NAMM 2023: Another year, another NAMM and while 2023’s event may have lacked the big-budget theatrics of bygone eras – there were more than enough guitar, amp and pedal announcements to whet the appetites of guitarists and musicians of all stripes.
Indeed, even for those of us fortunate enough to attend in person, it’s easy to walk out of Anaheim’s sacred halls with your ears ringing with slap bass and your lungs full of dry ice, thinking: “What just happened?”
Now we’ve had a little time to reflect, drink 42 coffees and try to string sentences together again... so head this way for our round-up of the headline trends, the biggest hits and – to a lesser extent – misses from the 2023 NAMM show floor.
1. The next wave of guitar development will be found in pickup technology
As well as treating event attendees to the nicest-looking, best-sounding gear currently on the market, NAMM is also a melting pot of innovations and examples of cutting-edge technological developments. Last year, it was the pedal front that led the charge – this year, it was all about pickups.
Indeed, Seymour Duncan’s game-changing HyperSwitch and LR Baggs’ equally innovative HiFi system both highlighted how the next arms race in guitar development will most likely be waged on the pickup front.
Truly a one-a-kind product, the HyperSwitch is a Bluetooth-enabled five-way switch that will grant users access to a huge suite of switching options – coil-splitting, coil-tapping, polarity reversal, position manipulation and so much more – while the HiFi has been marketed as a “game-changing” non-invasive acoustic pickup that mounts under your guitar bridge with a sticker.
Both sound great, and both look as though they’re going to make lots of electric and acoustic players very happy indeed. Watch this space, because pickup innovations might be in for a big year…
2. ‘Retro, not repro’ is the new designers’ rule of thumb
Eastman’s Juliet LA, Guild’s offset Surfliner Deluxes and Magneto’s Starlux semi-hollow were among the most drool-worthy designs at this year’s show. What’s notable is that, despite their vintage appearance, they’re all new designs, not reproductions or flawed ‘lost models’ from a bygone era.
Instead, we’re seeing a new wave of confident designers that know how to channel vintage curves and appealing aesthetics (read: goldfoil pickups) into builds that offer function and fluidity for the modern player.
These are desirable, modern innovations that have learned lessons from the older models – not period-correct reissues. The guitar industry is often overly precious about its past, but these models show how looking back can point a way forward. Unless, of course, you’re Strandberg...
3. Thought Strandberg had already reached the peak of modern guitar design? Think again
Through its ultra-ergonomic approach to headless guitar design, Strandberg has amassed a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking guitar brands of our age. However, if ever we questioned whether the Swedish company had reached its peak, NAMM 2023 was a stark reminder to never second guess Strandberg. Why? Well, it released the Boden Meloria – and just look at the thing.
Looking like something from an alternate future reality, the Meloria joins a growing wave of bodiless travel guitars, though does so in typical Strandberg fashion. Made in collaboration with Mason Cycles, the guitar features a titanium frame, extendable wings, and a “future” neck joint that is designed to self-center and create additional contact area, even though it’s secured by one bolt.
Write off Strandberg at your own peril. We can only imagine where the brand will take its design nous next.
4. Guitar brands have not caught up with the cost-of-living crisis
The guitar industry has not escaped the supply chain issues, spiraling inflation and tumultuous economic conditions of the past few years. However, some of the lavish announcements this year have felt particularly tone deaf when it comes to the average player.
Yes, these are big firms and it takes a long time to turn the ship – what we see on the shelves this year is the result of plans made in a different period – but even so...
Yamaha’s FG9 series carries list prices well north of $6k, which is steep for a new acoustic, even if they are handmade in Japan. Meanwhile, Gibson (who wasn’t at NAMM) has announced its new Custom Shop Greeny Les Paul – the less-exclusive build – is yours for… $20k.
And then there’s Martin’s D-42 Bitcoin, which bemusingly celebrates a borderless, digital currency by embedding a physical gold coin into the headstock. It’s a bizarre move at any time, but not least following a year that has seen crypto beset by panicked sell-offs, bank runs and trading platforms collapsing. Want to commemorate that with the D-42 Bitcoin? It’s a snip at $18,999.
