Guitar Aficionado

Songbirds Guitar Museum Opens with the Best Instruments from Private Collections

The Chattanooga museum puts some of the greatest privately owned guitars in the public spotlight.

This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features from our Country Music Special Issue—including interviews with country music legend Vince Gill and top-flight picker Brent Mason—plus the guitar design innovations of late jazz giant Tal Farlow, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.

Songbirds cofounders Johnny Smith (left) and David Davidson.

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COMMUNITY COLLECTION: The Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga exhibits the
best instruments from private collectors, sharing them in the public spotlight.

By Alan di Perna | Photography by Jeff Fasano

“We decided to build a Mecca for guitar lovers,” Songbirds Guitar Museum curator and COO David Davidson says. Located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, inside the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Terminal Station, Songbirds is indeed destined to become a pilgrimage site for vintage guitar connoisseurs and music fans in general. With some 550 rare, fascinating, and beautiful electric and acoustic guitars on display as of the museum’s March 10 opening, Songbirds represents an interesting new concept in musical instrument museums. There is no permanent collection. Instead the instruments are on loan from many of the world’s foremost collectors, who prefer to remain anonymous. Audio-video material, artifacts, and other onsite resources help bring the stories of these exceptional instruments to life.

“I was reluctant to call this place a museum,” says Johnny Smith, Songbirds’ president and co-founder. “I love museums, but they tend to have an environment that’s respectful, quiet, very clean, and polished. I wanted Songbirds to be rock and roll—loud, flashy, and exciting.”

Davidson and Smith began formulating the idea for the attraction several years ago. As co-owner of the New York vintage dealership We Buy Guitars, Davidson had cultivated deep connections within the guitar-collecting community, having procured coveted instruments for many collectors. He began to talk to his clients about lending some of their guitars to an institution where they could be viewed and appreciated by the general public.

“It’s a way of giving something back to the guitar community,” Davidson says. “There are only so many toys someone can have. Although it was not my place to volunteer up their guitars at any point, it really came down to the fact that this was a golden opportunity. Everybody’s getting a little bit older and, let’s face it, there is no more Beatles. If people were not made aware of vintage guitars for what they are, I feared—we all feared—that, 20 years from now, these things could all be firewood.”

The duo began scouting locations for the new museum, eventually settling on Chattanooga. “We looked at many locations, including New York, L.A., Boston, Seattle, and Nashville,” Davidson explains. “But we felt that most of these places are saturated with other museums and things to do during the day, whereas Chattanooga is an up-and-coming city.”

Creating the museum’s space within the historic train station was a $4.5 million project, masterminded by architect Thomas Palmer of the Chattanooga firm Cogent Studio. Layers of plaster and terra cotta tile were removed to reveal the structure’s original brickwork and steel beams. In an echo of the interior’s architectural features, display cases for the instruments and artifacts were custom-fabricated from steel and reclaimed hardwood by Range Products of Chattanooga.

Of the museum’s total 7,500 square feet, about 6,700 are devoted to exhibit space. The instruments on display span the full range of vintage American electric and acoustic guitars and include a selection of banjos and mandolins.

“It’s all vintage—no reissues,” Davidson says. “We don’t have refinished guitars or guitars that have been modified or damaged and put back together. We take a lot of pride in that.” Davidson places the value of the instruments on exhibit at approximately $150 million, which isn’t surprising, considering that more than 30 sunburst Gibson Les Pauls from the legendary 1958–’60 period are on display. On the acoustic front, there’s a trove of pre-war Martins as well as a trio of 1924 instruments by iconic luthier Lloyd Loar: a Gibson F-5 mandolin, an H-5 mandola, and an L-5 archtop guitar, all with inside labels signed by Loar.

The guitars currently on display include celebrity instruments like these guitars once owned by Roy Orbison, Buddy Guy, Robby Krieger, and Bo Diddley.

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The exhibit space is divided into three galleries. For a general admission fee of $15.95 ($12.95 for seniors and military; free for children under 12), visitors can view the main gallery. This is primarily an educational space that traces the evolution and cultural significance of the electric guitar in the Fifties through the Seventies through some 300 vintage instruments as well as audio, artifacts, and other resources. iPad stations and a custom iBook app provide more detailed information. Planned for the museum’s opening are breakout exhibits devoted to the British Invasion, surf music, and bluegrass.

