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Fender goes beyond Hendrix and Clapton fans to reach a mobile-first audience

  • Fender Play is the company's latest digital effort to help beginning guitar owners become players for life.
  • The company says 50 percent of new guitar owners are women, and acoustic and ukelele sales are increasing.
  • The short online lessons are meant to help people get started faster.
Walter Iooss Jr/Contributor | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

About nine out of 10 first-time guitar buyers will give up on the instrument, according to Fender.

To convert new players into lifelong customers, the 71-year-old company is heading online and taking advantage of the 1.5 billion smartphones that were sold last year.

"It's inescapable," said Ethan Kaplan, general manager of Fender Digital in Los Angeles. "What is commanding attention is a tap and a click away. People don't sit through long stuff anymore."

On Thursday, the company launched Fender Play, an online lesson platform that costs $19.99 a month and is designed to get guitar newbies playing songs right away rather than having them labor through chord progressions. Lessons on the web and through the iPhone app average about eight minutes. It will be the first major revenue-generating initiative for Fender Digital, which launched in 2015.

Fender is already teaching guitar players through a product called Riffstation that lets people access chords to millions of songs. It's a crowded market, featuring companies like Yousician and Chordify, and there's a treasure trove of free tutorial videos on YouTube.

The company is focused on making learning as easy as possible with the goal of building a digital business and at the same time driving sales of physical instruments.

Despite a Washington Post report stating that electric guitar sales have dwindled over the past decade from 1.5 million a year to a little over 1 million, Fender CEO Andy Mooney said his company's electric guitar sales are flat to slightly up.

A woman uses the Fender Play program to learn how to play guitar.
Courtesy of Danny Zapalac/Fender
A woman uses the Fender Play program to learn how to play guitar.

"The first time I read electric guitar is dead, John Travolta was dancing in `Saturday Night Fever' and disco was projected to wipe out the electric guitar," Mooney said. More recently, he said, electronic dance music "was projected to do the same. Both projections were wrong."

Meanwhile, acoustic guitars have increased in sales over the last five years, and the ukulele is booming, Mooney said.

"Sales of fretted instruments are in great shape," he said. "It's a great time to be in the guitar business."

Fender is also addressing other changes in the market.

Half of first-time guitar buyers are women as artists like Taylor Swift have encouraged many females to pick up the instrument. Fender Play is including lessons to target them.

`Not about getting up on stage'

Another major shift Fender noticed was that the majority of songs people look for on Riffstation were originally played on instruments other than guitar. It's not like the old days when guitar buyers were out to mimic legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

"Only about 10 percent of people who pick up guitar want to play in a band," Mooney said. "They want to master the instrument and have fun with it on some level, but it's not about getting up on stage."

Fender Play is meant for beginning to intermediate guitar players, but most of the content currently is for those just getting started.

However, Mooney feels confident Fender can keep its diehard customers. The company says that 78 percent to 90 percent of musicians at the top four major U.S. festivals use Fender guitars and amps, and its main website is focused on the experienced guitar player.

Kaplan said the company is trying to make it easier for beginners to get started and then convert them into Fender customers for life.

"A lot of people just want to make a good song and play something acoustically and sing along to it and sing at a campfire," Kaplan said. "We don't prescribe one path"