acoustic vibes music
There is always a story behind the story. Smells of clean sweat and grass at twilight on the ball field. Echoes of Widow Baxter next door reciting her daily Rosary. Seeing the bent man uptown most days as he stops to gaze wistfully at an old mansion just off Main Street.
Every guitar tells a story. One glance at an old guitar speaks volumes. Years later, a few strums can recall times past. Adolescence. High school. Slow afternoons at the feed depot. Waiting for an infant’s birth, dropping your guitar by the fence to run inside at the newborn’s first cry.
Even before high school, I knew my cousin’s Gibson was special. It sounded better than guitars on the records he played. Jeff claimed he bought his guitar from Keith Richards; Aunt Joan said it was her father’s guitar.
The clocks’ century hand has now completed a quick four decade sweep. I find myself before a WALL of Gibsons! At the finest music store this side of Planet Earth, Acoustic Vibes Music. Some of these sound exactly like Jeff’s guitar. But that was years and years ago …. How did Gibson make a new guitar sound like an old guitar? Investigation time!
Repeated visits to AVM, I enter Room Gibson and sample each of twenty-two on display. A plush Cadillac with the sleeper screaming motor, the soft cowboy crooner, a punchy piece that looks 80 years old … and sounds it! The Vintage series Gibsons receive a proprietary Thermo Cured top – well worth 25% more. No doubt, Gibson has made an amazing return to top-flight build quality from near bankruptcy in the 1980s.
After playing all these guitars, to which do I return? An unlikely mating for a man convinced a smaller-bodied short scale acoustic would be his one and only guitar love. The Super Jumbo body of the SJ-200 is a perfect fit, with curves in all the right places. The SJ-200 Vintage has the tone I can grow old with.
The SJ-200, like all my favorite artists played from the ’40s to now. Now with a premium Vintage top. The Adirondack red spruce top is Thermally Aged giving the look and sound of a seasoned SJ-200. The SJ-200 Vintage is my pick!
Tight body, no doubt. In the silent Gibson Room, I can feel the guitar coming to tune via harmonics between adjacent strings. As tones oscillate closer toward unison, Gibson build quality becomes unmistakable. Solid guitar, solid tone. With sound so clear, so crisp and exact, you’ll think you’re in a studio atop two million in equipment, recording your next Platinum Record. The one that should have been.
Ray Whitley went to Gibson in 1937. He asked Gibson to create their biggest acoustic guitar. It was given the name Super Jumbo or J-200.
Wartrace, Tennessee Stephen Gallagher’s 2002 GMC Duramax ignored the horse trailer behind it. 368,000 miles, and just getting started. Another customer delivery for Mr Gallagher. Grandson of J.W. Gallagher and heir to a guitar-making dynasty, Stephen splits his time between family, horses, pushing livestock with Waylon, and building some of this country’s finest guitars.
J.W. Gallagher, with only a 7th grade education, was the smartest man in the country. When the Army gave him an intelligence test in the 1930s his result was so high the Army gave it to him again. J.W. scored perfect the second time. He went on to spend his military hitch learning everything he could about everything. Engines, construction, woodworking, machinery, everything.
Slingerland, the percussion company, asked J.W. to set up a guitar production line in 1963. J.W. had a history of reproducing any bit of woodwork necessary; he promptly cut a dreadnought in half to figure it out. J.W. soon applied a second element, that of physics – sound and vibration. He went on to build his own line of acoustic guitars.
J.W. Gallagher never intended to own a large guitar-making concern. Family lore has it that 1,000 units was his goal; he had so many other interests, he once plainly told a customer a special order guitar was not done because there was a river full of fish nearby just waiting to get caught.
But continue and prosper it did! The famous Doc Watson received a Gallagher early on; in 1974, Doc made a request for a different shaped neck. The result is a guitar named after him, and a Gallagher best seller.
