Open Tuning

Guitar expo is rare in highlighting both electric and acoustic models

Expo founders Bonnie and Gary Burnette (Bee-3 Vintage) show what drives them.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

It’s equal parts shopping mall, museum, and Antiques Roadshow. At the spring installment of the Carolina Guitar Show, a now twice-annual event happening this month at the WNC Agricultural Center, dealers and attendees come from around the world to buy, sell, trade — and sometimes just marvel at — a wide assortment of stringed musical instruments and accessories.

“Even though we call it a guitar show, it encompasses a lot more,” says Gary Burnette. He and his wife Bonnie have been producing their Bee-3 Vintage guitar shows since 2017. They’ve also been putting on similar shows in Philadelphia since 1990. “We’re talking about guitars, of course,” he says. “But you’ve also got amplifiers, effects, drums, even horns.” He says that major instrument manufacturers like Martin and Taylor display at the show, and custom luthiers from Western North Carolina and beyond show off their handcrafted instruments. With a few hundred vendors on hand, it makes for an impressive display. “We’ll have a few thousand people walking into the show, checking all the instruments out, putting their hands on them, smelling and feeling them and listening to the sounds,” says Burnette.

He emphasizes that the show will feature both acoustic and electric models, and says that makes it somewhat unique in the world of instrument expos. “Largely, guitar shows are directed more toward electric than acoustic guitars,” confirms Hendersonville musician, collector, and musical historian George Gibson, a frequent vendor at Bee-3 shows. “You’ll find more acoustic instruments at [this] show, along with a lot of people who are quite knowledgeable about the instruments.”

George Gibson is a prolific vintage-string-instrument collector from Hendersonville.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Rare finds make up a significant part of the display, Burnette promises. And Gibson — whose personal collection of instruments numbers between 150 and 200 — is well acquainted with the allure of those older guitars. “[The] appeal, in part, [is] because of the people who played them,” he says, “and also because of their sound. Some of them sound incredible.” 

Gibson notes that there’s been a resurgence of demand for vintage instruments. For quite a while, he says, “it was hard to find new instruments that were really good, so people started looking for older guitars.” Even today, when both mass-produced and handcrafted instruments are available in high quality, interest in classic guitars is stronger than ever. 

Another trend that Burnette has noticed is an increased interest in the ukulele, the tiny four-stringed instrument first designed in 19th-century Hawaii, popular today with quirky folk acts and beginning players of all ages who might be intimidated by delving straight into guitar. “Go figure,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t play one.” 

Gibson HG-22 ca. 1931 (left) and an 1845 German guitar (right).
Both instruments collected by George Gibson.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Burnette says it’s quite common for attendees to bring along a guitar they’ve been keeping at home, and then successfully find a buyer among the exhibitors. “A granny might walk in with a pre-war Martin D-45 [acoustic] or a 1960 Les Paul Standard [electric] guitar,” he says, speaking from experience. “And boy, will that get some attention. She may go in with the expectation of getting ten to fifteen thousand dollars, only to find out it’s worth two to three hundred thousand!”

And veteran expo goers are often ready to pay cash. “We have overseas folks coming in, and a lot of buyers out of Chicago,” he reveals. “[Chain store] Guitar Center sends their buyer from California, looking for vintage stuff.” 

He offers some advice to those who are considering selling that old guitar gathering dust in a closet. “If you’re carrying a pretty good instrument, you’ll get a lot of interest,” he says — but don’t automatically sell to the first person who makes an offer. “Sometimes it pays to do a little shopping around through the show first,” he advises, “to kind of get a feel for what you’ve got.”

Burnette says the annual event in Fletcher has been so popular they’ve added a second one, to take place in the fall. He notes the general camaraderie between vintage enthusiasts and musicians — salted with an edge of competition. 

“There’s always that hunt for that special guitar.”

Bee-3 Vintage presents the Spring Carolina Guitar Show on Saturday, March 14, 10am-5pm, and Sunday, March 15, 10am-4pm, at the WNC Agricultural Center (1301 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher). Cash admission is $10 on Saturday, $8 on Sunday, two-day pass $15, kids 12 and under free. For more information, call 828-298-2197, 828-230-4317, or see bee3vintage.com. (Also wncagcenter.org.) 

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