Talk to the old-timers and ask them how they found their old hoss. Invariably the discussion will touch on buy and sell ads, shotgun trades and just plain old horse-trading. And later, but not by much, newsletters sent by a small handful of vintage dealers began to find their way into dusty mailboxes all around the country and beyond. These catalogs became multigenerational bathroom fodder/bedtime reading for all of those who ever had a guitar hero, whether it was Grandpa or Leadbelly. For many, watching Steven Stills fingerpicking “4 + 20” on a prewar Herringbone created the question, “Why is this rich hippie playing an old guitar?” But for those who read the Vintage News, the answer was obvious: Stephen Stills was a guitar nerd. Enter the era of “old” no longer meaning “worn.” Enter the brave new world of “vintage.”
Without recapping all of the glory days of the vintage craze, it’s safe to say that times are different now. People who decide to part with their old wooden companions are finding a market very different from a mere 10 years ago. Buyers are educated, frugal and, for lack of a better term, nitpicky. With—in some cases—decades of vintage awareness under their belts, these guitar buyers have to be wowed to part with money that’s increasingly difficult to rationalize spending. As a result, vintage dealers have been forced to change with the new climate and bend so as not to break. A quick perusal of vintage guitar sites will often find photography that is professional and descriptions that border on a postmortem, with the patient making a miraculous, albeit expensive, recovery.
Two new vintage instrument shops distinguish themselves, though. And it may be no coincidence that these businesses have been established by people who were longtime players in the success of two famous vintage guitar stores: Matt Umanov Guitars and Gruhn’s Guitars.
If you have played a guitar in the last 12 years at Matt Umanov’s, it was probably brought to top retail shape by Tom Crandall. It’s no secret that a key ingredient in getting a good one is simply purchasing an instrument with the same playability and basic geometry it had when it was new. Experienced luthiers can create shops filled with instruments that can make believers out of anyone.
Tom Crandall’s new store is a joint venture with his friend and business partner, Alex Whitman, who also worked with Tom at Umanov’s. To walk into TR Crandall Guitars is to get inside Tom’s head. The first thing that greets you is an old McIntosh tube hi-fi; take a few more steps and various lugged steel bicycles from the ’40s or ’50s casually lean against a wall. The old storefront is nicely stocked with vintage Martin and Gibson acoustics. Not a single one needs a neck reset or frets. In Tom and Alex’s store, there are no conversations about their guitars being “borderline” in need of anything. Everything is ready to go.
But the peculiarities are clearly something that Tom and Alex relish: Have you ever seen a Marshall Special, complete with a mountainous tropical scene at sunset? There are only two in existence. TR Crandall has one of them. And it’s clean. Very clean. Although a relatively small group of players know about Gibson Roy Smeck guitars and the attendant joys of converting them, there are still fewer luthiers who can accomplish a conversion that retains as much of the spirit and feel of the original instrument while also offering effortless modern playability. Within months of opening, Tom had already completed two such conversions, with plans for a third in the works. Not surprisingly, these are not the only Smecks at TR Crandall: they also own two airplane-bridged six-strings. With their light construction, and Tom’s setup so perfect, they have been rendered rich and responsive with a harmonic palette that is beguiling yet decidedly different from a classic Martin or Gibson.
“I’ve always liked oddballs,” explains Tom, “I mean, that’s if they’re a real instrument; it’s kind of cool to approach them like that. That Harmony Roy Smeck Professional is a real guitar. It’s X-braced and the workmanship is as nice as a Gibson. You wouldn’t put it in a category of a Martin, but it certainly is as nice as a Gibson.”
Alex adds, “It’s not like anything else. It’s certainly very well made. It’s got beautiful wood and sounds great. Even things like that Biltmore over there; that’s from 1940. It’s a Harmony ladder-braced thing. You know, you could say, ‘Well, it’s ladder-braced; it’s not a Martin; it’s not a Gibson.’ But, there’s definitely a category of musician who prefers that sound. Just because, you know, most people would prefer an X-braced sound. To blues guys, that’s the offending sound. That thing sounds really cool. And we approached it very seriously and very carefully, as if it were a Martin or a Gibson. And as a result, you get something that plays fantastically. It has its own distinctive sound.
