by David Isle

Some collections are like the city of Rome - built stone upon stone, every addition becoming a permanent layer supported by its predecessors. Other collections are like Pocahontas’s river - the component molecules are merely passing through, but the whole remains a single coherent object. Gus Walbolt’s collection of guitars is of this second type - a running history of Gus’s musical attachments, personal friendships, grail quests and winding side paths, recorded in six-strings.

Gus’s interest in guitars was born in a hotbed of rock n’ roll in its heyday. “I grew up outside of New York City in the 60’s and the early 70’s in San Francisco,” says Gus, “so I had access to the legendary music stores of those cities filled with all the latest in guitars and amps, everything you saw on TV, in magazines or on the cover of L.P.’s they had them on their walls. I was also taking music lessons in Greenwich Village and hearing people playing guitars everywhere when all the new music was taking off. The bands around me had cool guitars, cool equipment, and I wanted that too. Gretsches, Danelectros, Strats, Teles - one guy had a Les Paul. There was a little bit of everything around.”

“When I got to the point where I could afford to start collecting guitars, I had the bug for 50’s and 60’s guitars. Quality was excellent in the 50s and into the early 60’s. Unfortunately by the 1970’s there was a real low point in U.S. guitar manufacturing. Yet at the same time a used 50’s guitar was maybe a third, or less, of the price of a brand new one, and yet it was three times as good. This is what created the demand for used instruments and collecting vintage rather than new guitars. So my hunt began for early 50’s and 60’s models. They were less expensive and much better, but you had to hunt for them.”

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1961 Fender Esquire

Gus’s own tastes began by favoring the simplicity of single-pickup solid-body electrics and the intricate beauty of handcrafted archtop guitars:

“Although one-pickup electrics were diminished in value in the eyes of dealers and collectors a few famous players used them as an essential part of their sound– Eric Clapton and his ’63 reverse body Firebird I while with Cream, Stephen Stills and Jeff Beck with their 50’s Fender Esquires and Leslie West of Mountain and his 50’s Les Paul Juniors. I loved their sound while the simplicity and elegance of their look and function- just one pickup, one tone and one volume control - really appealed to me. I just had to have those guitars. So my little niche became seeking out one pickup solid-body guitars.”

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1957 Les Paul Jr

“Then what appealed to me for aesthetic beauty and craftsmanship were early vintage archtop jazz guitars. Archtops with a blonde finish were the most rare, and the clear finish allowed you to fully appreciate the exquisite wood grain that had been carefully selected by their makers. Better models had a carved arched wooden top, similar to a violin, which takes a true artisan to construct. Many had inlays of Mother of Pearl and ivoroid (resembling ivory), which added to their beauty. They’re just gorgeous. I loved looking at them would hang them around my office like paintings. ”

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1965 Gibson Jimmy Smith

But for Gus, a collection is an evolution, not a hoarded stockpile:

“I don’t have my first guitar or my 100th guitar. My M.O. is I get a guitar play it, enjoy it, have it for a while and then at some point I sell or trade it, starting the whole process again to get something I’ve never had before. “

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1961 Fender Firebird

“Throughout the entire time of collecting guitars the enjoyment hasn’t just come from acquiring and playing instruments,” Gus says, “It’s the experiences along the way that come with the hunt that are the most memorable. Once I get inspired to own a particular instrument then the real fun begins. And, the hunt has been so rewarding because it introduced me to many wonderful, talented, interesting, as well as a few pretty strange people from all over the world who also love and appreciate these guitars. I’ve made friendships through guitar collecting that have lasted thirty years and more. One of the great benefits of collecting has been meeting so many really neat people.”

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Guild Artist Award

Some of those fellow collectors are quite neat people indeed:

“As part of my guitar hunting, selling and trading it’s been a special treat to meet memorable guitar-greats. It runs the gamut from selling Keith Richards a Les Paul TV Jr, and being invited back stage to a Stones concert to going to dinner with Blue Note records legend Kenny Burrell at a NYC jazz club after helping him locate a vintage Gibson archtop. There have been dozens of contacts with rock, jazz and blues celebrities, but the real fun is in sharing our mutual stories of the enjoyment and pursuit of these special guitars.”

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1956 ES-5 Switchmaster

What else can guitars bring about?

“I just sold my 1953 Fender Esquire [pictured in the lead photographs] that I’ve had since 1990,” says Gus. “ It’s currently on a world arena tour with it’s new owner, so it’s nice to know that it will be used and enjoyed. But now I’m kind of excited now because that means I’ll be out looking for something new.”