The Real Story Behind The Guitar Auction That Wasn’t

By Gabriel J. Hernandez

02_IMG_2991

It was supposed to be the mother of all guitar auctions. One of the world’s most respected auction houses assembled 265 of the most desirable guitars ever offered for sale. They hyped it with a public relations’ campaign that rivaled that of any presidential candidate’s, all of which bolstered both anticipation and expectations for the “shot-in-the-arm” the guitar market had waited so long for.

Remarkably, and considering all variables, from the very first guitar offered for sale – an elaborately decorated 1928 Gibson Nick Lucas Special, with a pre-auction estimate of $35,000-to-$45,000, that didn’t garner one bid – those lofty expectations very quickly turned into harsh realities for Guernsey’s Auctioneers & Brokers and its founder and president Arlan Ettinger, who hosted the company’s first guitar-only auction this past April at New York City’s Bohemian National Hall.

10_IMG_4996

04_IMG_2641

Appropriately dubbed “Artistry Of The Guitar,” the auction featured hand-picked instruments from one of the world’s most extraordinary collections of stringed instruments. Well-known – and somewhat notorious – guitar collector and business executive Hank Risan consigned 265 of his most prized guitars (not including his most desirable: an 1835 Martin 2½-17 model owned by Mark Twain) to Ettinger and his team of experts for an auction anticipated to break all previous guitar auction records. In fact, Ettinger in several national interviews prior to the start of the auction told the world he expected at least one or possibly two of the guitars to eclipse the seven-figure mark, which is considered rarefied air for any guitar. And with Guernsey’s – and Ettinger’s – solid reputation for having conducted numerous honorable and highly successful auctions over the company’s 40-year history, there wasn’t any clear reason to doubt whether him or the company could pull it off.

13_IMG_8065

Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out. Not even close. And though many guitar industry gurus and watchers alike have speculated and held numerous water cooler discussions about why the auction didn’t live up to expectations, Ettinger himself has never addressed the issue on the record … until now.

But before we get to Ettinger, let’s first take a look at some actual auction results. According to Guernsey’s, 179 of the 265 guitars “officially” sold for $2.14 million. The highest price paid for any one guitar was $366,000 for a very rare 1930 Martin OM-45 Deluxe (only 11 ever made). It was purchased by the C.F. Martin guitar company for its museum at the company’s headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Pre-auction hype pegged this guitar as the most likely to exceed the highly coveted $1 million mark, with an overly ambitious sales estimate of $1.75-to-$2 million.

Other guitars with equally bold estimates met the same fate. Among them, a 1941 Gibson SJ-200 formerly owned by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Stephen Stills sold for $50,000 (pre-auction estimate was $500,000-to-$600,000); a 1936 Gibson Advanced Jumbo sold for $48,800 (pre-auction estimate was $135,000-to-$150,000); a stunningly rare 1935 Gibson Super 400 Flattop Custom sold for $46,875 (pre-auction estimate was $525,000-to-$575,000); an exceptionally rare and desirable 1934 D’Angelico Excel – possibly the very first Excel model made by the legendary luthier – sold for just $43,750 (pre-auction estimate was $450,000-to-$475,000); and another very rare and desirable 1928 Martin 00-45 sold for $42,700 (pre-auction estimate was $240,000-to-$270,000).

So what happened? Were the estimates and expectations too high? Were there issues with the authenticity and condition of some of the guitars? And probably the most important question: was the auction an accurate reflection of the current vintage guitar market?

Representing Martin at the auction was Dick Boak, the company’s long-time director of museum, archives and special projects. In addition to the 1935 OM-45 Deluxe, Martin and Boak also took home a 1969 D-45 with Brazilian Rosewood ($30,500), a 1904 0-42 ($12,200), and an absolutely stunning 1914 000-28 with a 20-fret neck and Brazilian Rosewood ($14,640). Overall, Boak was quite pleased with Martin’s new additions to its museum, and the prices paid for the guitars.

