Paul Wilson: Hamilton's secret guitar maker to the world
In the States, they call him Mr. Wonderful. But here he’s just Kevin O’Leary, the brash super capitalist on Dragons’ Den, where earnest Canadians try to convince a panel of hard-boiled tycoons to invest in their business ideas.
O’Leary does the same kind of show in the States, called Shark Tank. It’s a hit on ABC, so they know him down there. And last month, he was on the red carpet at the American Music Awards, playing a new Fender Voyage-Air, a guitar that folds up.
It’s made in China and O’Leary’s got a piece of the action. He apparently knows his guitars.
And he likes the ones made in China. A few years ago on Dragons’ Den, they blindfolded him and he played a $5,000 guitar and a $900 made-in-China guitar that a couple of Montreal entrepreneurs wanted to sell over the Internet.
Blindfold off, O’Leary discovered he’d chosen the cheap guitar and became an investor in the young company.
So is this the end? Will all guitars, like everything else, be made in China?
The answer is no. And for the proof, we need go no further than an unremarkable building in Hamilton’s factory zone. It’s on a scruffy little street you’ve never heard of, McKinstry.
Aerosmith likes F Bass
Chances are you’ve never heard of the business either. “It’s a secret,” says George Furlanetto, founder of F Bass Inc.
Hamilton used to make many consumer goods. Tires, tractors, laundry detergent, vacuum cleaners, Lifesavers, fridges, Studebakers. All long gone.
But for 35 years, Furlanetto has been making guitars for a select slice of consumers around the world. His guitars start at nearly $4,000 and can climb to several times that.
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith likes his F Bass so much that at the band’s last appearance in Toronto, he nudged aside lead singer Steven Tyler, held his instrument high and declared, “Best bass guitars in the world and they’re made right here.”
Well, right here, being an hour down the QE. His heart was in the right place.
Furlanetto, 62, was born in Italy and landed in Hamilton at age eight. Father was good with his hands, mother was a great singer.
Never a lesson
The boy never took a lesson in his life, but he could play and loved souping up his cheap Kent guitar. Soon he was fixing friends’ guitars. He worked at the long-gone Waddington’s music store on John North from 1969 until 1976, when he got into business for himself.
First location, a former pickle factory on Mary, then a stable on King William. And since 1986, they’ve been in an old cleaning supplies plant off Burlington.
A few years ago, the economy everywhere in the tank, Furlanetto just about had to pack it in. “These are luxury items,” he says, and sales dropped by half. “But we squeezed by, and now we’re booming again.”
The Web is a bonus, but only 10 per cent of the F Bass business is direct. The rest is through dealers – New York to LA, London, Paris, Tokyo, Colombia, Turkey.
Half the sales are in North America. A quarter come from Japan. The rest are mostly European.
There are nine on staff. “I’m happy to have a business that can support some families,” Furlanetto says. “I’m a socialist.”
The name goes on
Son Marcel has now joined him, chief financial officer and new-media guy. “The name can go on,” his father says. “The music can go on.”
Furlanetto makes sure there’s always time to gig with his long-time pals at weddings and dances, in a band called Daybreak. “It’s still a blast,” he says, “The adrenaline always goes up.”
Canadian musicians who choose F Bass for the stage include jazz virtuoso Alain Caron and Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene, Feist, Do Make Say Think.
F Bass Inc. produces about 200 guitars a year. It always starts with the wood, sometimes searching through hundreds of boards, usually maple or ash. They’re looking for the right colour, grain, weight.
“There is a scarcity of wood now,” Furlanetto says. “The Chinese are buying everything.”
As for Chinese guitars, he says, “they’re getting much, much better.” But he believes F Bass has carved out a niche that’s going to hold.
And as for Kevin O’Leary, Furlanetto knows all about him. “He should come through here. I think he’d be impressed.”
To read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson, click here.