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THE Source for the Vintage Instrument World

Newsletter #32, February 2009

(Please browse our newsletter archives)

How a Zoologist Became a Guitar Animal

Louis Caroloza interviews George Gruhn for Vintage Guitar magazine (March 2009). Reprinted by permission.

If you bumped into a bearded, corduroy-jacketed George Gruhn in a Nashville coffee shop, you might think you’d stumbled upon an avuncular college professor - which is fitting, considering that many regard Gruhn as the world’s foremost expert on vintage acoustic and electric stringed instruments. Gruhn has penned some of the most highly regarded books on the subject, including the venerable Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars. His co-author, Walter Carter, is an expert in his own right, a former pro journalist turned team member working out of the Gruhn shop at 400 Broadway in Nashville’s downtown. A respected appraiser and restoration authority, Gruhn also counts among his close associates Andre Duchossoir (a wizard of guitar identification and Fender history) and consults for organizations that include the Museum of Making Music.

But there is a lesser-known way that Gruhn fits the bill of an apparent academic. For all his renown amongst the guitar-loving intelligentsia, Gruhn has a second side to his life that few but his closest friends know about. And it involves snakes. Dozens of poisonous cottonmouth snakes, for starters.

Prior to setting up shop in 1970, it appeared Gruhn was destined for a career in zoology and animal behavior, working toward a doctorate that seemed all but certain until Hank Williams, Jr. came calling, having heard about the wunderkind who had a collection of Martins in his college apartment to outdo any shop in Nashville.

Gruhn never got the sheepskin, but to hear him tell it, the lessons of genus and species served him well as he moved into the realm of guitars and serial numbers. In a VG exclusive, Gruhn reveals how he became a guitar entrepreneur and expert, talks about the most exciting instruments he’s come across in his 60-plus years - and speculates on possible collector’s items of the future.

LC: Let’s go back to the start, when you collected animals instead of rare Martins and Gibsons. You grew up in Pittsburgh and the Post-Gazette actually sent a reporter out to interview you.

GG: It was about 1957; that would put me at right about 12 years old. I had two pet possums, dozens of snakes, turtles, frogs, lots of fish. I had enough animals that it certainly filled the basement.

What did your parents think?

As long as it was educational, it was fine. My father was a pathologist and from a very early age, he really did help foster my interest in zoology. Basically, my mom was afraid of dogs - they would jump on you.

So dogs were out, but snakes were fine?

Absolutely. Dogs don’t live in cages. Snakes do.

How did all this start?

I started collecting insects when I was about four. And I pretty quickly got interested in frogs and turtles. I caught my first snake when I was eight, and immediately became hooked. By the time I was 12, I was subscribing to Copeia, the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. I was probably one of the few who did not have a graduate degree who was trying to read that, and it worked out well. Zoology came at a very early age and was, on one level, an obsession, but on another level was really about in-depth knowledge.

You studied zoology and animal behavior at the University of Chicago, which led to a further fascination with snakes.

We moved to Chicago when I started high school and my interest in zoology continued. I started at University of Chicago with a pre-med major and discovered quickly that I was more interested in zoology and animal behavior. I switched my major to psychology of animal behavior; there is a field of psychology called ethology, which was very big at the U of C. Eckhard Hess was the department chairman and there was an assistant professor named Erich Klinghammer - both of whom were German and studied at the Max Planck Institute with Konrad Lorenz, who developed the theory of imprinting.

I took a graduate-level course though I was still an undergraduate, and one of the research projects I wanted to do involved feeding behaviors of cottonmouth snakes. I had maybe 25 or 30 in cages; I went to Carbondale, in southern Illinois, and caught a bunch of cottonmouths. I had approval to do the project, then Hess changed his mind and said I couldn’t bring all these poisonous snakes into the psychology building. So I was stuck with having to take them to my apartment. I had a roommate, so I shared my bedroom with the snakes.

And he never said anything?

Well, he had his bedroom and I had mine. I’m not sure if he really knew quite just how poisonous those things were. He knew they were poisonous snakes, but then he saw me handle them. They were all tame. Give me five minutes with a cottonmouth and I could have it crawling up my arm... They’re almost snuggly.

Then came graduate school, when your affection for guitars started to rival that for animals.

I was already quite interested in the guitars at the University of Chicago by my freshman year. I did graduate work for a year at Duke and I really didn’t hit it off that well with the chairman of the department, so I switched to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study with a professor who I’d known when he was a graduate student and I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

And then you just stopped school. Why didn’t you finish the doctorate?

