Guitar Expert to the Stars: A Chicago Backstory

Guitar Expert to the Stars: A Chicago Backstory
Photo provided by George Gruhn

BY SANDRA GUY
“So if you’re walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes

Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare

As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”

The lyrics from “Hello in There,” by John Prine, the Grammy-winning folk singer whose 50 years of plain-spoken songs transformed American roots music, are particularly poignant as the world mourns Prine’s death April 7 from coronavirus complications.
And they hold special memories for George Gruhn, a world-renowned guitar, banjo and mandolin dealer, author and historian whose family lived in west suburban River Forest most of his high-school years.
Gruhn, who started collecting and trading guitars while a student at the University of Chicago, has counted Prine as a friend of 45 years and a regular guitar-store customer.
“He was great — down to earth and friendly,” said George Gruhn, the go-to guitar dealer for everyone from hobbyists to Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Marty Stuart, the late Roy Acuff, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and Hank Williams, Jr.
“There was something about John that was so sincere. He didn’t need a whole lot of words. He cut to the core in conversation and in his tunes,” said Gruhn, who has stood backstage at many of Prine’s concerts and who fell in love with original Appalachian string band music and early blues in the 1960s when he attended the University of Chicago.
“He [Prine] didn’t have to be overly wordy. He made words count,” Gruhn said.
Gruhn found something magical about Prine.
“It was uplifting to be with him,” Gruhn said, noting that Prine had persevered through treatments for squamous cell cancer in his neck that required major surgery, as well as treatment for lung cancer in 2013. Prine had to have a large piece of his neck removed, leaving his head cocked.
He never let those setbacks stop him.
“He had a very positive attitude,” Gruhn said. “He didn’t tell anyone how sorry he was about his health. He was thankful to be alive, hanging out with his friends and writing tunes.”
Gruhn said Prine’s plainspoken ways – like his plainspoken verses – belied his brilliance and profound importance as a writer, a poet and a composer whose songs were performed by hundreds of people in widely divergent accompaniments.
“In the store, he liked an acoustic guitar with great tone and volume. He listened for tone, volume and projection. He had a good ear. He knew what he wanted,” Gruhn said.
After 50 years in business, Gruhn, chairman and CEO of Nashville, Tenn.-based Gruhn Guitars, said when the coronavirus pandemic hit and Nashville’s mayor ordered all non-essential business closed to the public, he was answering emails and phone calls from his home, while for the first few weeks after the lockdown his stepson Eric C. Newell and a skeleton crew ran what little business dribbled in amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The business garnered $11 million in revenue last year and now, just six months after the pandemic shutdown. It has largely rebounded, most employees are back on the job, and the shop is solidly profitable – amid what has become a fiercely competitive business.

Now, as doctors, scientists and researchers grasp for a vaccine, it’s an unprecedented time — far more challenging than Gruhn’s bounceback in the mid-1970s from the disco-punk-heavy metal music surge, the early 1980s interest rate and dollar exchange rate spikes, and the past decade’s onslaught of online and big-box retail store competition.
Though Gruhn said he feels just fine at 75 years old, he knows he needs to take care, and, as he put it, “live through this.”

“I have spent 50 years building a business that was running like a well-oiled machine,” Gruhn said.
Those five decades of business acumen have paid off.
“We have the staying power and during the past six months have demonstrated the adaptability to get through this and move into the future,” he said.

