How Much Did This Guitar Story Cost Me? $2,376.99
The story behind my story on the death of the electric guitar
By Geoff Edgers
The sunburst Supro sat in a basement next to a stack of dusty Playboys. The magazines were from the 1960s, tame by modern standards. The guitar is what caught my eye. Technically, it belonged to my Uncle Bruce. When he got it, around Woodstock, he was a bushy-haired kid with a record collection thick with Ten Years After and Hendrix. But Bruce had grown up, moved out and left his six-string Lexington behind.
There were some issues. The B string was missing. Splotches of green corrosion dotted the pickups. But it was very definitely a guitar. The same thing Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen played.
And you can do a lot with an abandoned Supro, especially if you’re a chubby 14-year-old with a gap between your front teeth and a very questionable collection of Jams. Buy a cheap amplifier and go to Pete Woodward’s. He’s got the drum set in the basement. Learn three chords — G, C and D — and bash out a simple version of “Wild Thing.” Then record it on a Maxell tape, slap it into your Walkman and listen to all 43 minutes of instrumental glop over and over again. Suddenly, you’re a band.
I’m telling you about the Supro for a reason. It is sitting across from me now, in perfect working order. And the reason it’s reborn is my just published project.
I’ve been calling the piece “The Death of the Electric Guitar” for more than a year, which may sound like hyperbole until you check the numbers. In the last decade, electric guitar sales have fallen from 1.5 million to 1 million a year. Companies are in debt and guitar heroes are hard to find. My quest became how to properly understand the why behind this shift. And as I searched — visiting guitar showrooms in New York and California, factories in Pennsylvania, dealers and players and even commiserating with a former Beatle, I found myself rebuilding a relationship I’d let lapse in the last days of the Reagan administration.
[Read more here: The slow death of the electric guitar]
First, a bit about my own guitar history.
From “Wild Thing,” Pete and I spent a chunk of the 1980s and high school in the basement. He bought a four-track and we began to make our own recordings, mixing covers (Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” The Clash’s “Guns on the Roof”) with originals that included songs about girls, country parodies and the oddball, Rush-inspired instrumental. Were we good? We were good for us, though our skills — okay, my skills — were limited. But occasionally, I’d be surprised by how we sounded. I’ll still put our version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Highway 49” up against that by any other 16-year-old, white kid from mall country.
For a while, I played the Supro, even jabbed the name of an early band name (“The Unknowns”) in its back with a screwdriver. But then somebody traded me a Fender Elite Stratocaster that looked kind of like the black one Clapton played at Live Aid.
That’s what I was holding on a Friday night in 1988 when Pete and I stood backstage ready to play the biggest gig of our lives. It was Brookline High School’s “Everybody’s Concert,” a talent show in the main auditorium. As a freshman, I watched in awe as a group of students gathered around the school’s drama department director, a skinny Englishman with a skinnier tie, and did a Doobie Brothers song. As a senior, we formed our own band with a curly-haired English teacher who, perhaps due to his dating a student at the time, would soon be exiled. We had a killer cover of Clapton’s version of “Crossroads” in our set as we prepared to cap our senior year in glory.
Except that just as we were about to take the stage, somebody pulled a fire alarm. Outside, somebody punched somebody. The school’s administrators got antsy and made the call: The concert was over. Over?
Heading to college, I brought my Strat but didn’t have a band anymore and except for an occasional revival — I learned to play a few Kinks songs for a documentary finished in 2010 — I basically kept the guitar in its case. Getting a job and family didn’t give me more jam time. If anybody asked if I played guitar, I’d shrug and say, “oh, I used to.”
Then I got thinking about my guitar story.
I met with Gibson’s controversial CEO Henry Juszkiewicz at the company’s showroom in Manhattan. A lot of people had warned me about him, how difficult he is, but he seemed like a nice enough guy to me. His approach would change later when I tried to go back and ask him detailed questions about Gibson’s finances. Juszkiewicz refused to talk.
The Manhattan showroom isn’t a store. It’s where Slash or Billy Gibbons go if they want to do a private shop. There are hundreds of guitars in the space as well as a rehearsal room. The day I was there, Blondie was practicing. Juszkiewicz chatted up Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. I picked up a Les Paul and plucked it when nobody was looking.
The truth is, I already had the bug. Les Pauls are legendary, and I just needed one. Since I wasn’t about to cash out my 401(k) for a ’59 Sunburst, I clicked onto the online store, Sweetwater, and found a perfect alternative. There was a new, Les Paul Tribute guitar with a delicious satin, gold finish. It was $899, but I justified that with a no-interest payment plan. The guitar would be $37 a month. Less than what I spend on our daughter’s lime refreshers.
Of course, you can’t have a guitar without an amplifier. I wasn’t going to be playing gigs anytime soon, so I settled on a Vox AV15 practice amp. That was $229.99. Oh, did I forget my Fuzz Face? It’s a beautiful, round, blue effects pedal meant to sound like the one Jimi Hendrix used. $149.
The Les Paul came on a Tuesday in a giant, cardboard box. I took out the guitar and plugged in. Aerosmith was on my mind. After fiddling with the knobs a bit, I clumsily played the opening riff of “Walk This Way” for the first time since 1989. It would get better.
January brought me to California for the National Association of Music Merchants show. NAMM is the largest musical instrument trade show in the country, with biggies like Fender, Martin and Gibson with their own devoted showrooms and a slew of sellers from all over the world. It’s a weird vibe, kind of like a baseball card show. You know the market has dropped and that 1985 Roger Clemens Topps rookie is down to $6.75 in mint condition, but the tables teeming with men provide at least the illusion of a healthy market.
