1. Educate yourself and buy from a reputable dealer
You should always do your research about the guitar before buying. I can’t over emphasize the importance of this. When you have done your research, you can then ask the right questions from a reputable dealer. Another important point is that you will realise the subtle differences in specs between one particular year’s model versus another. Going to a reputable dealer is very important if you want to mitigate your risks. It also makes a lot of sense as you are not able to personally inspect and test the guitar and you will need someone with an established reputation whom you can trust to help reduce your risks. Talk to the seller or email him, ask questions, requests for photos and videos and check out buyers’ reviews of the seller. There is no foolproof way, but you can certainly help yourself to mitigate your risks.
2. Beware of counterfeits, modifications and major repairs.
Like all luxury items, there will be fake ones in the market especialy for some of those most sought after models. Buyers should be aware of this and also be on the look out for instruments which have been modified, repaired, or have structural or cosmetic defects which will require expensive and time consuming restoration. Look out for things like cracked neck, refinish, new tuners, changed pickups. They can drive a guitar’s value down. Make sure the neck is good and playable.
3. Know what is a reasonable price to pay
One good and quick way to find out what would be a reasonable price to pay is to go to Gbase. This is where most legitimate U.S. dealers list their stock. You should be able to see what the going price for a given instrument is and use this as a base to negotiate a good price with the seller. Another great source is VintageAndRare.
4. Understand that rarity does not make it a great instrument.
While some of the most sought after and expensive instruments are extremely rare, it should be noted that unlike vintage coins or postage stamps, rarity alone is not necessarily a desirable feature. Guitar manufacturers were driven by commercial concerns and so when they found a design which appealed to their customers they did not limit production to just one or two. The makes and models which are the most sought-after have been produced in sufficient quantity and used by enough well-known musicians that they have achieved a well deserved reputation. At the end of the day, the instruments which are the most sought by vintage guitar collectors and subsequently bring the highest prices, are inherently very fine musical instruments.
5. Do your homework
I cannot over emphasize the importance of this. There are many vintage guitars out there. Obviously, not all are collector’s grade, and because they are old guitars, every guitar will in a sense be unique. You will need to do your research and know what to look out for before purchasing.
6. Buy brands that collectors love
Fender and Gibson are heritage brands. They are bound to rise in value. Rickenbackers (played by the Beatles, Byrds and Tom Petty) are good bargain because even the some of the rarest ones often sell for under $8,000. They are great American-made guitars. Gretsch is another great American-made guitar played by many notable artists (Steven Stills, Neil Young, Pete Townshend, George Harrison). They are generally less expensive than Fender and Gibson and are very collectible. Some good Epiphone guitars are also worth considering. My advice to collectors is to stay with American-made guitars. They will appreciate and they are great guitars, craft wise.
7. Beware eBay.
There is a lot of frenzy bidding in eBay. Many of these guitars are not 100 percent original and many would need some form of fixing and adjustments. If you are considering buying, make sure you are very knowledgeable about the guitar and are satisfied with all the answers to your questions from the seller.
The online market is probably the largest market place for buying vintage guitars. There are a number of dedicated online and auction market places such as Reverb, VintageAndRare and Gbase and also many dealers that sell on the web. Obviously, the first thing that crosses your mind is “is it risky to buy online?” The answer is “yes, there will be risks as you are not able to inspect and test the guitar personally.” So what are some of the problems with buying online?
The first thing to note is that inspecting the guitar personally before buying is quite impossible. While clear pictures provided by sellers are useful, it should be noted that no digital picture can capture the many factors that go into placing a value on an instrument. You can mitigate the risks by researching, checking and asking the right questions before purchasing. It is imperative that one ask the right questions and insist on clear answers to the questions. If the seller refuses to respond to your questions or give superficial answers, I would recommend that you look for a different instrument. The questions I would ask are:
1. Is the neck straight?
The neck of a guitar should be straight. I cannot imagine anyone would want to play with a guitar with a bowed neck. If the bowing is small and if the guitar has a truss rod, it may still be possible to fix the problem. But if it does not have a truss rod, you should just forget about buying the guitar. One of the first questions I would ask is whether the neck is straight and I would probe further with supplementary questions like whether there is string buzzing when single notes are played up and down the neck. Excessive buzz is indicative of a bow. Although a luthier can sometimes straighten a bowed neck by applying heat and pressure, it's best to avoid this problem if possible. Of course, small amounts of bowing can be fixed by a truss rod adjustment.
2. Is the intonation accurate?
Poor intonation can be the result of a bowed neck, worn frets or improper adjustment at the bridge. Many cheap guitars have a bridge that cannot be adjusted for intonation. It would generally be advisable to avoid buying a guitar unless it has an adjustable bridge. If you buy a guitar with a non-adjustable bridge and the intonation isn't right, you've got a very nice piece of wall art. A way to test is to play the same note at different places on the neck to see whether the note sounds at the same pitch at each location. Many guitars cannot pass this test perfectly, but the notes should be pretty close to the same.
