22 Dec CELEBRATE VINTAGE STRINGED INSTRUMENTS WITH JOEL BERGERON’S NEW BOOK, MYSTIC GUITAR
For nearly three years, My Multi-Track Mind has brought you some of the best new indie music and served as an uncompromising platform for those indie risers to tell their stories. (I’ve loved EVERY moment of it, and I’m stoked that much of MMM’s 2020 calendar is chalk-full of indie artists *already* booked for coverage.) The blog’s focus has mainly centered around the artists, but what about the instruments? Any musician or true music lover knows an artist’s instrument can be just as enchanting as the artist themselves. Over time, instruments age and bear their life experiences, just like we do—all wrapped up in a beautifully complex package. They can travel, change hands, conceal secrets, entertain the few and the many, and at times appear in desperate need of repair. That’s why MMM’s closing out this year by turning our spotlight on an indie business and indie author committed to celebrating vintage instruments that bring much more than their sound and aesthetic to the table.
As the owner of Mystic Guitar—an online shop in Old Mystic, Connecticut—Joel Bergeron has been seeking out, refurbishing, and reselling hard-to-find vintage instruments since 2014. With a background in antiques and an absolute love of music (especially rock ‘n’ roll), Joel has handled hundreds of instruments over the years, given each the care it deserves, and restored many to their original glory. He recently released a brilliant, full-color book, Mystic Guitar: Vintage Stringed Instruments and Their Stories, which highlights not only an array of unique and unusual guitars, but also banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, and dulcimers. With a simple format pairing the instrument’s description and known history alongside a plethora of highly detailed, noteworthy photos—all of which Joel snapped himself—readers are treated to a heartfelt meet-and-greet with each of these instruments. And the spirit of their stories tends to stick with you. This book would make an ideal gift for any musician or music lover. (Why yes, I bought it for myself!) I had a blast speaking with Joel, and I’m delighted to wrap this year by showcasing his engaging story. (Now would be a great time to grab some snacks.)
In this interview, you’ll learn: what sparked the start of Mystic Guitar (the company); where Joel travels to hunt for these hard-to-find vintage treasures; all about Mystic Guitar (the book), including which yoga instructor / guitar player suggested the idea and which designer made it happen; how every vintage instrument carries its own intricate history and several fascinating stories Joel has been able to uncover; which two instruments are Joel’s most prized, unexpected finds to date; how and why Joel upholds such high standards of authenticity in both his refurbishment work and in Mystic Guitar’s listings; who tried to dupe Joel into buying a Gibson Les Paul knock-off and the craziness that ensued afterwards; what care and handling advice Joel has for anyone who comes into possession of a vintage instrument; which legendary musicians Joel still can’t get enough of, plus gain access to our exclusive Mystic Guitar Spotify playlist—your ticket to a 3-hour rock voyage, visiting some acclaimed and lesser-known vintage sounds; and what’s next for Mystic Guitar.
The conversation from our interview is chronicled below in a pure Q + A format.
Q + A:
How did Mystic Guitar (the company) come into being? Was it something you had planned to create for a while, given your antiques background, or did the idea come to you after finding a particular instrument?
Joel: The book is dedicated to my godson, Ryan Marks. I was really the guitar-enabler for Ryan when he was a very young guy. That’s where it all started—finding cool guitars for him. I bought Ryan Les Paul’s and jazz boxes, and then it sort of evolved into, well, I have this one, why don’t I sell it and try to get another one? It was sort of a combination of the antique shop mentality where you go out and find all of these wonderful things but then you give them to someone special.
When Ryan’s father was moving from Connecticut to Florida, he had a few guitars he wanted me to sell for him, along with an amplifier, so I started taking photographs for him. That’s when we created Mystic Guitar, and it’s been doing pretty good since 2014.
What does a typical instrument hunt look like and entail? Do you wait to travel until you’ve seen pics, specs, and spoken with a seller OR do you simply set off in search of a rare find on a hunch?
Joel: Most of the time I just set off on an adventure. I tell Trish, “I’m going out on the guitar trail today.” I’ll get in the car and head up to Rhode Island to hit up some little shops there or I head down the coast and go through Old Saybrook, Clinton, or down to New Haven to hit the pawn shops. You never know what you are going to find! A lot of times you walk in and they have very inexpensive, cheap guitars hanging on the wall, and they want wayyy too much money for them.
