Like most guitar players, I’ve long known that having just one is simply not enough. I have my sweet-smelling mahogany Martin 000-15 that I keep inside the case next to my bed and only bring out on special days. There’s the Takamine Jumbo custom for playtime; a cheapo Ibanez black laminate, thin-body, acoustic-electric that sounds totally awesome when I plug it into an amp once or twice a year; the lap steel I’m still fussing around with, in C6 tuning; and two guitars I bought when I was a kid that are now classified as vintage. As am I.
Other players will chuckle and tell you truthfully that I am as far from a serious collector as one can get. In fact, for someone who has played as long as I have, it’s an embarrassing assortment of wire, wood, and glue mostly constructed across the Pacific. If I had ever chosen to show up at a bluegrass festival parking lot with my Epiphone 6830 dreadnought, they would likely have run me over with a John Deere tractor. I speak in the past tense because this week it ceased to exist as anything other than wall art.
When I bought that guitar back in 1971 – it is an ‘it’ because I don’t name my instruments – it cost me about $200. That was a lot of money back then for a starving student to spend. People would often ask why I didn’t have a higher end Martin D-whatever, and I always said that if I could find one that sounded better than this one, I’d buy it. Honestly, the Japanese craftspeople who made my Epiphone did one helluva job. I’ve kept it in great condition, with only a few nicks and bruises that one might expect after too many nights of dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud acoustic music.
A few years back I began to notice it wouldn’t stay in tune for too long, and I started to play it less and less. Still, every guitarist needs at least one dreadnought, so I drove up north last week to a small town in the Hudson Valley to see a luthier named Doug about what it might cost to repair. After he examined it inside and out, and explained in detail the issues, he picked up a calculator, punched on the keys like Liberace, and held the display up for me to see. $1,800. Goodbye.
Like an addict who needs a fix, I’ve been staying up late all week, surfing the web to brush up on what’s out there that might fit my tight budget. I’ve solicited suggestions from musicians and dealers I know, and read up on the pros and cons of manufacturing and design from America, Canada, Mexico, China, Korea, and Japan. I’ve learned about solid wood, sustainable wood, laminates, satin finish, high gloss stain. I’ve considered guitars with a thin neck, wide neck, open or closed tuning machines, acoustic both with and without pickups. I’ve looked into large companies, small companies, handmade, oven-baked, extra crispy, and gluten free. The choices are endless.
And where do you buy a guitar these days? Just like with hardware stores and booksellers, there seems to just be one or two companies that dominate the marketplace. They look the same, price the same, have the identical inventory and selection. Most of the guitars on display have never been set up, the strings are oxidized, and they buzz and squeak. I’ve also visited a number of smaller retailers and they can hardly compete with the big guys on price, so they tend to stock the lower-end models for beginners. Even here in New York City, it’s hard to find someplace that doesn’t either require a ferry ride to Staten Island or a trip to the Village where it’s often hard to hear above the din.
Being someone who loves to curl up with a good spreadsheet, I’ve been doing some research. According to www.musictrades.com, last year in the United States almost 1.5 million acoustic guitars were sold; about 350,000 more than electrics. Thank you Mumford and Llewyn Davis, I suppose. Of that number, about two-thirds sold for $500 or less, a third priced between $501-$1,500. And only 25,200 sold above that. Wow. If you’ve ever picked up a magazine like Fretboard Journal or Acoustic Guitar, you’d think everybody is buying that custom $15,000 Martin or Taylor. Nope. I think those magazines are mostly hedge fund manager pornography these days.
Jim Isray, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts’ football team, paid $335,000 last February for a Gibson Les Paul to add to his collection, which includes Dylan’s Fender that he played at the Newport Folk Festival when he went electric and Jerry Garcia’s beloved Tiger. The Washington Post quoted Cheap Trick’s Rick Nelson – a Les Paul collector himself, with over a hundred of them – as saying the price was reasonable, and “I’m happy it didn’t go for $2.1 million.” And that Garcia guitar? Isray paid $850,000 for it in 2002. That’s much less than the Hendrix 1968 Strat that billionaire Paul Allen bought in 1993. Boys and their toys.
So anyway, here I am: minus one dreadnought and ready to go on a shopping spree. While I’ll try not to succumb to Madison Avenue-style advertising and marketing, it’s hard not to want a new six-string that will “bring back memories of the great instruments of the Golden Era of guitar building. Those were days when all work was done by gifted craftspeople, by hand, using simple tools. Heirloom-quality instruments which may be enjoyed by future generations of musicians.” God bless great design, low overhead foreign manufacturing plants, and American Express.
This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.