From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Volpe Rotondi
Though many cities in the U.S. have great guitar shops, if you’re looking to get a guitar, Nashville, a city known for its relationship to the instrument, might be the best place to find one. Here’s a look inside Music City’s “Temples of Spruce” to find out if Nashville really does have the best guitar shops in the country.
“We believe music has the power to heal, not just entertain,” says Pamela Cole, who in January 2009 opened Fanny’s House of Music with partner Leigh Maples. The shop is a Nashville landmark in part due to the much-visited mural painted on its exterior that features an all-female cast of guitar icons from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Loretta Lynn to Joan Jett and Joni Mitchell.
Fanny’s, which sells a raft of preowned acoustic and electric guitars, accessories, and even vintage clothes, sits at the intersection of Holly and 11th Streets in East Nashville, perhaps the neighborhood most associated with the city’s huge change in demographics—and real estate prices—over the last two decades.
“This community really embraced us from the beginning, when we only had five guitars, three amps, and ten pick packs,” says Cole. “As Nashville has grown, so have we. In fact, we’ve even started a nonprofit called Fanny’s School of Music, an addition to our store that will add ten lesson rooms, a music therapist’s office, and a second-story community space/performance area.”
Through the devastating tornado of March 2020, quickly followed by the pandemic, Fanny’s, like the many other guitar stores across Nashville, has had to think fast and adapt to the changes not only in the city’s diverse new population but also in the guitar market itself.
“We started out in 2013 as a vintage guitar store, and we still are, so that much hasn’t changed,” says Walter Carter of Carter’s Vintage Guitars, well-known to aficionados as the co-author of the seminal Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars. “But the growth and popularity of Nashville has had a huge impact on our business. We started right around the time the TV show Nashville started airing, and that, along with our good location, a certain name recognition, and the success of many of our YouTube videos shot live here, has been very good for us.”
For the vintage guitar buyer, Carter’s is a veritable fantasy park, a place where you can see the very Stratocaster that Ed King recorded “Sweet Home Alabama” on, alongside a prewar Gibson L-00, a 1940 Martin D-18, and makers like Taylor, Larriveé, Sahlstrom, Gallagher, Preston Thompson, Blazer & Henkes, and more. Carter says that while the baby boomers who kicked off the vintage guitar explosion back in the ’80s may be buying fewer guitars these days, they’re perhaps more likely to be selling them.
“Yeah, those same folks who bought these guitars 20 years ago are now providing a good supply back to us, so you don’t have to go out and shake the bushes quite like you used to. That said, we still get instruments from people who’ve had them under the bed or in the closet for decades—y’know, ‘This was my grandpa’s guitar’—and every so often, if you get lucky, they’re just pristine.” Carter’s own fan club includes players like Brian Setzer, Molly Tuttle, JD Simo, Billy Strings, Marcus King, and Chris Thile, all of whom have dropped in to play a few licks for the Carter camera and take in the woody ambiance.
It’s hard to even think about guitar shops and Nashville without invoking Gruhn Guitars, the now-legendary mecca for pickers that started life on Lower Broadway in 1970, and eventually moved to a less frantic and much larger location in the 8th Avenue South neighborhood back in 2013. While Eric Newell now largely runs the day-to-day affairs, George Gruhn himself—a true original, famed for his surly prophesying and unequaled well of vintage guitar knowledge—still embodies the store’s rigorous attention to detail.
Surprisingly, this most dedicated of vintage guitar experts is remarkably positive about the current generation of guitar building. “The new guitars from Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Collings, Santa Cruz, Larrivée, and others are competing very strongly with the vintage stuff,” Gruhn says, “which was not the case back in the 1970s, where a lot of the guitars had been dumbed down by bean counters who really didn’t know anything about guitars. But the quality of new guitars today, while perhaps not quite as good as, say, the golden era pre-CBS Fenders or the [Ted] McCarty-era Gibsons, are pretty darn good. This is why a high percentage of what I’m selling now is new.
“Look, I still have a soft spot in my heart for vintage instruments,” he admits, “but if a customer has a choice of spending $4,000 on one of our Gruhn-exclusive Martin Sinker Mahogany D-18s, versus spending upwards of $60,000 for a 1937 D-18, they’ll take the new one every time. And the new one comes surprisingly close.”
Downtown Music City’s freshest retail space is surely the new Gibson Garage—imagine a sort of Apple Store meets Disneyland for everything Gibson, and I mean everything: “Every model that Gibson, Epiphone, Kramer, Mesa/Boogie, and KRK make is available and on the floor,” says Mark Agnesi, Director of Gibson Brand Experience. And on the ceiling. The massive 8,000-square-foot retail space is crowned with a rotating track packed with hanging Les Pauls, Juniors, SGs, ES-335s and more. The acoustic room alone, brimming with J-200s, J-45s, Hummingbirds, Epiphone Frontiers, and others, is bigger than many standalone stores. “A few years back,” Agnesi explains, “[Gibson CEO] JC Curleigh asked us all, ‘So where’s the place to go for the ultimate Gibson experience?’ And we didn’t have an answer. So we decided to build one.”
Gruhn Guitars, Carter’s Vintage Guitars, Fanny’s House of Music, and the new Gibson Garage are just a few of the noteworthy outlets that cater to Nashville’s many professional players, budding hotshots, happy hobbyists, and passionate vintage collectors. That surplus of retail riches also includes class outfits like Rumble Seat Music, Artisan Guitars, The North American Guitar, Lane Music, Eastside Music Supply, Corner Music, and more. While there are those who believe the continued exodus of guitar players traveling or moving to Nashville is simply a case of “bringing sand to the beach,” from a retail perspective, Nashville is clearly a beach that can continue to accommodate as much sand as washes up on its shores.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.