November 2016 – Where to Start with Vintage Guitars

I was recently asked a simple question, “What’s so special about vintage guitars, why would I go for a vintage guitar over a modern one and where do I start?” Well now, that’s actually 3 questions but plainly very sensible ones to ask. As usual, they are not so easy to answer. Thus, another proverbial can of worms was duly opened.

 

Remember, I am no expert myself, just an enthusiastic amateur who’s obsession tends to cloud objective judgement. This is based on my own experiences, so a pinch of salt may be required. This article focuses specifically on vintage electric guitars. It doesn’t cover acoustic guitars or amps and effect pedals. Are you sitting comfortably, this is quite a long article?

 

What does the word vintage mean for guitars?

Let’s begin by taking a step further back and try to understand what is actually meant by ‘vintage’. Dictionaries refer to ‘vintage’ as something dating from the past that is valued as having enduring interest, importance or quality, or referring to the best characteristics of things made or done by a person or organisation. Well, that doesn’t necessarily help, especially as any interpretation of ‘past’ is relative and subjective.

 

Specifically focusing on electric guitars, there are essentially 2 camps; a) the purists who assert that ‘vintage’ only applies to the ‘golden era’ up to c.1965, and b) those who believe that any guitars over 25 years old are ‘vintage’. To me, neither of these adequately provides hard and fast rules for concluding vintage status.

 

While pre-1965 guitars are now clearly vintage according to both criteria, applying a fixed cut-off doesn’t really hold water in the long term, as the gap between 1965 and the present day continues to widen. Why 1965? Well, many American guitar manufacturers sold out to large, corporations in the 2nd half of the 1960s including Fender (1965 to CBS), Danelectro (1966 to MCA), Gretsch (1967 to Baldwin), and Gibson (1969 to ECL). Commentators point to corporate decision-making, to standardised manufacturing techniques, and to falling quality standards from the 1970s onwards. To me, this argument is difficult to justify, particularly as there are plenty of poor quality pre-1965 vintage guitars (as well as some great post-1965 ones). The purists have countless arguments to support their somewhat dogmatic position.

 

The 25-year ‘rule’ is also not particularly helpful. It is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off point because it presents us with a constantly moving target, albeit in one direction. Think about it a moment… what tangible differences justify one instrument to be defined as vintage and the next one off the production line as not vintage until the date cut-off catches up? Ultimately, many high, quality, mass produced guitars that the purists currently poor scorn upon will eventually become vintage, but isn’t that actually what happens anyway as the industry evolves over time? The opposition to the introduction of solid body guitars in the early 1950s, which have since become revered, is just one prime example. We shouldn’t confuse the picture by simply correlating quality and age – old=good, new=bad – it’s not that straightforward.

 

Perhaps obviously, there should be some shared understanding and guidance to help us all out. However, the above debate indicates that there is no black and white definition of ‘vintage’.

 

My personal feeling is that there are plenty of excellent vintage instruments up to and including the 1980s. After that, they become a bit, ‘samey’, while often also being much ‘better’. Common sense tells us that this view will also undoubtedly change as time marches on. There is a lot more to an instrument than whether it was CNC machined or not, take PRS electrics and Taylor acoustics for example. There are plenty of fine new sustainable tone woods to replace the ‘classic’ now-protected ones and they will all age. There are advances in the use of many materials and how they are used to improve guitar tone. Let’s face it; early instruments can be as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as later ones in terms of construction and materials.

 

So, from a beginner’s point of view, the older a guitar is, the more likely it is to warrant being called vintage. No-one disputes that instruments from the 1960s and earlier are now vintage. The current ‘grey area’ is the 1970s and 1980s (and in the not too distant future, also the 1990s).

 

Why should I buy a vintage guitar?

