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THE Source for the Vintage Instrument World

Newsletter #26, November 2005

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A visit to Vermillion and the need for repairs

We made our first visit to the National Music Museum (formerly the Shrine to Music Museum) in Vermillion, SD, in October to take part in a symposium celebrating the opening of a new guitar exhibit. The museum’s new guitar room alone is impressive enough. In addition to a fine collection of Gibson, Martin, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Stromberg and other instruments, it features the workbench that was passed down from John D’Angelico to Jimmy D’Aquisto to Paul Gudelsky. But the exhibits of older, non-guitar instruments - particularly Stradivarius and Amati violins - underscored just how new the market is for vintage fretted instruments and what we can learn from the world of violins and other, more mature antique markets.

First of all, the museum deserves more than just a few words in passing. It houses a truly amazing collection - especially considering its remote location in the southeast corner of South Dakota - that encompasses all kinds of musical instruments. The collection of keyboard instruments includes pipe organs, harpsichords, a Lloyd Loar electric piano and some of the earliest French pianos (from the 1700s). Wind instruments range from a quartet of original Adolph Sax saxophones to the heart-shaped trumpet used as a prop in the movie Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The bowed instrument collection includes one of the only Stradivarius violins that still has its original neck and an Amati cello that is believed to be the oldest bass bowed instrument in existence. The Stradivarius display case also features one of only two known Stradivarius guitars, plus a Strad mandolin.

Looking at the Strads and Amatis, even with their original necks, it’s obvious that they’ve undergone some restoration in their 300-400 years of existence, just so they hold together. If violin collectors or players insisted that these instruments be completely original - to the degree that many fretted instrument buyers do - then there would be nothing to look at today. With these violins it’s obviously unrealistic to expect instruments of their age to have never had a loose glue seam or a crack. And it’s even more unrealistic to expect to find examples of these most highly desirable models that have not been played. The foundation of their desirable status was - and still is - their performance qualities. The fact that many of the best instruments have been well-played only hastens their need for repair or restoration.

The neck of the Strad provides a good connection for comparison of violins to fretted instruments, since refretting a neck is one of the most common and necessary repairs to keep a playing instrument playable. As we said, the neck on the National Music Museum’s Strad is original, but it has been removed, and a spacer has been added to increase the scale length. By vintage guitar standards it should be devalued by half or more, unless the work was done by "the factory." That connects with another interesting fact about Stradivarius: He did take in repair work, and over the course of his long career as a violin maker, it’s conceivable that he could have "destroyed the originality" of some of his own instruments as they came back into his shop for repair. Certainly neither he nor his customers thought that a repair, an upgrade or a restoration destroyed the value of these instruments; rather, it enhanced the value because it brought them from unplayable condition back to playable.

Many highly desirable fretted instruments are enterting the realm of fine violins now - not only in price but as instruments that need repair or restoration. Loar-signed mandolins are over 80 years old. Any pre-World War II instrument is over 60 years old. Strats and Teles and Les Pauls from the 1950s are 50 years old, give or take a few years. Cracks and loose seams are to be expected. And if the instrument has been played, as fine instruments tend to be, then it will reach a point where the frets are so worn as to make it unplayable. Then there are only two choices: 1) put it in a museum or just set it aside, never to be played again, or 2) replace the frets and keep on playing. It’s ironic, in light of the skyrocketing prices of Fender guitars and the perceived "damage" that a refret does to an instrument’s value, that the person who would have been most in favor of replacing worn out parts is Leo Fender. That was Leo’s rationale behind designing every single Fender from the Broadcaster onward with a bolt-on neck - so it could be easily replaced when it wore out.

With high-dollar electric guitars now, we hear potential buyers complain mightily about a broken solder joint, which might indicate - horror of all horrors - a replaced potentiometer. Prior to about 1990, when we published information (with the help of Dutch collector Hans Moust) on dating pots by their source/date code, no one said a word about pots. Pots and capacitors were, and still are, inexpensive, everyday electronic parts that were never expected to last as long as a guitar. Amplifiers are no different. An amp from the mid 1950s, even if it's never been used and stored under ideal conditions, may need hundreds of dollars of work to make it useable. Pickups, wound with thinly coated wire, can easily short out and require rewinding. Plastics decompose at a certain speed, as evidenced by the bindings on older Gretsches, Epiphones and D’Angelicos, the tortoiseshell-grain pickguards on many instruments and and the peghead veneers of Strombergs.

