From time to time I read something very interesting, or I write something that I would like to share with collectors and lovers of American-made upright plywood basses.  
I hope you will find these pearls of wisdom helpful in understanding the appreciation I have for vintage upright basses and their contribution to all types of American music.
I read this article on the Gruhn website a while back and it really resonated with us. Being both collectors and musicians we can see both sides of the coin.  
We hope you enjoy this gem of an article, I know I did.

Copyright from Gruhn Newsletter #28, September 2006 

Collectors vs. musicians:

Periodically, and usually in periods when prices on vintage fretted instruments are rising rapidly, we hear more and more complaints that rich collectors are pushing prices so high that the finest guitars, mandolins and banjos are being taken out of the hands of musicians. Not only is it claimed that musicians are being deprived of the opportunity - or, as some would go so far as to say, their right - to play these instruments, but the public is also being deprived of the experience of hearing the best instruments played by the best musicians.

This is hardly a new complaint. It's been circulating for almost 200 years, ever since the emergence of violin collectors in the early 1800s. And the argument was as groundless then as it is now. 

The basic premise is that collectors are greedy hoarders who take instruments out of circulation and in effect deprive needy and deserving musicians of fine original vintage instruments. Let's address the last part of this premise first. Are musicians really deserving of these instruments? Well, yes and no. We would all prefer to hear the finest musicians playing on the finest instruments, of course. Would we want to hear Sam Bush, for example, play Bill Monroe's 1923 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F-5, which is now owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum? Absolutely. It's no different than when the owners of Stradivarius violins loan them out to the top violinists. Few could argue that by virtue of his talent, Bush deserves a turn on Bill's F-5.

But would it be okay if a legendary mandolin player took a Loar F-5 and sawed off the fingerboard extension, threw away the pickguard, installed a pickup with a jack mounted through the rim, and played it hard, night after night, until the frets, fingerboard and finish were completely worn out? Of course not. That would be an outrage. Fortunately, we don't know of anyone who's done all of that to a Loar F-5, but we do know of a mandolin player who dug out the Gibson logo, scraped off the finish and broke the headstock scroll off of his Loar F-5. It was Bill Monroe. And you don't have to go very far in the bluegrass mandolin world to find another seemingly egregious example of "customizing" by legendary musicians. This time it was a 1937 F-5 and it had the braces shaved, the finish removed and the top sanded down. The "offending" parties were Norman Blake and John Hartford, and the mandolin became the famous "Hoss" owned by Sam Bush.

We really shouldn't vilify musicians for that sort of treatment. After all, they're just being pragmatic. As professional musicians they have to make a living with their instruments and the instruments must be up to the task at hand. Nevertheless, that is what musicians do to instruments. They customize them in ways that destroy originality. We see proof of this every day. On the day that we started composing this newsletter, for example, we took in a wonderful-sounding National Triolian with the paint completely scraped off the top and sides, and a 1920s Stella 12-string with miserably repaired side cracks. Both had been abused - by a musician in the case of the National and by an inept repairman in the case of the Stella - to the point where repair and restoration would cost more than the instrument was worth. 

Like the basic complaint, abused instruments go back at least far as the violins of the early 1800s. Musicians were not only playing them and inflicting normal wear and tear, they were customizing them, thinning down the tops, doing radical re-graduations and replacing the necks. The result is appalling: There are no fully original Stradivarius violins left anywhere in the world. Every one of them has had some kind of modification or repair. All but six have a non-original neck. Guitar collectors complain about a broken solder joint or a replaced tuner. Think what it would be like if all but six of the sunburst Les Pauls and pre-CBS Stratocasters had a replaced neck.

Who replaced those necks and made all those other modifications to the Strads? It wasn't the collectors. It was musicians and their repairmen - the same sort of people who have gouged out pickup cavities, shaved the necks, refinished with canned spray paint, and performed countless other atrocities on Les Pauls and Strats and other vintage treasures. Sooner or later, as musical tastes and musical styles change, it would happen to virtually every instrument if left in the possession of musicians.

