(The following is an excerpt from a 1992 convention lecture given by Marc Silber. It was originally published in “American Lutherie: The Quarterly Journal of the Guild of American Luthiers,” Number 47/ Fall 1996 pp 46-49 by Colin Kaminski.)
I 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 it.
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 idea.
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 2×4 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 people… 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 time.
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 for myself.
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 that direction.
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