Well, I was in some way getting disenchanted with the academic scene. If you are a clinical psychologist, every town has them. And there are private patients who will pay. But if you are an ethologist, there are no private clients. It is strictly academic. And my personality is well-suited for being chairman of the department, but not for being an underling. I don’t take orders very well, and I liked doing things my own way even to the point of doing my own research projects. I realize now that that’s what I wound up with. I can be the chairman of my own department, however big or small it may be. When I started my first guitar shop, it was a small department. The building measured 20 by 60 feet – and still, I was the boss.

When did you come to Nashville?

The beginning of 1969. I was at University of Tennessee Knoxville for one semester. I hadn’t planned on quitting, but I got a call one day from Hank Williams, Jr. I’d never met him, but he said Sonny Osborne from the Osborne Brothers’ bluegrass group had told him about me and that I had lots of old Martins and he was looking for them. He was starting to collect guitars. He asked what I had; I told him the things I had in stock and would be willing to sell. He said, "Well, I can be there in four hours."

Today, it’s about a three-hour drive from Nashville to Knoxville. But in ’69, the Interstate didn’t go from Nashville to Knoxville. Mostly it was two-lane mountain roads - but Hank did show up in four hours. He was driving this Jaguar E; getting any place in a Jaguar E, well I’d consider that an accomplishment if it doesn’t break down. He had brought one guitar with him that he wanted to trade off, a 1939 Martin 000-42. And he bought as much as his car could hold - which wasn’t much. I think he got three guitars and said he could come back the next day. And the next day, he was back, but driving a Cadillac Eldorado. He bought as much as that car could hold. I had plenty more guitars; I wasn’t selling my best.

Then he said Nashville didn’t have anyone like me and that they needed me there. If I wanted to move to Nashville, he promised to have an apartment waiting for me. He said he would help me set up a business. He would help find a place and finance my getting started. And I was sufficiently disenchanted with the academic scene at that point. So I dropped out of school and came to Nashville.

And did Hank have the apartment waiting?

It wasn’t anything luxurious, but it was an apartment. He didn’t end up helping set up the music store. First he said that I probably needed some time just to get to know the town a bit and figure out where we wanted it. But the first year, he still supported me to a large extent by buying a good number of instruments. He wasn’t my only customer, but I was wheeling and dealing instruments out of the apartment. No store, but it was the first time ever in my life that I was actually supporting myself rather than my parents supporting me. In graduate school, I didn’t really have to sell instruments for a living; my main goal was selling the byproducts so I could afford the ones I wanted to keep.

Did any snakes come along for the big move?

I had a few... maybe a dozen.

What’s the head count of animals in your office?

Right now there are three Indonesian blue-tongued skink lizards, one African gray parrot, and 11 snakes - none poisonous. These days, the legal limit to what you can put in the office and insurance regulations both would prohibit anything poisonous. But back in my early days, there were virtually no regulations.

And at home you have eight cats?

That includes two African serval cats, which are approximately quadruple the size of a domestic cat and similar in appearance to a small cheetah. We have three domestic cats and three that are hybrids; three-quarter Felis chaus, a Middle Eastern wild cat, and one-quarter domestic. Sometimes the common name is the jungle cat or reed cat. Male hybrids are as sterile as a mule, but the females are fertile – which is how I can have a three-quarter hybrid.

Your family watched you follow this academic path, and then suddenly, "Well, Dad... I’m selling guitars." What did he think of that?

My parents were not happy. They tried to be supportive, but they felt it was something without a good future, and a waste of my education. It wasn’t respectable. When I started collecting guitars in 1963, it was a simply a hobby. It didn’t occur to me back then that this could ever really support me. Back then, prices were so much lower than today. For example, when I was a student at University of Chicago, a 1959 Les Paul Gibson was a $100 used guitar. A good herringbone D-28 Martin was a $350 guitar – maybe $400 for a real good one.

The going market rate for a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin was about $1,500 – a record price that had just been achieved. I sold two of them recently; one was $205,000, the other $195,000. This past year I sold a sunburst Les Paul for more money than I had paid for my house.

How has your knowledge of zoology informed your knowledge of guitars? It would seem multiple connections exist.

They are very much connected, at least in my approach; I view instruments pretty much the same as zoological specimens. I can study their anatomy just as one would a reptile. And I can organize their basic classifications and taxonomy the way a zoologist or a botanist would different life forms.

So if you had three Martins - same make and model, side by side - they would have distinct personalities?

