The Unique World of George Gruhn

Musical Merchandise Review, August 1995
A look around the office of George Gruhn offers an insight into one of the singular personalities in the music business.

Right now, it's a makeshift workspace on the fourth floor of the Gruhn Guitars building on Broadway in Nashville. George Gruhn conducts business with his desk chair facing the door leading to the repair department. On his right, a wall of book shelves houses hundreds of titles, ranging from The Schmidt & Davis Field Guide of Snakes East of the Rocky Mountains to the latest issue of Guitar Player. Across the desk to the left a snook and cutthroat trout, two prizes Gruhn scored on fishing expeditions, hang on the wall. They're surrounded by three vibrant abstract paintings. Behind him to the right hangs a photo of Albert Einstein.

The floor is cluttered to say the least--but that is to be expected, considering the overload of information housed in this tiny space. Amongst the jumble lay file boxes, two file cabinets and a fish tank holding three of Gruhn's favorite pets--Snuggles, Cuddles and Fluffy. They're Indonesian skinks (large, fat-bellied, short-footed lizards) who, Gruhn assures, are friendlier than they look.

Then there's George Gruhn himself. With a pager, a small cellular phone strapped to his belt and access to seven phone lines running throughout the building, Gruhn is accessible to his customers, to say the least. If he's not buying instruments, he's speaking to customers about everything from appraisals to the latest column he wrote for Vintage Guitar magazine. After 25 years of business, he's working harder now than he ever has and he doesn't seem to mind a bit.

An Enquiring Mind
If you ask him why he chose guitars as his field of expertise, he'll raise an eyebrow, stroke his slightly salt-and-pepper beard and explain how his passion for collecting and selling the finest vintage fretted instruments was never intentional--merely a hobby gone wild.

When asked to describe himself, Gruhn's answer is "not very normal by any stretch of the imagination." Judging from his childhood days, one can see exactly where he's coming from.

By the age of four he had already taken an interest in biology and collecting insects. Frog collecting soon followed, then salamanders and turtles. By the time George had reached eight, he was completely enthralled by the reptile kingdom. Snakes were a particular passion, and he studied them feverishly. Gruhn's avocation was looked on with pride by his father, a pathologist, who cultivated his son's interest by exposing him to museums and zoos throughout the area. For George, the learning process was never-ending.

When Gruhn reached the third grade, the family moved to Pittsburgh. He continued collecting, and classifying over the next few years and at 12, subscribed to Copeia: The Journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. "I think I was probably the only person in the world below graduate-student level who was trying to read it," he laughs.

The Gruhn family moved to the Chicago area at the beginning of Gruhn's high school years. The move also heralded the beginning of the transition from snakes to six-strings. "I had every intention of pursuing a career in medicine or zoology. The idea of music in any form was completely foreign to me. I didn't play, didn't sing, didn't dance and didn't care to,'' he recalls. "My basement was entirely filled with different species of animals. It got to the point where the newspapers began to take interest. I usually had at least 100 snakes, an aquarium and a cement-mixing trough filled with several hundred gallons of water and inhabited by turtles." It wasn't until his senior year in high school that Gruhn first came into contact with guitars. He credits the folk boom of the early '60s and a girlfriend he had at the time. "She introduced me to a lot of her friends who were playing guitar and I was immediately thrust into the crowd which was interested in that scene," he says. Around the same time, Gruhn's younger brother began playing an old Harmony classical guitar.

When the time came to upgrade, the two brothers hit every music store in Chicago, comparing the sounds of different six-strings. "Finally, he hit on one and I said: 'That s the one-get it,' '' Gruhn remembers. The guitar, a 1929 Martin O-28K herringbone, spurred Gruhn to put aside the reptile books for a moment and begin studying up on the Martin family as well as other vintage instrument makers. "Before I struck my first chord, I pretty much knew most of the Martin models from 100 feet away," he says.

Musical Merchandise Review: George, when did you purchase your first guitar?
George Gruhn: I bought my first guitar in 1963, when I was a freshman at University of Chicago. It was a classical Conde Hermanos, made in Madrid. I paid $300 for it, which was a lot back then. I began playing it, but found out it wasn't really what I wanted. I was really interested in Southern Appalachian music, groups like the Carter Family. So three months later, I bought a 1915 Gibson, Style O Artist Model. I found that it looked cool, but it didn't sound that great. So three months after that, I bought a third guitar which was a Martin F-7 archtop. It was a rather strange progression of instruments indeed, but I remember buying my fourth instrument, a Lloyd Loar, signed and dated L-5, made in 1924. I paid $8400 for it at Sid Sherman Music on Wabash Avenue in Chicago.

MMR: Kind of an expensive hobby for a college student, wasn't it?
Gruhn: Indeed. l soon realized that for every guitar I wanted for my personal collection, I would come across 50 other instruments that I could get good deals on, but were of no interest to me. I would buy those instruments and turn 'em fast!

