George Gruhn turned a hobby collecting vintage guitars into one of the most well-known guitar shops in the world. Gruhn Guitars in Nashville is a global hub for vintage guitar collectors.
Gruhn describes his early days of guitar collecting as “a compulsive mania.” He goes on to say Gruhn Guitars is a business that is “a result of a hobby that got out of hand.”
In an interview for Marty’s Music, George discussed his love for vintage guitars and the magic behind great instruments where he said,
“To me, one of the things that separates the really truly great instruments from the average is that the average may feel like a good, compliant tool, a good servant. The really great ones feel alive and then they make suggestions that you would not have thought of otherwise.”
Gruhn Guitars History
Since 1963, George Gruhn has been buying and selling used instruments, but there’s an intriguing story behind the start of the company. After studying zoology and animal behavior at the University of Chicago, George moved to Knoxville for a research job at the University of Tennessee. It turned out he would remain in Knoxville for only one semester. The reason being, one day, he received a phone call from none other than Hank Williams, Jr. looking for old Martin guitars. It just so happened that Gruhn had already made a name for himself as a source for prime time instruments. Sonny Osborne from the Osborne Brothers’ bluegrass band had told Hank about Gruhn’s collection of Martin guitars.
Gruhn recalls a phone conversation with Hank Williams, Jr. about the various guitars he had in his Knoxville apartment and what he’d be willing to sell. Hank, calling from Nashville, replied, “well, I can be there in four hours.” Four hours later, Hank Williams Jr. showed up in Knoxville at George’s apartment, ready to make a few deals. He ended up buying various guitars from Gruhn over the next few days and eventually convinced George he needed to move to Nashville. “There’s nobody in Nashville like you,” Hank proclaimed to George. That was all George needed to hear, he quit school and headed to Nashville shortly after that.
He started Gruhn Guitars in 1970 with just twenty-two instruments. Over fifty years, he’s grown it to become one of the largest dealers of vintage and used instruments in the world. George has sold guitars to some of the biggest names in music, including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash. It’s been said that George knows more about vintage guitars than anyone on earth.
George Gruhn explains his love for guitar collecting on the company website where he says,
“Guitars, which I feel are the ultimate collectible, can be looked at, touched, listened to, and played. At the same time, they are beautiful pieces of art that can be appreciated on so many levels. A guitar responds to the individual player and sounds completely different when you play it then when you listen to someone else play it…There is, therefore, greater depth of appreciation with musical instruments than with almost any other collectible, perhaps even more than with painting and sculpture.”
Vintage Guitar Values Over the Years
The vintage guitar market has changed dramatically over the years. In a recent interview for Acoustic Guitar, Gruhn was asked what the most popular vintage models are these days. He responded that the most popular vintage models today are the same that were popular when he opened his store in 1970. The 1950s electric guitars and 1920’s and 30s acoustics were the most in-demand guitars back then, and they still are.
Gruhn also commented on the state of the market where prices have been driven up by speculators. From 2000 to 2007, prices increased tenfold for some models. He adds that the high-end of the market is delicate, and if younger collectors don’t step in at some point, prices could collapse. He sees many new instruments entering the market from Baby Boomer collectors looking to sell out and downsize collections.
About ten years ago, George Gruhn published a few of his vintage guitar newsletters, where he discussed some of the factors he considers when valuing guitars. A few of the primary issues George considers when assessing vintage guitars are original price, precedent, and rarity.
The original price paid for a guitar mostly has nothing to do with the market value of a vintage instrument. However, Gruhn goes on to explain in his writing, that it can be an interesting exercise to compare current market values with original list prices. One indicator George looks at is the price of modern replicas or reissues in comparison to original list prices, after adjusting for inflation. Here you will be able to see if an extra premium has been added to the price because of a specific models’ popularity.
George writes that list prices can be deceptive when trying to anticipate which instruments will appreciate in the future. For example, some of the most expensive guitars by list price over the years don’t always turn out to be the best investments. He adds that vintage market values are a function of supply and demand as opposed to strictly the highest quality or most expensive guitars during a given period.
Gruhn describes precedent as a significant contributing factor when valuing vintage guitars. For instance, if a Telecaster sells for $1,000, then other Telecasters like it will have a value of at least $1,000. He explains simply, the market value for an instrument will be at least as high as the price it last sold for. The more models that exist, and therefore the higher number of recent sales, the easier it is to establish precedent and accurate value. When a dealer has no purchase to compare to in past years, it leads us to our next factor in valuation, which is rarity.
George describes rarity in the collector guitar market as somewhat different than other collector markets. Namely, he says rarity is not always a quantity that indicates value. George gives the example of a custom, one-of-a-kind guitar that might not be considered as valuable as a pristine condition catalog model. In contrast, he describes the collector coin market where the rarest coins are usually the most valuable.
Gruhn Guitars, an Institution
People travel from all over the world to see Gruhn Guitars in person. Some of the biggest names in music have consulted with George Gruhn and his team. The most valuable and treasured vintage guitars of all time have been evaluated, repaired, and sold at Gruhn’s shop. It’s become an institution over the years and a voice of authority in the collector vintage guitar market.
You can find your way to the Gruhn company website using the coveted, Guitars.com domain. George paid only $30 for the domain many years ago, because, “he was there before anyone else.” Although the elaborate website features daily updates of their entire inventory, along with the ability to submit guitars for online appraisal, the focus remains simple. George says simply, “knowledge, integrity, and service are remarkably low-tech.”