Wednesday, Oct 17 2012 05:30 PM

SCOTT COX: Works of art made the best sound better

By The Bakersfield Californian

I've only known a few legitimate geniuses in my day, so obviously it's a big deal when one of them passes away. I've read and heard a lot about the passing of Bill Gruggett, but I wanted to tell folks more about the art he left behind.

I didn't know Bill all that well. We met a few times over the years, either out and about or at his shop, where friends of mine were picking up their guitars. I always tried to mooch as many trips to Bill's as I could, which is dumb, because he always said that I could stop by anytime. But for a guy who didn't own a Gruggett guitar, hanging out at the shop was like walking around the Ferrari factory in Maranello when you don't own a Ferrari. I was an interloper. And Gruggetts are very much the Ferraris of the guitar world, possessing both great beauty and world-class performance.

Keep in mind that placing a Gruggett guitar in my feeble hands would be like giving my daughter a Ferrari. She would look cool putting around in it but have zero chance of scratching the surface of its potential. And I have played some Gruggetts, thanks to my musicians friends, like Monty Byrom, who plays one every time he's on stage, and concert promoter Marc Lipco, who has a couple. Guitarist and self-made gazillionaire Stan Ellis has several (I have thought many times about an "Ocean's 11"-style heist at Stan's, but he's too nice a guy). My son borrowed one from some friend of his, and it was at my house for months. I'd just sit on the couch strumming it like an idiot. The neck, the frets, the switches, the pickups, the tone -- all of it dead-solid perfect.

But perhaps the best thing about owning a Gruggett is that you know you have a one-of-a-kind instrument, a unique piece of artwork. That's a big deal to a lot of musicians. Even if you ordered two identical guitars from Bill, and he built them back to back with the same parts, there would still be subtle differences, and if you didn't notice them, well, you weren't worthy of them to begin with. There are some fine guitar companies out there making some wonderful products, but they're mostly built on assembly lines.

The bodies come by on a conveyor belt, and the builder grabs the switches, wires, tuning knobs and whatnot out of a bin, and assembles the thing before moving on to the next one. Bill built your guitar with you in mind. The wood was chosen for each specific project, as was the hardware, all fussed over at length by Bill to assure that that instrument was a perfect fit for you and your needs.

I asked Monty if he had thought about hanging up his Gruggett after Bill passed, opting to preserve it for posterity. He said, and I quote: "Are you kidding me? Never." Then, probably without even knowing he was quoting John Hiatt, he said exactly what Bill would've wanted to hear: "I'm gonna play this thing till the day I die."

Bill didn't build guitars to be hung up and gazed upon. He built high-performance tone generators for players with enough soul to appreciate what they had. A good guitar should last your lifetime, and your kid's too. So forget resale value: Play that thing till you, not it, just can't go anymore.

Just for kicks, I looked up Gruggett guitars on eBay. The average price is over 10 grand. And they'll all be sold, too. I just hope they end up in the hands of folks who will play them, because that's what the cat who built them wanted. Have a Gruggett that you haven't played in years? Get it out, tune it up, plug it in and crank it to 11. I'm pretty sure that if you play it loud enough, Bill Gruggett will hear it.

As for me, I need Brad Pitt's contact info, and Stan Ellis' alarm codes...

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