Talent for mysteries, passion for guitars, best-selling Novelist Jonathan Kellerman is a lifelong lover of the guitar. A player for 46 years, to him, the guitar is not only a device for release and inspiration, but a true passion.
“After I finish writing, the first place I head is the guitar room, for an hour or more of playing,” he said. “I play jazz, steel guitar, and recently, I’ve decided to go back to reading classical pieces.”
Before becoming a practicing psychologist and then novelist, Kellerman’s days as a student at U.C.L.A. were spent studying and hanging out in the offices of The Daily Bruin, where he would draw editorial cartoons and contribute other content. He was also a serious guitar player in a gigging band. After earning a Ph.D., he spent 15 years as a psychologist while publishing short stories, scientific articles, children’s books, and three volumes of psychology.
Today, the author of 24 consecutive best-selling thrillers, with some 70 million copies in print, is the caretaker of one of the finest guitar collections in the world. A highly discriminating collector, Kellerman admits that keeping all of his 100-plus instruments tuned up and playable requires a certain level of commitment. And he’s keenly aware of the how some collectors of his stature are viewed with disdain because of the perception that their instruments are stored out of the hands of people who could be using them to create music.
“I relate to that whole thing because I don’t like the idea of buying instruments and stashing them in closets,” he said. “Though it may sound strange, I’ve really tried not to buy so many that I can’t play them.”
Through the years, many notable players and instrument dealers, including Andy Summers, fingersylist Ed Gerhardt, Larry Wexer, Stan Jay, Tim Kummer, and the late Warren Zevon, have had the pleasure of viewing and playing parts of the Kellerman collection. We recently spoke with Kellerman to get the story on how his collection started, how it has grown, and how it may change in the future.
Vintage Guitar: How did you get started collecting guitars and other fretted instruments?
Jonathan Kellerman: Oddly enough, I never set out to collect, per se. I was always after great sound. In high school, I gigged with a wedding/bar-mitzvah band, but my equipment stank. So I scraped up some dough and I took the bus to Wallach’s Music City, on Sunset and Highland, and bought the best guitar I could afford – a ’61 double-cutaway Gibson Melody Maker, for $120. If I’d had 40 bucks more I could’ve bought a ’58 Les Paul flame-top!
When I began working as a psychologist, my income grew. But I was still far from affluent – I treated children at a pediatric hospital and worked as a med-school professor. My lunch hour was used to chase down guitars and, of course I followed the lists of the major dealers.
Over the years, I traded off less desirable items until I’d assembled mostly premium instruments. At some point I decided to concentrate on the creme de la creme. That’s when I traded away some very nice Gibson L-5s, Super 400s, and Epi archtops, and limited myself to D’Angelicos, D’Aquistos, Strombergs, etc. And I always bought for sound. Sometimes that meant sacrificing a bit in terms of condition… but not always. Back in those days, you could get instruments in fabulous condition that also sounded great.
I do tend to concentrate on specific areas for periods of time, for example, steel for a few months, then classical, then archtops, etc. For every great instrument I’ve acquired, I’ve turned down 50. I have no interest in amassing thousands of instruments that get neglected. Even with this many instruments, I start to feel guilty when one I haven’t attended to in awhile stares back at me reproachfully (laughs)!
How long had you been playing before you started collecting?
I stared playing in 1959. I began acquiring in the mid 1970s.
What criteria do you consider when purchasing an instrument for your collection?
To me, collecting guitars – or any object d’art for investment – feels vulgar. And it rarely works. Great collections are built through passion, lots of self-education, eye training, and plain old good taste.
Are you concerned with historical significance, cosmetics, and originality more than utility?
Historical significance is a factor, but the primary factor is sound. Since I own so many great guitars, I’ve also gotten extremely picky about condition, and would rather wait years for the right one.
Is monetary value or potential appreciation a consideration?
I don’t care if the guitars appreciate or not, though I’ve been astonished at how well high-end fretted instruments have performed vis a vis other so-called investments. And aesthetics are important. For example, in addition to loving the sound of premium archtops – visitors who think archtops have no sustain are amazed to play the great ones in my collection – I admire the artistry that goes into carving them.