Again, musicians should not necessarily be vilified for this, because few would knowingly damage a valuable instrument. More often, they merely "upgraded" a utility instrument. When Bill Monroe did what he did to his F-5 in the early 1950s, it wasn't worth $175,000 or more, which is what a pristine Loar-signed F-5 would bring today without the Monroe association. Monroe had just gotten his F-5 back from the Gibson factory, where he'd sent it for neck work. Whatever Gibson did or didn't do it, when Monroe got it back he was so angry that he removed the offending finish as well as the logo and the headstock scroll. At that point his mandolin may have been worth even less to him than the $150 he paid a Florida barbershop for it in the mid 1940s. Similarly, the violinists at the beginning of the 1800s had no idea that their Strads would skyrocket in value by the 1820s and would eventually be worth millions. When Loar F-5s, prewar D-45s, sunburst Les Pauls and pre-CBS Strats were new, no one could have known that their value might appreciate a hundred-fold or even a thousand-fold in four or five decades.

Ironically the same people we're accusing of damaging vintage instruments were also the first to recognize the value of these instruments. It was musicians in the early 1800s who discovered that the new factory-made violins were inferior to the older Italian instruments, and it was musicians in the mid 1960s who discovered that new Martins, Gibsons and Fenders didn't measure up to some of the older versions. Although Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe acquired their main instruments in the 1940s, they can still be ranked with Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stephen Stills and other legends of the 1960s whose preference for older instruments caused other musicians as well as fans to gain an appreciation for these instruments and a desire to own them. In current times, there has been much talk in financial forums about building "portfolios" of instruments in the same cold, calculated way that investors play the stock market, but virtually every collector whom we know began buying instruments not as investments, but out of an emotional interest in the music, the musicians and the instruments themselves.

It's a short step from owning a special item to wanting to protect it, and that's where the accusation begins that collectors take instruments out of circulation. It's true, but only to a point. Owners of valuable violins routinely loan them to musicians so that they can be appreciated by the masses. The nature of rock and roll performance makes this a more dangerous proposition for a Les Paul or Stratocaster than for a Strad in a symphony setting, but owners of great instruments generally like to hear them played. The late Scott Chinery, who acquired a fabulous collection of guitars in the 1990s, once hosted a party to celebrate his Blue Collection of commissioned archtops, and he opened up his display cases to provide such notable guitarists as Tal Farlow, Arlen Roth, Jimmy Vivino and G.E. Smith with instruments for a jam session. While Chinery may have taken these instruments out of general circulation and into protective custody, he by no means retired them. 

Continuing with Chinery as an example, his death released many of these instruments back into circulation. The other high-profile collection of the 1990s, that of Japanese businessman Akira Tsumura, unexpectedly returned into circulation when Tsumura ran into legal troubles. Fretted instruments, when properly cared for, can have a life expectancy of hundreds of years, so unless an instrument ends up in a museum (where it still may be played on occasion), its "captivity" in a collection is only temporary. And it can enjoy better treatment in a collection, especially when it comes to repair and restoration, than it would in the hands of a working musician. 

Contrary to the basic argument, collectors ultimately cause more instruments to be put into circulation than they take out. In the case of violins, dealers and collectors scoured Europe for old Italian instruments, and they discovered them sitting unused, collecting dust in monasteries, in private homes, in the estates of the original makers, etc. The same is true of the collectors who started in the 1960s looking for fretted instruments. For every one they took out of circulation, they uncovered dozens that they put back into circulation. In my own personal case, for every one instrument that I wanted to keep, I would turn up a hundred pieces that were of no personal interest to me but were cheap enough that I could resell them, which put them back into circulation (and, of course, provided funding for me to search further for the instruments I collected). Often enough these were discovered in poor homes where they were not cared for, in closets and in attics that were unheated and uncooled. If they had not been found by people like me they might have been thrown in the trash in some cases, or modified, refinished or in some other way "repaired." Or worse. One collector I know went to visit the owner of an original five-string flathead Mastertone and found the owner's kids using the resonator as a sled in the snow. I feel safe in saying that no collector has ever treated an instrument that way. 

Collectors also make a great contribution in the area of education. Their passion for instruments has driven much of the research and the books and articles that have been published on vintage instruments. Many of those who criticize collectors might not have ever heard of their coveted instruments in the first place had it not been for collectors' educational contributions.

The biggest complaint about collectors is that they drive prices up. That's true, but that's the nature of any open market where demand exceeds supply. Collectors can't do anything about it, nor can dealers. Even if the buyers were all musicians, with no collectors allowed, as long as the demand for a certain instrument is greater than the supply, musicians would drive prices higher. Then the complaint would be that rich musicians were taking instruments out of the hands of equally deserving but less affluent musicians. The upside of rising prices is that they protect the instruments. As we've already discussed, instruments with no value get no respect. Most of these collectible instruments come back into the market eventually, and when they do, they have been well cared for, and their increased values will ensure that owners will continue to take good care of them.

