Chattanooga, Tennessee (located a few hours outside of Nashville) has not typically been known for its cache of vintage instruments, pedals, and amplifiers. . . until now!
I recently visited Songbirds Guitar Museum for their grand opening and was able to talk about the facility with Vince Gill (Ambassador), Johnny Smith (President), and David Davidson (COO & curator). The instruments are contained in the second story of the historic Terminal Train Station, offering 7,500 square feet of space with custom built wooden cases with glass fronts for viewing and a humidity controlled vault in the back of the building for the highest valued instruments. Johnny Smith is very involved in the building and how the patrons enjoy their museum experience. He highly recommends the guided tour to get the most out of the collection, but also understands some people like to take their time, especially at their favorite guitar or bass display. David Davidson has been acquiring instruments for this particular collection for over nineteen years and originally got into guitars when he was only 12 years old. Davidson told me that he is constantly seeking new pieces to add to the collection and has a few more key areas to complete still.
Speaking with Country Music Grammy Award winner and now Ambassador for Songbirds, Vince Gill is very proud of the display case at the museum featuring his name, albums, and instruments that are reflective of his career. Gill stated, “It’s historical that you can come through here and understand music’s history by seeing some of these guitars.” When asked how this compared to his personal collection of instruments Vince said, “I’m smoked big time, but what’s neat about this collection is it isn’t just quantity. What I’ve been astounded by is the quality of the pieces they’ve collected over the years. You’re seeing great examples of great American made instruments that are unmodified.”
Upon entering the museum, a small gift shop and counter are off to your left side, but directly in front of you is the winged guitar Songbirds logo representing the music that has been created with these pieces over the years. The instruments are gathered in clusters per their era or style, and some feature amplifiers, pedals, and memorabilia that is also period correct.
For Fender fans, there are 300 custom color instruments, including a variety of one-of-a-kind pieces, and some I had only seen in books or documentaries. The Gibson Firebird collection would have thrilled Johnny Winter, as it contains over 75 custom color birds on a long wall of the museum. There is also a performance stage toward the middle of the room, and upcoming artists include fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel, with more artists being booked for the rest of 2017, per Smith.
Songbirds currently has 700 instruments on display, and another 1,000 in storage that will be cycled through every two to three months to keep things fresh for frequent visitors and members. Besides the well-organized instrument displays, the number of vintage tube amplifiers was mesmerizing, and they are kept in the lower shelves for viewing.
I was only able to spend a few brief hours at Songbirds Guitar Museum, but I plan to go again for a full day and arrive when the doors open so I won’t miss anything.
From a historical perspective, it isn’t required that one be a guitar nerd, since the instruments on display are visually gathered to reflect the eras that they were built and first played in, from the 1920’s through the 70’s. Vince Gill said, “Some of the most collectible guitars in the world are here, including the Les Pauls’ from ‘58, ‘59, and 1960. They have 34 examples of those, and they probably only have a handful out. I think what’s neat about this collection is a lot of people are going to get to experience it, and that’s what is really the most important, as well as for young people to see instruments like these and get involved with music.”
Not to be overlooked, the museum also features an extensive selection of Gibson ES models, Gretsch guitars, and Bluegrass oriented flattops, banjos, and mandolins from the Gibson and Martin families. The major display themes at this time are Surf Music, British Invasion, Bluegrass, and of course Vince Gill! Songbirds has partnered with “We Buy Guitars” so they can provide appraisals on instruments for the public and handle purchases through their New York offices. Besides concerts, Songbirds will also be conducting periodic “Vintage Guitar Authentication Workshops” that will be held at the property, along with free guitar lessons for the public in the future. Songbirds is also available to host outside events in the museum that include catering, and of course music. Christie Carter, of Carter Vintage Guitars, and George Gruhn, of Gruhn Guitars, were both in attendance at the opening event and admiring the instruments and amps in the exhibit. I have personally directed a number of friends and family to make the pilgrimage to visit the new museum.
Locals have told me there are also other things to do in Chattanooga, like the Tennessee Aquarium, Rocky City, Lookout Mountain, Hunter Museum of American Art, and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. But, to be honest, all of that kind of feels like filler when all I want to do is take in the Songbirds museum at my leisure and with a camera!
Individual tickets to the exhibit are $15.95 plus tax (children under 12 are free), family 4 packs are $54.25, and All Access Tours guided tours are $38.95 per person. Hours are 10am to 6pm Monday through Wednesday, 10am-8pm Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday 12pm to 6pm. Check the website for special hours on the All Access Tours. Songbirds Guitar Museum is located at 35 Station Street in Chattanooga, and don’t be surprised if you bump into Vince Gill or some other Country Music stars as they are enjoying this incredible collection of playable artwork! Give yourself more than a few hours to fully take in the Songbirds collection, or you’ll be like me and need to visit again and maybe again as new instruments rotate in and out.