July 2015 – Designs For Life

posted in: Opinion | 0

In the 1950s and early 1960s, electric guitar design and construction were innovative, revolutionary and brand-spanking new. As such, they represented a paradigm shift in image that reflected the zeitgeist of the era so closely as to be inseparable. Those early blueprints of today’s musical instruments, at least from the ‘big four’ (Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker), are integral and clearly visible to the DNA of modern instrument manufacturing.

So… why then have the classic vintage guitar designs perpetuated, almost unchanged, for over 50 or even 60 years? Manufacturers have toyed with new designs and variations on existing models over the intervening decades with varying degrees of success. Yes, they keep playing around the margins to draw new, mainly younger, punters to shiny showrooms (and now online) with the temptation of shiny new product. However, the ‘big four’ would not be successful today without the core brand icons of the past. For Fender, it’s the Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass. For Gibson, it’s the Les Paul, SG and ES-335. Fans of other models, please accept my apologies but bear with me while I make the point. The quintessential key elements from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll have been preserved intact. It would be sacrilege to change classical orchestral instruments, so does the same ‘fossilisation’ of progress now apply to our beloved 4 and 6 strings? If it does, how will they adapt and survive into the digital future, especially as us older generations pass on? Take the venerable amplifier valve, the magnetic pickup and the utilitarian jack plug; all dinosaurs from a bygone age that remain with us, but for how long?

This specific phenomenon is almost unique in 20th/21st century industrial design. I can’t think of many products that were introduced 60 or more years ago where the technology has sustained mostly unmolested in the face of ‘progress’. As consumers, we wouldn’t tolerate that apparent lack of evolution for our houses, cars, TVs, white goods, computers or just about anything else. If we looked at guitars in that way, they would look and play very different to the ones we know and love.

This may also help to explain why some collectors worship at the altar of originality and reject the ‘heresy’ of refinishes, repairs or modifications. The consequence is that ‘we’ now revere the inherent manufacturing inconsistencies of the early days of electric guitar production as a ‘good thing’, rather than as quality control issues, which is what they actually were. It also may explain why the value of ‘pure’ museum-quality examples is a holy grail for many, often to obsessive/compulsive levels of detail. Compare the classic car market where conservation (rather than preservation) is not only accepted but encouraged, in order to keep them going.

1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard

One of my favourite guitars (in fact CRAVE’s ‘signature’ 1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard cherry sunburst), would be an anathema to collectors, it has been refinished (twice!) and has a number of non-original parts but is otherwise solid. It has the unpopular ‘sandwich’ mahogany body with a maple neck. However, I love it. I bought it from its first keeper and have owned and played it for nearly 40 years. I think it is much prettier than its original tobacco sunburst or even its mid‑life natural finish. The repairs were necessary to keep it as a working instrument and in my opinion it is great to play and sounds as a Les Paul should. Its monetary value is peanuts compared to a ‘proper’ Les Paul of the period but I don’t care (well, maybe just a little bit).

Anyway, back to the point, when we are talking about an aforementioned Strat, a Tele, a Les Paul, an SG or an ES-335, it is testament to the talent, vision, entrepreneurialism, creativity and innovation of the original designers to create genuinely timeless artefacts that are as good today as they were when they were created, long before computer controlled design and production lines were imagined. Remember that Leo Fender couldn’t even play guitar! Another key factor that differentiates old from new is the restriction on the movement of unsustainable woods, which is actually very good for the future of our planet. It will be interesting to see how this will affect the next generations of guitars and their appeal to punters and then collectors.

Coming back to those other key models from Fender and Gibson, that defining genius still holds true including, Flying Vs, Explorers, Firebirds, Mustangs, Jazz basses, etc. Gretsch and Rickenbacker are also affected by this apparent lack of evolution. Genuinely new designs often fall at the almost impenetrable barrier of market entry with, perhaps, PRS as the major exception to the rule, now a grand 30 years old. Radical designs are often left to other companies, often using ‘unconventional’ materials to differentiate and excite. Many have tried, few have succeeded. The diversity of that failed evolution is fascinating. Many collectors focus on these extinct relics, which is actually a really good thing as they can be conserved for posterity and for future generations to appreciate. Venturing off the beaten track can also represent a real bargain, especially if you like something a bit different.

Conclusion – guitarists (and bass players) don’t seem to like major change very much. A large proportion of professional musicians still prefer to record (if not play live) with vintage guitars, so there must be something more than pure mystique. Will our wonder, adoration and sentimentality for a rose-tinted past endure unadulterated for another 60 years (think ahead to what our world may be like in 2075!), long after most of us will have met our proverbial maker? What sort of music will they be playing? Literally, only time will tell. By then, my poor‑man’s 1975 Les Paul may be desirable to someone who has yet to be born! One thing is for sure, I won’t see that day. An interesting thought nevertheless. Ponder on that until next time…

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars

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