Newsletter #24, July 2005

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Walter Carter, who has just returned to Gruhn Guitars after 12 years, contributed this month's newsletter.

Culture shock and the Elvis factor

During my 12 years away from Gruhn's, I never thought of myself as an outsider to the vintage guitar business. After all, I was Gibson's historian for most of that time, my wife has worked at Gruhn's through the entire period, I've maintained Gruhn's website since 1998 and I've continued to acquire vintage instruments. Nevertheless I experienced a surprising degree of culture shock when I returned to Gruhn's a month ago.

To put my view in perspective, here's a quick summary of what I did on my "vacation." I worked for Gibson from 1993-98, during which time I put together the book Gibson: 100 Years of an American Icon and wrote Epiphone: The Complete Story. On my own time I also wrote books on Martin and Ovation. I left Gibson to do freelance work for three years and started work on a novel based around the Gibson Moderne, co-writing it with Nashville songwriter and vintage book dealer Fred Koller. I went back to Gibson in November 2001, a week before Gibson bought the Baldwin piano company, in the position of editorial director and historian.

Many people have told me that I had the greatest job in the world as Gibson's historian, and that would have been true if I had been a full-time, active historian. In reality, "historian" was more of a consulting role - an answer man rather than an archivist - and it was a priority only when the issue was a priority, such as trademark research. My knowledge of the vintage market, and the vintage features that would make new models more desirable, was seldom tapped by the manufacturing divisions. Nearly all of my time was spent in an editorial role, which could be described as "lord over the written word," encompassing ads, catalogs, press releases and website content and at times extending to supervision of the graphic designers and web developers. As such, I was heavily involved in marketing the brand and the CEO as well as the company's products. It was an education in marketing, and it sparked an interest in management that I wanted to pursue. Gruhn's offered an opportunity to combine that with my creative and historic interests, and so on May 31 I re-immersed myself in the world of vintage guitars.

I saw immediately that the basics of the business are still the same - people still want old Martins, Gibsons and Fenders. Prices have gone up on the good stuff, but so have real estate and gasoline prices. I came into this business in 1987 in the midst of Stratmania; currently it's 'Burstmania. No surprises there.

The culture shock came from the sheer number of models that a dealer has to be familiar with nowadays. Even as a Gibson employee, I had a hard time keeping up with all the new models. For a guitar historian who had made his reputation chronicling all the models available, the situation in the vintage world of 2005 was depressing. My first thought was that just as Gruhn's Guide practically doubled in size from its first edition in 1991 to its second in 1999, another update would double the size again. And that would be a lot of work. And for what? The number of important vintage models hasn't increased significantly, only the number of recent models.

I quickly discovered that my personal concern applied to the day-to-day vintage business now. In buying, selling and appraising instruments, a much broader and deeper range of knowledge and experience is required today than it was 12 years ago. Identifying and evaluating instruments used to be near-instantaneous for most instruments; the difficult ones required a minute to consult Gruhn's Guide and a quick poll of the sales staff to agree on a price. Now, with competition more heated and prices escalating, accurate evaluation is critical to the success of the business, and with the deluge of new models, the process is more intense and time-consuming than ever before.

Nevertheless, the vintage instrument market seems to have progressed along predictable lines for any growing market. The internet has acted as a catalyst, speeding up that growth considerably, but the market is still "staying the course" that one might have predicted in the 1990s. And if history is any indication, we can expect it to continue on the same course, right? I doubt it.

In 1998, I wrote a "Viewpoint" editorial for Vintage Guitar in which I suggested looking at the past as an indicator of the future. One of my observations was:

"Something unpredictable is going to happen. Futurists used to imagine a world where computers got more powerful by getting bigger. That's the logical way to predict the future - as an extension of the past. But logical predictions are always sabotaged by such unforeseen phenomenon as silicon chips or microwave ovens or Elvis. In the vintage guitar world, you can bet there's a silicon chip or an Elvis in the works." (To read the piece in its entirety, go here.)

