Story by Alan di Perna | Photography by Clay Patrick McBride
This article originally appeared in Guitar Aficionado, Winter 2011. Buy this issue here.
If there is anything George Gruhn loves more than guitars, it’s reptiles. Had his life’s course run a little differently, Gruhn might well have been a professor of herpetology at some ivy-clad university. As it happens, he is the undisputed dean of the vintage guitar trade, an expert whose opinion is often sought and cited, and whose vintage guitar shop, Gruhn Guitars, at 400 Broadway in Nashville, has become a mecca for rock stars, well-heeled collectors, and guitar geeks of every stripe. Among these pilgrims, Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars: An Identification Guide for American Fretted Instruments—co-written with Walter Carter and now in its third edition—is revered as the collectors’ bible.
“I could joke about it and say that my specialization in reptile behavior has helped me deal with certain dealers or musicians,” Gruhn says. “But that’s not really true. What my zoological background gives me is a systematic way of looking at guitars, which I view very much as being alive. And they fit very nicely in a taxonomic system, which is what I’ve developed in my books. I look at guitars in the same way a herpetologist studies reptiles and amphibians. You look at their structural features and you study them in their environment. Guitars evolve over time in their design as they adapt to an environment that includes social, demographic, and technological changes, not to mention musical and economic trends.”
Gruhn is obsessive; many might call him eccentric. His Nashville shop is populated by 13 snakes, three lizards, and a parrot. “I can’t keep snakes at home,” he grumbles. “My wife doesn’t like ’em. My previous wife was okay with them, but not this one. She likes cats.” Paramount among the feline menagerie chez Gruhn are two African serval cats, Pogo and Pandora, massive beasts more akin to a cheetah than a domestic tabby. “Their litter box use is not as reliable as a domestic cat’s,” Gruhn says. “I’m not going to claim that they’re the perfect house pet for everyone.”
But Gruhn’s intimidating pets haven’t kept guitar collectors from his door. “Billy Gibbons has bought over 100 guitars from me since 1970,” he reports. “Rick Nielsen has bought over 100 guitars from me, also going back to ’70. I have other customers who have been buying from me ever since the mid Sixties, before I even had a store. They keep coming back for more. Basically, I only lose customers when they get senile or die. My basic business plan for the future is to outlive them all. My uncle Otto lived to be 105, and I’m just 65 now. So that gives me another 40 years of sales. I don’t have a retirement plan. How do you retire from a hobby?”
Gruhn traces today’s lucrative market for vintage American guitars back to the folk music boom of the late Fifties and early Sixties. It makes sense that devotees of old-time musical traditions would also value instruments with a past. Folk is what first got Gruhn hooked on guitars in 1963 while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Searching for a guitar he could use to play traditional music in the style of the Carter Family, he went through a Conde Hermanos classical from Madrid, a circa-1920 Gibson Style 0, and a 1937 Martin F7 archtop before lighting on a Gibson L-5 signed and dated by Lloyd Loar. For this, he paid the princely sum of $400 at Sid Sherman’s music store on Wabash Street in Chicago. “On a college student’s income, that was a lot of money,” he says. “But that guitar today would be worth 50 or 60 thousand dollars.”
In essence, Gruhn began dealing to support his growing vintage guitar addiction. “I have never been an electric player,” he says. “I’m only interested in acoustics. But I found that for every guitar I wanted personally to collect, I’d turn up 50 more that were terrific deals, even though I didn’t want them for myself. So I could sell those and make a profit. Mommy and Daddy gave me money to cover my apartment rent, books, food, et cetera, at the beginning of each month. I could blow it all on guitars, and within a week I could sell some of them, make all the money back, and have a few guitars to keep. The only way I was going to get to keep something like a Lloyd Loar L-5 was to sell something else.”
In those pre-internet days, Gruhn would source guitars through classified newspaper ads, college bulletin boards, and a few Chicago stores, such as the Fret Shop, that sold used and vintage instruments. “I don’t claim that I created the vintage guitar market,” he says. “There were folks, like Jon Lundberg in California, who were already dealing to some extent, as well as Harry West in New York and Tom Morgan in Tennessee. But I was certainly one of the first to write about it extensively. When I started in ’63, you couldn’t get as much as a Martin serial-number list. There were no articles. No books.”
