Getting in tune with his inner rock star

Peter Frampton (above) told the music-industry publication Billboard that he became a believer in AxCent’s guitar-tuning gadget after using it. The British rocker and Cincinnati resident is helping the company and its Charleston-based CEO raise money to manufacture a $400 version of the device.

Mark J. Bitter, a guitar business executive, shares a common bond with the golf commentator who can’t break 100.

He can wax eloquently about his line of work, but, at the end of the day, he can’t make music from a six-string.

“I can play air guitar very proficiently,” he added.

Bitter is the Charleston-based CEO of AxCent Tuning Systems, a Colorado business seeking to raise $2 million through a Crowdfunder campaign with the help of British rocker Peter Frampton, among other music industry legends.

“He’s kind of like our headliner,” Bitter said of Frampton, the former Humble Pie guitarist who skyrocketed to worldwide fame as a solo artist in the late 1970s. “He’s done videos for us and posts about us on social media, helping us to explain to other guitarists what we’re doing.”

AxCent is seeking the cash infusion to make and promote a low-cost, mass-market version of its patented computer-controlled tuning system, which Frampton has used, along with the likes of Jimmy Page, Graham Nash and Pat Metheny, to name a few.

Known as the Performer, the small motorized device allows guitarists to retune or quickly change to an alternate tuning without switching instruments. AxCent is aiming for a $400 price point. It is already designed and is “ready to launch,” said Bitter.

As he sees it, it’s a huge open market.

“There are 120 million guitar players out there,” Bitter said. “There are a lot of them out there. And they are spread far and wide around the globe.”

The programmable gadget plays to at least two key audiences: original equipment manufacturers — Gibson and Fender are two of the biggest names in the game — and retailers that can hawk the devices to guitarists looking to upgrade their older “axes.”

“Ten percent market penetration would actually yield a nice company for us,” said Bitter, who also runs a commodities trading firm.

He initially learned about AxCent when he was approached about investing in it. He took on the CEO role about 18 months ago to help with the early stage fundraising and to prepare for the product rollout.

“It’s setting the table, managing relations,” he said.

This isn’t Bitter’s first gig — or his first South Carolina tie-in.

In a previous career, the 55-year-old ran Scalamandré, a maker of high-end upholstery, draperies and other fabrics that his immigrant grandfather started in 1929 in New York City. Over the years, its elaborate handiwork could be found in the White House, Mount Vernon and even on “Sesame Street — Scalamandré provided the fringe on Big Bird’s legs.

“It was a great run for us,” said Bitter, who was featured in a 2004 New York Times article after moving the company’s longtime mill operations in Queens to Gaffney in the South Carolina Upstate.

“It’s the only way we can preserve our textile legacy and also sell fabrics that are made in America by Americans,” Bitter was quoted as saying in that report.

But Scalamandré’s business frayed as the last recession took hold. The housing collapse that began in 2006 “made it an untenable situation,” Bitter said.

“The family ownership decided to sell it, and the old saying is, ‘If you don’t have a business in New York, you don’t have any business being in New York,’” he said.

Next stop for Bitter was Charleston, partly drawn by the chance to send his teenage daughters to Ashley Hall, the private school for girls on Rutledge Avenue. Also, wife Wiggie is an Anderson native who graduated from the College of Charleston.

“And it’s beautiful here,” he said. “What’s not to love?”

AxCent Tuning also could find a home in the Lowcountry. While the research and development will remain in Fort Collins, Bitter said a strong case can be made for manufacturing the devices in his own backyard. He said he’s already in talks with local groups about establishing an operations center in the area.

“The port is valuable as far as shipping containerized freight is concerned,” he said.

Bitter also cited the growth of the technology industry in Charleston.

“That just might make a lot of sense for us,” he said.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.