Vintage-style instrument experts have their finger on the pulse
of the “roots” scene
The modern Roots music scene, a mix of time-worn tones and new lyrical interpretations, speaks of aged guitars and restrung banjos from decades past. If you need either, you might check your attic or barn—or you might take a close look at what The Music Link is working on these days. Hayward, California-based Music Link, founded in 1997 as an early source for high-quality Asian imports, is probably better known now for something more specific: its flare for vintage brands with roots in Bluegrass and Americana. Since acquiring the Recording King and Loar brands in the early 2000s, the company has done some of its best work designing affordable new takes on Golden Age guitars, banjos, and mandolins. So when Roots music resurfaced in a big way around 2011, it was right in The Music Link’s wheelhouse. Its brands have responded with offerings including Recording King’s Dirty ’30s Series and The Loar’s vintage-style archtops and mandolins—but maybe most strikingly, with the “torrefaction” process developed for a range of Recording King Adirondack spruce-top guitars. This specialized heating process, applied to the tops of its Torrefied Series Dreadnought and 000 models, yields the aged tone of a guitar that’s been played for decades, giving these latest “Roots” entries more than just the look of a classic. The effort was rewarded with a Best In Show award at the most recent Summer NAMM.
“Our instruments are inspired by history, yet deliver plenty of modern benefits for the player’s convenience,” says Steve Patrino, founder and CEO of The Music Link. “That’s why we acquired brands with a deep, rich history in m.i. But we know that just having a brand name isn’t enough: We research and understand the history of these products. We incorporate countless small details into our instruments to enhance performance and historical accuracy. Some will go unnoticed, but discriminating players will say: ‘Wow, these folks really got it right.’”
In the case of torrefaction, The Music Link looked at the attributes of vintage guitars to develop a process where the wood is heated at a low temperature in an oxygen-free environment. This curing process is designed to minimize impurities in the wood, reducing weight and increasing stiffness in the Adirondack spruce. The end result is a lightweight, extremely resonant top. Paired with mahogany back and sides for the Torrefied Series, it yields what’s been described as a vintage tone with extra punch, projection and warmth—at a MAP of $499. “We focus on making great instruments with high value,” says Patrino. “It’s the key to building brands dealers can rely on and players can get excited about.”
Patrino, a Bay Area native who started The Music Link from his garage, came to the music industry with a background in sales. After holding jobs at Unilever, and later a small m.i. company in California, he broke off in ’97 to pursue a new concept in Asian imports. While plentiful by that time, the guitars then arriving from China were largely of poor quality. Patrino and The Music Link aimed to change that. Unlike earlier importers, they started by forming a close relationship with a Chinese guitar factory and investing in machinery to avoid common quality control problems: neck angle issues, bridge pulls, sharp frets, etc. The company’s first product was the Johnson Brass Bell resonator guitar. As Patrino recalls, “We were among the first to deliver a truly playable guitar from China.”
As competition proliferated in the early 2000s, The Music Link began its push to acquire brands with authentic stories behind them, building its identity on quality and a sense of connection with its players. Along with Recording King and The Loar, the company would take up AXL electric guitars and VHT amps, the brand originally founded in Studio City, California by Steven Fryette of Fryette Amplification fame. From imports, The Music Link progressed into a range of products made or assembled in the U.S.—for one, its AXL USA guitar line. For this series of electrics, introduced in 2011, solid wood bodies and necks are cut in the company’s overseas workshops and routed for wiring before being sent to Hayward for complete assembly. Elsewhere in the Hayward facility, The Music Link is making a handful of U.S-assembled Loar archtops, a U.S. production banjo line, and a thriving collection of custom-shop banjos: “We sold every banjo before it was even finished being built,” says Atz. Its VHT amps are also hand-wired onsite. U.S.-made or -assembled Music Link products are now exported to 18 countries and make up a fast-growing slice of the business.
“Our goal from day one has been to build an honest product,” says Patrino. “We have an incredibly high retention rate for our customers, from mom ‘n’ pop stores to larger dealers—and that’s one of the keys to our success. The community of builders and companies in our industry is relatively small, and we want to be one of the names that stands the test of time with instruments that are passed from generation to generation. The only way to do that is one customer at a time: giving each player a great experience with a product that fits their identity so they’ll return to us next time. That’s when we know we’re on the right track to creating something special.”
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