August 2017 – A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Over the last 30 months or so, I’ve been going on and on about the mainstay of CRAVE Guitars ‘work’, which is to share with you not only stuff about music and stuff about guitars generally but also specifically stuff about Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. If you’ve taken a look at the web site, you’ll know that the focus tends to be on mainstream U.S. brands and, within that, if possible, some cool variations of well-established guitar models. However, perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, the guitar world is much bigger than that.

This month I’m dipping a toe in the water of some of the other guitar treasures out there. When one looks across the whole guitar landscape, antique, vintage, old, used, new, American, European, Eastern bloc, Asian, mass manufacture, boutique makers, unique luthiers, home‑made, traditional, basic, hi-tech, innovative and whacky, there is infinite variety and a veritable cornucopia of interesting and wonderful instruments to appreciate. The same goes for amps and effects of course (as colleagues into those things keep reminding me) but there’s not enough room in a single article for those as well. Besides, although I don’t claim to be an expert on guitars, I’m even less well‑acquainted the minutiae of amps and effects – that’s another ballgame altogether. The focus of this article is essentially on electric instruments.

When researching this article, it became ridiculously clear that I simply can’t do justice to every aspect of this enormous topic. I can only mention a figurative iceberg’s tip of what’s out there and I apologise in advance for the probable monumental omissions herein. Before we get going, none of the guitars covered in this article are part of the CRAVE Guitars’ family. In order to illustrate the diversity, I’ve resorted to using pictures sourced from Google Images – I acknowledge all guitar owners and photographers.

Let’s face it, love them or loathe them, the centre of the guitar universe remains occupied by the American ‘Big Two’, Fender and Gibson, along with their subsidiary companies including, respectively, Epiphone and Squier that concentrate on the budget end of the market. Incidentally, Fender and Gibson also own a number of other iconic brands that come under their wing. For instance, did you know that Fender own Gretsch, Jackson, Charvel, DeArmond and Tacoma, and Gibson own Baldwin, Kramer, Steinberger, Tobias and Wurlitzer? Until the mid-2010s, Fender also owned Guild and Ovation guitar brands.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Fender and Gibson are massive multinational industrial giants, but in actuality, they are pretty modest business concerns compared to the sheer scale and scope of some truly global companies. Fender and Gibson are, above all, very successful brands with a strong identity, whose reach extends well beyond the music industry. This general public awareness helps to shield them from some of the economic, social and technological pressures facing them. Business fortunes, however, go in cycles and the ‘Big Two’ have had their ups and downs. Both companies, along with many others, were taken over in the 1960s, leading to a period of corporate complacency and weakness that opportunistic competitors were able to exploit. While they have been able to rejuvenate their image, they are now dealing with a radically different global context.

While the ‘Big Two’ are fortunate to have genuinely iconic products including Fender’s Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass, and Gibson’s Les Paul, SG and ES-335 (among others), this otherwise enviable position can also constrain them operationally. It has proved very difficult for them to innovate and stretch too far from the proverbial straightjacket imposed by their core instruments. Existing models are scrutinised minutely and often face intense criticism if they move away from the accepted recipe. At the same time, it is difficult for them to introduce all-new models, as they are often compared unfavourably with the classic mould. Without sustainable growth in a finite market, these companies are commercially vulnerable and their potential success is increasingly limited by their past. This strategic conundrum for Fender and Gibson actually creates fertile ground for other smaller firms to grasp opportunity to enter the market through differentiation, diversification and innovation, as well as imitation.

Circling around the ‘star’ of the Big Two, there are the other recognisable brands such as Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Guild, Ovation, Music Man (now part of the Ernie Ball corporation), G&L, and, as well as the aforementioned Gretsch (the Gretsch family retains major influence as part of Fender) and relative newcomers such as PRS. There are other companies that don’t immediately spring to mind but which have enormous presence in the industry. I include Peavey here, as one of the world’s largest musical manufacturing company. Then there are the other recognisable ‘independent’ American manufacturers that tend to focus on niche markets, such as BC Rich, Dean, Jackson, Alembic, Carvin, Schecter, Steinberger, Suhr, Parker, Heritage, etc. At the same time, some major US guitar companies focus predominantly on acoustic guitars, such as Martin and Taylor.