What brought on my new fascination with Gallagher guitars? After spying an image of James King on the D’Addario twitter feed, I ask the bluegrass circle of his attractive guitar. Turns out, Gallagher guitars have been nearby all my life, as close as my turntable and stack of Doc Watson records! I had to find one of these guitars …
We visit the finest music store west of our Atlantic seaboard, the inimitable Acoustic Vibes Music. Jeff Looker has two Gallagher guitars in stock, including a Doc Watson model. Over several visits I become acquainted. First impressions? Very solid. Durable. Not a dainty boutique guitar; rather, built for tone, year after year. Decades of on-the-road touring? This is the guitar you want. Reminded me of an old Gibson I played years ago …
A guitar of persuasive warmth, the Gallagher is a picker’s delight. A clear, mellow bass, uncluttered of unpure tone, accompanying a punchy upper end. As J.W. Gallagher’s website puts it, you get a deep bottom end perfect for playing those hard G runs. Which I love ❤ to do! From Tyler Grant, flat picker extraordinaire, the Gallagher is a perfect country guitar … not pop country, but an old country blues.
I begin with a typical bluegrass rhythm, an alternating bass in front of a strum. With clear full tone, the room disappears, I’m on stage, the Gallagher is doing all the talking.
“Gallagher is a builder in the great tradition of independent luthiers, that were way ahead of their time. Before Taylor and Collings and Santa Cruz hit the map, Gallagher was building guitars that rivaled the mainstays of Gibson and Martin. Notables such as Doc Watson were early adopters of the Gallagher “mojo” that still provides an appealing choice for guitarists around the world.” – Jeff Looker
With little keeping me from a custom Gallagher order, I email 3rd generation Stephen Gallagher to enquire, “Can you make a 000 short scale Doc Watson model?” I’m surprised to get a call back so quickly, not about the order, but with additional information for this article. Thanks, Stephen!
A few tidbits: On the headstock is a stylized “G” for Gallagher? That Olde English G came from the Shelby Times Gazette newspaper … pre-internet. The Gallagher headstock design is called a French Curve. J.W. was looking for something original. This simple design spied on an obituary spawned another weekly installment of American Toolbox!
Among the dozens of fine mandolins waiting patiently in Jeff Looker’s acoustic instrument emporium hang a couple of the most beautiful specimens one can imagine. With perfect, almost luminescent ivory-like finish across the top and sumptuous walnut-stained flame maple back and sides, two Collings mandolins captivate the eye – and ear. One an f-hole model, the other an oval hole. Amazing Jeff would have one of each!
Usually I introduce my punchy bluegrass style to the f-hole variant. But with its rare one-piece back, the oval hole model beckons. Designed for celtic, old-time, classical, and jazz styles, I none-the-less rip into bluegrass and fiddle runs. The oval hole top brings out a new complexity, a surprising openness of depth, sustain, and overtone. More expressive? Probably, but I’m no expert. Regardless, I am a convert, and can imagine playing this Collings in the bluegrass circle, where plenty of fiddle and folk tunes cross over into the celtic realm.
Instruments get better with age. So can manufacturers. Hugh Mason’s 2003 MT2 sounds and plays a certain way. The latest offerings from Collings? At times I’ve got to admit, even better!
OVER ONE YEAR HAS PASSED since our seminal article on Acoustic Vibes Music of Tempe AZ. What has Jeff Looker been up to? “I need to order more mandolins”, says he, standing in front of the largest selection of high-end mandolins in North American. Right next to the new Gibson display. His agenda, to the layman, seems to be Buy Buy! BUY!
Direct from manufacturers, Jeff Looker continues to purchase the finest acoustic instruments made in America. Supporting smaller shops by giving their product exposure. A steady turnover of production from the larger players. First name basis with all the owners. Familiarity with his competition, which they are not. Not competitors, but friends, mentors, peers, proteges, fellow enthusiasts in the tradition and innovation of American guitarmaking.
Where else could one find three custom Collings MT2 mandolins? SIX Martin 000 guitars may be uncommon to stock. Except FIVE of these are from the Martin Custom Shop, special-ordered by Jeff himself. Everything is ordered by Jeff. He’s running the train. It keeps pulling into the station with more and more inventory from American manufacturers.