Martin Guernsey 4 Martin Guernsey 3 Martin Guernsey 2 Martin Guernsey 1

“We honestly didn’t think we were going to get the OM-45 Deluxe,” Boak said. “We were willing to go as high as $400,000 to $450,000 for it, but obviously we didn’t have to. We’d been looking for one of these guitars for a long time, and now it hangs in our museum. I’ve played it a few times and it’s truly a magnificent instrument.”

Martin Guernsey 5

Martin’s seemingly “cheap” acquisition of the OM-45 was typical of the bidding that occurred for many of the auction’s 265 guitars. When the OM-45 took center stage, the auctioneer announced the bidding would start at $850,000. When no one raised their hand the opening bid was lowered to $750,000, and then to $650,000, and so on, etc. Not until the opening bid was lowered all the way to $300,000 did Boak finally raise his hand to start the bidding. Fortunately for Boak and Martin, theirs’ was the only bid on the guitar (the additional $66,000 was Guernsey’s 22 percent hammer fee).

So again, why wasn’t there a bidding war on such a rare, coveted Martin? And why did this scenario play out again and again during what was supposed to be the guitar auction of the new millennium? The answers are somewhat complicated, but Boak offered perhaps the most diplomatic response of all.

“The collection really was a truly remarkable collection, especially in the huge number of amazing guitars available for purchase,” Boak said. “But I think one of the problems that just about everyone interested in these guitars had was that the initial estimates were extremely high. And second, there was the thought that such a huge influx of guitars into the marketplace at one time would actually devalue the prices for the guitars. Letting go of so many vintage pieces at one time was not seen as a good thing. If they would have come out one or two at a time then maybe it would have been a different story. But the sheer number of guitars available I think hurt the auction.”

So why would Risan offer up so many guitars at one time? We tried to reach Risan several times to get an answer to this and other important questions, and left numerous messages for him at his California office. Unfortunately, he never returned our calls. However, Guernsey spokesperson Lindsay Heller, who handled most of the sales and bidding that took place after the “official” end of the auction, shed some light on the subject. According to Heller, there was a little, lesser known fact about the auction that Guernsey’s, or Risan, did not publicize – that the auction was supposed to raise money for Risan’s alleged tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service. And since the initial auction didn’t quite raise enough money to satisfy Risan’s alleged debt to the IRS, post-auction sales were on-going for at least two weeks after the final gavel fell on April 3.

“Yes, the IRS is involved and that’s the main reason that the timeline for this auction is somewhat blurry at this moment,” Heller said when first contacted back in April. “I’ve been told that we’re allowed to be frank about this whole situation, so the reality is that the consignor owes a debt to the IRS, and that this auction was supposed to fulfill his obligation to the IRS. Although [Hank Risan] does have a ruling voice on what offers to accept or decline, I think at some point – because the IRS is involved – the IRS can physically come in and seize any lots that are unsold and sell it themselves, and they can then decide whether or not to sell it to the people that have previously placed bids or made offers on any of the unsold guitars.”

Heller also mentioned that Guernsey’s 22 percent buyer’s premium was still in effect for any post-auction sales, but added that depending on how antsy the IRS agents got, there may have actually come a time when the IRS simply stepped in to take over the entire auction altogether, thus ending Guernsey’s association with it.

“The IRS has been very good to us throughout this whole process, and they know how much work we put into this auction, with the printing of the catalog and the hosting of the auction itself,” Heller said. “But if [Hank Risan] doesn’t act in due time then the IRS will, in fact, become the defacto consignor for all of these unsold guitars, and they would then decide when and to whom they will be sold.”

Risan’s allege debt to the IRS was at least one of the reasons behind the sale of so many of his prized guitars. But what about the other lingering questions regarding the auction? Were there issues with the authenticity and condition of the guitars? And – most importantly – was the auction an accurate assessment of the current vintage guitar market? According to a few experts, the answers to those questions are a bit more interesting than the IRS’s involvement.

