Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars
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.
"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.
Jay Scott, a guitar dealer and author of four books on guitar history, reflects on what may be a change in the attitude of collectors regarding earlier guitars: "Pre-1833 vintage European guitars have become more sought after. Steve Howe is one important collector who is into them. A lot of that has to do with the fact that in the past 20 years, all of the great American guitars have been bought up, and now everyone's looking for new frontiers because all the good shit is gone. At a guitar show today with thousands of instruments for sale, maybe 10 are of top investment quality."
What about more modern guitars? When do they cease to be considered vintage? The general consensus seems to be around 1970. Larry Wexer, a professional musician as well as a collector and sales manager at Mandolin Brothers, sees a change in that arbitrary cut-off date.
"While the classics that were collectible initially are still collectible, now there's a younger market," he says. "What was considered late-model junk is starting to go up in value. In our perception, it's like, 'Seventies Stratocasters collectible? Have you lost your minds?' But now there are these kids who say, 'Well, when they were made I wasn't born yet, so those are old guitars.' So it is definitely a matter of perspective."
Larry Acunto, publisher with his brother Jim of 20th Century Guitar, has another take on the "What is vintage?" question. "The cut-off is about the time when all of the small, often family-owned companies started selling out to the major corporations, from the mid-'60s to about 1970. In '65, CBS bought Fender, and Fender went downhill pretty quickly. In '67, Norlin bought Gibson and Baldwin bought Gretsch. All of these big companies were going into the guitar business and they didn't have a clue as to what they were doing. At that point American guitar manufacturing went right down the tubes."
One unfortunate side effect of this semiofficial vintage cutoff date is that most of the good instruments have already been collected, so it takes a hefty bank balance to be a collector these days.
Chinery has such a balance. In 1984, he sold his vitamin and nutritional supplement company, called Cybergenics, for the kind of money that puts a Lamborghini Diablo in the driveway, Cuban double coronas in the walk-in humidor and the world's greatest private guitar collection--1,000 vintage guitars--in his "simple" chateau in Toms River, New Jersey.
Chinery, who has studied the guitar for the past 20 years, is one of those collectors who believe that the instruments are there to be played, no matter what their value. Larry Acunto recalls his first visit to Chinery's house to look at the collection. "The first time my brother and I met Scott," Acunto says, "we walked into the guitar room and there he was, surrounded by guitars, strumming on what was then one of the most valuable guitars in the world, a $100,000 Stromberg Master 400. Les Paul once said that he couldn't imagine living in a house without guitars everywhere. I guess Scott feels the same."
Jay Scott agrees. "Guitars that are played regularly are better instruments, but generally not worth as much, as an untouched, mint instrument. Players tend to buy musical instruments; most collectors buy investments."
Many famed guitar players collect vintage guitars, including Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, Steve Miller, Rick Nielsen, Greg Martin and Chet Atkins. Other notable collectors include actor Richard Gere, author Jonathan Kellerman and "Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson.
If vintage guitars are valuable because of who made them or how they advanced the art of guitar making, what about guitars that are valuable because of the celebrities who played them? Robert Levine of Sotheby's collectibles department looks at the world of guitar collecting from that perspective.
"Most vintage guitar collectors are students of music, music making and instruments," Levine says. "You could spend your whole life learning about the instrument itself. The majority of celebrity guitars on the market appeal to a different sort of collector. Seventy percent of what we sell is what we call "signer" guitars. Probably something that a fan or roadie got a performer to autograph. Then there's a smaller percentage of really fine celebrity instruments, the historically significant guitars--something used on a recording or shot for an album cover or played in concerts. A good example would be the 'Smashed Hendrix,' a fragment of the Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix wrecked during the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It sold in June 1992 for $8,800.
"For the most part, the celebrity guitar buyer will either be a corporate buyer, like the Hard Rock Cafe, or a private individual who's a huge fan of a particular artist," Levine adds. "If you look at the prices, often the signer guitar can be had for between $500 and $3,000, depending on the signature. A Pete Townsend or [Bruce] Springsteen [guitar] might command a little more. Then you jump to guitars that were played in concert, with letters of authenticity or photos or a video of the performer playing them, and those might go from $3,000 to upwards of $10,000."
