“The first time you pick up a really great 1920s or 1930s Martin, it’s a life-changing experience,” says Fred Oster. “I get a certain feeling about an old Martin. I might have the same feeling about a 400-year-old violin.”
Oster is explaining his dedication to vintage instruments as we sit among his personal guitar collection. We’re in a room tucked away on the third floor of his Victorian-era mansion on South Broad Street, in Center City Philadelphia. The 13,000-square-foot building houses his two businesses, Vintage Instruments and Frederick W. Oster Fine Violins, and contains some of the finest and oldest examples of acoustic guitars to be found in any one place.
I ask Oster which one guitar I need to play. Without pausing to think, he reaches for a nearby case, battered with wear, and hands me a prewar Martin OM-28 that once belonged to the folk musician and folklorist Mike Seeger—the same instrument that C.F. Martin & Company recently used as the template for its OM-28 Authentic 1931 model. It’s among the finest acoustic guitars I’ve ever played. Thanks to the well-worn edges of the fretboard, the neck fits perfectly in my hand, and every square inch of the guitar sings with each note I play.
“This guitar attests to how good Martins were, “ Oster says. It was made in 1931 and was played the crap out of—the fretboard is worn right through the inlays and there’s no finish left on the neck. But the neck has never been reset and this bridge has never been off. The guitar doesn’t have a single crack, even though it was played for 40 years in the New Lost City Ramblers, in every imaginable condition.”
Naturally, Oster doesn’t stop at the OM-28. He hands me a few other guitars, including a 1942 Gibson J-45 that he says is one of the best-sounding examples he’s ever heard. I concur. While much less worn than the OM-28, it has plenty of vibe, and its warm tone is undiminished as I dig in with my pick at Oster’s suggestion.
“I want customers to feel like they’re in this nice, old, quiet, safe place to try acoustic instruments.”
“I’m strangely attached to this one,” Oster says, explaining that he sold the J-45, only to have it come back to his shop a year later. I ask him if he missed it when it was gone. “Oh, yeah. You totally get into a guitar and you can easily miss it. Sometimes you don’t even want to play it so much if it’s a great thing. I don’t want to get attached,” he admits, but he obviously can’t help himself.
Oster, who is 65, grew up in Philadelphia and started playing folk music and collecting guitars in high school. “Back then, you could get old guitars very cheaply. I was buying Martins out of newspaper advertisements. I was a pretty happy guy because I could see how well these mystical creatures played and how they felt,” he says.
Oster moved away in 1970 to attend a prelaw program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. It was there that he expanded his musical interests to include old-time, Appalachian, and Irish music. While applying to law school, he had a sudden revelation that his true passion was for guitars. He says, “The idea that you could be around the things that you liked that much and somehow make a living was quite astounding for me.”
After a short-lived attempt at running a guitar store in North Jersey, Oster moved back to Philadelphia. He opened Vintage Instruments in January 1975, determined to specialize in only the instruments he was passionate about, despite skepticism from friends. Oster remembers, “One of my colleagues had a shop in Pittsburgh at the time. I told him I was opening a guitar shop in Philly and he said, ‘What lines are you carrying?’ I didn’t know what a line was. So I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m just gonna do old stuff.’ He goes, ‘You’ll be out of business in six months.’ And I wasn’t, because I like the old stuff and it’s easier to represent. You like selling those to people. You like the experience of giving them something you feel good about. That’s what the whole shop was—and is—based on.”
As much as he was into selling old Martins, Oster was soon struck by violins, and he found that his passion for bowed instruments equaled and sometimes even exceeded his feelings about guitars, despite his not being a player. “I branched into violins because I found them more intriguing,” he says. “It’s a study that you never quite get fully educated in. You just keep looking at them.”
By the 1980s, Oster continued to run his shop in Philadelphia, though he spent much of his time working for Christie’s in New York as the head of its musical instruments department, and part-time for the auction house in London. “Throughout the 1980s I was on the road all the time. Christie’s would send me to different places to look at instruments, mostly violins, so I’d be in London five or six times a year for a week at a time,” Oster says, adding that he through his work with Christie’s, he joined PBS’ Antiques Roadshow as an appraiser.
Inside his shop, Oster’s passion and attention to detail extends to the impressive surroundings. The mansion is as grand and exquisitely detailed as the instruments that are found within: Original wood trim fills the building, golden wallpaper hangs on the walls, and a large wooden staircase at the center of the house winds up to the elegant stained glass skylight at the top of the third floor, illuminating the building. It is a fully immersive experience that Oster has created for his customers, and it is unlike any other. “I want customers to feel like they’re in this nice, old, quiet, safe place to try acoustic instruments,” he says.
The breadth and depth of Oster’s collection is hard to comprehend. As we tour the building, stopping in the violin room, the large strings room, the string workshop, the reference library, the guitar room, and the banjo and mandolin room—not to mention the private collection—valuable and historic instruments abound, hanging on walls and stored in large cases and vaults. Just when I think I’ve seen everything a room has to offer, Oster will reach into a closet and pull out a case with a treasured instrument, like a 1923 Lloyd Loar–signed Gibson F-5 mandolin, or he’ll tell me that in another room he has a cittern that is the earliest known fretted instrument made in the United States. And, of course, his uncanny collection of Martins dates back to the 1830s, and we visit with those throughout.
Talking with Oster about guitars, I find his passion for vintage instruments contagious. He doesn’t just love them, he wants you to know why and find something you love about them, too. Oster says, “I think you fall in love with these guitars, and you don’t lose that experience of falling in love with them. I never have, and that’s why I still do this.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.