Originally published on Collectorsweekly.com. In this interview, George Gruhn talks about collecting vintage electric and acoustic guitars.
DM: How did you get started?
I started out primarily as a collector and the business aspect of it evolved over time, almost by accident. I didn’t start out with the intention of being a vintage guitar dealer. As a college student, Mom and Dad were willing to buy me one good guitar, and a good guitar back then didn’t cost near as much as a good guitar today. Even if you wanted a vintage one, it was hard to spend over $300. There wasn’t much out there that would cost more.
I made the wrong choice at first, which was pretty typical. I bought a Conde Hermanos classical guitar made in Madrid. This was back in ’63. I realized by the end of my first lesson that I had the wrong guitar, because it was a nylon string classical. I would’ve been better off with a steel-string guitar, because what I liked was Appalachian string band music.
It wasn’t long before I found another guitar. Back when I was a student at the University of Chicago, there were pawnshops in walking distance. There was shop called the Fret Shop that had lots of used guitars, and they were better than new ones.
There was already a clique of people as early as the 1960s who were interested in vintage acoustic guitars. There was an active folk music scene in Berkeley, California as well as Greenwich Village, New York, and, to a considerable extent, these people kept in touch with each other. They weren’t much interested in vintage electrics yet. That started more with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
When Mike Bloomfield started to play with Butterfield, it opened up a whole new scene where white boys became interested in vintage electric guitars. Prior to that, white folks didn’t play R&B. They played Ventures and Beach Boys, but they didn’t play R&B. That started a whole new thing for vintage electric guitars, but that was to a large extent a different set of people. Some crossed over.
In fact, when I saw the folklore society’s festivals and performances at the University of Chicago – they had concerts and an annual festival – they permitted acoustic instruments only. Absolutely no electric guitars. That changed after Bloomfield started playing with Butterfield. They started inviting people like Buddy Guy and Little Richard and Muddy Waters who were right there on the south side of Chicago, often literally walking distance from the university. They discovered this whole new thing right in their own neighborhood. Before that, they were bringing folks up from Appalachia.
DM: What did you study at the University of Chicago?
Gruhn: I started out in pre-med, but I pretty quickly switched majors to animal behavior psychology. After that, I did graduate work at Duke in zoology and animal behavior, and then I did some further graduate work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
I have no academic background in music, musical instruments, or business. I had an addiction for guitars, and collectors are somewhat addicted and compulsive. I found that I just couldn’t help myself. I had this craving for guitars. Every morning, the first thing I’d do when I got up was check the bulletin boards at school to see if anybody had a guitar for sale. I checked the classified ads and the Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune. Back then you could actually find things in classified ads. It’s a rare event to see a decent guitar advertised in the paper anymore.
I’d also check the pawnshops, because there were a fair number of them in walking distance of the university. I’d be looking for things like pre-World War II Martin guitars. They’re rare, so you wouldn’t find very many even back then. For every one I’d find that I wanted to keep, I could run across fifty to a hundred that were great deals on things I didn’t want.
I recognized that they were valuable, and valuable back then meant that they were asking $50 or $75 for something that I could sell for $150 or $200. I found things I didn’t want, but I had to buy it because it was so cheap and I knew where I could sell it. It actually took several years before it dawned on me that these nuisance byproducts were what were supporting my collection. As I told you, Mom and Dad were willing to buy me one. They weren’t going to buy me all these other things that I wanted to keep, and the only way I could afford to keep any was to wheel and deal. It’s not like I had a business plan or decided to open up a store. It’s just that they were a byproduct.
DM: How has your personal collection evolved over the years?
Gruhn: I started out with an interest in fancy pre-World War II pearl-trimmed steel-string Martin guitars, particularly style 45. Martin had a model system from 17 on up through 45: 17, 18, 21, 28, 42, 45. The 45 was their top-of-the-line and they’re extremely rare. I was also interested in the early Gibson mandolins, in particular the F5 style, which is very rare, and good Fairbanks and Gibson five-string banjos.
These are things that you don’t see a lot of. Even back then when they were still relatively cheap, the problem was finding one. There were only 91 D-45 Martins ever made. They weren’t all left in good condition, either. I collected those, and I would sell basically everything else I’d find. I never looked for anything else, but you don’t have to. If you’re looking for prewar D-45s, you’re keeping your eyes open so that when you walk in a pawnshop or a music store or checking out the classified ads, you do notice the others. I didn’t like them, but I still picked them up. If a saw a Fender Telecaster or a Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson ES-335 or a Gibson J-45 flat top, I knew enough to buy them.
