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Trev Wilkinson-designed Fret-King guitars (Black Label Esprit model shown here)
are among the highlights of a wide range of proprietary JHS brands.

John Hornby Skewes & Co. Ltd.

Helping aspiring musicians pursue their dreams

“What makes a successful salesman? You’ve got to believe in the product that you’re selling. You have to be genuine. Never sell anything that you don’t honestly believe your customer can sell.”

That was John Hornby Skewes, founder of the company of the same name, speaking in an interview for the NAMM Oral History Program. With his keen eye for products and a knack for selling, Skewes made his name as a sales rep in the early ’60s and went on to start one of the U.K’s most prolific music companies. Founded in 1965, John Hornby Skewes & Co. Ltd. is now the leading independent music products distributor for the U.K. and Ireland, offering a hugely varied range of more than 4,000 unique m.i. and pro audio products. JHS’s proprietary brands, from fretted instruments to brasswind and percussion, have a reputation for hitting the sweet spot at the intersection of price, performance, and a certain “it” factor. At age 80, Skewes remains chairman of JHS while Dennis J. Drumm, the founder’s son-in-law and a 40-year m.i. veteran himself, serves as its managing director.

“Why do we build so much into our proprietary brands at a great price? The answer is simple: because we can—and because we can, we should,” says Drumm. “Young players who wash cars and save their Christmas money are not really saving up to buy a guitar, banjo, or saxophone—they’re saving up to chase their dream, and they deserve more than the commercial compromise so often offered to them. They deserve the best all our knowledge can deliver.”

Distributed in more than 65 countries, JHS’s proprietary lines include folk instruments and banjos, orchestral and band instruments, amplification, percussion, and accessories—but its true focal point is guitars. Its flagship Fret-King line, developed by the internationally renowned guitar designer Trev Wilkinson, has made its mark by putting a “twist” on the familiar, attracting a long list of pro artists in the process. Signature Fret-King models have already been created for Gordon Giltrap, Gregg Wright, Jerry Donahue, and Danny Bryant—with the new Fret-King Exige artist model created with Queensryche’s Parker Lundgren scheduled to debut at the Winter NAMM show. As Drumm says, “The consistently amazing reaction we get from top players really shows we’ve got it right, evidenced by the involvement of these players who totally ‘get’ the vibe.”

Fret-King is just one in a portfolio of proprietary JHS guitar lines, each built for its own breed of guitarist. Wilkinson is also behind its popular Vintage electrics, which are played by such artists as Midge Ure, Paul Weller, Thomas Blug, and Graham Oliver, among others. A separate Vintage acoustic line includes signature models by Gordon Giltrap and Paul Brett. For folk and bluegrass players there’s the Pilgrim line, developed with U.K. folk guru Paul Tebbutt, offering a range of banjos and fretted instruments with the elegant look of an earlier era. The Laka ukulele range offers exotic tonewoods and even electric options. The Santos Martinez range for classical players is supported by signature models from the likes of celebrated English guitarist Raymond Burley. For the beginner segment, the Encore range of classical, acoustic, electric, and bass guitars brings a wealth of features, playability, and Trev Wilkinson features to entry-level players. “The most important guitar anyone buys is their first one,” says Drumm. “Why shouldn’t it be a ‘keeper’?”

With guitars at the core, JHS has also expanded into a complete spectrum of m.i. products. In the percussion segment its Drum Tech brand offers practice pads, hardware, and other essentials, while its PP Drums line covers world percussion kits and accessories. Its Kinsman Musical Accessories range, already providing bags, cases, stands, cables, and instrument amplification, is due to add a flood of affordable new items including capos, slides, clip-on tuners, string cleaners, and mini jack amplifiers, with a major expansion in 2014. In the band and orchestral segment, JHS has two proprietary lines. Antoni stringed instruments provides a compact, well-designed selection for the high-volume beginner and step-up markets. Odyssey brasswind, geared to the same level of player, has been designed by renowned technician and master craftsman Peter Pollard, bringing a cut-above standard of workmanship to the line. A range of harmonicas is also offered under JHS’s The Blues label. With kids in mind, JHS has even scored a hit with its licensed SpongeBob SquarePants Real Musical Instruments range.

“Our commercial agenda is to drive business by building a price/value/specification proposition that is impossible to argue against, whatever the category, whatever the price point,” says Drumm. “Our growing international presence and continuing profitability are proof that we are doing something right.”

JHS proprietary products are now available from the United States to Brazil, Germany, South Africa, Australia, and about 60 other nations. In the summer of 2013, JHS selected LPD Music as its exclusive distributor in the U.S. “JHS and LPD have very similar background stories, being set up by highly entrepreneurial founders back in the ’60s and remaining family-run to this day,” says Drumm. “Partnering with LPD is terrific synergy for Vintage and Fret-King.”

JHS, in turn, is the source for dozens of the world’s top brands in the U.K. and Ireland. Hughes & Kettner, HK Audio, Lewitt, Fishman, Dunlop, Danelectro, and Guitarras Manuel Rodriguez are just a few of the brands it represents as a distributor. As its home region crawls its way out of recession, says Drumm, JHS’s focus on the most optimal high-value brands is more important than it ever has been. “In this climate, more value is being sought by dealers and consumers,” he says. “So as brand proprietors, we have to work harder and give more—‘build a better mousetrap’, if you like. Frankly, I get an enormous buzz out of the reaction we get to our brands, at all price points and all points in the distribution chain. We’ll carry on doing the right thing: taking advantage of opportunities, looking after our customers, making products that players enjoy and can afford—and sometimes leaving our competitors to wonder how we do it!”


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