended-up with me selling 6,000 pieces to Ibanez, which was a pretty good start - and just at the time when I was literally about to run out of money.'
So that meant Ibanez guitars appearing with Wilkinson roller nuts?
'No, because Ibanez had set their stall out in the Floyd Rose market and while they thought the product was good, they didn't think it fitted with what they were doing, so they never actually used it on their instruments.'
'I could see that was where we needed to be - with the product fitted as original equipment on a guitar. I was finding when I went to the stores was that they'd buy a product, but they wouldn't fit it on a guitar, it would sit in its little box in a display cabinet and then a guy would walk in ask what it was and how it worked. The sales guy would shrug and say ,"I don't really know". If a guy couldn't play it and it couldn't be demonstrated, it was going to be a real hard sell.
'By that point I was getting pretty frustrated. So I just picked up the phone one day and called Fender. They were putting the Strat Plus together and there were only two guys working on the project, Dan Smith and George Blanda. Dan asked me to come out to Brea and he said it was fantastic, just what he was looking for, as they didn't want to go the Floyd Rose route. They'd got Sperzel on board, they'd got Lace on board and the next problem to solve was the nut - nobody had been able to do that. But Dan said they wanted it as an exclusive.
'I couldn't give them my product exclusively, but I designed them a specific Fender Wilkinson roller nut. We shook hands and that was it. It was signed and sealed. They never bought less than 1,500 pieces a month.'
With the boost to his company's presence brought about by the Fender deal, Mr Wilkinson was going from strength to strength, working his designer's mind through all the elements of the guitar's inherently unstable tuning system, devising innovative and effective alternatives, almost all of which were successful, not just in the USA but around the world.
By now, the Wilkinson brand was 90 per cent OEM. Ask him which makers, and he says: 'Everybody. Really - everybody. We always believed in our product and Fender helped us prove our product was right. Once the big guys like Fender had picked up the roller nut, then other companies would come and ask what we had. I sold quite a lot of the standard Wilkinson roller nuts to people like Washburn and Jackson, but I had a product range by then with vibrato bridges and bass bridges, so I was selling those, too.
'It really got to a point where major guitar companies would sit down in a marketing meeting and three points would come up: "We need Sperzel, we need Seymour Duncan and we need Wilkinson" And really they'd design the guitars around those three products.'
At which point, Trevor Wilkinson's world should have been a pretty close approximation of heaven. His products were on guitars around the world, his company was turning over around $1.5 million, with every prospect of more on the way. And then Gibson decided to sue him.
'They came after me, accusing me of infringing a patent. We didn't infringe any patent, because we'd already mentioned their patent in our application and we'd already had the American patent numbers. But like anything with litigation, if somebody wants to come after you and they have a lot of money, they can make life very hard for you. I did what I thought was right. I fought it because I was in the right, but after about $150,000 you think: "Hang on - am I going to lose the company for what is actually probably five to ten per cent of my business? So Gibson and I came to a settlement that I wouldn't produce the convertible in America and they would go away and leave me alone. Which was the prudent way of doing it.'
And then a strange thing happened.
'I came back to the UK to renew my business visa for a further five years and was told at the US embassy that if I wanted a business visa I would have to drop my green card application - which I didn't want to do if I was growing to grow a business there. So I decided to move back to the UK and wait for the green card.'
Against the odds, Trevor Wilkinson's application for a green card, which he was six years into the process of attaining, was turned down. Why? The US Immigration Dept doesn't have to explain why, so the reader is left to infer what he or she will. The consequence for the USA was the loss of a very viable business, employing 26 Americans in much-needed manufacturing, of which nearly 70 per cent was exported. Running the operation from the UK proved impossible, so Mr Wilkinson simply shrugged and closed it down. Had someone been pulling strings behind the scenes? If he suspects as much, Trevor Wilkinson doesn't say.
'That got me back to the UK with my family, in 1996/97. I tried to continue to run Wilkinson USA from here, but it couldn't work. I was banging my head against a brick wall. I had Gotoh in Japan, asking me if they could license the product, I had Cortech in Korea, asking if they could license products, so in the end that's what I did. That was the best way of keeping the Wilkinson name out there, and if the truth be told, Gotoh probably build better quality than I'd been building, so at that point it turned into a licensing business.
'Looking back, it was the right move. Leaving aside the obvious advantages, it freed-me up to work as a consultant for other guitar companies.
'At that point, Korean manufacturers were still the ones you would go to if you wanted to buy a good quality lower priced instrument. Certain factories in Korea were, by then, virtually at the quality of Japanese manufacturers, but not at Japanese prices, and that was when I got the first big design commission, to do the first range of Italia guitars, for a small Korean manufacturing company, which had realised that the OEM business was going to drift to China, so what they really needed were guitar brands of their own that they could control. You've seen this with Cortech doing Cort guitars, Crafter and others.'
