“It had been sawed straight down the middle. My grandfather said, ‘Good riddance, get it out of here’”: Ben Harper’s grandfather sold Woody Guthrie’s wildly modded Martin on the cheap because he didn’t know it belonged to the folk legend

Ben Harper Woody Guthrie
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“At first, I thought every kid had a music store in their family,” says Ben Harper, whose grandparents founded Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, 66 years ago. 

For a short time, his family also ran a venue (1965-1970) called the Golden Ring – playing host to names like Doc Watson, John Fahey, and Reverend Gary Davis – and presented the Claremont Folk Festival.  

In Folk Music Center, musical instruments hang in every corner, and the store has seen some exceptional gear pass through its doors in the two generations it has been open. 

Perhaps right at the front of that long list was an acoustic guitar that once belonged to folk music legend Woody Guthrie, who was friends with Harper's grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase. 

Although, at the time of stocking the strangely modified guitar, its history was lost to Charles. 

“A guitar wandered into the shop,” Harper explains in the latest issue of Guitar Player. “It was a Martin that been cut in a way that doesn't even make sense. It had been sawed straight down the middle [like a sandwich]. 

Ben Harper and his mother, Ellen in the Folk Music Center, June 2014

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Someone had opened it up and placed tongue depressors inside to space it out, as an experiment to see what it would sound like. My grandfather's first thought was, 'What a shame, you've ruined a great Martin!' It was a double-0 or a triple-0.

“My grandfather buys it for a nominal fee because it's damaged goods. It hangs on the wall for one or two years. Finally, someone makes an offer and my grandfather says, 'Good riddance, get it out of here.'”    

Another folk great, Pete Seeger, later came into the store looking for some Martins. Harper's grandfather then relayed the story of the strangely expanded acoustic he'd just sold. Seeger posed a few questions about its details, all of which Chase confirmed. To that, Seeger said: “That was Woody Guthrie's guitar. Woody and I did that in his shred!” 

Unfortunately, Charles' attempts to get the guitar back were in vain. By the time he discovered the guitar’s history and called to try and get it back, the new owner had already spoken to Martin. They’d discovered that Guthrie was the registered owner and refused to resell it to the store. 

Harper agreed the instrument should be a museum piece, but its whereabouts today are sadly a mystery. 

Harper’s recent interview with Guitar Player also saw him discuss working with Harry Styles on the Grammy-winning record, Harry’s House. The former One Direction star had asked for a particular guitar to be brought to the studio, but Harper had already gifted it to his daughter.   

To pick up the new issue of Guitar Player – which features a lengthy discussion with Harper about the inspirations and gear behind his new album, Wide Open Light – head on over to Magazines Direct

Phil Weller

A freelance writer with a penchant for music that gets weird, Phil is a regular contributor to ProgGuitar World, and Total Guitar magazines and is especially keen on shining a light on unknown artists. Outside of the journalism realm, you can find him writing angular riffs in progressive metal band, Prognosis, in which he slings an 8-string Strandberg Boden Original, churning that low string through a variety of tunings. He's also a published author and is currently penning his debut novel which chucks fantasy, mythology and humanity into a great big melting pot.