Since Nashville is home to thousands of songwriters and guitar players, it makes sense that Music City would also be the location of some well-known vintage guitar dealers. And while not all of us can afford a collectible vintage Gibson or Martin or other historic model, they sure are fun to try out in the showrooms and talk about with other pickers in Guitar Town.
Gruhn Guitars, opened in 1970 by George Gruhn, and Carter’s Vintage Guitars, owned by Walter and Christie Carter, are the stores of Nashville’s best-known vintage guitar dealers. While Gruhn doesn‘t boast about his clientele, he doesn’t need to. Stringed instruments from his shop, both acoustic and electric, have been used by literally hundreds of legends of guitardom over the past 44 years. Names like Clapton, Paisley, Knopfler, Gill, Gibbons and others come up in any conversation about who’s playing a guitar that Gruhn has touched at one time or another. In the end, though, the question has to be asked: Does a guitar always sound that much better just because it’s old?
Many people believe that old acoustic instruments often sound better because the wood has aged, but Gruhn doesn’t necessarily agree. “The wood will get better on some guitars, to an extent,” Gruhn says. “But the biggest reason that some vintage guitars sound better is because they were just made better to begin with.” Gruhn isn’t some old fogey who grumbles about how instrument quality has changed over the years, though. “There are a lot of very good new guitars out there these days,” he says. And with hundreds of both acoustic and electric instruments in stock, not everything Gruhn carries is out of the financial reach of the everyday player.
Carter’s Vintage Guitars doesn’t lack an accomplished clientele either. A look at Carter’s Facebook page shows artists like Steve Earle, Zac Brown, Chris Thile and Ry Cooder trying instruments in the store. While the two businesses may be in competition – indeed, they’re located about a mile apart on the same street in the heart of Nashville – the stores’ owners have a long history together, as Walter Carter and his wife both worked for Gruhn at one time, and Carter and Gruhn have written three books together about, what else, vintage guitars. All three books can be found on Amazon.com.
Carter, who has had cuts as a writer with such country icons as the Oak Ridge Boys and Loretta Lynn, says that it’s a misconception that stores like his do so well simply because they’re in Nashville. “There’s a mistaken image of Nashville as a great place to have a guitar store because all these guitar players are here,” Carter says. “But guitars for the session players, for instance, have to intonate perfectly, have to play evenly across the whole range. The best guitar for a recording session isn’t the best guitar from a collectible standpoint, or a live standpoint or a songwriting standpoint. About half of the instruments we sell are actually shipped to buyers outside Nashville.” Like Gruhn’s, Carter’s does carry some less expensive instruments, as everyday writers and musicians typically don’t have thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands, to spend on a 1930s Martin or a 1920s Gibson Loar mandolin.
Gruhn and Carter don’t have the market completely cornered in Music City though. Veteran music journalist and guitar expert Gabe Hernandez, with his company Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., has a piece of the vintage pie as well. And former Little Texas keyboardist Brady Seals, from a long family history of guitar players (i.e., the late country stars Johnny Duncan and Dan Seals, Nashville songwriter Troy Seals and Jim Seals of Seals and Crofts), runs Music City Pickers in the nearby suburb of Franklin, Tennessee.
So will playing a 1930s Selmer-Maccaferri like Django Reinhardt’s inspire you to write a jazz classic? Will you write a blues standard if you find a 1920s Stella in an old Mississippi tobacco barn? Will playing a 1969 Martin N-20 like Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” (though he bought it new) make you write hundreds of new songs? Well, maybe, but maybe not, as the relationship each player develops with a particular guitar, vintage or not, is the key.
“A good guitar isn’t a matter of the age or price tag,” Gruhn says. “The good ones feel alive. One instrument may have no personality, no interesting quirks, whereas another, like a high-spirited horse, might make suggestions about where it wants to go, how fast it wants to go, if it wants to leap or not.”