Early in 2016, Kurt Russell made headlines around the globe by violently destroying museum property. No, the star of Tombstone didn’t deliberately walk into the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and set ablaze Lindbergh memorabilia – or anything of that nature. He smashed – well his character, John Ruth, smashed – a 145-year-old Martin guitar on-loan to the prop department of Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film The Hateful Eight. It was, of course, an on-set accident captured and immortalized on the silver screen which, inevitably, stirred-up the usual muddled recipe of condemnation and solidarity on social media. But the acoustic guitar community and, in particular, the Martin Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania didn’t exactly sit on the fence. The museum has since made it policy that their artifacts will no longer be appearing in Hollywood blockbusters. And while fans of the likes of Jeff Beck, Paul Simonon, and Paul Stanley might look at what happened on Tarantino’s set that day as an isolated – and tame by comparison – incident in the history of guitar smashes, it did something important: It brought into the bright, albeit unsteady, light of public opinion the subject of guitar history and guitar care. Something else to consider is the Latin proverb “A ridiculous accident has often been the making of many.” No, I’m not suggesting this is going to somehow lead Russell to the Oscar that’s eluded him thus far in his career. What I’m suggesting is this can’t hurt people like Darrell Jennings, Roger Horneff and John Farrell, Co-owners of American Music Furniture. Jennings knows first-hand how a guitar tragedy can start a meaningful dialogue and lead to something special.
After moving to Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1998, Jennings was disappointed to discover that the tops of two of his most valuable guitars had developed cracks. He knew humidity was something he had to take seriously in his new home. Years later, while sitting in his music room jamming with his brother-in-law, the topic of humidification came up during a break. “At the time, I used a room humidifier that got the humidity to an adequate level,” he explains, “but it was going through about three gallons of water a day. I thought about plumbing it into the water line, but when you put humidity into a dry room, you end up with a lot of it going into the walls and insulation where it can cause problems with mold. I looked at a rack of guitars in the corner and said, “You know, we really just need to humidify where the guitars are,” and my brother-in-law, co-founder Roger Horneff– who’d been in the furniture business for many years – said “we can do that.” So we started looking into what products were in the market. There were a few, but they either looked too commercial, or didn’t have active humidification. We decided to build something that a guitar collector and musician would want. I did what no product manager is ever supposed to do: I built what I wanted. As we spent time trying to come up with a humidified cabinet for me, we started thinking that maybe people would want to buy these.”
And want them they do. American Music Furniture has 31, 455 Facebook likes. Their first project in 2013 – a prototype cabinet designed for display at The Great American Guitar Show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – was so popular that it generated cash offers right there on the exhibition floor. “People who invest in vintage, or new luthier-made instruments, appreciate what we do. We’ve delivered cabinets and watched as close to a million dollars in instruments went in. I always love seeing them filled,” Jennings says. When these instruments finally fill the cabinets, they are in the protection of a powerful humidifier, and an optional patent pending dehumidifier. This device is derived from an ionic membrane technology that’s primarily used to dehumidify security camera housings. It breaks down H2O into its separate elements and pumps the hydrogen out of the cabinet. “We discovered the technology early on and did a lot of testing with membranes we imported from the United Kingdom. We’re the only ones offering anything like it. It dehumidifies without generating heat or requiring the user to empty a water tank,” Jennings details.
“Making guitar collectors aware that such a product exists was a challenge in the beginning,” Jennings recalls. “I’d played guitar most of my life and didn’t know about a humidified guitar cabinet until I researched doing it myself. When we entered the market the handful of companies that made anything remotely like what we did never advertised. That’s when we bought ad space in Guitar Aficionado Magazine. That got the ball rolling. We advertise now in three or four magazines read by guitar players and collectors and that seems to work well. We’ve found Facebook has worked well for us, and we’ve gotten sales from people who originally saw our products there. I thought a remark from one of our Facebook followers really put it into focus: ‘Another product I didn’t know existed that I can’t live without.’”