“My business partner and I were hired by Guernsey’s as a consultant for this auction, and to inspect and tune the instruments. So we got a pretty good look at all of them and it was definitely a very nice collection of acoustics and archtops,” said Alex Whitman, one of the owners of New York City’s famed TR Crandall Guitars. “But there was also a lot of discussion about the consignor’s reputation in general, and rumors of some shady dealings, though let me also say there was nothing that we or anyone else could verify. Personally, I think the biggest issue was that no one really knew the motivation behind his selling of so many guitars. I heard it was an IRS auction to pay off some debt, so the initial price estimates were high. In some cases the estimates were three to four times above reasonable prices for these guitars, and some were even higher than that.”

Whitman continued, “And then there were the questions about the originality of some of the pieces. We had people asking our opinion on many of the guitars; whether they had been refinished, or whether some had had work done to them, etc. There were many people that flew in for this auction from faraway places and they were very frustrated when they got to the preview. I think a lot of people were turned off by everything that was going on around it.”

As Whitman pointed out, many people assumed Guernsey’s – and Ettinger – had done their due diligence prior to signing on to host the auction. After all, alongside Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Guernsey’s Auction House is considered one of the most respected names in the auction business. So what, if anything, went wrong?

“When Mr. Risan first contacted us, I immediately flew out to California to see his instruments,” Ettinger said. “Now, I’m not a guitar expert and I certainly don’t try to pass myself off as one. But I have sold some very nice guitars over the years, including the two guitars most used by the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. And you didn’t need to be a genius to see that [Hank Risan’s] collection was a great collection. So he consigned his collection to us, and once the word got out that we were going to sell his guitars, that’s when people started to call us and tell us about their own personal experiences with Hank.

“But as our consignor, we worked with him as best we could. However it soon became clear that his expectations were very high and not in line with those of other notable guitar experts and independent appraisers,” Ettinger said. “Basically we were dealing with an overly optimistic consignor, and that’s something I have experienced in the past. For [Hank Risan], having to sell these guitars was like having to sell his own children. And how do you put a price on your own children? Bottom line is that we were told by many people that his expectations were very unrealistic.”

Nonetheless, Ettinger – being the ultimate professional that he is – kept a very positive face and continued to encourage anyone that would listen to participate in the auction, “…because you never know what will happen in any auction,” he said.

So did the auction satisfy Risan’s alleged debt to the IRS? I guess we’ll never know for sure because Risan isn’t talking. But one thing we do know is that Guernsey’s is not deterred by one bad guitar auction. In fact, a recent email blast from the auction house received just prior to deadline revealed Guernsey’s is currently taking consignments for its next guitar auction, though no definitive date has been set. Ettinger’s company has held several prominent auctions over its 40-plus-year history, including the sale of rare items belonging to John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Princess Diana, Elvis Presley, Mickey Mantle, and a host of other very notable historical figures. He’s quite confident he can add historical and rare guitars to his company’s impressive resume, and probably won’t stop until he does.

09_IMG_7667

“It would be somewhat inappropriate to talk about the sales of our consignors, because ultimately we do have to be respectful,” Ettinger said rather politely when asked what lessons – if any – he took away from this past guitar auction. “It’s not that I ‘learned’ something, or that I never encountered this situation before. But in our enthusiasm to be accommodating to this consignor, will I maybe be tougher in some areas in the future? I guess you can read between the lines, if you want.”

Ettinger continued, “When it was all said and done, I had many people call me and tell me they wish they would have participated, and that overall it was a great event and that we should be very proud of what we did for this auction. And ultimately I am. There were many independent collectors of high-end guitars and even dealers that came up to me and said they would love to see us do more guitar auctions. Bottom line is we shoot to do things that people have never done before, and I would encourage anyone that’s reading this to give us a call and give us a chance. This past auction was OK. It definitely could have been better, but overall it as OK. I’m still very delighted with the event itself and with the beautiful catalog we produced for it. From here, we’re moving forward with our heads held very high.”

03_IMG_1238

As for the current state of the guitar market and possible success – or failure – of any future guitar auctions, the consensus of opinion among industry experts seems to suggest that everyone should sit back and take a big deep breath and exhale … slowly. Because as Bob Marley so eloquently professes in arguably his most enduring song, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright!”

