Gurian Gossip By David Johnson | Gurians and Their Skinny Necks

Gurian Gossip By David Johnson | Gurians and Their Skinny Necks

Gurian Guitar A series Label



David B. Johnson is a guitar enthusiast, hack player, and recovering lawyer living in Maryland. He’s accustomed to being confused with other David Johnsons, hence the “B” (which still doesn’t always distinguish him). He will tow away your used Gurian, Mossman, Langejans, Fylde, Goodall or Froggy Bottom for free, much like public radio offers to come get your car. Unfortunately, your donation isn’t tax deductible. It should be.

I love Gurians. I first saw two of them hanging on a guitar shop wall in Dobie Mall in Austin, Texas in 1981. They were next to the usual assortment of Gibsons, Martins, Epiphones, and the cheap imports of the day. The size 3 in particular looked a bit … different. Clean and simple, with that elegant bell-shaped lower bout. When I took it down and played it, I knew I had never, ever heard such an instrument before. It was love at first strum.

I was there because I had a brief – very brief – fling as a studio musician, and I knew that my own guitar wasn’t up to the recording session I had coming up the following day. I couldn’t afford the breathtaking price of the Gurian S3R I was playing (it cost as much as a Martin!), but perhaps the shop owner would let me rent it for a day? “That one’s not leaving the store unless someone buys it,” he said of the S3R. But when he saw my disappointment, he added, “that one, on the other hand, I guess I could let go for a day. You need to take real good care of it, though.” I hadn’t seen the S2R at first, but when I swung around and spotted the slightly smaller Gurian, I agreed before I even picked it up. Then I tried it out, and knew my recording session would be blessed.

Gurian Guitar C series S3R

Fast forward 23 years. I had given up on the music thing, gone to law school, married, and started a family, all the while clinging to a nice-looking but inferior import guitar. It was completely laminated – top, sides and back – with tuners that had to be adjusted after every song. It sounded decent for about the first half hour after changing the strings, then went steadily downhill from there. Well, I had a birthday coming up, and my wife asked why I had never gotten a better guitar, one that I would really enjoy and play all the time. The truth was, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I could now afford one. So with her consent to spend up to $XXXX, I went shopping. The first thing I thought about was the Gurians I had seen, years before.

I soon found Steve Spellman at The Guitar Shop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. It turns out that Steve used to sell Gurians, lots of Gurians, and he still had one tucked away that I might want to see. So I tried out an absolutely pristine D series Gurian JR, and for comparison, he brought out four or five other exceptional guitars, mostly hand-built or at least boutique.
I arrived ready and willing to buy the Gurian, but Steve was wise enough to have me test drive it next to other, comparable heavy-hitters (I won’t mention their names, except that on that day I seriously considered an extraordinary Everett). But aside from having the tone I remembered, I noticed the Gurian’s tonal neutrality from bass to treble and all the way up the fretboard, its incredible sustain, and its haunting overtones. I took the JR home.

The revelation that I could now afford a decent guitar broke something loose in my mind, to the dismay of my formerly indulgent wife. I believe its common name is GAS, guitar acquisition syndrome. I realized how fortunate I had been to find a pristine Gurian, since there were hardly any Gurians to be found anywhere, regardless of condition. So I turned to that great/awful source of vintage guitars, the one all shop owners warn the perils of – eBay.

Before long I had 3 Gurians:  the JR I bought at The Guitar Shop, a wonderful A series S3R, and a splendid D series S2R. But something still wasn’t quite settled for me. It took several more years, a bunch more purchases and a number of trades before I came to the conclusion that I was on a mission. It turned out that few modern guitar players knew about Gurian guitars, even if they otherwise knew something of the quality difference available in high-end guitars. I felt a need to alert new guitarists to the existence of great vintage guitars, particularly Gurians. To do that, I first had to find old Gurians, typically under guest room beds or in the closets of people who were done with them. Then I had to fix them up and get newer players to try them out. (Fixing them up, though not always necessary, is another story. If you can’t bear the possibility of buying a vintage guitar with issues, buy a new guitar instead – or at least buy your vintage instrument from a reputable guitar store. Your ability to sleep well is worth something!)

