Instrument collecting is tricky business. How is the novice to know if she is buying a real collector’s item or getting ripped off? Dealer George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, is probably one of the most knowledgeable collectors in the US, if not the world. He got his start dealing in string instruments almost by accident. His brother was a beginner guitarist, and when George accompanied him on guitar shopping trips he seemed to have a natural affinity for valuing the instruments.
“Gruhn Guitars Incorporated is essentially a hobby of mine that got out of hand and became a business,” he says. “When I started collecting guitars in 1963, I had no intention of starting a business or becoming a dealer. I was looking for guitars, banjos, and mandolins which personally suited me.”
Thanks to a passion for animals and degree in zoology, Gruhn takes the unique viewpoint of treating instruments as if they were living things. “I had some basic taxonomic skills, and I categorized them in my mind the way a taxonomist would for zoological specimens,” he explains.
Established in 1970, Gruhn’s Nashville inventory includes thousands of new, preowned, and vintage guitars, basses, banjos, and mandolins. Although most of the instruments are valued at between $1,000 and $3,500, there are some worth tens or hundreds of thousands, making for a multi-million-dollar vintage inventory.
Gruhn enthusiastically answered some basic questions about string instrument collecting.
What are some of the current in-demand instruments that you see many requests for?
GG: Martin guitars made from the mid-1920s through the mid-1940s, especially the dreadnought size models, are very highly sought by collectors as well as musicians. Gibson hollow body and semi-hollow body electric guitars made during the 1950s through the early 1960s, especially ES-335 models made from 1958 through 1962 have great appeal to collectors and musicians. Gibson solid body Explorer and Flying V models made from 1958 through 1959 are some of the most expensive of all electric guitars due to their great rarity, historical appeal, and fine sound.
What makes a quality instrument?
GG: They sound great, feel good, are responsive, and feel alive. They have a soul and personality that the musician can feel. The best way to explain it is comparing it to a car. The good ones look good, but there are some good ones that are cheap, and there are some that are quite expensive ones that are not fancy looking. When driving down the interstate, you can’t really tell how good the car in the other lane is if you are both doing roughly the same speed limit. You don’t know what the performance capabilities are, how smooth the ride is, or how responsive it is, by watching someone else drive it.
So, you would say taking an instrument for a “test drive” is essential?
GG: Yes, you can’t test instruments and find out how good they are simply by having them played, or listening in the audience, to tell which one is best. The difference between the really great ones and the pretty good ones is something the audience misses. The really great ones have such soul and personality that they become a partner and suggest things to the musician that he might not otherwise have thought of.
Do you mean that they might actually change a musician’s playing style, or improve his abilities?
GG: Yes, when Bill Monroe first got his F-5 mandolin, he had been playing an older Gibson F-7, and he played with an old-timey style—arpeggios, tremolos—the way typical mandolinists do. And within a month after getting his F-5, his whole style had changed.
What about instruments that were owned by celebrities?
GG: The value of celebrity owned instruments depends on who the celebrity was, how many they owned, if they are still alive, when they died, their popularity when they died, and how they used them. Dead rocker guitars are generally more valuable than country stars’ instruments, with a few exceptions: guitars once owned by Hank Williams Sr., Maybelle Carter’s guitar sold for $575,000, and Bill Monroe’s F-5 sold for more than $1 million and it was in poor condition.
How do popular musicians influence demand and price?
GG: Many buyers select instruments for their association with famous performers. Players such as Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan, Earl Scruggs, and Bill Monroe, that truly break new ground and define music genres, popularize particular types of instruments. When Neil Young and Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young used 1959 Gretsch White Falcon models in the early ’70s, these guitars shot up in price for a period. Kurt Cobain elevated the Fender Mustang guitar to cult status and Jack White of The White Stripes has elevated his fiberglass body Valco-made Airline brand guitar to similar status. By their nature, however, these fads are ephemeral.
What about buying instruments off the Internet, from sites such as eBay?
GG: Today’s marketplace is highly competitive. On the Internet there is a high level of misrepresentation, both intentional and unintentional. Good service is remarkably old-fashioned. We send instruments to buyers for 24-hour approval, and less than 10% are returned.
Finally, do you have any tips for verifying the genuineness of a vintage instrument?
GG: I strongly advise, if you are purchasing an expensive vintage instrument from a private party, that you have it inspected and appraised by an expert. There is a concern regarding originality versus forgeries, repaired or modified instruments, and structural stability. Vintage musical instruments, can be excellent investments, but just as no one would think of buying a van Gogh painting without clear documentation of authenticity, unless you are expert, I strongly recommend not purchasing vintage instruments without written certification of authenticity from a trusted authority.
What is it about older guitars that makes some worth more than others?
GG: There have been no major advances in electric guitars in over 30 years. There are three things that you look at in older guitars. Design is number one, second is workmanship, and third is materials. The true Golden Era instruments are not only superbly crafted and great sounding, but, when they were introduced, they were so innovative that they displaced and made obsolete their predecessors. It is my firm opinion that, if there was a “dark age” for American guitar manufacturing it was from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. The quality of instruments made at that time was not nearly as good as those made earlier, or as good as those made by major manufacturers today.
This article is from our July-August 2012 issue. Click to order!