|Michael Kelly’s “boutique within reach” electric guitar line pairs recognizable body styles with premium top tonewoods and an enticing menu of pickup configurations and custom modifications. Shown (l-r) are the 1960s Series 1963 Aged Cherry Burst, 1950s Series CC50 Fralin in Striped Ebony, Patriot Series Patriot Decree in Coral Blue, and Hybrid Series Special Spalted Burst.
Michael Kelly Guitars
Retail sales legend brings a new perspective and “boutique within reach” brand identity to a distinctive production guitar line.
MICHAEL KELLY GUITARS has been around for 20 years, but a new worldwide distributor and the appointment of a heralded industry veteran to lead it have spurred something of a renaissance there. The company produces a full range of distinctive electric and acoustic guitars that represent a compelling value proposition to a growing number of players and retailers.
Illustrating how he runs into former customers “everywhere,” former New York City Music Row salesman extraordinaire and custom shop guitar guru Steve Pisani recalls being struck by a car as he crossed a street several years ago, and when the paramedic looked down at him on the stretcher, he exclaimed, “Hey, you’re the guitar guy!” And a recent off-the-cuff Facebook query of “Did anyone buy a guitar from this guy?” elicited some 400 responses, many with glowing detailed accounts of their experience. To Samson Technologies Corp., which began distributing the brand earlier this year, Pisani’s three decades in retail, his lasting impression on the guitar community, and his subsequent major role in reviving the D’Angelico Guitars brand made him an ideal fit for the “new” Michael Kelly. “It was a no-brainer to bring Steve on as vice president and brand manager,” says Samson Marketing and Communications Manager Ira Blanco. “Steve’s vast experience in both m.i. retail and manufacturing provides the perfect skill set for executing our vision for this brand.”
“The customer walks in, sees our guitars,
and says 'wow!'—
which is the first step
toward them pulling out their credit card.”
Pisani was a top guitar salesman on 48th Street for 30 years, and his personal sales record there remains unbeaten. Speculating that “no one else in the world handed more guitars to more people,” he gained a deep knowledge of “what customers are looking for from manufacturers and how to keep them happy.” Now he’s eager to share his customer service expertise with his new Michael Kelly dealers.
Michael Kelly Guitars was founded in 1999 by Tracy Hoeft, a guitar industry veteran who named the brand after his son Michael and daughter Kelly. Making a strong debut with its custom-look Dragonfly collection of F-style mandolins and acoustic basses (both still available), the company quickly expanded its line to include both acoustic and electric guitars. “While Samson was not initially interested in stepping into the guitar business,” says Blanco, “when we saw the quality, aesthetics, and breadth of the line, we thought it was a natural opportunity to expand Samson’s brand portfolio.” He adds that the Michael Kelly brand and value proposition are in line with Samson’s current product assortment, and it fits comfortably into the company’s existing domestic and international sales channels. Samson will celebrate Michael Kelly’s 20th anniversary next year.
Andy Gatchel, store manager at ReMix Music in Springdale, Arkansas, admits that he was concerned with the brand’s new distribution. After all, ReMix “already had a good deal with Michael Kelly,” including an exclusive territory. “But since Samson took over,” he says, “the quality has actually been better—and it was already pretty awesome. They’re still working on their lead times,” he adds, “but we like their billing system and structure, they’ve been awesome to work with, and they’re putting more ad dollars and effort into Michael Kelly than Michael Kelly has ever experienced.”
In recent years, the internet has conditioned guitarists to expect a larger menu of features and options. Since Michael Kelly’s inception it has promoted a boutique-like brand identity, always offering “something different” to retailers and end-users. Suggesting that Samson has “taken Tracy’s basic vision and put it on a larger stage,” Pisani cites Michael Kelly’s “wide range of models to fit into any player’s collection” and high-value appointments that distinguish its guitars from competing instruments in their price range. “The customer walks in, sees our guitars, and says ‘wow!’” he says—“which is the first step toward them pulling out their credit card.”