They do. And if you look at, let’s say, a 1934 Martin D-28, it’s quite a different beast from a ’36 or a ’39. If you compare an early-’39 to a late-’39, they had changed the neck dimensions and bracing patterns, and they are fundamentally different beasts with different personalities. The books I’ve written are very much like zoological field guides; they just happen to have instruments instead of animals. They are organized in the same way; I approach it in the same way. Guitars might not be alive in the same way as birds or mammals - although they almost act and feel as if they are alive. And guitars really do respond in a way that is fundamentally different than most inanimate objects. Because most objects you don’t really interact with you the way a musical instrument does.

Did your knowledge of human and animal behavior from academia give you any sort of edge in building your business?

I did major in psychology and studied some human, as well as animal, behavior. And for that matter, after 38 years in business you don’t necessarily have to have studied psychology to be an observer of human behavior. You’re dealing with customers every day, after awhile you do learn what people like, how they respond, what may drive them... the fact is collecting is a matter of passion and a matter of neurosis, too.

Passion? Neurosis? Do tell.

The whole concept of music, instruments, collecting... It’s not about life’s necessities. It’s about passion. It’s quite different if you own a grocery store or a clothing store in a working-class neighborhood. But if you are an art dealer and dealing things like genuine Picassos and Van Goghs, you certainly learn that the people who buy these things can be quirky. And you have to understand how to work with or around their egos. But what really makes the instruments so special is that you can appreciate them in the same sense you do a piece of art.

Though paintings are passive, whereas instruments respond to human touch.

And it responds differently to each person who plays it. No two people have the same touch, so even if they played the same tune on the same guitar, you can typically tell who’s playing it. Some people make a particular guitar sound better than others, and two people who are equally good musicians may need different guitars. And the really good guitars are not just passively doing what they’re commanded to do. They have soul and personality. It’s the boring ones - whether they’re guitars or mandolins or banjos - that are quite passive and simply do what they’re told. They may be useful as a utility tool, but they don’t actually inspire you to create anything new.

Tom Petty said, "This guitar has a song in it today." It’s the concept that if he would’ve picked up another guitar...

...the song wouldn’t have been there. And if you listen for example to Bill Monroe recordings when he had his Gibson F-7 mandolin, he’s playing with his brother, Charlie, in the Monroe Brothers, and had a certain sound. But in 1942 he got his F-5 and his sound changed almost overnight. It wouldn’t have changed had it not been for that F-5, because it suggested new things. You can do things on an F-5 that you couldn’t do on any other mandolin at that time. You can drive a five-piece band with chopped rhythm chords on a ’20s F-5. There’s no other vintage mandolin that would do it.

Nobody had been playing chopped chords on mandolin, not even on F-5s, prior to Monroe, because bluegrass didn’t exist. Bill invented a musical form, and that mandolin had capabilities to do things nobody had ever tried before. The F-5 suggested it to him.

Norman Blake is probably my favorite guitar player of all time. He has about 50 guitars and he’ll play one until it doesn’t have any tunes in it. If he comes back to it after a year or two, it has "regenerated" new tunes. That’s a matter of psychology, but the fact is people need something new, and really good instruments have soul and personality.

As you started your career selling Martins, which are your favorites?

I really like Martin 000 and D models of the mid ’30s, and if I had to pick a favorite period, the ’30s from late 1934 onward; before ’34 they had bar frets and an ebony reinforcement rod in the neck rather than a steel T-bar. The T-bar not only makes the neck more rigid, it makes it more massive and conducts sound differently. Their bracing was also really beefed up enough for steel strings where they’re responsive but also strong. It’s like Stradivarius and Guarneri violins, which are actually a little heavier than their predecessors. They’re not simply featherweight, because building light is not necessarily better. If you build it too light, it might not project as well.

Favorite electrics?

For solidbodies, the 1952 or ’53 Fender Telecaster. They have a tonality that’s almost like an acoustic guitar but with unbelievable quality. It’s very versatile. I’ve always preferred Telecasters over Stratocasters, and 1952 is when they really perfected everything. That for me was the perfect year. And the ’59 sunburst Les Paul Standard is still hard to beat. In the same year, Gibson Explorers aren’t as fancy-looking, but they sound wonderful.

For a good hollowbody or semi-hollow guitar, I’d pick the ’59 Gibson ES-335. For a full-depth hollowbody, a good Gibson L-5 from about ’57 with the earliest of the humbucking pickups would be hard to beat. Rickenbackers are fine for effects, but you certainly wouldn’t do well playing blues on it.

For a Strat, I’d probably hand it to a 1956. A ’54 would be more money; it’s the first year, but they had bakelite parts that were very fragile. They didn’t perform quite as well as the slightly later ones. It’s almost like buying a car from a first-year issue. They may be collectible, but they’re not debugged.