And then, every once in a while, you’ll walk in and they’ll have this very nice instrument that they don’t want a lot of money for, because they are not really sure what it is. Or, they know what it is, but it’s missing a tuning machine or it has a crack. That’s how I find most things. Sometimes, I’ll go on Craigslist and see a wonderful instrument. I found a tenor guitar made in 1934 by a guy in Manhattan named R. A. Mango on Craigslist. That was a phenomenal guitar—beautifully made. Every once in a while, you find a treasure on Craigslist; and it’s not just guitars, its banjos and all different kinds of instruments.
Do some of the store owners recognize you, since you’ve been doing this for so many years?
Joel: Yeah, they do. I went into a pawn shop in Warwick, Rhode Island not too long ago, and the owner told the guy behind the counter, “Don’t sell him anything cheap! He knows too much about guitars.” They recognize me and know that I’m there looking for cool things. Quite often, they will show me something from the back room and ask me to take a look at it, because they don’t know what it is.
Have you found New England to be an ideal region to hunt for these treasures?
Joel: Yes, it really is. I suppose any part of the country would be, but what’s really cool about New England is that—from my location in Mystic—it’s only about a half hour or an hour to pretty much any place I want to go instrument hunting.
What I find interesting is that it’s an affluent part of the country, but EVERYONE was buying the same kind of stuff back in the sixties because their kids all wanted to be George Harrison. Mom and dad would take their kids to Montgomery Ward, and buy them cheap Japanese guitars to see if they liked them. And now those cheap Japanese guitars they sold at Montgomery Ward turned out to be pretty darn good guitars. They’re collectible and they’re funky. Many of them look brand new, because they were banished to the closet after the kids found out pretty quickly they weren’t going to be the next George Harrison.
Tell us about Mystic Guitar (the book)—both what inspired you to create and release it as well as what readers will learn about in its vibrant pages.
Joel: I never intended to write a book. I love taking photographs of these beautiful instruments and writing conversational descriptions in order to sell them on my website. (I pretty much write like I speak.) One day a local yoga instructor named Rodolfo Mari, who’s also a guitar player, came into the studio and saw one of the pictures of the guitars up on my screen. After he also saw the description I was writing, he said, “You know, you should write a book.” And I was like, “What?!” And then I realized, I don’t NEED to write a book, I’ve already WRITTEN a book!
That’s when I asked Trish*, and she agreed to design it. We picked out some nice guitars. This book is probably about, maybe, 25% of the guitars that I’ve had over the years, so there is plenty of material for another volume or two.
*Ivy’s note: Trish LaPointe is an extraordinary artist and designer. (And yes, that’s a biased opinion, as she also happens to be my go-to-design-guru for ALL things book + blog.)
ALL vintage instruments carry their life stories with them, although—as you eloquently put it—”many of their stories are lost forever in the fog of the past.” Of the stories you HAVE uncovered, which fascinated or touched you the most?
Joel: There are two that appear in the first book. One is Rita and Ira from Rhode Island. It’s a lap steel guitar made by a company called Magnatone in the 1940s. I saw the guitar and its matching amplifier’s pictures on Craigslist. (They are done up in something called ‘mother-of-toilet seat’, which is sort of like mother of pearl.) I emailed the lister on Craigslist and he replied, “Meet us in Rhode Island on exit 4 off I-95.” I drove up there, and this older gentleman, Ira, got out of the car with this younger guy, his son-in-law, Paul. Ira’s wife name was Rita. She had purchased this lap steel guitar brand new in 1947, when she was 14 years old, and she had played it her entire life. Rita had just passed away and Ira found himself selling it. When I bought it, he asked me to make sure it went to a good home in hopes that someone else would love it as much as Rita did. When I listed Rita’s guitar on my website, someone who was re-starting the Magnatone company contacted me and purchased it. I’m happy to report that Rita’s lap steel is now in the Magnatone Museum in Nashville.
