Bedell sourcing Koa in Hawaii.

For The Music & Sound Retailer’s Summer NAMM issue—our second-biggest issue of the year—I knew we had to host someone special for “Five Minutes With.” It seemed natural, then, to approach Tom Bedell, Founder of Two Old Hippies, LLC, who helms respected brands such as Bedell Guitars, Breedlove Stringed Instruments and Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments. Given that, in all likelihood, you’re reading this article while attending the Summer NAMM show, it’s particularly germane to mention Bedell is also co-hosting “Insight” in Nashville; it promises to be among the highlights of a jam-packed four days of products, education, networking and musical exuberance.

In this intimate interview, Bedell touches on his estimable career, his deep passion for music, his dedication to responsible environmental stewardship and his “secrets to success” for why brands like Bedell and Breedlove are experiencing huge upswings in customer (and dealer) demand. So pull up a chair, sit back and join the conversation.

The Music & Sound Retailer: You have an impressive history in the music products business, so I’d like to start with your background. Give us a 10,000-foot overview of some of the highlights of your career, including how your passion for music developed and how names like “Bedell” and “Two Old Hippies” have come to be so well known in our industry.

Tom Bedell: When I was 13, I was giving guitar lessons in the local music store. I decided to set up a studio in my parents’ basement. My father had an agent in Japan who was sourcing snaps and swivels for his fishing leaders. I sent a telex over to Ishiki and asked him if he could find a source for me for guitars that I could sell to my students. He mailed me some catalogs and, in 1964—just right when The Beatles showed up and changed all of our lives in the music world—I got these catalogs of different guitars. I ordered some. My younger sister learned how to put decals on with a “Bedell” logo on them. I took them around to local music stores, and everybody I called on wanted to buy them.

And so, I hired a friend who had a driver’s license and we started driving around. First, I brought in 500 and then I brought in 1,000 and then I brought in 3,000 and, pretty soon, I had a fairly robust wholesale guitar business in the Midwest. When I was 16, in 1966, I opened my first retail store in the spring and my second one in the fall. And so, all through high school, I was very passionate about the music business. I played in a band, of course, like all of us did. It was just a terrific time. In 1968, I actually showed at the NAMM show. I think I’m the youngest business owner who’s ever shown at the NAMM show. And I’m also, I think, the person who showed once and had the longest disappearance before I showed again! [Laughs.]

So, I decided to go to college and then, when I sold my fishing tackle business and retired, that didn’t work. And so, in 2009, my wife and I bought the local music store in Aspen CO. We named it “Two Old Hippies,” after her and me. She made it largely a boutique. It had an acoustic guitar room, and then it had a lot of her clothes and gifts and jewelry. She’s an incredible merchandiser-retailer. I started importing guitars again, this time from a company in China called Grand Reward. But I really wanted to design and build my own guitars.

So, in 2010, the Breedlove company became available. I bought it and moved my whole guitar business there. My wife and I split our businesses, so she runs the retail side and I get to run the acoustic instrument side. In 2012, I was able to buy Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments. So, now, we have Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments, Breedlove Stringed Instruments and Bedell Guitars.


Bedell sourcing Sitka in Alaska.

The Retailer: During a recent conversation with Joe Lamond, he singled out your business as a manufacturer that’s doing particularly well in terms of growth, even during a period when a lot of companies’ business has been flat. Get into some of the reasons why you’ve experienced such aggressive growth.

Bedell: Well, first of all, branding. We have to have a reason for our brand to exist in the marketplace. So, in our case, being in the acoustic guitar business, we have two very strong brands. One of them, obviously, is Martin and the other one is Taylor. And they have a reason that they have the niche that they have. And then, along comes Breedlove. So, you might say, “Why Breedlove? Why should a dealer carry it? Why should a consumer want to buy it, instead of wanting to buy one of the two stronger brands?”

We have positioned Breedlove as the innovative acoustic brand. It’s certainly totally organic. It’s all wood. It’s all from nature. But, we understand more about each individual piece of tone wood that we use in the instrument. We are beginning to catalog each individual piece of wood. We will be analyzing its density, its frequency, etc., to build the guitars of tomorrow instead of replicating guitars from yesterday. And, in the case of Bedell, we have adopted a motto of, “Seed to Song.” Where we can, we actually trace back to where the tree grew that goes into your guitar. For example, I’ve gone up to Alaska, where we’re salvaging Sitka trees. We never knowingly use any clear-cut trees in any Bedell product. So, we salvaged Sitka trees. We identify where we found the log. And when you get your guitar, you actually know where the woods in your guitar came from. Where the tree grew. How it was handled. What its lifespan was.