There is an incredible history surrounding brands that have either disappeared completely or those that have gone, some of which have now been resurrected, e.g. Supro, Airline, National, Dobro (acoustic, now part of Epiphone), Bigsby, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Silvertone, Kalamazoo, etc. American guitar manufacturers suffered particularly badly in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of multiple pressures including falling production quality, increasing manufacturing costs (including union labour), and hostile competition from high quality cheap imports from the Far East.

As you might expect, the history of many of the brands already mentioned goes back to the early-mid 1900s (or even further), which means that there are plenty of very cool vintage guitars floating around. In the guitar world, age doesn’t mean valuable – it is the combination of age, rarity, quality originality and current condition that matter for those with an eye on the dollar value. While the Big Two tend to command the premium prices, pretty much across the board, there are plenty of bargains to be had by looking more broadly at these, sometimes ephemeral makes. I recently come across an early 1960s U.S. Airline in all‑original clean condition that went for a little over £300GBP. These never were top‑of‑the‑range instruments back in the day, and they can be picked up as bargain vintage instruments now. Some of these leftfield guitars present low-risk options for entry into the vintage market if you research carefully and don’t expect too much. History suggests that, in all likelihood, they won’t accumulate vintage value very quickly without major artist association. Look around and there are gems to be found from under-the-radar guitar makers. Some are very nice, including Washburn, Hondo (mainly copies), Mosrite, Harmony, Kay, Valco (maker of a number of other brands), etc.

Moving away from the American continent, Europe also has a long tradition of great musical instrument manufacture, with brands such as Vox, Höfner, Baldwin, Burns, Watkins, Framus, Hagstrom, Hohner, Shergold, Hoyer, Wandre, Bartolini, Levin, Goya, Welson, along with newer entrants such as Warwick, Duesenberg and Vigier, Some of these were prolific during the ‘golden years’, capitalising on the rapidly moving musical paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s. A post-war embargo on American guitar imports certainly helped European brands (and bands) get a foothold and to prosper up to the early-mid 1960s. While, as in other markets, the quality of European guitars varied considerably, many models have become synonymous with the period and, as a result, highly collectable, for instance, the teardrop Vox guitar used by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones or the Höfner violin bass used by Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

Even further away from America, the Japanese companies competed head on with the American brands in the 1970s. Plenty of the budget guitars were blatant copies of American guitars, which resulted in protracted litigation to protect U.S. patents and trademarks. Many ‘older’ guitarists may remember copies from the likes of CSL and Columbus, as well as Ibanez. Japanese firms didn’t just replicate American designs; some also produced original designs and have retained a credible reputation over time for quality and consistency, including their dominant brands – Yamaha and Ibanez. Takamine, which focuses predominantly on acoustic guitars, is also Japanese. There have been plenty of Japanese names that are or have been familiar, including ESP (and subsidiary LTD), Roland, Italia, Aria, Tokai, Teisco, Greco, Guyatone, Apollo, Kawai, Kent, Westone, etc. Many of the instruments made by Japanese companies in the 1960s and 1970s (including some copies) are now becoming very collectable in the off‑the‑beaten‑track vintage niches. If you want some truly whacky vintage designs at reasonable prices, take a look at Japanese guitars. Plenty of people now specialise in conserving these vintage Japanese/Asian instruments.

The old Eastern Bloc countries have also produced a wide range of brands catering for home-grown musicians. The strategy of government-owned manufacture was partly nationalistic, in that they were required to protect their home market from capitalist imports from both the west and east. Many of these guitars were typically utilitarian with little in the way of flamboyance. Many of these brands will be little known in the western world, even now. As you might expect, there are experts who concentrate on collecting these communist bloc guitars for posterity. The ones that have penetrated the western markets offer something different from, and cheaper than, the mainstream names. Look out for names like Aelita, Elgava, Formanta, Migma, Musima, Odessa, Stella, Tonika, Marma (East Germany), Jolana (Czechoslovakia), etc.

There are a few other territories that have developed their own guitar manufacturing, including Godin and Eastwood in Canada and Maton in Australia. In addition, there are a large number of unmarked guitars out there with no means of identifying age or source. Some can be traced back to similar designs by known manufacturers while the creators of others are lost in the mists of time and geography. These ‘pawn shop’ guitars are often poorly made and may be considered curios, although, there are aficionados looking to conserve the more vernacular heritage.