The other story is about a tenor banjo that I found it in Stafford Springs, CT in a little antique shop called Rustology. It was this absolutely gorgeous, four-string Paramount banjo. The most interesting thing about it wasn’t the banjo, but the other things that were inside its original Lifton Koverite case. In addition to the original banjo T-wrench and some vintage strings, I found a little piece of paper from a building in Hartford, Connecticut called the Brown-Thompson Building, where the Musical Art Studios were located. It was a handwritten, signed receipt from Richard deCirilac, the business manager of the music school, that said $9.00 for banjo kit and case, $5.00 payable now, balance $4.00 to be paid in two weeks. Then you could see the two dates those amounts were paid.
In 1934, Daniel Ostien had taken his ten-year-old son Harry into downtown Hartford to buy him this banjo kit. Aside from the receipt I mentioned, I also found sheets with the name of Harry’s instructor, Anthony LoPrate. Around the outside of these little square pages were type-written numbers—1 through 50. When Harry would take a lesson, his instructor would punch one of the numbers. There weren’t many punched, maybe a dozen? In the description in the book, I wrote I don’t know how good of a banjo player Harry became, but he thought enough of the banjo to keep it his whole life.
After Harry Ostien graduated from Rockville High School in Connecticut, he joined the Army and went to France in World War II, where he was a mortar platoon sergeant. He made it through his time in France and was a survivor of the torpedo hit on the U.S.S. Leopold in the English Channel. Harry returned home to run his family’s business, Franc Motors in Willington, Connecticut until he died in 2010. I found his banjo just a few years later.
Do you play the instruments when you find them to listen to the sound?
Joel: I’m not a player. Trish is. I know enough to tell the sound of a good instrument. I can tell whether or not it’s going to be a good player or a mediocre player. I’ll often come home and ask Trish to play it.
I’m going to ask Trish to play for me next time I talk to her.
Joel: She’s got a beautiful acoustic guitar here. It’s an Ovation Balladeer from 1975 that belonged to her late aunt. Ask her to play “Landslide”—you’ll love it. She’s phenomenally talented.
What has been your prized, most unexpected find to date?
Joel: Not too long ago, I went into a little music consignment shop in Groton, Connecticut. It’s no longer in business, but they had a fat-looking, rectangular guitar case. Inside it was a Mellobar, a lap steel guitar designed to be played standing up. The fret board is mounted at a 45-degree angle to the body of the guitar, so you can put a strap around your neck and play the lap steel guitar while standing. This particular one is a ten-string lap steel, and it’s a prototype. The guy who invented it was Walt Smith from California. In the mid-sixties he started messing with the idea of a lap steel guitar you could play standing up. This particular type was built on a mosrite guitar body. This was never meant for production but to take around to NAM-shows, music shows to promote Walt Smith’s Mellobar. And the person Walt Smith had promoting the Mellobar with him was a guy named Pat Boone. Pat Boone’s picture playing a Mellobar is inside of that guitar case. The Mellobar caught on, and it sold fairly well for a while. People like Randy Young of Poco played a Mellobar. Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd recently sold his Mellobar for $55,000. (It was one of the many guitars he auctioned off for charity.) If you go to Mysticguitar.com, you can see the Mellobar that’s listed for sale on my website. That’s the kind of thing I really like. I mean, who has a Mellobar, besides me and David Gilmour? Mine’s not worth $55,000, but I’m not David Gilmour. That’s one of the cool things that I’ve found.
Another is a Viola Da Terra. No one’s really heard of it, but it’s a Portugese instrument from the islands of the Azores. It’s a twelve-string guitar, generally given as a wedding gift. Instead of having the round sound hole on the front of the guitar, it has two hearts side by side. It’s a wicked cool thing. (I mean, I have to say ‘wicked cool,’ because that’s what they say in Rhode Island.) This one was built by Frank Borges, probably in 1910 or 1920, and his address—110 Wickenden St. in Providence, RI—appears on the label. It’s one of my restoration projects that’s taken me quite a while, because I don’t know how this thing works. It’s got twelve strings, but it’s not set up like a normal twelve-string guitar. With a normal twelve-string guitar, the strings would be set up in pairs of two. This one is set up in a three, three, two, two, two combination. I’ve had extensive work done to it, because it had a few holes in it. But it’s one of the instruments I probably won’t part with for quite a while. I don’t exactly know how to play it, I just wish I knew the story behind this. You have to see the wear on the front of this guitar. This instrument is just absolutely gorgeous!