“For Gen-Xers, trying to get them interested in this is an interesting thing. Most of them don’t really have the money yet to able to afford, you know, a $10,000 guitar. So, part of the reason we’re having cool Harmonies and stuff from the ’40s is because they’re under $2,000, and it allows a younger person who doesn’t have the disposable income to get into the vintage guitar world. They’ll say there is a difference with this old stuff and get the bug in there. Hopefully they come back in a couple years and they made a little money, and they want to get a nice Martin from the ’50s or ’40s, or something like that.”
Customers are thus enjoying a guitar experience that Alex and Tom have painstakingly orchestrated, with as much education and discussion of an instrument as there is the playing of it. Since many of Tom’s customers have gone to him for his lutherie for years, his guitar whimsy is more than a little appreciated. This is evidenced by the people who come just to hang out for a few hours, whether it’s Steve Earle or the guy who plays the bar on the corner. Of course, if you are a working musician, oddities are just a small part of what TR Crandall does so well: the walls are gorgeously lined with the most spectacular bread and butter—1940s and ’50s D-18s and J-45s abound, reminding the onlooker of just what made many of the timeless recordings sonic benchmarks for the modern musician, airplane bridges not withstanding.
But this is a new climate, one that hasn’t resembled anything in the last 30 years, as far as vintage instruments are concerned. Tom believes that “now there is just a higher level of sophistication and emphasis on originality. When I started doing this, you didn’t even have the Gruhn guide. Before that, you kinda had American Guitars to use for reference work.”
Alex adds, “When I got into guitars, it was the year that eBay started. That was back in the Wild West when you could buy something and sell it a week later for twice what you paid. So it was a lot easier to get deals when I started doing this. And Gibson guitars, comparatively, have gone up much more dramatically than Martin guitars. We buy pieces knowing that they’re going to be broken, even if they say they aren’t. That’s actually our whole business model: We buy stuff broken and Tom fixes it!”
Which brings up the motivation for many customers who have been flocking to TR Crandall guitars in the few months the doors have been open: Tom Crandall is one of the few full-service, vintage-enthused, fanatical luthiers in New York City. In a town where everything is on the menu, vintage guitar repairs are often sent out in the mail. It would surprise many to know that most of the top shops in New York send out pieces for critical repair or simply leave that responsibility to the customer. That does not happen at Tom and Alex’s shop, because it’s not necessary, and today’s market demands more. It also illuminates why many vintage customers are often perplexed about instruments that have borderline issues not properly dealt with before purchase.
For Tom, “It means that everything on our wall is spot on. And since it’s just Alex and me, there is no one else to blame. There are no layers of insulation.” Alex adds, “There are very few vintage shops where the luthier is the owner of the store. Our advantage is that acoustic instruments are far more difficult to repair. And with Tom’s skill—not that it’s wasted on electric guitars—but he can come up with innovative ways to deal with all the various issues that arise.”
Fans of Tom’s lutherie have found the perfect home where all of his work lives, in a shop that has a clubhouse feel. According to Tom, “Alex and I decided that we wanted to create a refuge of sorts where the emphasis was on acoustic instruments. We chose a space with great acoustics on a quiet street away from the crowds of New York City tourists. We also decided to keep our collection very tightly curated so that each instrument has an impact; it’s like a palette of sounds to choose from. Hence, our store has a clean, uncluttered look which redefines the guitar shop experience.”
