Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 5, 2017

A treasure trove of guitar masterpieces at Songbirds

Attorney Paul Hatcher inside one of many exhibits at Songbirds Guitar Museum. - Alex McMahan | Hamilton County Herald

Located behind the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, Songbirds Guitar Museum is a place where legends have come to rest.

Housed within the museum’s sparkling bright glass cases are instruments that have been touched by famous fingers. Among them are Chuck Berry’s Gibson ES 55, one of B.B. King’s Lucilles and a Gibson Firebird played by Duane Allman.

But Songbirds is not a rock and roll hall of fame. The heroes of the museum are the instruments themselves and the men who made them, says Irv Berner, general manager.

“Most of the guitars in this museum were designed by Leo Fender between 1949 and 1965 or Ted McCarty between 1948 and 1965,” Berner says. “These guys knew how to make instruments that sounded great and played well.”

Fender and McCarty also had an eye for design. Topping the stairs that take guests up to Songbirds is similar to stepping into a museum gallery filled with eye-popping artwork - the only difference being the feminine curves of the solid body electric guitars were crafted by Fender and McCarty, not painter Edgar Degas or Gustav Klimt.

“These guitars are works of art,” says Taylor Moenning, one of Songbird’s tour guides and a student at Lee University. “The only difference between them and a painting is they’re playable.”

Fender didn’t make just any guitar; neither did Gibson. Both companies made solid body electric guitars – the instruments that revolutionized the sound of modern music. These are the guitars Songbirds celebrates.

Berner says the museum’s collection of solid body electric guitars is “the most amazing in the world.” Songbirds has about 1,400 instruments in its possession, with the museum housing about 550 of the guitars in its 7,500 square feet of space. The collection is valued at around $200 million.

Famous blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa agrees with Berner’s assessment of Songbird’s collection. When Bonamassa, and avid guitar collector, visited the museum, he told CEO Johnny Smith, COO David Davidson and Berner that the collection made him look like a hobbyist.

“Our collection of custom color Firebirds blew him away,” Berner says. “You’d be lucky if you see one or two of them in your lifetime, but we have a whole wall of them.”

The proprietors of Songbirds were not just content with having the largest collection of rare and vintage guitars in the world; they wanted to present the instruments in a way that reflected the time period in which they were built.

This led to the creation of the timeline exhibit, which is part of the self-guided, general admission tour. The timeline begins in 1950 with the invention of the Fender guitar.

“Fender was the first person to build a production line for solid body electric guitars. Other people had made one-offs, but he was the first one to create a model – the Fender Broadcaster – and offer it to the public,” Berner says.

The first case in the timeline contains several vintage Fenders, including the Broadcaster, the so-called Nocaster (a term guitar enthusiasts use to describe the guitar Fender was making when he was no longer allowed to call it the Broadcaster) and the Telecaster.

The Fenders, as well as every other guitar in Songbird’s collection, are the real deal. There are no replicas and no guitars from a Fender custom shop; these are the actual instruments Fender, Gibson and other manufacturers made.

“Every one of the guitars is an original,” Moenning says. “You could plug in every one of these guitars today and they would sound just like they did back when they were made.”

Most of the instruments glisten through the glass in pristine condition. Others look battle worn. “We have guitars in the warehouse that have been played quite a bit – or as we like to say, loved,” Berner says, smiling.

No matter what condition a guitar is in, there’s a wall of glass between the guest and the instrument. “During private tours, we will sometimes put certain things in certain hands for a brief moment, but that’s it,” Berner says. “These instruments might be insured but they’re irreplaceable.”

Gibson enters the timeline in 1952 with the Les Paul guitar. As the timeline advances into the 1960s, the Les Paul goes through several alterations – the neck angle changes, a different bridge appears at a certain point and the pickups are replaced – but the Fender remains all but unchanged from its original model.

“If you look at a 2017 Fender catalog, it’s the same guitar,” Berner says. “Leo got it right the first time.”

As the solid body electric guitar evolved, so did popular music. Fender was located in Southern California, which was home to a huge western swing scene. Artists like Jimmy Bryant and Bob Wills loved the sound of the guitars and took them like fish to water, Berner says.

“That was Leo’s audience at the time. But then guys like Buddy Holly started picking up his guitars and playing rock ’n’ roll, and in the ‘60s, Jimi Hendrix did things with a Stratocaster no one else had ever imagined,” Berner says.

Regardless of how the solid body electric guitar evolved, both companies deserve the praise musicians have heaped on them over the decades, Berner says. “You can’t help but appreciate the quality of the instrument, the way they played and the tone they produced,” he adds. “Most of these instruments are magical.”

The timeline contains more than guitars; each case is also stocked with photographs, memorabilia and products that were endemic to the period. A black and white photograph of Abigail Ybarra, who hand-wound Fender’s pickups for nearly six decades, is displayed in one case, while an old telephone, a playbill and a vintage amplifier can be seen in other portions of the timeline.

One of the most striking items is a battered acoustic guitar case plastered with stickers of countries from around the world. The case represents a time when a musician’s bread and butter was his or her time on the road, performing live.

Berner says Songbirds tries to capture the essence of the time periods in which vintage guitars were made because therein lies the key to understanding their quality.