As a final note, let's imagine what would happen if disgruntled musicians got what they wished for, and all the instruments in collections were released to musicians. Then you would really have some angry musicians, because there just aren't enough instruments to go around. There were only 91 prewar Martin D-45s to start with, and many of those have been butchered. There were less than 2100 herringbone D-28s. Maybe 250 Loar-signed Gibson F-5 mandolins. Only a handful of original Gibson five-string flathead Mastertones. An estimated 1700 sunburst Les Pauls. If these instruments were handed out to musicians to use as utility tools, they would either be further damaged, to the point that soon there would be no original examples in existence, or else musicians would take better care of them and put them in protective custody, and then they would become their worst nightmare - collectors. 

George Gruhn and Walter Carter 
Here is a little something I wrote one day when asked how to shop for a vintage Kay bass.

This was my reply:

If you are looking to buy vintage American made plywood bass you need to have a checklist of what to look for and what to avoid.  As we have become collector’s we have developed a mental checklist we go through when auditioning a bass.  I’ll take a stab at recording our check list of what to look for when we look at a vintage American made plywood bass.  

This maybe a little more specific to the classified ad or pawn shop buyer who in looking for a good bass at a reasonable price.  If you are going the Craigslist route please be very careful and have lots of communication with the seller before you drive to look at the bass. Always take someone with you and let your family or a friend know where you are going. This maybe overkill, we live in a world where you can never be too safe.

If you have an established relationship with a bass luthier asks if the bass can be inspected by them.  If you don’t have a luthier consider how much potential work the bass may require and if you want to invest your money in a “potential” playable bass verse buying a 100% gig ready player.

1.When you see the bass for the very first time does it give you that “ooh-ah” feeling? Your first visual impression is the same first impression you will give at every jam or gig you play.  If you are a perfectionist that needs every thing to be pristine and perfect, the bass needs that same look.  If you are going for the vintage mojo vibe and you want the bass to have visual character, it should look that way right now.  Also be prepared for comments on the appearance of your bass.  My favorite player, my 1941 Epiphone B-1 is worn and looks like a rat chewed on it.  Are you thick skinned enough to handle the comments whether they be kind or degrading when you play the bass in public.  May sound silly but I have seen players get offended at off the wall comments about their “vintage mojo bass”.

2.Grab the bass and feel the neck.  Do you like the neck profile and over stand?  Does the bass feel good from the first note?  Can you get around the upper bouts in different playing positions?  Is the rib thickness comfortable for your playing style?  If you play sitting down take your stool along and try the bass from that position.  If you play arco take your bow along and put the bass through its paces.

3.How does the bass sound right now?  Is the set up suited to your style of playing or will you need to put some money in set up and strings ($200-$800)?  If you have a sound in your head and the bass is not even close, be realistic that strings and set up can only do so much.  Are there buzzing sounds or any odd noise coming from the bass.  Can you locate the source of the noise?

4.Play the bass and listen to it from your playing position.  Have someone else play the bass for you.  Stand out in front at 5 feet and then 20 feet and listen to the bass.  Does the sound of the bass bloom from a distance.

5.Once you like the looks and the sound of the bass and feel it is worthy of an inspection take your time and carefully look at the bass.  Take along a bright flash light and long handled mirror (if possible) for a good look at the inside of the bass.

Start at the scroll and go down the bass looking over every inch in a “check list” like           fashion.

Is the scroll original, does it have any repairs?  Are the volutes in tack or replaced?

Are the tuner plates secure?

Are there any loose vibrating tuner screws or tuner keys?

Is the nut in good shape; are the slots the correct size for the strings?

Is the neck and fingerboard comfortable?  Has it been shaved down or can it be re-dressed many times?  Is the fingerboard making full contact with the neck (source for a vibration) is there any buzzing from the fingerboard in different octaves.  There may be high spots on the fingerboard that cause annoying buzzing in only certain open notes.

Has the neck been broken?  If it has, was it repaired properly or does it have wood screws and dowel rods.  There is nothing wrong with a quality repair if the bass plays well. However, if the repairs are not proper and the neck breaks again, there is potential for costly repairs down the road.  Many of the vintage basses will require a neck reset during its life time.  It is to be expected as the hide glue they are assembled with deteriorates over time with use, heat and improper care. 