I still like pretty much the same things that I started out with, but I don’t have that much of a collection now. I’ve been at this for 45 years now, and business and life in general sometimes have ups and downs. Back in ’76, I sold most of my collection and I bought a house and a building for the business. It was a time where it looked like the prices were stagnating and that they weren’t really going to go up, so I figured if I wanted to get more later, I probably could. From ’76 through ’84, many of these guitars didn’t even keep up with inflation. But after that, they really started skyrocketing. If I could take the collection I had in ’76 and stick it in a time machine and bring it back today, it would be worth about my entire current net worth.
In 1963 or ’64 you could pick up a 1959 sunburst Les Paul Gibson, Les Paul standard, used, for a hundred dollars, maybe $150. I recently sold one this month for $375,000, and actually, I’ve seen a few bring more than that. That’s more money than I spent for my house. Even though I’m widely regarded as knowledgeable and I’ve had a lot of these things over the years, I can’t afford to collect the stuff myself anymore. It’s disappointing. Sometimes I feel almost like the Rolls Royce salesman who’s driving a Chevy.
DM: Who designed these classic vintage guitars?
Gruhn: For the most part, the companies had collective design teams, so there aren’t many individual designers who are remembered and known. But the earliest Gibson mandolins, for example, were introduced in 1922 and had an interior paper label signed by the acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar, and those bring more money than any other mandolins. They’re the best mandolins I’ve ever encountered. With Fender, the people who seem to have been involved with the design of the Stratocaster, guys like Bill Carson and Freddie Tavares who worked at Fender, they were not really given much direct credit.
It’s often not very clearly understood who was designing what, especially since a fair amount of this stuff was done far enough back that the folks who were involved are dead and it wasn’t well documented. We know that C.F. Martin Sr., who started the Martin Company when he moved to New York City in 1833, designed some guitars, but by the time the company made some of its true Golden Era steel-strings, he was long gone. Even at the Gibson Company, Orville Gibson designed instruments in the 1890s, but as far as who was really designing a lot of the stuff later, it’s not well documented.
The Les Paul models were first introduced in ’52, but they evolved over time. The sunburst Les Paul standard didn’t come out until ’58. It still had the same inlay pattern as the ’52 model, but the bridge and tailpiece design were different. As far as who specifically designed these changes, it’s not very well known. Actually, Les didn’t design much. He was a great player, but for the most part he didn’t really do a whole lot in the designing work on the Les Paul guitar. He certainly didn’t invent solid-body guitars in spite of his claims to that effect.
DM: What types of people collect vintage guitars?
Gruhn: There are many types, because there are many types of guitars. Try closing your eyes and visualizing a violin. While there were thousand of makers of violins, they still all look pretty much like violins. Same with a saxophone or clarinet or piano. But with guitars, there’s not really one particular image. A Martin flat top does not look much like a metal-body National resonator guitar, and that doesn’t look like a solid-body Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster. There are such different beasts that all that can be said is that most guitars have six strings and are tuned in a standard tuning.
A classical guitar or a Flamenco guitar is tuned as same as a Stratocaster, but it doesn’t feel the same, and it doesn’t sound the same. It sure doesn’t look the same. From the maker’s point of view, the construction is so totally different that if you’re able to make one, it doesn’t mean you’re set up to make the other. People who collect rock ‘n’ roll guitars are not the same folks who collect classical or Flamenco guitars or steel-string flat top guitars. Even within steel-string flat tops, there can be something like a Martin Dreadnought that’s created for bluegrass, or it might be an acoustic Martin 000 or 00 or a Gibson that’s great for blues.
Different audience, different players, but most of the people who collect guitars do play. They are not necessarily professional musicians. Most professional musicians don’t make enough money to have a huge guitar collection, and musicians are not really collectors in the sense that they’re not that concerned with the history of the instrument. They want a working utility tool. They’re not overly concerned with how original it is, and they often don’t take very good care of them.
I’d say I have three basic categories of buyers: musicians wanting a utility tool, collectors, and at least from 2002 to the present, a lot of speculators. It’s just like with antique furniture. Some people buy antiques just because they like them and really want a piece of furniture. If they’re buying a rocking chair, they like one that’s comfortable because they’re going to sit on it, and it has to fit the decor of their house. There are other people who are collectors, and they will pay far more money than the people who simply wanted a utility piece of furniture or a utility guitar. They tend to be more sophisticated in their knowledge. They have an agenda and they’re keenly aware of the gaps in their collection.
The real collectors, they’re just like stamp collectors and coin collectors. The ones who really collect look all their life for this particular stamp and when they get it, they don’t want to simply turn right around and sell it right away. That would be no fun. But the speculators don’t want to hold it long. They want to hold it maybe six months to no more than a year, and then flip it. They’d be horrified of the prospect of actually being unable to sell it with a profit within a year. The ones who are really diligently collecting for many, many years are not anxious to sell it. They hate to sell it.