We are 100-percent embracing and promoting the Lacey Act and CITES, and that resonates with a lot of people. There’s a real connection. It’s Mother Nature that grew these trees, and there’s a connection a musician has with the organic nature of an acoustic guitar. That has a whole lot to do with why acoustic guitars are such a popular trend right now.

We have 100-percent growth this year in order demand. I’ve got 50-percent growth in shipping performance. [Laughs.] We have added almost 100 people in our company in the last 12 months. And we’re trying to grow our production capacity as fast as we can. We added another building last fall and actually, this week, I’m leasing another building that we’re going to move our distribution center into. So, if we’re able to grow our production fast enough, we’ll achieve 100-percent growth. Right now, we’re actually producing at about a 50-percent growth.

We just have a terrific team here. It’s a group of people that loves what they’re doing. Everybody’s passionate about it. We’ve got a great culture. We’re having a lot of fun.

The Retailer: What’s your level of optimism as regards the broader music products market as we enter the second half of 2014? Do you feel like we’ve fully emerged from the recession and are now in a growth phase? Do you feel like manufacturers and retailers should still be cautious? What’s your overall sense of things?

Bedell: Well, Dan, I don’t have the ability to be a pessimist. I believe that the future of individual companies—and our industry as a whole—is up to us. We’re challenged by funding in education and music education. We’re challenged by a trend of not enough venues inviting live performances, and places for those of us who love to play. Those are all things that we need to address and work hard to reverse. But, music is a part of every human being’s existence…every human being’s life. How many hours in a day go by where music isn’t a part of what you’re doing? None! Absolutely none!

The whole currency of music is so important to all of our daily lives, whether it’s listening, whether it’s playing, whether it’s a vehicle for our poetry, whether it’s the voice of social change—music is a lot of the currency of our existence. And so, the opportunity for us to capitalize on that in a loving, positive way is huge. It’s all about not blaming or looking for excuses not to succeed, but, rather, looking around us and seeing the opportunities and taking advantage of them.


Tom Bedell unpacking Brazilian rosewood.

The Retailer: I want to get your thoughts about Summer NAMM broadly. Clearly, by your presence there and your decision to exhibit, you feel it’s a show worth investing in. Why do you feel that way? Why should dealers leave their stores for a few days and go to Summer NAMM?

Bedell: It’s really interesting because, for me, Summer NAMM is a better show than Winter NAMM. This is probably not as positive as I should be. [Laughs.] I like it because it’s a smaller show. The bigger companies aren’t there with a mandatory big buy-in program. So, I get a chance to meet individually—dealer by dealer by dealer—to have good conversations. To talk about their businesses, to understand them better, to become better friends and to sell products going into the two biggest quarters of the year. The third and fourth quarters are, by far, the biggest retail season for selling acoustic instruments. So, for me to build relationships and conduct business, the Summer NAMM show is absolutely terrific.

In fact, we wrote more business last year at Summer NAMM than we did the January before. I can’t say that about this last Winter NAMM, because this last Winter NAMM—the one that just finished—was an absolute knockout. I mean, we wrote 10 times more orders at the Winter NAMM show than we ever have. So, that’s not a fair comparison. But, the Summer NAMM show is a tremendous time for relationship-building and order-writing for the holiday season.

It’s our job, as product providers, to make Summer NAMM worth the dealers coming. You know, we can’t take it for granted. They are taking four days away. They are spending a few thousand dollars of expenses to come. We have to make that worth their time. We offer specials at the Summer NAMM show that are special for the dealers that come there. We offer limited-edition products that are available only at the Summer NAMM show. You know, we try to do things that say, “Thank you, dealer, for investing in spending time with us.”

The Retailer: Last year, “Insight” was probably the single most buzzworthy event at the entire Nashville show. In your view, why did so many people think “Insight” 2013 was a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of thing? What did you get out of it? From your vantage point, what did the audience get out of it?

Bedell: Well, we had the CEOs of the most famous combo companies. And, in most cases, those individuals were people who started their companies back in the late ’50s or early ’60s. And so, they’ve been the icons of the industry for the lives of everybody who was at that show. Many of them had not met each other. To get them all together on one stage, at one time, and to be in that environment was something special. Vince Gill and I co-hosted it, and Vince was just incredible at keeping the tone right and keeping it a comfortable environment. The CEOs were able to really share not just observations about the industry and not just their own successes, but also their feelings: some of their thoughts about why they’re in the music industry, things about their families, etc. For me, what an honor to get to be a co-host in that group of people. It was incredible.

The Retailer: What exciting things do you and Vince Gill have planned for this year’s “Insight” event? What can Summer NAMM attendees look forward to? And also, if people attended last year, what’s going to make this iteration different and worth attending?