“Considering the state of our current economy, there certainly have been some price adjustments within the industry,” said longtime New York City guitar guru and industry expert Laurence Wexer, who attended both nights of the Guernsey’s guitar auction. “However, I see a moderate state of recovery as well. The desirable models and rare models are still bringing top dollar, and overall I believe there is still very strong interest in this market if the guitars are priced fairly.”

And regarding any future guitar auctions hosted by Guernsey’s, Ettinger can probably take a deep breath and exhale as well.

“We did very well on the guitars we purchased from [Guernsey’s],” said Whitman of TR Crandall Guitars. “I know for a fact we’ll be paying attention to any of their future auctions, and would be happy to assist them again, if asked. Mr. Ettinger and everybody that works there are really great people, and they tried very hard to make this last auction a success. Personally, I believe they’re going to hit a homerun with their next one.”

Let’s all hope they hit it out of the park.

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/bluesvintageguitars.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Be (A Luthier), or Not To Be (A Lawyer)

By Gabriel J. Hernandez

DSC_0096

Deciding on a college major is a life-defining moment. Personally (some 30 years ago), I didn’t have a clue what my major was going to be until I walked by the open front door of the campus newspaper’s office. Hung on it was a piece of paper that read, “Wanted: Sports Reporter.”

From that point my choices were pretty clear: continue trying to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem and how it was going to fit into my life, while also seeking the right words and moment to tell my parents I’d just dropped Calculus … for the third time; or write about sports.

It wasn’t even close. I loved sports. Plus, I liked to read, I enjoyed my English classes, and at the time I was keeping a journal (of sorts) so I knew how to construct a basic sentence. And – of course – I assumed (incorrectly) that being a sports writer would allow me FREE access to sporting events. So, into the campus newspaper office I walked with sign in tow and applied for the job.

It wasn’t much of an interview:

Editor (I can’t remember his name): “Can you write?”

Me: “Yes.”

Editor: “Can you cover the baseball game this afternoon?”

Me: “Sure.”

Editor: “Ok … you’re hired.”

And just like that, my journey to a degree in Journalism began rather unceremoniously … a journey that still continues to this day, on a course that still involves (to some extent) my training as a writer, investigator, etc., etc., etc.

But then there are people like Elizabeth Jayne Henderson, who currently resides in Asheville, N.C. She had it all planned out. Raised to be conscience of environmental issues, she didn’t think twice about pursuing a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School in South Royalton, which she earned in 2009. She then sharpened her passion for all things environmental by working for an Asheville-based nonprofit, before heading back to Vermont for a brief stint in government work with the United States Forest Service’s Eastern Region office in Rutland.

In a nutshell, Henderson’s future was set … written in stone … signed, sealed and delivered (you get the point).

“The degree I earned is very similar to having a law degree,” Henderson said recently from her home in Asheville. “It deals with environmental law and working as an environmental advocate, which is more like working alongside lawyers as opposed to actually being a lawyer. But what mattered most to me was that the focus was on the environment and making it better. My ultimate goal was to work in some capacity within the Federal Government, and helping to better the environment.”

To that end, Henderson vigorously pursued a handful of positions within the Federal government, including several with the Environmental Protection Agency. Her dreams, however, were somewhat stymied by the weak economies of 2010 and 2011, and the resulting Federal Government cutbacks – some of which eliminated positions she had applied for at the EPA.

In 2011, faced with the possibility of not landing a Federal job – though still “very thankfully” employed by the small environmental nonprofit in Asheville – Henderson began to worry about her looming student loan payments. And that’s when she turned to her dad for help. Her dad – by the way – happens to be none other than world renowned luthier, guitar player, and guitar festival organizer Wayne Henderson of Rugby, VA. If you don’t know who Wayne Henderson is, all you have to know is that he’s played guitar all over the world (including Carnegie Hall), and built mandolins and guitars for the likes of Eric Clapton, Tommy Emmanuel and the late Doc Watson (among many, many others). He’s even been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the White House (1995) in recognition of his extraordinary instrument-making skills.

