The Vintage Myth

“Hello, my name is Pete and I’m a guitar-a-holic.” Every time I get my hands on a beautiful guitar or bass I imagine myself saying those words as I introduce myself to a roomful of like-minded addicts in some sort of twelve-step program for gear junkies. My addiction goes back to about age 3 or 4. My dad had a Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar and I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever made by the hand of man. And when the guitar was put away, I would stretch rubber bands across a cigar box and pretend that I was making music. And from that time to this very moment, I have led the life of a sex-addict working as an oil boy on a photo shoot for sunscreen products. For most of my life, I have been surrounded by beautiful instruments.

During my years at Shangri La, I had the opportunity to have some of the finest instruments in my hands on a daily basis. The studio owner had very wisely invested in a marvelous collection of vintage guitars and basses and I looked at that collection as my personal Golden Gate Bridge. Because the bridge is so massive, it is under constant maintenance. As soon as the crews finish repainting at one end, they go back and start all over again. Every one of those instruments was in perfect working order because a part of everyday was devoted to cleaning, restringing, intonating and making minor repairs. Every day was an orgy.

I learned a great deal about vintage instruments…how to date them accurately, the desirability factor of various makes, models and years…all the usual bullshit that fills the air at vintage guitar shows. But the most important thing I learned is that there are great guitars that can be had for the price of a good flight case…and there are priceless guitars that can be real dogs. A vintage guitar can be worth a boatload of cash to a collector, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great musical instrument. The guitars I’m going to concentrate on here are solid body electrics. Jazz guitars, flat top acoustics and semi-hollow body guitars are an entirely different matter.

As a player, I don’t get overly excited about words like “dead mint”, “ten out of ten” or “complete with original hang tags.” Great guitars have usually been played…a lot. I’ve handled some guitars of museum quality that were dogs the day they came out of the factory. There is a mythical reverence for the hand work that went into the construction of Fender guitars and basses of the 50’s. The fact is that those instruments were built to be affordable. Anything done by hand was done so because machines were either too expensive or had yet to be developed. One characteristic of hand work that escapes logical consideration is the variable level of quality control. The Fender factory of the 50’s shouldn’t be equated with a one-off boutique lutherie. These guitars were not hand carved by master craftsmen, they were assembled from pre-fabricated parts. And every once in a while, the perfect neck would find the perfect body and a fantastic guitar would be born. Many times those few great guitars would end up in the hands of great players.

This was In the days before musicians found it impossible to play a show without ten guitars on stage. Guitars and cases were thrown into car trunks, pick-up trucks and luggage bins with little regard for the cosmetically-obsessed collector of the future. There are plenty of stories of the “Holy Grail” being found tucked under a bed for 30 years in its original case complete with tags. Some of those guitars might turn out to be really great instruments. But maybe they were tossed under the bed because they didn’t sound good or played like shit. The sad fact is that once those guitars are found, they rarely get the chance to prove themselves because the inflated price of “dead mint” vintage guitars almost insures that they will end up as trophies hanging some doctor’s or lawyer’s wall.

Yes, vintage guitars are wonderful artifacts of a magical era in pop music. But when it comes to solid body guitars built on an assembly line, it isn’t unusual to play ten vintage beauties before finding an instrument that is everything it should be. The fact is that there are only so many old guitars. They don’t build ’54 Strats anymore. I’ve played four 1954 Stratocasters. Two were dogs, one was pretty nice and one was an exceptional guitar. Hint, the winner did not have the original tags. I’ve also been intimate with a half-dozen “Black-guard” Telecasters ranging from unbelievably mint to something that looked like it was dragged behind a tractor from gig to gig. The mint ones were stiff and unresponsive, which is probably why they were still mint. The old beater was probably one of the three best guitars I’ve ever played.

Because there are so few old guitars left, guitar manufacturers are now marketing replicas of some of the more desirable models at what I consider absurd prices. I actually bought a masterbuilt ’54 Stratocaster myself. But I had to look through fourteen of them before I found one that was exceptional. Yes, they’re pretty, but what makes them worth the price? They’re still made out of wood and have a bit of hardware screwed on. If the “way they used to make ’em” is so special, why don’t they make ’em like that now? well, I got news, They do. And I think that the standards of today’s assembly line built instruments are far superior to what was being done in the “old days.” The Fender “Hwy 1” guitars and basses are much better that the shit they were cranking out in the 70’s…at a fraction of the cost. ( I just checked E-bay…there is an early 70’s precision bass listed at $2900.00! Insane)

The bottom line is that I don’t get too excited about ultra clean vintage instruments anymore. I say let the collectors shell out the bucks and hang them on their walls. There is no shortage of great playing, great sounding guitars out there. Go to a guitar shop, put on a blindfold and play twenty or thirty guitars. You might surprise yourself.

4 Responses to “The Vintage Myth”

    speshly the “10 out of 10 mint “sale description-its such a turnoff-I like “this ones a players guitar”
    you now its almost certainly setup properly and you can play it on stage without being embarassed by how shiny it isnt!

  • Phil

    A very good article. The vintage guitar market has become so ridiculous that it’s laughable. Actually, what started the vintage market was the garbage that Fender and many of the other guitar companies were putting out in the late 1960’s and all throughout the 1970’s. Since then, almost all the guitar companies are now putting out very decent instruments, probably just as good, if not better than what was being made in the 1950’s. If Fender was building guitars throughout the late 60’s and all through the 70’s the way they are building them now, there wouldn’t be any vintage market at all. Hey, what’s the reason for buying a guitar in the first place? I hope you answered, “To make music!”. If you think that spending $30,000 on an old Fender is going to make you a better musician, then you’re not a musician at all. At best, you’re a daydreaming performer. Pick up a new guitar or a used one that is reasonably priced, pick up a good amp and play. Practice. Play. Practice. Play. Practice. Play. Practice. Play. That’s what music is all about.

  • Peter

    I once met someone who traded 2 of his motorcycles and several thousand dollars in cash for a 1957 Les Paul goldtop that originally had P-90 pickups but was, as he put it, professionally routed and then fitted with 1959 humbuckers. As he was nice enough to let me try it, I felt very awkward when he asked me “what I thought?”. I guess I must have hesitated as he then quickly told me that he had bought it “for the wood”. I guess he must have sensed that I was not impressed with the guitar at all. It felt no different than any other Les Paul I had played save for, perhaps, some duds I may have run into over the years. I was very disappointed with that guitar and I felt kind of bad for the guy. My guess is that he paid a lot of money for a guitar that wasn’t worth it then, and still isn’t worth it now.

  • Sal

    I’ve been collecting and buying and selling and trading guitars for 50 years….my favorite guitar ever is a Japanese made Fender Squier Bullet Strat 2 pickup from 1983 that i bought fer 200 bucks….next is my 1989 Charvel Fusion with a Floyd Rose on it….200 bucks at the swapmeet….I sold all my 1950’s Tele’s and Strats when they hit 4-5K way back when….My 1957 Strat and my 1961 Strat were DOGS….hard to play and felt stiff and crude.