Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Guitar Archaeology - unearthing treasure from beneath the bed

Grandpa's old guitar brings an jaw dropping price. Follow this '46 Martin D28 Herringbone from discovery through appraisal by one of America's foremost acoustic instrument experts.

    Back in 2003 I got a call one day at work from a good friend of mine: “Hey Man, you know a lot about guitars. I’ve had an old one in my closet for years, and I’d like to find out something about it.”
  “Okay, whatcha got?
  “Well, it says C.F. Martin on the peg thing.” My pulse quickened a bit.
  “Do you have a serial number?”
  “Yeah, I wrote it down. Hang on…” He gave me the number and while he continued to tell me a little about the guitar I searched through my wallet for my handy Martin Guitar serial number guide. “It was my grandfather’s. I don’t have any idea when he bought it, but it’s been around as long as I can remember.” I could almost feel my pupils dilate.
  I found the card with the date ranges and began scanning down the columns. My excitement increased as I kept having to look further and further back in time. Then, there it was – in the 1945 column. I checked it again to be sure. Oh. My. God.
 “Bro, you have got to bring me that guitar to look over. Can you bring it tomorrow? I’ll come to your office to see it.”
  “Sure, but don’t expect too much. It looks pretty rough.”
  “No problem, just bring it. You may have something pretty special.”

   Pretty special indeed. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Martin Guitars are one of the most revered production line acoustic guitars made in the United States. Renown for high quality and a signature sound, this company has been in the guitar business in Nazereth, Pennsylvania since the 1830s. At just under the company’s century mark they began production of a new design – the Dreadnoughts.
   A guitar with a much larger body than the parlor guitars they’d previously produced, the Dreadnought style had a bigger sound as well. Louder and bassier than its diminutive forebears, when these “D” models (for Dreadnought) began to be produced in earnest in the early 1930s they quickly became a  favorite of vocalists looking for suitable accompaniment – particularly country vocalists. The D models came to stay. The intervening decades have seen this body style become an industry standard copied by nearly every builder of acoustic guitars.
  But the passage of time has also made the early Martin dreadnoughts jealously collectible. A combination of materials no longer readily available (Brazilian Rosewood, Adirondack Spruce), excellent craftsmanship, and superior design combine to give the older models a tone and sustain truly remarkable. And they’re not making any more.
   In the 1960s it began to be recognized that models of pre and post World War Two vintage were superior to those then being made. By then design and material changes had taken some essential edge off the sound. A new Martin still sounded great, but there was just something about those old ones. They began to be snatched up by collectors.
   And, as with all collectibles, the values have risen amazingly. A pre-war D28 in perfect condition can bring tens of thousands of dollars in todays vintage instrument market. And to a slightly lesser extent, those produced immediately after the war also are highly prized.
   Every connoisseur of acoustic instruments dreams of finding an old vintage treasure at a pawn shop or garage sale and buying it for next to nothing. It happens occasionally and the stories make their way through the guitar community like urban legends:

A guy spotted an old mandolin case at an estate sale, and only wanting an old case, offered $20. When he got it home he discovered that the case contained a 1924 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin worth $250,000.

A musician spots some children playing with an old guitar at a friend’s house. The guitar turns out to be a ’35 D28. It had been in a closet for years and the kids were dragging it around outside.

   So I knew that my friend was in possession of something special even before I’d even seen it. I eagerly look forward to the next day when I could look it over.
   My buddy actually ended up bringing the instrument to me at work the next day. I was a little nervous when I saw a new looking case. One element that can enhance an instruments value is inclusion of an OHC – Original Hardshell Case. This new case obviously wasn’t original. Moreover, it hinted that we might have gotten this number wrong and the guitar wasn’t so old after all.
We laid it on my counter and opened the case. Bingo! Home run! Yeah, Baby! High Fives! Chicken Dance around the room! What lay before us was indeed a Martin D28 herringbone. I quickly rechecked the serial number and consulted my card. Yep. 1945. Wow. This is the kind of piece that will get you featured on Antiques Road Show. I told my buddy that he had himself a genuine American treasure.

   The strings were still on it, and to my shock the guitar was actually close to being in tune when I hit a G chord. Of course, that first strum put them out of tune. They'd have to come off in any case. But the fact that it had been put up for more than twenty years with the strings tensioned was a bit worrying.
   There were condition issues, to put it mildly. The guitar was sixty years old, and it looked as if it had spent the lion share of those decades without a case. There were scratches and wear on every surface. The top was deeply worn from hundreds of hours of strumming, and where the finish wasn’t scratched it was cracked from age.
   I checked the tuners and was relieved to find the original hardware. There didn’t seem to be any cracks or other structural problems save one.
   After years of string tension a guitar neck will begin to bow a bit which raises the string height which in turns affects playability and intonation. Most modern guitar necks are equipped with an internal, adjustable truss rod to make adjusting neck position a simple matter of turning a hex key. But these Martins didn’t have an adjustable rod, so they require a neck reset to correct any bowing. This is an expensive, difficult, and time consuming procedure that involves taking the neck completely off of the guitar, shaving a bit off of the heal, and regluing it all back in to place in the proper position. Obviously something for an expert repairman.
   This guitar had a neck bow, but rather than reset the neck some repairman had long ago simply sanded down the original ebony bridge to reorient the sting angle. It was a cheap fix, and probably did greatly improve the playability of the guitar. But it was death to the tone. This was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much of one, but it would obviously have to be fixed.
   But despite its condition, I knew that this was a very valuable chunk of wood. And it's being a "herringbone" model just made it all the better. Herringbone in this case refers to a design of decorative binding that borders the guitar top and had a pattern reminiscent of fish bone. It's much the same pattern one will find with herringbone fabric. Martin got this product from Germany and the war disrupted the availability, naturally. They ran out of it sometime in 46 or early '47 and thereafter featured a simpler binding decoration, thus making the herringbones especially desirable.

