Ed McDonald, the Guitar Guru
“The wood is living even after you cut it”
By: Myriam Rizkallah
One night, in 1977, 19-year-old Ed McDonald received a mysterious call.
Someone was asking him to come see Keith Richards who was in town, suffering from a technical problem in the studio. “Yeah, right,” McDonald said as he hung up the phone, thinking that some of his friends were playing a joke on him. It wasn’t until a couple of calls later that he realized it was no joke; Richards was actually seeking his expertise.
McDonald is the founder of Tundra Music, located at Danforth and Jones, a store well known for over 20 years for its great selection of vintage guitars and amplifiers. Tundra Music holds a number of events year-round. These events are open to all musicians to participate and they welcome all promoters, bands, and online musician communities to showcase their talents. Through their events they offer all avid individuals the chance to sell, trade and purchase some new equipment.
McDonald owes his love of music to his big musical family. “My grandmother had eight kids and five pianos,” he proudly remembers. The time The Beatles hit the scene was a life-changer for McDonald. All the record stores became guitar stores. It was a “huge boom,” he says, “and that was the start of it all.”
“Music was really vibrant from 1946 to 1966 and the guitar was right in the middle of it all,” McDonald explains. “The ‘60s were the biggest guitar growth years, and the ‘70s brought different facets of rock-‘n-roll, blues and jazz.” He witnessed it all and was influenced by many of the musicians he heard. He extensively researched how they got their sounds and experimented with different amplifiers, guitars and combinations. Soon enough, he had earned himself a solid reputation, one great enough to catch the attention of music legends such as The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and many others.
McDonald fondly remembers the first guitar he ever bought—”It was love at first sight!” He was looking for the least expensive guitar he could get, which just so happened to be the most unsightly. However, he was struck by its sound and later on he discovered that he had every right to be. It was a 1957 Stratocaster guitar.
“In the ‘70s, I sold another Stratocaster for about $800,” McDonald says, “and I bought it back for $4,900. But now it is worth $29,000.” This story is the best illustration of how the value of vintage guitars has progressed over the years.
In the 1960s, corporations realized how popular guitars were becoming so they started to look for cost-effective ways to produce them. While a great job was done at replicating the original designs, “there’s something about the originals you cannot replace,” McDonald points out. The age of the wood, the way the pickups are wound, and even the way in which the neck meets the body affects the sound and the tonality. “The wood is living, even after you cut it,” McDonald says. “It expands and contracts with humidity,” and the way the guitar is made can make all the difference.
Recognizably, McDonald’s passion for guitars is infectious. Five minutes speaking with him and he’ll have you convinced of why these instruments are special and investment-worthy. “Back in the ‘50s, solid-body electric guitars, like Fender and Gibson, were hand-made by dedicated builders who had incredibly high caliber and ethics,” he explains. His advice to you, as an investor, is to look for guitars that are “all original.” These are expensive because they were limited in production, made with selected woods such as maple, rose and ash wood. They also have special features such as hand-wound pickups that are now worth somewhere between $10,000 to $100,000.
Over a 40-year-long career, McDonald has not only invested in guitars but also in his relationships with customers whom he considers as friends. He loves music and loves to share his knowledge with others. “It’s not like I’m selling somebody some stocks,” he says. “Music is a sacred thing.”