Thanks to Missoulian Writer David Erickson for permission to reprint this article.
When musicians from all over the world – accomplished mandolinists from Norway, blues guitarists from Florida, country banjo players from Kentucky – go looking for a certain sound and quality, they go to a nondescript home in central Missoula, aptly called Greg Boyd’s House of Fine Instruments.
Inside his display studio on Knowles Street, Boyd has an impressive collection of hand-made, exquisitely crafted, vintage pieces. A $22,000 mandolin is sitting on a stool, and one just like it was sold to a regular customer in Idaho recently. A $9,450 acoustic Martin 0-28 guitar built in 1898 hangs from the wall right near shelf full of violins in the $10,000 range. The banjos are one-of-a-kind, as are the cellos, ukuleles, lap steels and amplifiers. Boyd won’t deal with anything unless it’s top-notch.
Over the past quarter-century, Boyd has built a reputation as the place to find the “best of the best,” and demanding customers depend on him for brutal honesty and impeccable taste. He has shipped instruments to France, Japan, Canada and Hong Kong.
His customers over the years have included John Fogerty, David Grisman, members of Pearl Jam and Eric Johnson.
“We can go to major shows in Nashville, the Grammy’s of bluegrass called the (International Bluegrass Music Awards Show) and sit there and here’s the band coming out and you go ‘Oh yeah, that’s Johnny. I sold him that banjo’,” Boyd said.
Boyd, 59, studied wood science at the University of Montana and worked as a firefighter for many years before co-founding the iconic Stringed Instrument Division in the early ’90s. He struck out on his own around ’97 and hasn’t looked back since.
“We survived the worst recession in a lifetime with no bank loans,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those things where we have such a profit margin where it could be no sweat nonprofit.”
His business plan wouldn’t work without an online presence.
“The crazy thing about what we’re doing here is it can’t be supported in just one town,” he explained. “It can not, it will not work. So the Internet came along and we were one of the first 20 music stores in the world to jump on the Internet. On the Internet you can either be the newest guy, or the cheapest guy, or the guy with the most Flash, Shockwave stuff going on, or you can be steady guy who has the reputation of when you say it sounds a certain way it really does.”
“We don’t want the mandolin going to London and coming back,” he said. “We don’t hide anything.”
Boyd said that the types of instruments he carries would normally be sold in boutique shops in New York where they handle everything with white gloves. There are customers out there who don’t associate Boyd’s shop with such beautiful-sounding products.
“There’s so little awareness, and people just think it’s a little banjo shop,” he said. “They want a violin shop with three-piece suits, seriously, with a model that has a law degree pouring their coffee. They want to overpay by $20,000. And they’ll feel way better about that violin. I’m really not kidding.”
Boyd is picky about his wood. He can spot quartersawn Brazilian rosewood from a mile away. Quartersawn wood has a certain resonance to it that makes a guitar sing, and mass-produced guitars and other instruments just don’t have the same quality. Boyd stocks guitars from local luthiers, and he carries products from small companies around the world that sometimes only put out a few dozen instruments a year.
“Everything on these guitars was made by hand by a real human,” he explained. “Nothing was pre-done and just dropped into place. There’s not one in every store. Which is not bad. I have production rifles and production bicycles. But for instruments I feel different because I’ve seen the value of it. Just the wood and time that goes into it.”
High-quality instruments never depreciate in value, he said, and many of them could be considered investments that rival stock in Google.
“I’m talking about taking that money you have in paper and putting it in wood, and then you or your children or grandchildren go ‘Holy cow, I’m glad Grandpa did that’,” he said. “You should go throw some roses on his grave.”
Boyd admits he’s not in the fine instrument business to get rich, but he’s beyond satisfied with his career choice.
“It’s the lowest-paying job I’ve ever had, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m happy with that.”
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