Import pioneer that helped connect the U.S. to
Asian-built instruments now connects the world to
When you look at the story behind The Music Link, you can deduce how the company got its name. Founded in 1997 by California native Steve Patrino, the Bay Area business got its start by linking the U.S. market to high-quality imports, becoming an early source for truly playable Asian-made instruments. Today, however, the link also works the other way. Still a leading source for imported guitars and amps including AXL, The Loar, Recording King, and VHT, The Music Link has expanded into U.S.-made and -assembled products that are exported around the world. “We started by making imported instruments that didn’t look or play like they were imports,” says Patrino. “Now all of our products are about finding the sweet spot of design refinement, great sound, and price point—where dealers can make their margin and we deliver a product that gets players excited.”
Back in 1997, many m.i. manufacturers had the logistics to source products from Asia, but not the credibility to back up their quality. Steve Patrino’s concept was to fix that by starting at the source. With a background in sales, Patrino had previously held jobs at Unilever and later—wanting a career that matched his personal interests—with a small m.i. company in the Bay Area. While he loved the work, he felt the import market was crying out for higher standards and eventually broke off to start The Music Link out of his garage. Unlike earlier importers, the company started by forming a close relationship with a Chinese guitar factory and investing in the machinery to avoid common quality control problems: neck angle issues, bridge pulls, sharp frets, etc. The Music Link’s first product was the Johnson Brass Bell resonator guitar. “A metal-body resonator is quite difficult to make—people said it couldn’t be done in a workshop outside of the U.S, especially in China—but the instrument was so successful, we moved on to making acoustics,” Patrino recalls. “We were among the first to deliver a truly playable guitar from China.”
By the early 2000s, new instruments were popping up across the m.i. sector, some purchased off-the-rack from overseas factories with nothing more than a change of headstock to pass them off as unique products. Looking to become the exception, The Music Link began acquiring brands with authentic stories behind them—among them Recording King and The Loar, with their roots in Bluegrass and Americana. While taking its quality standards to the next level, The Music Link built and rebuilt brands people could connect to. “These brands are unique because we have an excellent combination of design elements combined with well-researched price points and U.S.-led quality control,” Patrino says. “We never buy anything off of the shelf—instead we work with our own factories and workshops to meet the design and quality standards we want for our instruments.”
Refining its marquee brands would eventually take The Music Link to its next frontier: products built or assembled in the U.S. The company’s Hayward, California base now includes a banjo custom shop and workshops dedicated to U.S. assembly for its VHT amps, AXL USA guitar line, and more. Its products are exported to 18 countries, and with new investments at the Hayward facility, the company expects to further expand light assembly of both acoustic and electric guitars in the U.S. “A growing percentage of our business is made up of products exported from the U.S. to Asia and elsewhere,” says Patrino.
For The Music Link, where sales were up 9% overall last year, that’s certainly part of the picture. Another part, though, is how well its ethos matches current music trends. Strongly identified with acoustic and traditional American instruments, the company finds itself in sync with the folk/rock scene led by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers. “We have a strong design element where we combine accurate re-creations of vintage designs with modern techniques,” says Patrino. “Our Recording King Dirty ’30s Series really got the pulse of that trend. As mandolin and banjo started appearing more in mainstream music, we were able to capitalize on that with The Loar and Recording King as well.”
Wherever the market goes from here, The Music Link will meet it with some new twists on its product lineup. Among the company’s latest introductions are its Torrefied top guitars, where the Adirondack spruce used in the instrument is baked in a process that mimics the chemical changes in a guitar that’s been played for decades. On the other end of the design spectrum is the new VHT i-Series app-friendly amplifier, which lets players pair their favorite tone-generating mobile apps with true VHT tube tone. “Trends are always changing, and it’s important that we track them and modify our product lines accordingly, but keep our eyes on what’s working consistently for us,” Patrino says. “We try to know our customer base and deliver what they want and what will sell.”
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