The modern-world picture is far more complicated and can’t be talked about in terms of familiar regional territories. Some multi-national companies, including Fender and Both Fender and Gibson have their headquarters in the US and produce large numbers of their subsidiary ranges in other countries. Some brands are designed in the US and constructed offshore. Some are assembled and quality checked in the US from parts made elsewhere. Larger companies have international distribution operations that channel product to dealership networks within economic regions, e.g. Fender UK servicing the European Union (at the moment!). Others have to manage distribution through networks of independent dealers. Some smaller companies have to rely either on local markets or alternative methods of distribution, direct or indirect. Some companies make instruments that are branded by one or more retail chains. A classic example is Silvertone whose instruments were made by Danelectro, Kay and others, sold through Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order (remember that?). Similarly, many of the diverse Japanese brand names were actually made by a relatively small number of manufacturers, e.g. Kawai and Teisco.

Another feature of new millennium guitar building is the explosion in bespoke guitar building, either by small specialist companies or individual luthiers. Low volumes, creative designs, alternative materials, custom features, and high quality tend to characterise the sub-industry but there are always exceptions to the rule. There have, pretty obviously, always been bespoke builders catering for the well‑heeled or professional musicians’ need and this has led to further opportunities that are difficult for the mass manufacturers to match. In response, the larger manufacturers, including Fender and Gibson, created custom shop operations to provide tailored services for individual clients. Custom shops also heralded the explosion in vintage-styled recreations and the more recent craze for relic finishes, both building on the growth of interest in vintage guitars.

Remember, even the (now) big companies had to start somewhere, usually with an inspirational leader, visionary pioneer or commercial entrepreneur at the helm, often working on their own or in a small workshop. Many of today’s big brands started out with some names you might just recognise, including Friedrich Gretsch and son, Fred Gretsch Jr, Orville H. Gibson, Christian Frederick Martin, Adolph Rickenbacker, Nathan Daniel (Danelectro), Epaminondas Stathopoulo (Epiphone), and one Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender. More recently, Paul Reed Smith has earned a place amongst this exlusive group. Even these industry giants relied on other key individuals and their skills including John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Lloyd Loar, F.C. Hall, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, George Fullerton, Ray Dietrich, Roger Rossmeisl, etc.

Other well-known names span out of larger companies, for instance, Travis Bean, well known for metal-neck guitars, split from Kramer. Kiesel Custom Guitars is another example, producing some astounding instruments having been formed following the splitting up of American company Carvin in 2015. Perhaps the most successful modern entrepreneur is Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars, based in Maryland USA since 1985. While growing his reputation, Smith wisely sought advice from Gibson’s ex‑president Ted McCarty to mentor him, and several PRS models now proudly bear McCarty’s name. The tradition continues with renowned luthier Joe Knaggs setting up his own prestigious guitar company after leaving PRS, producing some wonderful instruments in relatively small numbers.

One of the most celebrated and influential craftsmen to exploit niche demand in the 1960s was Lithuanian immigrant to the UK, Tony Zemaitis who made some very remarkable guitars for some very remarkable guitarists. Zemaitis’ legacy can clearly be seen in other current models from the likes of Duesenberg and Teye, as well as the Japanese company that currently carries on Zematis’ illustrious name.

There have been many excursions into the application of alternative materials to wood. The use of metal in guitar production was pioneered by the likes of National and Dobro in their resonator guitars as a means of producing more volume from acoustic guitars in the pre‑electric era of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, Valco used fibreglass (coined Res‑o‑Glas) for futuristic designs in the 1960s, such as the stunning National Newport. More recently, acoustic maker, Ovation, used a variation of fibreglass (lyrachord) on its bowlback instruments. Zemaitis experimented with other materials in his guitar construction and many others have followed suit, including the aforementioned Kramer/Travis Bean. Around the same time, there was a ‘fad’ for acrylic guitar bodies, perhaps the most well-known proponent being Dan Armstrong who used acrylic for parent company Ampeg.

On this side of the Atlantic, another luthier has set the bar for innovative use of metal; French luthier, James Trussart, Italian company XoX Audio are making some nice instruments out of carbon fibre. 3D printing also presents opportunities for greater use of plastics and metals in guitar production. Some luthiers have experimented with stone as part of the construction but it is not common – or very practical. With ever increasingly stringent restrictions on sourcing, use, sale and movement of hardwoods commonly used in guitar production, expect wider use of alternative sustainable materials in the future.

