- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2005

SEATTLE - Peter Blecha calls himself a rock ‘n’ roll archaeologist. He has traveled the globe acquiring the rarest, most historic, most innovative specimens ever made.

He has helped to assemble one of the world’s most significant collections of historic guitars and other rock memorabilia, highlighted by more than 100 of the world’s earliest and “first-ever” electric-guitar specimens.

Now Mr. Blecha, the former chief curator at the Experience Music Project (EMP), is sharing his quest in “Rock & Roll Archaeologist: How I Chased Down Kurt’s Stratocaster, the ‘Layla’ Guitar, and Janis’s Boa,” to be published in November by Seattle-based Sasquatch Books.

The memoir offers anecdotes about the high-rolling world of rock-memorabilia auctions and the flea-market crawls that sometimes unearth historical wonders.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Blecha said of his eight-year dream gig at the rock museum founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. “I was put in charge of telling the history of electric guitars.”

Guitar aficionados are impressed with Mr. Blecha’s work.

“EMP indisputably has a phenomenal collection,” said George Gruhn, an internationally known author, collector of vintage guitars and owner of Gruhn Guitars Inc., based in Nashville, Tenn. “He put his heart and soul into it. He was very, very careful in his selection of instruments that showcased the evolution and history of the electric guitar.”

While working for EMP, Mr. Blecha outbid two other well-heeled collectors in a 1999 Christie’s auction for the brown 1956 Fender Stratocaster played by Eric Clapton in the Derek and the Dominos version of “Layla.” Mr. Blecha had to go to $497,000, then a record for the most expensive guitar in history.

“It was exciting,” Mr. Blecha said. “I was bidding in increments of $100,000.”

Ward Meeker, editor of Vintage Guitar magazine, said the record price has since soared. The modified black Stratocaster that was Mr. Clapton’s favorite in midcareer sold for $950,000 after commission last year.

Mr. Blecha also found for EMP what was thought to be the world’s first electric bass guitar — an Audiovox model made in Seattle in 1935 — at a local garage sale. It is now on display at the EMP’s gallery of historic guitars.

The inventor, Paul Tutmarc, was the first to envision an electrified stringed bass that was shorter, could be played horizontally and had frets like a six-string guitar.

Mr. Blecha’s 1995 discovery shocked music historians who had credited the renowned Fender company with building the first electric bass in 1951.

“The discovery of this bass changed history,” Mr. Blecha said. “Tutmarc clearly broke the mold.”

Mr. Blecha has since found another Audiovox electric bass guitar that may predate the one on display at EMP. He bought it in an EBay auction from an antiques dealer in Eugene, Ore. It is painted a different color and has a brass logo plate on its peghead, similar to models that can be seen in the earliest photos of Tutmarc and his invention.

Chasing down the story of the Audiovox bass guitar has proven to be an intriguing challenge for Mr. Blecha.

“Tutmarc sold a few of them up here, but there are no known production figures,” he said. “And there is no known paperwork from the company.”

Solving the Audiovox riddle is just a part of Mr. Blecha’s longtime mission to write the history of the Northwest’s role in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll. Before joining the EMP, Mr. Blecha founded the Northwest Music Archives and collected 20,000 pieces, spanning from the 1880s to grunge. Many of these pieces later were acquired by the EMP.

Since leaving the museum in 2001, Mr. Blecha has started rebuilding his personal collection and has acquired a couple dozen previously undiscovered regionally made guitars and amplifiers, and 4,000 records featuring music from the Northwest.

Mr. Blecha’s first book, “Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands and Censored Songs,” included a significant chunk of local history. It includes a social history of “Louie, Louie,” the reputedly raunchy early-1960s hit that had its origins in the Northwest.

Mr. Blecha’s passion for all things rock ‘n’ roll began in the early 1970s, when he was growing up in Seattle and Olympia. He was primarily a drummer with a side interest in guitars but had no particular allegiance to any one brand.

“I came into it as a nonpartisan historian,” Mr. Blecha said. “I just wanted to find guitars that represented significant steps in the evolution of design.”

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