Thursday, March 7, 2013
What could move you to buy a $2,000 guitar over the Internet, sight unseen and sound unheard? Well, if you fell in love with it first, did some due diligence, and ultimately trusted your instincts …
Post and photos by Tony Martins
I don’t believe in fate, per se, but I am convinced that on occasion universal forces conspire to present opportunities that feel so right you’re a fool not to follow along.
One such opportunity bore fruit for me recently when I purchased an exceptional acoustic guitar from a small company based near Montreal called MacKenzie & Marr. Although I sensed right away that this was not just any guitar maker and not just any guitar, it took some research, a few extremely effective Google ads, and a rising wave of guitar lust to send me over the edge.
Some context: I write and perform country-esque cowboy tunes as Stoney Martins with my band The Outriders. For many years I’ve wielded a trusty acoustic made in Korea by a respected maker called Crafter. The single-cutaway model is black, sleek, sounds great amplified or not, and records well—so all my bases were covered, right?
Not quite. You see I’ve discovered that owning guitars can be similar to collecting tattoos: it’s extremely difficult to be satisfied with just one. Once you start buying, you never completely cease steaming up the glass while window shopping.
Last year, for instance, I succumbed to guitar lust and bought a double-cutaway Gretsch “electromatic” hollow body—not a top-of-the-line Gretsch by any means, but a real beauty that sounds as sweet as she looks. At this point I had myself a great acoustic and a country-esque hollow body for raunchier sounds. I should have been fully satisfied, right?
Uh, no. It wasn’t long before I developed a hankering for another acoustic, one significantly different from my Crafter. I went online and drooled over expensive dreadnought-shaped instruments made by Gibson or Guild or Martin costing, at minimum, $3,000. But never fear! I calmly assured myself that instruments of such costly quality were well beyond my budget. Until, that is, a few months back when the universe blinked and my online guitar ogling led me to the MacKenzie & Marr web site …
… and there she was, the Naked Lady. A new, limited edition model created in collaboration with famed folk player Tom Rush. I saw that only 250 were to be made and straight away I was entranced. The Naked Lady was dreadnought-shaped, check. It featured arguably the best on-board amplification system available made by L. R. Baggs, check. It was said to match the quality of, say, a $5,000 Martin dreadnought—a sentiment issued modestly by the makers and echoed by a host of owners and reviewers who were raving online. Check.
Funny thing, though. Even as the Tom Rush Naked Lady was ticking off all the boxes, ultimately it was an intangible, ornamental element that made my knees weak: the Naked Lady herself, the elegant depiction of Eve entwined with the biblical serpent luxuriously gracing the fret board in mother-of-pearl. Even when observed in the thoroughly average photos available online, the inlay appeared to be stunning and seductive, distinctive and daring. And I was a goner.
If all this guitar ardour if sounding slightly erotic, let’s not kid ourselves: there is often a sexual attraction or strong physical affection between a player and his or her guitar or other musical instrument. There’s such an exchange of passion in the instrument-owner relationship, how could the emotional bond not run deep? Many guitarists will fess up to the fact that how a model looks, feels, smells, and handles are all crucial elements in the selection process. In other words, before you buy, you need to fall in love.
And yet, as enamored as I was, I hesitated to commit. My rational mind told me that even if the guitar was drop-dead beautiful and represented an incredible value, the $2,000 price tag was undeniably a lot to spend on a guitar that I’d never held in my own two mitts. Which brings us back to the unusual company that makes and markets the guitar: MacKenzie & Marr. (I’ll call them M&M henceforth for the sake of brevity.)
The more I investigated this small, entrepreneurial operation, the more I liked what I saw. The M&M business model is to cut out the myriad middle men in the guitar distribution chain and offer exceptional quality for prices unheard of in the retail world.
