Author Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter who has authored more than 50 feature articles for the Mandolin Cafe, most of which are stored in our archived News section.
A non-musician might view the pale-blue building at 211 Lambert Ave. as a routine business serving local folks in Palo Alto, Calif. The street is fairly quiet. A Gryphon Stringed Instruments sign on the outside wall is modest. Words on the blue canvas awning over the front door calmly say "Guitars Banjos Mandolins."
Step inside though, and you're in what lusty acoustic musicians consider a major port of call. Mandolins new and old hang to the left. Further ahead, vintage Martin and Gibson guitars that pickers drool over hang on the port side wall, while new guitars made in cutting-edge styles are starboard. And rows of various other instruments, repair bench rooms, and upstairs fiddles are tucked hither and yon.
"Yes, I would like to play the 1914 Gibson F4 mandolin in red sunburst, thank you," I said, thinking that perhaps the 1921 H2 mandola would be next.
When Richard Johnston and Frank Ford started Gryphon in 1969, few of us had ever heard of David Grisman or Tony Rice. Norman Blake was a mystery name guitar player in the liner notes of Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline album. When we did find such musicians, first our attention was to their music. Then as we tried to make the same music, our focus also turned to their instruments, which led us into a wide world who made what instruments when and how did/do they make them sound good?
That field is still growing and expanding. The knowledge amassed on the Mandolin Cafe alone from its start to now is rather staggering.
Gryphon and the people within are major contributors to America's acoustic music scene. The store is a magical crossroads place that musicians know about. First that was due to Ford and Johnson's articles or interviews for numerous music publications over the decades. But in this new century, Gryphon and staff's influence is also strong due to the Internet. Expertise and high quality instruments show up loud and clear even in the incredibly crowded cyber world.
Yet for the picker, sooner or later it's not enough to see a photo of a cool instrument. Instead, you want to hold it in your hands, turn it over, look at the wood grain and tap the top. Nothing is as telling as seeing what an instrument sounds like when your own familiar notes and chords are applied to the strings.
"Yes, I would like to try those Collings mandolins, but first I've just got to have a go at the 1943 Martin 000-18."
Johnston and Ford are musicians who built guitars and mandolins in their partnership's embryonic days. They morphed their business into repairs and sales. Their store is a hotbed for good instruments and people who know how to fix problems or make good better. The staff is stocked with outstanding musicians, teachers and repair folk. They might kill time on a slow day up by the cash register by working on a mandolin setup. Vintage instrument writer/editor Michael Simmons works there.
A general public made musically numb by modern radio or digital devices might view acoustic music as old because pop culture obscures the dynamism within the roots scene. But our music culture must, and does, always have one foot in the old and another in the new to remain dynamic.
Gryphon folks have seen decades of changes in the music, instruments, and the business that supports both. That includes the mandolin planetary circuit.
"I think the biggest change in the last decade or so is the old Gibsons and other older mandolins don't have the same clout they once did," Johnston said.
The old standbys are still good, but in the store they share shelf space with custom-built instruments or high-quality factory instruments, such as Collings or Eastman mandolins. Instruments with parts cut with laser precision, or parts for repairs or building kits, can be ordered and delivered with high quality and in quantity.
"The younger players are not as enamored of old instruments as we were at their age," Johnston said. "They're likely to focus more on the music and less on the instrument. Younger players don't want the standard vintage banjo."
Some changes in instrument tastes involve good quality that's affordable for younger players. But some is also the old-as-time desire of young people to carve new paths.
"Most 25-year-old musicians, they come from a family of musicians, and they don't want the same things their parents did," Johnston said.
Advances in instrument building are both exciting and a little disturbing at the same time, Johnson said.
Good instruments that are affordable are a boon for pickers. But people can also declare themselves builders without doing that much of the creative process. Folks in the Gryphon shop see some instruments coming through with problems in top and bottom wood thickness, poor neck alignment over the body, kinks where the neck joins the body, fret buzzes, problems with nut slots and action adjustments. Even well made instruments can have some neck creep after 10 or 20 years that can kill good action sound and ease of playing.
"I think it washes out a lot of people unnecessarily," Johnston said.
Better knowledge about instrument repair and setup skills may be the biggest difference in the acoustic music world from 1969 to now. Ditto the growth in the number of folks capable of quality repair. Gryphon's owners and staff are a wellspring for both.
Store like Gryphon occupy an odd place in America culture. On their walls are instruments with quality and history that are art gallery worthy. But instead of "don't touch," the question is asked, "would you like to play it." And on another wall is a shiny new instrument that, given enough time, may also be considered hallowed from a golden age of lutherie.
But the best thing is to walk in the shop and see the wooden hues and shapes. Think about the magic in them waiting to come out. Take time to play the object of desire in a quiet side room. The person handing you the instrument off the wall has either lived much of the music in their life, or is young and has embarked on the adventure. Art and artists are intertwined.
While at a crossroads like Gryphon, give thanks for musical islands and people who nurture them forward.