The Guitar Habitat® is truly the flagship of American Music Furniture. This Humidity Controlled Guitar Cabinet is, in Jennings’ words, “stronger, better sealed, better performing, equipped with more features, and easier to build” than its predecessors. American black walnut and cherry are the predominant wood choices amongst a clientele that knows their woods, grains, and finishes. “We’ve done a few in maple and oak, and they looked great, but most customers tend to stick with the walnut and cherry. We work with a local arborist on most of our wood. Luckily we are in a location that’s great for the wood we need.”
Recently American Music Furniture forged a business partnership with both a local stained glass workshop and a guitar inlay workshop to offer the kinds of enhancements collectors and musicians alike want to see. “I see anything we do that reinforces quality, craftsmanship, and care as being important to our customers,” Jennings emphasizes.
These partnerships coincide with the launch of a new product called the String Habitat™, “for smaller instruments like mandolins, ukuleles, and violins,” Jennings says. “We’ve not built many of them yet, but it’s really nice, especially with stained glass on the top and sides. We use tempered glass, or on a small number of projects we use laminated glass. We always have to use one form of safety glass or another. The Low-E glass is UV resistant, and will block light in the ultra violet spectrum from getting through. I typically advise against it unless the cabinet is going next to a window with direct sunlight (which I also do not advise). You can block the UV rays, but there are rays outside the UV spectrum that will fade your guitar.”
Jennings scrutinizes the form and function of all of the designs not simply with his eyes wide open, but also his ears and the company’s patent pending Neck-Tie™ is proof. “A lot of our innovations come from working with customers to solve specific problems,” he explains. “For example, the neck retaining solution that became Neck-Tie™ was a result of working with a customer in Southern California who was worried about his guitars falling over in the cabinet during an earthquake.”
For guitar collectors and avid musicians who may not live in an area particularly prone to earthquakes but who still manage their collection as prudently as possible, American Music Furniture has just announced a partnership with d’Adarrio and their Humiditrak™ system to allow our customers to monitor the humidity in their cabinets remotely from their smart phone.
American Music Furniture also designs and manufactures Amplifier Cabinets in one or two amp configurations and Recording Desks that are sized to the customers specifications.
Jennings explains that many American Music Furniture customers are corporate executives, bankers, lawyers, doctors, or independent business people. “More often than not they’re people who have done well and acquired more than a few fine guitars. The typical customer is passionate about their instruments and wants to keep them properly cared for. Guitars that sold for one or two hundred dollars when I was in high school can be worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars today. Most of the cabinets are going into homes. Even the famous musicians who have our cabinets, like Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Jason Isbell, or Zac Brown guitarist Clay Cook, the cabinets end up at home as opposed to the studio.”
For Jennings the most memorable American Music Furniture moment has been building a cabinet for luthier Wayne Henderson. He was chronicled in the Allen St. John book Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument. “I read the book about 10 years ago when it first came out,” he explains. “Wayne is legendary. He has a list of requests from prospective customers that exceeds his remaining years as a luthier. He kind of builds what he wants to build for who he wants to build for. He builds 30-35 guitars a year and about half go to charities he supports, a handful go to friends, who are typically talented young musicians that Wayne spots and knows they’ll make good use of his instruments. When you go down to the Henderson Festival each June he’ll give one as a prize to the best player. He’s also made one for major stars like Vince Gill who come out to perform at the festival. I met Wayne at a house concert in Raleigh, North Carolina where he was playing. The “house” was the home of one of our customers and friends who invited me down because he thought Wayne would love our cabinets. Turned out he was right. Wayne offered to build me a guitar and trade me for a cabinet. I built the cabinet and we did our trade right before the last Henderson Festival. He’s a fine gentleman, and it’s one of the points of pride in my life that we could make something he’d want enough to trade me a guitar for it.”
The American Music Furniture team has been in business for nearly 40 months, operates in 3,000 square feet in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and hand-builds an average of three cabinets every week.
By David MacDonald