A goal without a plan is a dream. Jeff’s goal is to have the finest acoustic instrument shop in America. What started as an order for six Santa Cruz guitars almost a decade ago has become the best-stocked high-end acoustic guitar shop in the Western Hemisphere. Add in mandolins ∆ and banjos, and you’ve got the premier Destination Music Shop of The Americas.
Chance brings me back to Acoustic Vibes Music in Arizona, home of the finest collection of high-end acoustic instruments for sale in the Western Hemisphere. Today I choose for examination a Collings MF. “Simplified appointments” is how Collings described the absence of fancy binding, purfling, and perhaps finish. I call it clean and functional.
In hand and eye, this MF exhibits perfect craftsmanship. The hidden quality is quick to exhibit itself. Within just a few notes, clear pure tone reinforces the Collings workshop pedigree. The MF plays perfectly, with all attentions possible paid to feel as well as sound.
With a fully carved Adirondack spruce top and maple back and sides, the MF is built with the same quality construction as our fully-appointed models. These instruments produce the rich, woody tone that one would expect from a professional quality mandolin at an affordable price. – Collings
Thanks again to AVM employee Kathryn Butler for these beautiful images! You have a future as a fine arts photographer! Lets not forget Jeff Looker’s interesting observation. Jeff and I were standing in the mandolin room for photos (an upcoming feature). Tidying up the display, he remarked, “I’ll have to order a few more mandolins”. There were about eight each Weber and Collings – $60,000+ worth. How’s that for dedication to the American acoustic instrument tradespeople?
A history of Martin Guitars could occupy a book. It already has, actually. Several. A great Wikipedia article as well. Colonial Lehigh Valley, religion, 19th century European trade unions, and freedom all combine into a tasty story. Truly exceptional guitars was the result.
Our bluegrass circle in Hockessin can sometimes boast 90% Martins. Fantastic flat picking guitars; everyone wants one. Plenty of bass, always a clear tone. One of the most consistently good instruments on the market. Anything you play sounds better on a Martin. The mind is a stage, and all the world an audience – Cicero
Whenever within 200 miles of Acoustic Vibes Music, I make a point to revisit the best crop coming out of a mostly agrarian area in Pennsylvania, three walls of Martin Guitars. My wallet has thus far stayed in the pocket, but I’m only three or four thousand dollars from a guitar of my dreams.
Here is one of my favorites: OM28. Sitka Top, Solid East Indian Rosewood Back & Sides. 25.4″ Scale, 14-Fret. Grover Vintage Nickel Button Tuners. Thanks, Kathryn, for great pictures!
We recently handled a gorgeous custom Santa Cruz OM/PW guitar with an Alpine Moon Spruce top, Indian Rosewood back and sides, hide glue, Adirondack braces, and herringbone trim. 1 3/4″ nut width and short scale, perfect for my stubby fingers.
This guitar is easily the most well-made I’ve ever held and heard. Incredible volume, unmatched sustain, infinitely expressive. Not a hint of an out-of-place overtone.
Every millimeter of its surface is as finely crafted as humanly possible. A tiny bevel along the fingerboard edge. Fret ends triple-beveled. The inside smells like an exotic craftsman’s shop where only finest materials are used. The guitar glows.
Acquiring a Santa Cruz is like finding a perfect mate. Both are beautiful, have great personality, return unbiased love, give total commitment, and get better with age. For twice the price of a really nice diamond engagement ring, you can have both. Finding the guitar may prove easier. Santa Cruz, the investment of a lifetime.
Shout Out to Carolyn Sills, SCGC Head of Marketing, for help researching this particular special order guitar shipped to Acoustic Vibes Music. Her boss Richard Hoover, for sending us a little binding we used in refurbishing Hugh Mason’s 1991 Santa Cruz Dreadnought. As always, Jeff Looker for stocking such amazing acoustic instruments in his shop. Finally, Kathryn Butler, providing excellent photography of this fine Santa Cruz OM/PW.