Prices then head for the stratosphere. "Finally," Levine says, "you have the historically significant guitars like Buddy Holly's Gibson J-45 that Gary Busey bought for $242,000 in 1990, or the 1969 Fender Stratocaster that Hendrix played at Woodstock, which went for $320,000, also in 1990." Add to those prices the $149,000 paid for a Sunburst Les Paul Standard and the $400,000 for the first solid-body Fender electric and you start to wonder, How high the moon?
According to the experts, the day of the million dollar guitar is coming. Jay Scott, for one, thinks it will be a D'Aquisto. "One of Jimmy's modern series. It may not be until the twenty-first century, but I think it's going to happen."
For those who don't want to wait, or can't come up with the $100,000 or more to buy a D'Aquisto now, there is another way to chase that elusive million. It's by discovering a legendary guitar called the "Moderne," which either was, or wasn't, built by Gibson in 1957. If it was built at all, it's nearly impossible to know how many were made. Referred to by some as the "Holy Grail" of the guitar world, the first one to surface might command that million dollar price tag.
Does the Moderne actually exist? Ask five experts, get five opinions.
"Nobody knows if Gibson actually made the prototype," says Larry Acunto. "The patent drawings exist and there's incredible folklore about it, but no one has ever been able to find one. If they built a prototype, then they probably built more than one."
"I don't think anyone really thinks it exists," declares Jay Scott. "The one that surfaced in the '70s might be the real thing, according to a well-known dealer who has since died. But it was judged to be a fake by George Gruhn, who is one of the acknowledged experts."
Gruhn recalls inspecting that guitar. "There doesn't seem to be any real evidence that any original early ones were made," he says. "As for the one that was supposed to be real, an employee of mine bought it. I was excited and went out to his home at night to see it. I got there and he was outside, holding it in his hand, and in the dark I could see it was a fake. We got our money back. It was eventually sold, as an original, to a Japanese collector. It's just a homemade body with a Gibson neck stuck onto it. It's laughable."
Chinery thinks a few Modernes may truly exist. "It may or may not be out there," he says. "According to people who worked for Gibson at the time, somewhere between one and 11 were built. It was dropped by Gibson after a showing at a trade show where people laughed at the way it looked, but some may actually have been shipped to music stores. It's a million dollar guitar, which is pretty good considering that, basically, it's just a slab of wood."
According to company eyewitnesses, a few Modernes were built, although they may have been destroyed at the factory. The ledger books covering that period are missing, so there is no way to know for sure unless a real one pops up somewhere. Walter Carter, Gibson's official historian, says it's possible that none exist.
Yet the company created a reissue of the Moderne in 1983, making it, in Carter's words, "the only reissue of something that may never have been issued in the first place."
While the story of the Moderne remains unfinished, there are two other guitars whose discovery in recent years have been nearly as unexpected: the Gretsch White Penguin and the D'Angelico Teardrop New Yorker.
The White Penguin, like the Moderne, was a promotional showpiece that was never put into production. As many as a dozen may have been built between 1955 and '58, and all eventually disappeared, prompting some to dub it "The Maltese Penguin." When Mandolin Brothers found and sold one for $70,000 in 1992, it set a benchmark in terms of price. "We broke the world's record for the sale of a fretted instrument not previously owned by a deceased superstar," says Mandolin's Stanley Jay. The high price made the search for the remaining examples even more intense.
"I'd just gotten back from Florida," Jay Scott remembers, "and in my mailbox was a letter from a guy in Philly and a photo of a White Penguin. It was beautiful, like a rococo musical instrument with a totem on the headstock. So I called him up. Turns out he's Italian, and I'm Italian, and he's telling me about this guitar that was his father's, and he starts crying when he talks about selling it.
"Then he says he knows that Mandolin Brothers sold one for $70,000 and he says, 'I got to get the big eight-O.' So I called Scott Chinery, who told me to check it out. I did and Scott bought it for $80,000, plus my validation fee."
Chinery continues the story. "I bought a White Penguin, which is the rarest Gretsch guitar--a legendary instrument. It had been sitting under this guy's bed for years. It probably cost about $200 new. Now it's valued at $120,000. At one point we produced a series of posters to publicize the collection, and since I also happen to own a Batmobile, the pairing seemed like a natural."