Look at the top of the bass.  Has the top plate begun to sink?  Is the bridge tall enough for a comfortable string height?  Look in the FF holes for the sound post position and bass bar. Look for signs of interior delaminating of the plywood. Does it look like the bass has been in water or smells of mildew?  Tap on the front of the bass over the bass bar, does it sound solid from top to bottom.  If you hear a vibration and can press down the top plate of the bass over the bass bar area and quiet the vibration?  It maybe a sign the bass bar is coming loose (potential costly back off repair).

Is the bridge in the proper position and center aligned with notches in the FF holes?  Has the bridge been shimmed to raise the string height or compensate for a sinking top?

Is the tail piece in the correct position?  It’s the plastic rib in good condition (the plastic rib can deteriorate over time) is the tail wire or tail cord in good condition and lying correctly over the saddle.

Does the end pin work properly and free of rattling.  Pull the end pin out to different heights and play the bass.  A rattle can develop when the rod is completely collapsed.

Look at the back of the bass to see if the sound post has created a dome on the back of the bass. If the sound post is too long it can push through the back or out the top of the bass.  The domed back around a sound post is common in an early vintage plywood bass.  There may be nothing wrong and many times this “character mark” can not be altered or repaired.

Check the all the seams around the out side edge of the bass.  Open seams are an easy fix but a source of annoying vibrations.  If you can shine the flash light inside the bass and see light through and open seam it needs to be fixed as you are loosing tone and volume.

If you have given the bass a through test drive for tone and playability AND a complete health inspection AND you still love it for all its quirks and maladies…put it on your list of possibilities.  Then go through this same check list as many times as it takes to find the bass that suits your playing style, your pocket book and your musical desire.

If you are not a risk taker to deal with strangers like Craigslist or skilled in making assessments about the condition of a bass you should consider a 100% gig ready bass that has been restored or has survived in good condition.  When buying a completely restored bass you will know exactly how it sounds, plays and is in good health for many years to come with proper care and safe playing.  There is a price for peace of mind.  Good luck and enjoy the journey…it is half the fun of finding the right musical partner to express yourself.
Here is another good quote from an interview with George Gruhn.  This refers to guitars but applies to any vintage instruments.  This pretty much defines us as true collectors first, musicians second and speculators…hope we never get there.  

Different audience, different players, but most of the people who collect guitars do play. They are not necessarily professional musicians. Most professional musicians don’t make enough money to have a huge guitar collection, and musicians are not really collectors in the sense that they’re not that concerned with the history of the instrument. They want a working utility tool. They’re not overly concerned with how original it is, and they often don’t take very good care of them.

I’d say I have three basic categories of buyers: musicians wanting a utility tool, collectors, and at least from 2002 to the present, a lot of speculators. It’s just like with antique furniture. Some people buy antiques just because they like them and really want a piece of furniture. If they’re buying a rocking chair, they like one that’s comfortable because they’re going to sit on it, and it has to fit the decor of their house. There are other people who are collectors, and they will pay far more money than the people who simply wanted a utility piece of furniture or a utility guitar. They tend to be more sophisticated in their knowledge. They have an agenda and they’re keenly aware of the gaps in their collection.

The real collectors, they’re just like stamp collectors and coin collectors. The ones who really collect look all their life for this particular stamp and when they get it, they don’t want to simply turn right around and sell it right away. That would be no fun. But the speculators don’t want to hold it long. They want to hold it maybe six months to no more than a year, and then flip it. They’d be horrified of the prospect of actually being unable to sell it with a profit within a year. The ones who are really diligently collecting for many, many years are not anxious to sell it. They hate to sell it.
Don’t be hate’in on a Kay

From time to time I am the defender of vintage American-made plywood basses.  Here is point and counter point taken from the Talk Bass discussion board.  It amuses me sometimes (and irritates me other times) how bass players can made such large sweeping opinion about one brand of bass.  Even if you don’t like a Kay you have to value the contribution they have made to American music.

TB: Kay’s were good basses. They were bottom rung entry level instruments.

