From the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY E. E. BRADMAN
George Gruhn is synonymous with vintage guitars. He’s a magazine columnist, frequent interview subject, and author of several reference books on guitar history, including Gruhn’s to Vintage Guitars: An Identification Guide for American Fretted Instruments (now in its third edition) and Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments: A Photographic History, all co-written with Walter Carter. Gruhn is best known, however, for the Nashville store he opened in 1970, a shrine for serious players and collectors around the world.
As Gruhn Guitars approaches its 50th anniversary, it’s hard to name an influential guitarist who hasn’t bought an instrument from the famously articulate and opinionated New York native, a Nashville resident since 1969. It’s no surprise, then, that Gruhn, 73, has plenty to say about prewar instruments, speculators and collectors, old guitars vs. new ones, the state of the vintage guitar market, and the future.
What’s the main difference between the vintage and new guitar markets?
There are many differences. For one thing, there are a lot more recent-issue and utility-used guitars out there than vintage guitars. It took Martin from 1833 to 1947 to make 100,000 guitars, and they hit serial number 100,000 in 1947 and 1,000,000 in 2004. Now they’re now well past 2,000,000, which means the majority of Martin guitars ever made have been made since 2004. Taylor’s also way up. Gibson and Fender are way up. Fender didn’t get started until 1946, but Fender makes a lot more guitars per year than Martin, and it didn’t take long for Fender to make more guitars than Martin had made in their entire history.
The number of vintage guitars, however, is tiny.
The number of vintage Martins is way, way smaller, because the ones that most of the collectors are really looking for were made from about 1928 through the early ’40s.
Which vintage models are most in-demand these days?
The same ones that were popular when I opened the store in January 1970. The golden era hasn’t changed: ’50s electrics and 1920s and ’30s acoustics were the ones sought after then, and they still are. Those are the archetypes.
You’ve mentioned that some instruments took a while to get known.
The F-5 mandolin, for example, was introduced in 1922 in an effort to kick-start mandolin sales after the mandolin orchestra boom began dying. The F-5 was a miserable commercial failure; Gibson lost a lot of money, but later, folks like Bill Monroe discovered that you could play bluegrass on them. The F-5 was too early, by 20 years, to benefit from bluegrass, which didn’t exist as a musical form until about August of ’45—too early for bluegrass and too late for the mandolin orchestra boom.
A lot of these instruments were made for purposes that are not popular today, and what we do play on them was not music envisioned by the designers. Even when Stradivari and Guarneri were making violins, they didn’t imagine players like Paganini, or later, Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman. In fact, the kind of violins Stradivari and Guarneri made have all been hot-rodded to play modern music.
You haven’t noticed any new trends as certain models fall in or out of favor?
Are there new trends, for example, in bluegrass guitars? Not really. Bluegrass players want guitars that are either Martin dreadnoughts or copies of Martin dreadnoughts. They’re looking at a Collings dreadnought, a Santa Cruz dreadnought, a Huss & Dalton dreadnought, or a Pre-War model. These players are looking for something like a Preston Thompson, a copy of an old Martin, not necessarily an innovative new design. The guitars that are selling for bluegrass music are the ones that most closely resemble a 1937 D-28 or a D-18.
What is new is that companies are now able to gear up and make more guitars than ever. CNC machinery permits more guitars to be made with reasonably high standards of quality. Even in the 1960s, Harmony and Kay both sold a lot more guitars than Martin and Gibson, but today, you see a lot more used Martins in good condition than you see old Harmonys. With proper care, a good guitar can last for a couple hundred years, but we see more used Martins on the market and in players’ hands than we do 1960s Harmonys.
What made the difference?
CNC machines. When you went to a music store in the mid-’60s and looked at new Martins, they played OK, and new Gibsons played fine. But new Harmony and Kay guitars often had necks that were warped, or neck angles that were bad before they even left the store. The dovetail joints were not very precision-fitted, and the adjustable truss rods didn’t work. With a CNC machine, you can program it, but when you’re doing it by hand, some things are harder.
Before the introduction of CNC equipment, Harmony and Kay guitars didn’t work well, which is why you don’t see nearly as many used Harmonys available or being played, even by students—most have been thrown away.