Having confused rather than clarified from the outset, perhaps the obvious next point is to pose the question, “Why should I buy a vintage guitar?” If you don’t have a good answer to this simple prompt, keep asking the same question until you have something that makes sense. Some examples may help…

 

If the answer is, “To make money”, then I switch off. I am not the person to talk to about using guitars as a financial investment. My position on pecuniary speculation and Return on Investment (RoI) has oft been handed out with abandon, so I won’t labour the point again. Suffice to say that the idea of a vintage musical instrument as an investment for its own sake is an anathema to me. It squanders the whole point of what it was originally built to do, which is to play music. Exclusivity and rarity just make items more valuable to collectors aiming to protect their investments, thereby denying access to the rest of us to play them. I’m not denying that some vintage guitars are valuable, or rare, and even that some are worth it. What I am saying is that a short-term profit motive does not make a good entry point into the competitive vintage guitar marketplace.

 

If the answer is, “To play it”, that falls into the ‘not good enough’ category. There are plenty of modern instruments that are far better built, far more reliable and basically much better to play than many vintage instruments. Many new guitars can feel just as good to play, if not better than their ancestors and many manufacturers are working hard to close any gaps that remain. Many older guitars are just not up to playing live and some are too risky to take out and about. Let’s face it, all vintage instruments are irreplaceable. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so a modern working instrument makes a lot more sense than gigging a vintage one.

 

If the answer is, “They are nice to look at”, that is also inadequate and is almost as bad as the ‘make money’ case. Buying to look at is just guitar porn. If you want something pristine, lightly aged or beaten up, there are plenty of outstanding new, ‘aged’ and ‘relic’ guitars that fit the aesthetic bill. When it comes to playing, they also have the advantage of modern manufacturing and reliability to boot. Some replicas even cost more than the vintage counterparts they are trying to reproduce – go figure! Age does not necessarily equal beauty.

 

If the answer is, “They sound great”, it also fails to convince. Modern analytical techniques and advances in technology mean that the differences between many vintage instruments and the many excellent modern examples are so subtle that, for most beginners, they will prove insignificant. Your playing technique and the rest of the signal chain are equally, if not more, important to what we actually hear. Being practical, in a live band or recording situation, the nuances are often obscured.

 

If the answer is, “Because they’re old”, then I’d say, “so what?” Mere age does not imply significance. There is something about the authentic patina brought about by both age and use that is hard (but not impossible) to replicate. There are a huge number of exceptional new instruments available, and intense price competition means that there are some very good deals to be found by hunting around, especially at the lower end of the market. At the other end of the scale, modern boutique and custom guitar makers make some wonderful guitars with amazing levels of quality to boot, Collings for example.

 

If the answer is all of the above, then go back and start again until you have a persuasive rationale for getting into vintage guitars. If you decide vintage isn’t your ‘thing’, then that’s a positive and at least you’ll know why. In that case, why not check out new or used instruments to appreciate what modern guitars can do and how they can easily fulfil the vast majority of needs, accepting that they aren’t ‘old’ and won’t be for a long time. Remember that the market value of new guitars will continue to depreciate for quite some time before bottoming out and eventually rising again. Buying a vintage guitar is the only short cut to the waiting time associated with age.

 

What is so special about vintage guitars?

It is too easy to trot out that old euphemism, “if I have to explain, you’ll never understand”. So, if you’re still intrigued, here is my answer to what is so special about vintage guitars.

 

The distinctiveness of vintage guitars is difficult to articulate, yet the differences are real. My personal fascination lies in the place that these instruments have in, particularly, American and European musical and social history. Although this will change, I don’t currently include Japan in this statement, as the Far East was mainly manufacturing products to meet western demand during this period, rather than being inculcated in the zeitgeist, i.e. they contributed to it without being part of it.

 

Vintage instruments somehow epitomise the popular culture of their era in a way that new instruments can easily evoke but of which they cannot be an integral part (until their time eventually comes). The value, playability, looks and sounds of an old instrument are quintessential elements of their decades-long journey to the current day. The artists associated with instruments (that were new at the time) and the classic recordings they made with them are all small pieces of the complex jigsaw.

