Newsletter #11, October 21, 2003
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It is an obvious fact that vintage instrument prices today are incredibly higher than they were in the mid 1960s when I first started collecting. However, it was in fact much harder to find vintage collectibles back then than it is today. Whereas now there are hundreds if not thousands of vintage instrument dealers advertising in publications such as Vintage Guitar magazine and on the internet, back then there were no publications or books devoted to the subject and extremely few music stores recognized the potential of these instruments. While I was a student at the University of Chicago I scoured classified ads in the newspapers, checked the bulletin boards at the school, and visited pawnshops and music stores, but truly fine vintage instruments were few and far between. While there obviously were far more instruments sitting undiscovered in people's closets, basements, and attics than today, these instruments were essentially out of circulation since they were not visibly for sale.
Back in those days my best source was a small shop near the University campus called The Fret Shop run by an eccentric dealer named Pete Leibundguth. Although Pete was not especially knowledgeable as a musical instrument historian, he was incredibly effective at finding fine pre-World War II vintage acoustic instruments. He made numerous road trips and scoured old musicians' union directories to find elderly musicians or their families who might still have old guitars, banjos, and mandolins. The Fret Shop and various members of the University of Chicago Folklore Society were my introduction to the world of vintage instruments. Back then such shops were few and far between. John Lundberg in Berkeley, California also dealt vintage instruments and a small shop in Greenwich Village named Fretted Instruments was another such dealer. The only other one in the mid-1960s of which I am aware was the Denver Folklore Center.
Back then the few vintage dealers and collectors were interested almost exclusively in acoustic instruments. The vintage electric didn't amount to much until several years later. I still have fond memories of buying a squeaky clean virtually new condition 1957 Stratocaster with custom color black finish and gold-plated hardware in a pawn shop on 63rd Street, just walking distance from my student apartment at 61st and Ellis. I paid $75 for it and could not find anyone who wanted a Stratocaster. While today this is an instrument that would be worth a small fortune, back then not only were vintage electric guitars not yet in demand by collectors, but Stratocasters in general were not sought after. There was far more demand for Jazzmasters, Jaguars and Mosrites for the so-called surfing sound. Vintage acoustic and electric prices may have been absurdly cheap by today's standards, but the fact remains that it was extremely difficult to find any such pieces in quantity and once found it was not easy to sell them for a high profit. This was certainly not a business that would easily have supported anyone at that time in high style. In hindsight it would be great to have bought up everything one could find and hold them for forty years, but at the time there was no way to predict that prices would escalate astronomically.
It was virtually impossible to find enough vintage instruments in the Chicago area to satisfy my insatiable hunger. In the summer of 1965 on my vacation break I decided I should take a trip down to Nashville and see what was happening there. I had heard many stories about this being Music City USA and was just sure that the music stores and pawnshops would just be filled with vintage goodies. When I arrived in Nashville it was quite a shock. There were virtually no interesting vintage instruments to be found. I stopped at Hank Snow's music store on Church Street and found a guitar teacher who had an early 1930s Gibson L-12 guitar which was his personal instrument and was not for sale. Sho-Bud Guitars on Broadway had plenty of pedal steels which they made, but the few used instruments they had were "fixed" by their repair shop such as to be virtually useless to any collector. Their refinish jobs looked almost as though the instruments had been dipped in a vat. I checked out Hewgley's Music at 7th and Commerce and found that they were the exclusive dealer for new Gibson guitars in Nashville. They sold them at full list price. J.G. Stone who owned Hewgley's at the time apparently considered the word "discount" to be one of the most obscene words in the English language. Today all three of these stores are no longer in business, but back then they were the dominant music stores in the town.
While I made no great purchases in Nashville and in fact was ready to leave town almost immediately in disappointment, I did have the good fortune to meet Jim Broadus who worked at Hewgley's and told me about a man in Chattanooga who collected old Martins and Gibsons. His name was Mike Longworth. Jim had Mike's card behind the counter and gave me his phone number. I tried calling Longworth but got no answer. Having nothing better to do and having time on my hands, I figured it would make sense to just drive on down to Chattanooga where Mike lived and see if he would be home in the evening. Back then Mike was running a Planter's peanut franchise as his day job and collecting fine instruments and doing inlay work on the side. In 1968 he went to work for Martin after being hired to do their pearl inlay work. Not long afterward he became their customer relations person and later wrote the first definitive history of the Martin Guitar Company. Mike remained a good friend after he retired from Martin and moved back to Tennessee. He died recently and is greatly missed.