Have you ever come across an instrument that was either especially difficult or flat-out-impossible to part with, despite its going rate?
Joel: Yeah, one of the prettiest Fender Stratocasters I ever owned. It was a 1988 American Stratocaster in candy apple red, and the paint on it had aged to perfection. I found it for a collector down in Virginia. I bought it and didn’t tell him about it for nearly six weeks. Then I eventually sold it to him. It’s an unbelievably cool guitar, because it was a candy apple red color, except the color is really weird. It’s a three-layer paint job, and over the years, these particular guitars would do something called ‘orange peel’—where the paint would no longer look shiny and appear a little rough like an orange peel. The pawn shop I bought it from thought it wasn’t a real Fender, for one thing, and they also thought it was a repaint, which it wasn’t. I found this guitar in a pawn shop right before winter; it was actually hanging BEHIND the snow blowers. The guy in the shop only wanted ‘$175 out the door’! I brought it home, and it was a 1988 AVRS (American Vintage Reissue Series) ’62 Stratocaster. A fantastic find!
Once in a while you can find things like that. I have a 1940 Martin Ukulele from a guy in Newport, Rhode Island who found it at a yard sale for $15. It’s a Martin! It says ‘Martin’ on the headstock! Some people just have these things and they’re not sure what they are. I love Martin guitars, and think they’re absolutely phenomenal. I was a big fan of The Band back in the day, and one of my favorite songs of theirs is “The Weight” – the opening line in that song is, ‘I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead.’ And Nazareth is Nazareth, PA, where they make Martin Guitars. That’s one of my all-time favorite songs, and Levon Helm was one of my all-time favorite musicians.
There are still musicians out there making great music, like Dave Grohl. Nirvana was one of my favorite bands. You probably saw the 1998 Fender Mustang Lake Placid Blue 1969 Reissue in the book. Kurt Cobain played a guitar that looked just like that in Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” music video. And that’s why I bought that guitar. I saw it hanging on the wall in a pawn shop called The Pawn Queen. I love the name of the shop. They wanted $600 for it, and I went outside and called my godson. The Pawn Queen came running out and asked if I was interested in the guitar. She said, “I’d part with it for $200.” I said, “Okay.” But as soon as I got out of the car, she said, “Did I say $200? I MEANT $300!” I stayed firm at the $200, and she finally settled for that. It was a beautiful guitar and in perfect shape.
How did you establish and then uphold such high standards of authenticity in the refurbishment work you found yourself involved in? Would you like to share your most intricate refurbishment to date?
Joel: What I like to do is find something that’s a cool guitar but no longer original to what it was made to be. A good example of that would be a guitar I just bought last week—a 2003 Fender Stratocaster Highway One. There was so much wear on the body you could tell someone played this thing like crazy. It’s not that old, but it’s a nice, aged-white-looking guitar. When I found it, I noticed the pickguard was wrong. This guitar originally came with a white pickguard, but the color on this one was mint green.
The pawn shop owner was asking $600 for the guitar. I said, “This is a cool, American Stratocaster guitar, but the pickguard and the electronics on it are NOT Highway One.” He asked, “Well, how do you know that?” And I said, “You can just look at it and tell. The Highway One pickups would have staggered pole pieces. This one has mismatched pickups.” I told him I’d give him $200 for it, and he accepted my price.
I brought it home and took the neck off the guitar just to make sure it was all American. Fender stamps the inside of the neck pocket and, of course, the neck itself. When I took the pickguard off, I found the most atrocious mess I have EVER seen. The soldering of the components was so bad that I didn’t even know how the guitar still worked. I searched online and found the correct pickguard with the correct electronic components installed in it. I ordered it. When it arrived, I put it in and soldered it up, put strings on it, and had my guy Brian do a complete set up on it. And now it’s a REAL Fender Highway One, which is very desirable. Refurbished back to the way it was always supposed to be.