Wendy: Agreed, Kay’s were originally made as an entry level bass to a specific standard for school students.  They were meant to fill a purpose for teaching young students music.  With out this entry level, mass produced bass many of us would not had the opportunity to be introduced to the upright bass.  While you are entitled to your opinion that all Kay basses suck, I think there should be some level of appreciation for their contribution to American music.  There are a lot of very famous musicians from the late 1930’s into the 1950’s that made their mark on music playing a Kay bass.  That is somewhat like “throwing the baby out the window with the bath water”.  Ray Brown was known to play a Kay…and he did not suck.

TB: The tuning pegs sucked.

Wendy: The Kluson tuners were used on Kay and Epiphone.  If you like and Epiphone bass you like Kluson tuners.

TB: The heel at the base of the neck broke.

Wendy: Agreed, but I have basses other then Kay’s with broken necks.  Kay basses were the main workhorses of their era.  They got banged around a lot.  Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys were known to strap the bass to the top of the car so all six members of the band would fit inside the car.  There are stories of dumping water out of the FF holes before they went on stage to play.  Many of these vintage basses (Kay, AS, Epi, and King) survived a lot. That alone makes me respect their contribution to the music.

TB: The neck gave you tendonitis.

Wendy: You play any top quality instrument everyday, of every year and there is bound to be a few folks who get injured.  Today we call that carpel tunnel syndrome and you can get that from banging out TB discussion board replies.

TB: The tops would cave in.

Wendy: Yep, especially the early three ply top Kay’s that were made during the era of gut strings. When player began to put steel strings on a three ply Kay top…they sunk.  Not the basses fault.  They were built for a lower tension gut string.

TB: Most people would buy an American Standard or an Epiphone if they could.

Wendy: I own all three brands of these basses…and more then one of them.  Kay, AS, Epi and King each have unique characteristics.  And if you are lucky enough to have one from each decade you can study the changes in the manufacturing.  Defending a Kay over an AS or Epi is like loving one child more then another.  Each manufacture has their merits and their short falls.  I appreciate each manufactures for what they were.

TB: Kay’s were about $50 to $75 used, in the late 60's and early 70's when gigs played $50 to $150. Players could hardly wait to trade up. A used Pohlmann went for around $600. Kay’s were cheap and plentiful, you could knock them around and get another one when they broke, which they did often.

Wendy: And this my friend is the very reason why a pristine original Kay today demands a premium.  There were approximately 30,000 Kay basses made from 1937-1968.  They were used in school, night clubs, outdoor jams and any other places you did not want to take a Pohlmann bass.  Kay’s have their place in our American music history.  You can say they suck.  I say thank goodness there was an entry level bass that Americans could afford to explore their music passions, these basses made some awesome contributions.  Love them or leave them, they have there place in our history.

The Lacey Act…another great interview from George Gruhn (my hero) about an obscure law that prevents shipping vintage instrument internationally.  

Guild of American Luthiers information...great document!

Before George Gruhn opened a vintage guitar shop in downtown Nashville, he pursued a different passion: zoology.

He began collecting insects, frogs and turtles at age four. He went on to earn degrees in animal behavior and zoology from the University of Chicago and Duke University. Today, 15 snakes and an African Gray Parrot populate his office at Gruhn Guitars at 4th and Broadway, where he identifies the features of vintage guitars much as he once classified wild animals.

But the self-described Democrat and environmentalist has no love for federal and international laws aimed at protecting endangered species. One of his top targets is the century-old Lacey Act, which attracted national scrutiny after federal agents raided Nashville-based Gibson Guitar last summer.

Gruhn says he essentially stopped buying and selling guitars internationally after amendments to the Lacey Act in 2008 barred imports of wood that were illegally exported under another country’s laws.

International trade once accounted for 40 percent of Gruhn’s business, and he said giving it up costs him more than $2 million a year in lost sales. But he doesn’t think the bureaucratic hurdles set up by the Lacey Act and other conservation laws give him much choice.

“It’s currently easier to get a passport and visa to travel to Pakistan than it is to legally ship a (vintage) Martin guitar,” said Gruhn. “They’ve made it actual living hell to import or export such a thing, and that’s what my business relied on.”

Vintage-guitar merchants like Gruhn must deal with as many as three different federal agencies when they ship guitars internationally: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

To import guitars into the U.S., retailers must fill out a Lacey Act declaration saying the wood in the guitar was harvested legally under the exporting country’s laws — in addition to the usual customs paperwork and inspections. If a guitar contains wood that was exported illegally, the retailer could be forced to forfeit the guitar, pay a fine, or possibly even spend time in prison.

