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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

Try to imagine jazz immortal Tal Farlow, rock and roll virtuoso Steve Howe, Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, blues legend Johnny Winter and a host of other famous guitarists, crowded together in one room going gaga over 22 incredibly beautiful, blue archtop guitars. Not just any old shade of blue, these brilliant blue babies are so vibrant that they seem to make music without a string being touched. Add to the scene the luthiers who handcrafted these instruments, and you have a once-in-a-lifetime event that is the talk of the guitar collecting world.

The Blue Guitars project is the story of one man's passion for this most American of all musical instruments. With more than three million new guitars sold throughout the world in 1995 and about 14 million Americans who consider themselves guitar players, it is hardly surprising that the instrument has become a hot commodity.

In the exploding collectibles marketplace, the value of vintage guitars has increased 20 percent to 100 percent a year since 1984. In 1995, the 80-odd vintage guitar shows held in the United States resulted in sales of more than $200 million.

For Scott Chinery, the man responsible for the creation of the Blue Guitars, the project was both the crown jewel of an already extraordinary collection and an homage to a man many consider America's greatest luthier ever, the late Jimmy D'Aquisto.

D'Aquisto, successor to John D'Angelico as America's premier archtop guitar maker, created a blue Centura Deluxe (one of the four models designed as part of his "modern" series of archtops) not long before his death in 1995. Its striking color was a specific request from Chinery, a blue lacquer obtainable from a single manufacturer in Amsterdam, New York

"During the spring of 1995," recalls Chinery, 36, "I saw the archtop guitar hitting a peak in terms
of quality and diversity. The instruments that were being made at that point, in my view, surpassed those at any other time in history.

"I had often thought that it would be neat to get all the great portrait painters together to interpret the same subject and then see the differences among them. So that's what I set out to do with the Blue Guitars. To get all the greatest builders together and have them interpret the same guitar, an 18-inch archtop, in the same color blue that Jimmy had used. All of these great luthiers saw this as a friendly competition, and as a result they went beyond anything they'd ever done. We ended up with a collection of the greatest archtop guitars ever made."

Archtop, or carved top guitars, are just what the name implies. The top of the body is carved to arch upwards away from the back and sides. An American innovation, the origins of the archtop go back to Orville Gibson, who was the first to apply European violin-making techniques to the guitar.

The resurgence of the archtop guitar is but one facet of the expanding collectible guitar market. Instruments that were worth a few thousand dollars in the early 1980s are now valued in the six figures. This is attributable, at least in part, to collectors like Chinery, whose desire to acquire has driven prices ever higher.

Just what is it about the vintage guitar that inspires such passion and a willingness to part with large sums of cash? In Chinery's case it all came together on one memorable day. "I worked in a local music store and I loved guitars; it was all I lived for at that point," he recalls. "I would have worked at the store for nothing, would have paid to be there. But, as a 16-year-old, it had never crossed my mind that there was such a thing as a vintage guitar.

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