“I went to my dad and asked him to make me a guitar or two so I could sell them to help pay off my school loans,” Henderson said. “He told me he’d definitely help me out, but that I’d have to build them myself.”

At first, the idea appealed to Henderson because it meant she’d be spending time with her dad. Her parents, you see, divorced when she was very young, so growing up Henderson would spend only weekends with her dad … competing for time with her father with all the visiting guests from around the world that would come to play and buy the elder Henderson’s instruments.

“I wasn’t necessarily driven by the need to make a guitar,” Henderson said. “Hanging out with him was very important to me, and it’s the main reason I started doing this. Now, I’ve come to find out that I’m pretty good at making guitars. Working with my hands comes very natural to me, and that’s why I started making more guitars.”

So, today – and for the last three years – Henderson is now the sole proprietor of EJ Henderson Guitars and Ukuleles in Asheville, NC. There she makes a handful of completely handcrafted instruments using some of most unique combination of woods of any other luthier in the country. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that she does so under the guidance and watchful eye of her famous father. But don’t be fooled … Henderson has made it a point to carve her own niche, and has fast become one of the most talked about instrument makers in the business.

_DSC2566

“I really want my guitars and how I build them to stand out on their own merits, and not behind the accomplishments of my dad and what he’s doing,” Henderson said. “Don’t get me wrong, he does check things out for me from time to time, but I do all the work.”

Henderson continued, “I really like experimenting with different types of woods. I like to find woods that no one else is using, so I’ve made guitars and ukuleles out of woods like white ash, sassafras, red and white oak, and of course maple and walnut. I also really love using Hawaiian Koa, and I kinda wish I could go there one day and see and find it for myself.”

Don’t we all?

Henderson 1

DSC_0027

Many of the tops for Henderson’s guitars are constructed from Carpathian Spruce, which she says, “…has a very uniform and beautiful grain, and some very tight grains because it comes from very cold climates. I also love using it because it’s a very sustainable wood, which means there’s lots of it. My dad has been using it for a while as well.”

So, Henderson does – in fact – use her environmental background when building instruments, just not in the way she envisioned it. In just three short years she’s almost completely paid off her school loans, plus managed to get her guitars into some pretty famous hands, including the late Doc Watson, Vince Gill, Zac Brown (he’s on her waiting list), and a few others. She’s also amassed a waiting list approaching the two-year mark. What other luthier/guitar makers do you know that just started out and have a two-year waiting list for their guitars?

DSC_0167

But in the eyes of her father (and many others) Henderson’s most important accomplishments and innovations to date involve the new level of creativity and unconventional vision she’s brought to some of the industry’s most time-tested and centuries-old traditions.

IMG_0164

“I don’t have to show her much anymore because she understands wood vibrations better than most other people I know,” the elder Henderson said. “She’s come up with some very innovative ways to properly tune a top, and make and form the bracings. She’s learned to make adjustments to the tops until they’re all are in near-perfect tune, so all of her tops sound very consistent. I used to do all of this stuff by ear, but I’m getting older now and it’s a lot easier to do things the way she does it. And it makes sense. She’s very good at what she does and I’m very proud of her.”

Judging by the names on her nearly two-year waiting list, apparently others are, too!

For more information on Jayne Henderson and her instruments, visit her web site at www.ejhendersonguitars.com. You can also visit her father’s web site at www.waynehenderson.org.

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/bluesvintageguitars.

Posted in Articles/Columns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

REMEMBER JIMMY NALLS? LET HIM ADJUST YOUR PERSPECTIVE …

By Gabriel J. Hernandez

DSC_0321

Perspective is everything. And sometimes something as trivial as a simple kind act by some anonymous individual can knock your perspective back to reality. Other times it can take getting hit upside the head with a rock to whack your perspective back into place. Hopefully the following story helps you avoid the latter.

