Canada’s Top University Honors Robert Godin With Ph.D
...jointly funded research into guitar designs and materials, making use of McGill’s extensive acoustical and material testing equipment. “They have millions of dollars invested in equipment that no manufacturer in the music industry could ever afford,” he says. For the inventive luthier, the opportunity to harness these laboratories to advance guitar designs was an irresistible opportunity. The results of the research will be evident in what he describes as “groundbreaking” new instruments that will be introduced next year.
The Ph.D from Canada’s most prestigious university took Godin completely by surprise, especially since McGill hadn’t handed out any honorary degrees in the past two years. “I’m still in shock,” he says. Although Godin dropped out of school as a teenager to run a guitar shop in Montreal, the University correctly noted that over the past four decades, he’s amassed an extraordinary grasp of the guitar builder’s art, while creating one of the world’s leading guitar companies. The recognition from McGill is a fitting tribute to a career defined by creativity and incredible tenacity.
As a teenager growing up in Montreal, Robert Godin fell head over heels in love with the guitar. His youthful passion was so intense that when the woman who ran the local music store where he taught lessons died, he jumped in and took over, persuading his aunt to co-sign the lease. Anything to be close to guitars.
On a deer hunting trip to La Patrie, Quebec in 1972, a chance encounter at a struggling window factory set Robert on the path to becoming a guitar builder. Norman Windows, a wooden window builder, was hard hit as aluminum windows became the top choice for homebuilders. Looking for another source of revenue, the company tried making a few guitars. The initial instruments were terrible, but when Robert happened into the factory and tried one, he immediately sensed potential. “I picked it up and said to myself, ‘I’m going to become a guitar builder,’” he recalls. Upon returning to Montreal, he promptly sold the music store, used the proceeds to take over the Norman factory, and commenced guitar production in earnest. He jokes today, “Everyone else on the hunting trip came home with a deer. I came home with a guitar factory.”
In the first years after taking over the La Patrie plant, Robert did virtually every production job, along with handling administration and serving as the company’s only salesman. He bought a Ford Econoline Van, loaded it with guitars, and on a monthly basis began calling on dealers. Eastern Canadian dealers quickly came to appreciate his soft-sell approach and the inherent value of the Norman guitars. “I never tried to sell hard; I would just say ‘Take two and see how they sell,’” he recalls. “When I’d come back the guitars would be gone, and the dealers would immediately buy six or seven. A lot of the dealers I called on back in those days are still important customers.”
The U.S. market was harder to crack, because, as Robert recalls, “people associated the name ‘Norman’ with the dumb guy on the television show Cheers, not with a good guitar.” The larger dealers also said they’d buy only if he offered copies of top-selling Martin and Yamaha models. Robert responded by creating a new brand name—Seagull—that was free of “dumb guy” connotations. But he ignored the product advice, and crafted a guitar that defied conventions. It had a narrow, tapered headstock that provided straight string pull for better tuning. Instead of adding fancy inlay and trim, he put the money into a premium solid spruce top. And he ditched the high-gloss polyester for a lightly buffed matte finish that sounded better.
The success of the Seagull also strengthened Robert’s resolve to build only original guitar designs. He declares, “We don’t do reissues; we’re interested in building guitars for the music of today.” And he really means it. Over the past 20 years, Godin has probably introduced as many groundbreaking, convention-defying guitars as any other maker. The LGX series solid body electric guitar was one of the first to combine conventional humbucking pickups with a piezo bridge pickup to produce both acoustic and electric tones. The Multiac pushed the envelope even further, combining a chambered solid body with a piezo bridge pickup and a 13-pin connector for synth or computer access. The unusual creative possibilities afforded by the MIDI capability made jazz great John McLaughlin an early and enthusiastic adopter. The Glissentar didn’t so much push the envelope as create an entirely new product category. How else would you describe an 11-string fretless instrument that delivers a musical experience somewhere between a guitar and a sitar? Although the Glissentar defies easy description, Paul McCartney loves his.
With six plants (five in Quebec and one in New Hampshire), covering more than 400,000 square feet of space, Godin’s 600 employees produce in excess of 175,000 guitars a year, and the company’s seven brands deliver guitars at every price point and for every purpose. The flagship Godin brand offers a huge array of premium electric guitars, including a relatively new line of jazz arch tops. The Seagull brand is acclaimed for its distinctive premium acoustic guitars, while the Simon & Patrick and Norman brands offer more traditional acoustic designs at popular price points. The Art & Lutherie line addresses the value segment of the market with acoustics starting at $300 retail. Under the Richmond brand, the company has found a ready market for retro-styled electrics, equipped with Bigsby tremolos.
The doctorate from McGill has made 2015 a milestone year for Robert Godin. Equally significant, his company just closed out the year with a 15% sales increase. “Pretty amazing for a company that’s been at it for 43 years. I’m humbled by all of it,” he says.
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