At the beginning of every month I also got money from my parents, for rent and so on, and I would spend all of it on guitars. Of course, Mom and Dad had no idea and if they did, I'm sure they would have disapproved. Within a couple days I would sell two or three instruments and have back the money they sent me and sometimes a little extra. I would effectively deal to support my addiction. It was enough to support my collection--not enough to support me.

MMR: How did you end up in Nashville after getting your degree from the University of Chicago?
Gruhn: I did a year of graduate work at Duke in zoology and then transferred to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and did a year of work in animal behavior and psychology. I was getting tired of the academic life, and was wheeling and dealing guitars quite heavily, I also started to meet a lot of performers, at the bluegrass festivals I went to. Soon I got a call from Hank Williams Jr.

Hank had gotten my name from Sonny Osborne, of the Osborne Brothers, who I had met at a bluegrass festival. He had heard from Sonny that I was the man to talk to when it came to Martin guitars.

So I began to describe what I had and by the end of the conversation Hank said he'd be at my place in four hours. It was 1960s, the interstate wasn't open, and anybody who has ever driven the country between Nashville and Knoxville knows it's not flat! But sure enough, Hank and his Jaguar E appeared at my doorstep four hours later. Armed with a 1939 Martin OOO-28, he ended up trading as many instruments as his car would hold, which in the case of a Jaguar E is not much.

As he was leaving, he told me he'd be back tomorrow with a larger car. The next day he showed up with a Cadillac Eldorado and proceeded to fill it. He then told me that I would do pretty well if I were in Nashville and if I came he would supply me with an apartment and help finance a store.

At this point, I promptly dropped out of school and as promised, Hank had an apartment waiting for me in Nashville. He never did help me finance the store, but was an extremely good customer for the first couple of years I was in town.

MMR: So you opened the store on your own?
Gruhn: I had two partners to begin with, Tut Taylor and Randy Wood. My apartment was so full of instruments that there literally wasn't enough room for me to sleep. The insurance company started giving me a hard time as well, saying the apartment wasn't secure enough for them to insure all the instruments I had collected. I had to do something, and Tut Taylor, a Dobro player I had known since the mid-60s, about going into business with repairman Randy Wood, who had been doing work for Tut down in Georgia.

The three of us went up and visited Gibson in Kalamazoo. We ended up doing some work for them--modifying the designs on their banjos, mandolins and some guitars. They used some of our ideas, but bastardized others. I can't say I' m proud of the instruments that came out in 1970, but they did have radical changes.

Tut and Randy wanted to set up a business so we could do custom work for Gibson. I was more interested in wheeling and dealing, but the interests meshed well because Randy was one of the best repairmen around.

We set up shop about 100 feet from where we're situated today, at 111 Fourth Avenue near Broadway. Tut stayed as a partner for nine months. It had become clear that the arrangement with Gibson wasn't going to work out. They wanted to pay us about $90 for the work on each instrument which they planned to sell for $4,000. I bought Tut's share of the business, paying him in instruments and a small amount of cash.

By the time Tut sold out, I was starting to make some money. I wasn't rolling in dough by any means, but had enough to live on.

MMR: What advice do you have for those thinking about opening a vintage shop?
Gruhn: Knowledge is critically important. Go through the various books and learn them. Go to guitar shows as often as possible, because you can't get everything out of a book. And make sure you get to know some of the more reputable dealers, because they can help you in a lot of situations.

MMR: How many guitar shows do you go to a year and how much a growing phenomenon are they?
Gruhn: I roughIy go to about 20 shows a year . There's an enormous number of them, but it's much harder to buy at them now than it was a couple years ago. They're growing in number and size, but not in how profitable they are. Instead of going to a show and, in some cases, buying as many as 100 instruments, I now struggle to pick up 20 and sometimes fewer than that.

Aside from learning the products, you must truly be able to distinguish an original from a fake, re-finishes from original finishes, modifieds from genuines, and so forth. Although the market is much more saturated these days, there's a great deal more information available. When I started out, there were no books, no catalog reprints--virtually no information of any kind on vintage instruments.

MMR: How would you describe the customers you deal with at Gruhn Guitars?
Gruhn: In general, the customers who buy from us are much more knowledgeable than the customers who buy at most music stores. But we also have a narrower range of products, we carry guitars, banjos and mandolins. We don't sell amps, except maybe a few on the showroom floor. We just started doing string accessories a few years ago and we also sell t-shirts. That's it.

MMR: You also sell new instruments as well as vintage, right?
Gruhn: Yes, we have a lot of new instruments. We're certainly one of Martin's top dealers. As far as single-store locations go, we're probably one of their top two dealers worldwide. We also do strong business with Gibson and Collings.

With Collings it's not huge, simply because no dealer gets a large amount of Collings guitars to sell. They're small and that's the way they want to keep things. However, we do sell every guitar we get from them.