DM: What are some recent trends in vintage guitar collecting?
Gruhn: The typical buyers/collectors that I deal with are Baby Boomers. I don’t see a lot of serious collectors who are older than that, partly because they remember when these things were new and they didn’t cost much. They remember when a Martin D-28 cost $100 new in the 1930s and now a good one is $150,000. The people who remember something new at a hundred bucks, they’re not going to go out and pay 150 grand for one even if they had the money. They still remember the hundred bucks.
Generation X and Y never did much to support me in the past and they still don’t. I get a few Generation X buyers who are starting to collect, but not near the extent the Boomers do. As far as Generation Y, they buy guitars, but they’re not collecting them. I don’t know of any Generation Y collectors. It’s not simply that they’re too young, because when my generation was 25 years of age, there were folks who were already really seriously starting to collect.
If somebody has two guitars, by definition, they’re not a collector. Two guitars do not constitute a collection. There also ought to be some cohesiveness to a collection. You might concentrate on Martin guitars or Gibson guitars or perhaps zero in on all the models that Martin made, say, from 1935 through ’38 or something. If you’re a musician and you have a Telecaster and a Stratocaster and an ES-175 and an ES-335 and a few flat tops and you’re using them and playing sessions every day, that’s not a collection. You have an accumulation of utility guitars.
By the way, there are vintage guitar collectors all over the world. Its global. There’s a surprising amount of collectors in Japan. There are some in England, some in Germany, a bit in Scandinavia, a little bit in Italy, none in Spain except for classical and Flamenco guitars. As far as Spanish collectors of steel-string guitars or electric guitars, nope. The places that I see overseas that collect American guitars tend to be areas where Armed Forces Radio was big.
DM: How has the Internet impacted vintage guitar collecting?
Gruhn: The Internet certainly makes it easier for people to contact each other and for somebody who’s looking for something to find it. You just do a Google search and you see who’s got one for sale and things can crop up.
As a dealer, I certainly view it as a double-edged sword. Back before the Internet, we printed a monthly paper catalogue. It was expensive and time-consuming to assemble, print and mail it, but if you had a thousand guitars or so, you could afford to do it and your smaller competitors who had 50 guitars couldn’t. I was one of three in the world who did a monthly vintage guitar catalogue. With the Internet, if you’ve got 10 guitars, you can make your own website. If you have one guitar, you can list it on eBay or Craigslist. All of a sudden I had to compete against a lot more people. I didn’t necessarily like all that, but it is what it is.
Sometimes it’s hard to separate the sheep from the goats on eBay. Just because something has nice-looking photos doesn’t mean anything. With Photoshop, you can make it look flawless. In fact, you don’t even have to have the instrument; you can post somebody else’s photos and list it as though it were your own. That happens plenty. There’s a high degree of risk. The percentage of down and out fraud is probably pretty small, but the percentage of inaccurate descriptions is pretty high. Some may be because people embellish, and some because people can be quite ignorant and they don’t know what they’ve got.
Recently, a 1942 D-45 Martin showed up on eBay. This family that had it didn’t know squat about it, but they ended up getting over $300,000 for it. These things do happen, so I can’t tell you that nothing good ever turns out on eBay.
DM: What are some good resources for people interested in vintage guitars?
Gruhn: Vintage Guitar is certainly the best known vintage guitar publication. There’s also one out of Long Island, New York – 20th Century Guitar – and then other magazines like Premier Guitar and Guitar World and Guitar Player will do an occasional article about something vintage.
There are Internet forums, but typically I avoid those. The information on the forums and opinions are not always well-informed. As a dealer, one of the things that I don’t like is that if I list something that’s special, it doesn’t take an hour or two before it’s being discussed in chat rooms. Often if I list something, they start speculating if it’s a good deal, is it accurately described, is it worth it, where did he get it, what’s he doing, whatever. You can imagine as a dealer, you wouldn’t like that.
DM: What advice would you give to somebody who would like to collect vintage guitars?
Gruhn: Before you leap into buying really expensive stuff, you should spend plenty of time studying, because your tastes will probably change over time. Don’t blow all your money right upfront, because just like I found that the first guitar I bought didn’t suit me for long, you’re likely to find that your musical taste and playing style changes. As you get to be a better player, the one that sounded good or felt good to you before no longer feels or sounds so good now.
If you are very knowledgeable, you can buy at flea markets, pawnshops, eBay, whatever, but you’ve got to know your stuff. If you’re not really expert enough to certify originality when you look at a guitar yourself, then you’re far better off to do business with somebody you know and you trust.
(All images in this article courtesy George Gruhn of http://www.gruhn.com)