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more... GearGear HistoryDecember 2009Washburn

Washburn's Guardian Angel

US-made Washburn models from 1974 to 2008.

They say no two guitars play or sound the same. I think by owning and playing over 500 acoustics, you would be someone who can say that with great certainty.
That probably is true, especially with handvoiced instruments. The Dana Bourgeois company is all about hand-voicing—the woods, the bridge. I am assuming Dana still hand-voices each instrument by himself. I don’t think he delegates that responsibility. I think he makes the choice on woods, so any two guitars—like the four Paramounts he made for Washburn— probably all sound slightly different.

Are they the most precious guitars in your collection?
Yeah, the five Bourgeois guitars are probably the most precious of the contemporary ones made after 1974.

Jim Smith Sr. playing his Dana Bourgeois-built Washburn Paramount, one of the most valuable pieces in his huge collection of Washburns. On the left is a Washburn Presentation, also built by Dana Bourgeois; on the right is a Washburn Victorian with bolt-on neck made by Tacoma Guitars. The Acanthus Vine inlay on the Bourgeois models are a combination of Abalone and Mother of Pearl.
Do you care to put a price tag on them?
[On the Paramounts] I would put a price tag of about $8000 [each] because they are irreplaceable. And the Presentation, I believe there were only two of them made, I’d put those at around $5600.

Have you been to the Washburn factory in Mundelein?
Yes, I’ve been there twice. I was curious because I was having so much difficulty finding out about Washburn guitars. The owner of Washburn [Rudy Schlacher] and I had the opportunity to talk, and he’s been involved with the Washburn trade name since about 1976. I think he was one of the original people that bought the trade name from Beckmen Music in Los Angeles, so he’s been involved with the company since then.

Where did their imports come from?
It started in Japan in 1974 with the Yairis, [Sadao and Hiroshi] who were a father and son team in that started making guitars for Washburn in ’74. I think they did most of the product line through the mid-1980s until their factory burned down. And then after that Washburn was looking for the cheapest vendor with the best quality. After that it was probably Korea, starting around 2000.

Any weird stuff in your collection?
There’s a lot of weird stuff! Probably the Jimmy Page Double Neck 6/12-string is the weirdest. It’s an EA220 that they made from about ’95 or ’96 to about ’98. It feels like a tank when you wear it. It’s a heavy guitar but definitely an interesting one, and a fun one to play.

Any other odd ones?
Well, Washburn made so many prototypes and they’re floating around God knows where. I know they’ve got three or four hundred hanging on the wall in Mundelein. I’m trying to get my hands on one that I saw specifically for their 2003 anniversary. It’s an unusual acoustic guitar and it actually has an embossed front— it’s really hard to describe. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I don’t know why it didn’t go into production. And it’s a laminated guitar. It’s almost like they took the top of the guitar and put it through a press.

Out of the 500 plus, how many acousticelectrics are in your collection?
I’m just taking a guess here, as I don’t have the list in front of me … probably about 100.

What electronics do they use?
It varies. They used to use what was called a 3200 System, which had no battery, and then they went to systems that use a battery, the EQ300 system and EQ100I. They have an A3 system that’s been used recently, and all these are battery-oriented systems.

And the ones that had no battery systems had a transducer?
Yes. And all of them had tape under the bridge.

What have you learned from having so many Washburn guitars?
I think the most important thing that I’ve learned about Washburn guitars is that most of the product line is rare. And the reason I say that is they sell guitars differently than Gibson or Fender. They will order 200 of a particular model or of a particular series and they’ll hold them at the warehouse until they are sold. And if they don’t sell, they don’t order them again, and that holds true for probably 60 percent of their product line since 1974. A lot of the models they ran for four or five years probably had a total production of about 200 pieces.

And what have you learned about the acoustic guitar as an instrument through this process?
Well, you know, I was always an electric guitarist, and when I made the decision back in the ’90s to buy a nice guitar, I thought, “Well, why don’t I just go ahead and buy an acoustic because I do flatpick and I use a three or four finger roll method to play, similar to a classical guitarist.” And what I learned about acoustic guitars is that tone woods really do make a difference. You know, you hear people say, “Well, what do you mean that instrument is hand-voiced?” Well, the wood really does make a difference on the guitar, as long as it’s not laminated.

Do you have a favorite wood?
[Sigh] There are so many woods that I haven’t tried yet! Manufacturers get into the habit of using specific woods like Brazilian rosewood, koa and maple. There’s not a big diversification there. But I can definitely tell the difference between a solid-wood maple guitar and say, Brazilian rosewood, which rings the best for me. Now there are lots of other up-andcoming luthiers in the United States using offthe- wall woods, like pine. I haven’t tried that yet. But I’d like to see what a real pine guitar would sound like!

Is it easy to stay motivated and keep collecting?
Well, my peak motivation is that most of the Washburn product line is well made, most of the product line is imported, and the few American made lines are exceptional—I don’t care who made them—they’re exceptional acoustics … the information on when a model was made and the specifications is almost impossible to get through US Music Corp. People are constantly coming across Washburn guitars and can find no specifications on it, and that’s sort of where I come in.

Sounds like an expensive hobby.
Yeah, right, it is an expensive hobby, but it’s a hobby that I truly love because I get something out of it. First, I get a great instrument that I didn’t know anything about, and as soon as I’ve got it in my hands I learn something about the instrument, like where it may have come from. And we archive the instrument so we can forward that information on to anybody that is interested in the product line. And we do it for free. There are certain websites that will charge you to look at a catalog. I understand that business model, but that’s not our game. Our game is to try to give a home to some of these fine instruments, and preserve them for future generations. I know that sounds like a lofty idea, but that’s kinda what we had in mind.