Some might assume that instruments from the ’60s and ’70s, which are now considered vintage, are in some way superior to what’s being made today.
When I was starting out, the quality of many new guitars, especially Gibson acoustics, was horrible. You have to go back to the mid-’60s for Gibson acoustics to be good. The late-’60s Gibsons had very narrow necks that were uncomfortable, and ’70s Gibson guitars, with double-X bracing, had terrible neck-set angles and extremely low bridges. They were garbage. Vintage guitars cost no more—and sometimes, less—than buying a new one, and they were better. One reason Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young used old instruments was that they sounded good, and back then, the new ones did not.
But guitar repair has certainly gotten better, right?
Far better. Back in the ’60s, there were hardly any people trained to do good repair. It was a lost art; even Martin and Gibson did lousy repair work. Now there’s lots of people doing good repairs.
Are some new instruments better than the old ones?
A Paul Beard dobro is in many ways built better than the old Dobros. The Beards are not plywood like the old ones were; the tolerances are better, his metal components are better, and he makes his own coverplate and tailpiece, spider bridge, resonator—the whole thing. All that metal work and woodwork, he does it. The only thing he buys are the tuners, and if you get a pickup, he doesn’t make the pickup—though he did co-design it with Jerry Douglas and Fishman. A new Beard guitar is louder, and to most peoples’ ears, it has a better tone than a pre-World War II Dobro. Brand-new resonator guitars are every bit as good as the old ones, or better.
Tell me about your customers. Are they mostly young, or old?
There’s been a huge demographic shift. I have very few customers my age who are actively adding to their collections. For one thing, a lot of the younger folks are playing, but not all. Clearly, many of them listen to music that is composed on a computer rather than a guitar, and people listening to rap and hip-hop are not likely to become great guitar players. But there are indeed a lot of people playing guitar. It is by no means a dead instrument. Most of the younger players, however, don’t have the income to buy vintage guitars.
How would you describe the folks who come into your shop?
There are essentially three different types of buyers: utility-tool users, true collectors, and speculators. They’re all very different than each other, and I can usually tell in the first two minutes what type of buyer a customer is. Sometimes I don’t even have to listen to them—I just watch how they look at a guitar and how they pick one up, and I’ll know already which category they’re in.
A musician/utility-tool user frequently picks up a guitar and doesn’t even look at it; they immediately put it in playing position and start to play, half the time with their eyes closed. The utility users rarely pay over $5,000 for anything. Occasionally they’ll go up to $10,000 but usually not beyond, and they have to be pretty serious to go beyond $5,000. Collectors can go higher, but they are limited by how much income they have. Most collectors are not millionaires.
When did you begin collecting instruments?
When I was still in college. They were affordable enough that I could do that. Frankly, in my generation, most of us couldn’t have afforded to be collectors if the prices got as high as they have. Speculators didn’t bid the prices beyond the reach of most musicians—and even collectors—until the late 1980s, when they started getting high enough that a lot of people could no longer afford to collect.
What made that happen?
Speculators, as well as some collectors, have driven prices way beyond what they were when most of my generation was actively collecting. Most of the guys who play vintage guitars in bands today, if they’re my age or even in their 50s or 60s, bought them before they cost so much. Prices got driven up in a rapid spiral—some things went tenfold—between 2000 and 2007, thanks to speculators; collectors don’t want prices to go up so fast, because soon they can’t even afford instruments anymore. Last week, I sold a sunburst Les Paul for $275,000, and I didn’t pay quite that much for my house, with nine acres.
Some of these things have gotten ridiculous, and that market is delicately poised. It’s a small enough market that if there’s nobody younger stepping up to do it, it could collapse. Prices of Lloyd Loar-signed F-5 mandolins made from 1922 through 1924 peaked in early ’07 and have not recovered; I have six of them for sale right now with no takers. The people who were paying a good price to buy and use them pretty much dropped out by the time prices hit $50,000. They were done. So, it went from $50,000 right on up to about $175,000–$185,000, but it was driven by speculators.
And what do you think of collectors?
