Not long after James "JC" Curleigh came onboard as Gibson's new president/CEO last November, he went to dinner with one of the guitar maker's most iconic ambassadors, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. During the meal, recalls Curleigh, Gibbons said, "'JC, you took a brave step taking on the Gibson challenge, and you've got to know that me and all of the artists are with you every step of the way.'"
Curleigh smiles. "I told him, 'Billy, I'm going to use that quote!' "
As a force in the guitar world for over a half-century with models like the Les Paul and the SG, seen in the hands of artists ranging from Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page to Eric Clapton and Slash, Gibson filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2018. Several factors led to the guitar giant's downfall, including product development missteps, such as affixing poorly-received innovations like the G Force automatic tuning system to classic guitar designs. But the main culprit was former CEO Henry Juszkiewicz's efforts to rebrand Gibson as a "music lifestyle" brand, which involved borrowing $300 million to acquire consumer electronics company Royal Philips in 2014 — a move that ultimately failed. "We took on way too much outside our core," Curleigh says.
Now Curleigh, 52, has to right the ship, as he did in a six-year stint as president of global brands at Levi Strauss. In some ways, the challenges he faces at Gibson are similar to those he faced, and navigated successfully, at Levi's: "How do you celebrate your legacy heritage and product while also moving things forward in a modern way?"
The solution the company hopes to reach begins with a new executive team and investors, as well as a revamped and refocused 2019 line of instruments that balances the iconic (Les Pauls and SGs built to 1950s and '60s specs) and the innovative (a "Contemporary" series boasting modern appointments). It will then extend to a renewed relationship with dealers, artists and players at every level. "We're a 125-year-old company that's taking the approach of being a 125-year-old startup," says Curleigh, a Gibson player himself for much of his life. "We've cleared the decks and we've emerged ready for the future."
Part of that means finding ways for young music fans to connect, or reconnect, with the guitar. Sales have plummeted over the past decade as tastes turned toward hip-hop and EDM. So Curleigh wants "to energize the future of guitar" with the new 'Generation' series of affordable acoustics. "We asked, 'How can we tap into that next generation who covet a Gibson?' " he says. "By making it more accessible but still offering a premium product."
There's also a renewed focus on musicians — like Gibbons — who Curleigh plans to treat "more like partners." "I think in the recent past there was frustration from people who love Gibson but didn't really like the relationships and the dynamics of doing business with Gibson," Curleigh continues. "But now we're welcoming artists and players at all levels back into our world and partnering with them for the future."
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9 issue of Billboard.