3. Is there excessive fret wear?
Frets on a guitar that is 30-50 years old, if it has been played often, will show signs of wearing off. I will always ask about the condition of the frets. The best place to check for fret wear is the B and E strings at the third fret. You can also ask the seller to describe the wear on the third fret and whether the B and E strings buzz when picked at this position.
4. Do all pickups work?
A major electronic component of a guitar is the pickup. You want to be sure that all the pickups are working. Sometimes a pickup may not work due to a broken wire or a bad potentiometer or bad switch. In such a case, the fix is straightforward and relatively inexpensive. However, if the pickup is defective, then you may have to get it rewound and that would bring down the value of the guitar. I would genrally avoid such guitars.
5. Can you describe all dents, chips, scratches, cracks, dings, or other finish flaws on the body and neck of the instrument?
We can't expect perfection, but the fewer the better. I avoid guitars with cracks in the wood, chips in the neck, or obvious signs of abuse. A guitar with a neck reset, especially one that has been done well and is ultra stable now, could be viewed as not that serious.
6. Are all parts on the instrument original?
Obviously, from a collector’s point of view, all things being equal, an instrument that is all original will be valued more than one that is not. So a key question to ask the seller is whether all parts on the guitar are original. The most frequently replaced parts on old guitars are the tuners, knobs, bridge, output jack, pots, frets, pickups, tremelo bar, back plate cover, nut, tail piece. When parts such as tuners and bridge, have been replaced, you will probably need to search on the web for pictures of your guitar to determine if the knobs and bridge are correct. Pickups and pickguards are also often replaced so make sure you are getting the originals. Although these parts can sometimes be found, they are generally hard to find and expensive to purchase. I have paid more than $100 for an original back plate cover for a Stratocaster. Also, quite often owners (who have been playing the guitar) like to change the tail piece to a stop tail. You can tell from the holes left behind at the tail end of the guitar next to the back strap button. Quite often, we hear of guitars that have be refretted or undergone rebinding. While these can affect the value of the guitar, in my opinion they may not be that serious as compared to say one that have pickups changed. Frets do get worn out just like tires of a car. Similarly, rebinding could be viewed as something analogous to changing the bumper of a car. It is my humble opinion that things like that are not that serious (nothwithstanding that they will still diminish the value of the guitar somewhat). I would be more concerned with guitars that have changed pickups, and to a slightly less extent guitars that have say changed tuners, pickguard and bigsby. Having said that, it should be noted that originality is still key to a guitar’s value. One should be prepared to expect diminution in value (small or big) depending on the types of changes or modifications made.
7. Is the finish original?
Generally, one would find the value of a refinished vintage guitar fall by about half or more. While a new refinish may look obvious since a 30-50 year old guitar is not going to shine like a new one, however, an old refinish can sometimes be difficult to detect in pictures. This is especially so if the refin is also done to give a deliberate relic look. Popular refin colors are solid black, white, red and blue. If you are planning to buy a guitar with one of these finishes, it is probably wise to ask the seller if they believe it has been refinished.
8. What is the year of manufacture?
Establishsing the year of manufacture requires some research. From my experience, it pays to read up about the particular model; the history of the guitar, its changes in specs over the years (eg body shape, pickup type, wood used, tuners used, headstock design, body thickness, etc). A good source of research information for this is guitarhq.com. Among other things, I would look for three essential information: the serial number, the pot dates, the neck date (for some guitars they are printed on the inside of the base of the neck). The pot date is probably the most reliable as a guitar’s date of a manufacture is generally determined by this date.
9. Is there anything about this guitar that might influence its value that has not been disclosed?
At the end of the day, buying guitars online will have risks and is a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you get an exceptional value and sometimes you may be disappointed. I would always ask relevant questions before the purchase and resist auction fever so as to avoid bad purchases. This question is not fool proof, but it may get you some leverage with the seller if you discover you have been misled.
My first vintage guitar was purchased on eBay. It was a 1960 Hofner Congress. I bought it because Hofner was one of the guitars I played when I was a teenager first trying to learn to play the instrument. It was not my intention to start a vintage guitar colletion. It was more out of a feeling of nostalgia that I bought the guitar. But since then, I have been smitten with the vintage bug. I believe it has to do with a combination of a few factors; the craftsmanship, the history, the tone and the personality and soul that a vintage guitar exudes, that somehow makes guitar playing so much more enjoyable and cool.