MMR: Tell us about the layout of your new store.
Gruhn: The showroom, of course, is on the first floor. The second-floor tenant left, so we have moved the bookkeeping and overseas sales operations, originally located on the third floor, to that floor. It will also have a small showroom made up of exquisite vintage models priced from about $14,000 to $50,000. I'll be operating out of a brand-new, third-floor, office by early summer. All in all, I'm very happy with the move here.

MMR: As a writer, what are you currently working on?
Gruhn: Walter Carter and I plan to do an update and revision of Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars and Paul Johnson [Gruhn's director of research] and I are working on a compilation of some of my previous writings from the years of '76 to '85. which appeared in Guitar Player . I'm also continuing to write my Q & A column for Vintage Guitar, as well as features for Guitar Player, Vintage Gallery, Acoustic Guitar and other guitar-oriented publications.

MMR: How much of an issue is price with your customers?
Gruhn: No matter what you sell, price is always important. I have a theory I call 'the magic price.'' Basically, it's the price at which an instrument will sell in about four weeks. If you price it below X, then you didn't make enough money and if you price it at X plus 10 percent, then there's an extreme amount of buyer resistance and the instrument may take over a year to sell.

MMR: What instruments are "hot" at the moment?
Gruhn: What's hot? Well, nothing's as hot now as it was in the last quarter of 1992. That's not to say that the market is particularly unhealthy either. Martin guitars, in general, are doing very well, Gibson mandolins are selling and so are pre-1970 Gibson flat-top guitars. Les Pauls, Strats and Teles are moving. Also guitars made in the '70s, with the exception of flattop Gibsons, are selling very well. In my opinion, 1970s guitars are some of the poorest instruments made in the entire history of American guitar manufacturing. These are not pieces I consider collectors items, but Generation X looks at them as nostalgia pieces. The prices are really up for these instruments: dollar appreciation for '70s crap, over the past two years has been much higher than it has been for vintage "goodies."

MMR: In your opinion, what general characteristics does an instrument have to have before it's considered "vintage"?
Gruhn: In acoustics, it's pre-World War II and in electrics it's mainly pre-1965. For Gibson electrics, anything in the Ted McCarty era or before, I consider to be vintage. For Fender, anything pre-CBS.

MMR: Are you still doing strong business in Japan?
Gruhn: No because the Japanese economy isn't what it used to be mostly what they want is '70s garbage. It takes a lot of those guitars to equal one good collector's piece. Also the CITES Treaty has really slowed trade in Japan. Even though we can get all the proper paperwork, getting a guitar through Japanese customs has become a major ordeal . The Japanese have been using the treaty as sort of a non-tariff trade barrier and often enough, even with the right paperwork, customs authorities will reject the guitar's entry. It also takes in upwards of two months for the Japanese customer to obtain an import license and the government provides no streamlined procedure for him or her to obtain one.

In no way is this the fault of my Japanese customers. Just as the Americans are now having difficulty negotiating with the Japanese over automobiles and other such issues, it would appear the difficulties have finally reached the level of guitar-trading. Guitar-dealing used to be unregulated and I was always pleased how I was untouched. They could refuse to accept American rice, but the guitar industry was so small, they didn't bother me. Now they've noticed and I don't like it!

MMR: Will the vintage market ever crash?
Gruhn: I've seen segments of it crash. For example, you may remember a few years ago when Guitar Player had a cover story entitled "Strat Mania." Almost immediately after that article appeared, the prices of Stratocasters went down about 10 percent. They went back up at a rapid rate--fell again!--and now are at their highest point ever. But it took years for the market to recover to the point it had been. At the beginning of 1993, pre-World War II Martin D-28s were higher than they are now. They've really slid significantly. Most pre-war D-28s were a fast $25,000 and now they're a slow $17,000. However, I do see signs they're recovering now.

In general, what I've seen in 30 years of watching the market is there are times when it escalates, then plateaus, then escalates and plateaus again. I see cases when a specific model will fall, but as far as an overall crash, I haven't seen that.

The absolute worst time I ever saw in the market was the period between 1980 and 1983 when music was at an all-time low in sales and a lot of the music that was being made was being done without guitars. Synth bands like Sparks and Yaz were big. There were metal bands, but they could've cared less about a '54 Les Paul Goldtop. They were in love with Kramers and Charvel-Jacksons.

MMR: In the past you were involved with designing guitars for Hohner and Guild. Although both ventures ended up going sour, would you design instruments for another company?
Gruhn: I think that basically what it comes down to is I want to be involved with a company that's organized and well-run. I certainly have not ruled out the possibility in the future.

MMR: You've been extremely successful in your area of expertise and over the past few years have become more or less a celebrity within the fretted instrument community. Do you look at yourself any differently now, than before?
Gruhn: I think other people think about that more than I do. It's not like I'm a finished product, I haven't done all the things I want to. I used to tell people that I had to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up. Now that I'm sort of getting through adolescence--I still have to figure out what I'm going to do when I grow up.

MMR: Are you satisfied with your accomplishments?
Gruhn: I've never been completely satisfied with anything. . .after all, nothing is perfect.