The most famous "missing" guitar (until 1993 when it was obtained by Mandolin Brothers and sold to Chinery for $150,000) was the D'Angelico Teardrop New Yorker. Larry Wexer recalls the day he first saw it: "The family of the owner, who had died some time before, came in with a plain-looking gig bag for an appraisal. When I opened the bag, I just stood there, amazed. I couldn't believe what I was actually looking at. I mean, nobody I knew had ever seen anything like it."
The Teardrop was custom-made by John D'Angelico for Peter Girardi, a performer who played for diners in Italian restaurants; he wanted something to set him apart from other such troubadours. Nicknamed "The Can Opener" because of its unusual shape, the Teardrop is, according to Chinery, "an anomaly for many reasons. It sounds unlike any other guitar, with immense power in the bass range. It's probably the most famous guitar in the world among collectors and the most valuable, with a current estimated worth of $500,000."
Jimmy D'Aquisto, who worked on the guitar with D'Angelico, called it "the most unique archtop we built at D'Angelico." He also joked that Girardi wanted that shape so that "he could use the tail to clip a customer who didn't tip."
The Teardrop has captured the hearts and minds of those who have seen it. According to Stanley Jay, "It is unlikely that any fretted instrument will come to light in the next 50 years which will equal it in rarity or collectibility." The sentiment is echoed by Larry Acunto. "The Teardrop New Yorker, like Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Falling Water' house, stands alone as the crowning achievement in [D'Angelico's] long and prolific career. It is easily the most [sought-after] guitar in the world."
For those inclined to believe in the Lost Dutchman gold mine and Captain Kidd's buried treasure, there is, according to Acunto, another missing D'Angelico. "D'Angelico built a mandolin sometime during the '40s that looked like a machine gun. The guy he made it for used it in his club act, marching around, doing a World War One routine. At the end he'd pull down the side, exposing the strings, and play the thing. Jimmy D'Aquisto described it to people in detail, so it's probably out there somewhere."
As is the case with anything of value, once the prices get high enough, counterfeits begin to surface with increasing regularity. The fake Moderne aside, most guitars that are copied are not quite so famous. "There are forgers and there are counterfeiters," says Stanley Jay. "Forgers attempt to create a fake Martin or D'Aquisto, while other people simply change the logo on the headstock and in so doing produce a counterfeit that isn't even close. One requires the work of an expert to discern, the other is just an obvious fake. We see a lot of that."
A major difficulty, according to Acunto, is that a lot of fakes are now between 20 and 30 years old. "It's hard to tell a 30-year-old from a 50-year-old. Old guitars with a good provenance are rare. Those that have it, that can be traced back to the original owner, they're going to be the ones worth the most."
"Nowadays, I sometimes think that nine out of every 10 cases I open have forged guitars inside," says Jay Scott, a man widely viewed as one of the field's true experts. But even he finds it increasingly hard to make a positive identification. "These guys are so good, they fake age, wear, patina--they even fake smell. Gibson lacquer has a particular smell that you pick up as soon as you open the case, and these guys duplicate it, a sort of faux de Gibson."
As someone who has had to have all the guitars in his vast collection authenticated, Chinery has seen counterfeiting's impact. "In the electric market there has been a lot of counterfeiting, and it really has affected the market for Les Pauls and Korina instruments," he says. "That's why it's so important for new collectors to become educated and to deal only with reputable people. Fortunately, it's very difficult to counterfeit an acoustic instrument."
If you're wondering why an archtop is more difficult to fake, consider the amount of highly skilled, painstaking, hand-carved work that Bob Benedetto and the 21 other luthiers put into each of the Blue Guitars. Benedetto, who has made more than 400 archtops, describes the construction of his Blue Guitar, "La Cremona Azzurra" (The Blue Cremona):
"Routinely, with the exception of the finishing procedure, I can make an archtop inside of two weeks. The Blue Guitar took much longer because I had to think about it a lot. For the top and back plates I used the best European cello wood, the same type of wood that Stradivari and the other old masters used. The neck is two-piece, well-seasoned American maple. The fingerboard, bridge, truss rod cover and finger rest are all sculpted from select solid ebony, and the headstock is veneered with exotic burl. The wood is selected both cosmetically and because of its age. It's very old and fine tone wood. The suppliers that I buy from in Europe are generations-old family businesses. I'm buying from a descendant of someone who might have supplied wood for a Stradivarius.
