In his 2011 obituary for Washington, D.C.'s celebrated The Guitar Shop, The Washington Post's John Kelly lamented the demise of the 89-year-old "oasis of blues, flamenco, rock, classical, gypsy, mariachi, any music that could be picked, plucked or strummed." Yet its owner, Steve Spellman, could not delay the inevitable any longer: It had come time to take his inventory online and shutter the brick-and-mortar landmark, whose luminous offerings beckoned from a Dupont Circle second-story window. "For decades, we were open six, seven days a week, sometimes when there were two and a half feet of snow on the ground, and nobody in their right mind was open," the 79-year-old Spellman says with a chuckle. "Now we're always open. But I don't have to open the door right now."
In 1968, Spellman was a Guitar Shop student and customer when he took the reins from Sophocles Papas, a classical guitarist (and friend of Andres Segovia's) who opened the shop in 1922. The Post called Papas "the Johnny Appleseed of the guitar in Washington," and Spellman became his acolyte, then his successor. Combined, the pair ran not just a store but a community center where pros, politicians, museum directors, academics and part-time noodlers mingled among the Gibsons, Fenders, Martins and classical guitars made by the world's best luthiers. They also tucked away a century's worth of rare and collectible guitars, which Steve and his wife Lydia are ready to share.
The Spellmans bring some 500 highly curated offerings from The Guitar Shop's legendarily stacked racks to Heritage Auctions, 79 of which will debut in the May 9 Guitars and Musical Instruments Signature® Auction. The event promises to make some noise, as it also features guitars once owned and played by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Graham Nash, Jack Bruce and even Will Rogers.
From The Guitar Shop Collection comes a favorite of Heritage's Director of Vintage Guitars & Musical Instruments, Aaron Piscopo: a 1965 Fender Precision bass, which glows in rare custom Ice Blue Metallic. And here comes the Sunburst: a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Gold Solid Body and a 1955 Gibson ES-175 Sunburst Semi-Hollow Body.
Spellman also brings to auction one of the finest guitars Heritage
has ever handled: a 1924 Gibson L5 Sunburst Archtop, among the handful known to exist and one of the most important guitars ever made. This hollow body was the first to feature f-holes, like a violin or cello, thanks to the design by Lloyd Loar, who was a pianist, composer and "instructor in the physics of music" at Northwestern University when he died in 1943. Loar worked for Gibson as a designer and product developer from 1919 until 1924, revolutionizing the guitar (and mandolin). As Ken Achard wrote in his 1990 book The History and Development of the American Guitar, the L5 "perhaps more than any other single model helped to establish the Gibson factory at the top of the tree, where it has remained." And what's most extraordinary about this model is that it features Loar's signature inside, along with the date when he tested, tuned and tried this very model: Nov. 17, 1924, when he was on his way out the door.
"This is a guitar people hear about but rarely get to see or hold," Piscopo says. "And its condition is breathtaking: At nearly 100 years old, this guitar presents itself as new. It's mind-boggling how clean and crack-free it is. It's fair to say it has little competition in this auction, though some in The Guitar Shop Collection give it a run for its money, including a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Custom and a 1969 Martin D-45 that's also in spectacular condition."
Hundreds more acoustic and classical guitars from The Guitar Shop Collection will be available at Heritage Auctions throughout 2023.
But the May 9 event goes to 11: Here, for the first time at auction, is the Guild F-412 Natural 12-string Stevie Ray Vaughan used when he performed on an early episode of MTV Unplugged, which aired Jan. 30, 1990, seven months before his death. Vaughan seldom played anything but a Fender Strat, and there exist only a few recordings of Dallas' native son playing acoustic guitar, Unplugged being the most comprehensive and astonishing, proof he could serve as lead and rhythm guitarist while also singing. The guitar wasn't Vaughan's, though: It came from Studio Instrument Rentals' famed New York City location, which opened in 1974 and provided instruments to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan and Nirvana for its Unplugged performance. John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful used this Guild decades later when recording 2021's John Sebastian and Arlen Roth Explore the Spoonful Songbook. In a letter accompanying the instrument, he writes: "This 1969 Guild F-412 sounds this way because it belonged to Studio Instrument Rentals, where it played for any player needing a 12-string in New York City for fifty years. It's huge, loud, and scares cats. Pretty much what this model is famous for."
That Guild has some star-studded company, led by Graham Nash's 1988 Martin D-35 Natural Acoustic, which the singer-songwriter gifted to American treasure Phil Hartman. The pair were old friends long before Hartman became a television and film star thanks to his turns on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, NewsRadio and more.
In 1974 Hartman left Cal State Northridge with a graphic arts degree and designed two dozen covers for the likes of Poco and America as well as the interlocking "CSN" logo for Crosby, Stills & Nash. In a new letter accompanying the Martin, Graham writes that he "used it for songwriting, recording and on stage" and gave it to Hartman during his SNL run "to show my appreciation" for having designed the CS&N logo.
A1994 Warwick Thumb Bass owned, played and signed by Cream's Jack Bruce is also here, as is the Ludwig drum set Rush's Neil Peart used during the recording of Burning for Buddy and together, this pair would make a mighty fierce rhythm section.
But only one guitar in this auction comes straight from a museum: the circa-1850s Martin 2-27 once owned by beloved humorist, star of stage and screen and "America's Favorite Cowboy" Will Rogers. Until recently, this Martin 2-27 was on display at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, near the ranch where he was born in 1879. It was passed down from Will's son James Blake Rogers to his grandson James Kemmler Rogers, who loaned it as a "prized memento" to the family gallery at the museum. Will's son told the museum's curator and director he "could not recall a time within his lifetime that the guitar was not present in the household."
Until it went to the museum and, now, to a new owner who likely subscribes to Rogers' adage that "if you wait until you're ready, you'll wait forever."