That’s what I like to do. I like to take things and bring them back to their original condition. A lot of people like to sell guitars and say, “Well, it’s a Stratocaster Highway One, but I’ve upgraded the pickups and upgraded other things…” But, an upgrade for the seller, does not necessarily mean an upgrade for someone else who might the buyer. Guitars really are that personal, and a LOT of players want original Highway Ones without modifications. It has a tone circuit in it that’s called ‘a grease bucket’. And this guitar I refurbished has its grease bucket back. This guitar sounds like it should, well-worn with all the chips and dings…and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Has anyone ever attempted to dupe you with a fake or position a replica as an original?
Joel: Yeah! It happened on Craigslist. I saw a Gibson Les Paul Standard. It was a beautiful guitar with a maple top. I emailed the seller who wanted to meet me at Dunkin’ Donuts in Mystic. He was asking, something like, only $600 for it, which is cheap for a Gibson. The guitar said ‘Gibson’ on the headstock and it was sitting in a Gibson case. It looked great!
I met him at the coffee shop, and, as soon as I saw the case, I could tell it was a Chinese knockoff. The screen printing of the word ‘Gibson’ was pretty shabby. I said, “I hate to tell you this, but that’s not a REAL Gibson Les Paul.” He said, “What do you mean?!” I said, “It’s just not. I’m sorry. It’s a gorgeous guitar, but it’s not a Gibson. It’s made at the Epiphone factory in Qingdao, China. And they do this after-hours, make a great guitar and put ‘Gibson’ on the head stock.” And he said, “You can’t tell. There’s no way to know.” I said, “Yes, there is. I have a screwdriver with me. Let me take the electronics cover off, so we can see.” He let me remove the cover, and it was just all garbage electronics components underneath. I said, “I’ll do you a favor. I’ll give you $160 just to get it off the market.” He agreed and took the money.
The guitar looked exactly like Joe Bonamassa’s Dirty Lemon or the “Skinnerburst” Les Paul. I took that guitar and put the correct components and electronics in it. What’s interesting is that I kept that guitar for about six to eight months before I decided I wanted to get rid of it. I listed it on Craigslist as a Gibson Replica and sold it for exactly for what I had into the it—$600 after all my installed upgrades. Two weeks later, I saw it on Craigslist. Guess how it was described! It was advertised as a USA-made Gibson! And he was asking $1,600 for it.
Here you were trying to do the right thing by taking it off the market, put some work into it, and list it correctly, and then this other buyer comes along and completely misrepresents it AGAIN! How discouraging…
Joel: I know, I emailed the seller, and wrote, “Look, I sold you this guitar. It’s NOT a real Gibson. I suggest you take it off Craigslist.” Thankfully, the ad disappeared. When I sold it to him, I was very specific in telling him it was NOT a Gibson Les Paul but a knock-off. So that’s the story of the fake guitar that was upgraded to be something better than a fake guitar only to have someone turn around and try to sell it as a real Gibson again.
Do you have any advice in terms of care and handling for someone who might come into possession (either by inheritance or happenstance) of one of these beautiful vintage instruments?
Joel: Nine times out of ten, if there’s been an acoustic guitar in someone’s family for a long period of time, it may have been stuck in a closet or someplace like that, left unhumidified. Unhumidified is the worst thing in the world for an acoustic guitar, because it will just DESTROY the guitar over time. The first thing to do would be to talk to a local luthier to have them evaluate the guitar, and then humidify it. Get it back to the way it needs to be.
Wood, with changes in season and changes in the amount of humidity in the air, expands and contracts all the time. I’ve seen some gorgeous 1920s and 1930s Gibson guitars that were totally destroyed from just sitting there. They weren’t abused or purposefully damaged, but after sitting for so long, the backs are cracked and the necks are warped.
And, by the way, it doesn’t have to be a Gibson or a Martin or a Guild or a Taylor. There are a lot of other really cool brands. You’ll see that in my book. Like Kay, who made some really cool stuff. At one time Kay that was the largest guitar manufacturer in the world. And they did make some cheap stuff, but they made some high-end stuff, too. All instruments deserve to be taken care of. Some of these older, rare Gibsons or Martins, should be also insured due to their values—especially if someone famous played them. I find guitars from the late fifties/early sixties that are the brands of guitars that The Beatles played before they were The Beatles. I still appreciate the Edmonds and Hofners and Hagstroms and Landolas and all these other weird guitars, because when the members of famous bands were younger, they could only afford cheap guitars. And I find these all the time. I just sold a Hagstrom, actually.