Bedell: Well, of course, it’s going to be completely different. Vince and I are going to host an evening of entertainment. His band, The Players, are going to play. Vince is going to bring some vintage instruments that have meant a whole lot to him in his life and tell stories about those instruments and the songs he wrote on them, and then he’s going to play and perform songs. He has a variety of surprise guests and friends who are going to appear. And, likewise, they’ll share stories. It’s not going to be a concert, like just Vince playing his songs. It’s going to be storytelling. He is a really funny person. He’s just hilarious. He has stories about so many different people and he does great impersonations of them. We’re going to put together just a really fun night of entertainment, and Vince is going to play and sing a lot of songs.

Vince tells a story about the first Martin that he bought when he was, like, 18 years old. And he had to take every penny he had in his bank account to buy it. He still has that guitar. And he talks about the songs he wrote on that guitar. He talks about the guitar that his dad gave him, when he first started playing. And he tells stories about the songs he’s written on that guitar.

If people don’t come to this night, they’re really going to regret it, because it’s going to be a fun, funny, musical evening that’s full of surprises and great entertainment.

The Retailer: As a Director serving on the NAMM Board, what insights can you give us about the things NAMM has planned for the balance of the year? In terms of music-education advocacy, growing our industry, and supporting dealers and manufacturers, what is NAMM investing in?

Bedell: Of course, I participated in the Fly-In back in May. That’s an effort to engage government in the importance of music education. Obviously, I’m personally very much interested in the Lacey Act and making sure that it works, that it’s functional, that it does protect our forests and that it does interact with the musical instrument industry. Because I believe in the Lacey Act and I believe it’s an important tool for those of us in the guitar industry to make sure that we’re conducting our businesses in a way that allows generations and generations to generate more wood forever. For there to be wonderful wood and great forests and musical instruments, all living in harmony. So, we’ll be working on that.

There’s so much research being done on the power of music, in terms of how it develops the brain in children and helps them become more intelligent…better learners. There’s clearly a scientific connection between people who play music, and learning and intelligence. We’re doing a lot of promoting on that.

I had a significant business in the fishing tackle market, and obviously worked hard on fishing resources and all that kind of thing. We had a trade association. It’s amazing how much more effective NAMM is. NAMM is the best trade association I have ever experienced. Joe Lamond is great. The staff is great. The volunteer leadership on the executive committee is amazing. It’s been a very rewarding experience to serve on the NAMM Board.


Custom designing with Dean Dillon.

The Retailer: As someone who has had such a personal connection to music since your childhood, what still inspires you now? What, even now, makes you eager to come to work and be part of the musical instrument industry?

Bedell: My first thought when you asked me that, Dan, was, “The Beatles.” [Laughs.] We’re building a guitar that I’m going to present to Paul McCartney next month and, wow, what a treat that is!
I just think there’s a connection between Mother Nature and the trees that grow and the music that we make. I go out and I do a lot of the wood sourcing. When we go out and we find a salvaged tree—and you think about the 400 or 500 years that it grew—that’s when Columbus was arriving on our shores.

You think about the whole life that that tree has experienced. And through that life—the growth rings, the cellulose structure, both the looks and the music that come from that. And then we put it into a guitar and put it through our shop to build it. The anticipation of what it’s going to sound like is just so exciting. We get done, string up and the guitar is ready to play for the first time. We have a celebration here almost every day. We gather around and string up the guitars that just got finished and we play them. The anticipation when we started building it or found the tree, and then what that guitar turned out to be…it’s exciting.

Sometimes, it’s disappointing. We don’t always get it right. But, sometimes, it’s just magical. In fact, this is a flaw in my personality: I have a hard time sometimes. You know, like, letting your children go? I have a hard time shipping some of these guitars. I want to keep ’em! [Laughs.] I have a relationship with that guitar, and to let it go is just hard!

The Retailer: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Bedell: I came from the fishing tackle industry, as I mentioned earlier, and it was really competitive. Everybody in the industry…we ran these ads, we’d attack each other, etc. It is such a treat to be part of the acoustic guitar community. Chris Martin, Bob Taylor, Richard Hoover…you name it. Everybody is so nice, kind and generous. We were having a bit of a puzzle on some dovetail joints that we were trying to do, and Chris Martin invited us to come out. He showed us exactly the one little step that we weren’t quite doing right. Bob Taylor invited me down to show me some of the production techniques and finishes that they were doing. It’s just remarkable!

I’ve had guitar companies call up and say, you know, they were out of some lacquer or something that they needed, they couldn’t get it from the supplier for the week, and they wanted to know if we could FedEx them some. And we do! I just think that the values and the spirit and the joy that exist in the acoustic stringed instrument business are so refreshing.

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