Collectors will pay more than a utility-tool user, and when collectors bid them up beyond what utility-tool users are willing to pay, utility-tool users say, “Those hateful collectors are now outbidding me . . . I can no longer afford to have a prewar D-45 or a herringbone D-28.” Well, they only made 91 pre-war D-45s, and when you look at the way some guys treated them, they didn’t deserve to own them. If it hadn’t been for collectors, there’d be no Stradivari or Guarneri violins left today. Collectors take care of stuff, and with proper care, instruments can last multiple human generations. If they’re used only by utility-tool users who have no respect for originality, instruments won’t last even one generation.
How does the aging Baby Boomer population affect the vintage guitar market?
Baby Boomers, who have driven the vintage instrument market, are not going to be in the driver’s seat anymore. They still have a lot of instruments, but they’re not buying much. They bought at two periods in their lives: from puberty to age 25 and then again when they had a midlife crisis. If they went out and bought 50 guitars when they hit age 40, they still have them, and those guitars aren’t worn out; a good one could probably last a couple hundred years, at least.
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And what about their guitar collections?
A lot of instruments will enter the market because Baby Boomer collectors are downsizing or dying. I’m already getting lots of calls from family members of collectors who now have Alzheimer’s and don’t play anymore, estate executors for people who’ve died, and collectors who want to downsize because they have arthritis, can’t play anymore, and are thinking of moving into a retirement community. So that puts downward pressure on that market, at least for a while. These instruments are the true archetypes. They’re genuinely rare, and they’re already bringing in more money than they did three years ago.
So, these instruments are not entering the market at a bargain price.
Well, in many cases, they’re less money than they were ten years ago, but I do not expect that they’re going to go down from here. Are prices likely to go dramatically lower for things like a good herringbone D-28, a good pre-WWII 000-28, or a Gibson Advanced Jumbo? No.
Do you think younger players and collectors will step up?
I could be hopeful that Generation X and Millennials will have more money later, and may get into collecting more, but most of them can’t afford to be collectors.
Are there great new instruments for working musicians, utility-tool users, who can’t afford a vintage instrument?
If you can’t afford $50,000–$60,000 for a golden-era D-28 or $100,000 for a ’37 that’s squeaky clean—which is down a bit from what they were ten years ago, when they were going for $125,000–$150,000—you can buy a guitar for under $5,000 that is really good. The quality of new acoustics today is quite good, and it’s true for banjos and mandolins, too. For $2,400, you can buy a D-18 Standard, which has a comfortable neck, a truss rod that works, and forward-shifted and scalloped bracing. They’re good—better than a 1970 or most of the ones made through the ’60s—and they cost less. The really great vintage ones, of that 1930s era, are the ones that beat them. You can even buy a guitar for under $500 that’s also good enough to take onstage and use professionally, like a Seagull, made in Canada, which is way better than the Harmonys and Kays used to be—and adjusted for inflation, cheaper!
What about Martins?
My Martin Custom D-18 and 0000-18 Sinker mahogany guitars are some of the best guitars made in my lifetime. They’re not better than what Martin made in the mid-’30s, but when you consider that they’re brand new, not even broken in yet, and they rival or beat most anything made in the past 70 years, they’re definitely good enough to take onstage. Vince Gill is even playing some of my Sinker mahogany Martins onstage with the Eagles; they’re some of his primary road guitars.
Do you think they’ll be collectible in the future?
That depends on what’s being made new in the future. Right now, there are plenty of vintage instruments that are actually selling for less money than it would cost to make a replica. How collectible is something if you can get the vintage original, like the 100-year-old F-4 mandolin, in good condition for $5,000–$6,000? You couldn’t build a replica of it for that.
Will a great instrument that’s new today have the magic after a few decades of being played?
Those new Sinker mahogany guitars are pretty magical. Unlike the early ’70s, when you absolutely had to buy an old guitar if you wanted something good, you now can get a new guitar for much less money than a vintage one, and it can be really good. But it’s delusional to think that the new ones are better than the old ones. Some of the new ones come astonishingly close, but a 1937 D-28 or D-45 has not been beaten yet. The same is true of fine electric guitars such as pre-CBS Fenders and 1950s–1960s Gibson electric guitars.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.