Jim Broadus gave me directions how to get there and told me it would take about four hours. Today with modern interstates it takes about two, but back then it certainly took every minute of the four. When I got to Chattanooga and called at Mike's home, his wife, Susan, answered the phone and told me that Mike had gone to a music festival in Asheville, North Carolina. The festival has been going on for many years and is held annually the first weekend of August. Susan offered to let me come over to the house and take a look at Mike's collection. He had fabulous herringbone Style 28 Martins as well as pearl-trimmed Style 42 and 45 guitars, the likes of which I had never seen before. I asked Susan how to get to Asheville and how long it might take. Turned out it was four hours on a winding two-lane mountain road. Today it is a much shorter trip by the interstate. Back then it was an adventure to drive in the dark on the winding hairpin turns, but I got there at about 2 am and found that the picking was still going full force out in the parking lot.
It was a revelation for me. Not only did I get to meet Mike, but I saw numerous bluegrass and old-timey players with great instruments. There were pre-war Mastertone banjos, Gibson A model and F model mandolins, and lots of old Martin and Gibson guitars. I felt like I had arrived in heaven. The festival went on for three days, and I made numerous contacts with people who still deal with me today. It was at Asheville that I met Tut Taylor who was my business partner when we first opened our shop in 1970. While there I was told that the next weekend there was a festival in Galax, Virginia. I got directions to go there and was told that it would take about four hours. Today travel is so much easier on our interstate system but back then it seems like everywhere I went was four or more hours on winding two-lane roads through the mountains. Galax turned out to be every bit as good as Asheville. Not only was the music great, but a high percentage of the players had not only instruments they were using but extras in the trunk of their car for wheeling and dealing.
Asheville and Galax changed my life. The next summer I went to numerous festivals and was an active wheeler-dealer. I still had no notion that I would end up full time as a musical instrument dealer. It was my full expectation that I would complete my studies for a PhD in animal behavior and that guitars, banjos, and mandolins would be a hobby.
In 1968 I was a graduate student studying animal behavior in the Psychology department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville when I got a phone call one day from Hank Williams Jr., who told me that he had gotten my name and number from Sonny Osborne at the Opry. I knew Sonny from my summer trips to bluegrass festivals. Sonny had told Hank that I had plenty of old Martin guitars, and he was interested in meeting me to see what I had. He told me he could be to Knoxville in four hours. It seems like four hours was the magic number in those days. Nashville to Knoxville today is a simple trip on the interstate, but back then arriving in four hours on the winding two-lane road was quite an accomplishment. He did, however, show up in almost exactly four hours driving his Jaguar style E. He bought all the guitars the car would hold which was three and told me that he could be back the next day with a larger vehicle. The next day he showed up in his Cadillac Eldorado and bought all the guitars it would hold. I still had plenty more. Hank told me that Nashville had no one like me and that I ought to move to town. He said if I wanted to come he would have an apartment waiting for me and would help me set up a music store. It seemed like a good idea at the time. While I enjoyed studying feeding behavior of pit vipers, it was quite evident that I would probably not make a good living doing that (but even today if you have a rattlesnake that won't eat, I might be able to help).
I dropped out of school and headed to Nashville where Hank had an apartment waiting for me. We never did go into business together or enter into a partnership to set up a music store, but for the first year I was in town I went to Hank's house several times a week and he was a good enough customer to virtually support me from the time I arrived in Nashville at the beginning of 1969 until I opened my store with Tut Taylor as a partner and Randy Wood as an employee to do the repairs. We opened the doors immediately after New Year's in January 1970. The original name of the shop was GTR Incorporated for George, Tut and Randy (and a good abbreviation for guitar). Tut was my partner for only nine months, but Randy worked with me for three years.
While my life is more structured today than back in the 1960s when it seems like I could take off at an instant's notice for one of those four hour drives, every day is still an adventure. I never know who will call or walk through the door for what goodies we may encounter. The fact remains that I still utterly enjoy fine instruments. I like to think that we run an adoption agency for guitars. We find many instruments which have been severely abused over the years and nurse them back to health and find good homes for them. While obviously at today's prices there is the potential for significant profit, when I started out it was hard to make a good living doing this. I still remember vividly that when we opened the doors we had a beautiful 1938 herringbone D-28 Martin priced at $800 and a 1946 herringbone D for $600. They were not quick, easy sellers. I also remember a squeaky clean 1959 dot inlay ES-335 we sold in 1970 for what was then top dollar at $400. Needless to say today's prices are much higher, but the fact remains, the instruments are inherently no better now than they were then. I loved the instruments back then and I still do today.