“The story we tell at Songbirds is the story of post-World War II America,” he says. “The pride, quality and craftsmanship that went into designing those instruments was remarkable and has never been matched.”

The timeline ends in the 1970s. Berner, who grew up when vintage solid body electric guitars were being made, takes on a melancholy tone as he discusses Fender’s sale of his company to CBS in 1964 for health reasons. Berner goes on to describe the slow decline in the quality of the guitars as the new owners upped production.

“Before the Beatles arrived, Fender was making 500 Telecasters a year. After the Beatles arrived, that number rose every year, first by 2,000, then by 5,000,” Berner says. “That’s one of the reasons quality control started to go down. All of a sudden there were shareholders, and profits were the main concern as opposed to how an instrument sounded.”

Gibson’s guitars suffered a similar fate when McCarty sold the company to buy Bigsby, which manufactured vibratos for guitars.

Songbirds has a few key guitars from the 1970s but not much else because, as Berner bluntly puts it, “they’re not great guitars.”

For Berner, the sweet spot for vintage solid body electric guitars falls between 1950 and 1965. “Years ago, I had a 1961 and a 1964 Fender Stratocaster,” he says. “I wish I still had the ‘64. It was my favorite. It had a ridiculously beautiful, warm tone.”

The 1970s also marked the beginning of the vintage guitar market and the stratospheric climb in prices for the older, higher caliber instruments.

“I bought my first Stratocaster in 1977. If I had bought one in 1969, a new one would have cost me $200 and a used one would have cost me $125,” Berner says. “In 1977, I could have bought a new one for $375, but I bought the beat up 1964 Stratocaster for $465.”

By the eighties, vintage Stratocasters were already worth thousands. At the same time, the original Sunburst Les Pauls, made between 1958 and 1960, were going for $5,000. Today, they sell for a quarter of a million dollars or more.

Songbirds’ guitars don’t end at the conclusion of the timeline. The main showroom contains several themed cases guests can browse at their leisure, including a Vince Gill-curated case (Gill included a 53 Telecaster, which he’s known for playing), a case covering the British invasion (there’s a rosewood body Telecaster like George Harrison played during the famous rooftop performance on the Apple building in London) and the case that contains the instruments touched by famous fingers.

Take as a whole, the main gallery showcases every genre of music the solid body electric guitar changed or inspired, giving fans of country western music, jazz and hard rock all something to enjoy.

While there are plenty treasures to peruse in the main gallery, Berner recommends everyone buy the all-access tour, which takes people to the lounge, where the custom color Firebirds are on display, and the Vault, where the rarest guitars are on display.

In the cigar humidor-like Vault, each instrument is kept in its own case and has a story. Also, the tour guides sometimes share details that cannot leave the room. Beyond that, Berner isn’t talking.

“Come take the tour if you want to hear the juicy details,” he says.

Also shrouded in mystery are the owners of the guitars. All that’s publicly known about the donors is that they are a group of guitar enthusiasts who have spent a lot of time and money on their personal collections and decided to allow their instruments to be displayed together at Songbirds instead of their homes. Beyond that, Berner still isn’t talking.

Neither is Moenning. “The donors prefer to remain anonymous,” he says. “They simply want to pass along this part of history and share how vintage guitars not only influenced and changed music culture but American culture as well.”

The donors chose Chattanooga as the location for Songbirds because of its vibrant culture, as well as its central proximity to other cities, Moenning says. Other municipalities in the running included Nashville, Austin, New York and Los Angeles.

Although Moenning has to keep a few things to himself, he has plenty of other things to share with guests who purchase the all-access tour. What’s more, as a guitar player himself, he can get into the nerdy minutiae of each instrument and its history.

That said, an enthusiasm for guitars and music is not necessary to appreciate what the museum holds, Moenning says. “We’ve had people who don’t play music but love history  come here,” he says. “It’s important that we pass on these stories to everyone, especially young people. What’s going to happen to those stories if we don’t tell them?”

Berner says guests can also appreciate the instruments on an aesthetic level. “You don’t have to be a guitar enthusiast to be blown away by these instruments. Do you have to be a painter to appreciate a piece of art? These guitars are works of art. Just come and see them.”

There’s more to Songbirds than currently meets the eye. Berner says many of the guitars in storage will be brought to the museum at some point, as the curators are planning to change the displays every four months or so.

This July might see the museum’s collection of double-neck guitars arrive for display, and Berner hopes a one-of-a-kind Fender prototype will work its way into an exhibit.

What’s more, Songbirds is consistently improving its collection. “We acquired four killer guitars two weeks ago. I’m not ready to talk about them yet, but they’ll be in the Vault in July,” Berner says.

The moral of that story, Berner adds, is take the all-access tour. The self-guided tour costs $15.95 per person, while the all-access excursion costs $38.95.

The all-access tour lasts about 90 minutes and is well worth the bump in cost, Berner says. “The guitars in this collection are some of the finest in the world.

They were created during a century of musical social and political advances that shaped how we live today.

“What’s more, we’re doing everything we can to preserve them,” Berner continues. “A lot of love and care was put into these instruments. If we don’t protect them, they’ll turn into firewood, and all that history will be lost.”