Car collectors have long accepted that on vintage autos some parts need repainting and protection from rust. Rubber and leather components have a certain life expectancy, which means they are expected to deteriorate. No one has an original old Packard with leather upholstery that's still good. Even if it looked good, if you sat on it, it would crack. Leather components have a certain life expectancy. The same is true for instruments. The nitrocellulose that’s used for pickguards and binding has a life expectancy. Varnish or French polish has a longer life expectancy but not forever. Virtually all of the great old violins have been French polished (a shellac-based coating). Violin buyers will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an instrument with a different neck, a different neck joint, a larger bass bar, different bridge, different chinrest, repaired cracks, finish touchup, etc. It’s a good thing Strads don’t have solder joints. Actually, by the standards that are applied to guitars by many of today’s buyers, all of those Strads would be worthless.

Once restoration or repair work is performed, then the real trouble starts. A letter in a recent issue of Vintage Guitar complained about the Arlington show, about how so many dealers were dishonest and so many guitars had "issues." We can sympathize with both parties. From the buyer’s side, yes, of course you need to know about any repairs or other issues of authenticity. From the dealer’s side, it may seem like suicide to disclose repairs that are undetectable. A good example is a 1960 Les Paul with four small screw holes in the top from a Bigsby vibrola. We happen to have one of those, and we spent a great deal of money having the holes plugged and touched up so that they have virtually disappeared. The touchup work does not show up even under a black light. We nevertheless disclose the repair to interested customers as a matter of integrity and also out of pride in the degree of expertise that the repair work represents. The typical reaction is negative. People tell us they don’t want it because it has Bigsby holes. They’ll buy one from someone else that doesn’t have Bigsby holes. Our question is, are you sure when you go elsewhere that it does not have Bigsby holes? According to the Vintage Guitar letter writer, not all dealers are forthcoming about repair work, but to a certain degree the buyers must share the blame, or at least admit that they contribute to the problem by insisting on such a high degree of devaluation for repairs.

With buyers reacting so negatively, a seller might wonder if repair work should even be performed. Is a Strat with dead original pickups more desirable than one with pickups that have been expertly rewound? We don’t think so. Is a pristine ‘60 Les Paul more attractive and more valuable with four open screw holes in the top than one with a top that looks undisturbed? We don’t think so. Our staff of nine full-time repairmen includes four who have worked for Gibson and can do factory Gibson work as good or better than Gibson can. We think their work adds value to an instrument, so unless the repair job costs more than the instrument is worth, of course we’re going to perform the repair, and of course we are not going to deliberately do it in a sloppy manner so that it can be easily detected.

There is a different type of repair that should be mentioned at this point, and that’s modification - deliberately changing an instrument to make it more widely appealing. When the rim of a Gibson banjo with an archtop tone ring is altered to accept a flat-head, or when the fingerboard, nut and bridge of a Martin Hawaiian guitar are altered to convert it to Spanish-style, those are irreversible modifications. That’s why all the Strad violins have altered or replacement necks - to convert them to the specifications preferred by musicians. And that’s a different discussion altogether, except for those cases where the end product is intended to fool a buyer into thinking it’s a more expensive model.

Yet another repair/restoration issue is the cannibalization of perfectly good guitars for parts. For every correct 1958 Gibson wiring harness that is offered by a parts dealer, there’s a carcass of a 1958 ES-125D or some other similar instrument. Yes, the parts dealer is the one who robbed the 125 of its harness, knobs, screws, and anything else that would look right on a ‘58 Les Paul, but he wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t profitable, if buyers hadn’t created a market for "original" replacement parts. That, too, is an issue that warrants further discussion in another column.

The stakes are higher than ever before, but so is the level of repair, as so is the level of expertise. At Gruhn Guitars we not only have George’s decades of in-hand experience, along with that of the staff, we also have Walter’s perspective from nine years of being on the inside at Gibson, with access to the company’s archives as well as having an insider’s experience with the corporate mindset. It’s an era that a customer has to rely more on a dealer’s expertise or that of a third party. We are seeing many of our appraisals scanned and copied on eBay sales, which suggests that we’re headed toward the Hill & Sons certification that the violin market relies upon.

With advancing prices and the premium on originality, along with the advances in restoration techniques, the fretted instrument world is moving closer to more mature collectible markets, such as art and antiques. Which is to say, toward the possibility of forgeries and scams. There’s a fine line between restoration and fakery, and it can be just a matter of honest representation.

Restoration is not a scam, unless it’s presented as original work. And it’s certainly not an abomination. Some components of fretted instruments simply will not last forever, and repair or restoration is unavoidable for almost all instruments. We accept aging and repair and restoration in practically every aspect of our lives - including our own bodies. The vintage guitar crowd is fighting it, but the end result is inevitable: The number of fully original vintage instruments can only decrease, as time and human beings have their way with these instruments.

The bottom line is, with integrity on the part of sellers, coupled with a realistic attitude on the part of buyers regarding the effects of time on instruments, we might see a little order and sense in an industry that seems out of control lately.

George Gruhn and Walter Carter