I saw the mass-produced Gibsons lined up in rows and the one-of-a-kind pieces also on display. I held an acoustic guitar shaped like a mermaid made by an artist, Andy Manson, of 15 different kinds of wood. It would sell for $80,000 to a California collector.
But the highlight of NAMM was meeting George Gruhn. Since 1971, he’s run a store in Nashville that’s sold guitars to Clapton, Gibbons, Neil Young and Taylor Swift. We’ve been talking on the phone for almost two years. He’s been my guitar market whisperer, explaining why he believes what exists now is unsustainable. When you ask Gruhn for numbers, he can reel them off with an almost Rain Man-ish accuracy. How many guitars does Martin make?
“In 1971, they had a peak,” Gruhn tells me on the NAMM floor. “They did 22,637 that year. That was the most they’d ever done until then.”
He pauses, for dramatic effect, not to jog his memory.
“Do you know what they did last year? 104,666.”
Now those numbers may seem good — more guitars, better business, right? — but they cut to the core of Gruhn’s logic. For years, he’s watched profits fall at his store and industrywide. But the guitar companies keep producing, throwing the supply-and-demand calculus out of whack.
Okay, I’ll put that in my story. But can you take me to see some guitars?
Gruhn and I walked through the Fender and Gibson rooms and then headed to see Andy Powers, the luthier at Taylor, the acoustic maker. To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking about acoustic guitars. But a chat with Powers sucked me in. He started building ukuleles in his teens, began playing with Jason Mraz and he now designs acoustics for Swift, Zac Brown and anybody who buys Taylors. He was eager to show off his latest creation, the Academy Series.
These guitars were designed to overcome what the industry says is a major challenge: retaining beginners. The idea, Powers told me, is that a first guitar, which can sell for as little as $150, is so unpleasant to play and poor sounding that you eventually quit. But top-notch Taylors and Martins can cost as much as $8,000. The Academy guitars were designed to sound good, feel good but run between $500 to $600.
He handed me an Academy model to take a few strums and I had to admit, it felt like a different world from my $100 Gretsch. It also looked beautiful, a light, spruce top and mahogany neck. As soon as I got back home, I emailed Powers to see if I could buy one as soon as I got back home. I decided to come clean.
“I am really a lapsed player who lives in SHAME!” I wrote. “But I’ve been thinking of getting back into playing and actually came back home and looked into lessons today. Anyway…”
He was thrilled. He offered to sell me the demo sitting around his office for $400. The sapele guitar stand ran me another $69.
“I’m really glad to hear you’re welcoming back some self made music,” he wrote.
I had a decent idea where I might find the old Supro. Our garage is an old barn, with an upper level built of plywood that serves as a storage area. We toss all sorts of stuff up there: ladders, old wood, cross-country skis.
Sure enough, I poked around in the muck and found the Supro in its musty case.
The metal parts were as green as the Statue of Liberty. I brought it inside and used a scouring pad and some dish soap to bring back the metal. I used a damp rag to clean off the dust. But TLC couldn’t wipe out 30 years in storage. When I put strings on and plugged in the Supro, it crackled a bit but didn’t make much sound. When I tried to form chords on the neck, the strings were often choked. That’s when I called Gruhn.
He didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic. This wasn’t a chance to fix up Neil Young’s “Old Black.” But I was a paying customer, so he connected me with Lin Crowson, one of his repair guys. Crowson listened when I admitted I might have an irrational, sentimental attachment to the Supro.
And then he encouraged me. He also pointed out that Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys played a Supro Lexington from that era.
“This old girl,” he promised in a note, “will rock again.”
By now, I’d made good on my promise to not just be one of those rich guys — without the money, of course — who acquire guitars to display them like museum pieces.
My hope was to move beyond strumming “Heart of Gold” and blasting through the intro to “Panama.” I’ve always admired acoustic blues players like Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt. They were one-man bands, thumping rhythms with a thumb, the melodies with their other fingers.
But I found it almost impossible to figure out, the difference between riding a three-speed and hopping onto a unicycle.
I needed a true teacher. There are plenty of YouTubers offering lessons — and those can often be excellent — but I search around and settled on a paid instructor. Tom Feldmann, a guitarist in Minnesota, charged $19.99 for three downloaded lessons. I followed his directions and practiced in 15-minute blocks at least four or five times a day. Eventually, it clicked. I can now play “Ten Pound Hammer” and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” my thumb thumping out the bass line, my index finger countering with melody.
“Your Supro is done!!!!!!!!!”
Crowson wrote in late May. The repair had taken longer than he had expected. A pair of ‘50s-era Strats had rolled into the shop and had to take precedence. Also, the Supro needed more work than we had expected. Beyond re-fretting, he needed to replace the nut, a piece on the head of the guitar, and rework the wiring. When I got the guitar back, I couldn’t believe the sound. It had a garage-rock grittiness just right for bashing out “Rumble” and “Hey Joe.” It also just felt good in my hands, comfortable to play.
I got Auerbach on the phone and told him about my reclamation. He talked of his own Supros, mainly used for gigs though he did play his 1963 Martinique on the Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling.”
“It’s sort of dark, high output, can overdrive an amp nicely,” he said. “When I was learning to play electric guitar, the stuff that really moved me was Memphis blues and electric blues and early Chicago blues, and those tended to be on the darker side of the tone wheel. The Supro’s that kind of a guitar.”
Yes, it cost me $630 — plus $45.37 to ship back from Nashville.
Auerbach told me I had nothing to regret.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “That’s an awesome guitar. I’d never get rid of mine.”
Geoff Edgers is The Washington Post’s national arts reporter. He covers everything from fine arts to popular culture. In the last year, he’s profiled Bill Murray, the Eagles and told the story of the making of Run-DMC’s version of Walk This Way. Follow Geoff Edgers.