Since April is The Retailer’s annual Guitar Issue, we set out a couple of months ago to book a fitting executive for this month’s “Five Minutes With” interview. In Brenden Cohen, CEO of D’Angelico Guitars, we think we’ve found just the right person. Although D’Angelico is a legendary name in the guitar market—John D’Angelico began creating his innovative designs in 1932—the brand has been reconstituted and, now, it’s aggressively gaining market share, and cultivating a large base of loyal players along the way. In this in-depth interview, Cohen discusses his own background and talents, while also delving into the responsibility associated with being the steward of an iconic, beloved brand. He also touches on the exciting new products the company has just released…products that, from this writer’s perspective, could be game changers this year.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start with your personal background. Trace your own history with guitars and music, touching on what initially captured your interest. How did you translate that personal interest into a successful career? Discuss a bit about your career trajectory, starting from the earliest days and bringing us up to the present.
Brenden Cohen: Music has always been a huge part of my life. Growing up on Long Island in New York, it had to be. There was such a vibrant, diverse music community there. Bands were just constantly emerging. I never ended up playing the guitar, but I always admired guitarists immensely and thought the instruments were gorgeous.
Before I got into the music industry, I had jobs in insurance and finance. I also went to culinary school in Florida, because I was passionate about food. I still am, really. But now I just eat it, which is significantly less work. [Laughs.] Years later, when I saw an opportunity to get into the music industry, particularly with guitars, I knew I had to jump on it. Being able to surround myself with people who are remarkably passionate about music and the guitars we’re making is the greatest pleasure. Every day, there is an excitement that can’t be described: it’s just people who are glad to be doing what they’re doing.
Although I never spent much time on a stage, I bring an understanding of the bigger picture to the table. I spend the vast majority of my time facilitating relationships that promise to yield mutual benefits. I think I understand the collaborative aspect of music best because it’s in the way that I do business. I hugely value bringing different people into a room and listening to their ideas and opinions. In a way, it makes the most sense for me to have ended up having a career in the music industry, because it is chock full of creative people who understand the value of collaboration.
The Retailer: Let’s turn to D’Angelico Guitars, which is a widely respected name in the world of guitar products. Tell us a bit about D’Angelico’s founding and its history. How has the company grown over the years? Has it evolved a great deal since it was originally founded?
Cohen: Master luthier John D’Angelico founded D’Angelico Guitars in 1932 in Manhattan’s Little Italy. In his youth, he had apprenticed with his uncle, Raphael Ciani, who was a violin and mandolin maker. Working with those instruments was the inspiration for what would become D’Angelico’s world-famous archtop guitars. In those years, D’Angelico only made about 30 handmade guitars a year, usually with the help of two other workers. In 1964, when D’Angelico passed away, his former apprentice, Jimmy D’Aquisto, became his successor. When D’Aquisto moved on to producing his own guitars, production of D’Angelico guitars slowed and eventually stopped.
If you fast-forward to now, the company has not only been resurrected but, in fact, it’s flourishing. We now offer 20 models, including a brand new line of acoustic guitars, and produce more than 5,000 guitars a year. D’Angelico has evolved immensely as a brand, but I think we’ve also done a great job staying true to our legacy, which is one of the most important goals we have as a brand. We’re proud to be able to offer more guitars at more affordable prices than ever before, while still carrying on D’Angelico’s Art Deco aesthetic and commitment to building guitars of the utmost quality. We produce instruments that we believe John D’Angelico would be happy to call his own.
The Retailer: Describe your principal responsibilities as CEO of D’Angelico Guitars. What are the most important tasks you tackle day to day? What continues to keep you inspired and motivated? What’s the best part of your job?
Cohen: It’s easy to stay inspired and motivated at D’Angelico. We’re constantly growing; I’m surrounded by an extremely hard-working and pleasant staff; and the Showroom always has something interesting going on. Day to day, I tackle whatever comes at me! I track sales, create marketing initiatives, keep an eye on budgeting, meet with whoever stops by the Showroom, etc. The majority of my day consists of meeting, and forming relationships with, industry leaders. D’Angelico’s brand has grown and caught the attention of a lot of people whom we want to work with, so I want to facilitate as much interaction, collaboration and creation as possible. The best part of my job is working with amazing people who truly care about this company: my partners, John Ferolito Jr. and Steve Pisani, and the whole team at D’Angelico. Also, I’m literally surrounded by beautiful guitars, which isn’t so bad. [Laughs.]
