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!
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?
Definitely wanted is another trip to Acoustic Vibes Music to stock up on stories & photographs. For now, we savor memories from their fantastic collection of American made acoustic instruments. And our last folder of Kathryn Butler photographs. We saved the best for last.
The Collings OM3 may have been the finest guitar I played on recent visits. Maybe it was the best value, as a barely used 2014 model. Regardless, this guitar certainly delivered the goods.
Never have I thought of a guitar as being cocky, but this Collings certainly was a rooster among Jeff’s offerings. Loud and punchy, I wouldn’t have the nerve to play a ballad upon it. A perfect neck which had a particularly solid feel turned me from novice to confident flatpicker. More accurately, the guitar is the extrovert, very sure of it’s ability to deliver confidence with every note.
Yes, I do play better on a short scale, and this OM3 SS suited my imagination perfectly. But this is no “little guitar”. Comparing the OM3 to two higher-priced acoustics, the Collings was louder and with better tone than the others. Collings. It’s not a name, it’s a sound.
Angels’ share: The amount of alcohol which evaporates from the casks during maturation.
My thoughts came back to this phrase over and over. Angel’s share. An Angel’s share of music coming from my chosen mandolin. An Angel’s share which would go unnoticed but for the resonant room lined with dozens and dozens of high-end mandolins, guitars, banjos.
Continuing our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music, this week we turn our ears to WEBER FINE INSTRUMENTS of Bend, Oregon. Fortunate was I to want a truss rod adjustment on my Guild D-4 a few months back. Bernie welcomed me into the cool interior of Jeff Looker’s shop. Eventually I discover the mandolin room.
Most stores would call one or maybe two mandolins in the $800 range a high-end inventory. Jeff has a few like this; that is just the start. I had a unique opportunity to play mandolins of increasing quality (and cost) undisturbed. A dozen visits over a year sharpened my appreciation of the better instruments.
Eventually I came back to one mandolin only, a mid-priced offering (list price $3600) that fit like your favorite jeans. A spritely tone, almost etherial sometimes. Giving me happiness to play, the mandolin had energy left over to play with the instruments around me. In time, dozens of instruments were gently resonating along with the mandolin’s song. When I stop, they continue for a time. It is, I think, what heaven sounds like.
When I’m ready for an heirloom-quality instrument, increasingly it looks like I will choose the Weber F-Style Bitterroot mandolin. For looks, sound, playability, resale value, workmanship, materials, you name it. An average musician, which I am, will play better, sound better, and feel better. Well worth the investment. What cost a smile for life?
ANY TEENAGER WHO PLAYED an instrument probably hung out for hours in the local music stores. Staring at a limited selection, they’d imagine how cool it would be to own such a store. The business side is usually far from childhood fantasy. Music stores are risky endeavors but there are occasional success stories.
A perfect example? Jeff Looker, architect. Pondering transitional career options to pad out retirement, he bought a half dozen guitars direct from Santa Cruz Guitar Company, becoming their sole Phoenix distributor. Into his orbit came other brands, notably C. F. Martin & Company. Business acumen developed running an upscale architectural firm definitely had a place operating a top-tier acoustic instrument shop. Acoustic Vibes Music arguably has the finest and largest selection of high-grade acoustic instruments in the country.
Looking for a Martin 000 14-fret acoustic guitar? Local shops don’t carry this model. On my last visit Jeff had two stock copies and four from the famed Martin Custom Shop. Four custom Martin 000 guitars with
list prices pushing $7,000! Jeff picks the options he would like to see, and nine months later, voilá! One-of-a-kind guitars are delivered to his store!
On my last visit there were 450 guitars in stock, 80% in this upper range or higher. When you want a great-looking, great-sounding guitar, and don’t want to wait ten years for Wayne Henderson to build you one, book a flight to this Destination Guitar Shop. Forget the budget. Buy a guitar you’ll have forever.