Trevor Wilkinson's association with Italia is just one of many - including products he distributes himself, like the fine-looking Fret King range. Space constraints being what they are, Italia and Fret King are subjects to which we will probably return at a later date. Indeed, it needs to be said that few interviews we have done during the past couple of years have caused so many agonising decisions about what to leave out. Some day, there should be a book about Trevor Wilkinson.
Meanwhile, of the brands with which he is associated, one of the most conspicuous is JHS's Vintage range. How had that come about?
'I used to come over regularly from the States to trade shows and I'd always wander past the JHS stand and when I did, Dennis Drumm would show me a guitar and I'd make a comment like, "great guitar Dennis, but the knobs aren't right". He'd ask what knobs should it have then? And, sure enough, at the next show, he'd have changed them. Dennis is a really smart guy and he listens. What happened with Vintage was that he'd taken it as far down the road as he possibly could. We've got to a point now where Fender are at every price point in the market. Even if you're at the £169 price point, you've still got a Squier up against you and it takes a lot to win against that.'
Surely this is a game that Fender, leveraging its brand, will always win?
'Not necessarily. If you can't beat them on price, you have to beat them on quality or features or both - and Dennis's remit to me with Vintage was to achieve that. To make a better mousetrap.
'At that point I had just set-up a new licensing deal with several Korean manufacturers which slotted-in perfectly to what JHS were looking for: to have a guitar retailing at £179, but with Wilkinson product on it. Now when you consider that a Wilkinson VSV bridge retails for £89, it's a bit difficult to put it on a guitar that retails at £179. So to be able to put good tuners on it, Alnico 5 pickups that sound like an America Strat and also a vibrato that actually works, started us off on the road to "Vintage by Wilkinson", which has been, I think, incredibly successful.'
Trevor Wilkinson probably understands more about branding and the international manufacturing and marketing of guitars than anyone else in the UK, so it was time for the perennial guitar question. If you've got Gibson and Fender, why do you need anyone else? And how can you compete with these two, when they seem capable of reaching almost every sector of the market? What is to stop them matching your every effort to build that perfect mousetrap and do it with their killer logo on the headstock?
'I've worked closely with Fender and they have their problems, too. Take the Vintage V6 guitar. There is no Fender anywhere near that that has a tuner that locks, a good, retrofitable, functioning vibrato. It doesn't have Alnico pickups, it doesn't have 22 frets, it doesn't have the attention to detail and all for the simple reason that of Fender were to produce that guitar at £179, why would you buy an American Standard Strat at £899?'
'All the big brand names have to handicap themselves - even in pickups, like Seymour Duncan and Di Marzio. If you were Seymour Duncan, would you make a pickup as good in Korea as you could in America? We don't have that problem. I can do it with hardware, because my range with Gotoh, which I consider to be my high dollar hardware, is proprietary designed and protected, while the products that I have from Korea are re-works of the classic designs, that work better. That means we can produce at any price point the best working product, a tuner, a pickup or a vibrato - we an produce them better than other people can at that price point.'
And so, of course, to the $64,000 question. Where now are we heading with the Chinese? Will we see Chinese brands, the way we saw the rise of once unknowns like Ibanez, Aria and Yamaha?
'When you think back to the beginnings of the Japanese guitar, they had nobody to teach them how to do it. They had to teach themselves, which they did hugely successfully. But they priced themselves out of the market, at which point the major American distributors, who effectively drive the world market, went to Korea. But what the Koreans had that the Japanese hadn't, was a little bit of help getting started. They had some Japanese input and they had the major American brands actually saying: "Oh no, you build a neck like this." So the Korean learning curve was shorter. The Chinese have been incredibly lucky, because everybody has poured every resource into the, including the Koreans, who had learned from the American distributors.
'Chinese guitars have come up incredibly fast and some are fantastic, but are we going to see labour rates stay the same in China? How can we expect a country to build consumer goods like flat screen TVs and cars, which they can't afford to buy for themselves? That's what happened in Japan and Korea. There's a lot of people in this industry telling me that this is going to take a long while to happen, but I don't believe it.
'As for brands, to develop a brand takes more than just the product. You've got to be in the market with incredibly expensive promotional tools, which makes it very difficult to do and which is why very few Korean manufacturers have built their own brands.'
So what is Trevor Wilkinson's instinct about the way the guitar market is going to develop over the next few years?
'I believe that because so many people have come into the industry buying cheap guitars, that we're about to see a mid-price boom. It's already started in the States and it will happen here. Now isn't the time to be concentrating on £150 guitars, because that is what these players already have and now they will shift up-market. Most of your readers will read this and say "he's full of shit", but time will either prove me right or wrong.
Thus far, Trevor Wilkinson has had that irritating habit of being mostly right. Sufficiently so to have become one of the world's leading guitar consultants. With Wilkinson parts almost ubiquitous as OEM fitments and a thriving range of retro-fitable lines, it's hard to see what could come next. But it will. Expect the long-awaited automatic self-tuning guitar real soon now. Ladies and gentlemen: make space on your display counters.