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Newsletter #28, September 2006

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Collectors vs. musicians

Periodically, and usually in periods when prices on vintage fretted instruments are rising rapidly, we hear more and more complaints that rich collectors are pushing prices so high that the finest guitars, mandolins and banjos are being taken out of the hands of musicians. Not only is it claimed that musicians are being deprived of the opportunity - or, as some would go so far as to say, their right - to play these instruments, but the public is also being deprived of the experience of hearing the best instruments played by the best musicians.

This is hardly a new complaint. It's been circulating for almost 200 years, ever since the emergence of violin collectors in the early 1800s. And the argument was as groundless then as it is now.

The basic premise is that collectors are greedy hoarders who take instruments out of circulation and in effect deprive needy and deserving musicians of fine original vintage instruments. Let's address the last part of this premise first. Are musicians really deserving of these instruments? Well, yes and no. We would all prefer to hear the finest musicians playing on the finest instruments, of course. Would we want to hear Sam Bush, for example, play Bill Monroe's 1923 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F-5, which is now owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum? Absolutely. It's no different than when the owners of Stradivarius violins loan them out to the top violinists. Few could argue that by virtue of his talent, Bush deserves a turn on Bill's F-5.

But would it be okay if a legendary mandolin player took a Loar F-5 and sawed off the fingerboard extension, threw away the pickguard, installed a pickup with a jack mounted through the rim, and played it hard, night after night, until the frets, fingerboard and finish were completely worn out? Of course not. That would be an outrage. Fortunately, we don't know of anyone who's done all of that to a Loar F-5, but we do know of a mandolin player who dug out the Gibson logo, scraped off the finish and broke the headstock scroll off of his Loar F-5. It was Bill Monroe. And you don't have to go very far in the bluegrass mandolin world to find another seemingly egregious example of "customizing" by legendary musicians. This time it was a 1937 F-5 and it had the braces shaved, the finish removed and the top sanded down. The "offending" parties were Norman Blake and John Hartford, and the mandolin became the famous "Hoss" owned by Sam Bush.

We really shouldn't vilify musicians for that sort of treatment. After all, they're just being pragmatic. As professional musicians they have to make a living with their instruments and the instruments must be up to the task at hand. Nevertheless, that is what musicians do to instruments. They customize them in ways that destroy originality. We see proof of this every day. On the day that we started composing this newsletter, for example, we took in a wonderful-sounding National Triolian with the paint completely scraped off the top and sides, and a 1920s Stella 12-string with miserably repaired side cracks. Both had been abused - by a musician in the case of the National and by an inept repairman in the case of the Stella - to the point where repair and restoration would cost more than the instrument was worth.

Like the basic complaint, abused instruments go back at least far as the violins of the early 1800s. Musicians were not only playing them and inflicting normal wear and tear, they were customizing them, thinning down the tops, doing radical re-graduations and replacing the necks. The result is appalling: There are no fully original Stradivarius violins left anywhere in the world. Every one of them has had some kind of modification or repair. All but six have a non-original neck. Guitar collectors complain about a broken solder joint or a replaced tuner. Think what it would be like if all but six of the sunburst Les Pauls and pre-CBS Stratocasters had a replaced neck.

Who replaced those necks and made all those other modifications to the Strads? It wasn't the collectors. It was musicians and their repairmen - the same sort of people who have gouged out pickup cavities, shaved the necks, refinished with canned spray paint, and performed countless other atrocities on Les Pauls and Strats and other vintage treasures. Sooner or later, as musical tastes and musical styles change, it would happen to virtually every instrument if left in the possession of musicians.

Again, musicians should not necessarily be vilified for this, because few would knowingly damage a valuable instrument. More often, they merely "upgraded" a utility instrument. When Bill Monroe did what he did to his F-5 in the early 1950s, it wasn't worth $175,000 or more, which is what a pristine Loar-signed F-5 would bring today without the Monroe association. Monroe had just gotten his F-5 back from the Gibson factory, where he'd sent it for neck work. Whatever Gibson did or didn't do it, when Monroe got it back he was so angry that he removed the offending finish as well as the logo and the headstock scroll. At that point his mandolin may have been worth even less to him than the $150 he paid a Florida barbershop for it in the mid 1940s. Similarly, the violinists at the beginning of the 1800s had no idea that their Strads would skyrocket in value by the 1820s and would eventually be worth millions. When Loar F-5s, prewar D-45s, sunburst Les Pauls and pre-CBS Strats were new, no one could have known that their value might appreciate a hundred-fold or even a thousand-fold in four or five decades.