There are hundreds if not thousands or even tens of thousands of guitar makers out there, all wanting a proportion of the overall demand for great guitars. Here are a very few notable names from all around the world to keep an eye on, including (in no particular order); Collings, Stone Wolf, Flaxwood, Palm Bay, Hutchinson, Emerald, Ed Roman, Suhr, Mayones, Nik Huber, Matt Artinger, Tom Anderson, Patrick James Eggle, Fano, Gus, Goulding, Prisma, Frank Hartung, Michael Spalt, Michihiro Matsuda, TK Smith, Rick Toone, Carillion, McSwain, John Backlund, Reverend, Ron Thorn, John Ambler, Mule, Tony Cochran, Walla Walla, Ezequiel Galasso, Langcaster… The list could be endless as there are just too many great guitar buillders out there to mention and apologies to those I’ve left out and, sorry, I can’t post pictures of every one – I wish I could. The point, I guess, is to broaden one’s perspective and perhaps open one’s mind to a wide range of other possibilities beyond the obvious in-your-face guitar shop fare. I don’t usually proffer advice but on this occasion, I would simply just say, take a look out there and you might just find something weird and wonderful that you probably didn’t know existed. I regularly feature some of this wonderland of goodies on Twitter for those that may want to take a look (@CRAVE_guitars).

For the amateur hobbyist or artisans with aspirations of becoming the next notable designer, there are now plenty of DIY kits for everything from generic product to some quite fancy customised guitar construction. Access to information the Internet provides plenty of plans and specifications for people to design and build almost any type of instrument without the need to track down books or luthiers willing to share their knowledge. Experimenting in this way can present all sorts of opportunities to be taken. What about you?

Renovation ‘husk’ projects are probably best avoided unless you really know what you’re doing, as there’s probably a reason why they are in that state to begin with. For some, though. a ‘bitsa’ guitar may make an ideal low cost player’s guitar. My lack of practical skills prevents me from trying out a DIY (re-)build beyond my limited capabilities. Besides, given CRAVE Guitars’ fundamental raison d’être, I simply can’t create an authentic American vintage guitar.

I hope that this article has given a tiny indication of the beauty and multiplicity of guitars out there. That’s without going into oddities with unconventional string configurations, double (or more) necks, hybrid instruments, etc. It is this fascination with making things different while also keeping things the same that is quite inspirational and, I think, pretty unique to guitars, at least on this sort of scale. We are blessedly spoilt for choice and there are some ridiculously good guitars out there for very reasonable prices without experiencing the diminishing returns associated with esoteric exotica. Ultimately, this clearly indicates that there is something for everyone with an interest in the world’s favourite musical instrument.

So… you may ask… what’s my favourite out of everything covered here? Truthfully, I can’t say; I find guitars endlessly beguiling and preferences vary continuously. It would be unfair to single any one brand or model from the others. As my obsessive quest for ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ continues, the CRAVE name gives a hint of bias but that is not so dogmatic that I can’t appreciate all aspects of the luthier’s art and craftsmanship. MY position is firmly ‘on the fence’. If any of the names mentioned wish to persuade me off the fence with a prime example of their product(s), I am more than happy to accommodate them (f.o.c. of course!). I optimistically await a swathe of e-mails to that effect (hint, hint).

Me? I’m off to plink a new CRAVE Guitars’ plank. The new addition to the family is something both very recognisable and very unusual at the same time. All being well, I’ll try to cover it in next month’s article. All I’ll say at this juncture is that it is definitely one that fits the Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitar bill very aptly while also strongly dividing opinion. Intrigued? The lengths we go to, to bring you guitar ‘stuff’. Watch this space…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “There is a finite limit to the amount you can know, there is no limit to the amount you can imagine.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

← Return to ‘Musings’ page

Like it? Why not share it?

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’.

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.

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.

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.

 ← Return to ‘Musings’ page

Like it? Why not share it?

December 2015 – What’s New at CRAVE Guitars (yet again)

posted in: News | 0

A busy end to 2015! As mentioned in my November 2015 article, “… another great imported ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitar [was] wending its way from its birthplace in New York via Texas…”.  Well, it arrived safe and sound and I can reveal that it is a rather tasty and very cool 1965 Gretsch Corvette. No, on reflection, let’s use hyperbole, this guitar is AWSOME! Take a look at the feature for more information (click here to see guitar feature…)

1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette
1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette

While most pundits understandably veer toward the classic hollow body models, particularly the iconic 6120 Chet Atkins, I took a conscious decision to find something from this great company that is unusual and distinctive. The Corvette, I believe, fits the bill nicely. In the shadow of it bigger and bolder brothers (and, let’s face it, more ubiquitous, more expensive and, well… more orange), the Corvette (designated 6135) was considered to be at the ‘budget’ end of the Gretsch range. It didn’t succeed in competing with Fender and Gibson’s ‘student’ line-ups. However, that doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked or disregarded, quite the opposite in my view. Just look at it! I almost feel honour-bound to promote the Corvette’s unique charms for a discerning audience that appreciates ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ Guitars. 

