started off in Detroit. Then I started playing music at about
twenty when I was at University in Ann Arbor. Before that I could
play three songs on the ukulele, but I never thought of myself as a
musician. Then the Folk Revival came and soon enough had an old
instrument that sounded better than my new Gibson. That was the
beginning of me going off the deep end.
By 1960 the Ann Arbor gang was traveling across
the country, back and forth, and wound up in Berkeley. The early
"folkies" were a beatnik bunch. I was the second one to go from
Ann Arbor to Berkeley. I traveled between Michigan and the Bay
Area a lot in those days. Within six months, thirty people had
arrived from Ann Arbor, a bunch of coffee-drinking, music-playing bohemians.
There was Al Young; he's a writer now, teaching
at Stanford. He'd been out of music for about twenty-five years,
but now he's back into it. He writes literary books.
Then there was Perry Lederman. He was the greatest
fingerpicker I ever heard. He died last year. He was the
greatest in 1959 and is still the greatest I ever heard. He made
one record. He traveled all over the country and astounded people.
He was real young, just sixteen when he came to school. We had
never seen anything like it. We didn't even know what fingerpicking
was. To me, he was a hundred times better than Chet Atkins.
He came from the Village in New York. Perry was the only one in
the Ann Arbor Folk Club that knew anything about guitars. He always
had a model 0-28 New York Martin. He appreciated it like a classical
musician. Perfection, perfect action. In fact, he told me
before he died, "Remember when I used to yell at that guy Eugene Clark
for not setting up my guitars right? He really did a perfect job,
and I was just crazy. That was the best action I ever had."
One night in 1960 I stopped by a shop window in
Berkeley. It said Jon and Deirdre Lundberg Fretted Instruments,
and it was full of old instruments. I was there at 6:00AM the
next morning and waited until they opened, which was at noon.
When I went in I thought I was in wonderland. I'd only seen about
twenty old instruments in my life before that.
The Lundbergs were friendly. Jon had folk
music posters from everywhere. There were already a hundred posters
up from all over the country. Jon Lundberg is a great, weird folk
player with a unique 12-string style, and we all learned a lot of tunes
from him. They eventually taught me tons of stuff about old American
instruments. Little by little I thought, "This looks like an interesting
thing. If I found a broken guitar, could I fix it?"
Jon already had what seemed like complete knowledge
of the makers, the sizes of instruments, and all the woods. He
taught me how to look at an instrument from the outside and guess what
the quality was, or if it was something I would like before I bought
Jon had a sense for modification. Intonating
saddles and cutting Martin bracing back to pre-war standards that was
all part of Lundberg's fearless approach. He would say that you
could do this or that to an instrument and then it would be a different
thing. This is a repairman's sense, as opposed to a luthier's.
A luthier would start with nothing and build a new one. But to
be able to take a guitar that will not do what you want, and make it
do what you want, that is a repairman's sense.
For instance, there weren't any 12-strings on the
market, so later, at my New York shop I converted many Kays and Harmony
Sovereigns to 12-strings. We would extend the peghead and put
new veneers front and back. I sold one of those to Happy Traum
in 1963. Every time I see him he says "I should never have sold
that cheap 12-string."
When I got back to Michigan I was sending repairs
to the Lundbergs via UPS (it was called Railway Express back then) and
waiting months, just to get a bridge glued on. By the beginning
of 1963 I decided I'd better just venture out to learn to do that kind
of thing myself.
That same year I
was working in the back room of the Lundbergs' shop. Jon called
back to me and said that someone had brought in a wonderful guitar and
that I should come look at it. It was a classical guitar made
by Eugene Clark of Berkeley, California. Eugene has been my mentor
ever since. He taught me the guitar from the natural point of
view, from the inside out. Glue needs wood, glue expands, hot
water expands, wood expands or shrinks. I had not previously thought
like that. Most of what I know about how guitars work, maybe all
of what I know, is from him.
Through Eugene Clark's influence I developed a bit of a
backward approach. Eugene taught that you've got to really understand
that string first, the music it's going to play whatever culture, for
whatever pitch, for whatever style, and so on. Then build a box
around it. It's as if you were designing an Indianapolis race
car by first considering the available fuel, and building an engine
and a car around that. It's a crude comparison, but you get the
To my way of thinking Eugene Clark is so advanced
in all the aspects of what we are trying to do that very few people
understand these advances. It is always easier to assign negative
aspects to things that are not understood and might compete with what
one already knows. Here's a good example: Eugene made his tools,
tempered the metals, and also tunes them. You could tap on each
chisel and hear that they were all tuned to the same pitch. Once
I asked him if a chisel's cutting ability was affected by this.
I had been using chisels all along, and I was as good at sharpening
blades from when I was a canoeing guide as a teenager. My tools
were sharp. Eugene asked me to place a regular 2x4 board in the
vise and cut through it across the grain with his chisel while holding
one hand behind my back! The chisel went silently and effortlessly
through the board leaving a perfect channel. It did not tear the
wood, but seemed to separate the cells in a nearly silent manner.
I was impressed by how much I had to be physically grounded and balanced
in order to cut through a board in this manner.
These tools had their wooden handles French polished all
those years ago. Eugene says they still look fine, and the finishes
have never worn off. For me, that settles a lot of questions as
the beauty and durability of French polish.
At the end of 1963 I decided to go to New York.