Guitar aficionados can be thankful, too, that Gruhn, an Oak Park-River Forest High School and University of Chicago alumnus, has already left a legacy as one of the world’s leading experts on vintage guitars, banjos and mandolins. His writings, collections and original instrument manuals are unparalleled.
Gruhn grew up with an intimate understanding of the scientific method, taking nature walks with his father – the first pathologist and laboratory director at what was then the new Skokie Valley Hospital in suburban Chicago. His father moved the family to Chicago from Pittsburgh, initially to take a pathologist’s job at Mt. Sinai Hospital on Chicago’s West Side.
At age 4, Gruhn started collecting insects; at age 6, frogs and turtles, and at age 8, found his first snake – a DeKay’s brownsnake that he spied underneath a rock he had flipped over.
By age 12, he was reading and subscribing to Copeia, the Journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.
He applies the same step-by-step methodology to musical instruments as he would in organizational taxonomy.
“The methodology for examining a guitar is not one iota different than figuring out what species of snake you have in front of you,” Gruhn said.
“The methodology of looking at an individual guitar is to do the complete forensic exam,” he said. “Are there defects, modifications? You look at tell-tell signs. You see repairs. You see the specific marks of the manufacturer.
“It’s not just what the owner or the seller tells you,” he said.
Gruhn also had a unique cultural upbringing. His father’s family was Roman Catholic; his mother’s Ashkenazi Jews. His mother spoke Yiddish at home until she learned English when she started school as a child.
Gruhn started his studies at the University of Chicago aiming for a medical degree, but instead found his niche in the psychology department studying animal behavior.
He had already become a fan of original Appalachian string band music and early blues in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was impressed by the New Lost City Ramblers, who used traditional string instruments to play faithful renditions of folk music with modern recording techniques.
He bought a Conde Hermanos classical guitar for $300 his freshman year in 1963. But it didn’t fit with the music that Appalachian roots legend Maybelle Carter would have played.
Soon afterward, he had started wheeling and dealing in guitars. He knew he had an addiction.
“For every [guitar] I found that I wanted to keep, I’d uncover 20 to 30 instruments that I knew were for sale in pawn shops and music stores, but were worth double or triple the asking price,” he says. “I’d put $10 to $15 down and they’d hold it for a month interest free.”
The method reflected Gruhn’s business acumen: Layaway had no interest charges, but if he had borrowed money from the pawn shop, he would have been charged a monthly 20-percent-plus interest rate. He also found treasures in music shops and newspapers’ classified advertisements.
Gruhn was graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s of science in ethology, focused on instinctive animal behavioral studies.
He spent one year in graduate studies at Duke University and then spent one semester at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He filled one room of his two-bedroom apartment with his instrument collections.
Then Hank Williams Jr. called.
“Hank Wililiams Jr. called me and said Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers (bluegrass musicians of “Rocky Top” fame) told him I had a lot of guitars. He was interested in collecting. That was 1968.”
Williams drove four hours to Knoxville from Nashville, navigating the curvy roads of the Cumberland Plateau, pre-Interstate highway, in a Jaguar E.
Williams left with three guitars, and returned the next day to load up more guitars in a Cadillac Eldorado. He offered to help Gruhn set up a business in Nashville.
Gruhn said he was growing more disenchanted with his field of study, especially since only a handful of PhD positions were available and few grants available for research.
“Williams told me that Nashville didn’t have any good vintage stores, and if I came to town, he would set me up in business. So I quit school,” Gruhn said.
He’s steadfast that the best guitars are, despite today’s technological advances, from “the Golden Era.”
“The new guitars are far better than those of 50 years ago, but not as good as the Golden Era,” he said.
For electric guitars, the Golden Era encompassed the 1950s through the early 60s; Gibson archtop and flat tops the 1930s; Gibson mandolins the 1920s; Martin flat top acoustic steel string guitars, 1928 through the 1930s; most electric guitars, such as Fender and Rickenbacker, the 1950s through the early 1960s; and Fender basses and amplifiers the 1950s and early 1960s.
He’s also insistent that owners find an expert to repair a broken instrument. Indeed, he has always dedicated a major portion of his store to repair and restoration: It occupies one-third of his store’s 18,000 square feet, and employs eight.
“With the right restoration, you can add value,” Gruhn said. “A botched repair can ruin an instrument. … Don’t try to fix it yourself or take it to the lowest bidder.
“Loosen the strings. Keep it at the right temperature and humidity – that’s like putting it in suspended animation – until you find the expert to repair it.”
It’s not just an act of fixing a compliant tool for Gruhn.
No, the great instruments are partners in the hands of brilliant musicians – and he feels an emotional bond with them.
“They feel alive,” he said. “Great instruments have soul and personality.

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