At first glance, Michael Kelly’s popular 1950s, 1960s, and Patriot Series electrics are patterned after the industry’s most recognizable body styles. The company’s “boutique within reach” appeal first emerges in the form of elegant top tonewoods such as flamed and spalted maple that make each instrument unique. But an even more “boutique” facet of the brand’s persona is that its Mod Shop invites guitarists to customize its instruments’ tone and performance with an enticing menu of targeted modifications. And by partnering with top component suppliers such Seymour Duncan, Lindy Fralin, and Bare Knuckle Pickups, Michael Kelly can offer further options that enable end-users to really dial in their ideal range of sounds.
One of the brand’s most popular options, the Great 8 Electronics Mod, doubles the sonic spectrum of its dual-humbucker instruments. While still providing the full-powered tone of each humbucker and the traditional settings using neck, bridge, or both pickups, Great 8 adds two push-pull switches to the volume and tone knobs. When pulled up, one coil of the humbucker is disengaged to deliver a cleaner single-coil tone. Each pickup can be controlled separately, maximizing its tonal flexibility. Many of the 1950s Series instruments offer the Quad Mod pickup selector, which starts with the traditional three-position tone selection, then adds a fourth position activating both neck and bridge pickups in series to yield a thick and punchy tone much like a humbucker. However, because the two coils are placed in non-standard locations on the guitar, the tone is as unique as it is musically useful and a welcome addition to the standard two-single-coil pickup configuration.
Michael Kelly’s current top-sellers come from its Hybrid Series electric-acoustics, equipped with both traditional magnetic pickups and an acoustic bridge piezo. One model is a single cutaway solid-body with traditional single coil pickups plus the Fishman Powerbridge transducer. A smaller semi-hollow-body Hybrid model pairs humbuckers with the Powerbridge. Hybrid Series models enable a musician to take a single instrument to the gig and still have both acoustic and electric sound options. Many players often use an optional Y-cable to plug the electric output into their amp and send the acoustic side into their p.a. The company is planning to expand its Hybrid Series and introduce new models at the 2019 Winter NAMM show.
“The quality, fit, and finish
on their acoustics has been so good,
it’s hard not to sell one.”
The Michael Kelly Heirloom Series adds a vintage vibe to its models from its 1950s and 1960s series and select electric bass models. These instruments are painted, assembled, and lovingly hand-“aged” by a Michael Kelly Guitars craftsman in the U.S.
Rounding out the electrics are the 500 Collection of seven- and eight-string guitars; the Lefty Series; the Rick Turner Series, featuring the famed luthier’s licensed line of Renaissance guitars including the iconic Model One guitar played by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham; and a full range of electric and acoustic-electric basses.
Already a Fender dealer, ReMix carries only a few Michael Kelly models that would compete directly with Strats and Teles. However, with “no intention of carrying Gibson or Epiphone,” Gatchel was thrilled to take on the Patriot Series. “The fit and finish are great,” he says, “and even the Rockfield pickups that they put in standard have just been outstanding. People love the feel of their necks, they’re lighter than Les Pauls, and their mahogany body really resonates and feels great.”
What ReMix didn’t expect, he continues, was that Michael Kelly acoustic models would be “selling like wildfire.” The Grand Auditorium model is now the store’s best-selling acoustic, with 15 units sold in the past six months. The store’s bluegrass instructor, who “won’t play on anything but his pre-war Martin or his [Jack] Williams custom,” loves the tone of the $299 Forte Port model. “For a beginner and intermediate guitar, it sounds and feels awesome,” says Gatchel. “The quality, fit, and finish on their acoustics has been so good, it’s hard not to sell one.”
