I was a vendor at my first guitar show this past weekend. The show had a minor handmade music theme and was headlined by Justin Johnson, who had a booth, did a clinic and presented the final concert of the day. The show directors contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in donating one of my guitars as a giveaway item to be signed - and potentially played - by Justin. Since I live only 70 miles from the venue, I jumped at it. Arranged for the donation, reserved a booth and started flinging sawdust in the garage.

I had some idea of what to expect, but I’d like to share my observations on the day and get some feedback from those of you who sell at shows. I’m considering another VERY large craft fair in October, so any and all comments from voices of experience are helpful. Thanks in advance.

Design philosophy

I don’t mean to be all high and mighty about this, but I do have some specific design targets. Anything I put up for sale has to be solid, eminently playable, intonated and ready to go off the rack. Frets are smooth, action is good and no buzzes/rattles. There’s a fair amount of time and care put into each instrument and, as such, they’re a little pricier than some. On the flip side, my CBGs are somewhat plain - nothing like some of the woodwork art I see from various builders on this site (and kudos to you - you’ve got mad skills). My CBGs are more of a modern tribute to an instrument from another time.

Amplification

With only one exception, all of my instruments had pickups, so plugging in was easy. I had done a hipster-ish craft fair the previous month and used my Roland Micro-Cube amp. It was just ok. So this time, I brought a larger amp, but as you can imagine, at a large guitar show, everyone is randomly playing something - sometimes really loud. Playing acoustically and truly getting a feel for it was out of the question, so I amped just about everything throughout the day. The amp in question was one of those Fender G-things. Louder, yes, but not a fan. Next time, I need something that’s easy to use, plenty loud and sounds good in both acoustic and electric modes. May have to build it myself…

Reaction

I brought an accomplished player and friend with me to the show. He owns one of my CBGs and can really make them sing. Whenever he would plug in and let it rip, he always drew a crowd. Lots of smiles and we always managed to get a few in people's hands to play with. While I can’t say it necessarily accounted for a sale, it did catch the attention of the crowd. I really should learn to play what I make, huh?

Education

Here’s a conversation I had many, many times through the day:

Me (to onlooker): Have you ever seen/played a cigar box guitar before?
Them: No, I haven’t (didn’t know they existed, etc)
Me: Well, today’s your lucky day! Which one catches you eye?
Them: Uhhh… that one’s pretty.
Me: (hands them a guitar)
Them: I wouldn’t even know where to start
Me: Do you play at all?
Them: Yes (or no. Usually, if it was a no, they were lying for some reason)

Then, I would quickly explain the open tuning, notes on the strings and barre chords. Handed them a pick and turned them loose. Every last one of them was making music in a matter of 30 seconds or so. The real players, even faster. Usually with a big, stupid grin on their face. It was fun to watch - and I watched it over and over again.

Other Vendors

There were a handful of other builders at the show, but also vendors who carried mainline gear + some CBG stuff. All of them came by to “check out the competition”. Some just wanted to see what I had and what it sold for. Others played a few and we talked shop. Everyone was friendly and it was fun to talk handmade instruments with people who truly knew what that meant.

Sales

I had only a few sales, but they more than covered my costs and left a reasonable amount in my bank account, so that was good. Specifically, one CB Uke, one CBG, one license plate guitar and one 2x4 lap steel. Pretty sure I could have sold a couple more of those, but that was the only one I had on hand.

Without exception, every one of my sales was to a man, accompanied by his wife. In every case, the wife said something like “why don’t you just get it”? Brings a smile to my face. The last sale of the day, while the dude was sitting and noodling away, his wife pulled me aside, asked if I took plastic and handed me her card. The transaction was done before he even knew he was the proud owner of a license plate guitar. Fun stuff.

I was just sure one of the big-time guitar vendor dudes was going to buy a CB uke. He came over to play it twice and he wanted it bad. But he was waffling between mine and a “real” uke in the same price range. I worked him hard, but ultimately he bought neither. Bummer.

In the End

It was a good show and a good experience. Made some sales, met lots of nice folks, passed out a bunch of business cards and my Facebook page likes/views are up considerably. Would totally do it again. But, building to sell is different than building for fun. Hoping some of you veterans have some tips and advice on how to refine the process, increase sales and spread the CBG joy. Plus, my wife would love to have fewer instruments in the house...

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Comment by Lonman on April 30, 2017 at 10:03am

thanks for sharing. Nice looking builds.

Comment by Ron "Oily" Sprague on April 25, 2017 at 3:46pm
Hal,

Learn to separate your accessories for sale. That bowl looks like a catchall for your keys, wallet, and dentures, not a sales display. Get s board and some dowel, and use it to mount your slides standing up. Heck, if you like demos, occasionally show how to make a bottleneck slide; have about a dozen wine and beer bottles on hand, a glasscutter, and some sandpaper. Make me right there in front of the drooling mob, then sell 'em for $2-3. Any higher, and most won't buy.
Comment by Hal Robertson on April 25, 2017 at 1:32pm

I did have a selection of picks and slides on hand for playing - just don't sell them (yet). Love the idea of punching picks out on site. And the lap steel build has me thinking too...

Comment by Hal Robertson on April 25, 2017 at 1:15pm

Well, there's a goldmine of info. And yes, I was having sign envy...Thanks Oily!

Comment by Ron "Oily" Sprague on April 25, 2017 at 12:23pm
Did you advertise that you take orders?

Move some of your stock towards the front corners of the booth. Yes, I get that you're welcoming people into the booth, but getting the merch closer to the floor gets it closer to passersby / tirekickers. Build a few cigar box amps, and have some accessories such as slides, picks (one of those PunchPicks can crank out 5 picks from an old credit card, right there in front of Mr. Buyer and his wife, and everyone has at least one expired card in their wallet), packs of strings, and DIY CBG cases. Do a demo of a CBG case using cardboard and duct tape. Have some recorded CBG music playing from a laptop, as well as videos of your build process. Get a MUCH bigger sign; you can have a 2'x3' banner made with your graphics at Kinko's / Fed Ex for about 12 bucks. Do a quick 2x4 lap steel build demo onsite, and have parts available for 2-3 more. Advertise a free CBG song circle / jam at certain hours during the show. Raffle off a canjo (make about 10 or 15 of them from beer cans, both national brands and local craft beers, and price them at $20-25. I know you'll have to compete with other players playing amplified nearby, so create a 2-person soundbooth from egg cartons and a simple wood or PVC frame, so that you can at least dampen the noise from nearby.

Dress for the sale: create some kinda folksy persona to go with your instruments, if you don't already have one, and get some patter to go with it. And finally, learn to play the damned things! You're not always going to be able to take an expert picker with you.

That's just a few things I could come up with...

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