Ironically the same people we're accusing of damaging vintage instruments were also the first to recognize the value of these instruments. It was musicians in the early 1800s who discovered that the new factory-made violins were inferior to the older Italian instruments, and it was musicians in the mid 1960s who discovered that new Martins, Gibsons and Fenders didn't measure up to some of the older versions. Although Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe acquired their main instruments in the 1940s, they can still be ranked with Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stephen Stills and other legends of the 1960s whose preference for older instruments caused other musicians as well as fans to gain an appreciation for these instruments and a desire to own them. In current times, there has been much talk in financial forums about building "portfolios" of instruments in the same cold, calculated way that investors play the stock market, but virtually every collector whom we know began buying instruments not as investments, but out of an emotional interest in the music, the musicians and the instruments themselves.

It's a short step from owning a special item to wanting to protect it, and that's where the accusation begins that collectors take instruments out of circulation. It's true, but only to a point. Owners of valuable violins routinely loan them to musicians so that they can be appreciated by the masses. The nature of rock and roll performance makes this a more dangerous proposition for a Les Paul or Stratocaster than for a Strad in a symphony setting, but owners of great instruments generally like to hear them played. The late Scott Chinery, who acquired a fabulous collection of guitars in the 1990s, once hosted a party to celebrate his Blue Collection of commissioned archtops, and he opened up his display cases to provide such notable guitarists as Tal Farlow, Arlen Roth, Jimmy Vivino and G.E. Smith with instruments for a jam session. While Chinery may have taken these instruments out of general circulation and into protective custody, he by no means retired them.

Continuing with Chinery as an example, his death released many of these instruments back into circulation. The other high-profile collection of the 1990s, that of Japanese businessman Akira Tsumura, unexpectedly returned into circulation when Tsumura ran into legal troubles. Fretted instruments, when properly cared for, can have a life expectancy of hundreds of years, so unless an instrument ends up in a museum (where it still may be played on occasion), its "captivity" in a collection is only temporary. And it can enjoy better treatment in a collection, especially when it comes to repair and restoration, than it would in the hands of a working musician.

Contrary to the basic argument, collectors ultimately cause more instruments to be put into circulation than they take out. In the case of violins, dealers and collectors scoured Europe for old Italian instruments, and they discovered them sitting unused, collecting dust in monasteries, in private homes, in the estates of the original makers, etc. The same is true of the collectors who started in the 1960s looking for fretted instruments. For every one they took out of circulation, they uncovered dozens that they put back into circulation. In my own personal case, for every one instrument that I wanted to keep, I would turn up a hundred pieces that were of no personal interest to me but were cheap enough that I could resell them, which put them back into circulation (and, of course, provided funding for me to search further for the instruments I collected). Often enough these were discovered in poor homes where they were not cared for, in closets and in attics that were unheated and uncooled. If they had not been found by people like me they might have been thrown in the trash in some cases, or modified, refinished or in some other way "repaired." Or worse. One collector I know went to visit the owner of an original five-string flathead Mastertone and found the owner's kids using the resonator as a sled in the snow. I feel safe in saying that no collector has ever treated an instrument that way.

Collectors also make a great contribution in the area of education. Their passion for instruments has driven much of the research and the books and articles that have been published on vintage instruments. Many of those who criticize collectors might not have ever heard of their coveted instruments in the first place had it not been for collectors' educational contributions.

The biggest complaint about collectors is that they drive prices up. That's true, but that's the nature of any open market where demand exceeds supply. Collectors can't do anything about it, nor can dealers. Even if the buyers were all musicians, with no collectors allowed, as long as the demand for a certain instrument is greater than the supply, musicians would drive prices higher. Then the complaint would be that rich musicians were taking instruments out of the hands of equally deserving but less affluent musicians. The upside of rising prices is that they protect the instruments. As we've already discussed, instruments with no value get no respect. Most of these collectible instruments come back into the market eventually, and when they do, they have been well cared for, and their increased values will ensure that owners will continue to take good care of them.

As a final note, let's imagine what would happen if disgruntled musicians got what they wished for, and all the instruments in collections were released to musicians. Then you would really have some angry musicians, because there just aren't enough instruments to go around. There were only 91 prewar Martin D-45s to start with, and many of those have been butchered. There were less than 2100 herringbone D-28s. Maybe 250 Loar-signed Gibson F-5 mandolins. Only a handful of original Gibson five-string flathead Mastertones. An estimated 1700 sunburst Les Pauls. If these instruments were handed out to musicians to use as utility tools, they would either be further damaged, to the point that soon there would be no original examples in existence, or else musicians would take better care of them and put them in protective custody, and then they would become their worst nightmare - collectors.

George Gruhn and Walter Carter