Let me start by saying that not every vintage guitar, amp, or pedal sounds good—just like not every vintage Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, Page, or Blackmore recording sounds good. A lot of old gear sounds like crap, and so do some old recordings.
In the old days, and really up to the late '90s, you were still able to get a lot of vintage gear for the right price—but these days all those things are collectors items for rich people, which is an absolute drag! Guitars, amps, and pedals are meant to be played, and played a lot. That’s how they get their voodoo. That’s how they get there sound. Not by sitting in some rich guy's closet.
Today, you have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for something that at one time was bought for a few hundred dollars, and is still really only worth that. But $25,000 to $300,000 or even more for a guitar? Sorry, but it is a freakin piece of wood with some electronics on it and really not such a big deal—unless its a real piece of art, and then I’ll understand.
It is true that there is a strong voodoo to some of these old instruments and some of them sound amazing—but is it worth the money? How much does it really matter in real life situations? An old Strat for $75,000; a '59 Les Paul for $200,000; an old Tube Screamer for $1,000—absolutely not! Maybe for collectors, but not for a real working musician that wants to go out and use the gear at gigs. Can you imagine taking a $75,000 guitar to a bar gig that pays $50, or sending it on a plane? I wouldn’t do it. Actually, I wouldn’t take anything out of my house that’s worth that much.
So what do we do given this ridicules reality?
There are a lot of options out there for new guitars, amps, and pedals that are supposed to have the vintage vibe, but to be totally honest most of that stuff is just okay. There are a few things that are really good and very close to the old gear, and with a little luck you can find those. They probably won't be as good as the old stuff, but they will be close enough, and as a player you can close that gap by the way you play if you know how to get your tone.
If I compare one of my '68 Fender Relic Custom Shop Strats or my Tom Murphy Custom Shop '60 Les Paul to really good old ones, most chances are my new guitars are not going to sound as good—but they still sound fantastic and in time they will get their mojo if played enough.
Does it really matter if you play old or new gear in real life?
I recently went to B.B. King's club in NYC to see my friend Eric Johnson play, and he asked me to sit in. I had nothing with me—not even a pick—so I played a song using his '57 Strat plugged into his old Marshalls. You play one note on that thing and it sounds exactly like EJ—a bit freaky—but once I played it a while I ended up sounding the way I usually sound anyway.
By the same token, Eric came to NYC a while back and sat in with my band. He plugged into my Fender Bandmaster (with no reverb), my Boss delay, his re-issue guitar and his re-issue EJ Fuzz Face—and guess what?The first note he played sounded exactly like him! No big Marshalls or stereo Twins. No old guitar or Echoplex. Just him into my amps
At the end of the day, the sound is in your head first, then it goes to your hands, and then it goes to the guitar and amp. You can have ten guys playing the same rig and they will all sound different.
And I may struggle a bit less using an older guitar or amp because they are already broken in, and have to work harder with a new guitar—but I’ll still sound pretty much the same.
So, if you have the money to spend on vintage gear, then go ahead and spend it. You’ll defiantly enjoy it if you are lucky enough to get the good stuff. But if you don’t have the money, then just save yourself the frustration. Go get something new, and if you know what you are doing you’ll sound great! —Oz Noy