I find a certain conceptual and artistic similarity between archtops and concert classicals. Both emphasize clarity – what the classical musicians term “note separation.” Both are great for solo playing and jazz, and require a tremendous degree of skill to create. Both are highly sophisticated, musically subtle, refined instruments. Which is not to detract from the great flat-tops, with their sweetness and sustain and adaptability to so many forms of music. The great ones are all wonderful!
You don’t have nearly as many electric soldbody guitars as acoustics, but those you have are great ones. What attracted you to them, and how do you view their position in your collection?
I purchased the electrics more than 20 years ago when I was still doing some combo work. Back then, the prices were low, so I could obtain nice ones at what seemed like a bargain – a ’55 Fender Telecaster for $1,200, mint ’64 Stratocaster for $1,300, ’58 ES-335TN for $1,900 and a Candy Apple Red ’64 Jazz Bass for $600. Despite my wife’s urgings – she’s really the smart one – I never went for a ’58 or ’59 Les Paul – I just kept watching prices climb… and climb.
But the fact that I concentrate on acoustics doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate electrics – they’re an artform, and one of the most important technological advances of the 20th century, at least to a guitarist. But I find myself gravitating toward the organic nature of acoustics.
I probably won’t buy any more electrics, because I’m unlikely to play them. When my son is home, he loves wailing on them.
Do you have any favorites amongst the steel guitars?
Weissenborns are, to my mind, the most consistently good marque. There are no bad ones – only good ones and great ones. They’re built on the brink of explosion – certainly not sophisticated instruments. But that’s part of the charm. Tons of sustain, sweetness, that ephemeral quality. I love playing steel late at night – the old mournful vibe.
The Knutsens are built even more flimsily than Weissenborns. In fact, some accuse Chris Knutsen of being a wood butcher, but the Knutsens I own sound amazing. What fascinates me about Chris was his individuality and eccentricity. He never built the same instrument twice – ever. I’ve seen backs made of finished mahogany taken from Victorian furniture, all kind of weird woods for tops, sides etc. The use of “found” materials, strange assortments of bass and treble drone strings on harp Hawaiians. But they sound great if you know how to get the sound out of them.
The earliest Weissenborns, with paper labels, are softer, but sometimes a bit more subtle than the later ones with larger bridge plates and chunkier bridges. I also own three roundneck Spanish Weissenborn guitars, all koa, and they’re great blues/fingerpicking instruments.
In some sense, Weissenborns – and to an even greater extent, Knutsens – are the antithesis of the finely constructed D’Aquistos, Martins, and Fletas that I cherish. But every bit as great.
I also own a couple of Kona-type guitars built by a Michigan violinmaker named Garrett Brink. Different, but terrific.
Do you have an interest in any other instruments?
Yes, I do have some fretted instruments built by violinmakers; I own a fabulous Wilkanowski Airway archtop that sounds midway between a D’Angelico and a Stromberg, and has a one-piece back of Po Valley Poplar (an esteemed cello wood.) Also, Ignacio Fleta – the Stradivarius of the classical guitar – began as a violinmaker. And it’s obvious when one studies the construction of his guitars. I own a ’68 with Brazilian back and sides, which is unusual because most Fletas are Indian rosewood.
How long has it taken to assemble your collection?
About 30 years.
Do you view it as reasonably complete, or as a work in progress?
Well, I’m running out of aesthetically pleasing display space, but a fabulous, high-end, historically interesting instrument with terrific sound can always get my attention. Let’s face it, it’s a disease (laughs)!
How do you view the organization of your collection?
I feel any collection should have focus and coherence. That’s what makes it a collection rather than a hodgepodge display of conspicuous consumption. My areas of concentration have been premium archtops, pre-war Brazilian rosweood Martins, especially 1945 models; pre-war Brazilian Gibson flat-tops, like a ’38 AJ and a ’40 SJ-200; concert classicals; and finally, steel guitars.
