What's the Big Deal About Vintage Guitars?

March 15, 2014
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There's plenty of life left in that old assumption, “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” And with this premise in mind, plenty of us continue to chase the dream of one day owning and playing a great vintage guitar, even if that chase goes slowly due to financial considerations. Many vintage guitars do have an undeniable mystique—a romance factor that you can virtually feel in your hands—but the blind pursuit of a vintage guitar driven by some mythical assumptions can be fraught with pitfalls.

What do we love about vintage guitars? Just about everything. Often we talk about guitars from the 1950s and early ’60s as being built with more attention to detail, more handcraftsmanship, and constructed from better woods and components. Add to that the intervening years—during which the wood has further dried out and benefited from decades of resonating to sympathetic musical vibrations—and you have an extremely seductive cocktail.

On top of this, many players contemplating shopping in the vintage market add the further justification of investment value. The rationale (a.k.a. the debate with your significant other) usually goes something like this: “These things will always be worth more. Rather than parking the money in a mutual fund, I can use it to make beautiful music for 15 years, and by the time we need to sell up it will be worth enough to pay for the kids’ college tuition.” When the dream of vintage glory comes up against reality, though, much of this can get turned on its head.

Most players who have owned vintage guitars and used them regularly in their work (rather than just displaying them in climate-controlled cases) will tell you that not all vintage guitars were created equal—or if they were, they haven’t come through the ravages of time in the same condition. While the major makers might have taken pride in their work back in the day, they were in the business of selling guitars, and often they were cranking them out as fast as they could—though usually well short of blowing quality control completely out the window. Variations in pickups, woods, and other components were often enormous; hand-shaped necks differ greatly in profile, and therefore feel; some workers in the finish, final assembly, and setup departments were more skilled than others; and the list goes on. To top it off, vintage guitars that remain in pristine condition because they haven’t been played much often don’t play or sound all that great. They may be at the top of their price range, but have essentially become museum pieces.

The upshot of all this is that you usually have to play several examples of any type of vintage guitar to find the truly great one you seek—the one with the right pickups, neck shape, weight, feel, and sound.

As for the investment argument, well, that might have seemed like a can’t-lose strategy a few years ago, but much has changed in the past five years. The crash of 2008 that brought on the Great Recession slashed many vintage values by anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. They might come back up eventually, but with players in the baby boomer generation—the sector most hooked on the vintage-guitar trip—aging toward retirement, it’s hard to say whether the generations to follow will put the same value in a black-guard Telecaster, a slab-board Strat, or a dot-neck ES-335. As the fast-talker at the end of the mutual funds ads tells us, “Remember, your investments can go down as well as up.”

Alongside all this, guitar makers are producing better and more consistent vintage- style guitars than ever, so arguably it’s no longer true that you just can’t get that sound, feel, and look in a new guitar. Sure, plenty of vintage guitars possess an undeniable mystique, and can be a sheer pleasure to own. If you are determined to bring one into the fold, it’s wise to undertake your search with reputable dealers, play before you buy, and understand that the instrument—while uplifting to play and own—may not be guaranteed to fund your retirement when the time comes to sell.

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