Acoustic Worship at First Quality: A Testimony From the Converted

By Victoria Moon

First of all, know this: only the most serious musicians are going to have the stamina to find this place. Way, way, waaaay out Cane Run Road, you turn onto Trade Port Drive, and, in the midst of industrial warehouses and manufacturing plants, is a tiny office building that looks more like a real estate office than Louisville's Holy Grail for musicians. Step inside the unassuming building, and immediately the fragrance of wood and expensive wood stains surrounds you, and the stunning array of Martin guitars, Gibson banjos and Weber mandolins leaves you blinking in amazed wonder. A friendly tattooed guy behind the counter gives you information about the local bluegrass jam, while another customer service rep wearing a tie-dyed shirt and shoulder-length hair lovingly discusses a banjo's merits with an elderly gentleman in a blue work shirt and dungarees. As the immediate shock wears off, you realize you have found paradise — the acoustic player's version of Mecca.

Still a bit bemused by the glorious instruments surrounding you, you allow yourself to be led back into the brightly lit offices of Jeff Sullivan, vice president and general manager of First Quality Music Supplies. As you walk back, you note the walls behind the guitars boast a veritable Who's Who of bluegrass: Del McCoury, the players in IIIrd Tyme Out, Gary Brewer and Bela Fleck. By the time you sit in the chair offered you in Sullivan's office, your interview has been reduced down to the basic questions you learned in 10th grade journalism class: "Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?" Luckily, Sullivan seems used to overwhelmed journalists, so he jumps right in and tells you the tale.

The answers begin and end with the Sullivan family, starting with patriarch Bill Sullivan. While he was still a tool-and-die person with General Electric back in 1970, he found a copy of Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo and decided to follow the instructions on building his own banjo. The fretboard required exact measurements between the frets and proved tough going for Sullivan. Putting his tool-and-die experience to work, he created a saw that would accurately cut the fretboard by following a template. He offered the saw in a few ads in bluegrass magazines and was inundated with orders as well as requests for other items. So then and there First Quality Banjo was born in the Sullivan's basement.

The business stayed a home business despite regular growth and the involvement of Sullivan's two sons, Jeff and Eric. Bill left GE in 1982 to devote all his energies to First Quality, where he was now creating reproductions of vintage banjo parts and working on banjo restorations. Jeff and his wife, Karen, bought a truckload of guitar strings and started First Quality Strings in the late 1980s, and in 1992 Eric put his woodworking abilities to use and started First Quality Neckworks with his wife, Marsha. In 1995, the three businesses came together under the name First Quality Music Supplies and all three businesses continued to operate out of the now slightly-too-cozy quarters of Bill Sullivan's home.

In January 1999, the family moved the business lock, stock, and banjo into their current space on Trade Port Drive. The new building has 10,000 square feet and room for the more than 3,000 music-related items sold through their mail order catalog. The catalog, which goes out to 40,000 customers throughout the world, has drawn the interest of not only bluegrass enthusiasts but also other acoustically based performers looking for the best quality and sound for their money. Besides their solid reputation as banjo retailers and restorers, First Quality took on Randy Broyles, a luthier trained to restore and repair several types of acoustic instruments and soon were able to carry even more stock than they did before. As a result, First Quality is known as the place to go for buying Gibson, Nechville, Deering, Stelling and Prucha banjos and is one of the top sellers in the state of Martin guitars. Besides Martin, the company also carries Tacoma, Larrivee and Santa Cruz guitars. A recent addition to their guitar family is a graphite guitar manufactured by RainSong, a sweet black number that withstands heat and rain better than a wooden guitar and is made for the have-guitar-will-travel professional musician.

In fact, all the instruments at First Quality bear one thing in common: they are made for serious players. While collectors are sure to find lots of instruments to fall in love with (including a Tacoma limited edition EK36C guitar formed from 2,500-year-old cedar and resembling a work of art as much as it does an instrument), First Quality caters to musicians. While most of us would be happy to have a Martin straight out of the factory and meekly take it home with joy, First Quality has Martin add some special specifications to some of the instruments they sell. According to Tony Rairden, a guitar expert who masquerades as the company's director of marketing, the vintage series Martin guitars they receive have short-saddle bridges and a drop-in compensated bone saddle rather than the glued-in saddle, a higher quality pickguard and ebony end pins. All the changes are made to better accommodate the wear and tear of a professional player.

"We focus on quality, higher-end acoustic instruments for the playing professional," said Jim Sullivan, "we are not just your average music store."

That focus is seen in everything from their store's location (they chose a location off the beaten path to discourage less serious players and those looking for non-acoustic instruments) from their incredibly knowledgeable staff — players and/or acoustic aficionados all. The store's reputation has grown so great that recently a Japanese luthier came over specifically to pick up some instruments he ordered and work with Broyles for a few days. One of the bands the company sponsors (they sponsor 12 in all) is the Kruger Brothers, a bluegrass band from Switzerland. Clients like Gibson snap up the banjos they manufacture on-site, and in the not-too-distant future have plans for their own First Quality line of banjos.

But perhaps the best part of the First Quality experience is when Tony gently removes a Martin Vintage Series dreadnought from the wall and hands it to you to play. It's the best thing you've heard in years — until you get a chance to strum that Tacoma EK36C. With a slight smile on his face, he plugs a guitar into an amp and you hear the gorgeous sound quality of the B-Band pickup, a relatively new product from Norway they discovered while reading through musician's newsgroups online. You are blown away by the dynamics, and it shows on your face. His smile grows a bit wider. He knows you're hooked now, and you can never go back to acoustic-as-usual. You've seen acoustic heaven, and those lowly earth-sounding guitars you've been playing until now will never sound the same.

An hour later, a little drunk on audio bliss, you stumble to your car. The Martin dreadnought still rings in your head, and you drive away debating whether going without groceries for a couple months (all right, maybe six months) is worth emptying your savings account for that guitar. You're a player, a serious musician, and you have just worshipped at the Acoustic Church.

You drop in an Allison Krauss tape and turn it up, singing along. Yup, looks like it's going to be a beautiful day after all.