Lucky #13: NAMM & How the Kingwood Came to Telluride
For any guitar nut, no life experience can possibly compare to attending NAMM. NAMM is big. NAMM is overwhelming. NAMM is easily the loudest place I’ve ever been in my life. But NAMM is so many incredibly awesome things, too. 2018 was my first NAMM, and I loved every minute.
Hanging around guitar stores as a teenager, you hear all the cool stories about all the cool new gear all the cool people saw at NAMM. When I heard these stories, I burned with jealousy. In my mind, NAMM sounded like heaven on earth. At fourteen years old, I could imagine no greater pilgrimage than making the trek to the Anaheim Convention Center in January, and little has changed. NAMM is my Hajj.
In April 2017, Benjamin Preston and I formed Six Strings Music, LLC, which purchased Telluride Music Co. from David and Karen Lamb who owned the store for roughly 20 years. After working for Dave and Karen for six and a half years, I was ready to take a leap of faith and guide Telluride Music forward, and Ben and I believed attending NAMM and networking there was a critical step on the journey.
Our assistant manager Warren Gilbreath and I landed at LAX at about 7:30 a.m. on the first day of NAMM 2018. We had been stranded overnight in Phoenix, so we were operating on little sleep, fueled by mediocre hotel-lobby coffee. But for two guitar geeks, nothing will numb you to exhaustion quite like 800,000 square feet of cool, brand new gear. We were running on fumes and loving every minute of it.
It was the first NAMM show for both of us, and we were absolutely in our element. Even though our meeting with our Martin rep wasn’t until Saturday afternoon, we spent over an hour drooling over all the new guitars from Nazareth. The Custom Shop had an incredible spread of instruments built specifically for NAMM. These guitars debuted new tone-woods, finishes, and options the Custom Shop was developing. In many ways, these guitars showed the pinnacle of what Martin is able to achieve.
In particular, we were enamored with a Size 2 Parlor the Custom Shop brought with them. Even though we had played 100s of incredible guitars that day, we couldn’t get enough of this particular one. It was a tiny guitar with an impossibly pronounced voice, and it simply felt like Excalibur in your hands. On NAMM Day 1, we ended the day poring over a photo set of that guitar, wishing it was still in our hands.
Make no mistake—this was our first NAMM, and in many ways, we were the uninitiated. We didn’t really know what we were in for, but figuring it out was part of the fun. We had no idea that any of the Custom Shop guitars would be available for purchase, but despite that, the Size 2 Parlor remained fixed in our memory. I remember stealing glances at the photos of it all weekend, marveling at the intense figuring in the wood. I had never seen anything like it.
At 4 p.m. on Saturday, we finally had our meeting with our District Sales Manager at Martin. We were exhausted from three full days of NAMM. My ears were ringing, worn out from drum land, effect pedal demos, and Bootsy Collins meet-and-greets at what seemed like every booth. My fingertips were sore. We had played so many unbelievable instruments and made so many powerful connections. NAMM 2018 was already to be a great success. But when Steve explained how the lottery system worked on the Custom Shop guitars, we jumped out of our seats for the Size 2 Parlor.
As we eagerly filled our entry slip for the lottery, Danny Brown of the Custom Shop told us more about the Size 2 Parlor. The reason we had never seen wood quite like it was simply because we hadn’t, and we probably never would again. The back and sides on this gorgeous guitar were made out of Brazilian Kingwood, an extremely rare type of Brazilian Rosewood that grows as a much, much smaller tree than other variants. In the 18thand 19thcenturies, Kingwood was forested aggressively to supply the demands of European monarchs for gorgeous high-end furniture and cabinetry. This is how it acquired its name, and it is also unfortunately how it became so rare. So rare in fact that it is almost extinct. You could say obtaining a set suitable for a guitar would be an almost impossible endeavor.
In a story that sounded like something out of Indiana Jones, through contacts at a wood market in South America, the wood buyer for the Custom Shop found enough Kingwood for five guitar sets. These sets of Kingwood were forested at least 80 to 100 years ago, and because of the intense figuring, they are extremely temperamental and challenging to work with. When construction of the first Kingwood guitar began, five sets quickly became four sets when a side split as it was bent into shape.
This Size 2 was the first guitar completed using this special stock of Kingwood, and it will be the only Size 2 like it ever produced simply because it is unlikely Martin will ever locate comparable woods. This guitar is not only incredibly beautiful, but it may as well be made out of unobtainium. It also doesn’t hurt that its tone is other-worldly and its setup feels like butter. There will never be another one quite like it, and of the 16 Custom Shop guitars available through the NAMM lottery, this was “Lucky #13.” As fate would have it, we were also the 13thentry into the lottery.
The lottery began as soon as we finished our meeting. We had already planned to blow off NAMM Day Four in favor of Disneyland, so after three action-packed, unforgettable days, the lottery would be our last impression of our first NAMM. As the first few winners were called, familiar big-time online dealers took a commanding lead over small independent stores. The big boys can take the risk on whacky NAMM Specials, so perhaps it’s expected that they win these instruments. Despite other dealers’ practically assured victories, we seemed to be the only dealer in attendance—most of the other onlookers who weren’t Martin staff were passersby, following the spectacle of the lottery more out of curiosity than a vested interest in its outcome.
Then, Number 13 was up. As the guitar was held high for all to see, we realized this was the only lottery we entered. This was our only chance to bring a truly unique memento home from NAMM. As time slowed to a halt, the anticipation mounted, and a winning slip was pulled from the hat. The lottery announcer cleared his throat, and as he threw us a smirking, sidelong glance, all we heard was “Telluride Music!”
I clapped my hands and cheered loudly as Warren threw his hands straight into the air. As Warren called it on the field, Telluride Music Co. had indeed scored a touchdown. The call was confirmed, and we had won. The Kingwood was coming to Telluride. The post-NAMM beers couldn’t have tasted any sweeter.
It took six long weeks of waiting for “Lucky #13” to ship to us. As fate would have it, it sold exactly 13 days after it arrived. I will never forget this guitar, and in many ways, its story embodies the experience of my first NAMM. Guitars—and stories—like these are why I’m in this business. I hope 100 years from now someone opens this guitar’s case and wonders why it came to be called “Lucky #13.”