John Shults takes a seat on the front porch of his appropriately vintage, 107-year-old house on the Southside of Birmingham, Alabama, then asks his greyhound, Maisey, to sit as well. We jaw about life in the South, about his Sportster, and about the guitars he’s recently found; for the last four years, Shults has spent his days searching for the rarest, highest-quality, American-made vintage musical instruments.
Shults started collecting vintage instruments in college after a friend needed help finding a guitar. The 1972 Martin D-28 Shults found didn’t impress. “It was so surprising to me, ‘cause he said he wanted a new guitar and I just couldn’t understand that,” he says. But Shults saw the potential, bought it for himself, and a few months later sold the Martin for a profit, sparking the idea that he could use his love of vintage gear to make some extra cash during his time at the University of Alabama.
Shortly after graduating Shults and his wife moved to Nashville, Tennessee, as John pursued a career at Gibson Guitars. But after three months of reassuring meetings and promising interviews, Gibson passed him over in favor of an internal hire. The Shults family moved back to Birmingham and John went to work for his father’s commercial cleaning company.
I never really had anything I excelled at until this guitar thing came along. I couldn’t help but be successful at it. I couldn’t not do it well.
While working at the cleaning company, John continued hunting vintage guitars. With each guitar he bought and sold, his skills and passion grew. Shults grew up in a home led by two entrepreneurs and had learned the virtues and hardships of choosing an entrepreneurial life. “My dad started his company when I was six or seven years old,” says Shults. “There were some really lean years … Of course, we were kids, so we had no idea, lean or not.” He knew from a young age he would set out to make something of his own. “I never really had anything I excelled at until this guitar thing came along. I couldn’t help but be successful at it. I couldn’t not do it well.”
Shults embraced his gift and gave shape to his business, True Vintage Guitar. “My wife told me ‘Even if you fail, in a year we can revisit this thing.’ I was given the freedom to fail, man.” But he didn’t fail. Shults wandered the digital landscape, looking for rare and uncirculated instruments. Finding them was only one step; getting his hands on them was another. Shults spent countless nights sleeping in the back of his Nissan Quest, driving all day and night to pick up those uncommon guitars that are only found on the endless back roads across the rural South. “I remember when I first slept in the Quest,” Shults says. “I had driven all day to buy a ‘56 Gibson Country Western from this preacher. On the trip home I grabbed a pillow and blanket I had brought with me, and pulled into a gas station somewhere outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. I thought to myself, ‘This is the life.’”
The landscape of the vintage guitar market has changed dramatically in recent decades with the increasing pervasiveness of the internet. Where once a person with an old guitar had to find a brick-and-mortar shop to sell to, that same person now has access to a bounty of information and resources from the comfort of their couch. The irony of a vintage guitar shop growing out of the tangle of wires in the digital era is strong. While True Vintage Guitar mainly operates online, Shults makes a point to tip his hat to his predecessors. “I definitely stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “I don’t see the old shops as outdated at all. I have certainly benefited from their passion and expertise.”
Watch John handle a guitar, and his deep relationship with each instrument is obvious. He spends a little while playing each one, studying every nut and bolt, absorbing the finest details. More than anything, though, Shults loves learning about the guitars he buys, understanding where they came from and what they’ve seen. Last year, he bought an unmolested 1964 Fender Stratocaster from the wife of the original owner. He asked if she could find a picture of her husband playing it back in the ‘60s, or if she could share any stories about her husband’s musical career. The woman rustled around in boxes of papers and Polaroids, and returned with a photo of her husband playing the guitar, plugged into an amplifier on which he’d spray-painted his name across the grill cloth. Shults sees stuff like this all the time, and True Vintage Guitar’s website is home to dozens of incredible stories of real players and their guitars. The delicate extraction of these tales and his dedication to preserving the history and relationships that these people have with their instruments truly sets Shults apart from his contemporaries. “I never want to put out information on these people that is inappropriate or too personal, but I think telling the story of where the guitars come from is something the original owner would be proud of,” he explains. “This is more than just a business deal to make some cash. This is history … this is music!”
In just a few years, True Vintage Guitar has evolved from a young hobbyist selling budget vintage gear out of his dorm room to a respected purveyor of top-tier vintage instruments to some of the world’s biggest players and collectors. Often, the retail side of vintage can be cold or disconnected from an item’s history, and John’s dedication to not only quality and rarity, but to the story of each individual instrument, shows the source of his drive and continual success. The story of True Vintage Guitar is not only about guitars; it’s anthropology. It’s a look into the deeply human need to create — a need that can’t be met until we remove the pressure of success and allow ourselves the freedom to fail.