In the guitar world the most obvious "Elvis" candidate is digital technology. It's brought about drastic changes in the recording business, making every computer a potential professional recording studio and, with internet access, a potential free jukebox. In the musical instrument business, digital technology has delivered a devastating blow to acoustic piano makers. The guitar, which so far has eluded a digital makeover, is a ripe target. The only missing element is demand for a digital guitar. (One reviewer described Gibson's prototype digital guitar as a solution in search of a problem.) The situation seems to parallel the emergence of the electric guitar in the 1930s, when Spanish-style guitarists couldn't see the benefit of an amplified instrument, just as guitarists don't see any use for a digital instrument. And in the digital guitar's present state of development, I'd have to agree with them. But when the digital guitar is shown to have capabilities that a conventional electric guitar does not have, then a modern-day "Elvis" - or, more appropriately, a Charlie Christian - won't be far behind.

Will new technology pull the rug out from under vintage guitar values? Not likely. The introduction of the solidbody electric guitar made the elements of intrinsic tone and volume - the fundamental elements of musical instruments from the dawn of civilization - inconsequential. Yet solidbody electric guitars have not diminished the value of acoustic instruments with great tone and volume, and they have established their own standards of value.

Will new technology ever be incorporated into guitars? Maybe not. In popular music over the last decade or two, technology has had a major effect on the rhythm side, but not on the melodic. The music doesn't seem to be demanding a new kind of guitar. It could be the guitar is at the point where the violin was 400 years ago - the point of completion. The electrification and "solidbodification" that revolutionized the guitar and the piano haven't had much affect on the violin. Walk into any violin shop or browse through Gruhn's violin inventory. You will not see the healthy mix of acoustic and electric instruments that you see in a typical guitar or piano store; you will see an extremely high percentage (or in our current inventory, 100 percent) of traditional acoustic instruments. It's conceivable that four centuries from now, guitars will be the same as we know them today.

So this unpredictable change in the guitar world may well be no change at all. We expect innovation to continue because it has always has. But it might just stop. I have the utmost respect and admiration for all of those makers who have advanced guitar design in the last few decades, but when I played a certain knock-your-socks-off 1936 Martin D-18 that came through the shop last week, I felt like saying to all makers, "Why bother?"

There's a flaw in all of the preceding musings. I have assumed that the unpredictable will turn up in a predictable place - at the cutting edge of guitar design. In reality, I think the Elvis factor may have already arrived and is right in front of us. It's not in the acoustic amplification systems, digital electronics, soundhole positions or any of the other esoteric features of new high-end guitars. It's at the low end, at the cutting edge of production technology. Just before I left Gibson, I played some killer prototypes for a new line of Chinese-made Epiphone acoustics, although it remains to be seen if the production guitars can consistently match the quality of the prototypes. Closer to home, I just played a new Martin DX-1, with back and sides of "mahogany pattern HPL" (high pressure laminate) and neck of "Stratabond." It delivered such power and clarity that I can imagine many new guitar buyers wondering what's all the fuss about a D-18.

This impending deluge of high-quality guitars in the $500-600 range makes me wonder if these companies are shooting themselves in the foot by developing superior low-cost products. For retailers, it could precipitate a drastic drop in sales of $1000-2000 guitars. And what will it do the vintage market? I guess that depends on whether mahogany-pattern HPL sounds different than rosewood-pattern HPL. Or if, a half-century from now, vintage HPL will be considered tonally superior to new HPL. Suddenly I don't feel so confident in that image guitars 400 years, or even 50 years, from now. Even if the guitars look and function like today's instruments, will any of them be made of wood?

With great vintage instruments still in circulation and new instruments getting better than ever, it's impossible to predict the future of the vintage guitar business after only a month back on the job. The only thing I can say with complete confidence is that it won't be boring.

Walter Carter