Strings Attached

Picker’s Supply is a guitar museum, and so much more.

A 1928 Gibson L-1, the first model of guitar that Gibson made.

Photography by Jennifer Chase

At first glance, Picker’s Supply seems like an ordinary instrument shop—amplifiers, ukuleles, and bass guitars adorn the front aisles, and classic rock lingers in the air, punctuated by the sound of customers tentatively thumping, strumming, and banging prospective purchases. 

“We buy and sell guitars and other instruments, offer lessons, appraise them, repair them, and do consignments,” says owner Bran Dillard, whose store has been in downtown Fredericksburg since 1975. “Currently, we have at least 400 vintage instruments on sale or on consignment.”

Wander a bit and you’ll learn why, to many musicians, this is a sacred space. The affable Dillard, with his sandy beard and encyclopedic knowledge of anything with strings attached, leads a visitor to the back where stacked lines of unique guitars and other musical oddities sit inside glass showcases. “This represents the evolution of Americana music,” he says. 

In addition to small, odd-shaped guitars, mandolins, and banjos, there are rare examples of banjo-guitars, cello-banjos, mandocellos—most from the early 20th century, and many handmade by the illustrious brands Martin and Gibson. Resophonic guitars line a wall. Affixed with amplifying aluminum cones, these revered survivors were briefly popular in the ’30s before electric guitars came on the scene. 

Very few of the aged axes in this room are priced below $1,000, and some, such as a Roy Rogers tribute guitar inlaid with roping of red, white, and yellow gold (only five exist), list for $50,000 or more. Dillard takes the instrument out of the showcase and points out how, on the front, a pearl-laden likeness of cowboy star Rogers is rearing up on Trigger, his horse. “And on the back of the neck, he’s riding off into the sunset,” he says. 

“If you’re a musician and you wanted to find inventory like this, you’d have to drive 500 miles in either direction,” says store manager Matt Montoro. “Most people can’t just go into one place and play nine different vintage guitars like these. If you’re looking for a guitar from a particular era, you can either search on eBay and hope for the best, or you can come here and actually try them out.” Musicians ranging from bluegrass stalwart Tony Rice and jazz legend Joe Pass to Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, Zakk Wylde, have done just that. 

The shop’s oldest guitar, an early Martin displayed in its original rectangular “coffin case,” is from 1868. Next to it, on display, is a large 19th-century photo of author Mark Twain playing the same make and model. “The original owner’s grandmother bought it for him. You can see faint marks where the man did his homework on it,” Dillard says. “Of course, it should have nylon strings. Guitars of that age were made for parlor music.” 

Picker’s Supply also has rarities that aren’t displayed, like a Gibson F-5 mandolin from 1923, manufactured the same day that bluegrass father Bill Monroe’s famous mandolin was created. Price tag: $175,000. “There are certain items we don’t want to have manhandled,” Dillard says, “and I don’t want to have to keep wiping drool off of them.”

Joe Latham discusses a repair with a customer.

For Dillard and his staff, the stories behind the instruments are just as important as their rarity. There’s a seven-string fretless banjo from 1890, sourced from an Alexandria woman who found more than 100 rare instruments that a family member had secretly hoarded. “It’s an English banjo,” says Dillard, adding, “I bought 40 of her instruments and sold 40 for her.”

Back in the ’70s, when he began building his inventory, no one used the word “vintage,” Dillard says. “It was just old, or used. Back then, I didn’t have enough money to buy franchises of the big-name companies, so I would wait and buy used guitars. I went down south to all of the pawn shops.” These days, because Picker’s Supply offers appraisals and repairs, people bring their treasures in, or the store sells them on consignment. “If it’s a family member selling, I do try to talk them out of it. I tell them, you are going to regret selling this.” 

But it’s not just about collecting, salesclerk Thad Taylor says. “We get the normal guitar customers coming in, too, like kids playing electric guitar or getting their first acoustics.” 

“Picker’s is an amazing place, one of last of the dinosaurs,” says folk guitarist and Fredericksburg native Daniel Bachman. He and his guitarist father, Jon, are longtime patrons. “In fact, they recently recommended that I use a new type of string on my guitar, Flatwood Bronze, and that’s what I use today.” 

On the second floor of the building, there’s a 99-person venue space that has, over the years, served rock bands, theater companies, and folk and bluegrass concerts. “We present something we call Vintage Guitar Tone Tastings,” Dillard says. “I bring in a clinician, and we talk about the evolution in guitar sizes and the difference between the woods—rosewood, mahogany, and maple wood. And then they do a concert.” Up-and-coming Appalachian guitarist Brandon Lee Adams is scheduled for Sept. 6, ace pickers Larry Wexer and Troy Engle will appear on Oct. 26, and Nashville session ace Dave Cleveland will appear on Nov. 30. 

Upstairs, you’ll also find eight studio spaces used by instructors who teach guitar, banjo, piano, and other instruments. Among the students here was the late progressive folk guitarist Jack Rose. “We currently have 13 teachers serving 200 students,” says assistant manager Jeffrey Levine, the lesson coordinator. 

Twenty-something customer Rebecca Baker approaches the counter and tells Levine that she wants to sign up her younger sister Mary for piano lessons. “I used to learn guitar here at Picker’s Supply when I was a kid,” she says. “I still play, just for myself, for fun. And now I’m helping to keep the tradition alive.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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