 

To provide context, it helps to read up about the history of the guitar and popular music, the innovators and artists, the way the industry and markets evolved, and the way in which manufacturers’ various model lines adapted over time to reflect fashion and to meet musicians’ needs. Set that within the broader complicated and rapidly changing socio‑political and technological environment of the times, the enigma surrounding these simple bits of wood, metal and plastic really start to come alive.

 

There is something that appeals about the authentic scars of age and prolonged use that, while they can be reproduced, just don’t have any genuine history behind them. However, most guitars’ life stories are lost in the mists of time as guitars change hands, often many times over, so we can only wonder what happened to them since they left the factory all shiny and new. Their journey is as important as the eventual destination.

 

A good vintage guitar can be inspiring to play and will bring out a way of playing that a generic modern guitar struggles to do. I don’t have a good answer as to why this should be and there is no objective reason I can find for asserting it. Perhaps it is just wish fulfilment. I can only put it down to a number of elusive factors that combine to make it feel… ‘right’. Playing different vintage guitars bring out different stylistic traits as well, so it’s clearly not a single characteristic. Not necessarily better, just different.

 

Furthermore, current generations are just temporary stewards of these unique historical musical artefacts. Many guitars existed before we were born and many will survive long after we’ve passed. While we are here, I believe we have a moral and ethical obligation as guardians to conserve and share this important heritage for future generations.

 

If this explanation seems complete gobbledegook, hokum and hogwash, then vintage guitars are probably just passive objects as much as any other guitar. The search for a simple, compelling raison d’être for the joy of vintage guitar ownership goes on.

 

Where should I start?

OK, enough with the pretentious (but relevant) twaddle. If you are still reading this, I assume that you are still intent on exploring the wonderful world of ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitars. So, being practical, where do you begin?

 

Right up front, I would suggest that it is a good idea to set your budget and stick to it. It is all too easy to get caught out by paying either more than you want or what something is worth. The next step may well be to decide what brands and models to investigate. There are plenty of options available, once you’ve selected the outcome you want to achieve. In the end, it all comes down to lucre and what you’re prepared to spend.

 

Whether you go for an acoustic or electric is fundamental. I’m not really qualified to cover the former so, assuming the latter, consider the type of basic construction, i.e. hollow, semi or solid body guitar. As a starter-for-ten, solid bodied guitars are simpler and more robust, and therefore comparatively easier to evaluate and look after.

 

The big two producers – Fender and Gibson – are often relatively safe places to start as there is a huge amount of reference material to inform choices and the names on the headstocks are, generally speaking, known quantities, which provides reassurance. Your choice between these two will depend very much on personal taste. If you’re into acoustics, Martin is also a safe bet. The downside is that the big brands also tend to attract premium prices, so they usually aren’t the cheapest options to start with. Finances may dictate whether to persevere or start looking elsewhere. You may hanker after a vintage Gretsch or Rickenbacker although, for various reasons, caution is advised to avoid potential mistakes, so they may not make the best ‘first purchase’.

Fender Logo (Large)

Gibson Logo (Large)

 

Buying guitars built in the ‘grey area’ (1970s and 1980s) mentioned above can be a good bet. After a relatively modest initial outlay, the guitar’s value probably won’t go down much further, if at all. In fact, guitars from this period will be on the verge of starting to increase in value, which may enable you to start modestly and ‘trade up’ to get what you really want. The vintage guitar market is now quite mature, so if a ‘bargain’ seems too good to be true, it probably is, and it is probably sensible to resist temptation. If you are face to face with a seller, try haggling – as long as you are not in a hurry and are prepared to walk away, there is no harm in asking, and there are often some good deals waiting to be struck that keep everyone happy.