So, what are we actually talking about here… well, firstly, it is a solid body guitar, so it won’t feedback as much in higher gain environments. AND, it doesn’t have the body binding of the hollow body guitars, so many of which are now sadly irrevocably disintegrating. The Corvette sports 2 original HiLoTron single coil pickups (rather than the upmarket FilterTrons). Despite what some critics say (weak, thin‑sounding), it depends how you use them. The neck pickup, in particular, has a lovely ‘60s jazzy vibe that modern pickups struggle to replicate, while the bridge pickup has a steely, crystalline clean sound. Perhaps HiLoTrons just suit the solid body guitars better. It also has an unusual, factory original Burns vibrato in gleaming chrome, which is great and not hugely familiar to players used to the more commonplace Bigsby, Fender or Gibson units. Interesting factoid – around 2 decades before Music Man famously went with asymmetric 4+2 tuner layouts on its guitars, Gretsch did it on the mid-60s Corvette – here’s the evidence (NB. So did Japanese manufacturer, Teisco!). Aesthetically, I am drawn to this idiosyncratic approach rather than the more familiar (read ‘predictably boring’) Gibson-esque 3+3 used on so many guitars. The fingerboard is quite wide and flat compared to, say Fenders of the era, so easy to play. 

This exquisite guitar plays as well as it looks, with a sparkling, jangly resonant sound that, while it isn’t perhaps as evocative as its more illustrious Gretsch sibling, it is distinctive in a way that differentiates it from ‘mainstream’ guitars by Fender and Gibson. Anyone familiar with the CRAVE Guitars’ ethos will understand where I’m coming from. Gretsch has wisely reissued the Corvette for the new millennium as an off-shore produced budget model, suggesting that there is growing interest in the ‘alternative’ side of Gretsch instruments. GOOD!

This beautiful little vintage guitar was made by the family-owned Gretsch company in Brooklyn, New York, USA before the firm was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company in 1967, a move that ultimately led to the brand’s decline and subsequent demise. Pre‑Baldwin Gretsch guitars are now becoming much more sought after, and prices will increase accordingly. Why not find out more about Gretsch’s long history as a guitar brand (since 1883) by taking a look at the CRAVE Guitars feature on Gretsch (click here to see brand feature…). Thankfully, Gretsch’s fortunes have recovered strongly since the 1990s and the brand is successfully resurgent under Fender’s paternalistic wing. Hopefully, the classic ‘T-roof’ Gretsch logo will grace fabulous guitars for many years to come. 

Thanks for your interest in cool vintage guitars in 2015. CRAVE Guitars is now looking forward to 2016 and wondering where we will be a year from now. In the meantime, I’m off to ‘plink my planks’. Peace and Love to the world before it’s too late. Until next time…   P.S. Keep an eye on the CRAVE Guitars ‘For Sale’ web page with links to any active eBay items (click here to see CRAVE’s ‘for sale’ items). 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “If music be the food of love, plug in, turn up the volume and head bang the hell out of it like there’s no tomorrow!” 

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

← Return to ‘Musings’ page

Like it? Why not share it?

August 2015 – Vintage Guitar Supply and Demand

posted in: Opinion | 0

If you’ve followed my recent posts, you’ll know that I have been looking around for cool and rare American vintage electric guitars (and basses) again recently. Nothing new in the way of CRAVE Guitars stock to report this month, so it is an opportunity to reflect and pontificate, as well as to share my biased opinion on our shared hobby again.