Guitar connoisseurs will want to pony up $36 for the museum’s all-access tour, which includes the main gallery as well as a guided tour of two additional galleries. One of these, known as the Green Room, is the site of an exhibit titled “The World of Color,” featuring a stunning array of custom-color vintage Telecasters and Stratocasters that represents, according to Davidson, “virtually every color Fender made.” This is accompanied by a comprehensive selection of custom-color Gibsons, including a large number of Firebird guitars and Thunderbird basses. The Green Room is also designed to host intimate concerts and other events.

The museum’s third gallery, known as the Vault, has about 75 guitars on exhibit. “These are prototypes, one-offs, and employee-built guitars from the factories back in the Fifties and Sixties,” Davidson says. “There are many things that people would never see otherwise.”

One highlight of the Vault is an ultra-rare Fender “Pinecaster,” an Esquire/Broadcaster prototype from 1950 with a pine body, non-truss-rod neck and two lap-steel pickups. Painted red and bearing the serial number 0009, it’s thought to be the first-ever dual-pickup Esquire/Broadcaster prototype. (For a very brief period, Fender used the name Esquire for both single- and dual-pickup models before adopting the name Broadcaster for dual-pickup guitars.)

“It was a test instrument for Fender for many years,” Davidson says. “It probably has about 20 different coats of paint on it from down through the years. It was in the Fender Museum for a while, and it had seen a bit of travel before it came to us.”

Also on exhibit in the Vault are a 1954 Stratocaster belonging to key Fender employee George Fullerton and a custom black 1954 Strat owned by guitar ace and early Fender endorsee Jimmy Bryant. Several prototypes from the hand of legendary German luthier Roger Rossmeisl’s post-Rickenbacker period at Fender are on display, including a hollowbody Stratocaster prototype and an early Thinline Telecaster prototype in Wildwood Green with two f-holes and block fretboard inlays. From Gibson’s history comes a 1954 Les Paul Custom with a chambered body, reflecting an early effort on Gibson’s part to make the Les Paul lighter.

One unique feature of both the Green Room and the Vault is that visitors deemed qualified by the tour guide might be given an opportunity to handle and play some of the guitars on exhibit. This is one feature that makes Songbirds a little bit like a vintage guitar shop rather than a traditional museum. Along these same lines is Songbirds’ vintage guitar appraisal partnership with Davidson’s We Buy Guitars.

“We don’t sell any guitars at the museum,” Davidson clarifies. “But We Buy Guitars will have an appraisal and buying office there. A well-trained appraiser will be there to look at things like condition and originality. If we’re interested in buying a guitar, it will be shipped to We Buy Guitars in New York or added to the museum’s collection.”

A variety of cool and unusual Gretsch guitars.

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While arrangements such as these might elicit cringes on the part of traditional museum professionals—not to mention owners of rival vintage guitar shops—they do promise an enhanced guest experience for guitar geeks who visit Songbirds. Smith admits that the museum’s unique concept did make it a difficult sell at first for potential investors and others.

“It was kind of tough saying, ‘Here in Tennessee, we’ve got one of the best guitar collections that has ever been assembled in the world on display.’ It was hard for people to wrap their heads around it.”

But that began to change when legendary country guitarist and noted collector Vince Gill signed on as the museum’s ambassador. He performed at a pre-opening party at Songbirds on March 9, and museum guests will be greeted by a welcome video that Gill taped for the museum, played on a giant 16-by-eight-foot LED screen at the museum’s entry.

“I’m really just a hood ornament at this point,” Gill says with typical self-deprecating humor. “This is an unbelievable collection. It’s staggering. I’m anxious just to get the feel of this stuff and play some of it.”

Gill also curated a display case exhibiting 15 iconic guitars from the museum’s collection that parallel instruments from Gill’s own personal collection. These include a 1938 Gibson Advanced Jumbo, a 1939 Martin 000-45, a 1950 Broadcaster, a 1954 Stratocaster, a 1956 Gretsch Sparkle Jet, and a 1959 Gibson Les Paul.

“I picked out instruments from the museum’s collection that I really liked and that had a personal connection to me,” Gill says. “I just wanted to parallel the things I have.”

One might describe Songbirds as the first guitar museum created by guitar aficionados for guitar aficionados. “One of the criticisms of guitar museums in general is that the guitars behind glass should be played,” Smith says. “We want people to know that these instruments do not live behind glass permanently. We have plans to rotate the exhibits, because the guys who own these guitars want them back to play them. And that also means there will be something new to see here every time you come back.”

To learn more about Songbirds Guitar Museum, visit their website.

This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features from our Country Music Special Issue—including interviews with country music legend Vince Gill and top-flight picker Brent Mason—plus the guitar design innovations of late jazz giant Tal Farlow, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.

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