Have you ever helped musicians or collectors locate specific, hard-to-find pieces?
Joel: Yes. The first guitar in my book is a Montgomery Ward Airline made out of fiberglass, which I located and sold to Michael Robinson of Eastwood Guitars. He was looking for one of those, and my next-door neighbor, who’s a bass player, happened to come by one. My neighbor had picked up a vintage Gibson Hollow Body base, but also saw a 1964 Montgomery Airline Res-O-Glass six-string guitar in great shape. I bought it. We sold both of these to Michael, because he creates replicas of old sixties guitars and sells them on his website. If you go to shop.myrareguitars.com, you’ll see a red Airline guitar. I don’t think the one that’s pictured is mine (because the knobs are different), but you can get an idea of its look.
How do people get in touch with you if they want you to find an instrument or see what you are currently selling?
Joel: You can email me, submit a form on my website, or contact me on any of Mystic Guitar’s social media hands. I list all the instruments and accessories I’m selling on both my website (mysticguitar.com) and on Reverb, which is a wonderful website for selling any kind of musical instruments. Reverb is great because, for the most part, it’s only serious musicians OR people who are looking for instruments for serious musicians.
Who were your favorite musicians growing up?
Joel: Way back when I worked at a TV station, I was a switcher. I basically put local commercials into the shows. I had a friend who lived across the street from the station that would come over with his old Martin and play songs by John Prine. One of my favorite John Prine songs was written about the Vietnam War, probably back in 1972 or 1973. It was originally called “Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues,” and it was about a guy coming back from the war addicted to heroin. The song was later renamed “Sam Stone” for the album. There’s also another John Prine song I love on that same album called “Hello In There” that’s about walking down the street and seeing an old person and just saying ‘hello’.
Exhile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones is a great album. One of my favorite guitars is the Fender Telecaster, and that’s what Keith Richards plays in songs like “Tumbling Dice,” “Sweet Virginia,” and “Ventilator Blues.”
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for country music. In particular, the album Will the Circle be Unbroken? It’s a collaboration of famous bluegrass and country players, and it’s just great stuff.
One of my favorite guitar players that plays a Les Paul is Joe Walsh. I love one of his album names, The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. And there’s a song on it called “Rocky Mountain Way” that’s a killer rock song. Before he was a member of the Eagles, they used to roll out this huge Anvil case and Joe Walsh would be in it with his Les Paul, and he’d get out and play that song.
Eric Clapton is also one of my favorite guitar players. The Cream album Disraeli Gears has a lot of great songs like “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “Strange Brew.” I think Eric played a black Strat back then.
One of my favorite songwriters of all time is Warren Zevon. I like “Hasten Down the Wind,” which was later covered by Linda Ronstadt; as well as “Carmelita,” which was later covered by Counting Crows; “Mutineer;” and “Mohammed’s Radio.”
To hear these and MANY more of Joel’s favorite tracks, listen to our exclusive playlist MMM: Mystic Guitar. It’s a three-hour rock journey featuring some acclaimed and lesser-known vintage sounds.
What’s next for Mystic Guitar? Will there be a sequel to this gorgeous book?
Joel: I’m still out there searching, refurbishing, and selling instruments. There will definitely be a second installment to the Mystic Guitar book that will have more bizarre guitars than this first one. We’ll be doing a little more with funky Japanese and Italian guitars. The Italians especially made some really funky stuff, because they were originally accordion makers. When The Beatles hit, they decided, this accordion thing isn’t really working for us. And they started making guitars out of leftover accordion parts. Stay tuned!
Connect with Joel Bergeron + Mystic Guitar:
Reverb Page: https://reverb.com/shop/mystic-guitar
Listen to MMM’s exclusive Mystic Guitar playlist on Spotify:
MMM: Mystic Guitar
Photo by Joel Bergeron