 “What do you think it’s worth?”
   I honestly answered that I really had no idea, but that I was sure it would be way, way more than he was expecting. Given the many factors that could affect its market value what we needed was a professional appraisal. And a guitar of this caliber would require better than any local guitar shop guy’s opinion. This called for an expert. That expert could be found at Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville.

   In the sixties a young zoology student named George Gruhn became fascinated with, and a collector of, vintage instruments. The fascination grew to obsession that grew into a flourishing business opened in Nashville in 1970. Since its humble beginnings, Gruhn’s Guitars has grown into one of the most prestigious vintage dealers in the country. Everybody who’s anybody, the famous and obscure alike, have shopped at Gruhn’s. Forgive the cliché, but George Gruhn literally wrote the book on vintage guitar collecting. He’s The Man, and his shop was just two and a half hours drive north.
   My friend left the guitar with me and I made immediate plans to drive up to Nashville the following week. Since the owner/friend wouldn’t be available to make the trip I took along my buddy Dave – a fellow musician.
   Gruhn’s shop is on Nashville’s main drag, Broadway, in the heart of downtown. Amazingly, they had their own parking - a surprise since parking in N’ville is usually a tremendous headache. We entered through the back door and let the guy at the counter know we needed an appraisal. He directed us to a small glassed in room towards the front of the shop before dialing up the P.A.: “George, we have an appraisal.”
A few minutes later a bespectacled, bearded guy about sixty years old wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt burst in. This was George Gruhn. And I recognized the scene being played out immediately. It was exactly reminiscent of a doctors office visit. He greeted us  absently and immediately went to examine the “patient” which was laid out on a examining table, er, desk.
   “Well, it’s a ’46,” he said instantly.
   “Really, I checked the serial number and thought it was a ’45,” I replied. This was a mistake, apparently. It seems that vintage instrument experts don’t appreciate unschooled galoots telling them how to do their jobs.
   “You read it wrong!” he brusquely retorted. Someone with less of a sense of humor might have been offended, but I was enjoying the show, so it was no problem. Then he softened a bit and he explained how the cards are often misread. He continued his examination ignoring us mostly. Then, just as a doctor would do, he began to write his results. All of this took maybe 15 minutes. Dave and I began to make small talk which turned at some point to his cat.
   Well, upon mention of said kitty old George suddenly transformed. Aloof guy was replaced by gushing animal lovin’ guy as he eagerly bragged on his pet ocelot of which he produced a photo from his shirt pocket. The guy really loved animals. Dave and I traded amused looks, and after a bit ooohing and ahhing over his cat photos Gruhn got down to business.
  “I’m appraising this at thirteen five.”
   I blinked. “Excuse me? Thirteen five?”
 “Thirteen thousand five hundred dollars.” This beat up, currently unplayable old guitar was being valued at $13,500.
   I’m guessing my stunned silence communicated my astonishment. He continued, “ Of course, it needs some work. It’s going to need a neck set, fret job, and a new bridge.” He went on to explain that an exact copy of the original bridge would have to be made, and that this should be done by the best. I asked if Gruhn’s would do the work, but he said they only do in-house restorations. He guesstimated that the necessary repairs would be pretty costly, but the value of the guitar would be enhanced even beyond that. He gave me the name and number of a master repairman in nearby Franklin who he felt was qualified to do the work.
   He also wanted to buy it. I let him know it wasn’t mine to sell, but that I’d let the owners know of his offer. Hands were shaken, thanks were proffered, and the “consultation” was over. But he really must have hated letting that guitar get out the door because twenty minutes later as Dave and I were marveling at the impressive inventory of vintage goodies (and, of course, purchasing a Gruhn’s Guitar t-shirt) he approached us again and emphasized his interest in buying.
   When we finally left I held a tighter grip on the case than I had on the way in. I called owner/buddy from the parking lot to break the good news, then Dave and I walked down the block to Jack’s BBQ where the Martin sat beside me in the booth as we ate and downed a couple of celebratory beers.

This story will have a part two. The guitar has yet to be repaired since repair is so expensive. It’s also hard to coordinate with the repairman. He’s very much in demand in the Nashville area, so when I called him to try to set up a time to bring it to him he wasn’t accepting new work.
I’ll update, of course. I’m dying to play this once all has been restored. That’s going to be a real treat.


  1. Testing comments. Testing. One. Two. Three.

  2. Love it, Chip-I want to hear you play it when that time comes-cgmart

  3. Chip, when will you be posting part two to this story?