5. NAMM 2023 was officially the year of the influencer
Instagram shredders, YouTubers, content creators and social media influencers in general have been at the forefront of the guitar world for quite some time now, and though their, erm, influence, has been felt through previous NAMM shows, 2023 seemed to be a step above all else.
Popular players from the internet flocked to the show floor, with the likes of Mary Spender, Rhett Schull, Paul Davids and many others crossing paths with casual show-goers. But perhaps even more telling of growing influencer impact in the industry was the sheer volume of co-designed products that were unveiled.
Rabea Massaad had an especially busy NAMM show, announcing his new partnership with Ernie Ball and lifting the curtains on his Bare Knuckle Triptych single coils, with Chapman Guitars – the brand owned by Rob Chapman and Lee Anderton – announcing a seriously high-profile coup by signing former PRS slinger Chris Robertson of Black Stone Cherry. Chapman also had a signature guitar for Danish Pete on display, too.
Meanwhile, JHS Pedals – whose recent run-in with the Bad Monkey needs no introduction – made its own presence felt with the EHX Lizard Queen, a pedal that took inspiration from Josh Scott’s vintage EHX pedal design that never existed.
Oh, and there were also new Ibanez signature guitars for Ichika Nito – who revived the Talman in affordable fashion – and Martin Miller. Speaking of which…
6. Ibanez's artist army – and their irresistible signature models – continue to draw eyes
Another year, another legion of Ibanez signature guitars vying to steal the show, with Lari Basilio’s eagerly awaited LB1-WH finally getting an official release. Naturally, there were some flashy new limited-edition models for Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, with each player celebrating various anniversaries with the brand – 35 years of partnership with Ibanez for Vai, 35 years of the JS line for Satch.
Paul Stanley and Martin Miller also got some new models under their belts, but it was Ichika’s ICHI00 – a revival of his beloved Talman model with some modern tweaks – that arguably won the drop. Ringing in at $699, it was Ibanez’s most accessible signature six-string of the show.
7. The Binson Echorec was the talk of the show
This year, T-Rex proved that if you are going to do reproduction, the secret is to pick something well known but that’s somehow not been done to death – and then do it incredibly well.
That’s much easier said than done and yet the Danish firm’s nailed it with its remake of the Binson Echorec – the spinning magnetic disk delay unit behind some of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s most iconic recordings.
It’s been some seven years in-the-making, but the result is a build that both offers the integrity of the original circuit and some handy (yet spiritually faithful) tweaks. Featuring a spinning drum and magic light tube indicator, it costs a crazy $2,100, but that’s a third of the cost of the less reliable vintage options on the used market.
It’s certainly hit a nerve with the guitar community already. The #NAMM Echorec selfie has become a social media staple: “It spins!”
8. Affordable, no-frills pedals are not going anywhere
We saw multiple pedal releases this year that operated at the cutting edge of effects design – Kernom’s fuzz pedal immediately springs to mind – but with the Walrus Audio Fundamental line, the appeal of no-nonsense, easy-to-use stompboxes became even more apparent.
Quite possibly the worst kept gear secret this year thanks to a near-comical leak, the Fundamental series continues the trend set by JHS Pedal’s 3 Series and Wampler Audio’s Collective collection and delivers uber-affordable effects with ultimate usability.
There’s something to be said for the prioritization from pedal companies to deliver affordable effects in the midst of a cost of living crisis, especially when – as discussed elsewhere – guitars themselves continue to command price tags that are, quite frankly, absurd. Admittedly, they’re cheaper to make, but it’s a nice piece of reassurance that good tone will always be affordable.
We’re also now of the opinion that there aren’t enough sliders on pedals these days, too.
9. The Fender Audio RIFF is here... but why?
Fender’s guitar brands skipped NAMM this year, but its home audio wing was there showcasing the RIFF.
