Saturday, December 22, 2012

Collecting (1900 Martin 0-28)

Collecting is all about serendipity, about which Jim Bollman knows a thing or two.  I was introduced to Jim by a mutual friend after a game of tennis.  Turns out this fellow tennisman co-owned the Music Emporium for thirty years, starting when it first opened locally in Cambridge, MA in 1974.  He is nationally recognized among instrument collectors for his seminal book "America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century."  He has been collecting vintage banjos for four decades and owns the pre-eminent collection of vintage banjos in the world, which adorns nearly every room of his Boston-area home.

Upon learning of my interest in vintage guitars, Jim generously offered me the chance to view his collection of vintage instruments that includes a couple turn of the (nineteenth) century guitars. That is how this week I learned that in the late nineteenth century the banjo was America's most popular instrument, spanning entertainment from ribald minstrel shows and classical banjo orchestras in dance halls to every high society sitting room.  By 1890, Boston was the premier center of Banjo manufacturing.  A.C. Fairbanks & Co., William A. Cole, and Bay State were all Boston rivals manufacturing beautiful hand-crafted banjos, mandolins, and guitars.  It was the Cole company, though, that had the good fortune of enlisting the talents of master engraver Icilio Consalvi from Italy.  By 1891, Consalvi was adding his signature exquisitely-carved pearl inlays to Cole instruments, and single-handedly elevated the decorative artistry of American instruments in his day.  The high-end presentation models from this era are considered some of the finest vintage instruments ever made.  Consalvi's personal banjo, known as the "King" banjo for its over-the-top inlay work totaling nearly 40,000 individual pieces according to Consalvi, was recently donated to the instrument collection of the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston by his family.

Speaking of family, Jim befriended Consalvi's granddaughter after she started selling off some of Consalvi's stuff.  He was able to acquire numerous of the master craftsman's items including his tool chest full of the artist's tools and instrument parts.  In the process Jim was even gifted Consalvi's wife's turn of the century Martin 0-28!  While that guitar does need restoration, Jim also acquired the late 1890s unsigned 0-size parlor guitar with typical Consalvi inlays seen here.  It has a chunky v-shaped neck (this was before truss rods) and sturdy bracing, making it heavier than one would expect for such a small instrument.  It also sports gut strings, which hold less tension than the modern steel strings that were not widely known or used before the 1920's.  It is a work of art that rivals the finish work on any modern high-end guitars.

And that is how I went from a passing conversation on the tennis courts to a private showing of the world's finest vintage banjo collection just a few miles down the road.  What a great Christmas visit!  May you also experience musical blessings during the holidays.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

eBay Closet Find (1984 Yamaha FG-335SB)

The eBay platform, which lists a constantly revolving inventory of thousands of vintage acoustic guitars for sale on a daily basis, makes the search for hard to find or otherwise unusual instruments that much easier.

When a Yamaha FG-335SB in near mint condition was recently listed my interest was piqued.  I use a well-worn 1979 FG-335 as my travel guitar, which is a popular model, but the FG-335SB, with a beautiful antique sunburst finish, was only made for one year in 1984. Online listings are uncommon.  There is little to no additional information available about this guitar as even the Blue Book publisher does not have access to the original listing information from Yamaha.

This particular guitar was un-played in its original chipboard case, which was also pristine.  Reportedly stored in a closet since 1984, all it needed was a new set of strings to come to life.  It plays brightly across all registers and has excellent clarity and sustain.  Almost thirty years later, the factory set-up was right on.  I should have no problem finding this beauty a good home. Maybe Santa will stop by to pick it up soon!  Merry Christmas everyone.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Collings Guitars

Courtesy of The Music Emporium
Bill Collings has been making guitars out of Austin Texas since the 1980s.  Last night I jumped at the chance to hear from him and sample his latest models at the Music Emporium, our Boston-area high-end acoustic guitar mecca in Lexington MA, and a recently-named Premier Collings Dealer, where he was presenting with his colleague and master craftsman Bruce VanWart.

Collings Guitars is widely recognized as one of the finest high-end boutique guitar makers in the country.  They now produce over 2,000 instruments annually, including acoustic guitars, electrics and archtops, ukuleles, and mandolins.  Bill was able to share a little window into how they are able to maintain the personal, artisanal attention to detail and quality throughout the 30,000 sq. ft., 90-employee shop.  He was especially proud of the fact that at least 50 employees are themselves enthusiastic guitar players, and everyone is there because they enjoy making great instruments.

It all starts and ends, however, with the quality of the woods selected and their cut.  Besides discussing the advantages of different tone woods, Bill passed around two Sitka Spruce guitar tops to help illustrate the importance of selecting properly cut wood.  One top was perfectly quarter sawn.  This means the growth rings of the wood run through the thickness of the top at a perfect 90 degree angle ("dead quarter") to the horizontal top viewed from the bottom bout.  This provides the greatest available stiffness to the width of the top, which translates into the ability to vibrate and quickly return to its original position and thus greater tonal responsiveness.  The second top, cut from the same wood but just five to ten degrees off the quarter, was surprisingly rubbery when flexed from the bass to treble side.  A high quality top thus usually comes from trees like Sitka Spruce well-known for their high density and consistent growth rings, which, when properly cut, provide consistently stiff and resilient tops.

After Bill fielded what felt like a hundred questions from the guitarists in the room, I was itching to actually try some of the Collings guitars in the shop.  I immediately gravitated to the CJ (Collings Jumbo) models, the Collings slope-shouldered dreadnoughts.  The two I played had beautiful sunburst varnish finishes, one with additional style 42 appointments including abalone trim and rosette inlays.  Varnish finishes have recently become popular because they are extremely thin and flexible enough not to impede the wood's vibration.  As such, they can produce a more responsive instrument with greater depth of tone.  While a varnish finish also provides a rich luster, extra care must be taken not to scratch them as the finish is not as protective as thicker lacquer options.

The CJ model is strikingly light for a guitar this size and both guitars were impeccably finished. Interestingly, the more tonally impressive guitar was the less expensive one without the extra bling. It was responsive across all registers, warm and expressive.  Of course, at these prices, the dollar difference is meaningless for most as these particular guitars will set you back approximately $7,500 and $8,500, respectively.  Mere mortals will only enjoy boutique guitars like these in the shop.  And if you are privileged enough to be shopping in this price range, the price difference may be negligible.  Carpe diem!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pawnshop Find (1980 Yamaha FG-300D)

Sometimes you come across an acoustic guitar that does not show up in any commonly used guides. Even in the case of Yamaha, a ubiquitous Japanese guitar maker, some of its models were never distributed in the United States, but only sold in Japan.  So when a vintage Yamaha FG-300D listed by a pawn shop on eBay caught my eye but had no corresponding Blue Book listing to easily assess its value, I headed to the world wide web.  With the help of Google Translate I was able to confirm some basic information from Japanese listings.

The FG-300D was manufactured in Japan between 1980-1986.  It features an Ezo Spruce top and Walnut back and sides.  Premium appointments include abalone binding trim and rosette inlay, Gold-plated Yamaha tuners, and pearl Yamaha inlaid lettering on the headstock.  Ezo Spruce from the high altitude mountains of Hokkaido, Japan, is prized for its close, even grain that produces a soundboard of exceptional energy and tonal projection. Because of its scarcity, it is no longer available as a top wood for Yamaha guitars.

This particular guitar had apparently been brought back from Japan by a serviceman and was in very good condition.  With little publicly available pricing information, I was the winning bidder. Now, after a professional set up and some new strings, it is ready for a good home.  We'll see if anyone is interested in a unique Yamaha with some history, a premium top, and some nice appointments.