The Sunday Papers

The Life and Times of NAMM

By Andy Perrin | January 26, 2018

Riff City Sunday Papers Vol.1 No.25

As I write this, NAMM is nigh and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t waste (invest?) a significant number of employable hours trolling social media to catch the early leaks and announcements of new gear for this year. Already in the week leading up to the big show there’s been some epic news, from Fender’s redesigned line-up of favorite tube amps and American axes alike, to brilliant new amps from Boss, Fender, Orange, and PRS, to new pedals from Walrus, EarthQuaker Devices, and Electro-Harmonix. At this pace, my head will have exploded by the end of the weekend.  

Throughout the show’s history, there have been loads of iconic and infamous gear launches. Take, for example Ibanez big reveal of the Steve Vai JAM, the first mass-marketed seven-string guitar in NAMM 1987. Wind the clock back thirty years prior and you’ll find Gibson’s release of the Explorer, Flying V, and Moderne at NAMM 1957.

For all the gear history that is made at the historic event, it’s easy to miss that the NAMM show itself has a history through eras of culture, music, and technology. While the full story is long and diverse, here’s a few major moments and turning points in the gear show we all know and love.  

It all started in 1901, when the National Association of Music Merchants, or NAMM, for short was founded. A year later, the first NAMM show took place at a YMCA in Baltimore. In its early decades, NAMM had an understandable focus on pianos, their care, sales, and loads of sheet music. In 1915, NAMM got creative and comedic by booking Charlie Chaplin for a gig dramatically depicting a skit of best-practices for piano salesmen. As the world’s focus went from leisure to wartime, NAMM continued to manage to deliver the annual show through the years of World War I.

By the late 1920s, NAMM embraced a musical world beyond the piano and opened up an aspect of the show for other merchandise related to creating and enjoying music, not least the blooming industry of radio makers. However, by the early and mid-1930s, NAMM’s annual offerings became intermittent due to the challenges of the Great Depression.

The decade that followed saw steady recovery and growth, both in membership and interests represented at NAMM, such as a focus on music education. Yet, as was the case just a few years before, the show halted due to both domestic travel bans on unnecessary travel and the challenges overseas with World War II.

The 1950s saw a number of changes and developments, from NAMM’s 50th anniversary (1951), to the launch of the NAMM Milestone Award (1953), to the Miss Music Contest (1957), and eventually the last show held in New York (1959).

The decades ahead saw significant growth due to new ventures and technology. By 1966, news of NAMM was piping through American television sets, and by 1967, NAMM membership broke 1,000.

The NAMM show arguably came into its own in the 1970s. With an increasing membership and visibility, venues needed to get larger and larger to accommodate the gear and crowds. In 1980, NAMM descended on Anaheim for the first time, a location that would increasingly become the home of the show from 2000 to the present day.

Following the century celebration of NAMM in 2001, the new millennium has been good for the show and association. With highlights including a record setting membership of 10,000 (2015) and the recent milestone of 100,000 attendance at the show (2016), the future is bright for America’s most forward looking and old school group of gear heads.

While many of us only have the chance to watch NAMM from afar, you can keep an eye out for the latest gear on Riff City’s social media and email lists. So have a great #RiffCitySunday and check back often for news and updates!