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Jim Smith with 25 of his Washburns ranging in age from over 100 years old to one year old. This represents less than 1/20th of his total collection.
How many guitars is enough? The question is, perhaps, unanswerable. Understandably, guitar collections are dynamic things. They constantly evolve and change depending on cash flow, eBay and the gems found hanging high at your local indie music store. In most cases, it is the collection itself that is the Holy Grail rather than any one of its pieces.
Archivist and collector Jim Smith Sr. doesn’t collect guitars just for their beauty, tone or scarcity. He collects them in the name of preservation. Jim has been a Washburn collector for a decade and a half. In that short time, he has amassed the world’s largest personal collection of Washburn acoustics, and perhaps the largest personal collection of acoustic guitars, period.
In spite of its broad success, Washburn remains a small company. And as a small company, Washburn has focused on the business of building, importing and distributing their products; not on heritage. Historic companies like Martin or Gibson make instruments whose origin and date of birth can usually be traced. Washburn instruments, on the other hand, don’t necessarily leave much of a trail—which shouldn’t cause their instruments to be judged harshly. After all, tone and feel deserve precedence over pedigree. In researching Washburn’s history, most end up at Jim Smith Sr., and his American Multimedia Studios in Hayes, Va., so who better to talk to about that legacy and his outstanding collection of Washburn acoustic guitars than the man himself.
How many Washburn guitars do you have?
Right now, it’s a little over 500. I don’t keep an exact count. When something becomes available that we don’t have in the collection, then we go after it.
Any idea how much it’s all worth? And wow do you maintain a collection that large?
You know, I thought you were going to ask that, so we did some math and the collection is insured for $750,000. We have two separate warehouses that are climate controlled. We have one in Alabama, and we have another one up here in Virginia.
What drew you to Washburn?
Well, I’d been playing music and playing guitar for 35 years and I’d never owned a really good guitar. I always played something cheap. I’d wear it out, and then I’d buy something cheap again. And in 1995, I decided I wanted to buy at least one really nice acoustic guitar to play. And my local Washburn dealer drew my attention to a Washburn Presentation that was introduced in 1995 and available in 1996. So that’s what got me started with Washburn.
So the first guitar in your collection was a Presentation model?
Actually, my very first Washburn was an EA10 model, but it was a real cheap introduction model. [My dealer] had mentioned the Presentation model and I thought about it awhile before I actually ordered it.
Are those numbers one and two in your collection?
Yes ... When I received the Presentation, the dealer also mentioned the possibility of getting a Paramount, which was also a high-end guitar being introduced by Washburn for a reasonable price.
I find it interesting that as a brand Washburn is probably best known for music that was born out of the South. But they are a Northern company. Yeah, that is kind of unusual. The word Washburn itself, I think a lot of people identify with the South. I don’t know why. In the back of my mind, I always associate the name Washburn with a Southern-type instrument. I don’t know if it was advertising from the turn of the century or something I read or players I’ve seen … I think you’re probably right though, most people associate Washburn with a Southern-type instrument. I have to say in doing research for this story I never hit so many brick walls in my life! Yes! It’s impossible to research the trade name.
Left: The Washburn C20 Jim picked up after the interview. He’s been looking for this rare nylon string for four years.
Right: A Washburn D-84 SW “koa” made by luthier John Stover.
We continue to buy Washburns each week. As a matter of fact as soon as we finish this interview I’ll be placing a bid on a C20 that’s on eBay.
The reason that I go for all these Washburns is that there is so little information from the dealer and from US Music Corp. on models they sold before the year 2000. They’re in the business to sell guitars and not to archive. They’re not like Martin or Gibson, who carry a very distinct line of guitars and sell guitars by serial number, and you can go back and trace the guitar’s year of origin. With Washburn, they’re mainly an importer of guitars.
I didn’t know when I bought that first Presentation that it was being built by Bourgeois Guitars. It was just sold to me as a US-made guitar. I thought it might have been made by the US Music custom shop, but at the time nobody knew, until 2002 or 2003, that Bourgeois had actually made five models for Washburn in the mid-’90s.
Were all the US-made Washburns in the 1990s from Dana Bourgeois?
The USA-made guitars in the ‘90s and the early 2000s were made by three different companies. Tacoma was one, Dana Bourgeois and his little company did five Washburns, and then John Stover built four models from 2002 to 2008.
Is there a mark on the guitar somewhere that lets you know it’s a Dana Bourgeois Guitar?
Yeah, there is. It’s actually a Washburn sticker that will have Dana Bourgeois’ initials on it showing he had personally inspected the guitar—or his foreman’s [initials] at the time, Chuck P. Thornton.
And on the Tacomas?
They have a stamp that appears on the neck heel cap: it has “TG” on it. They also have the bolt-on neck that is distinctive to them. Terry Atkins, who is the current Washburn production manager, started the production team for Tacoma in the mid-1990s, so I have firsthand information from him.
And the John Stover Washburns?
They have his handwritten signature on each one.
Do you play every guitar before you put it in the vault?
Yes, I do. When an instrument comes in, I look at it, I de-string it then I clean the instrument up and make minor adjustments to it. We try to buy instruments that are at least in excellent condition, and most are mint. Then we photograph them and we put them in the vault. We take them out about once a year to make sure there are no issues or problems with them.