Newsletter #6, May, 2003
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I have long been of the opinion a fine fretted instrument is one of the ultimate pieces of art. Unlike a painting which is designed only to be seen or a piece of sculpture which can be seen and touched but not really appreciated with any other sense, a musical instrument can be seen, touched, and heard. It is an entirely different experience to listen to another person play an instrument versus playing it yourself. Just as a fine automobile seems to "come alive" when one drives it such that sitting behind the wheel is an entirely different experience from being driven around the block while sitting in the passenger seat, playing an instrument is a totally different experience from listening to another person play it. Great instruments have soul and personality such that the instrument and the player become partners. Even an amateur musician who is well aware that he can not produce the same effects as a virtuoso finds that playing is still a pleasurable experience which can not be replaced by listening to virtuoso performers. Just as the majority of high performance automobiles are sold to the general public who will never race them or truly put them through all of their paces, most musical instruments are sold to amateur players who may derive great pleasure from them but will probably never become world class performers.
While a painting need only look good and is not subject to any great structural stress and a piece of artistic sculpture may look and feel good and have greater structural stress than a painting, neither is as great a challenge to design as a fine fretted instrument. A guitar, banjo, or mandolin in order to be successful must look good, sound good, be physically comfortable to play, and be structurally capable of withstanding the very significant stress of string tension for a period of many years. In addition, an instrument must be versatile enough so that it can be adjusted to meet the demands of a variety of players who may use different gauge strings and varying heights of action to suit a variety of musical tastes and playing techniques. As a consequence not only is a fine fretted instrument one of the ultimate pieces of art, but it is one of the most challenging to design.
Guitars, banjos and mandolins as well as musical styles have evolved greatly over the years. While virtually all musical instrument designers have a clear concept of the type of music for which the instrument they are producing is intended, the designs which have proved to be the most successful over time have been sufficiently versatile that over the years they have demonstrated an ability to be used for numerous different playing styles. Today many of the most popular model guitars, banjos and mandolins are used for music that simply did not exist at the time these instruments were designed. In fact, the vast majority of instruments which today are most highly sought by collectors and musicians are used for music never conceived of by the designer of the instrument. Conversely instruments which today are used for their original intended type of music in many cases have not appreciated in value nearly as much as those which have been adapted to a wider variety of musical styles.
Martin guitars made prior to the mid 1920s were designed strictly for use with gut strings and were played in a style of parlor music which today is nearly extinct. As a result these instruments are collectible today as historical antiquities and as fine pieces of art, but few players have gone on to use them for their original intended style of parlor music. Most collectors of early Martins either have them as part of a historical collection or if they use them, they are strung with silk steel strings and used for ragtime or other finger picking styles which are quite different from their original intended purpose. While the early Martins of the 1800s through the mid 1920s are valuable collectibles, typically they do not sell for nearly as much as larger bodied steel string Martin guitars made from the mid 1920s through World War II. Many players consider the steel-string Martins of the late 1920s through the 1930s to be the "Golden Era" finest steel-string guitars ever made by any manufacturer. The larger body size Martins such as the OOO models and particularly the dreadnoughts command extremely high prices in today's market. These instruments are now being used for music that was never conceived of during the 1920s or 1930s. Although there is no doubt that there were many great musicians prior to World War II, bluegrass simply did not exist at that time and many other forms of music which constitute the majority of popular music today simply had not yet evolved until more recent times.
Much the same can be said regarding pre-World War II Gibson flat top guitars. While Martin and Gibson were competing for a similar market niche for their steel-string flat top guitars, today most of the players and collectors seeking the older Gibson flat tops are interested in blues, ragtime and a variety of other musical forms which overlap but frequently contrast with the bluegrass, country and other styles for which the "Golden Era" Martins have come to be associated with.
Gibson mandolins, especially the pre-World War II F-5 models have appreciated in value enormously over the past few years. These instruments were originally designed for classical orchestral use, but today are used for a wide variety of styles ranging from bluegrass to country, pop, blues and jazz. Only a very small minority of mandolin players today continue the classical tradition. The most valuable of the mandolins, the Loar signed F-5s produced from 1922 through 1924, were designed to be the ultimate classical mandolin. Unfortunately they did not appear on the market until the classical mandolin era had virtually died, and as a consequence the Loar signed F-5s are extraordinarily rare. Mandolin orchestras were popular from the turn of the century until the end of 1921. The F-5 did not appear until 1922. No matter how good a mandolin it was, by that time it was difficult to sell one. It would appear that Gibson hoped to revive mandolin sales by introducing the ultimate instrument, but it was almost equivalent to introducing the ultimate buggy whip after the introduction of the automobile. After the popularity of mandolin orchestras dramatically declined and the crooners and later the big band sound came in, it simply was virtually impossible to sell a mandolin until the instrument was revived many years later for bluegrass music. Lloyd Loar and other players of his day could never have conceived the sounds Bill Monroe and his followers would introduce. When Monroe played a Gibson F-7 model during the 1930s his playing technique was a relatively traditional country style but after he acquired his 1923 F-5 in the mid 1940's his style of playing changed virtually overnight. I cannot conceive of any better example of a fine musician encountering an instrument and working with it as a partner to completely transform a style of music and to bring such a total transformation to any acoustic fretted instrument. If there is a close second it would likely be Earl Scruggs and the Gibson flat head Mastertone five string banjo. Although in the case of the banjo, Snuffy Jenkins, Don Reno, and other players had already been playing a three-finger picking style fully as early as Earl. Earl, however, through his association with Bill Monroe and later Flat and Scruggs went on to introduce this style of music to bluegrass music. Without Bill Monroe's use of the F-5 and Earl's driving banjo style, bluegrass music simply would not be what it is today. Ironically Bill Monroe had hired Don Reno to play banjo very shortly before he hired Earl, but Don was drafted into the army and Earl was hired to take his place.
