My bass player had no idea what he had found. It was the day after my band performed at the Maui Sugar Mill in Tarzana, California, and, while looking for a coffee joint in a strip mall, he said he had stumbled over “this cool guitar store called ‘Fred’s Rare Guitars.’” It took a second for my brain to recalibrate and realize he had walked into the famous and celebrated Norman’s Rare Guitars—since 1975, a fantastic hangout for obsessed guitarists and a glorious mecca of vintage wonders.
Founder Norman Harris is still going strong 48 years after opening the store. Though always one of the hot spots for collectors in the know, social media has exploded the vintage retailer’s profile, bringing in billions of views for his videos of guitar legends and stars visiting the store, as well as his own homey gear tutorials. He recently penned Confessions of a Vintage Guitar Dealer: The Memoirs of Norman Harris [Hal Leonard, available at backwingstore.com], and loves his work so much that retirement is as unthinkable as slicing off his own head with a grapefruit knife.
So how does it feel to be a social-media powerhouse?
[Laughs.] I have to give my kids and some of my younger employees credit, because I was the last to get onboard. I’m kind of old school. I like dealing with people face to face—talking about guitars in person and all that. I was like, “This is so impersonal.” But social media really exposed us to so many people. It’s kind of crazy how many people follow these videos.
How did you first come to be involved in this crazy vintage scene?
In the late ’60s, I was a Hammond organ player in a band, and we had two guys who switched off between guitar and bass. One of them had a ’62 ES-335 with PAFs, and it had a wide neck at the nut with an even width all the way down. New models at the time had a really narrow nut, and then the neck width got bigger, so the ’62 had a whole different feel. We were pretty enamored of that guitar, because we’d go into a music store and play a new one, and then we’d play his, and his ’62 was so much better. That was what set the light bulb off. Then, while both of the guys played guitar and bass, neither of them actually owned a bass. So I said, “I’ll go buy a bass. I’ll try to learn how to play it, and you guys can use it.” So I bought an old Fender Jazz bass for 25 bucks from an ad in the Miami Herald, and everybody who played it wanted to buy it. I thought, “That’s kind of cool. Everybody wants this old bass more than they want a new bass.” My interest in old guitars really evolved from there.
What was the collector’s market like when you first started out?
Well, a Sunburst Les Paul was 800 bucks, and people were screaming and complaining. “That’s so much money—it���s ridiculous.” Then, the price for one went to about $1,500, and eventually up to 50 grand and beyond. Finally people were going, “You know, this is probably a pretty good instrument [laughs].”
How was information shared regarding what was collectible and why?
You know, the first magazine to address any of this stuff was Guitar Player with its Rare Bird column that spotlighted old guitars and talked about them. That was the first real information out there. Otherwise, you had to go to old guys and ask questions. There were almost like cliques in every city where guitarists who were into that stuff tried to soak up every piece of information about old guitars they could. It was kind of a word-of-mouth thing. People would go, “Here, try this old guitar. Now, try this new one.” And they’d pick up on what the differences were. There was really nothing in writing before the Rare Bird column. You couldn’t look on the Internet back then [laughs].
Still, it seems like it didn’t take too long for even the public at large to become aware of the value of old guitars.
It took a while, but that’s true. You know, Bound for Glory —the Woody Guthrie story starring David Carradine—was the first movie we supplied instruments to. David was a guitar collector, and he said, “This movie is about the Dust Bowl era, and we want to have the instruments correct.” Prior to that, nobody would care, so that was really the first movie where they really tried to pay attention to the guitar’s historical details.
Eventually, the vintage market inspired off-shore clones, and then reissue programs by American manufacturers. How did all of that come about?
What happened was that American companies were so interested in the bottom line that they started cutting costs. They were going, “For two dollars less, we can do this instead of that. We can use this cheaper type of fret wire, or we can save money on this pot or capacitor.” Eventually, the Japanese companies picked up on that. They asked, “Why are people paying so much for these old guitars?” Then, they started coming out with models that were as close as they could get to the old guitars.
So the American companies finally woke up, and said, “We’ve got to go back to what we were doing, and figure why people are paying so much for our old guitars. We’re going to be put out of business by all of these foreign companies that realized what we were doing back then.” I think the early ’80s or so was when companies started having the custom shops and reissuing Strats and Les Pauls. They created a new market, and there are some really good reissues now. But what it really comes down to is nobody has even been able to make a case—like a Les Paul case—where you cannot detect the difference between a new one and a vintage one. And if they can’t duplicate a case, how can they duplicate a guitar? They can get 90 percent there, but there are some things they just can’t get.
Do you have to go on the hunt for rare guitars at this point, or do the instruments simply find their way to your store?
Some of it comes to me, because we’ve been established for so many years. But I also go to trade shows, and I often fly to people who have collections of guitars to sell. One thing that’s very interesting is a lot of our market has been based on the exchange rate. When the dollar was very weak against the yen and the euro, we were getting a tremendous amount of European and Japanese customers. At one point, nearly 50 percent of my business was international. Now, the dollar is strong, so that’s changed, and Americans have really picked up on it. I may be having the best year I’ve ever had.
Is there any particular model that has eluded you?
Everyone has looked for the Gibson Moderne. They are said to exist, but nobody has really found one that’s confirmed.
Which vintage guitars still excite you the most?
For me, I love ES-335s. Blonde dots are pretty hard to beat. Obviously, I still love some Les Pauls and Strats. Guitars that are a little more under the radar are kind of coming up, as well. I’ve seen a lot of younger bands buying Jaguars and Jazzmasters, and I also see a lot of interest in Gibson J-45 and Hummingbird acoustics.
Do you ever get a little cranky if really great players don’t embrace the vintage-guitar culture?
There are some people who don’t get it, and I don’t try to convince players if it just doesn’t make any sense to them. It’s a quality where you either feel it, and you get it, or you don’t. If you’re happy playing a new guitar, play a new guitar—there’s a lot of good stuff being made today—but the old stuff has something I can’t really put in words.
If you had to put it into words, what would you say?
Well, maybe I’d try saying that with modern production guitars, most everything is done by CNC [computer-controlled routing] machines, so they’re kind of cookie cutter. New guitars don’t have the same individuality as old guitars. Back then, each one was handcrafted, and the wood they were using might have been aged 50 or 100 years before it ever became a guitar. Also, when you think about the price of a vintage baseball card or a stamp, old guitars are a functional art. You get to play them, and they’re durable. If you take good care of them, they’ll last forever. With a baseball card, if you bend the corner, you lose value. An old guitar is something that makes music, and every one has its own personality and sound. Obviously, you don’t have to be a great player to buy a great instrument, but I don’t think anybody buys these things with no desire to play them. This is one of the only pieces of art that you can actually pick up and use.