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Digging Deeper with George Gruhn at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville

by Rich and Laura Lynch

The are a few mythological repositories of antique and archaeological collections in the world including the "Hall of Records" that is said to be hidden under the Sphinx's paw in Egypt; the vaunted and mysterious vaults of the Vatican Library in Rome; and the back room of The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. In Music City, any guitar guru worth a fret will tell you there is one other place to add to that list - the second floor of Gruhn Guitars located at 8th Avenue South in Nashville, Tennessee.

We had first visited George back in May at his famed guitar shop soon after they re-opened their doors to the public following the pandemic. At the time, Gruhn made it a point to tell us to return to see what he had going on one floor up from his main showroom. Not willing to miss that opportunity for an amazing experience we took him up on his offer and booked an interview and a time to visit on July 1, 2021. While our first encounter was more of an introductory 101 by the time we had made it to level two we were in for a master class with the man himself that included forays into the history of the guitar, how the business has evolved over the decades and a private performance on a vintage instrument.

While the second floor houses many unique custom guitars that are for sale by appointment only the space also houses the bulk of George Gruhn's personal collection of instruments. The first one that he pointed out to us was an 1836 Martin Stauffer influenced guitar that served as a jumping off point for the day's conversation and lesson.

George Gruhn and an early Spanish-style influenced Martin acoustic guitar.

As the largest independent dealer of Martin Guitars George Gruhn is well-versed in the lineage of the manufacturer which traces its origin back to the town of Markneukirchen, Germany where C. F. Martin was born in 1796. The exceptional innovations and advancements courtesy of the Germans would also influence the important developments that helped the guitar become the beloved musical foundation that it is today.

According to George, business post-pandemic is good and while his supply of vintage equipment is limited due to wide consumer demand for the category, he is moving a lot of new custom creations. Perhaps one of the factors is the extra cash on hand due to numerous economic stimulus checks that have gone out to the populace. According to Gruhn, this is just the latest of several boom periods for the guitar that he has overseen in his time as the owner of Nashville's most revered shop.

"The baby boomers, when they had their mid-life crisis in late '84 and '85, they bought little red sports cars, tennis and racquetball equipment, guitars and other toys. It resuscitated the guitar market," Gruhn recalled. "The guitar market had been in deep trouble in the early 80's. Companies like Martin and Fender and Gibson, Guild - they were in deep, deep trouble. They were literally on the verge of bankruptcy."

The 1836 Martin Stauffer influenced guitar; Titus the cat; and one of George's many snakes.

But, the fact that 40 somethings could even crave a flashy new axe was a product of a medical breakthrough courtesy of Deutschland a century before.

"Antibiotics. Prior to baby boomers there were none. Prior to the late 1800's if you went to a doctor your chances of living was not necessarily greater," Gruhn considered, thankful for modern medicine that has helped increased his customer base. "The first army that marched that got into a major war and had fewer fatalities from disease than from battle would be led by Otto von Bismarck and his physician Joachim Voth."

The next surge in interest in the guitar came later in the decade when in 1989 MTV Music Television launched their series called "Unplugged" - considered a misnomer by George Gruhn. Because, even though this program featured superstars and emerging artists playing sets in a mostly acoustic environment perhaps the name of the program was a tad misleading.

"What the hell was unplugged?," George asked. "Everyone of them had a pickup in their guitar. They were not unplugged. Unplugged would be if you had a microphone and you were capturing the sound waves in the air generated by the guitar."

A portion of George Gruhn's personal collection on the second floor.

To demonstrate the difference George picked up a vintage model archtop similar to one that Mother Maybelle Carter would have played un-amplified before large audiences in the late 20's when fronting performances by the Carter Family and proceeded to pick out an impressive run of bluegrass inspired riffs with plenty of volume to prove his point.

Before leaving we had a chance to peer into Gruhn's expansive office. There we learned of his love of animals when we first met Titus his large and friendly part-Bengal cat that he rescued from a local pet store. Then, we noticed around a dozen glass cases that each held a different variety of exotic snake. George's extensive education prepared him for life as a herpetologist before he started selling guitars out of his car in Nashville in the 60's. Still, he would go on to apply the classification system of amphibians and reptiles to understanding the evolution of the six-string - an effort that would ultimately see him become the world's foremost leading expert on vintage guitars.

After a thrilling 90 minutes we bowed out of our visit when a young guitarist - ironically hailing from Les Paul's longtime residence of Mahwah, New Jersey climbed the stairs to have an audience of his own with Gruhn. Proving that - just like Mother Maybelle would say - the circle still remains unbroken in Music City.

A custom Gruhn branded guitar on the left is one of many for sale at the 8th Avenue store.

Related Links: For more information on GRUHN GUITARS and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links - Gruhn Guitars | Meeting the Legendary George Gruhn at Gruhn Guitars in Music City | Gruhn Guitars YouTube Channel


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