Newsletter No. 1, December 1, 2002
Welcome to the first of what will be a series of weekly newsletters from George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars. Please feel free to call me or the Gruhn staff at 615-256-2033 from 9:30 to 5:30 central time Monday through Saturday or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any of your questions or comments. We will be happy to give you personal attention. Your comments and questions are critically important to us for it is only through feedback from the public that we know what is going on out there and what we need to do to best serve your needs.
Gruhn Guitars Incorporated is essentially a hobby of mine that got out of hand and became a business. When I started collecting guitars in 1963, I had no intention of starting a business or of becoming a dealer. I was looking for guitars, banjos, and mandolins which personally suited me. At that time the so-called folk boom was in full swing and the demand for fretted instruments had picked up dramatically. As a student at the University of Chicago I gained my primary exposure to the music through the University of Chicago Folklore Society. The Society sponsored many concerts on campus and also was in close contact with similar organizations at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It was through the Folklore Society members that I gained my first exposure to musicians who favored vintage instruments over new ones. Even in the early 1960's these players realized that the new instruments available at that time were not equivalent to the fine pre World War II acoustic vintage instruments. The old ones looked, felt, and sounded better. While prices at that time were remarkably low compared to the standards of today, the higher grade instruments such as pre World War II Martin dreadnoughts, F-5 Gibson mandolins of the 1920's, and flat-head pre-World War II Mastertone Gibson banjos were extremely rare and hard to find. Unlike the present time there were no guitar shows, Internet, magazines such as Vintage Guitar, or even books or articles about vintage instruments to provide information. Most music stores were so-called full line stores which might have a few guitars interspersed with band and orchestra instruments and pianos, but there were virtually no guitar specialty shops and virtually no vintage instrument dealers with the exception of Lundberg Stringed Instruments in Berkeley, California, Fretted Instruments in Greenwich Village in New York City, and The Fret Shop in Chicago near the university I attended.
When I first started out there was a demand for vintage fretted acoustic instruments but virtually no market for vintage electric guitars. It was not until about 1965 that I encountered any people looking for specifically for used and vintage electric guitars. In fact, the first band I encountered using such instruments was the Butterfield Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield. When I first met Mike he was strictly an acoustic player, but it was not long before he joined the Butterfield Band and played an old Telecaster. 1950's Teles, particularly those with the black pickguards, went almost overnight from $75 items which were not in demand to $600 which at that time was an astronomical amount since it was much more than the cost of a new one. Mike amply demonstrated, however, that the old Telecaster was a remarkably different instrument from the new one. Soon thereafter Mike switched to a 1954 Gold top Les Paul, and these instruments promptly went from being $75 used guitars for which there was no demand to selling for $500 to $800. At that time there were no new Les Pauls. This was the first time I had seen players going out of their way to find electric guitar models which were out of production. I can vividly remember that during the period when Mike was playing his 1954 Gold Top, the demand for these instruments not only skyrocketed but players were looking specifically for one like Mike's rather than any other variation. When I found gold tops with the stud mounted bridge, I could sell them or trade them readily for acoustic guitars which were of interest to me, but if I found a sunburst Les Paul with humbucking pickups and the tune-o-matic bridge, I was told that that was the wrong color, that humbucking pickups sounded syrupy and sickly sweet, and that the tune- o-matic bridge killed sustain. It was not long after that, however, that Mike switched to using a sunburst, and the players who had claimed that those were the wrong instruments could not remember having said such a thing within a few weeks after Bloomfield had made the transition. In my opinion, Mike Bloomfield did more than anyone else to start the vintage electric guitar market. Although he never made a hit record which sold millions of copies to the public and was no longer particularly influential after the late 1960's, he was idolized by guitar players of the day and did more than anyone else I know to introduce R&B and vintage electric guitars to the white audience. I feel privileged to have known him well.
As I stated earlier, dealing guitars was almost an accidental occurrence for me. My goal was to find instruments which suited me personally. The good guitars, banjos, and mandolins, while inexpensive during the early and mid 1960's, were still hard to find. Pre World War II D-45's, for example, regardless of the price are in limited supply since only 91 were made, and sunburst Les Pauls similarly were hard to find at any price since only about 1700 were made. Even if they had been available free, finding one would be a challenge since these few instruments were spread worldwide and were not generally available in music stores. It became an obsession for me to check for instruments in pawn shops, music stores, newspaper ads, and school bulletin boards. I was a full time student with a limited budget. My parents had been willing to buy me my first guitar, but after that I was on my own. I quickly found, however, that for every guitar I found which suited me personally, I would run across fifty or more great deals on pieces I didn't want for my own collection but which I could sell or trade for a profit. When I would go into a music store or pawn shop or check classified ads looking specifically for pre World War II Martin guitars, old Gibson mandolins, and pre World War II Gibson and Vega five string banjos, I would find that for every one of these I would encountered there might be fifty or more great deals on both electric and acoustic instruments which I could either trade or resell for a profit but which I did not have any desire to keep for myself. I would purchase these instruments not with any real intention of becoming a dealer but because the only way I could afford to support my hobby was to sell or trade instruments such as these to get the ones I wanted. I always had five or six guitars in my dorm room. Later I had an apartment near campus and had part of my bedroom filled with instruments. By the time I was in my second year of graduate school studying zoology and animal behavior psychology, I had one bedroom stacked with guitar cases at least three feet deep.