As of this writing, my self-imposed mission has resulted in the purchase of 48 Gurians, all but 2 of which I’ve either sold, given away or traded. The first A series S3R I found remains my favorite. I gave a C series S2R to my youngest daughter, and I’m planning to give a D series S3R to my older daughter. (Shhh … don’t tell her. It’s a surprise.)

I’ve now owned, at one time or another, almost 1% of Gurian’s lifetime output – estimated at 5,000 guitars. I’ve owned Gurians in sizes 2, 3 and jumbo, a cutaway, and even a size 1. (Yes, Gurian built a size 1, essentially a parlor-sized guitar.) I’ve owned a couple of his classical guitars, and a flamenco. I’ve owned Gurians made of Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood, mahogany, cyprus (the flamenco), and koa. Having found new homes for 46 of these fine guitars, I’ve had lots of conversations with purchasers and potential purchasers. And I’d like to address, right up front, the only consistent complaint I hear about Gurians:  many guitarists think that their necks are too narrow.

It’s preferable to select a guitar by blind comparison, trying out a wide range of instruments of different brands, sizes and styles without knowing the particulars. Choose what you like best that way, then learn the specifications of your choice(s), and double-check to see which elements really matter to you. After you’re in love with how a particular instrument plays and sounds, stick with those specifications, not the ones your friend likes and recommends. If you go shopping on the basis of some pre-determined set of specifications before you’ve tested them out yourself, all you’ll wind up doing is selecting between similar instruments, none of which might be optimal for you.

Remember, too, a good test comparison won’t be a one-time event. Your guitar needs and tastes may change over time. You may also find that you need more than one kind of acoustic guitar to complement all the kinds of music you play.

By approaching the selection of a guitar this way, some people find they like OM size guitars, and that dreadnoughts are too awkward to play (or vice-versa). Some people prefer the sound of mahogany over rosewood, or walnut over both. Some people insist on an Adirondack spruce top; some want cedar; others are fine with the excellent sound of the ubiquitous Sitka spruce top. And for purposes of the current discussion, people tend to zero in on what they like in a neck profile.

Gurian Guitar B series 3HS3B

This kind of shopping is, and ought to be, fun. Why waste this opportunity by following a fad, the herd mentality, or received wisdom? But for every person who has really tried out different guitars, and knows what he prefers in terms of nut width, string spacing, scale length and neck profile, it seems there are three others who’ve relied on someone’s advice, without considering that their optimum guitar might be quite different.  Does everyone in America need a 1-3/4″ nut, and a medium C neck profile?! Of course not. But you sure wouldn’t know it listening to the guitar chatter out there.

Gurian started building steel string guitars in 1968. That’s when acoustic guitars came back into vogue, after a brief but intense worldwide interest in electric guitars. Gurian decided to build most of his acoustic guitars with a 1-5/8″ nut, just a tad narrower than the then-most recent standard size,1-11/16″. Gurian apparently figured that the narrow neck would feel familiar to people who were used to playing electric guitars, especially the guitarists he most wanted to please – professionals. He wasn’t dogmatic on the topic; he was just building guitars that he thought made sense for the times. When he was asked to build a guitar with a wider nut, he did so. Paul Simon asked for one, and still proclaims it as his all-time favorite guitar. But I doubt Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, ABBA, John Sebastian, Ezra Idlet and Jimmy Buffet all asked for wider, custom fretboards on their Gurians; if they had, he surely would have changed his standard specifications.

