One of the things you discover as you get older and start reflecting back on the path you've taken is how a fleeting and seemingly insignificant moment can firmly set you on a road you might've otherwise missed.
Playing guitar had gone past obsession to religion for me in the few years post February 9, 1964.
On July 8, 1967, I saw The Who's Pete Townshend destroy a Fender Stratocaster at the Village Theater, less than a year before it became the Fillmore East. My obsession with The Who was such that it was instantly a matter of life or death that I own a Fender Strat. Fate was kind. Less than eight weeks later, having sold a Danelectro guitar and a Premier reverb unit to afford it, a tough older kid who lived near my ghetto-located junior high school sold me his beat up Fender for $50 (that's fifty dollars!) in late August, 1967. A mere used guitar at that time, it didn't even come with a case.
It was now November. I has saved up $20 for a hardshell case, as they're universally known. I went to West 48th St., then just plain Mecca for musicians...at least eight or nine top-of-the-line music shops on one block between 6th and 7th Avenues...looking for something I could afford. I was carrying the Stratocaster in an army-green duffle bag. It quickly became clear to me that I didn't have enough money for anything useful.
And then...someone suggested I try Danny Armstrong's shop.
Unlike every other store on the block, Danny's was not a ground floor retail shop. No, Danny Armstrong's shop was on the third floor of a dingy six-story building on 48th St., essentially a small office suite.
I climbed the stairs and walked into a room, maybe 16 by 16, completely crammed with helter-skelter-ed guitar cases, like a hoarder's lair.
Sitting at a cluttered desk, was a big burly really movie-star handsome guy with lion-blond hair and a flamboyant mustache. This was Danny. Behind him was another room filled with repairing and building equipment, where I could hear two guys amiably arguing.
That day, I bought Eric Clapton's actual Cream guitar case for his Fool-painted SG Standard. He'd dumped it at Danny's earlier that day.
"Kid, that case is not worth $20 but I'll take your money," chuckled Danny Armstrong.
If I still had that guitar case (I even sprayed over the enormous CREAM stencil before selling it!), I suspect it would be worth over $50,000 easy. But, that's another story.
The important moment of today's tale came when I took my November 1957 Strat (Fender guitars all carry their date of manufacture at the base of their necks) out of the duffle bag to see if it fit Eric's case.
As soon as I had the guitar out in the open, Danny sat straight up and asked, "How much did you pay for that guitar, kid?"
When I told him $50, he burst into raucous laughter.
"Hey, Carl, Eddie, come out here a minute..."
The two guys in the back room walked out.
While not intrinsically important to the story, I want you to know that both Carl Thompson and Eddie Diehl ranked as two of the best jazz guitarists in New York City at the time, and to this day. Carl is also world-famous for making ultra-high-end bass guitars for the past 30 plus years.
"Kid, tell 'em how much you paid for this guitar."
Now, all three of them burst out in uproarious laughter. I was mystified.
"Kid, NEVER sell that guitar."
"That's a Fender made in the 1950s. A truly fine guitar. They don't make 'em like that anymore. Don't ever buy a new guitar again, okay. The old ones are much much better."
"Really? How come?"
"They're running out of good wood, kid! Companies that used to make less than 2,000 guitars a year are making over 700 a month now. The quality is disappearing. They're just not the same, my young friend."
I didn't know it at the time, but, I was never the same.
A mere 14-year-old pup, playing guitar for three years and my life's course was ever-altered from that moment on. In 10 seconds, Danny had put me at least three years ahead of the curve. The entire concept of "vintage electric guitars" wouldn't start taking real hold until the mid-1970s. In 1967, Danny was the only guy in the world selling old beat up Fender and Gibsons for more money than they originally cost new. Until that moment, a used electric guitar was just that...merely a used item, to be sold as a used item, the more beat up, the less valuable.
Oh, and yes, this is the same Danny Armstrong who later designed and manufactured the rock-star-flamboyant clear-plastic guitars that Keef immortalized during the infamous 1969 "Get Yer Ya Yas Out" tour.
Over the past 45 plus years, I have owned almost 40 guitars. Other than my October 1966 Fender Telecaster that Dad got me for Christmas that year, every guitar I own or have owned has been a used/vintage instrument. I currently have... ummm...a lot of guitars.
Let me state categorically, I am not rich. More like broke. But, as bad as my timing and luck have been in all sorts of other areas of my life, particularly my music "career," I have had almost cosmically good timing and luck when it comes to incredible guitars crossing my bow. I'll give myself credit for being wise enough to take advantage of these lucky breaks...most of the time, anyway. I've never regretted a purchase, but, man, oh man, the stuff I've passed up!
While, "vintage" has become "a thing," even to the point of mass pop culture awareness, the hardcore Vintage Guitar Community is a small and very nosy bunch. If you have a few really nice, old guitars, it eventually becomes common knowledge in that specific circle of cognoscenti.
Nowadays, there are what are known as Guitar Shows almost every weekend somewhere in this country, entire ballrooms or arenas taken over by vintage guitar dealers, selling the beauties they have acquired. These are well-attended events everywhere they're held.
This closed-circuit, word-of-mouth is how I my collection wound up with a TWELVE page feature in this month's Vintage Guitar Magazine, the standard-bearer publication for this entire movement.
With timing so good I can't quite believe it, Vintage Guitar Magazine (VGM) has decided that the digital version of their May issue, the one featuring my guitars, shall be given away as a FREE download (yes, all 170 plus pages!) until April 15, 2014.
What the what?!?
I'll let the article VGM's Tom Guerra, a superb guitarist and collector in his own right, put together do the storytelling behind each of the thirteen guitars of mine they featured. I've got some wild tales, too.
Like, oh I don't know...How about Pete Townshend throwing me (over an orchestra pit yet!) a 1969 Gibson SG Special at the end of a Who show in 1970? How about the 1959 sunburst Les Paul (the electric guitar now considered analogous to Stradivarius) I bought off of the Rick Derringer in 1972 for what is now about one 40th of its current value? Or how about that Fender Strat I bought in that schoolyard for $50, stupidly sold, miraculously got back, that is now worth over $35,000...
No, what I'd rather do is introduce you to The Man behind what is, kinda sorta, my favorite publication on planet Earth.
Please welcome, Mr. Ward Meeker, Grand Poo-Bah, Editor-in-Chief of Vintage Guitar Magazine.
Binky: "Thanks for taking the time, sir. So, how about we go wild and start with the Ol' Thumbnail History of Vintage Guitar magazine, okay?"
Ward: "Sure. The magazine was started in 1986 by its publisher, Alan Greenwood. At the time, he was working as an accountant for the State of North Dakota. But, he had a strong entrepreneurial bent. Being a music guy and a serious guitar player, he devised what was then a small shopper-paper called "The Music Trader." It provided area musicians a format to buy and sell instruments -- guitars, school band instruments, amps, accessories, whatever. From the beginning, it always included editorial content specifically on guitars. It grew to include instrument listings from five States, and as time passed, editorial became a larger and larger part of the publication. In January of 1990, Alan changed the name to the better-suited/catchier Vintage Guitar, and circulation subsequently exploded, particularly after copies made their way to the guitar-show circuit. From its first turns, the magazine's editorial has focused on classic guitars -- especially solid-body electrics -- along with players of all ilks and all levels of fame, as well as amps, after-market modifying parts, effects-pedals, pertinent book and recorded music reviews, and so forth."
Binky: "The magazine's stance and reader demo must be skewed a little differently. In a crowded field, how does VGM differ and stick out?"
Ward: "Well, where the two largest-circulation guitar mags might target their editorial content at 18-to-35-year-olds, our reader is a bit older -- someone in their mid 30s on up to retirement age. These folks not only want to be more informed about collectible/old school/vintage instruments, they are also likely to be active collectors. More to the point, many, if not most, have that good ol' 'discretionary income' at hand. For me as editor, that means being amenable to pitches about all sorts of accomplished players whose music was/is focused on traditional guitar tones. Because our subject matter is less-covered, we're more in-depth and are offering more extensive looks at players' collections and expert analysis of their playing. And, in the last 10 to 15 years, popular consciousness of the coolness of a say a 1960s Fender Telecaster or a 1950s Gibson Les Paul Standard that shows its age has distinctly increased. This is borne out in many ways, most obviously in how even the big guns, Gibson and Fender, let alone the boutique makers, have been marketing 'relic-'d' instruments made to look old and worn before they leave their factories/work shops, for almost a decade now. But, the great majority of our readers were hip to worn guitars well before they started offering new old ones."
Binky: "Speaking of 'boutique' luthiers, you have a lot of them advertising in VGM. And they appear to be making dead serious instruments. Clearly, the sad truth is good vintage guitars are getting very pricey. In some cases, just about out of any normal musician-human's league. The gist I get from the slant of a good deal of your ads (and, wow, a magazine where the damn ads are interesting!) seems to be that your readers are not just strictly into guitars made in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. But, perhaps, the plausible collectibles of the future, these boutique axes, as well. Do you think these guitars coming from guys making less than 100 instruments a year in a workshop out behind their house are headed in that direction?"