 

While a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster from the ‘golden era’ (1950s and 1960s) are likely to be out of the reach of most, mid-price Jaguars, Jazzmasters, or ‘budget’ Musicmasters and Mustangs have many of the same characteristics without the associated eye‑watering price tags. The same applies to early Gibson Les Pauls, ES‑335s and Flying Vs, which attract premium prices, while ES-330s, Explorers, Firebirds and SGs occupy middle ground, and ‘budget’ models like the Melody Maker, LS-6 and S-1 reside at the lower end of the market.

1977 Fender Stratocaster
1977 Fender Stratocaster
1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard
1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard

 

There is SO much more to owning vintage guitars than face value and/or model snobbery. A pre-CBS Fender Strat is worth 10 times the market value of an equivalent Mustang. It may be your dream instrument but is it really 10 times better as a musical instrument and therefore is it really justifiable as a vintage newbie purchase? It’s clearly the buyer’s prerogative but I would suggest dipping your toe in the water and see whether you like it first. If you then decide it’s not for you, something inexpensive also provides a relatively easy exit route. There are plenty of positives about the cheaper end of the vintage market, despite the purists’ unerring disdain. There are some fantastic ‘alternative’ guitars out there and they can be great fun to own and to buy at reasonable prices.

 

Don’t be fooled into following the crowd – stick to your own preferences. If your tastes are more eclectic or esoteric than the traditional stalwards, you may want to ‘stray off the beaten track’ and ‘take a walk on the wild side’. Depending on how finely honed your intuition, ‘a bit of what you fancy’ is often a good guide and take it from there. There are plenty of very cool vintage European brands, (e.g. Vox, Burns, Hofner) or Far Eastern ones (e.g. Yamaha, Ibanez, Teisco) from which to choose. There are also plenty of cool American brands to consider (e.g. Epiphone, Danelectro, National, Supro, Kay, Harmony, Guild, Ovation, Music Man). Many of these brands are now well documented and can provide low cost access to quirky ‘old school’ Americana.

 

After 40+ years, be prepared for variable and unpredictable reliability, such as switches, pots, tuners, wiring, pickups, etc. Originality and good condition are big pluses if you can afford them. While ‘museum’ or ‘collector’ grade guitars are lovely to look at (much in the same way new guitars), they can be intimidating to play, just in case their ‘perfection’ is ruined forever. In addition, untouched ‘closet’ guitars are relatively rare and can be prohibitively expensive. As a general rule, good guitars get played. If you like the relic look and/or want something pragmatic, then unoriginal or battered ‘players’ guitars can be great to use without being scared of adding the odd nick or scratch. To start with, I would avoid badly damaged, badly repaired or ‘project’ guitars, as these generally aren’t good examples of their type and they may be more problematic than they are worth. Refinishes and unoriginal parts lower a guitar’s collectable value, although they may make what you’re looking for more affordable, as long as you accept that it will not realise a high value when you come to sell it. You pays your money…

 

Do your research

In all circumstances, it pays to be diligent. Do your research first and read as much as you can from credible sources, so you know what you’re looking at and understand what you’re buying into. Scrutinize and filter carefully what’s on the Internet as it can be pretty unreliable on the subject (especially highly opinionated forums). It is wise to check out a variety of sources, look for corroboration between them and then reach your own conclusions. Going old tech, i.e. books, can help. Respected vVintage guitar ‘bibles’ include:

  • ‘Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars : An Identification for American Fretted Instruments’ by George Gruhn and Walter Carter
  • ‘The Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide’ by Alan Greenwood & Gil Hembree (values are in $USD, so work on a 1:1 ratio)
  • ‘Guitar Identification: A Reference For Dating Guitars Made by Fender Gibson Gretsch and Martin’ by A.R. Duchossoir.

 

Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars
Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars

 

Check out some of CRAVE Guitars’ resources:

Books

Internet Resources

 

None of these are light reading; however they do provide essential reference material to help inform sound buying decisions. Even these are not infallible though. Coffee table tomes are nice to look at but are generally not comprehensive enough, as recently evidenced by a ‘history’ book that failed to spotlight the historic significance of several milestone guitars including, the Gibson ES-150, the Gretsch 6120 and the Fender Jaguar.