Customized Gurians are out there. I’ve seen steel string Gurian guitars with nut widths of 1-11/16″, 1-3/4″, and even 1-7/8″. I’ve also seen Gurians with nuts as narrow as 1-9/16″. Most, however, have nuts 1-5/8″ wide. Some people with big hands, or frankfurter fingers, or classical (s-t-r-e-t-c-h) training, can’t get comfortable with a narrower fretboard. That’s to be expected.
But sadly there are lots of folks out there who dismiss Gurians before even trying one. Some are people with small hands. Slender fingers. People used to playing electric guitar. Many of them have it in their heads that they have to seek out a guitar with a 1-3/4″ nut, or 1-11/16″ at the narrowest, because they heard that somewhere. These folks are robbing themselves not only of finding an instrument that may suit their playing needs better than what they think they want. They’re missing out on some real bargains in the tone department.

Gurian wasn’t the only guitar maker from his era making guitars with skinny necks. For example, most Mossmans in those days had 1-11/16″ nuts, but a few had 1-5/8″ nuts. Don’t pass them up, either.

One of the secrets of the fantastic Gurian sound could in fact be that the slightly narrower fingerboard reduces neck mass, much like the more expensive trick of slotting the headstock. But aside from tone, a key consideration for accepting the 1-5/8″ nut found on most Gurians is that at least one-half of the world’s population is made up of women, and they often have smaller hands than men. As more and more women become guitarists, one might wonder why on Earth, third planet from the Sun, they should look for a wider nut?


© 2010 David B. Johnson
Pictures courtesy of David B. Johnson ©2010.

Responses to David’s Article:


Kevin Hall (read an interview with Kevin here):

“I’ve seen a good number of Gurians over the years and have never  particularly associated them with any serious neck troubles due to that oddball joint. Well, the joint itself is straight-forward enough, it’s just the manner of fixing it in place which is screwy. The two tapered ebony pins inserted through the sides of the block are a reasonable way to secure the tenon in the mortise but it’s a nightmare for repair folks who haven’t heard about ‘em before trying to pry the neck off for a reset.

Tapered pins are sound engineering practice in metal work of course, but not quite as sensible in woodwork,  especially when the pins are made of a wood ( in this case ebony) which is known for a good bit of expansion and shrinkage under humidity fluctuations and they’re in a mahog. block. They’re almost impossible to spot when you’re working through the soundhole, even if you know they’re there.  For an unitiated repair person they could cause serious trouble. Even if told it’s a pinned mortise and tenon joint, most folks would associate that with the vertical dowels under the fingerboard as recommended in the early Sloane books rather than Mikes’ novel take on the idea.

Mike Gurian was a jigs and fixtures nut with a good background in metal work, so it would have seemed like a good idea to him at the time. I was warned about the joint many years ago, before I’d had to reset any, by the late Bill Lewis. Bill was a good friend of Gurians’ and had a hand in some of his design ideas. While I never met Mike, Bill told me enough about him that I would have loved to have had the privilege.”



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27 comments

  1. Martha Fitch says:

    I own a pre-fire Gurian from the Hinsdale NH shop that does have neck problems which raised the action enough so that it became uncomfortable to play (which I haven’t done in decades, sorry to say). I am interested in selling this guitar, don’t know the series. Can you suggest how to do this?

  2. David B. Johnson says:

    Sure. Your best choices are to sell it on eBay or through consignment with a respected high-end guitar shop, one that will put it on the web. If you want to sell it “as is” (without addressing the neck issues), eBay is probably your best bet. You could also post it for sale on any of the high-end, high traffic guitar discussion fora, though the audience finding it will be smaller. Another option is to contact me directly, since I seem always to be buying up Gurians … 202-213-0473.

  3. vernon says:

    Any idea what a gurian d series cutaway in the original case would fetch these days?

  4. Joe Nobiling says:

    Like you, David, the first time I saw and played a Gurian I knew that was the guitar I wanted. It was the summer of 1970. I had hitchhiked to the west coast from the midwest to visit friends, family, and find an acoustic guitar that would satisfy me. I found my JRA model in a guitar shop in Oswego, OR. It had just come in. I played it and it was magical. I’ve had it now for goin’ on 39 years and it’s tone is still top drawer. I’ve played other fine guitars but my Gurian’s still the best of the bunch and it’s served me well. It’s been a real joy to play and own. Not to long ago I bought a Gurian off Ebay. It’s a mahogany model made in the 80s. It doesn’t seem to have been played much. It has that great Gurian quality tone from the bass through the treble. It’s exciting because it is in such a new condition. It should turn into a fine sounding instrument over time. Thanks for your article.