Being able to own, play and collect guitars is a great thing. Some consider it a privilege, and rightfully so. Everybody that reads this magazine surely knows this, and the people that do play guitar for a living (we think) are some of the luckiest people in the world. Think about it … there’s not one guitar player out there – novice or professional – that hasn’t at least once in his or her life said, “One day, I want to be a rock and roll star.” The reality is that the odds are about one-in-a-million it ever happens, if not more. But it’s a nice fantasy world, for sure. How many of us haven’t drooled over old pictures of Led Zeppelin boarding their private, chartered and totally decked out airplane … you know, the one with the fur couches, fully stocked bars, velvet-lined covered beds, and – of course – the long-legged blonde and brunette bartenders and waitresses standing at attention waiting for their next whim-satisfying command.

But then there IS the reality of the guitar players that actually make somewhat of a living playing music. And for the majority it’s a job just like any other … they wake up at 6:30 AM, eat breakfast, kiss the wife and kids goodbye, battle rush hour traffic, work eight or more hours in a recording studio, return home to the wife and kids, have dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed, then wake up and do it all over again the next day. Some of these folks even work overtime in the bars at night, with most of them playing for mere tips and hoping to be “seen” or “heard” by that right person that can change their lives forever. Living in Nashville, I see it firsthand. Hundreds, if not thousands, of guitar players – most of them good enough to take Eric Clapton’s place without missing a beat – come to Music City USA to “chase the dream.” And while many give it a good try, a lot more of them end up going back home with broken dreams and empty bank accounts … some even minus the instruments and gear they came with because they had to sell everything to get back home.

But back in the 1970s life was different. If you were in the right place at the right time, those dreams of a rock and roll life came true for some. Jimmy Nalls was one of the lucky ones. In the 1970s, Nalls moved from his home in the Virginia suburbs to New York City to play guitar with Australian folk singer and Warner Brother artist Gary Shearston. Shearston’s producer was Noel Paul Stookey, who just happened to be the “Paul” in the band Peter, Paul and Mary. Nalls’ relationship with Stookey blossomed into a friendship and soon he found himself a pretty in-demand session guitarist at New York’s famed Record Plant recording studio. Over the next couple of years, Nalls played guitar alongside such notables as Chuck Leavell, Alex Taylor, Dr. John, Gary St. Clair, Mike Zack, and scores of other musicians who had “made it” in the music business as either sessions players, or players in well-known touring acts.

In 1976, however, Nalls got his biggest “break” when he teamed up with three musicians from the Allman Brothers Band – keyboardist Chuck Leavell, bassist Lamar Williams, and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson (better known as Jaimoe). Together they formed the legendary ensemble known simply as Sea Level. Though the band only lasted from 1976 to 1981, they managed to cement their place in rock and roll lore by recording five albums of some of the most innovative jazz, rock and rhythm and blues-blended music ever recorded. During their time they toured the world, lived the lived of rock stars, and Nalls became one of the most acclaimed and sought-after session guitarists in the business. When Sea Level disbanded in 1981 Nalls continued to play professionally, most notably in another highly-acclaimed band called The Nighthawks, which also toured the world relentlessly and released several albums of music still sought out today as some of the best in its genre.

Sea Level Promo Picture

Nalls continued to play professionally with The Nighthawks and several other projects until late 1994, when he started to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease – the progressive and irreversible brain disorder that causes tremors, poor balance, and other muscle- and movement-related symptoms. Unfortunately, the disease affected Nalls’ ability to perform the quick, voluntary muscle movements necessary for him to continue to play professionally. In a nutshell, his dream life was over. No more tours. No more recording sessions. No more guest appearances with some of the biggest names in the music business. Nothing. It all changed in the span of just a few short months, and his life hasn’t been the same since.

With Sea Level in 1978

Since being diagnosed in late 1994, however, and with the help of several friends – most notably Leavell, Jack Pearson, Lee Roy Parnell, and his ever-present and devoted family – Nalls has managed to release a solo CD called Ain’t No Stranger, which he co-produced with Phil Dillon for MRL Records. He’s also written a book titled Wood and Wire, which he co-wrote with Bill Rust, and which details his life as a “Guitar Slinger” and his fight against Parkinson’s.