Ward: "They could be. The role of the boutique builder is to offer a top-quality instrument, likely with unique touches and highly customized elements like materials and neck shapes. What they do is generally regarded as a higher form of the luthier's art compared to a mass-produced guitar. That could help create that market in the future. We generally save a word like 'collectible' for the obvious choices -- the distinctly finite supply of 1950s and early 60s Fenders, Gibsons, Martins, Gretsches, Rickenbackers, and such. Binky, there's just too much that goes into that combination of the aged wood, the wiring, the pickups, the potentiometers, all of which change with time. Also, old guitars and amps are collectible because they were played by our musical heroes, and yet were available to everyday players who used them in garage bands to play their high school dances. Music has always been one of the key elements of pop culture, and beginning in the 1950s, we began to view pop music performers as celebrities of the highest order. The guitar has always been front and center in pop music, and very likely will remain there. In every player's later years, "their" music -- and the guitars used to make it -- become nostalgia. For marketers, nostalgia is gold!"
Binky: "Amen, brother Ward! Okay, so, people downloading your digital May issue will find out soon enough, but, can you give us a breakdown of typical issue... i.e. regular features, columns, etc.?"
Ward: "Like most mags, we rely on a core of writers for our bread and butter -- especially the instrument profiles that no other publication offers. Each focuses on the fine details of a specific model of guitar, bass, amp or effect, and involves meticulous research. The folks who write those pieces are highly-regarded experts on those topics, often on a global level. Our contributor, George Gruhn, the expert's expert's expert on vintage guitars comes to mind. Our feature interviews are mostly done by a small handful of writers, and are more focused on a specific artist's history. There's extremely deep knowledge among these folks, and they also bring in important connections in the music biz in general. It's really a great group. We have two columnists who focus on repair and restoration; Will Kelly covers the "street-level" repairs and maintenance issues most any player can tackle, while Dan Erlewine focuses on more intensive, pro-level work requiring specialized tools, years of experience, and a good bit of confidence. Both are renowned experts. Our sole instructional column is Wolf Marshall's "Fretprints" monthly piece. When it comes to guitar music, I'm pretty sure there's nothing he can't address in depth, from player histories to the way they held their pick and fretted their notes, to their compositional styles and the gear they've used. We also dedicate a portion of the mag each month to interviews with folks making contemporary guitar-based music in all genres. These interviews stay focused on the artist's gear and playing techniques. The nitty gritty for our readers. Plus, sections for reviewing music and new gear -- mostly guitars, amps, effects. And our readers even get a page every month to post their collections.
Binky: "Do you have a personal history of vintage buying/playing?"
Ward: "Kind of. I play guitar. Before starting with the mag in 1996, I'd owned a 1980 Les Paul and one other guitar. Yes, I know, some of our purist readers would scoff at the notion of calling an 80 Gibson vintage, but that is 34 years ago now. What mattered was I was infinitely curious about guitars and music. In the time since, I've become the curator of several vintage pieces, including a '59 Fender Esquire [OUCH! Dammit!] and a '57 Gibson Les Paul TV model, along with a couple vintage basses including a Silvertone 1444. Of course, having attended many guitar shows, I've had the opportunity to fondle and strum virtually every kind of classic guitar. As you'd suspect, it never gets old!"
Binky: "Not...for...a...second, Ward! Let me ask a dangerous question...Given the FREE download you're doing of the entire May issue, and man, you blew my mind with how much space you gave my guitar collection...Thank you, again, sir. Here is comes...Does print still fit in a niche magazine's business model/plan?"
Ward: "Well, let me say, you do own some remarkable guitars, Mr. Philips. Regarding print, very much so! An e-pub has its virtues, but it'll be awhile before e-reader magazines replace the tactile feel and experience of 'dead tree' versions. Particularly for our readers. We recently launched the digital edition, and we think it will solve some of the problems we've experienced with European distribution, which, frankly, has been a real pain since the big-box bookstores closed over there. Plus, we're developing some things that will set apart the digital edition. Fun stuff!"
Binky: "Your time is most appreciated, Ward. Always working on the next issue, I know. Last question... Your take on the future of VGM and the vintage guitar market in general?"
Ward: "Well, thank you very much for spreading the news about our free download of the whole May issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine, Binky. We're doing our best to stay on top of what we think readers like to see, and our subscription base continues to grow each month. So, we're optimistic. And, yes, we're very aware of the challenges faced by the vintage-guitar market, most acutely that of getting younger generations to partake. Of course, it will always help that these old guitars really are very special. As you know, old school instruments are very popular among many current high profile rock and country acts. Fans of all ages tend to note (and covet) what their heroes play, so we think the future is bright."