  5. bob marion says:

    i picked up s3m d1979 in a trade a few years ago. wonderful tone and playability. haven’t been able to find a sn list that gives me an idea of date of build, but i think the d series was the last of his production runs. correct me if i’m wrong. guitar is for sale (too many guitars, too little room)

    bob

  6. Gary Ochs says:

    David:
    Thanks for the great article. I bought my J-M C Series Gurian back in 1975 in West Chester Pa. It is in very good condition and has hardly been played at all the past 15 years. When I saw Jackson Browne playing one in 1978, I knew I had made a great purchase. I sold it to my roomate back in 1990 for rent money. The kind soul then gave it back to me for a wedding gift in 1992. My instrument of choice these days is a Selmer tenor sax which I am currently renting. I neeed to sell my vintage Gurian to buy my horn. In the next week or two I will be looking to post it on eBay.

  7. [...] Shortcuts: Model Information – Sizes – Styles & Options – Materials Serial Numbers – Serial Numbers – Production Totals Registry – Pre A-Series – A-Series – B-Series – C-Series – D-Series Related Links: Gurian Gossip By David Johnson – Gurians and their Skinny Necks [...]

  8. Jeff Khan says:

    All those people mentioned as having Gurians in David’s article have, I’m sure, great examples. I have been fooling with acoustics since ’64, having owned and played many, many super guitars in every price range. However, never have I heard tone as the the Gurian Pierre Bensusan played on his first album “Pres de Paris”. It remains to this day the most ideal sound I would look for in an acoustic.

    I too have been put off by Gurian’s tiny neck, not because I find it unfashionable or quirky, but because many fingerstyle players have simply gotten used to playing on a wider neck and even 1/16″ of difference means your fingers are going to fall in an unintended place. Having said that I’d still like to buy a decent one if possible, for occasional noodling. Thanks.

  9. Terence says:

    Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment. We will shortly be able to offer classifieds linked to guitars in our database,lease stay tuned for this exciting development which is due to be rolled out over the next few weeks.

  10. John Bannon says:

    I can’t be the only person out there who loves the so-called skinny neck. I play electric guitar 90% of the time, and the Gurian is the only guitar I’ve encountered that allows someone like me to get into the acoustic world quickly and easily. The sound of a Gurian would be impeccable no matter how wide the neck was. The Gurian neck makes that sound accessible to electric guitarists without a significant change in fingering technique.

  11. Joe Nobiling says:

    I have a Gurian for sale. It’s from the 1980s. You can contact me at joe.nobiling@gmail.com if interested and I’ll provide more info; price, pics.

  12. Jon Nixon says:

    I started building in 1980 using Cumpiano’s book and built several instruments using the tapered-pin neck block. ( Cumpiano worked Gurian in the early days and taught many of his methods, although he no longer uses Gurian’s neck joint ). I still have the “pin popper” tool I made at the time and suspect that I would be able to disassemble and reset a vintage Gurian neck at a reasonable price. I am in northern Virginia- you can contact me at virginialuthier@ gmail.com.

    Thanks, Jon

  13. RichRS6 says:

    I love the skinny necks too, as John mentions above I play electric guitar most of the time and have no problems with them.

    I discovered Gurian Guitars in (time clouds the exact year?) about 1978/9 when I worked at a guitar shop in Leeds here in the U.K.
    At that the time as far as I was concerned acoustics were for people who wore arran sweaters and sung with one finger stuck in their ears so I didn’t pay much attention to them.
    As I remember the shop bought one of each model including a cutaway and (probably due to them costing as much or more then a Gibson or Martin) they hung on the wall for a long time until they were reduced to clear !