Even more problematic, Gruhn said, is the web of export regulations established by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a 37-year-old international agreement that bans trade in endangered animals and plants.

Some of the endangered species listed by CITES, such as Brazilian rosewood, ivory and tortoiseshell, are regularly used to make vintage guitars and other instruments. Instruments made before the CITES protections were enacted can still be traded internationally, but they require inspections and extensive paperwork.

Here’s how Tennessee retailers get approval to export a vintage guitar containing protected species of wood or animal products:

First, they must get export licenses from FWS and APHIS, which have to be renewed every year or two. Then, they must apply for FWS permits to export each guitar containing protected plant or animal materials.

Retailers who get a permit must ship the guitar and export documents to be inspected in another city, because there are no designated inspection stations in Tennessee. APHIS officials examine wood products containing Brazilian rosewood and other protected woods, while FWS agents inspect products containing animal products such as ivory. The nearest city with inspection offices for both agencies is Atlanta.

Individual musicians also need permits to leave the country with vintage guitars containing Brazilian rosewood, ivory or other protected materials, but they don’t need to submit Lacey Act paperwork when they come back to the U.S., according to APHIS officials. Federal officials say they focus on commercial vendors and haven’t heard of any enforcement actions being taken against musicians.

The fees associated with permits and inspections can add up to more than $200 per guitar, said Jim Goldberg, Washington counsel for the National Association of Music Merchants. The shipping and insurance to get a guitar to an inspection station can cost another $150 or so, merchants say.

Time is the biggest cost, according to merchants. FWS officials say approving a permit usually takes between two and three weeks and inspections generally occur the day an instrument is received. But Goldberg said the entire process — from applying for a permit to shipping the guitar to the buyer — typically lasts closer to two or three months.

Gruhn Guitars’ latest attempt to ship two guitars to the Netherlands took five months, according to business manager Christie Carter. She said she applied for a permit on Sept. 19 and received it on Nov. 8, but the guitars weren’t shipped until Jan. 26. Carter said they might have been shipped two weeks sooner had she better understood where to send them for inspection.

Few international buyers are willing to wait five months, Gruhn said.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “I don’t feel that I should be exempt from the law or exempt from needing a permit, it’s just that they make them so impossible to get.”

Merchants say it wasn’t always this difficult. They used to be able to copy one master permit to send with guitars instead of applying for individual permits for each shipment, saving anywhere from several weeks to several months.

Tim Van Norman, chief of the permits branch at FWS, said his agency stopped that practice seven or eight years ago because it caused problems with enforcement agencies in other countries.

But he said FWS is moving in that direction again in an effort to speed things up for vintage-guitar and antique dealers. As of a few months ago, dealers can receive a bunch of permits in advance and report details about individual instruments after they’ve been shipped — without keeping a detailed and current list of their inventory.

Van Norman said FWS employs 16 people to issue some 17,000 permits a year. APHIS officials say the office that processes Lacey Act declarations employs three or four people.

Despite hassles created by regulation, federal officials said, it’s important to remember that the Lacey Act and CITES protect the natural resources upon which guitar dealers depend.

“Protecting these plants is not only good for the plants themselves, it’s also good for businesses to protect their future livelihoods as well,” said Gary Lougee, Lacey Act program specialist at APHIS.

Gruhn agrees, but thinks Congress and the agencies could simplify the system.

The RELIEF Act — introduced by Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood — would exempt from Lacey Act requirements wood products made before 2008. And Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said last week that he’s working with regulators to exempt older wood and reduce Lacey Act paperwork.

Gruhn says those steps would help, but wouldn’t address the export hurdles created by CITES.

John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, said musical instruments should be exempt from CITES regulation because they account for just 1 percent of tropical hardwood use. Another solution, he said, would create “passports” for individual instruments to allow musicians to take instruments out of the country without permits. Van Norman said FWS officials plan to present that idea next spring at a meeting among nations that adhere to CITES.

More broadly, Thomas said, there should be a single set of regulations — and a single agency — governing the transport of vintage instruments.

Gruhn said the complexity of the current system translates into reduced profits and growing uncertainty. He hasn’t laid off employees but said, “I have trouble employing the ones I’ve got. I haven’t given raises, my personal income is down, and the dollar volume of my sales is down.”

That makes it harder to put food in the mouths of his nearly two-dozen dependents — including the 15 snakes and the parrot, plus five wildcats and a house cat.