A real guitar hero

One of the biggest -- and coolest -- magazines in the world is published in Bismarck. Coolest because Vintage Guitar is about rare, old, beautiful guitars coveted by everyone from local pickers and grinners to wealthy movie and rock stars. Bigges...

Vintage Guitar
Vintage Guitar has facilitated the donation of a Jason Z. Schroeder custom-built electric guitar priced at $5,000 to be raffled off in the name of Josie Greenwood, the Grand Forks girl who was 3 when she died of leukemia in April 2007. Publisher Alan Greenwood is Josie's uncle.

One of the biggest -- and coolest -- magazines in the world is published in Bismarck.

Coolest because Vintage Guitar is about rare, old, beautiful guitars coveted by everyone from local pickers and grinners to wealthy movie and rock stars.

Biggest because it's really large.

At 14 inches tall by 10½ inches wide in its old-fashioned tabloid size, it stands high above other magazines on the shelves of select newsstands and really fills up a mailbox.

But it's big in the great sense, too.


"I know a lot of artists and just about every major (music) artist you can think of geeks out on that magazine," sad Nate "Willie" Westgor, owner of Willie's American Guitars in St. Paul, a pretty famous place itself. "I can tell you that Sheryl Crow reads it, Keith Richards reads it, Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top), all the guys from Cheap Trick, all those guys, I know, will carry that magazine around."

Westgor knows this because the Rolling Stones, Crow, ZZ Top and Cheap Trick are just a few of the rock deities who shop his vintage inventory on Cleveland Avenue South in St. Paul.

Westgor himself is a fan of the mag.

"It's one of those magazines that don't get thrown away. When it comes down to it, we are all really intense nerds, very passionate about our music."

So it is with Ardell Fladeland, a Grand Forks man known nationally for his collection of vintage banjos and guitars and other instruments.

"I've got every copy, going back 20 years," he said of Vintage Guitar. But he says he's so conversant with the market he doesn't need a magazine to tell him about it.

"It's something to read," Fladeland said.

The magazine's success has ridden up with a hot market for its subject.


"Back in 1974, I was selling the 1958, '59, Les Paul Standards (electric guitars) for $400," Fladeland said. "Now they got book on them for 300 grand."

Timing is key

The man behind the mag is Alan Greenwood.

Greenwood graduated from Jamestown High School in 1977, where he played in a band or two.

He got an accounting degree and worked for the state tax department in Bismarck, always wanting to own his own business.

He started the magazine in 1986, first as a shopper called "The Music Trader." It was aimed at music stores and musicians of all kinds.

"I'm a guitar player and we weren't getting many ads, so we started adding articles," he said. "So it turned into a guitar magazine relatively quickly. We noticed all the ads we were getting were about old guitars. So in 1990, we changed the name to Vintage Guitar."

In business, as in music, timing is key.


Old guitars rather suddenly became a hot commodity as a nexus of baby boomer nostalgia merging with the critical mass of the rock 'n' roll culture was fueled by a booming economy that created lots of money looking for good investments.

"So we kind of came into it at the right time," Greenwood said.

It quickly was an international thing, too.

"In the late 1980s, the Japanese were buying up vintage guitars big-time," Greenwood said. "They had all this money and the yen was really strong."

Once Japan's economy tanked on a real estate bubble bursting, the American economy took off in the 1990s, he said. "By that time, the Americans were buying."

After printing in New England, N.D., for 17 years, the magazine went four-color glossy and went to a huge printer in Kansas City, Mo.

Next month, the magazine is switching to a printer in Beaver Dam, Wis., where he's getting better service and a better deal for the same big glossy mag, Greenwood said.

Part of his good timing had to do with getting going just as the Internet hit. With the new electronic publishing age, it's not a big deal to publish some distance from the printing press, he said.


He prints about 35,000 copies of the magazine every month for about 20,000 subscribers, about 14,000 newsstand copies and many distributed at trade shows and conventions.

Greenwood has a staff of nine in Bismarck, including Editor Ward Meeker who writes regularly for the magazine.

He fills the 140- to 160-page magazine with an eclectic mix of interesting, often definitive, articles by 40 freelancers who are experts.

Regular contributor George Gruhn is a prime example.

Not only one of the first advertisers in Vintage Guitar, Gruhn has been writing as an expert in the field almost since 1969 when he founded the now-fabled Gruhn Guitars store in Nashville, one of the nation's top vintage guitar shops. His articles in Vintage Guitar, written with his staff member Walter Carter, reveal why he's said to know more about guitars than anyone in the world.

When he started out, he did his own mailings and fliers to advertise, Gruhn said.

"Now Vintage Guitar magazine changed the whole game quite a bit," Gruhn said. "They took in classified ads at a pretty reasonable price. You could do a whole page for, say, $500. You could reach out to more people . . . and list your entire vintage guitar inventory."

Westgor in St. Paul agrees.


"It's probably my most effective advertising tool," Westgor said. "I get calls from Europe from people reading that magazine and from the swampiest parts of middle America that don't have Internet access. Every time a new issue comes out, I get calls."

Gruhn's met Greenwood, but never has been to Bismarck.

"It is sort of a strange location," Gruhn said. "I can't say Bismarck is a hotbed of guitar activity of the world. It's a bit off the beaten path. But readers don't necessarily care where the magazine comes from as long as it has the content they want."

Collectors' corner

Part of the fun of Vintage Guitar is seeing the collections of the ordinary and famous. Singer/songwriter Steve Earle, for example, was featured last July talking about his dozens of old acoustic guitars, including an 1870 Martin 0-28.

Mick Mars, from Motley Crue, was featured showing off his old Fender Strats in last September's issue.

In 2006, the magazine wrote about actor Steven Seagal's rare collection of guitars once owned by blues masters of the past.

The hottest issue ever was the one a few years ago featuring country star Keith Urban on the cover, Greenwood said.


But his magazine is known for inside-baseball scholarship as much as any celebrity drooling, often tracing the manufacturing history of a certain model of Gibson or Martin guitar back a century or so.

It doesn't focus only on one genre of music or guitars, although Greenwood himself is partial to solid-body electrics.

The cover stories range from metal rockers to alternative country, blues and classical.

The May issue featured a photo of John Lennon warming up on his Epiphone Casino, the guitar he played at the Beatle's last live performance on the rooftop of the Apple studios in December 1969 in London.

Meanwhile, the monthly gallery features photos of readers' collections, a place Fladeland's instruments have been seen several times.

Along with the interest in vintage guitars has been an explosion in new technology and craftsmanship in making new ones, Greenwood said.

"There's been a real renaissance of guitar-building. There are guys trying to move it to the next level. And the same people who are collecting old guitars are the same people buying (new) handmade ones."

Collecting vintage guitars is different than collecting vintage art of other kinds, Gruhn said.

"Few people who collect art can paint. The truth is, very few people who collect guitars don't know how to play them."

That includes Greenwood, who has about 40 hanging in his Bismarck office.

"My oldest, my favorite and most valuable is a 1952 Telecaster," he said of the foundational Fender electric, the same kind played by Bruce Springsteen, for one.

While prices for vintage guitars, like real estate, have slackened the past two years, it's still a high-rent deal for the best.

Gruhn has several guitars in his store now priced from $100,000 to $300,000.

And Greenwood's mag has been part of it.

"Vintage Guitar magazine has had a profound impact," Gruhn said. "Of all the magazines out there in this particular field, it has been the most influential."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to .

Alan Greenwood
Vintage Guitar publisher Alan Greenwood with a 1960s Airline and other guitars in his collection. (Submitted photo)

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