As part of my on-going research, I regularly check a well-known auction site beginning with ‘e’. One thing that I have noticed is that many prices are now escalating at least back to where they were pre-recession and often higher. The rate of increase also seems to be accelerating but inconsistently so, which makes the market uncertain. While the general upward trend might be good news for investors at the genuinely rare instrument end of the market, it is also putting some great, and even some ordinary, vintage guitars beyond the means of your average amateur collector or re‑seller. It seems predictable that fickle speculators will soon jump on the bandwagon (again) and what would otherwise have been considered run-of-the-mill instruments will hit stratospheric levels (again). The dreaded ‘boom and bust’ cycle looms ugly (again), which isn’t good for anyone. The upper extremes are more to do with damnable greed and detestable avarice – commonly called rampant capitalism – the economic law of supply and demand in a free market. At more modest levels the pressures are seemingly more complex.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that, while the ‘common’ models are still relatively numerous, some of the more esoteric, niche guitars are often nowhere to be seen these days. This may suggest that people are hanging onto their valued old guitars, rather than putting them out to the unpredictable market, especially risky in an online auction environment. The result of this anomaly is that prices are increasing due to an artificial rarity factor – the supply dries up while the demand increases, making some less popular instruments disproportionately and unsustainably pricey. To test out this hypothesis, I have been looking for some slightly more unusual instruments and they can be really hard to find, resulting in some diverse and frankly crazy price differentials, especially compared to new guitar prices. However, you can still get a nice late vintage guitar (which will go up in price in the medium to long-term) for less than a new one (which is likely to depreciate for the next 20 or so years). That, at least is still good news for many of us preferring used instruments.

So… my next step was to look further afield. When comparing the UK with the US and Canada, there is, understandably, more choice in that much larger continent (and birthplace of our beloved classics). At first glance they can seem to be offered at an attractive price. However, when taking exchange rates (currently not good for importing from the US into the UK), international delivery, import duties, national taxes, handling fees and insurance (if you can afford it!), importing isn’t the bargain it first seems, especially as HMRC has tightened up the process significantly compared to a few years ago. Other markets, like mainland Europe, Australia, Japan, etc. are relatively inconsequential to the US/UK trade. Asian and Russian trade is certain to increase. In summary, importing is still worth a look though, as long as you do your research first. The Epiphone Olympic below was my last costly import from Canada.

1966 Epiphone Olympic
1966 Epiphone Olympic

Coming back to that well known auction site for a moment, the word ‘auction’ seems to be largely a misnomer these days. Actual auctions where you can bag yourself a bargain vintage guitar are now a frustrating rarity. ‘Buy It Now’ (BiN) seems to be the default option for most high value sellers. This means that many a cheap purchase can turn out to be risky and ‘Best Offers’ are rarely a source of great joy. Also, that heart thumping, sweat inducing, adrenalin pumping rush of the last few minutes…and seconds of a bidding frenzy for a desirable vintage guitar that you really, really, really want seems to be becoming a thing of the past. That’s a shame if you ask me, as a lot of the fun has gone by the wayside. BiN prices often seem to be set high initially and guitars sit there until the ‘real’ market value catches up, so there are quite a few that hang around until people see them as affordable. My inference is that, while it may be fine and convenient for one-off purchases, it is no longer a great source for a fledgling business enterprise on a tight budget, as precious net profits can rapidly be eroded. This applies to both buying and selling. This is probably similar to other ‘collector sectors’ such as classic cars, so I guess we adapt and move on.

Fender and Gibson still dominate with Gretsch and Rickenbacker hot on their tails, as well as early PRSs. Don’t forget other classic brands like Danelectro, National, Vox, Guild or Burns. Japanese originals from Yamaha and Ibanez are increasingly collectable too. There are plenty of whacky vintage guitars from minor brands, often long since demised, Supro, Silvertone, Teisco, Harmony, Kay, etc. that can prove real bargains if you’re careful. If you are into acoustics, Martin is still probably the most reliable bet.

So, where does this leave us in the post-recession world? Not as much choice when buying and what there is, is of variable value. The desirable instruments that we might aspire to are becoming increasingly exclusive again, except for the affluent in the vintage guitar community. Looking to the future, prices look set to rise inevitably and keep rising inexorably thereafter, until the next bubble bursts. The high end (i.e. occupied by the super-rich) will carry on regardless of global economics but that’s hardly the rarefied atmosphere us ordinary mortals will ever find ourselves in. There are bargains out there but, as ever, you have to seek them out and auction sites are as good as any other source. If you’re after a return on investment on a newer guitar, you may have to wait a while, so why not enjoy playing them in the meantime? In conclusion, if you want to get your hands on a lovely vintage guitar at a reasonable price and if you can find a good one, go for it while you can. Good luck. Thanks for reading this article.

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars

← Return to ‘Musings’ page

Like it? Why not share it?