Minnesota luthier to saddle a workhorse
THERE IS RARELY a time in the world of boutique guitar gear that the business and the artisan don’t butt heads. While the artisan just wants to be left alone to dream up, then conjure the ‘next big thing’, the business needs to make doubly sure that the investment of time and money, as well as the return on the “NBT” is in-line with keeping food on the table. It seems to always come down to a number. For Bobby Nelson of Nelson Instruments, that number is six. That’s how long the Northfield, Minnesota-based luthier has been building stringed instruments full time.
Prior to the builder life, Nelson cut his teeth in retail, working for world-famous Willy’s Music in St. Paul. Prior to that, he spent six weeks at a Guitar Center, his stay cut short over ‘creative differences’. Still earlier, he worked for Schmitt Music in Minneapolis — a gig that followed his studies at technical college.
Today, he utilizes an over-garage space at his home as his main shop. The room is chock-full of vintage, American-made tools stationed around its perimeter — saws, buffers and the like. Most are purchased in some form of disrepair, but Nelson isn’t intimated by the tear-down and rebuild process. That’s a good thing, because that is also what he is doing to his brand. Nelson is chopping models, scaling back his offerings across electrics and acoustics in an effort to right-size.
“I’m kind of in the midst of a realignment… or a last ditch effort to make this work, because it hasn’t been,” confesses Nelson candidly. “The big things that I’m doing… kind of consolidating models, eliminating redundancies and trying to find ways to, you can say, increase profitability, but at the same time there is something I have been noticing, regardless of what the news says, I don’t know that the economy is really back. It’s really growing fast and people don’t really have a lot of extra cash. There is no shortage of people offering guitars, especially in the $2,000-plus range. At this point, a lot of that stuff becomes a luxury item. And if you do something too far away from, say a Fender, people aren’t really sure if they want to spend that kind of money. So what I’ve been trying to do is dial in what I’m offering… trying to find ways that I can cut labor, being the biggest cost driver behind making anything so I can get prices really affordable.”