Gruhn Guitars: String Fever!

9 March 2011

There are priorities, and then there are bluegrass priorities. For instance, while regular mortals might consider making a house payment a priority, bluegrassers can see the higher value in putting down a deposit on a sweet pre-war Martin— a steal at twelve grand!

When I first got into bluegrass, I was frankly stunned by the prices of instruments. This may be the music of hardscrabble hillbillies, but a decent mandolin or banjo can easily match the cost of very good classical instrument. Which begs the question: are all these friendly folks I meet at jam sessions robbing banks in their spare time?

For those who think I’m exaggerating, consider this: Ron Thomason of Dry Branch Fire Squad offered to trade a small apartment building for a Loar Gibson mandolin— and this was in the 1970’s. Yep, at the upper end of the market for bluegrass instruments, we’re talking about high finance.

Keep this in mind if, while rummaging through your deceased great uncle’s attic, you stumble upon a distressed banjo with the word “Mastertone” on a scuffed up plaque on the resonator. Should you find yourself in this spot, you should either— a) send me that rusty ol’ five-string and not give it another thought or b) take it down to Gruhn Guitars for an appraisal.

For the past forty years, Gruhn Guitars has been a clearinghouse for some of the most celebrated and sought after instruments in bluegrass and country music. It is the home base of George Gruhn, a legendary instrument dealer. I paid a visit to Mr. Gruhn’s famous emporium when I visited Nashville last spring. This was just before the flood that wreaked havoc on Music City. I was fortunate enough to meet Walter Carter at the shop. Carter is both a Gruhn veteran and an authority on fine string instruments, having written several books on the subject. After letting our conversation age like a vintage guitar, I have fashioned the exchange into a first installment of Curly’s Q & A, an occasional series of interviews. Have a look!

The shop is located on Broadway in downtown Nashville, just steps from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and while it is known as a Mecca for collectors, not every rack is filled with priceless booty. The showroom features the good as well as the great: the work of many contemporary instrument makers shares floor space with classic older instruments, so emptying an ATM is not a prerequisite for paying a visit.

Thanks to all the folks at Gruhn Guitar for letting me barge in, and a special tip of the hat to Walter Carter for sharing his knowledge and hitting every one of my questions right out of the park.

Yer Pal— Curly

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