So I thumbed to my folks' place in Michigan and picked up a bunch of
my instruments and my '52 Studebaker. Then I went to New York
and got broke. I went to sell an instrument and realized, much
to my surprise, that nobody knew anything, nor did they want to pay
anything for instruments I thought were great. I went to complain
to someone at the New York Folklore Center named Israel "Izzy" Young,
the owner who took instruments on consignment. I said, "These
and I'm broke
and they won't
" He said, "Well,
if I found someone that knew about that stuff I'd open a shop with them."
Since I had about $4, I thought it was a great idea.
By that night we had rented a place together around
the corner from his Original N.Y. Folklore Center in Greenwich
Village. I called the shop Fretted Instruments. I
remember it was November of 1963 and I was painting my shop when I heard
John Kennedy was killed. The Folk Revival took off, my shop took
off, and I had to learn about repairs and business. I sort of
winged it for a number of years. The shop really got out of hand.
The number of people in New York, and how naïve I was had a lot
to do with it. I would be working and 500 people would come into
the shop and start playing at the same time. I thought that was
normal. But it was a great scene. I'm very very thankful
to have been in on it. I still know hundreds of people from that
In the spring of 1968 I moved all of the good stuff
to my partner Izzy's at the Folk Lore Center. We split the inventory.
Then it was over. "The scene" had ended. I thought I was
out of the guitar business. I gave my tools to Matt Umanov and
I thought I was done with it. I was going to be a famous musician
of something like that. Maybe the Beatles were going to call and
ask me to join, so I had better be free. My pursuit of these guitar
studies was pretty egocentric. It was just so I could have a guitar
In 1968 I took off traveling around the world.
It wasn't until 1970 before I got back to the states. I had a
lot of prestige from my shop so I was able to freelance and just kind
of be a hippie. I could go to other shops and do repairs.
I don't think I paid rent anywhere for ten years.
In New York I had refined my taste for guitars,
pursuing the Martin guitar that I imagined would be the greatest.
I became a dealer by getting more and more instruments for my personal
playing and not being able to make up my mind which one was my ultimate.
My original idea was to be a musician, but I had too many guitars, I
was making money selling them, and I had my little shop so I went in
I had a notion to look at the whole evolution of
the steel string in this country. One day in 1964 I was shocked
to find myself playing a Stella, which was a factory guitar, and trying
to rationalize that it didn't really sound better than my Martin that
I had paid a lot of money for. But it did, to me. It had
more of something, some possibilities, that I was attracted to.
I kept up that fight with myself for years, trying to get the best Martin,
but also finding rather normal guitars that I thought had properties
that suited me better. Eventually I wound up with a ridiculous
abundance of weird instruments with weird bracing, trying to decide
what made a difference. And that's what we all do. We try
to adjust these things toward a greater goal.
In 1975 I moved to Adeline Street in Berkeley and
stayed for four years. Sometimes when you work this side of the
counter you think you are doing therapy instead of what you are out
to do. The guitar players were not as sophisticated as they are
now. You would spend two hours feeling like you were conning someone
into doing the proper repair. Then they would complain that they
would have done something differently. So I burned out and went
traveling with my wife. I was out of the Christian zone, in Tunisia,
Algeria, and Morocco. I like to hear music from other parts of
the world. Not that I want to play it, but these people are trying
to do the same thing that we are, and it comes out completely different.
Then in 1987 I opened a museum down by the Freight
and Salvage in Berkeley, about a half a mile from here. I had
retail appointments there but the stuff was not displayed. That
was a great system, really. I had all of my stuff there except
for the very valuable. I kept buying stuff for resale, and then
deciding it was too cool to sell. In 1989 I shut down the Museum
next to the Freight and moved back to Adeline St. so I could have a
museum with regular hours.
Nowadays I have a museum in Berkeley, although most
of the stuff is in storage. It's a little ironic because I'm against
collecting instruments in a certain way, and another way, I see reasons
to do it.
Something that is not extremely beneficial to everybody
is when great instruments are hoarded and kept away from musicians.
At the same time being protective of them in this way does preserve
the instruments for another generation. Let me clarify this.
We cannot tell what the people of the future will want to express in
music. Instruments also change with age, as we all know.
It is conceivable that a guitar made today will change in fifty years,
and also that it will be used in a different situation. It follows
that it may then be seen in a different light. I am now making
steel string guitars with straight bracing, that is, with a ladder-braced
top. If these turn out as wonderful as I have imagined, and musicians
agree that these are fine instruments. Then this style may come back
into vogue in the future. At that time it would be beneficial
if someone collected these so there would be historic examples available.
Actually, even if these instruments were judged to be inferior in the
future, at least we would still have a chance to judge the results of
this type of design.
There are good and bad aspect to collecting instruments.
I used to hate collectors because nobody could get to their instruments,
including me. Now I have hundreds of instruments in my collection.
Some of them are not the greatest. My philosophy is to use it
as an archives for myself and my curiosity. It is also available
to anyone else who would like to see it, either as a curiosity, or as
a resource where they can put a mirror in an instrument, measure a few
thing, and have a hands-on experience with other people's ideas in more
or less a completed form. That has been my goal with the museum,
and I think it is a great thing to strive for. I would be really
happy if just once in my lifetime I could walk into another collection
like mine where I didn't have the responsibilities, but could just visit.
AS OF YEAR 2000 THE MUSEUM AND COLLECTION ARE IN STORAGE,
AND NOT AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC.
Marc Silber Day
The City of Berkeley honors Marc Silber