If the guitar market looks as crowded as a rush-hour tube, with far too many good quality products competing for far too little money, spare a thought for amplifier manufacturers, for whom the situation is equally bad. With electric guitarists some of the most conservative shoppers around (I want my Strat and I want my Marshall and I want them now!), what’s a new brand to do if it wants to break in?
One route is to go boutique - build in your shed and charge a fortune. Alternatively you could go cheap - buy from China and offer mega-Watts for mini bucks. But Arizona-based Genz-Benz has done neither and, in the process, seems to have found a very effective third way: just let your quality do the talking.
Jeff Genzler and his wife founded their amplifier business over 20 years ago and, echoing the success of earlier amp kings including Leo Fender, Jim Marshall and Hartley Peavey, did so by catering for local players - working within a community of musicians (in Genzler’s case, a group of which he, as a player, was a part) who could feed back all the ideas that helped build the brand. It thrived, went nationwide and in 2001 came to the attention of US giant Kaman, which took Genz-Benz (and in case you were wondering, the ‘G’ is hard) under its wing, since when it has massively expanded its export sales and is now, courtesy of Sutherland, starting to create serious interest in the UK.
Talk to people about Genz-Benz and the word that comes back is solid, reliable - not the cheapest, but damn good. It was always the intention, which was why Genzler added the Benz bit to the name. Unlike the troubled car manufacturer, however, it’s not a reputation, Genzler is willing to risk. Take for example, the digital power amp in the latest Shenandoah electro-acoustic amp, which has been receiving so much critical approval. Did he buy-in something off the shelf from a Chinese manufacturer? No, he went to Bang & Olufsen.
‘Yes, our new Shenandoah 150LT, replaced a very popular version, but that weighed about 47lbs and as a manufacturer we’re seeing acoustic players trying to get very lightweight products, as well as have the easiest, simplest interface, because they’re acoustic players and not really into amplifiers.
‘When we took the Shen 100 and transformed it into the 150LT, we reduced the weight from 47lbs to 27lbs. We’re one of the first in the industry to take advantage of a Bang & Olufsen Class D module and, obviously, it has their immense R&D behind it, as well as their manufacturing skills and huge reputation.
‘We’re just not looking for the cheapest vendor who can give us a Class D amplifier module, or in the case of the digital effects, some Korean of Chinese digital effects unit: ours is from the Alesis family. And we don’t use particle board in any of our products. In our less expensive products we use a fibreboard, which is denser than particle board and doesn’t crack, and in the Shen 150, we’ve used a mahogany-style plywood from the Phillipines.’
Despite being part of Kaman, as Genzler points out, callers are still quite likely to get him on the phone, which gives him that distinctly personal edge if things were to go wrong. In that respect, he says, today is really no different to when he was growing the business and success was absolutely dependent on the quality of the product - because he knew all the customers, personally.
But however good a Genz-Benz may be, it faces enormous competition from the mainstay brands, to which electric guitarists display such loyalty. So Genzler drives his business on by increasing sales of acoustic and bass amps. All the same, not many smaller makers have anything like such a full catalogue.
‘Genz-Benz is in a pretty unique position. On the one had we’re a small boutiquey manufacturer, but due to the involvement of Kaman, we can deliver three different product lines - electric guitar, acoustic and bass, in pretty much equal volumes. Our sales are pretty much 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 but, certainly in the UK, the hardest sector is the guitar part, where every product is compared with home-grown ones from Marshall, Vox, Orange and so on, which is totally understandable. But acoustic players are pretty much open to any manufacturer who can make the best amp, and in the bass world, there’s a community, like drummers - they’re willing to search for the best product and they talk about it and we’ve made some real headway here.’
What separates Genz-Benz from the pack, as Genzler says, is the fact that while it is, in most respects, a boutique amp maker, it also has the backing of a huge corporation behind it - providing backup and resources most can only dream of. As edges go its certainly very keen one: a manufacturer you an call and chat to, but armed by one of the biggest names in the business.