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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

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

(continued from page 1)

"One day a nice little old man brought a guitar in to sell, a 1920s Orpheum archtop, not really a great guitar, but when I opened that case it was love at first sight. I was dazzled. It was a total turning point for me. I bought it, and from that point I was a guitar collector, even though I didn't have the money to buy anything else right away."

But even on a limited budget, Chinery soon amassed a respectable collection. "I lived at my parents' house and pretty soon I had about 20 guitars on display in my room. My resources were very limited but I did it. The first expensive guitar I bought was about 10 years ago, a split-headstock Explorer. I bought it from [rock guitarist] Rick Derringer. I remember my father saying, 'You're nuts. $8,000 for a guitar?' He was really hot. Of course, now, I've turned down offers of $150,000 for it."

Stanley Jay, co-founder and president of Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, New York, one of America's top dealers in vintage fretted instruments, has seen the market evolve firsthand. "When we started 25 years ago, there was only a very small market, very few dealers, very few venues in which to advertise and none aimed specifically at the vintage market. Now there are two primary magazines for collectors, Vintage Guitar and 20th Century Guitar. At the moment, between 250 and 300 people advertise themselves as vintage guitar dealers. In 1973 there were only about four. Information about the instruments was also hard to come by in those days. But as time went on we've developed a mailing list of customers, buyers, sellers and players, and that list has 185,000 names on it."

What is it that makes a vintage guitar collectible, or makes it a "vintage" guitar at all?

The guitar first appeared in the mid-sixteenth century, probably having evolved from the lute. These early guitars had the flat back still in use today and featured four strings, or groups of strings called "courses" in which one to three strings made the same note. One indication of the instrument's early popularity was the publication of the first book of guitar music in 1546. The five "course" guitar followed soon after and, finally, around 1775, the first instruments with six single strings appeared. There were other innovations, but essentially the guitar as we know it today was fully formed by the 1800s.

Although the great violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, made a few guitars in the late 1600s, it was Vienna's Johann Stauffer, who began making guitars about 1800, who is the undisputed early master of the instrument.

According to devotees, in guitar history somebody is always reinventing the wheel. If this is true, then Stauffer was one of those responsible for making the prototype. At least a half-dozen twentieth century "innovations" can be traced back to Stauffer's workshop, including the scroll-shaped peghead with the tuners on one side, the detachable neck, the raised fingerboard and the first "signature" model guitars endorsed and autographed by famous artists of the day. Unfortunately, innovation never has guaranteed success, and Stauffer, who stopped making guitars in order to produce violins, died in the poorhouse in 1853.

Ironically, it was one of Stauffer's employees, a shop foreman named Christian Friedrich Martin Sr., who would become one of the most famous guitar makers in the world. He would do it not in Vienna but in the small town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. C.F. Martin & Co., one of the oldest continuously owned family businesses in the United States, is still headed by a C.F. Martin (the fourth), and remains in Nazareth to this day.

Unlike violins and woodwind and brass instruments, the guitar as we now know it is pretty much an American creation. As Chinery puts it, "The real beginning was in 1833 when C.F. Martin Sr. came to the U.S. from Austria. He did, of course, bring European design with him, but if you look at the guitars in my collection, including one from 1833, you can see his art develop. Take steel strings, for example. Had he not promoted the steel string guitar, all guitar music played today would sound different. Steel strings allowed a player's personality to come through in a way that gut strings never did. It gave rise to the blues and then out of the blues came rock and roll and all of the cultural trends that were spawned by that music."

The steel string guitar "laid the foundation for everything that's come after it," Chinery adds. "I think a lot of people are beginning to see that these early guitars are more than just musical instruments; they are cultural icons." One thing that proves Chinery's point is the prices commanded by rare guitars in the collector marketplace. An original Stauffer guitar recently brought $3,000, while a Martin-Stauffer can fetch upwards of $75,000. A case probably could be made that Stauffer's influence on C.F. Martin was comparable to that of Niccolò Amati on Antonio Stradivari, who apprenticed under him in the mid-1600s.

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