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.