Gruhn’s early vintage guitar articles appeared in small bluegrass publications like Muleskinner News and Bluegrass Unlimited. But with the advent of professional guitar journalism in the Seventies, his name became ubiquitous. To this day, however, he retains a kind of folk-purist/acoustic-guitar snobbery. “There wasn’t any interest at all in vintage electric guitars until later on,” he says. “In 1963, you could buy a ’59 sunburst Les Paul for under $200, and more typically about $100—if you could find one, that is. I remember going into a pawnshop near the University of Chicago one day and they had a ’57 Stratocaster, custom color black, with gold-plated hardware. It looked new. And it was $75. I bought it, although there was not a big demand for it.”
Interest in vintage electrics didn’t heat up, Gruhn recalls, until the soon-to-be-legendary blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965, conspicuously wielding a Les Paul. “When I first met Mike, he played only acoustic,” Gruhn recalls. “I never saw him play electric until he joined Butterfield. But once he did, everything changed overnight. He had a gold-top Les Paul at first, and that’s what everyone wanted. People didn’t want a sunburst. They’d tell me, ‘That’s not the right guitar. Those Tune-o-matic bridges kill sustain, and those humbucking pickups just sound sickly sweet and syrupy. They don’t bite like those good P-90s.’ They’d pay me $600 or $700 for a gold-top. For a sunburst, they didn’t want to pay more than $250. But within two weeks after Bloomfield switched to a ’burst—in fact he’d asked me to find him a ’burst, and I couldn’t—the situation went completely the other way. The very same people who’d told me a sunburst was no good only two weeks earlier were now swearing that they’d never said any such thing.”
It was an important lesson in fluctuating market values for Gruhn, who learned to follow, as well as anticipate, market trends. By the time he’d moved on to graduate studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the late Sixties, he was dealing heavily. On summer breaks, he’d make the round of folk festivals down south, selling vintage guitars. By this point he’d made the sad discovery that one day dawns upon many an earnest grad student: there just aren’t a lot of jobs, academic or otherwise, for people with advanced degrees in specialized fields like herpetology. Then he received a phone call that shaped his destiny.
“At the end of 1968, probably in December, I got a call from Hank Williams Jr. at my apartment in Knoxville,” Gruhn recalls. “He’d heard from Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers on the Opry that I had a bunch of old Martins, and he was looking for those. I told him a bit about what I had. He said, ‘I’ll be there in four hours.’ Well, there was no interstate between Nashville and Knoxville in ’68. It was all winding, two-lane mountain roads. Normally you couldn’t do it in four hours. But Hank did. He was driving a Jaguar E, which doesn’t have much hauling capacity. So he bought three guitars; he didn’t have room in the car for more. But he said he could be back the next day with a bigger car. He came back with a Cadillac Eldorado and bought as many guitars as that car could hold.
“He said he didn’t know of anybody in Nashville who had the sort of stuff that I had, and if I ever wanted to come to Nashville and set up in business, he’d have an apartment waiting for me and help me get started. It seemed like a good idea. I dropped out of school and moved to Nashville. For a couple of years, Hank Williams Jr. was the best customer I had in Nashville. To a considerable extent, he was supporting me just by buying guitars that he personally wanted. But I was also still actively wheeling and dealing. I remember selling a Dobro to Duane Allman in 1969. At that time, a fancy Dobro was only $350. And Duane paid me at the rate of $50 every other week. Music was not a lucrative career for him at that time. The part of his career where he had any money was very brief.”
In 1970, Gruhn opened his first shop, at 111 Fourth Avenue North in Nashville, about 100 yards from Gruhn’s current location and right behind the Ryman Auditorium, then home of the Grand Ole Opry and country icon Johnny Cash’s influential network TV variety show. “All the performers who played the Johnny CashShow came into our store,” says Gruhn. “We had vintage stuff they found fascinating. Back then there weren’t any stores nearby that were selling vintage instruments. And serious musicians weren’t interested in new stuff because it was crap; 1970 was a low, low point for new-instrument quality. So we met Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell, Derek and the Dominos—you name it.”
Gruhn is notoriously underwhelmed by rock stars and is famous for failing even to recognize worldwide musical icons when they walk into his shop. “I could care less about them,” he says with a shrug. “For instance, Metallica comes in here anytime they’re in town. They buy. Do I know the guys? Not really. My employees know who they are. If James Hetfield walks through the door, would I know who he is? No. When it comes down to it, I really don’t listen to much recorded music. The last time I owned a record player was when I was at the University of Chicago. I just recently broke down and bought a CD player, but I never listen to it.”