Interestingly enough the flat head Mastertone banjo was not designed for anything remotely resembling bluegrass music. Gibson banjos were available with tenor, plectrum or five string neck options. During the 1920s and 1930s tenor and plectrum four-string banjos were popular, but five-string banjos were considered to be strictly "hillbilly" instruments. Since Mastertones were quite expensive with prices during the height of the Depression ranging from $100 for a style #3 to over $500 for an All American, they were simply beyond reach for most country performers. In addition it should be noted that bluegrass had not yet appeared on the scene so the few country players who played a five-string generally played the old claw hammer style. These players usually were able to find older five-strings made from the turn of the century on up through the early 1920s which were readily available extremely cheaply in pawnshops and second-hand stores at the time.
Resonator guitars were originally designed for Hawaiian style playing, but today are used primarily in bluegrass and blues. Although Dobro and National guitars were quite popular before World War II, their production was disrupted by rationing of metal during the war, and production did not resume until the instruments were revitalized in popularity by bluegrass and the folk music boom of the 1960's. Today the pre World War II Dobro and National instruments are sought as collectors items as well as fine utility instruments, although many modern bluegrass players actually prefer new instruments by fine modern builders such as Scheerhorn and Beard such that the pre-World War II woodbody Dobro brand instruments have not appreciated nearly as much as many other vintage instruments in recent years. Pre-World War II metalbody roundneck National guitars have appreciated more dramatically than most woodbody Dobro models. Although the new National metalbody resophonic guitars compare quite favorably to the originals of the 1920s and 1930s, the prewar model Nationals continue to bring more money in the vintage market than the equivalent new ones.
When solidbody electric guitars were introduced in the 1950s, they were a radical concept. Players immediately recognized that they could play louder than on a hollowbody electric and they adapted their playing techniques as a result. Players of the 1950s, however, continued to use relatively heavy strings, often flat wound, with a wound third string. They did not bend notes to any great extent. Musical instruments designers and players of the 1950s could not have even dreamed of the techniques of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, or bands such as The Rolling Stones, KISS, Aerosmith and numerous others. While Les Paul was a fabulous musician and introduced many new techniques, his playing style has little in common with most music for which Les Paul model Gibson guitars are utilized today. Conversely there were many great players of the 1950s who used Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, but most music for which these instruments are utilized today had not been conceived of when these guitars were designed. Much the same can be said for semi-hollow guitars such as the ES-335. While players such as Ted Nugent have used Gibson Byrdlands and other hollowbody guitars for musical styles never conceived of by the designer, most full-depth hollowbody electric guitars are still used primarily for jazz today. While solidbody electrics such as Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters and Gibson Les Paul Flying Vs and Explorers have gone up to achieve prices which would boggle the minds of manufacturers and players of the 1950s, full-depth hollowbody electric jazz guitars, although much more expensive than they used to be, have not kept pace with market prices of the most sought after solidbody electrics, in spite of the fact that the full-depth jazz guitars cost more when new and are certainly more expensive to manufacture.
Four-string tenor and plectrum banjos and archtop acoustic jazz guitars are among the few fretted instruments which continue to this day to be utilized primarily for the music for which they were designed. The tenor and plectrum banjos are still used almost exclusively for Dixieland style playing, whereas non-cutaway archtop acoustic guitars are used for orchestral big band rhythm-style playing, and archtop cutaway acoustics are used primarily for 1950s style "modern jazz" and are frequently set up with a floating pickup. The heyday and Dixieland style banjo playing was during the 1920s. There was a revival of this style music when retirees took up banjo again during the 1960s, but unfortunately many of these players and listeners are no longer with us today. It is my observation that in recent years the prices of high-end beautifully ornamented tenor and plectrum banjos have stagnated. I view this as unfortunate since these are beautifully crafted and marvelous sounding instruments which are more versatile than many people might believe. In the hands of a skilled musician, a tenor or plectrum banjo can be played for a wide variety of musical styles. One of the most interesting adaptations of the Beatles tune, "When I'm 64," is one that I heard done at a tenor and plectrum banjo rally.
Archtop acoustic jazz guitar prices dramatically escalated during the early to mid 1990s in part driven by a virtual collecting mania. For a while it was said that these instruments were the new adult toys. Their beautiful craftsmanship and the enormous labor and skill that was required to produce them inspired collectors to invest heavily. Although many of these collectors claimed that arch top acoustic guitars were versatile enough to be used for any form of music, most players today view them as being primarily limited to their original purpose. It is my opinion that the prices of arch top acoustic guitars have plateaued and have shown little appreciation since the mid 1990's due to having been bid up in price so rapidly during the early 1990's and as a consequence of the fact that big band orchestral rhythm and 1950's jazz are simply not the forefront of the market today. These are, however, extremely fine instruments which are inherently capable of being utilized for a much wider variety of music. If the right players come along to expand the scope of music for which these instruments are utilized, their popularity and prices could escalate rapidly. Great musical instruments all have in common fine aesthetic design, great sound, comfortable playability, and structural stability. Those which go on over the years to appreciate greatly in value almost without exception have great versatility as well. Even an instrument as traditional as the violin is today used for forms of music never dreamed of by the makers of the mid 1500s through the mid 1700s. While Lloyd Loar, Leo Fender and Les Paul might not have ever conceived of or even appreciated the music of Bill Monroe, Jimi Hendrix or Slash, the versatility and adaptability of instruments to a wide variety of music over the years has been critical to maintaining their popularity, collector's item appeal and investment potential.