“When you’re as active as I used to be, this condition is really hard to accept,” Nalls said from his Nashville home. “But I had to accept it or else I would have gone crazy a long time ago. As much as it hurts sometimes, this is something that I have accepted and it’s now a part of my life. So as much as it does hurt, yes I have come to terms with it.”

As for playing the guitar, Nalls said, “I can’t play for a long time anymore, but I do still get enjoyment out of it. With the brain stimulators I had recently put in, they do cut down on the shakes a lot and they do take away some of the immobility that’s associated with Parkinson’s. But if it wasn’t for the brain stimulators I’d probably be in a nursing home or some other type of assisted living facility right now.”

Nalls has played several guitars throughout his career, but the one he’s always gone back to time and time again is the 1961 Fender Stratocaster he purchased in New York City in 1974 for just $300.

DSC_0274

“I got it just the way you see it [natural with no finish on it whatsoever], but it used to be [fiesta] red at one point,” Nalls said. “If you look inside the cavities you’ll see the original [fiesta] red finish that was once on it. The pickups are a set of hand-wound pickups that Joe Barden did for me back in 1984.”

Probably the coolest aspect of the guitar, however (other than the fact that it belongs to Nalls), is a very faint signature on the back of the guitar. Nalls explains:

“There’s a signature on the back of it that you can barely read anymore, but it’s the signature of Bill Carson, who was the guy that Leo Fender designed the Fender Stratocaster for. I met him on an airplane out in California one day and I had the guitar with me so I had him sign it for me.”

Carson told Nalls that his personal Stratocaster was a 1959 model, also with a Fiesta Red finish with matching headstock. The neck was personally shaped by Carson to suit his own playing preference (1 7/16″ nut width, shallow depth), and also had a thick slab rosewood fingerboard with “Carson” stamped in the neck pocket.

DSC_0299

But despite the memories, the guitars, and the lifestyle he had to leave behind not of his choosing, Nalls is still a very grateful man today. His wife of 39 years, Minni, has remained by his side through thick and thin. He also has a son and daughter, and three grandchildren – all of whom live in the Nashville area and visit him on a regular basis. And while moving around gets more difficult every day, Nalls is not a broken man. In fact, he still plans on finishing his second solo CD which he started recording several years ago while his fingers were still cooperating with his once stellar guitar-playing abilities. And for a man that seemed to be on top of the world at one time and is now limited to just a few steps a day, Nalls has the mindset of a man that is, of course, realistic of his condition, but also a positive attitude that keeps him going day after day … no matter how bad some days can get.

“There are times that I get really depressed,” Nalls said. “And sometimes I do feel like a burden to my family. I used to be the alpha male of this family … the top dog. I was traveling the world, going to places like Australia and Japan, Europe, pretty much all over the world. And when I lost it all of course it was devastating, to say the least. But my wife still loves me, even after 39 years of marriage, and I have my kids and grandkids.

“And I really want to finish my second solo CD. My studio is down right now, and I need a new computer. But I am trying to get it all back up and running so I can finish it,” Nalls said. “The tracks are all there, and I play the bass and guitar on almost all of them. What I need to finish are the lyrics and the vocal tracks and then put it all together. If someone wants to help me put it all together and help me finish it, I’m all for it. But it is my stuff, and I still want to be a part of the final process. I would really want the chance to be able to complete it, and hopefully someday I’ll be able to do that.”

For a man in his condition, Nalls is a pretty amazing human being. He’s also an incredible inspiration to anyone he comes into contact with. So the next time you’re debating what finish you want for that new Les Paul, or whether to buy that limited edition Martin acoustic or some other vintage guitar, think about Jimmy. I know he’d probably appreciate it. But I guarantee you’ll be a better person for it. And your perspective will have definitely been realigned.

For more information on Jimmy Nalls, visit his web site at www.jimmynalls.net. His book is also still available through Amazon, as is his solo CD and all the music he recorded with Sea Level and The Nighthawks.

Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/bluesvintageguitars.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment