While parking the car one night to see Damien Horne at Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville (see my Honky Tonk write up, which includes the Damien Horne show) on the other side of town, I ran into a few guys who were on their way to an anniversary party and within fifteen minutes of chatting with them, we found ourselves invited.
The anniversary party was no ordinary anniversary party however, but the 45th anniversary party of Gruhn Guitars, who happens to own the URL www.guitars.com — yes really. Something told me within being within Gruhn Guitars walls for no more than two minutes that the guy behind Gruhn might just know a thing or two about guitars.
Floor after floor was filled to the brim with acoustic and electric guitars. You’ll learn a lot and be blown away by the volume of guitars at Gruhn Guitars but you’ll also have a lot of fun.
Hell, I even got an opportunity to hang out with renowned country singer Ranger Bob, who we saw play at the Grand Ole Opry earlier in the week.
He was at his best…..et hem, hamming around for the crowd.
Then, I had an opportunity to meet the man behind the Gruhn Guitars legend, George Gruhn, who according to Guitar Player editor Tom Wheeler, “knows more about vintage guitars than anyone on earth.”
As I began to chat with George however, I realized that beyond guitars, he also had a passion for science and biology and…..snakes. There were far too many rooms and floors in the building not to get lost, so I blindly followed George to another floor where his eclectic but unassuming office sat. It was loaded to the brim with “stuff” — from old relics and guitars to piles of books and a massive glass case for his snakes. There’s even a fish hanging on the wall.
Truth be told, I grew up in around nature and was a tomboy of sorts, playing with male cousins and the boys in my street more than I did girls. That said, while I collected birds and toads over the years and saved lightning bugs in glass jars, I never got into the spider and snake thing – in fact, I have a fear that goes beyond the average Joe, and so when George wanted to introduce me to his pal snakes, I began to turn around to walk in the opposite directly — quickly. Rude or not, I was about “done” with our conversation before it had a chance to go deep.
Thankfully George sensed me fear, for he turned the conversation to his cats instead. There in his office, with his snakes behind him and a cat on one of his lounging chairs, we began our chat.
“A guitar responds to the individual player and sounds completely different when you play it than 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,” says George. While I wanted to explore the world of vintage guitars with him — after all, the anniversary party was to celebrate 45 years of his guitar life — he wanted to steer the discussion elsewhere. And so we did.
While his guitar customers have included music legends and heavyweights like Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney, just to name a a few, I got the feeling that he was even more passionate about biology than anything else, hence his love for snakes and well, insects….of all kinds.
He’s been living in Nashville since 1969 and a year later, he started Gruhn Guitars, which is one of the largest dealers of vintage and used instruments in the world. While there are an insatiable number of books in his office on vintage music and guitars, you can’t help but notice The Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada.
Given George’s love for insects, snakes and the natural world, he applied a biological and systematic approach to musical instruments. “It’s easier to learn massive amounts of information in patterns than in random facts,” he once said in an interview with The Nashville Business Journal. He echoed the same sentiment in my interview with him on that mid-January evening at his guitar store on 8th Avenue South.
George Gruhn is the co-author of Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars, which is the comprehensive field guide to vintage fretted instruments, and the companion volumes Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments and Electric Guitars and Basses. These books chronicle the history of American stringed instruments and are beautifully illustrated and exhaustively researched.
Below is a video I shot of him at the Anniversary Batch, where he also thanks his eclectic team for supporting him over the years.
Although the highlight of the evening was my one-on-one time with George, I also had time to explore floor after floor, room after room and couldn’t help but be fascinated by the diverse designs and styles of guitars. While I have always wanted to learn how to play guitar and have a trusty old fashioned one in my garage that I’ve been hanging onto for years, I found myself wanting to start lessons that very night by the end of the party.
The Gruhn Guitars story has a lot of history. From their first building, which was located in what is now the Ryman Alley, they’ve come a long way from their 20 x 60 foot space. At the time, he operated his business with nothing more than an old fashioned telephone and a mechanical adding machine. It made me think of the old style one my grandfather used for his business for so many years.
Then they headed to 410 Broadway, where they hung their hat until 2013. I was surprised to learn that they’ve only been at their current location for two years. Clearly they needed the space to fit their now inventory of over 1,100 guitars, basses, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, and amplifiers. Whoah Nelly!
Although they have power equipment in their repair shop, they take pride in the fact that the vast bulk of the work is done by hand using techniques familiar to craftsmen a century ago. Many on his staff has been with the company for 5, 10, and even 20+ years.
2120 8th Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37204