Your display is beautifully coordinated. How did you go about setting it up?
When I decided to display the collection, I contracted with the Peter Carlson Company. They’re experts at museum display, and the cases are set up so there’s adequate airflow, and temperature and humidity are controlled. The instruments never “close up.” And though most instruments can tolerate being suspended by the neck, we’ve added bottom support to minimize stress. The way we’ve got them displayed also creates the illusion of hanging in space. I chose a deep green background because it shows off the wood tones of the instruments. During a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I noticed that they chose a very similar background hue.
Peter Carlson’s brother, Rob, did the building. In addition to being an artisan, he’s a first-rate musician and built a wonderful Loar F-5 replica for himself. That made the project a labor of love for him. Rob and I did a bit of jamming, and our friendship has endured. Sometimes we play in a bluegrass band together, along with some real notables like Bob Applebaum.
You have numerous mandolins and related instruments, including one of every Gibson instrument designed and signed by Lloyd Loar. Do you play mandolin as much as guitar?
I noodle around, but I’m quite inept (chuckles). Once again, I never set out to assemble a quartet. I purchased a lovely Loar L-5 in 1981 and several years later, when I was publishing bestsellers, I decided to gift Faye with an F-5, triple-bound with gold-plated hardware. It’s dated 1924, but looks more like a ’23, and several experts have said it resembles other ’23s from the Monroe batch (Ed. Note: those with what is generally called “side binding” or binding turned so that instead of white/black/white from the top and a white from the side, you see white/black/white from the side and white from the top). It’s a gorgeous-sounding instrument and in mint condition, with a bit more of the classic sweetness and sustain than the barky bluegrass sound.
Right after I bought the F-5, I bought a gorgeous H-5. At that point, I started thinking quartet. The problem was the K-5. There aren’t too many out there. I put the word out and 10 years later, Tom Van Hoose called and said, “Jon, guess what I found?”
I love looking at the four of them hanging together, and when my son is in town, he and Faye and I play trios. The fascinating thing is that the Loar instruments seem voiced to each other. It’s almost like hearing a string quartet, or trio, as it were. These are masterpieces of luthiery and I believe they are, even at today’s prices, significantly underpriced.
I also own a very interesting 1922 F-4 with Cremona finish, truss rod, and Virzi, that clearly has Loar’s hand in it. It’s the best-sounding F-4 I’ve heard, and looks great with the Loar quartet.
Your wife, Faye, is also a player…
Faye trained on violin and flute, convinced herself she wasn’t good at either – though she was – and took up mandolin because it’s tuned like a violin. She studied with Bob Applebaum and also studied bass with Tim Emmons.
Do the two of your have much time to play together?
We play from time to time, but I’m more the daily player.
You have a number of instruments by modern master luthiers such as John Monteleone. What is the percentage of recent versus vintage instruments in your collection?
Actually, the only modern guitars I own are two by John – a 1998 Hexaphone and an archtop John calls the Radio City Malibu Sunset Triporte, made in 2001. I met John at the home of Michael Katz, the sadly departed collector, player, and all-round terrific person. Mike had the first – and only Hexaphone – John had built at that point in the ’70s, I believe – and my playing it brought about a bit of attitude adjustment. Every bit as good, and a lot more playable, than some of the finest vintage flat-tops. So I commissioned one, and it’s a great guitar; John’s workmanship is unmatched. A visiting luthier played it, and tears came to his eyes as he said, “I’m going to have to change how I build guitars.” Ed Gerhardt played it and said, “It doesn’t sound like it looks.” Meaning it’s a big jumbo thing, but it has a delicacy and subtlety to it. Extremely versatile guitar.
John’s archtop mastery means the Hex can be used for jazz, but I’ve played it in a bluegrass band and it worked there, too. The triporte archtop is magnificent and has that same combination of volume and refinement. John’s a master. The fact that I haven’t bought guitars by other contemporary luthiers doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate their work. I believe the level of craftmaship is higher than ever. I’ve just chosen to concentrate on vintage and there’s only so much time and space.