Great idea ... the challenge, of course, is to convince buyers to take that leap of faith and purchase without benefit of a test drive—something to which guitar buyers are definitely not accustomed. Indeed, you might visit a shop and play a guitar several times before plunking down the coin. Here, you had to plunk first and pluck later.
To assure buyers, M&M offer a no-questions-asked seven-day refund, which seemed to make the purchase a much safer bet. This, plus the healthy range of glowing testimonials about both the M&M instruments and the makers, had me inching closer to seeming nirvana.
Two final developments sealed the deal, both of them evidence of some savvy Internet marketing from M&M. First, Google ads for M&M guitars began to follow me around online. I’d visit the soccer pages of the UK-based Guardian website, for instance, and there I’d see a clickable Naked Lady banner. Sometimes I’d click simply for ogling purposes and more often I’d hold off—but the effect was certainly persuasive because for me the guitar was continually top of mind.
Second, and the ultimate clincher, was the 25% discount offer served to me as a teeny, tiny ad on Facebook, of all places. The ad featured a discount code to use during the purchase process on the M&M website. I saw this significant savings as the final, fateful sign from the universe that this precious instrument was indeed meant to be mine.
I pulled the trigger. And a mere four days lady, Naked Lady #63 arrived via FedEx and exceeded all expectations. I had thought that my Crafter sounded rich and clear but it pained me a little how comprehensively the Naked Lady put my former flame to shame. The Lady’s sound is so resonant and rich that it almost seems like a wholly different instrument in comparison. It is as if finally, now, I am playing a real guitar.
I still have feelings for the Crafter, but there’s no way around it: we simply won’t be seeing as much of one another.
Looks wise, the Naked Lady is stunning and the Eve-with-Snake inlay is superbly done. When ordering, I had requested a different type of tuning button (bigger and reddish-brown in colour) from the black buttons that are standard on the Naked Lady. Via email, John Marr of M&M advised me that this switch would be no problem—a great example of the attention to detail that sets M&M apart.
For Marr and his partner Dr. Jonathan MacKenzie—two dudes who, as noted in the company motto, have been friends since 1958—personal bonds seem to come before big profits. The pair began selling their China-manufactured guitars in 2009 and appeared on CBC’s “The Dragon’s Den” a year later, where they successfully reached an investment deal with Dragons Jim Treleving, Brett Wilson, and Kevin O'Leary.
“It's been a rewarding partnership that extends beyond business,” Marr told me in an email. “Last year, for example my wife and I joined Bret and a group he put together in building houses for three Mexican families.”
When M&M found success with an Ian Tyson limited edition model, they sought to repeat it and contacted Tom Rush, whom Marr had been a fan of since the 1960s.
“It turned out he had been thinking about a Tom Rush guitar, so I drove down to his home in Vermont to meet him,” Marr reports. “We spent an afternoon talking about what sort of sound he needed and the size, shape and wood that would produce it. In the course of that and subsequent meetings we became friends as well as collaborators.”
Rush had used a guitar inlaid with a naked lady for years but it was destroyed in a house fire in the early 90s. He asked M&M to reproduce the inlay in his new limited edition—something far easier said than done.
“It took six months to work our way through the maze of Chinese business relationships before we could enlist the one workshop capable of doing that sort of a large inlay,” said Marr, “but eventually we delivered the first sample to Tom.”
While sourcing talent for the inlay, M&M had chanced upon a pallet of rare, high altitude cedar—a stiff resonant wood in too short supply to be of interest to their larger competitors—and incorporated it into the Naked Lady.
“The resulting guitar shocked everybody,” said Marr. “Tom calls it a $5,000 guitar selling for less than half its true worth.”
Not for a second do I doubt that value assessment—and neither would you if you heard the guitar—but hey, can you put a price on love? The Naked Lady and I are already making some proverbially beautiful music together so I’m hardly thinking about her monetary worth. For me she has simply dropped from the heavens, for which I have MacKenzie & Marr and the those conspiring universal forces to heartily thank.