Songbirds Guitar Museum Opens with the Best Instruments from Private Collections

April 10th, 2017

This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features from our Country Music Special Issue—including interviews with country music legend Vince Gill and top-flight picker Brent Mason—plus the guitar design innovations of late jazz giant Tal Farlow, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.

Songbirds cofounders Johnny Smith (left) and David Davidson.

COMMUNITY COLLECTION: The Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga exhibits the
best instruments from private collectors, sharing them in the public spotlight.

By Alan di Perna | Photography by Jeff Fasano

“We decided to build a Mecca for guitar lovers,” Songbirds Guitar Museum curator and COO David Davidson says. Located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, inside the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Terminal Station, Songbirds is indeed destined to become a pilgrimage site for vintage guitar connoisseurs and music fans in general. With some 550 rare, fascinating, and beautiful electric and acoustic guitars on display as of the museum’s March 10 opening, Songbirds represents an interesting new concept in musical instrument museums. There is no permanent collection. Instead the instruments are on loan from many of the world’s foremost collectors, who prefer to remain anonymous. Audio-video material, artifacts, and other onsite resources help bring the stories of these exceptional instruments to life.

“I was reluctant to call this place a museum,” says Johnny Smith, Songbirds’ president and co-founder. “I love museums, but they tend to have an environment that’s respectful, quiet, very clean, and polished. I wanted Songbirds to be rock and roll—loud, flashy, and exciting.”

Davidson and Smith began formulating the idea for the attraction several years ago. As co-owner of the New York vintage dealership We Buy Guitars, Davidson had cultivated deep connections within the guitar-collecting community, having procured coveted instruments for many collectors. He began to talk to his clients about lending some of their guitars to an institution where they could be viewed and appreciated by the general public.

“It’s a way of giving something back to the guitar community,” Davidson says. “There are only so many toys someone can have. Although it was not my place to volunteer up their guitars at any point, it really came down to the fact that this was a golden opportunity. Everybody’s getting a little bit older and, let’s face it, there is no more Beatles. If people were not made aware of vintage guitars for what they are, I feared—we all feared—that, 20 years from now, these things could all be firewood.”

The duo began scouting locations for the new museum, eventually settling on Chattanooga. “We looked at many locations, including New York, L.A., Boston, Seattle, and Nashville,” Davidson explains. “But we felt that most of these places are saturated with other museums and things to do during the day, whereas Chattanooga is an up-and-coming city.”

Creating the museum’s space within the historic train station was a $4.5 million project, masterminded by architect Thomas Palmer of the Chattanooga firm Cogent Studio. Layers of plaster and terra cotta tile were removed to reveal the structure’s original brickwork and steel beams. In an echo of the interior’s architectural features, display cases for the instruments and artifacts were custom-fabricated from steel and reclaimed hardwood by Range Products of Chattanooga.

Of the museum’s total 7,500 square feet, about 6,700 are devoted to exhibit space. The instruments on display span the full range of vintage American electric and acoustic guitars and include a selection of banjos and mandolins.

“It’s all vintage—no reissues,” Davidson says. “We don’t have refinished guitars or guitars that have been modified or damaged and put back together. We take a lot of pride in that.” Davidson places the value of the instruments on exhibit at approximately $150 million, which isn’t surprising, considering that more than 30 sunburst Gibson Les Pauls from the legendary 1958–’60 period are on display. On the acoustic front, there’s a trove of pre-war Martins as well as a trio of 1924 instruments by iconic luthier Lloyd Loar: a Gibson F-5 mandolin, an H-5 mandola, and an L-5 archtop guitar, all with inside labels signed by Loar.

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  • Fletch

    Guitar Museums: where instruments meant to be played go to die.

    Why are these instruments silent?

    There’s a reason Stradivari violins still exist: they’re played.

    Instruments are meant to be played, not imprisoned behind glass.