Entries in grinnell (3)


Cavins tenor guitar - Part 1: What has 4 strings and reconnects me with David Cavins?

image from sprucetreemusic.comWhat’s next, when you have several 6-string guitars, a 12-string, a banjo, a mandolin, a ukulele, and a dobro? A tenor guitar, that’s what!

A tenor guitar is an instrument that was popular nearly 100 years ago (read more here). It’s essentially a 4-string, short-scale guitar, although it’s often tuned to CGDA (low to high), like a viola/mandola, or to GDAE (low to high) like an octave mandolin, but, of course, with four instead of eight strings. Admittedly, I’m brand new to the tenor world, but I’m intrigued and think there’s a lot of fun to be had playing one.

Why would one want a tenor guitar? For variety, of course! Chords will sound different, rhythm playing will be punchier, and you'll approach melodies differently than when playing a standard 6-string guitar. It’s good for my brain to figure out how to maneuver around different fretboards, and it will provide a new sound when playing with other people.

The usual suspects (i.e., Martin and Gibson on the high end, and lots of budget brands) built tenors back in the day, and a few contemporary builders (e.g., Collings) are doing them now. But since a tenor is totally new to me, and I don’t have any preconceptions of what one is supposed to be like, I figured it was time to venture away from factory instruments and work with a luthier on a custom build.

I met David Cavins just over 20 years ago, when we moved into the same dorm at Grinnell College. For the next two years, until I graduated, we ran in the same circles, playing music together, and cooking hot-as-can-be midwest-inspired Mexican food (potato and corn enchildas...yum!). David had an enthusiasm for everything he did, with an approach that always struck a balance between the analytical/scientific and artistic/aesthetic. He was (and is) one of the most thoughtful, open, and genuine people I've ever met, and he introduced me to Americana music, which has stayed with me to this day. However, once I went off to grad school and got immersed in my studies and subsequent career we lost touch, although I thought of him often.

In December of 2011 we reconnected, after David found my blog about the guitar building class I took at Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie. I was excited to be back in touch with him, and was especially thrilled to learn that he also had developed an interest in guitar building. However, while I'm a chroinc dabbler in things, David goes all in, and he was in the midst of setting up shop and developing his line of Cavins Guitars.

For the next few years we’d shoot email or tweets back and forth whenever we saw interesting articles about guitar building. But about a month ago, as I was thinking about tenor guitars, I asked David if he’d be willing to build one for me, and he agreed. What will follow over the next couple of months is a series of posts that will chronicle the build, from my end. This is going to be a fun project, and I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else but David.

See Part 2...


Grinnell Guitars, by Gibson

"GGG"...and not in the way that Dan Savage means.

This post pays tribute to a wonderful combination of two things I love: vintage guitars and Grinnell (College...although in reality, this doesn't have anything to do with the college). Grinnell Brothers was a music retailer in Michigan in the '30s, and much like the Kalamazoo, Recording King, Cromwell, Martelle, etc. brands, these guitars were made by Gibson. Although the general body shapes are similar to Gibson models, there are typically some structural differences like ladder (rather than X) bracing and a lack of truss rods.

Here's a 1940 Grinnell Spanish Special (images from TR Crandall Guitars in NYC; please buy this guitar from them so that it doesn't keep tempting me):


This one is a 1945 694-F from Southworth Guitars:


Update: Martin made some guitars for Grinnell Bros. too...


Guitar history - High school and college

I've been meaning to do a log of the guitars I've owned across the last 20+ years. This is a pretty daunting task if I try to tackle it all in one big list, so I'll break it up into chunks. To get the ball rolling, I'll start with high school and college (Cal Poly and Grinnell), which goes up to summer of 1996; later editions will cover other eras (split by academic markers: grad school, pre-tenure, post-tenure).

  • Fender Gemini II (mid-to-late-80s, I assume) - My first steel-string acoustic. I got this for Christmas in 1990 (I think...maybe the year before that?). Bought used from the music shop in Davis, CA. Sold it to a guy in the dorms at Cal Poly when I got the Landola jumbo (see below) in 1993.

Bad circa 1990 fashion with the Gemini II.

  • Fender Stratocaster (Lake Placid blue, maple neck, MIM, early-90s) - Christmas 1992; bought used at a (now forgotten) shop in San Luis Obispo. Consigned it at some point in graduate school in West Lafayette.


  • With the Landola jumbo, summer 1993.Landola jumbo...I don't remember the model number (early-90s) - Purchased new in spring 1993 at some shop in San Luis Obispo, Los Osos, or Morro Bay. I'm shocked how bad my memory is! An interesting jumbo guitar, made in Finland, with a solid spruce top and laminated birch back/sides, and matte finish. Landola went on to make a run of acoustic guitars for Peavey (the amp company). Sold it in West Lafayette. Never saw another Landola until the fall 2012 Philly guitar show, where I ran into a similar one. A nice guitar.
  • Cheap-o Aspen 12-string (unknown year) - I don't recall where this one came from. I assume I bought it off someone at Grinnell; $40 rings a bell. The bridge started to pull off and had it reglued by a guy in Marshalltown at least once. We ended up playing this as a six-string to keep the bridge from flying off; I think I handed this down to Wulfy.
  • Takamine N-1012 (early-90s) - My first decent 12-string; this one came used from the Guitar Foundation in Iowa City in late-1994 or early-1995...Solid cedar top with (laminated) mahogany back/sides. My buddy Dave and I played this one a lot; I had it until 1997 or 1998, when I sold it West Lafayette.

Dave with the Takamine N-1012 and Ben with the Landola jumbo.

  • Guild 12-string (can't recall the model or year, although I'm pretty sure it was a jumbo or mini-jumbo from the '70s...maybe a 212XL?) - If I recall correctly, I got this at Ye Olde Guitar Shoppe in Des Moines. What I remember more about YOGS is that's where I saw my first Martin...I remember that vividly: a 1989 D-16A (ash); that Martin was probably around $800, but it seemed like a million bucks. But I'm thankful for running in to it, as it put Martin on my radar screen. I think that Guild had some (neck?) issues, and I have no recollection what happened to it. I assume I sold it when I got the Guild D-40SB. I wish I would have paid more attention to this guitar; it was probably pretty nice!
  • Martin Backpacker (1995; serial #23,058) - This came from a shop in downtown Santa Rosa...I remember buying it when I was home for winter break in 1995. Sold it on craigslist once I moved to Pennsylvania (maybe 2005 or so?).
  • Guild D-40SB (1976; serial #158276) - My first venture into quality solid-wood American guitars; this likely started my affinity for sunburst guitars. I found it at the music shop in Grinnell for $500, which was a fortune for a college student in 1996. I maxed-out my credit card to buy it. A nice guitar...Build like a tank with a sweet sound, although it wasn't that loud. I traded this one at Elderly Music in Lansing towards the Rickenbacker 360 (to be described in the next edition).

The only picture I could find of the Guild D-40SB.

 Next up...Student loans in grad school = the start of guitar collecting.