Washburn's Guardian Angel
November 18, 2009
Jim Smith Sr. and His Mission to Preserve a Brand and Its Many Sounds
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.
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.
[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.