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Yes, we’re known as a mecca for guitar pickers. But players and collectors also come to Nashville for the instruments, in search of the world’s most prized guitars, mandolins, and banjos. Three local stores—Gruhn Guitars, Carter Vintage Guitars, and Cotten Music—have blurred the line between music store and art dealer by specializing in classic, collectible instruments, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Along the way, these experts have literally written the book(s) about the vintage instrument business.
George Gruhn was a zoology student at the University of Chicago when he started collecting used guitars. Those pawn-shop bargains included acoustic instruments built before World War II.
“The difference in sound between a pre-war and a new guitar was clearly evident,” he says. He began acquiring and reselling them to local folklorists, and it quickly turned into, in Gruhn’s words, “a hobby that got out of hand.”
Since opening his first Nashville storefront in 1970, Gruhn’s reputation for trading six-string treasures has attracted a who’s who of the music industry. Local icons like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., Vince Gill, and Keith Urban as well as rock legends—think Eric Clapton, members of ZZ Top, and Cheap Trick—have helped Gruhn Guitars achieve average annual sales of $7 to $8 million.
Gruhn’s expert status has also connected him with several historically significant instruments, such as Maybelle Carter’s 1928 Gibson L-5, which sold a few years ago for $575,000. She used the same guitar throughout her career on many landmark recordings and was often photographed with it. “That was, in my opinion, one of the most important instruments in the history of country music,” says Gruhn. It’s now on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Local journalist Walter Carter teamed with Gruhn in the '80s to coauthor a series of definitive references and coffee-table books about guitars. In 2012, Carter and his wife, Christie, also a longtime Gruhn employee, opened Carter Vintage Guitars. In less than a year, they turned a profit by acquiring and selling gems like a 1960 Gibson Les Paul for $235,000 and a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin valued at $175,000.
“Facebook has been invaluable,” says Carter, who relies on social media and YouTube videos to reach a clientele that extends far beyond Nashville. While touring artists, local musicians, and tourists provide part of the store’s business (recent visitors include Mumford & Sons, Ry Cooder, Joe Bonamassa, Zac Brown, and The Black Keys), Carter explains, “A great deal of our business is off the internet; I don’t think we would survive off of walk-ins.” Despite a weaker international market in recent years, Carter says there’s still plenty of demand in the U.S., and the web helps him and other dealers interact with buyers everywhere.
Cotten Music’s Kim Sherman echoes Carter’s observation about e-commerce. “Online means everybody’s your competition,” she says, “but the whole world is your marketplace. It’s a great equalizer.” Sherman doesn’t divulge her famous clients but points out that professional musicians aren’t the only customers for collectible instruments. “A lot of our business … is from professionals in other disciplines who can now buy instruments they couldn’t afford when they were younger.”
While she appreciates her big-ticket clients, Sherman enjoys putting people and guitars together.
“It can be expensive or inexpensive,” she says. “But when you see a person get an instrument he has truly longed for—his lifetime guitar—and you’ve been able to supply that instrument, that’s my favorite experience. It’s about the music.”
Gruhn Guitars, 2120 8th Ave. S., 615-256-2033; gruhn.com
Carter Vintage Guitars, 625 8th Ave. S., 615-915-1851; cartervintage.com
Cotten Music, 434 Houston St., Ste. 131, 615-383-8947; cottenmusic.com