Gryphon Stringed Instruments Celebrates 50 Years in Business!

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Time flies when you’re having fun, and for Frank Ford and myself the last 50 years have zoomed by along with our youth! Although we had worked a bit together earlier in the summer of 1969, we got serious about starting to build guitars that October. Frank was living on Margarita Ave. in Palo Alto, about three blocks south of Gryphon’s current location, and his garage was where it all began. We focused on building guitars at first but both of us owned at least one banjo and a mandolin as well as a few guitars.  We’d also done some repairs, so from the beginning Frank’s garage and my home shop in Berkeley had several kinds of instruments hanging on the walls and stacked in cases waiting for our attention.

Gryphon Stringed Instruments

There was always lots to do, we were never doing the same thing two days in a row and that’s perhaps the most consistent thing about Gryphon through the years. Each day begins with multiple options and priorities of what needs to be done, the only difference is that now there are a lot more more of them. It’s never boring, and the personalities of both Gryphon staff and Gryphon customers are even more varied than the vast array of instruments we sell and service. A recent first-time visitor, after being given a brief tour that included Gryphon’s bustling repair department, commented: “There’s a lot going on here!”. There sure is, and that’s the way we like it.  All of us at Gryphon want to thank our customers for keeping us busy every minute of the last half century.

Gryphon Stringed Instruments

After three years of building and repairing guitars in garages and spare bedroom workshops, it was obvious that Gryphon had to grow up or it would go back to just being a mythical beast.  Repair customers needed us to have regular hours in a place that was easy to find. Frank had retail experience from working in bike shops so a retail guitar shop was the obvious solution. Richard was still living in Berkeley but that town was already crowded with guitar shops that did repair, while Palo Alto had very few places where you could walk in and get your instrument fixed. We found a small shop at 4041 El Camino Way in south Palo Alto, and Gryphon Stringed Instruments opened for business in early 1973.

Gryphon Stringed Instruments

From opening day, and ever since, guitars, banjos and mandolins needing repair streamed in. Building complete instruments from scratch was dropped simply because we were too busy, although we continued to make banjo necks to convert tenor banjos to 5-string versions. Palo Alto already had a Martin Guitar dealer so we hit a snag when trying to carry new Martins, but again being a fully-equipped repair shop saved us. Martin’s warranty service center in Berkeley was in a dispute with the company and suggested to Martin’s Mike Longworth that Gryphon take over warranty service for the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Once we had our foot in their back door by doing Martin’s warranty work it was far easier to talk the sales office in Nazareth into letting us sell new guitars. That’s how Gryphon’s long association with C. F. Martin began.Gryphon Stringed Instruments

We had a lot of fun in that first Gryphon retail shop on El Camino Way but after less than three years it was obvious we needed more room.  For one thing we wanted space for lessons, and once we connected with Carol McComb we wanted to host her Folk Guitar Workshops. There was a ramshackle garage behind the El Camino Way shop so we started to fix it up as lesson studio space, but it was obvious that if the termites ever stopped holding hands the whole place would collapse. The hunt was on for a new home!

Gryphon Stringed Instruments

While taking a short cut to California Ave to pick up lunch one day, we spotted a “For Rent” sign on a big concrete-walled monstrosity at the corner of Park Blvd and Lambert Ave.   Fortunately only the front half of the building was available and since Carol was interested in renting one of the larger rooms for her classes we could almost afford it. The landlord, Joe Beck, liked us and would prove to play an important role in Gryphon’s survival in the years that followed, in fact his daughter and son-in-law are our current landlords forty-two years later. We moved on the Bicenntenial 4th of July weekend and wondered how we’d ever fill the place. We had a big front room for retail space, a big classroom for Carol, and room for individual music lessons.   But the biggest plus was the huge back room with space for power tools and even a spray booth. Finally all things Gryphon were under one roof.

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We were carrying Martin and Takamine guitars but wanted some instruments that were more exclusive.  The Santa Cruz guys had just started to work with Tony Rice, but one of the first Tony Rice models had a neck Tony didn’t like.  They asked if we could sell it, we said “Sure!” and sold it to a local player who stopped by Gryphon on his way home from work. He didn’t even know who Tony Rice was, but he loved the guitar and that started our long relationship with the Santa Cruz Guitar Company.  Several years later we picked up the first Santa Cruz OM model at the NAMM show and Carol McComb fell in love with it and has been playing Santa Cruz OMs ever since. Santa Cruz was the first boutique guitar brand Gryphon carried and we’ve enjoyed a long relationship with founder Richard Hoover and his crew.

Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Gryphon had entered the 1980s in high spirits.  We had a home at the corner of Park and Lambert with plenty of room, and we had great instructors. Everybody on the Peninsula seemed to agree that we were the acoustic fretted instruments experts if you needed repairs.  But then the acoustic guitar went into a nose dive when synthesizers quickly took over the contemporary music scene. Remember the Eurythmics? No guitars needed! In the mid-1980s, companies like Ensoniq predicted that in the future nobody would bother learning to play the guitar, instead they’d just plug a “guitar card” into their synthesizer and play the guitar parts on a keyboard.

Gryphon Stringed InstrumentsOf course bluegrass musicians weren’t going to stand behind an electronic keyboard, and singer/songwriters at an open mic preferred to travel light, so we stuck to what we were doing but looked for guitar brands to expand what we offered. Kurt Listug drove up from Lemon Grove with someTaylor Guitars in his Volvo station wagon and that started Gryphon’s long relationship with Taylor.  In those days Taylors were less expensive than Martins, with slimmer necks and lower string action so were very popular with songwriters.

Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Frank was sent a Collings dreadnought to review for FRETS magazine.  We were so impressed by both the workmanship and the sound that Frank called Bill Collings directly. Since Collings Guitars was also a two-man shop back then Bill picked up the phone.  Frank asked him what it took to be a dealer, to which Bill replied “well you could order a guitar,” so we did and Gryphon became the first retail store to carry Collings. As the ’80s wound down Gryphon had a full line of top-notch acoustic guitars just as guitar sales came out of their long slump. Ensoniq, the guys who predicted the demise of the guitar, didn’t last much longer but we’re still here.

Gryphon survived the guitar drought of the 1980s and we saw an incredible rebound the following decade. Thanks to MTV Unplugged the fact that rock classics were often written on acoustic guitars, and could be performed acoustically as well, had us scrambling to keep up as folks realized that you didn’t have to play bluegrass to want a Dreadnought, and that Robert Johnson’s country blues classics sound great on an Eric Clapton 000-28.  We’d feared some negative comments from acoustic die-hards as we began selling and repairing electric guitars as well as acoustics, but instead we were amazed to discover how many of our old customers had also been playing electric guitars all along and were relieved that they could now get their Strats and Les Pauls serviced alongside their acoustic Martin or Taylor.   As the 20th Century drew to a close Richard‘s magazine articles on guitar history and Franks ever-expanding FRETS.com website gave Gryphon a widening customer base. Of course this growth was only possible thanks to an expanding staff of almost a dozen loyal crewmembers working alongside the now middle-aged founders.
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The new century saw Gryphon struggle to launch a functioning website, gryphonstrings.com  and soon our bulk-mailed quarterly Gryphon Gazette newsletter was replaced by an emailed version. But the biggest surprise of the early 2000s wasn’t new technology but the revival of an old pal that had been idling for decades. We’d always carried a few ukuleles, but suddenly ukes were in demand and we couldn’t keep uke instruction and songbooks in stock.  Ukuleles soon began to rival the popularity of mandolins and banjos, and despite predictions that ukes were just another fad they’ve shown real staying power. A big part of the ukuleles’ appeal has been its small size and light weight but that convenience hasn’t been limited to ukes.   Small guitars came into their own in the new century and while inexpensive travel versions that can double as a kids guitar are the most popular, small high-quality parlor guitars have surprised many music industry stalwarts who somehow thought guitars had to be priced by the inch. Another surprise was the rapid escalation of vintage guitar prices, at least until the 2008 recession hit taking down the prices of  Les Pauls, Strats, and second homes alike.
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But despite the recession’s prolonged hiccup, the theme in our corner of the music industry has been not only that the guitar is back, but that there are now more kinds of guitars, of more sizes and styles, than ever before.   Want a small short scale guitar tuned up to D? Sure, why not, and there’s a 12-string version of it, too. Or how about a baritone acoustic tuned down to B? The guitar’s capacity to evolve and shape-shift,  expanding its role in our hectic, tech-driven lives, has been the theme of the 21st century. (should we include links to Veilettes and the Collings baritone?)
The last ten years have seen the changes at Gryphon continue. Guitars still rule of course, but we’ve always been more than just a guitar shop and one surprise has been the rise in the popularity of the open-back banjo.  Bluegrass banjos had ruled for years, with old-time banjos little more than a curiosity, but that has completely reversed in recent years and now open-back banjos outsell resonator versions by more than 4 to 1. But these new banjos aren’t just reissues of old banjos from a century ago, instead they have a new style of their own with thin low-gloss finishes and unplated brass hardware. An equivalent change in the world of mandolins has been the return of oval soundholes alongside the more standard violin-style f holes.  Expanded tuning range for banjos and mandolins have resulted in cello banjos and octave mandolins.
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With more used and vintage instruments coming back on the market as their owners retire our sales of used guitars often come close to matching the sales of new ones.  This is where a new Gryphon website complete with shopping cart has allowed us to hang in there and compete with far larger music stores, as to sell used and vintage gear successfully you have to show each particular instrument rather than relying on stock photos.  Trust in Gryphon’s Repair Dept., plus multiple clear photos and a thorough description, has made long distance customers comfortable ordering instruments from us online.
But the more Gryphon has changed the more most of what we offer the local community has remained the same.  Repairs and music lessons, at least for us, are still always up-close-and-personal, and both depend on an experienced and capable staff. For those who want to chose their next instrument by comparing a range of similar instruments, there’s still no technology that comes close to an in-your-lap test in real time. Our teachers are certainly busy, and our Repair Dept. staff is even busier. As Frank and Richard have aged the younger Gryphon crewmembers have stepped up to  keep us changing with the times without losing sight of what we do best, providing service and knowledge to help people get the maximum enjoyment from their instrument(s).
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Current Staff:
Sales: Matt Lynch (Retail Manager), Paul Jacobs, Erik Fryckman, and Alex Jordan
Repairs:  Brian Michael (Repairs Manager), Todd Novak, Alfred Aguiniga, Alex Mayers, and Michi Matsuda
Website content & Email Newsletter: Michael Simmons, Photography by Kate Martin
Shipping & Receiving (plus other things): Scott Wackerman
Office, Accounting, other tech chores:  Steve Saperstein and Steven Eichler
The Founding Flounders: Frank Ford & Richard Johnston

 



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