Thanks to the pioneering work of Bill Monroe and others, the mandolin has become synonymous with bluegrass music. However, that hasn’t always been the case, said George Gruhn, chairman and CEO of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.
“The Gibson F-5 was designed to be the best classical mandolin ever,” he said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t introduce it until 1922, and by then, the mandolin orchestra boom was dying. They thought they could make a better mandolin and kick-start sales. You might as well have the best buggy whip in the world. Classical musicians didn’t want mandolins, and they were a commercial flop.”
Country musicians who may have liked the sound of the F-5 balked at the price.
“There were plenty of good mandolin players, like Walter K. Bower, William Place and Lloyd Loar,” Gruhn said. “The F-5 cost $250 new without a case. By the time you added the case, it was about $280. A Model-T Ford in 1924 was $300. Hillbillies didn’t have that kind of money.“ But everything changed when Bill Monroe picked up an F-5.
“If you listen to the Monroe brothers’ recordings, they are not bluegrass,” he said. “Bill didn’t have his Gibson F-5, either. When he got the F-5 mandolin, he discovered sounds on it that no one had ever done on a mandolin before, those chopped chords, driving the rhythm of a five-piece band. It had never been done before.
“That bark you get out of the F-5 -- you couldn’t that on his old F-7. You couldn’t do that on the F-4 or any other mandolin that was made other than the F-5. The old F-5s were made only from 1922 through 1924, and there were no more Loar-signed models after he left the company. There were good-sounding ones into the early 1930s, but after that, they wouldn’t do those chords like Bill did.”
Because bluegrass didn’t come along until 1945, Gibson lost money on its F-5s. However, it continued to make the model except for a gap during World War II, when wartime restrictions made it difficult to source materials. Production resumed after the war.
“Gibson began introducing versions of the F-5 closer to the early specifications starting in the late 1970s,” Gruhn said. “Since then, the company has introduced more variations on the F-5 model with some of the new ones being remarkably close in appearance and sound to the most sought-after original early models.”
Loar-signed models remain in high demand.
“Only about 275 Loar-signed were ever made,” he said. “Today it is well documented that there are about 650 Stradivarius violins still in existence, so those Loar mandolins are really, really rare.”
Prices of Loar mandolins peaked from 2006 through early 2007 at slightly more than $200,000 but plunged significantly afterward.
“In my opinion, this happened because prices had been bid up by speculators who paid more than any musicians wanting them to play or even collectors had ever paid, which resulted in the market correction when the speculators who had purchased them as an investment were unable to turn them for a profit,” Gruhn said. “Loar F-5 mandolins today are typically selling in a price range of $100,000 to $130,000 in good condition, but this is no guarantee that prices will remain the same in the future. Early F-5s are scarcer than Stradivari violins and certainly have the potential to go up in price, depending upon demand and economic factors.”
Gruhn Guitars offers a range of mandolins for bluegrass musicians.
“If you want a really good-sounding mandolin, good enough that you can go on stage and play, that can be done for under $1,000,” he said. “If you want vintage instruments, we have a very good selection and an extremely skilled staff. We are Martin’s largest independent dealer in volume. We also do more Martin specials made to our specs than any of their other customers.”
Bluegrass players will be happy to learn that Gruhn will begin producing guitars of his own design later this year in a factory near Nashville.
“It’s a little unusual at age 78 to be starting a new company,” he said. “I am looking for something that is not terribly bluegrassy. I have acoustic guitars on which you can play standard acoustic music, but you also can play electric arrangements, even without a pickup. If you want to play Chuck Berry tunes on the guitar and make it sound right, it will do it, but it doesn’t look like a Martin, Gibson or Fender. They will have the Gruhn name.”
After a lifetime in the industry, he knows exactly the sound he is looking for and the market niche he wants to fill.
“It is my opinion that the world is not begging for another clone of Martin, Fender and Gibson,” Gruhn said. “It’s gotten to the point where Martin has a trademark on its name but not really anything else. They don’t truly have a signature sound anymore because there are numerous other companies that effectively make clones. They don’t say Martin on them, but they look like a Martin, they feel like a Martin, and they sound like a Martin. It’s hard to make a better Martin than Martin, but a lot of people are trying to capitalize on Martin-Fender-Gibson type guitars.”
Gruhn said his guitars will have a recognizable sound of their own.
“I have designed a guitar that looks, feels and sounds distinctively different enough that I can tell it blindfolded from any other acoustic guitar,” he said. “It has a sound that is equally powerful from the open string all the way to the 22nd fret. It’s fully balanced all of the way up. The harmonic response is strong such that you can play lead, rhythm, melody, harmony – you name it. It’s complex, but it does not sound like a Martin or Gibson. It is its distinct tone.”
The new Gruhn model acoustic guitars will start at $2,500, with more expensive versions depending on wood selection, ornamentation and electric pickup options.
Gruhn has been collecting stringed instruments since 1963 and selling them since 1970, and many of them would be the envy of any bluegrass player. Asking him to name his favorite is like asking parents to name their favorite child.
“I often am asked what my favorite instrument would be,” he said. “My answer to that is that I have only one wife, and it’s too complex to try to have more and not advisable. But with instruments, I prefer a harem -- and it’s perfectly legal to do so.”
For more information about Gruhn Guitars, visit www.guitars.com.