In a way, Gruhn’s indifference to musical trends has been his strength. He’s never catered to any one genre or style of musical instrument. “I’d starve to death if I had to rely on country players alone,” he says. “If you walk in my shop, you’d never know what kind of music I was into. If you’re selling vintage instruments, I’ve never understood why you’d specialize in any one type of instrument. I buy what I find. If you don’t buy something that’s a ridiculous, screaming deal, you’re an idiot.”
Gruhn has flourished through the decades, moving to a bigger shop in ’76. At the dawn of the Nineties he brought guitar historian Walter Carter into the fold to assist in the creation of the first Gruhn Guide. “It’s organized like a zoological field guide,” Gruhn says. “One of the most influential books in my life was the Schmidt and Davis Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada, which was published in 1941. The identification keys used for guitars in the Gruhn Guide were very much modeled on those snake identification keys. You won’t see any other guitar books with a key like that.”
Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars was first published in 1991 and has recently gone into its third edition. “It’s very much changed,” Gruhn says. “It not only expands on the first and second editions; there’s also reorganization.”
While continuing to act as Gruhn’s co-author, Carter has also become the sales manager of Gruhn’s retail operation, and Carter’s wife, Christie, is currently the shop’s business manager. The store moved to its third and present location in 1993. Gruhn Guitars now occupies a 13,000-square-foot, four-story building at 400 Broadway in Nashville. The showroom occupies only about a quarter of the total space. Gruhn needs a good deal of room for storage and also an extensive repair shop where newly acquired guitars are painstakingly but unobtrusively restored to pristine condition prior to sale.
“In nature, almost all the most successful animals have a body that’s quite a bit bigger than their head,” Gruhn philosophizes. “Characters in political cartoons are the other way around—the head is bigger than the body. A business that’s built like a political cartoon will fail, whereas one that’s built like a real live animal will thrive.”
Which Gruhn has certainly done. His single largest sale, of which he’s quite proud, was a guitar belonging to Maybelle Carter, which sold for $575,000 and now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Gruhn’s personal collection has waxed and waned over the years and currently numbers about 75 instruments. He’s particularly fond of his 1928 and ’29 Gibson L-5s, 1928 L-10, D’Angelico mandolin, 1928 Gibson F-4 mandolin, and vintage five-string banjos, of which he has about 20. He’s stoic about the current downturn in the vintage guitar market.
“It’s going through a bit of a shock now,” he says. “We’re faced with a demographic change and a lousy economy. The baby boomers entered the market in a big way around 1984, when they were going through their midlife crises and went out and bought a little red sports car, tennis racket, vintage guitars, and other toys. But right now, they’re getting old and they aren’t in the acquisition stage of their life cycle anymore. It’s a lot harder to sell somebody their 35th guitar than it is to sell them their fourth and fifth guitar. And Generation X couldn’t give a shit. They’re hitting their midlife crisis now, but they’re not into vintage the way the baby boomers are.
“And on top of all that, we’ve had a speculative boom that bid prices up way too high. In early 2002, a ’56 gold-top Les Paul with P-90s and a Tune-o-matic bridge wasn’t much over $7,500. But by late ’06, early ’07, that same guitar was something like $85,000. That’s an elevenfold increase in three and a half years, which is not sustainable. It’s nuts.
“The simple fact is, there are three types of buyers. There are utility-tool users, who are not the same as collectors; they want something that sounds good and plays well, but there’s a limit to what they’ll pay, and they’re not that concerned about originality. Collectors, on the other hand, are very much interested in total originality, or as close to it as they can get.
“Then you have speculators, which are a different breed entirely. Collectors and utility-tool users are buying the instruments to keep them; speculators buy them to flip them for a higher price than they paid. When the market is dominated by collectors and utility users, it has a solid base. But when you get in a position where speculators bid the price higher than any end user who intends to keep the instrument will pay, then you’re like Wile E. Coyote skating on thin air chasing the Roadrunner.
“So now the market is correcting to what collectors and musicians are actually willing to pay. It may overcorrect for a while. It’s going through some gyrations and stress. But will it cave in totally? Probably not.”
For all his market savvy and years in the trade, Gruhn retains an almost adolescent enthusiasm for cool vintage guitars. Perhaps that is the real key to his success.
“If I had as much money as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, I’d still collect guitars,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have to put up with some of the crap I do now in dealing with people who sell guitars. But I’d still collect them. I still love them. I’m not bored.”
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