In trying to build any vintage guitar collection, it is my humble opinion that one should enjoy playing the guitar and not simply collect them. It makes it so much more fun and meaningful. Vintage guitars should be played and enjoyed. And yes you should take good care of it but you should also show off and not hide the beautiful instruments. This way, I feel building a collection is so much more enjoyable. So with this guiding principle, the way I have chosen to build up my collection, is one driven by the following factors:
1. The kinds of music I play and the artists I follow
I enjoy rock and blues and quite naturally learning to play like my favourite artists is something I enjoy and is my own way of learning to play the guitar without having to study and follow complicated guitar theories and models. Obviously, as a vintage guitar collector, in pursuing to play like the legends, I would also try to acquire the same guitar models (year and specs) as these artists (if I can afford). So for example, one of my favourite songs is “Crossroads” by Cream. I simply cannot not to have a Gibson ES-335 in my collection, one similar to Clapton’s specs. It makes playing the guitar so much more fun. Likewise, when I saw Santana’s performance at Woodstock, I just have to add to my collection the early 60s’ Gibson SG Special. Well of course I would love to own a 1959 Les Paul (the holy grail of Gibson guitars) just because so many of my favourite artists use them and have churned out so many of the classic rock songs that form today’s rich rock legacy. But it is a little out of my reach for the moment, so until I can afford one, the next best thing is my favourite 1972 Les Paul. This one is extremely rare. It is one of only nine Les Paul guitars with full humbucker pickups that rolled out of the Kalamanzoo factory since Gibson stop producing the iconic ‘58/’59/’60 Les Paul in 1961, after a break of more than a decade. This 1972 Les Paul is one of my favourite in my collection. The tone is simply quite amazing and the faded finish is pure authentic relic, just like many of the faded ‘58/’59/’60 Les Pauls.
Sometimes it may be difficult to find the exact model of the same year and specs, but if you can find something very close and perhaps even better, you should go for it. So for example, I have a 1963 Gibson ES-335 TDC with stop tail, which has the same specs as Clapton’s 1964 model, but this one that I have is one of the rare ones which comes with a factory installed “Patent Applied For” sticker pickup at the neck (the bridge pickup is the “Patent Number” sticker pickup just like the 1964 model). It is rare becaue by late 1962, Gibson stop production of the “Patent Applied For” sticker pickups, but some managed to slip past 1962 into 1963. So this 1963 ES-335 TDC which I have, is similar to Clapton’s and is rare and highly collectible. I like it as it has one “Patent Applied For” sticker pickup on the neck side as opposed to the 1964 model which has both “Patent Number” sticker pickups at the neck and bridge. But having said that, I must say both 1963 and 1964 ES-335 TDC (with the stop tail) are highly collectible and sound awesome. (if you are searching for the classic Cream “Crossroads” tone). Just listen to the sound of this guitar. Both the 1963 and 1964 ES-335 models have the bigger neck back shape size (“normal” sized neck) unlike the ultra-thin backshape of the 1961 models and the smaller neck of the 1965 model. In 1965, the nut width of the ES-335 decreased from the standard 1 11/16” to 1 5/8” or 1 9/16” (known as the “small” neck, and this subtile 1/16” to 1/8” is very noticible to anyone familiar with these guitars.
2. The significance of the guitar in terms of the historical milestones in its development
The historical significance of the guitar is also one of the factors that will influence the value of the guitar. So in my collection, I also look out for models of historical significance (especially if they are very playable guitars, sound good and are associated with famous artists). So for example, in my collection, I have a very rare 1964 Rickenbacker 1998 Rose Morris (345) model, similar to the first Rick purchased by Pete Townshend. 1964 is the first year of the launch of the export Rickenbacker under the distributorship of Rose Morris in Europe. These models were export variations of their American counterparts, typified by the “f” hole instead of the “cat eye” hole. Pete Townshend owns a number of Rickenbacker gutars and it is said that he has used (and abused) a number of these. Another example is a 1961 Gibson SG Special. 1961 was the first year of production of the Gibson SG, a totally new design from the Les Paul which Gibson introduced to compete with Fender. Santana owns one of these. The SG Special with the warm P90 pickups, was used by Santana at the 1969 Woodstock festival. Santana’s performance was electrifying and that by itself all the more makes this 1961 Gibson Special very special indeed.
3. The collectibility of the guitar as evidenced by its demand by collectors
While rarity does influence the collectibility and value of a vintage guitar, it is but just one factor. The overall collectibility has to do with also the playability, construction and tone of the guitar. So for example, ‘50s and ‘60s Fender and Gibson guitars are generally highly desirable. The tone, construction, material used and playability of the guitars all drive the desirability of the guitar, so much so that many of these are quite out of reach of many collectors. A good example is the 1956 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. This is a higly desirable guitar. It is a beautifully crafted guitar with the warm P90 pickups, very playable has an amazing tone. The value ranges from US$40,000 to US$60,000. Production of the ‘50s Goldtop stopped in 1957 and only resume in 1968. The 1968 Goldtop is about one-third the price of the 1956 Goldtop and is highly sought after by collectors. It is a beautifully crafted instrument and the tone is very similar to the 1956 model. Whenever a good clean one comes on the market, it is usually quickly snapped up. Another example is the Gibson ES-355 mono. Unlike the more common ES-355 stereo, the mono version is a much sought after instrument by vintage collectors. It is rare and playability wise, it is actually more preferred than the stereo by many players.
If you are thinking of starting a vintage guitar collection, your first thought would probably be “what should I collect?” I believe it is an important question to address. What I have shared above, is my view of the topic. I have taken an approach which in my humble opinion is sensible, balanced and above all enjoyable. My approach may be different from others. If you have other views to share, I sincerely welcome them.