How do guitars find a new home in Tom and Alex’s shop? With vintage guitar shows appearing leaner than in years past, the Internet and decades of connections often provide more meat on the bone. According to Tom, “Both of us have connections that go quite a ways back, like connections back to the Midwest. These are people who love to wheel and deal, you know.” Alex mentions, “We recently turned up a 1954 Martin D-18 that was a one-owner guitar. It never had any work done to it, other than someone cutting the saddle down, and we had to reset the neck on it, but it’s the type of thing that you don’t expect to find anymore. It has the original receipt and hand-tooled leather strap with the original owner’s name and all that stuff. It still happens.”
That said, the economy has made things more challenging, as Alex notes when discussing his first years in New York. “When I first came to New York, it was 2007, and the recession really hadn’t happened here yet. It had happened in America, but New York was a little bit insulated. The big banks hadn’t collapsed yet. Bonuses were still happening. And the conversion rate for the Euro was pretty strong for the Europeans. As a result half the guitars we were selling were going to Europe. Whether it be shipped or people walking in the door. Then the bonuses dried up here, which killed a lot of local business. And then the conversion rate when the European crisis happened, a little bit delayed from ours, killed a lot of that business. But I think it’s come back.” The future is always unwritten, but TR Crandall Guitars could just as easily become a vintage amp shop (considering Tom’s skill with a schematic and a hot soldering iron), or a showcase for his collection of 30 lugged-steel bicycles in a convincing vintage store of another designation. Flexibility and talent are not lacking, making this shop truly of the city it resides in.
There will always be a mystique about purchasing a vintage instrument from Nashville. Thoughts immediately wander to the Grand Ole Opry, Music Row and, without fail, Gruhn Guitars. If you have purchased a big-ticket item at Gruhn’s, chances are that you dealt with one of the Carters: Walter Carter has teamed with George Gruhn for years, including co-authoring the essential Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars; Christie managed Gruhn’s, dealing with the very musicians who created the initial interest in old guitars. Just a quick listen to a few of her stories would make most sensible people question their chosen line of work. There are few in the world who have the knowledge and customer experience that the Carters possess.
It was quite a surprise when Walter and Christie announced their split from Gruhn Guitars, immediately creating speculation of a musical Hatfield and McCoy scenario in Nashville. Thankfully, this has not been the case, and their shop, Carter Vintage Guitars, has proven that there is more than enough room in Music City for two great emporiums.
One of the first sights that greets visitors to Carter Vintage is a kitchen. Yes, a fully stocked kitchen, often with a fridge full of craft beer from the brewery down the street. Not surprisingly, much like your own kitchen, this is where people hang out. That kitchen is often a veritable who’s who of local musicians and national acts. And it’s all not all that rare to see epic figures like Vince Gill sniffing around the old woodpile. From that kitchen perch, the store—all 8,000 square feet of it—sprawls out before your eyes. The casual observer will no doubt notice the maple-bodied TV yellow Junior from the mid-’50s, a full collection of shade-toped ’30s Martins and a showroom dripping in three-dimensional flametops from the good people down the street at Gibson’s Custom Shop. There are practice rooms, a luthier department and local art. The Carters did not skimp, and the neighborhood is a stone’s throw from downtown Nashville, in an area that is blooming with new businesses and great places to eat. Most have never been to a vintage shop with a vibe that’s so close to home, yet filled with such treasures. This suits the Carters’ taste and is also, obviously, done by design.
“When we first started in the vintage guitar business 25 years ago, there were only a few dealers with a bricks-and-mortar store and a nationwide (or worldwide) clientele,” Walter Carter says. “That gave the dealer the upper hand in negotiating, whether he was buying or selling, because the buyer or seller had fewer options. You couldn’t just Google ‘vintage guitar dealers.’ There was no Vintage Guitar magazine. My personal experience as a customer in the 1980s was that I couldn’t get the time of day out of a salesperson in the vintage instrument store where I tried to buy instruments. With the advent of the Internet, anyone with a computer and an old guitar can be a dealer and enjoy the same exposure as dealers who have been around for decades. Buyers can comparison shop, so the tables have turned. One way we’ve been able to distinguish ourselves from other dealers is in customer service—making sure a visit to our store is an enjoyable experience.” And it goes without saying that nothing is less enjoyable than paying top-dollar for a great piece, only to discover undisclosed issues that make a solid deal a headache.