    I thought the cutaway looked a bit like a Les Paul and took it down from the rack and strummed a few chords on it, thought it felt and sounded pretty good and hung it back up as I wasn’t about to pay what was being asked for it even at its reduced price and with a shop discount.
    Eventually they all sold, and no more were ordered.

    Fast Forward 25 Years and after having various cheap and nasty acoustics I decided to look for something special and after trying just about every top end and boutique guitar around not one could match the sound the Gurian had fixed in my head all those years ago.

    I now have a S2M from 1978 and a J-R from 1980 and everyone who plays them is amazed by them and wants to know where they can get one.

    Still looking for a cutaway though !

  14. Jaynae says:

    Hi,i have a Gurian S-3M C series guitar and i need new strings for it..but nobody can seem to help me on what kind of strings it takes…any idea’s..i need steel strings by the way..

  15. Jaynae says:

    im sorry i mean…what size strings! lol

  16. Terence says:

    Hi Jaynae,

    Best bed would be lights- which is .12 on the high E- if you have photos to share with us and a serial number, we’ll add it to the registry!

  17. Mark says:

    I just purchased S2M S/N D2245 at a Guitar Center the other night while on a business trip (you can add it to the registry!). I was surprised to find it there, and very pleased at the price point.

    I played it, and it felt good. It looked like a narrow neck, but felt pretty good. I actually borrowed the repair guy’s StewMac ruler, and it is 1 11/16″. My preference. Nice! And it has a very chunky neck, which I also like. I know that a lot of folks write about “skinny” necks on Gurians, but this is a normal width steel string, with a neck that is definitely thicker and chunkier than most. I’m into old C shape Tele fat necks, so it is great for me.

    The action is excellent, too. Set up with just a touch of relief, a great neck angle, and just the right amount of bridge saddle exposed. Plays like a dream, with a low action but no buzzes with .012s.

    And it is loud, for a guitar it’s size. But still nicely balanced. The first thing my wife said when I brought it home was “wow, that’s loud for a small guitar” (actually the first thing she said was “I don’t even want to see it or hear about it – you said you weren’t buying any more guitars!”).

    I love it. I wish I had found one sooner.

  18. David B. Johnson says:

    Hey Mark,

    I wish you’d found that S2M just a half hour later … I was on the phone with Guitar Center, trying to find out more about the condition of that particular guitar, when the sales rep said that someone had been looking at it there in the store & decided to buy it! What a steal you got! Don’t tell the Guitar Center folks, though … I’ve bought two other Gurians off them at way below market, and the longer it takes them to correct their value guides, the better for the rest of us! As W.C. Fields used to say, “never wise up a chump.”

  19. Mark says:

    Well, David, I’m sorry for you, but very glad for me. I know guitars and prices – I used to be a retail vintage dealer, ’til the recession, now I’m just a hard core hobbyist, paying for the habit with the occasional sale or trade. But I’m not as familiar with Gurian. I’m no youngster, so I know the story of Michael and his companies, but considering how many they built, I’ve only seen 3 in person, including the one I just bought.

    So I guess I got a good deal? Sounds like you know Gurians better than I do. And you saw the price on the Guitar Center website. So whaddaya think, did I do OK?

    As for your call in – well, once I picked it up and played it for a minute or two, I walked around with it in my hands until I pulled out my Amex. I did not want to even take a chance of sitting it down for a minute and having someone else pick it up.

    The only issue I see is that someone did a quick sloppy fret level, just down the middle of the board. So the frets are slightly flatter in the middle (G & D strings), and rough. But like I said earlier, the action is great. So I’m just going to lightly crown those areas and polish the frets.

    Pickup sounds good too. From the look of the endpin jack, it’s an older under-saddle piezo.

    Can’t wait for the weekly Tuesday bluegrass jam to surprise my buddy with his rosewood Martin D28. This will probably become my everyday guitar.