Michael Kelly acoustics feature tops made of solid spruce, flamed koa, quilted maple, and a java ebony/mahogany blend. Depending on the model, side and back tonewoods include top-quality koa, quilted maple, flamed okoume, ovangkol, and sapele. All models are equipped with integrated Fishman active electronics, some with separate volume and tone controls mounted inside of the soundhole for easy access. Many models feature an asymmetrical offset soundhole coupled with a new bracing design developed to reduce the interruption of vibration across the top, thereby enhancing resonance and volume. All models feature Michael Kelly’s innovative Zero Pin Bridge, which facilitates quick and easy string changes without tools, eliminating the stress of losing or breaking pins.
The “Within Reach” part of the Michael Kelly promise represents the exceptional value of compelling features at accessible price points. For example, on the acoustic side, the 3D Grand Auditorium, with its torrefied solid spruce top, subtly arched Java ebony/mahogany back, integrated Fishman Sonitone Active electronics, and side sound port is listed at $729 MSRP/$499.99 street. And on the electric side, the Mod Shop Patriot Instinct model features a gorgeous quilted maple top and Seymour Duncan pickups that produce the full spectrum of P90, single-coil, and humbucker tones. It’s offered at $1,200 MSRP/$769.99 street.
Pisani has maintained relationships with factory managers dating back to the time he was still a salesman on 48th Street and later when he became involved in instrument design. This experience will help ensure that Michael Kelly maintains quality standards and adherence to design specs. Also, since joining Michael Kelly, he periodically visits the factories to meet with the builders and Samson’s staff in Asia. “It’s a partnership,” he says. “The manufacturers trust me, and I trust them.” Furthermore, every Michael Kelly guitar is set up, “ready to sell,” by company guitar techs at one of the company’s two bi-coastal facilities before it’s shipped to a dealer.
“The nicest thing is that [players] engage
with each other and their fans
through social media,
so all that inspiration and love of guitar
is being shared.”
Since marketing and distribution was taken over by Samson Technologies, and with the help of several new and established distributors, Michael Kelly has begun expanding its reach into international markets. “Michael Kelly is 20 years old,” notes Pisani, “but in terms of global markets, it’s effectively a new company, since its guitars were previously available only in the U.S. Because of Samson’s successful history of serving the international community for 35 years, we’re being sure to do it the right way, picking the right distributors, dealers, and artists and launching the brand to be very, very successful. In trade shows overseas, the response has been through the roof!” Domestically, after only six weeks under new distribution, Michael Kelly “opened up a slew of new dealers” at the Summer NAMM Show in Nashville. Offering healthy margins and a minimal barrier to entry, the company is looking to partner with strategic independent dealers with exclusive territories.
Since Samson entered the picture, Michael Kelly has begun working with its dealers to cultivate an artist roster of “hometown heroes,” regional artists who shop in independent dealers’ stores and tend to be very engaged in social media. “Players who perform in the local cafes and clubs can really help promote the brand,” says Pisani, which, in turn, “supports our independent dealers.” The company has also begun promoting the brand with a variety of in-store events. Some feature an introduction of Pisani and the brand to customers. In others, Michael Kelly sponsors an artist appearance or provides instruments for an in-store performance by a local band. All of these events are amplified by posts on demographically-targeted social media.
Being on the front lines of the guitar biz for 30 years gives Pisani a thoroughly informed perspective on its vitality and prospects. Contrasting what he calls “the lost decade of m.i.,” when customers gravitated toward EDM and looped, sequenced, and synth-centric music, now as he drives across his native Long Island he sees that “almost every town has a School of Rock. The guys who played back then now have kids of their own who are taking up the guitar,” he says. Other signs—“a car commercial with a Zeppelin song...new young players really studying the instrument, discovering Hendrix, Clapton, Zeppelin, Van Halen, Steve Vai, Rush, and rockin’ it on YouTube”—are equally encouraging. “The nicest thing,” he adds, “is that they engage with each other and their fans through social media, so all that inspiration and love of guitar is being shared. And Michael Kelly Guitars will definitely have a role in the story.”