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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

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

(continued from page 4)

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.


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