  20. Charley Powll says:

    Enjoyed your article. I’ve owned 6 Gurians over the years beginning with my first JM in 1976 purchased from David Santos in Costa Mesa, CA, who I believe claimed to have worked for Michael for a while. His inventory at that time was a JM, S3M, and S2M, surprisingly all of which sounded nearly the same. I purchased the JM and thereafter every player who heard it wanted it. I let a friend buy it in Colorado in late 1983, prior to a move to New Orleans. My thinking at the time was to replace it with a CRH since the physical dimensions of the jumbo was challanging for my size. However, at the time I was unaware Gurian had gone out of business. After aquiring and subsequently selling several Gurians over the years I finally found a CRH at a very reasonable price and it is the best guitar I’ve ever owned. It has fretboard position markers, MOP all the same size and expertly installed. I have to assume it was a modification by the original owner in addition to a Shadow pickup adhered to the bridgeplate. All in all a fine end to a 25 year quest. I’d now like to find a nice S2R if anyone knows of one for sale?

  21. Mark says:

    Well, I’ve decided that I may sell the 1980 S2M that I picked up recently, and mentioned earlier in this discussion. It is loud for it’s size, but I had hoped that I could use it at a weekly acoustic jam that I play. And it’s just not quite loud enough for that, especially when it comes time to take a solo. I think I’m gonna need a dreadnaught. I should have never sold my Collings…

    I’d love to keep everything, but this is a decent guitar, and would really do someone else some good, while helping to fund the dreadnaught that I need.

    So if anyone is interested, I thought I’d offer it up here to the Gurian fans before going to eBay with it. Drop me a line if you have any interest. Includes original case, original paperwork, and under-saddle pickup.

    Thanks.

  22. David B. Johnson says:

    Hey Mark,

    As you might expect, I’m still interested. I know what you paid for it, and would be happy to pay that, shipping, and a (hopefully modest) “got there first” fee. Contact me if interested, nosnhojbd@yahoo.com.

  23. David McCullough says:

    I own a S3M. C2785 that I took in a trade several years ago. I recently had it re- fretted and the repair tech thought the action was too high but they did not have a tool/ wrench that reached in far enough to work. He was thinking a auto supply might have a tool that would work. Any suggestion for resolving this. If the neck can be adjusted is a neck reset needed? I was considering selling this instrument but after hearing my band mate play this guitar, I am changing my mind. I also have the original hang tag , receipt and the catalog in the original case.

  24. David Johnson says:

    Hey David, consider consulting another guitar tech for a second opinion. You don’t typically fix high action by adjusting the truss rod; that’s for shaping the neck’s dip or relief, nothing more. If the neck’s shape is fine but it’s angle isn’t, you probably need a neck reset. By the way, I believe C series Gurians have a truss rod one can operate with a standard Allen wrench. Good luck!

  25. Liam Jacques says:

    I own a Gurian S3M D2068. I bought it (used) in Mc Cullough- Piggotts Guitar Shop,Dublin, Ireland,IN 1983.The shopassistant informed me that it was owned by folksinger Barry Moore, now known as Luka Bloom.I never found out if this information was true or where the guitar was origionally purchased

  26. Gary Massey says:

    I have a Gurian JR its C 1491 so it’s a New Hampshire guitar.
    I bought it used in Montana.
    I’m told C series has adjustable truss rods, true? Do you know where the adjustment nut is located?
    I spoke to Michael Gurian awhile back & asked if he’d made any 12 strings. He said he had, so I’m very interested in finding one if anybody has one for sale or even knows someone who has one I’d love to see pictures of it.

  27. David B. Johnson says:

    There’s an over-and-under truss rod on the C series instruments that you can adjust with an Allen wrench, access inside the sound hole just over the top brace, heading towards the neck. As for 12 strings, the rumor I heard is that he built just two prototypes, one of which was stolen and the other is in someone’s secret collection. You and a zillion other people would like to get your hands on a Gurian 12 string, but there isn’t an available supply. Sorry!

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