Interview: George Gruhn and Walter Carter Talk Vintage Guitars

Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars, now out in an expanded third edition, is the one book about guitars that I consult at least a couple of times a week. George Gruhn, and his co-author Walter Carter, have done an incredible job of gathering serial numbers, model designations and history about all the major American guitar builders and stuffing it all into a mere 628 pages of small type. If I’m not careful, this book can really kill an afternoon. For example, the other day I wanted to see if Cromwell was one of the other brands made by Gibson (yes, Gibson made them from 1935 to 1939) and that got me to thinking about the other brands the Martin made. Were there other Martin made instruments besides Ditson? Why yes, there were, including Wurlizter (297 guitars between 1922 and 1924), Briggs (65 mandolins between 1915 and 1919) and Belltone (15 guitars, 10 mandolins and 12 3K ukuleles.) Anyway, you can see what happens when you open a book like this.

Late last year I was in Nashville and I got a chance to visit George Gruhn and Walter Carter and talk to them about the revised edition of Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitar and the revised edition of Electric Guitars and Basses: A Photographic History, which is one of the great guitar photo books. We started talking about the books but the conversation quickly expanded to cover guitars in general. George and Walter know more about guitar history than anyone I know and I always learn something new when I talk to them. I suspect that when you read this interview I did with them, you will learn a few new things, too. —Michael John Simmons

Fretboard Journal: This is the third edition of Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars. So, what’s been added to it? What’s new?

Walter Carter: Well, ten years worth of new models. After the second edition, which came out in 1999, we found we were having more difficulty identifying newer models than we were older ones. That’s probably not everyone’s experience, because we were more interested and more familiar with older models. But it was obvious for the book to continue to be effective we had to include new models. That problem — just identifying what comes in the door for models that are made over the last ten years — has become even more amplified over the last ten years because of all the variations on Strats and Les Pauls for example.

FJ: Did you find new information on older instruments or is that all pretty settled now?

WC: Most of what we did was a year-to-year tweak, a refinement of what we already know. For example, we discovered that there are no Super 400s from ’34. It was ’35 before the first ones began to appear in the Gibson shipping ledger. And we discovered that because that ledger has come to light over the last ten years. So a few little things like that, we’re able to refine the old listings.

GG: When it comes right down to it, the old instrument specs haven’t changed. But since we did pretty good research at the beginning, it’s not like we’ve overturned everything. This was information that not only had we previously published, but others have researched in the past few years as well. Occasionally research causes one to change some opinions. We know more now than we did 10 years ago. If we didn’t know more now than we did then, that would be a statement that either we’re growing senile, or we’ve done no growth, no research, learned nothing new and that’s not the case.

But we did change quite a bit of content, because there are more new models now than there are vintage instruments in all the prior history of many of these companies. Fender, for example, makes more variations of Stratocasters today than all the pre-CBS models Fender made of everything combined.

FJ: You’ve redesigned the key format, the search section. In the older editions you had the listings within the builder sections arranged by style, such as flattops or electric archtops. Now the models are arranged alphabetically. Why the change?

WC: Well, I just found myself having a hard time finding things in the old format, and I figured if I was having a hard time — and I know the book better than anyone–something had to be done about that.

GG: There’s no perfect solution, because there are literally thousands of variations — so many different models — but I think we have something that is quite unique. There is no other book with a similar key relating to musical instruments. The keys are very much like some of those in zoological guides, or botanical guides, which is actually where these guides evolved from. My background is in zoology, and one of the most influential books in my life was the Schmidt & Davis Field Guide to Snakes East of the Rocky Mountains, published in 1944. And it had identification keys for snakes that were organized in a remarkably similar manner to those in the Gruhn guide. Of course, Walter studied that book a bit, not to learn about snakes but at least to get some ideas on how to do a key, and he evolved the key concept a bit beyond what was in the snake guide.

FJ: Well, have you thought about adding some of the newer makers?

GG: If we were to try to cover everything, it would evolve into something encyclopedia-size, multi-volume, and what we have done is at least cover the bulk of what most of the inquiries that come to us seem to be concerned with.

WC: It’s difficult to justify because there’s not necessarily vintage interest. And that’s still the world that that book lives in and came from. Taylor would be an example.  We’ve thought about that but there’s probably enough information on Taylor’s site regarding serial numbers in the early Taylors.

GG: That’s probably the answer as to why we didn’t do it because you don’t need us.  You can go to Taylor’s Web site, and you can get it. If you want information on many modern builders such as Taylor, Collings or Santa Cruz you can either call them on the phone or check their websites. While these are very fine instruments, they are not vintage collector’s items and the information players and collectors need regarding them is readily available so we saw little need to expand the book to cover them.

FJ: What’s the hardest builder to date?

WC: It would be something from Gibson if you don’t know anything about Gibson’s guitars or their serial number system.

GG: Even if you are very familiar with Gibson’s serial number system is still difficult to accurately date some of the instruments since the numbers were often repeated and unlike Martin were not strictly in consecutive order. During the early to mid 1970s, for example, Gibson repeated serial numbers in the 100,000 series which makes it virtually impossible to use these numbers to date instruments accurately within that time frame. If it is a Gibson electric guitar you can look at the pot codes and assume as long as these components are original that it is no older than the component parts, but Gibson and other companies bought pots in the quantity and used them over a period of time. While Martin has meticulously maintained accurate records from the mid-1800s onward, Gibson and most other companies’ record-keeping has been far more sporadic. Gibson’s records from the Norlin era 1970 through 1985 are at best spotty and Fender’s records from the CBS period are also very incomplete.

While Martin’s serial number records for their guitars and mandolins have been so meticulously maintained that you can call the company with a serial number and be told the exact work order batch and specifications of the instrument, Martin ukuleles have no serial numbers so they cannot be dated with absolute precision. It is difficult to date a Martin uke any more accurately than to within a decade.

WC: Typically the exact date is more important to the owner than it is to the value of a guitar. A Gibson from ’72 or ’73, it’s the same guitar. If it’s not, you can date it, you know, if there is a change in spec during that time. But ’72, ’73, ’74, ’75 — 99 times out of 100, it makes no difference in the value of that instrument, which exact year it’s from.

GG: Insofar as valuing instruments, it matters basically what era it is and there are certain periods where it doesn’t matter if it’s 1935 or 1936. But with Martin D-28s, for example, it may be a big difference if it’s ‘38 versus ’39 because the bracing pattern and the neck dimensions change.

FJ: You’ve also revised your book Electric Guitars and Basses: A Photographic History. Any big revelations there?

WC: Well, I think the main addition to that book — the most important — is the first Rickenbacker Spanish electric guitar. It was owned by a guy named Gage Brewer in Wichita, who stopped by the Rickenbacker factory on his way back from a Pacific cruise in 1932. He knew the Rickenbacker principals from their work with National. At the time, the company was called Ro-Pat-In. and when Brewer stopped by they had three guitars there, two Hawaiian lap steels and a thing where they put their pickup and 14-fret neck on a tenor acoustic body, probably made by Harmony or Kay. That’s the start — that may be the most important electric guitar in history. It certainly draws a line for everything that came before, and everything that came after, particularly because the pickup is still viable today.