"The sound holes are unique--not like the traditional f hole or oval hole--it's almost a floral design. Because the openings are unusual and placed in an unusual location, I had to consider that when I was carving and tuning the woods and placing the bracing inside that acts as tone bars, distributing the vibrations from the strings to the top and back, etc. All of this to maximize the end result: the voice of the instrument. It was fun, different, a real challenge, and I was happy to be a part of it."
Repeat Benedetto's story 21 times and you begin to get some idea of the magnitude of The Blue Guitars project. For Chinery, his love of the instrument has meant recognition of the sort he never imagined as a young boy who loved guitars: an honorary doctorate in commercial science from Five Towns College, a music school in Dix Hills, New York, and exhibits featuring his collection in Washington, D.C.
An exhibit of guitars--primarily electric--at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History will run through April. The Chinery exhibit, which runs concurrently, features 36 instruments. Various guitars from the Chinery Collection will be on exhibit through November 1998. In addition, the Blue Guitars are slated to be showcased at the Smithsonian in the spring of 1998.
As Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer says, "The guitar as an instrument deserves special appreciation and attention on a national, if not an international basis, and that's what the Smithsonian can provide. The guitar has existed as a cultural icon for a number of years, in addition to being one of the most versatile of all musical instruments. Very few instruments can cross the boundaries of classical, jazz and rock with the aplomb of the guitar. We felt that it was an appropriate subject to present to the more than 29 million people who visit the Smithsonian each year."
Along with his love of vintage guitars, Chinery has a passion for fine cigars, and at one point collected them. "I did collect pre-Castro Cuban cigars for a while, but I kept smoking them. I didn't want to, you know. I wanted to keep them, but it just didn't work out. Once I got into Cubans, I thought I could never go back to the others. I smoke two double coronas almost every day. But, just recently, I found an American cigar made in Florida called the Santiago Cabana [now known as the Signature Collection by Santiago Cabana] and it's got the Cubans covered."
His guitars are the subject of a recently published book, The Chinery Collection: 150 Years of American Guitars, by Tony Bacon, author of The Ultimate Guitar Book. Chinery also recently compiled a CD of music performed on guitars from the collection. "If someone loves vintage guitars," Chinery says, "what would be the thing they'd most appreciate? The obvious answer would be to hear them. So that's what we've done.
"I called on Steve Howe, who is one of the most innovative guitar players in the world. He brought in a great jazz guitarist, Martin Taylor, and they had the use of the entire collection for the session. There are duets between an original C.F. Martin and an Orville Gibson, the D'Angelico and D'Aquisto Teardrops. And one fantastic side, "Blue Bossa," featuring all the Blue Guitars. Seventeen tracks. It's a mindblower."
"Patrons are hard to come by," says Stan Jay, "and what Scott Chinery has done is most unusual, because he has the financial resources to be a muse to the arts, and for the first time manyof our best luthiers have been able to produce their finest work in comparison with everyone else's. The Blue Guitars project, on top of an already magnificent collection, is a joyous thing for those of us in the community of instrument lovers."
Ken Vose is an East Coast-based novelist, screenwriter and television writer. His book, Blue Guitar, will be published by Chronicle Books in the spring of 1998. Playing Along
If you're interested in learning more about the world of vintage guitars and other fretted instruments, subscribe to 20th Century Guitar and Vintage Guitar. Some great books also are available on the subject, including The Ultimate Guitar Book by Tony Bacon (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 192 pages, $40), American Guitars by Tom Wheeler (Harper Perennial, 1992, 370 pages, $27.50) and Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments by George Gruhn and Walter Carter (GPI Books, 1993, 313 pages, $49.95).
A wide selection of guitars from The Chinery Collection will be on view at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History through November 1998. Admission is free. For more information, call (202) 357-2700.
For general information regarding The Chinery Collection, call 800-442-1094.
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