Of course, anyone who has ever purchased an old guitar from Christie knows how she likes to conduct a deal. “We aim to have full disclosure of all repairs or alterations clearly described on our website, along with photos, including black-light photos, when applicable, of repairs,” she says. “This way folks know up front what they are looking at. In addition, we are in the process of loading up video/sound clips of each instrument. We live in an electronic world. You don’t need a computer to get connected anymore; you can do everything from a cellphone. It’s all about the audio-visual.”
“It is very important to have instruments that are set up and ready to play,” Christie adds. “You don’t want to blow that first impression. It is a drag to grab a guitar off the wall and find old strings and a bad set-up. We find it important to have a luthier on hand to accommodate the client’s set-up preference. We have an in-house repair shop; we take walk-in repairs.”
With the ever-increasing knowledge-base of customers comes a heightened responsibility to present instruments that display their full potential at first strum. Many have said that this points to a shift in values as Generation X moves into the cultural pole-position. Butwill Generation X appreciate and buy vintage guitars as voraciously as their parents did? In other words, what does a Herringbone mean to someone weaned on Nirvana?
Walter thinks “that’s the scariest question for vintage dealers today, as we see Baby Boomers turning from buyers to sellers. I think some dealers have relied so heavily on the Boomers that younger potential buyers have been ignored. We see enough young people with a strong interest in vintage instruments that we’re optimistic about the future.” According to Christie, “Women and Gen-Xers are the biggest untapped market. Some of the younger buyers and women have been ignored, and honestly, in some cases, pushed away by the old-school mentality. I’m hell-bent on changing that! We’ve developed a nice little following of young folks here. They come in and are a little gun-shy at first. It can be really intimidating to go to some vintage stores if you don’t have a contact. We’ve all been there.Don’t count the Boomers out! They are still a very healthy part of the business. Many are streamlining their collections today by selling some things and replacing those items with pieces that are more in line with the core of their collections. The Boomers have become sellersas well as buyers. It is pretty cool to see these pieces come up for sale after being in a collection for years.”
For the most part, vintage dealers still struggle with the same questions as consumers: What will be the next big vintage model? Will guitars from the ’70s ever be appreciated like the classics from the ’50s? Which modern guitars will be future collectibles? Walter observes, “If your investment adviser really knew what the stock market would do, he would be so rich he wouldn’t have to work as an investment advisor any more. The same is true for vintage guitar dealers. It’s safe to say that as long as the guitar is prominent in popular music, the classic vintage models will continue to be classic vintage models. Some models from the ’80s and ’90s, which don’t seem old today, will probably gain some vintage appeal, if for no other reason than their age.
“The instruments made by individuals or small shops will be rarer than regular-production instruments from the big makers, but they will have to be recognized as high-quality instruments for them to achieve vintage values,” Walter says. Christie is also focused on some of the acclaimed small makers who have come into the spotlight over the last decade or so.
“No doubt, the influential small makers will always have a cult following. Wayne Henderson, Stephen Gilchrist, JohnMonteleone are three examples that come to mind.The small builders are a very exciting part of our business. We have reached out and are working with builders like Stephen Gilchrist, Paul Duff, E. J. Henderson, Paul McGill, Mark Lacey, Caleb Smith, John McGuire, Red Mountain, Dan Voight, Don Wilson, Kevin Kopp and a long list of exciting makers. I don’t see an issue there—the demand for these builders will continue to grow.”
Not surprisingly, questions abound. Yet none are more qualified to hazard a guess than Tom, Alex, Christie and Walter. With buyers armed with knowledge, today’s successful vintage shops are no longer simply run by guitar-loving entrepreneurs. These men and women are talented, multifaceted and focused on delivering exactly what it takes to satisfy a market that is sometimes elusive. That’s where the beer and bikes come in handy. But never, of course, at the same time.