What could be a collectible guitar of tomorrow?

It’s very hard to predict. There is not, in my opinion, a bunch of undiscovered vintage instruments that are going to be super-collectible. Are there any vintage solidbodies better or as good as a ’52 Tele or a ’59 sunburst Les Paul Standard? No, there aren’t. You can get a ’59 Melody Maker and it will go up. But so far as new guitars destined to be collectible in the way these old Martins or pre-World War II Gibson flat-tops? Or Les Paul models of the ’50s or Fender guitars pre-CBS? In my opinion, the answer is no.

There’s a limited time - a golden era - for these things; for acoustic flat-tops it was the ’30s. For the electric solidbodies or electric guitars in general, the absolute best ones in the history of the instrument are from the ’50s.

Whereas the 1970s marked a low point for guitar making. Why is that?

The ’70s were the absolute worst time in the history of American guitar making. It had become maybe too easy. As a result, big holding companies decided they should buy guitar companies. CBS bought Fender and put in bean counters who didn’t know a guitar from a boat paddle. That killed it. Gibson was owned by Norlin, which had a cement factory in Ecuador and stuff like that. Gibson sold out to them in early 1970, and it just killed product quality. And Guild was acquired by Avnet, an electronics firm, in ’67. So in a short period of time, all the independents became owned by big holding companies with the exception of Martin, which stayed in the family. But the other ones went down the tubes in quality.

Look at a lot of other products - cars, houses, furniture, and other stuff at that time - and everything made by big, conglomerate-owned companies was garbage. The quality of workmanship suffered tremendously.

You can buy a brand-new Fender that plays and sounds better than any made in the ’70s. New Gibsons or Martins or Fenders are all better than what they made in the ’70s. Age alone does not make something good. When I opened up my store in January, 1970, a sunburst Les Paul was a 10-year-old guitar – like a ’98 guitar today. We don’t think of a ’98 guitar as vintage or old, but in 1970 we knew that a 1960 sunburst Les Paul was fundamentally different than anything you could buy in 1970, and a whole lot better. Even a 30-year-old guitar today will go back to ’78. Well, I don’t think of ’78 as being old or collectible. But in 1970, a 30-year-old guitar was pre-World War II, and it was special.

It sounds like there’s a crucial discrepancy between "age" and "vint-age."

Guitars are not good because they’re old. They’re good because they were made right on day one. There were certain periods where these companies hit their stride. It just happens that Martin and Gibson both had their golden era for acoustics in the ’30s, though for the mandolin, Gibson really had its golden era during a brief period of 1922 to ’24. For Gibson banjos it was from about ’33 to ’40. Very brief time periods. Gibson didn’t even do a solidbody until ’52, with the introduction of the Les Paul. And really, after ’65, they didn’t make anything remotely as good, so ’52 to ’65 is the great golden era for Gibson electrics. The ones after ’60 bring in a lot less money. That’s 13 years. My shop has been open for more than 38 years. I’ve had a longer golden era running my store than we had a golden era of instruments.

With all your success, do you think of selling Gruhn Guitars and moving on - maybe back to zoology?

Zoology certainly was and still is a passion. But I feel at this point I’m more likely to pursue musical instruments. It hasn’t always been uniformly, wonderfully successful every moment. And it can still be very frustrating. I survived a number of recessions, the worst of which was the early ’80s, when prime-rate interest was well over 20 percent and nobody could afford to borrow money to run a business or buy a guitar. The dollar went sky high and also at that point the babyboomers had dropped out of the market and hadn’t yet experienced their midlife crises. Music trends were terrible, social trends were terrible; you couldn’t export, you couldn’t import. Nothing worked. Those were times that were very frustrating. But my business has been particularly successful from 2001 to the present because I asserted more control.

I still feel I’m making up for lost time. I’m still designing new things; some of the prototype guitars I’ve designed, even back in the late ’80s, I’m refining now and putting into production.

I’m almost 63, and my uncle Otto lived to be 105. He didn’t retire. His sister, Emma, only lasted to 102, and she didn’t retire, either. She was still reading The Wall Street Journal every day when she was 100. We could give her any four-digit number and ask her the square root and in her head could calculate within two decimal places in about two seconds. So I don’t need to retire yet.

Louis Carlozo: A staff writer for The Chicago Tribune and lead music critic for Christian Century, Louis R. Carlozo is also a songwriter, studio musician and proud owner of three Rickenbacker 12-string guitars. Visit myspace.com/loucarlozo or email him at feedbacker@aol.com.