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Stringing profit and passion together

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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ASPEN Michael Jones was in a pickle.He was eager to buy a piece of property in the Crystal River Valley south of Carbondale last year, complete with a barn and enough land to have a couple of horses, but he didn’t have the cash needed for the down payment.What he had, though, was just as good as cash, because Jones happens to make a living these days dealing in vintage electric and acoustic guitars, some of which have played a huge role in the history of popular music in the United States.So he plucked a Gibson “Gold Top” electric guitar out of his collection and sold it for $400,000, enough to make the down payment and move into his dream home overlooking the Crystal.

He was happy with the purchase, but not entirely happy with the sale of one of his beloved instruments.”Selling these has always been no fun for me,” he said with a smile that was mixed with some sadness. “I let Sandy do it. He does such a good job.”Jones, whose “Jones Vintage Guitars” is a well-known, even iconic presence in the world of stringed-instrument collectors, has partnered with longtime local musician and businessman Sandy Munro of the Great Divide Music Store in Aspen. The store provides a retail outlet for Jones’ passion and a kind of celebrity for Munro’s store.The two have been working together for about eight years after meeting when Jones visited his store one day to talk about instruments. Munro chuckles when he describes the partnership as “my 401K,” hoping that being a vendor of some of the most sought-after guitars in the country will provide him with enough income to retire.Munro has been selling a variety of stringed instruments, sheet music and other paraphernalia in the music business in Aspen since 1970, first as an occasional employee at Great Divide and, since 1977, as the shop’s owner. He pointed out that his is the only store in Aspen that sells CDs, and that he gives music lessons to a growing list of students.Munro’s shop has become a magnet for talented musicians from the valley and from around the country. Visiting national musicians, stopping off to play Aspen while on tour, will drop by just to survey what’s hanging on the walls at Great Divide. Occasionally, they’ll drop a few thousand dollars on one fabled instrument or another, many of which are from the Jones collection.For instance, Jones has a 1963 Telecaster that was built by the Fender guitar company especially for the late, great country music legend, Buck Owens, with a special finish that features embedded crushed mirror glass to give it added sparkle.

Jones said there were only three of the instruments made – one for Owens, one for the backup guitar player in Owens’ band, and one for the president of Fender Guitars.And while he could not name an absolute value for the instrument, he said he has turned down offers of between $300,000 and $400,000.Then there is the Gibson Les Paul “Burst,” a line of six-string guitars from the late 1950s and early 1960s that was featured on a recent cover of Gibson Shipment Totals, a virtual bible among vintage guitar nuts. The one Jones has was once owned by Swedish guitarist Georg Wadenius, who played for Blood Sweat and Tears and was a session player of considerable renown.He also has one of the Everly Brothers’ custom-made Gibsons, which he said the brothers designed while sitting in an airplane flying between gigs. With stars on the neck and a heavy sheath of dual plastic guards on the body, the instrument isn’t musically special, “but they really didn’t care. It looked good,” Jones said, adding “there were only 69 of them made,” which makes them more valuable than their musicality might suggest – he valued the guitar at about $25,000.For Jones, 53, his interest in guitars comes from his lifetime involvement with music, first as a guitarist in garage bands as a teenager and later as what he termed “a professional musician” throughout the 1970s.”I’d play Holiday Inns, a little studio work, backed up a few guys,” he recalled, downplaying his own talents while his eyes glowed at the memories. But three throat surgeries roughened his voice too much to do anything but sing the blues, and his career as a professional musician came to a screeching halt.He bounced from place to place, ultimately ending up in Colorado where he made a respectable pile of money as a manager of a stock market brokerage firm while holding on to his passion for music and instruments. He moved to Aspen in the early 1980s, where he still lives and plays.



“I play every day,” he said, “but it’s just for my own enjoyment,” although he said he sits in with local musicians on occasion.By the time his career folded, however, he had already begun accumulating guitars, though not at the level he stands at today.”I just bought guitars and kept them,” he remarked. His first guitar was a 1952 Hummingbird, which he no longer owns, but one of which is listed at $2,500 (and that’s a sale price) on the PrivateReserveGuitars.com website. Starting there, he said, his collection just kept growing for about 15 years.It got to the point, he joked, that “my friends would say, ‘You’re a little guitarded [rhymes with ‘retarded’], aren’t you?'” So he started trading and earned a place in the top tier of vintage guitar dealers. But he admits that the market is changing, and it’s not as easy as it once was to sell the inventory.”It used to be you’d have a hundred grand and you could do this all day long,” he said. “Nowadays, you can’t even get one guitar for that.”Jones has several very valuable guitars hanging on the wall at The Great Divide, as well as his home collection of about 45 instruments. He will occasionally take the entire collection on the road to guitar shows around the U.S. Even before he arrives at a show, Jones will get calls from dealers and collectors asking what he’s bringing with him. Often, he said, the callers will show up at his hotel room and snap up what he’s got even before the show gets under way. Articles on the Internet frequently mention his name when discussing the vintage guitar craze sweeping the U.S. and the world.Munro, giving a tour of his showroom upstairs at the back of his building, pointed to Martins, Fenders, Gibsons and other makes, noting that “we always tried to have a few” vintage guitars on hand even before he and Jones got together.

Before Jones got involved, the Great Divide featured guitars that sold for a few thousand dollars. Now the numbers climb into the tens of thousands.”Of all the people in the United States who could have moved to Aspen, for me he’s the best guy,” Munro told The Aspen Times with a laugh in 2005. “Plus, he’s very philosophically oriented, he likes to read good books, he’s a politico like I am. We’re great friends and he’s very generous. He’s community-spirited.”As for the guitar inventory, Munro said he has two “gold top” Les Paul electrics that are worth about $85,000 each, and a 1951 Fender Esquire that would pull in about $69,000. He pointed to a ’57 Telecaster with one pick replaced, valued at $29,000 – instead of the $35,000 it would command if the original pick were still in place.On the acoustic side, he has a 1941 Martin D-28 that is “in great shape and cost about $32,000 a year and a half ago.” Today, he said, it would bring in around $65,000. A 1930 Martin OM-28 that commanded $24,500 a year ago “would not be hard at all to sell at $50,000 now,” he continued.Munro said he and his wife, Mary Lynn, are in a kind of race to see who has the better investment strategy with a nest egg she inherited recently.”I’ve doubled my money in guitars already,” Munro said proudly, claiming that his wife has not done as well with her stock market portfolio.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com

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