As you gained knowledge and experience, how did your focus change?
One gets more selective about condition. I’m really quite happy with what I have and thankful that I’ve been privileged to take care of these treasures. Of course, there’s tons of stuff I don’t own, but being exhaustive has never been my goal. Sometimes, I consider selling the duplicates. For example, I own two Weissenborn teardrops. Both are great, and probably from the same batch, but they sound different. They’re so rare that I kept them. I did resist the temptation to buy a third one.
Do you have long term goals for the collection?
Just to keep playing, listening, learning, serving as a good custodian for this utilitarian art, sharing the instruments with other guitar lovers. I’ll probably do a book on the collection, once I clear away a few fiction projects. My publishers have never done anything like that, but as long as I sell novels, they’re willing to indulge me.
Do you collect any instruments you do not play?
Just the mandolins, which Faye plays. I’m not putting anyone down, but I just don’t see the point of buying instruments and not playing them. Why not paintings or sculpture or rare coins? We have one purely decorative piece, an 1897 Vinaccia bowlback mandolin, near-mint, extremely ornate presentation model. After I bought it, a prominent classical mandolinist from Europe contacted me wanting to make sure I knew it should really be in a museum. I thought Faye might play it, but she didn’t like the sound, so it’s displayed in a light box.
How do you view your collection and your goals as a collector in contrast with others in the field?
I really don’t have much contact with other collectors. I know others, such as Scott Chinery, assembled marvelous pieces, but his goal seemed more exhaustive. I give him credit for raising consciousness about fine guitars and for his generosity lending instruments to fine players and commissioning instruments from gifted contemporary luthiers, like the Blue Guitars. I’m a quieter sort, more concerned with focus and achieving the best sound I can find.
How does your collection and music fit into your life and work?
The guitar has been a large part of my life since I learned to play in 1959, when I was nine years old. This was pre-Beatles, at the advent of rock and roll. I recall being fascinated by the sound of the guitar – in fact, all guitar sounds – classical, flamenco, rockabilly, steel. My mom wanted me to take up the violin, but I insisted on six strings and frets. My first guitar was a Gibson L-50 with a black finish that my uncle got for 50 bucks in a New York pawnshop. I still own it. Heavy-gauge Black Diamond strings and pudgy 9-year-old fingers made for some serious pain. I was taught the way you were taught anything – clarinet, piano, etc. Reading music, scales, long hours of practice. I even played in the music school’s orchestra. Fortunately, I could barely be heard.
Do you have any specific favorites?
If I had to select one instrument from each genre, I’d probably go with my 1967 Daniel Friederich classical – a famous guitar for which Friederich won gold and silver medals at the International Exposition in Belgium. It’s explosive, sweet, responsive, clear, almost freakishly full-toned.
My Monteleone archtop is great, as is an ’80s D’Aquisto Excel that is basically a one-instrument symphony. All of my pre-war Martin 45s are astonishing. The 1940 D-45 is much more balanced than a bluegrass herringbone.
Of the steels, one of my two Weissenborn teardrop guitars and a walnut-topped, extremely ornate Knutsen harp Hawaiian, reputed to be the last instrument Knutsen built. And, of course, the Loar quartet.
What types of music appeal most to you in your listening and playing?
I hate to use the term “eclectic” because it implies lack of focus. But I just love the sound of guitar played well in any genre; Doc Watson, Pepe Romero, Leo Kottke, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Several years ago, my son and I had the privilege to see Romerto, Kottke, Joe Pass, and Paco Pena togther in concert. Each played solos, then they switched to various duets, trios and quartets. It was transcendental! I felt the same way watching Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai on the first G3 tour.
I also love steel guitar, and when I turned 50 I wanted to see if I could learn to play. I was able to make music almost from the beginning, and assembled a couple dozen Weissenborns, Knutsens, Nationals, Dobros, and the like. Playing “Sleepwalk” is a kick.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.