kathryn butler photographer
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.