Strung Along

For the impoverished, ramen-noodle-eating guitarist dreaming of a better instrument, there's a no-money-down way to improve the arsenal: trading up. The combination of a well-made ax and a guitar market that treasures its past means one man's old workhorse is another's cash cow.

"That's what guitar collecting is all about," says Bruce Clay, a local luthier. "Let's say Les Pauls are your fetish. You start with a '76 Les Paul and work your way up to the cream of the crop, like a '59, by swapping and trading and making a few bucks each time. That way you get the guitar you really want."

Such exchanges can lead to heartaches down the road, when treasured guitars are lost to pay off debts or thrill cash-rich guitar collectors. But that's the way it is with string-benders. "Guitar players are the weirdest bunch of people in the world," says Clay, whose day gig involves crafting guitars and basses under the Rarebird moniker. "They're obsessive about tone and playability and satisfied only for brief periods of time."

At this weekend's Rocky Mountain Guitar Show, Clay plays host to more than 100 collectors from around the country, as well as local guitar builders such as Boulder's Ron Oates and Nederland's Tom Brines. The lineup also includes about fifty vendors of rare amplifier tubes and antique Tube Screamers, how-to books and videos, and other accessories and gadgets. National acts gigging in town for the weekend are frequent RMGS visitors, while local blues and rock bands such as the Hornbuckle Brothers, Steve Crenshaw and Creighton Holly hold forth throughout the festivities. A soundproof trailer allows for quiet testing of acoustic guitars or letting some 1950s tweed Ampeg amplifier rip. "We have a few jewelry makers, artists and painters, too," Clay adds, "to keep it interesting for the wives and girlfriends."

What makes a guitar valuable? "The number of them made, what famous player used one and demand from the public," Clay says. "You take a J-160 E -- well, all Beatles freaks gotta have one," he says, referencing the Gibson model played by John Lennon. Tone is important, too, though discrepancies in price can have little to do with a piece's sound. "One Les Paul from 1976 might be worth $1,000; a very similar guitar from 1959 might be worth $25,000."

That's one reason for what Clay calls the "shark line" at any guitar show: vendors who smell blood and cash -- not steel and aged wood -- when eyeballing a sweet-sounding wonder from the past. "Some of the dealers, they're all over you when you come in with a guitar," he says. But Clay makes a point of noting that in response to the wealth of gear on hand, "security is tighter than the government" at his shows.

Clay advises anyone bringing in a guitar -- which earns visitors a dollar off the admission fee -- to be patient in shopping it around. And guitar buyers should get a second opinion from another vendor to verify a guitar's integrity and value.

For the player seeking a six-string step-up, Clay says his show is both a time saver and a dream shopping spot. "Where else can you go and visit a hundred different guitar stores, walk around with a beer in your hand and actually try out stuff?" he asks. "It would take you weeks to drive around to all the different stores in just the Denver metro area, and you know the one day you don't go looking, you'll miss out on that special something that somebody else bought that day."