Gryphon Stringed Instruments Celebrates 50 Years in Business!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
Of 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.
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.