• Rarities and Lutherie Tango at Gryphon Stringed Instruments

    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.

    Richard Johnston

    "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.

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    Comments 16 Comments
    1. avaldes's Avatar
      avaldes -
      I so miss Gryphon. I lived in that area (San Carlos) until I moved to Illinois in 2011. I took up mandolin in 2012 after playing flamenco guitar for years. We visited family Christmas 2013, and I rented a Kentucky mandolin from Gryphon to keep up my practice routine. They let me play a 1920s Gibson F4. When I returned the Kentucky, they let me play the Gibson again, and said I could apply my rental fee towards purchase. Nice try, guys.
      But seriously, I really miss the store, the people, the atmosphere. It is exactly as Graham describes it. Long may you run.
    1. Bill Burch's Avatar
      Bill Burch -
      How lucky I am to have Gryphon be my local neighborhood shop. Only a half mile from my house, I can't count the times I've detoured there on my way home from work. 45 minutes there spent playing all the new and consignment instruments in such a relaxed atmosphere makes the troubles of the day melt away. Sitting back in the banjo and mandolin section of the store and hitting an open "G" chord on a mandolin and hearing the sympathetic ringing from all the other instruments is really something. And finally, to have Frank and his staff as my local go-to guys when I'm in need of a setup, repair, or advice is something that I never take for granted.

    1. batfish's Avatar
      batfish -
      I get to stop during frequent trips from NC. What a great place to sit down and try quality instruments. The staff are happy to jam with you! Who'd think this kind of place would be in Silicon Valley!
    1. Luna Pick's Avatar
      Luna Pick -
      Great article. Richard and Frank are some of the gems among this amazing music community, and the whole Gryphon team are experts. Not to mention the music classes and teachers there have over the years kick-started many musicians. And there is always something there I want. . . Here's to local music stores!
    1. Billy Packard's Avatar
      Billy Packard -
      I live about an hour away, a safe distance to avoid impulsive purchases! On several occasions Frank has turned me loose in a quiet back room to spend some serious time on an important mandolin I was considering. No pressure, just the time I needed to get to know the instrument. Frank Ford is a fine man and his knowledge of history as well as luthier skills is legendary. I consider Gryphon the best shop in the S.F. Bay area.
    1. JAK's Avatar
      JAK -
      "Bucket list," no doubt about it.
    1. pointpergame's Avatar
      pointpergame -
      Not completely relevant, but important nevertheless is Frank's amazing, amazing website, frets.com. Even the name is amazing. He had the foresight to grab an important, everyday noun that represents his enterprise perfectly back before all these had been bought up. If you have the privilege of spending a few minutes chatting with him, you'll get a sample of Frank's smart, dry, slightly irony-tinged wit. And his web site is him.
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      I don't find myself in California as much as I used to but Gryphon is on my list of places I want to visit. Frank's generous sharing of his knowledge has made a whole lot of us better at what we do.
    1. Billy Packard's Avatar
      Billy Packard -
      Quote Originally Posted by pointpergame View Post
      Not completely relevant, but important nevertheless is Frank's amazing, amazing website, frets.com. Even the name is amazing. He had the foresight to grab an important, everyday noun that represents his enterprise perfectly back before all these had been bought up. If you have the privilege of spending a few minutes chatting with him, you'll get a sample of Frank's smart, dry, slightly irony-tinged wit. And his web site is him.
      Yes and Yes! Frank is a delight to chit and chat with, he keeps you chuckling. And the web site is a must see for all of us...daily even!
    1. Bslot0622's Avatar
      Bslot0622 -
      While the article as a whole was interesting, I definitely have a bone to pick with some of the points made. I'm 22 and have a hell of a lot of respect for the old musicians and the old instruments. Whether it's a beautiful old Martin or a F-4 or a snakehead, it's common knowledge that these are the instruments that were used and that they have "the sound". I definitely know the value of Loar F5, both in price and in musicality, and was blown away when I got my hands on one for the first time a few years ago at Mandolin Bros. I currently work at a small acoustic music shop and we get plenty of people my age that understand that our '72 D-28 is a "bluegrass cannon" and that our 1880s Baystate is not to be played with unless they really really know what they're doing. It's not like gear heads aren't still gear heads. But when I want to get an F5 style mandolin I'm gonna gravitate to a Weber or a Collings, or any of the other amazing builders out now that cost a fraction of what an old gibson would cost. Like the F-10 at Retrofret in Brooklyn; costs an arm and a leg but it sounds lacking to my ear. There are a lot more electric players now than there were back in the day. But when someone's a gear head and play acoustic music, you bet your ass they know about Lloyd Loar, and you bet your ass they know the difference between an F-2 and an F5. And they still get a kick out of the old harmony and regal guitars we get in. Old guys love to make it seem like us young players don't know what we're talking about. But guess what, plenty of old guys are pretty clueless themselves.

      P.S. I didn't come from a musical family and have been playing seriously since I was 14.
    1. Svea's Avatar
      Svea -
      Good article. I am a Gryphon fan. Richard knows of what he speaks. But remember the article wasn't written by him, so thus edited to a degree or more. I have personally stood in awe at the mandolin rack there and have played a few oldies along side the new ones. I ended up with a Collings MT. "I can't afford the amazing old ones. New ones are fantastic too, cheaper, and the necks are so nice", said the 25 year old mando player who wasn't me.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this fine Bill Graham article published two years ago today.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Observing the anniversary of this fine Bill Graham article.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Nothing today's anniversary of this feature interview by Bill Graham.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Published this date 2016.