The Search For The Holy Grail

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Magazine, August 1977
In medieval times. many knights traveled great distances in search of the legendary Holy Grail. It was never found, perhaps because these earnest seekers had no idea what it looked like or exactly where they should look for it. Dealing in vintage instruments, I encounter many people today who remind me of these knights of old. This type of buyer may spend years looking for a certain instrument and be willing to spend a great deal for it, yet often he will know little or nothing about it. Perhaps he has never seen one except in photos, or played one except in his imagination. He may want one because his favorite musician plays the same model. In many instances, his mental image of how the instrument will play and feel bears no relation to reality. This type of customer can be very difficult for a dealer to do business with since his expectations are so unrealistic.

A few years ago, most of the people buying older instruments knew a lot about them, had played them, and knew what to expect from them. Today. the customers I deal with comprise a much broader spectrum. Generally, they fall into four categories.

The first group consists of collectors and dealers. Most of these people know exactly what they want, have a sophisticated appreciation of the value of old instruments, and are reasonable in their expectations. Generally, I find them to be easy to do business with, although they can be quite demanding. Certain collectors won't accept an instrument unless every part of it, right down to the end pin, is completely original. From a musician's point of view. it is unfortunate that some of the instruments purchased by collectors will rarely be played. Nevertheless. these are some of my favorite customers.

I also enjoy working with the second group-musicians who know a lot about instruments and buy them to use. These people are usually very particular both about the instrument and how it is set up. One musician/craftsman I know bought a very fine-playing guitar from me and then spent three entire days setting it up to his satisfaction. Like collectors, these buyers are easy to communicate with because we share a common language and have similar standards.

During recent years, a third group has greatly influenced the vintage guitar market. These are the musicians who may be very excellent players, but who know nothing about instruments. Many are rock players buying acoustic guitars for the first time. Since these folks often buy through the mail and may not know what to expect from older instruments, we can run into serious problems dealing with them. We once sent an extremely fine 1933 Martin D-18 to a well-known rock guitarist in England. He returned it to us with an angry letter saying it was the worst guitars he'd ever played. We discovered that one of his roadies had unpacked the guitar and strung it up with very heavy electric guitar strings before showing it to our client. With those strings it played badly and sounded terrible. Shortly thereafter, we sold it to a local guitar player who loves it and would never part with it. It is considered to be one of the best guitars in Nashville. These mail-order mishaps can cause disappointed customers and bad business relations. The inexperienced buyer is usually better off choosing his instrument in person.

The last category includes all of the other people who know little or nothing about old instruments but are seeking certain models like those their favorite stars play or which are currently fashionable for other reasons. These folks also risk disappointment when they order by mail. We shipped a mandola to a West Coast buyer who had never seen or played one. Being a mandolin player, he thought he would like a larger instrument of the mandolin family. When it arrived, he discovered that it was harder to play than he'd anticipated and did not suit his needs at all. Of course, he was able to return the mandola, but it was a frustrating experience both for him and us.

The inexperienced customer tends to judge the quality of an instrument by how it feels to him when he plays it. He is confusing the instrument's quality with the way it is set up and may not realize that most good instruments can be adjusted in many different ways. This fallacious attitude is fostered by many introductory articles on "How To Buy A Guitar" which emphasize straightness of neck, height of action, and other qualities characteristic of a proper setup job.

Most good dealers try to set up the instruments they sell with good frets, decent intonation, and reasonably straight necks. (It should be noted that a good neck does not have to be ruler straight, and many people prefer a very slight bow in the neck. This was discussed in John Carruthers' Feb. '77 article on setups in this magazine.) However, different players require different types of setups. Bluegrass and oldtime players often want relatively high action, since they play hard. A bottleneck player may want high action which is completely level all the way up the neck. A jazz guitarist may want low action and insist on perfect intonation at the higher frets. Many modern acoustic players have developed techniques which require special adjustments of their guitars, and electric players who want to adapt their style to acoustic guitar may also find a "standard" setup job to be unsatisfactory. Older instruments may have limited usefulness for this purpose. Many flattop guitars were designed for hard playing, and a person who has only played electric guitars may find it impossible to get the best tone from such a guitar, no matter how it is set up. However, most people can have an instrument adjusted to their satisfaction especially if they sit down with the repairman and discuss their requirements with him.

It is especially important to recognize the distinction between a good instrument and a good setup job when buying privately or from pawnshops or flea markets. It takes a great deal of knowledge and skill to judge the quality of an instrument that has bad frets, a warped neck, and terrible action. A person who can recognize the potential of a good, but seemingly "unplayable," instrument can make some excellent buys.

The great increase in the number of people buying vintage instruments today has had a drastic impact on the market. Since many of these buyers have a great deal of money to spend, we have a situation where the market in old instruments is now controlled to a large extent by people who know little or nothing about them. For this reason, prices of some instruments no longer relate directly to quality but are frequently influenced by fads. An Everly Brothers model Gibson, a very mediocre guitar, will bring as much as $1,000.00 today, because several famous rock stars are currently using them onstage. This fad oriented demand has affected the price and availability of many other models in the past few years. When prices are influenced by fashion rather than by more stable factors such as aesthetics, structural quality, and rarity, they can drop as quickly as they rise. If a buyer doesn't know the qualitative difference between one model and another, there is no longer a reasonable standard for differences in price. I consider these trends to be unfortunate since the market is no longer as sane and relatively stable as it once was.

If you plan to buy a vintage instrument, there are several things you can do to insure a successful venture both for yourself and the dealer. Learn all you can about the specifications of the model you want. There are many catalog reprints and books available on the subject. (See GP, Nov. '77.) Consider whether the model you have in mind will really meet your needs. If you play modern jazz, an old Martin Dreadnought, however fine, may not suit you at all. If possible, examine and play several instruments that are comparable to the one you want. Remember that most older instruments will have some finish wear and possibly a repaired crack or two. If the perfect appearance is very important to you, you may prefer a new instrument. When buying for investment purposes, unless you are an expert, deal only with reputable dealers experienced in vintage instruments and get written certification of the age, originality, and current market value of your purchase. If you can't afford the model you want now, buy the best available within your budget and plan to trade up later, since a wise investment should increase in value over the years.

Many dealers today will sell instruments on a mail-order/approval basis, but if you know very little about instruments and have no experience with the model you want, it would be preferable to do business in person. Then the dealer can use his knowledge and experience to help you find an instrument you will truly enjoy.