High-Tech Composite Material To Improve Guitar Tone
Decades of work as a professional guitarist, retailer, custom guitar builder, and distributor uniquely prepared Dave Dunwoodie to revolutionize guitar components when he launched Graph Tech Guitar Labs, 30 years ago. Blending this diverse experience with a strong entrepreneurial spirit led him to develop a proprietary synthetic ivory—TUSQ—that dramatically increases harmonic content and tonal quality, and is now standard equipment on many of the world’s finest guitars. It also provides the foundation for a growing accessories business.
A native of western Canada, Dave began playing professionally right out of high school, performing in bars, clubs, and weddings. After a few years on the road and a series of band break-ups, his playing career took a detour when he took a Christmas sales job at his favorite music store. Although he was a novice salesman, thanks to a winning personality and tremendous product knowledge, within a month and a half he had outsold everyone else in the store by a three-to-one margin. This success led him to launch his own company, importing guitar hardware, and custom painting guitar bodies for the Canadian market. To augment his income, he continued playing out, and on a fateful night in 1982, he had the inspiration that led to the creation of Graph Tech.
In mid-performance at a gig in his hometown of Vancouver, he hit the tremolo bar on his first Fender Strat (he had previously played Gibsons), the string stuck in the nut, and he went embarrassingly out of tune. The painful tuning incident stuck with him, and in a fit of inspiration, he tried to solve the problem with a guitar nut made out of pencil lead. Guitarists had long used pencil lead to lubricate the nut slots, so why not a nut made entirely of lead? He quickly discovered the lead was too soft, but rather than give up, began researching newly developed composite materials. He read everything he could and even got in touch with R&D engineers at GE and Dow (many of whom were guitar players too!). Soon his kitchen table became a laboratory, and after a lengthy trial and error process, he successfully engineered the world’s first permanently lubricated nut, a formula five times more slippery than graphite.
To transform his new invention into a marketable product, he borrowed $5,000 from his mother and used it to finance a small three-cavity mold: one cavity for a Strat nut, one for a Gibson nut, and one for a string tree. With the money left over, he bought 50 lbs. of material and an ad in Guitar Player magazine. Graph Tech was not an overnight success: first year sales were just $18,000. However, results were sufficiently encouraging that he persevered and ploughed profits back to build additional molds and expand the product line one nut at a time.
A born entrepreneur with a natural flair for marketing, Dave decided from the start to offer only products that were unique. “If it’s not unique, it’s a no-go right away,” he says. More importantly, he concentrated on developing products that delivered tangible benefits to the player. He explains, “The guitar industry is full of hype and hyperbole...this or that will increase your sustain by locking it down, adding mass, or decreasing mass. But when you actually measure it, there isn’t much difference. Our products are different. The most common email we get is, ‘Wow, your product actually does what you said it will do!’ When we say String Saver Saddles reduces string breakage, we mean they really reduce string breakage by more than 90% or we’ll refund your money. Our TUSQ saddles really do increase harmonic content on an acoustic instrument, up to 20 dB, which to the ear is double the volume, and you can really hear the difference.”
These tangible performance benefits are why Graph Tech products are offered as standard equipment on many of the world’s most renowned guitar brands in 35 countries, including Breedlove, Carvin, DBZ, Gibson, Godin, Guild, Ibanez, Kala, Larrivée, Martin, Parker, Schecter, Suhr, Taylor, Warwick, and Yamaha. Through their distribution network around the world, retailers and repair techs have also become big advocates. Dave notes, “Our products are an excellent profit opportunity for the repair shop and service-oriented stores. If you sell a TUSQ saddle and bridge pins, not only do you get a happy customer; there is the potential for an installation and set-up charge and string set sale on top of the TUSQ product sale, all at good margins.”
Dave has continued to reinvest in new product development and the Graph Tech line now includes TUSQ nuts, saddles, and bridge pins; TUSQ XL and Black TUSQ self-lubricating nuts for electric guitars; NuBone nuts and saddles for mid-priced acoustics and electrics; the ghost modular pickup systems; the ResoMax harmonic bridge systems; and String Saver saddles. In 2012, the company introduced Nubone XB nuts and saddles, designed to increase bass response in small bodied and value-priced acoustic instruments. The company has also expanded beyond hardware with the recent introduction of Chops PrePlay, the first “two-in-one” hand and instrument care for musicians that both conditions and pH balances skin in seconds; plus TUSQ Picks, which have sold more than 700,000 in the first six months.
Despite a difficult economy, Graph Tech sales have maintained an unbroken upward trend. Revenues are evenly divided between OEM customers, distributors and a base of retailers and repair techs in 35 countries. Dave observes, “It seems that, when OEM sales go down, the aftermarket goes up and vice versa. We also see distribution volumes changing all over: some European countries are doing great, and others are really struggling. Manufacturing in North America is picking up again, while China is having over-capacity issues. And the ukulele? It’s still on fire and we’re ready for it. Last year was our best year ever, and 2012 is set to beat it by a considerable margin.”
Dave continues to work on developing new products and building an organization that he describes as “service-oriented and capable of turning on a dime to respond to customers.” But the biggest satisfaction he gets is when knowledgeable players and manufacturers grasp the benefits of his products. He explains, “NuBone XB is a new nut and saddle material for our OEM customers that increases bass response and is great for small-bodied instruments and ones with laminated tops and/or sides. When anyone does an A/B comparison with the material they are currently using, they immediately hear the the difference. and say, ‘Your product actually works!’ Hmmm, imagine that!” At NAMM, which coincides with Graph Tech’s 30th anniversary, he says, “we will be launching probably our most exciting product innovation ever, in my prediction “an industry game changer!”
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