The Retailer: When you look at D’Angelico Guitars as it currently exists, what would you say you’re the proudest of? What makes the company stand apart not only from direct competitors, but also from all companies in the music products industry? What’s the “secret sauce” at D’Angelico?
Cohen: There’s a lot that separates D’Angelico from the rest. If you walk through the D’Angelico office and talk to any of our staff, their unrelenting dedication—both to creating outstanding products and to honoring the legacy we come from—is palpable. If you’re ever having a bad day—or even a bad moment—just stop by and talk to our Executive Vice President of International Sales and Manufacturing, Steve Pisani, for two minutes. He’ll assure you not only that you’re worth your weight in gold, but also that D’Angelico guitars are the best on the planet, and that this company is improving by leaps and bounds every day. His enthusiasm is infectious.
We are also uniquely dedicated to our customers. It’s in our history. Although our production efficiency has improved greatly, we still guarantee customer satisfaction in the same way that John D’Angelico always did. We’re on a constant mission to make our guitars the highest possible quality for a great variety of players, and our attention to detail is remarkable. We’re constantly designing new models to add to our line, and we’re always considering ways to improve our current models; in the best possible sense, we don’t rest.
I like to think the rest of the “secret sauce” isn’t actually so secret. I think it’s pretty easy to see how hard we work and how strongly we believe in D’Angelico guitars and the D’Angelico brand. Our guitars are really our cornerstone. All our guitars are impeccably crafted and the quality is tangible. Across our line, we have signature features that make for signature sounds and capabilities. Our use of premium tonewoods and our larger headstock make for more resonance; our chosen pickups and preamps are the best in the business; and our signature stairstep tailpiece, tuners and pickguard bring the elegance. We constantly have new, exciting developments on the horizon and, every day, we get closer to seeing them come to fruition.
The Retailer: Shine a light on some of D’Angelico Guitars’ most recent product launches and initiatives. What new products are you currently pushing most aggressively? What was your big push at this past January’s NAMM Show?
Cohen: This year is going to be an exciting one for D’Angelico. We just launched three gorgeous new electric instruments: the EX-DH, EX-SD Bass and NY-DC. The EX-DH is a dual-humbucker archtop with a smaller, 16-inch body to maximize comfort. It’s got killer tone: exceptionally balanced and clear. I love hearing that guitar being played around the office. The EX-SD Bass is a solid body…another first for D’Angelico. It plays big, fat and warm. And the NY-DC is a double-cutaway semi-hollow made in the U.S.A. We’re hearing great feedback from some of the artists who have had a chance to try it out.
Also, for the first time ever, D’Angelico has a brand new line of acoustic instruments. There are eight models, ranging in size from grand auditorium to jumbo, and we’ve even made an acoustic bass. One of the models, the EX-63, is modeled after the last guitar that John D’Angelico ever built. It sort of bridges the gap between electric archtops and our new acoustics. It’s an exceptional guitar. All the acoustics are now available. They were our featured product at the NAMM Show, and we had great reception. We had visits from Victor Wooten, Jonathan Butler, Rudy Sarzo, Jeff Baxter, George Benson, John Sebastian and Jimmy Vivino—a whole host of great artists—and they all loved our product line.
The Retailer: Discuss D’Angelico Guitars’ commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of D’Angelico’s core philosophy and fundamental approach to doing business?
Cohen: Absolutely. Commitment to the brick-and-mortar channel is imperative to our business, because the nature of our guitars lends itself to allowing players to try them out. Most guitar players won’t order an instrument online that they’ve never played before. The most common reason to order online is to purchase something you’re already familiar with. With D’Angelico, not everyone has played our guitars. It makes the most sense for us to support—and to ask to be supported by—the brick-and-mortar stores, because they allow players to develop a relationship with our guitars.
D’Angelico guitars are not cookie-cutter in any way. So, in order for players to fully experience, understand and choose the right guitar for themselves, they need to be able to hold it in their hands and play it for a while before forming an opinion. That being said, they’re visually beautiful instruments, as well. So, we won’t fault you if you accidentally fall in love with one before you know what it sounds like. [Laughs.]
It’s near and dear to us to sell our guitars in small shops, and to have a place like the Showroom. That’s how D’Angelico Guitars began in the first place: a small, humble shop where customers could develop a romance with the instruments. Knowing how they’re made and cared for is a big part of what creates such a meaningful relationship between D’Angelico and its customers.