It’s a new 60-watt, Class-D Bluetooth speaker and guitar amp. There’s a very nice maple wood touch control and you can plug your guitar in the back, engaging an optional gain boost in the process – but that’s where the player-friendly features seem to start and end.
As such, we’re left a little non-plussed as to what it’s actually for. At $469, it’s a very expensive Bluetooth speaker (even the champion of pricey-tech, Apple, prices its top HomePod, at $299 – and that’s a smart speaker).
Meanwhile, as a quick ‘n’ dirty amp it has no guitar dedicated tone controls, smart practice features or modeling tech, so does not really compete with the likes of Positive Grid’s do-it-all amp and speaker, the Spark 40.
Where the RIFF arguably leads the market is that it’s loud, really portable and has great battery life, but do you want to leave your $500 speaker (and electric guitar) in a tent at a festival? Do you want a busking amp with one tone?
The only clue we can fathom is that Fender Audio’s marketing material mentions it is part of ‘The Session Series’ line, which perhaps suggests it’s merely a first step in a wider line of do-it-all boxes.
You can also pair up to 100 of them – and we must admit, multi-room audio as a guitarist would be fun…
10. The show’s most practical guitar amp came from... Ashdown?!
A cursory glance at our NAMM 2023 news roundup will tell you it was not a big year for guitar amps. However, UK stalwart Ashdown (which predominantly makes bass products) proved a notable exception. It’s new MF 484 2.N head offers an appealingly useful, well thought-out combination of tube tone and tech, thanks to its built-in Two Notes’ cab-sims.
The ‘484’ of the model number relates to the four EL84-tube power section, while the preamp uses ECC81, ECC82, and two ECC83 tubes, meaning it won’t lack body and character. Tube tone is typically somewhat impractical for home recording and practice purposes, but this is where the MF 484 2.N thrives.
Head to the control panel and you’ll find a choice of six Two Notes’ excellent Torpedo cab-sims. There’s an XLR output on the back for the cab sims and a Torpedo line-in, enabling you to re-amp recordings and use it as a loadbox for silent recording.
It’s not got the catchiest name, but it looks like a great product…
11. Martin's history will now be at the frontline of the brand's biggest releases
As one of the guitar world’s most historic brands, Martin has an insane pool of models to revisit, and at NAMM 2023 it laid out its agenda for the foreseeable future by unveiling the StreetLegend series – a collection of guitars that are inspired by models from its museum.
The D-28 and D-28 StreetLegend models helped usher in this new collection of guitars, which we imagine is only going to get bigger as the years go on. If there’s one thing that’s been made clear over 2022 and the first part of 2023, it’s that faithfully spec’d vintage-inspired guitars are some of the most popular models out there right now. The StreetLegend looks to capitalize on this craze, but is doing so in spectacular fashion.
We can only imagine the riches that can be found in the Martin Museum, meaning we can only guess what tasty StreetLegend models are in the pipeline. Whatever they’ll be, we just know they’re going to be glorious.
There were plenty of other products vying for attention this year, too. French firm Kernom boggled minds in 2021 with its exhaustively versatile Ridge Overdrive and now brings its ground-breaking, circuit-altering Mood tech to the fuzz world, with the MOHO Magmatic Fuzz Station.
Elsewhere, Universal Audio’s three UAFX units look like tasty additions to the already highly-desirable line, particularly the Space Echo-inspired Galaxy ’74. We also suspect that session pros will quickly find a space on their ’board for the Max Compressor – a three-in-one compressor, with added preamp.
Finally, there’s a lot to love about this Maybach Guitars Baron. It features a nitro black-over-paisley worn finish and channels some old-school Ibanez curvature, an unusual slanted, slotted headstock and a custom-made Amber pickups goldfoil in the bridge. But as is ever the case with NAMM, you just can’t play them all...
For more of this year’s gear, including all of the guitar, bass, amp and pedal announcements we covered across the show – check out our full NAMM 2023 news roundup.