In 1970 I joined with a partner, Tut Taylor and our one employee, Randy Wood to set up GTR Incorporated in Nashville, Tennessee. The initials stood for George, Tut, and Randy and also were an abbreviation for guitar. The partnership with Tut lasted only nine months, but Randy stayed with me for almost three years doing repair and custom building. The shop was located across the alley from the stage door of the Ryman Auditorium which housed the Grand Ole Opry through 1974. The company name was changed to Gruhn Guitars Incorporated in 1976. Today we are in our third building, but we never moved over one hundred feet from the first location and are in fact today located directly next door to where we started, although the first building has long since been torn down.
Back in 1970 when I first opened up the store, I was one of the very few vintage guitar dealers in the world. Guitar Player magazine was the only guitar related magazine I knew of. There were virtually no articles on the subject of vintage guitars, and there were certainly no books available on the subject. Prices of vintage instruments were much higher than when I had started out in 1963, but were still ridiculously low by the standards of today. New instruments from Martin, Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, and other American manufacturers during the early to mid 1970's were nowhere near the quality that could be found with vintage guitars. Many of the musicians of that time chose to play vintage instruments not because they were interested in collector's items but because the new ones of the day simply did not suit them. The 1970's were a low point in quality for virtually all manufactured goods ranging from guitars to automobiles to furniture and most other consumer goods. While there was clearly a demand at this time for better quality instruments, the major manufacturers were concentrating on mass production rather than recreating the quality of their 'golden era', and there were virtually no small boutique manufacturers or hand builders on the scene. I used to joke that if I lost a finger on my left hand for each good hand builder of instruments that could rival guitars made by Martin, Gibson, Fender, or Guild, I would still have at least as many usable digits as Django Reinhardt and could still play a tune. Needless to say, times have changed. Today the Guild of American Luthiers has over three thousand members and the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans also has several thousand. Even if only a small percentage of these members are producing good guitars, the total still is considerable.
The market has evolved dramatically over the years. Today there are numerous guitar specialty shops and vintage instrument dealers who advertise on the Internet, in a variety of vintage instrument magazines, and attend hundreds of guitar shows. The traditional large scale manufacturers like Martin, Gibson, and Fender have greatly improved their quality over what they offered in the 1970's and have been joined by numerous competitors such as Paul Reed Smith, Taylor, Larrivee, Santa Cruz, and Collings which compete in the marketplace. The variety and number of makers producing high quality guitars today is greater than at any other time in the history of the instrument. While I am firmly of the opinion that the 1920's and 1930's were the golden era of acoustic guitar production and the 1950's can be said to be the golden era of electric guitar production, the major manufacturers today as well as numerous smaller companies and hand builders are producing guitars which are indisputably of fine quality and are eminently suitable for professional use on stage or in the studio. This is a remarkable contrast to a time when I first opened my store when if one wanted a good instrument suitable for professional use one was limited to vintage instruments since the new ones simply weren't good enough.
Over the years that I have been involved, vintage instruments have been a great investment. There have been times when they have gone up dramatically in price and I have seen some periods such as from 1976 through the early 1980's when prices seemed to stabilize, but in the entire time I have been involved with guitars I have never seen prices crash. 2003 will mark forty years since I bought my first guitar and started dealing instruments. I have been at it long enough to see sunburst Les Pauls go from a market price of $100 to having premium quality ones with beautifully figured curly maple tops selling for well over $100,000. Some instruments which I sold for $400 to $500 when I first opened my shop in 1970 would today bring well over $20,000. Although instruments such as old Les Pauls, Telecasters, Stratocasters, pre World War II Martin D-28's, pre World War II flat head Mastertones, and Loar signed F-5's receive a great deal of attention due to their astronomical prices, it is worth noting that many very fine vintage models are still readily available today at prices no more than and in some cases less than comparable new instruments. Vintage instruments as well as some used recent issue instruments and carefully selected new instruments have the potential to be excellent investments for the future. The stock market and other investments have been far less stable over the years than the fretted instrument market. Especially in the past couple of years when many stocks have lost more than half their value, the fretted instrument market by contrast looks like a safe haven. Most fretted instruments during the past couple of years have either been very stable in value or have gone up. Some, such as Loar signed F-5 mandolins made from 1922 through 1924, have doubled in the past couple of years. Guitars, banjos, and mandolins have the added appeal over stocks and bonds that they are beautiful pieces of art and are great fun to play.
I look forward to your comments and questions and will do my best to personally respond to every one of them.