 

Determining the date of vintage instruments can be problematic. The above references can assist, so can manufacturers’ web sites and many other online resources. Again, the advice is to check and then double check before relying on them too much. If you can’t date an instrument definitively, it may be best to go elsewhere. Avoid any instruments where the serial number has been removed or obscured. The topic of vintage guitar dating is complex and well beyond the scope of this article.

 

Until you have experience, I don’t advise buying without seeing and, more importantly, trying, feeling and hearing the actual guitar you are interested in. Even experts can get caught out, so buying unseen (e.g. on auction sites) can be a minefield, even when the seller provides nice photographs. To begin with, if you can afford it, buy from a reputable source and buy from your own country to avoid potential transport and import issues.

 

Be aware that there are fakes out there, although these have tended to be for higher value instruments, as that’s where the big money is. The old adage of caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies! If you have any doubts at all, resist temptation and walk away. There will always be others – be patient. Yes, you may miss out on something special but it isn’t the end of the world. ‘If in doubt, leave it out’.

 

The risk of diving headlong into the subject unprepared is to be disappointed, to lose faith in the idea and miss out on some inspirational experiences. After looking and trying a few guitars out, you’ll quickly get a feel for what grabs you and what to look for. The ‘fatal attraction’ symptom goes a long way to opening the doors to vintage guitar ownership, whether it’s for a personal guitar collection or to buy and sell. Remember a vintage guitar collection is simply a case of owning more than one! As knowledge and experience grows, your horizons will (probably) expand naturally and you can manage risks with confidence.

 

Owning your vintage guitar

Once you’ve bought your vintage guitar, it is vital to look after it, which is pretty obvious but very often overlooked. First up, keep it secure from undesirables who want your precious instrument and who are not afraid to take it off your hands for nothing. I hate insurance. However, it would be irresponsible not to mention that you should consider going to a specialist insurer to cover your irreplaceable gem in case the unthinkable happens. Use a good guitar case, stand or hanger and avoid environmental extremes of temperature, relative humidity, dust and direct sunlight. Keep it clean and avoid using chemicals.

 

One of the best ways of maintaining vintage instruments in good condition is actually to play them regularly. I would also recommend getting to know a reliable and dependable guitar tech to check it over and commission them to deal with any maintenance issues as they arise. Even if you have some basic know-how, it is particularly important to have an expert who really knows their craft and is willing to help you look after it.

 

Selling on

At some point, you may wish to sell your prized possession. Be realistic about what someone is prepared to pay for it – it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s worth a lot more than it actually is. Internet prices tend to overinflate value hoping the inexperienced will take the bait. Dealers, on the other hand, will devalue and offer 20‑30% less than market value in order to make a profit. Some dealers will sell for you on concession but, again, they will take their 20-30% cut (at least). Private selling is now less common, so be prepared to wait for the right buyer. Specialist musical instrument auction houses exist but beware their somewhat punitive commission rates.

 

Finally…

Of course, if money is no object, then a sunburst 1959 Les Paul Standard remains the pinnacle of vintage desirability, especially if it has documented provenance. Expect a stratospheric price tag to go with it though. Heck, I wouldn’t turn one down if one came my way (hint, Mr Claus).

 

In summary, there are no hard and fast rules. What you do with your cash is entirely up to you. I will leave it to others to judge the value of this article, however, I genuinely hope that it helps a bit – take from it what you will.

 

A final word of warning though; beware, owning vintage guitars can be highly addictive and bank-breaking. However, in my view, it is all worth it. Just be careful out there. In the meantime, I’m off to plink one of my planks. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Music is an art, not a commodity. It is the people who sell it to the masses that cannot tell the difference.”

 

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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