The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to D’Angelico Guitars as a company? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that would help retailers, in addition to helping D’Angelico itself?
Cohen: We like to support our dealers as much as possible. And I think that’s something that all instrument companies could do a better job of: having great communication and developing relationships with their retailers. Currently, we’re working on implementing a training program for sales associates at all our retail partners. That way, they know the products as well as possible. We want to provide the most accurate, in-depth information possible about the instruments—not just to sell them. We’ve all heard the story of the young guitar player getting swindled at a big music store. With better communication and support, the shared goal of selling guitars becomes easier and more genuine. Getting sellers excited about products that we could not possibly more strongly believe in is a big part of what helps us establish a great relationship with retailers. We also support our dealers through all our social-media channels, which is another key part of developing that relationship.
The Retailer: In recent years, some dealers I’ve spoken to lament the current state of the guitar market, saying demand for electric guitars has decreased substantially as popular music has shifted more to an “unplugged” acoustic sound. In your opinion, what is the relative strength—or weakness—of the broad guitar market in 2015?
Cohen: Although I understand the inclination to see the use of acoustic instruments in popular music as indicative of the guitar market, I don’t think it’s very telling. There are always going to be trends and, more so than ever, they fade away as quickly as they arrive. Rock music will never disappear. Nor will jazz, nor will blues, and so on. Yes, the days of classic rock being ubiquitous are over, but there will always be an interest in electric guitars.
I also think it’s important that a guitar company never pigeonhole itself. D’Angelico is known for making the finest archtops in the world—and we’ll always strive to maintain that title—but we have no plans to stop there. We recognize the importance of offering high-quality instruments across the board. So, rather than resting on our laurels, we’ve dedicated a huge amount of energy to creating electric guitars suitable for players across genres. To a large extent, that is our response to the modern player and the modern music scene.
There are infinite genres and sub-genres of music today. Musicians are more concerned than ever before with carving out their own inch of unique sonic space, and that’s a huge strength of the broad guitar market. The consumer has become accustomed to freedom of choice, which creates an exciting new version of survival of the fittest, rather than survival of the biggest. That means guitarists will seek the guitar that is right for them…and they’ll only commit to a great product, as opposed to buying from the company that dominates the scene. A guitar company can remain confident when it knows its product is excellent.
For every electronic festival where the nearest guitar is hundreds of miles away, there is another festival where every single act brings and uses a dozen guitars. And with studio music being at an all-time high, guitars are constantly being bought to cater to the bands that are recording there. The “weakness” of the guitar market might still be the decline of small music stores, but we’ve been rebounding from their decline for many years now. The overwhelming strength of the guitar market is that the guitar is still tied to American culture in a way that I cannot possibly see being undone within my lifetime.
I’m inclined to say that whoever truly fears the disappearance of, or who fails to see the prominence of, the guitar just isn’t privy to the number of guitar-centric music scenes that are currently thriving.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for D’Angelico Guitars? What can company-watchers expect over the next six months? One year? Five years?
Cohen: Our ultimate goal is to become a full-line guitar company, making quality instruments for every style of player. We’ve already made huge improvements to our line. And, every time a new instrument is added, our excitement, encouragement and support grows. This year, we hope to see people enjoying our acoustic guitars immensely. They’re a great symbol of our dedication to providing quality instruments to different players. Our jumbo, the Madison, can be a fat, smoky jazz box or a booming jangler depending on the player. Then, the EX-63 is a throwback archtop that offers smooth comp chords and pronounced lead lines. I love knowing that we’ve added an arsenal of acoustics for a huge array of players.
We also want to continue researching old, traditional D’Angelico guitars and remaking those. You never know what you might find in some old notebook of John D’Angelico’s. We truly value the history behind our guitars. So, as we move forward, we want to keep an eye on the past, as well. This also means increasing the production of our American-made guitars and adding new American models in the near future.
Building up our artist roster is another priority of ours. We want to branch out, find great new guitar players who embody the spirit of our brand and support them on their artistic journeys. We’re not just looking for jazz virtuosos or big country pop stars; we’re interested in the guitar nuts, the young bluesmen, the new fusionists and everyone in between. We absolutely love to support artists whom we find inspirational, and we’d like to continue to do that more methodically and with our ears even more attuned to the music around us.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask that you’d like to discuss?
Cohen: I don’t think so. I’d just like to express my thanks for featuring D’Angelico this month. And to any guitar players reading this, if you get the chance to pick up a D’Angelico and play it, please do. You won’t be disappointed.