The Beauty of the Beater

This 59 "beater" was one of my favorites but it wasn't exactly cheap. Well, cheap for a blonde, I guess (and I've known some cheap blondes in my day)

This 59 “beater” was one of my favorites but it wasn’t exactly cheap. Well, cheap for a blonde, I guess (and I’ve known some cheap blondes in my day). It’s probably had 3 or four fret jobs and the neck bindings replaced, most of the finish is missing from the back but it was $35,000 less than the price of a collector grade ’59 ES-335TDN.


Fifty or sixty years is a very long time. OK, not in the sense of the history of the Earth or anything but it’s a long time for me and for a guitar, among other things.  Stuff gets old, stuff gets used, abused and thrown away. When’s the last time you saw a 1961 Chevy at the local Starbuck’s? The old car business is a little like the old guitar business with at least one notable exception. Cars rarely get used for 50 or more years without being restored (unless you live in Cuba). It makes little economic or practical sense to keep a 50 year old car running as your daily driver. On the other hand, a 50 or 60 year old guitar that been played its entire life might be the best playing, best sounding guitar you ever played. It just won’t look that great. The main factor is probably the number of moving parts. A guitar doesn’t have very many so it might show all kinds of player wear but the parts that actually wear out are limited.  Frets, tuners, nuts, bridges and pots are the parts that tend to go and all are relatively cheaply replaced. A warped or twisted neck will put a guitar out of commission but little else will. In fact, the first thing I check on a “mint” guitar is the neck. The biggest reason a guitar goes back under the bed for 40 years is that it doesn’t play well. I might add that the biggest reason a guitar gets played year in and year out is because it DOES play well. I know, it’s a cliché but the good ones really do get played. The bad ones get played too and some good ones don’t get played but, on average, beaters are better players than mint guitars. That doesn’t mean a mint guitar is inferior but if a guitar is being played, its probably set up properly and doing what it’s supposed to do…play well and sound good. A guitar that’s sitting under the bed doesn’t have to do either.

This 61 335 must have been played a lot. Neck wear like this - even after 52 years-doesn't happen unless someone is playing a lot.

This 61 335 must have been played a lot. Neck wear like this – even after 52 years-doesn’t happen unless someone is playing a lot.

We’re all familiar with guitars that have been played so much that there’s almost no finish left (like the Rory Gallagher Strat) and with guitars that have had all their parts replaced, although many ES’s have been scavenged for parts by Les Paul owners. It’s pretty typical for ’59 and ’60 ES-345’s to have splices in the pickup leads because somebody swiped the double whites for their R9 Les Paul. But the beater has a great deal of allure for many. It’s a sign that the guitar has a history and, more often than not, a sign that the guitar was played by someone serious who probably gigged regularly and relied on his instrument as a means of support. That usually means two things: Great player and cheap. And really, what more can you ask for if you aren’t buying an investment? Excessive wear doesn’t really affect playability and tone. A well executed headstock repair usually doesn’t either, although some would argue the point. Neck reset? As long as it was done properly, it won’t make the guitar sound any different although it will make it play better. The typically changed parts don’t make much difference in tone either. I routinely put repro or Tone Pros bridges on my players-a worn or partially collapsed bridge doesn’t do your tone or sustain any favors. A worn nut can be deadly to your tone and slipping tuners are simply a pain if you’re a gigging player. We could argue about changed pots but I don’t think it makes much difference. Pickups are another story. Myself, I try to find beaters with correct era pickups, at least. Not that some aftermarket pickups don’t sound great but I just like vintage better.

So, what should you look for? Well, cheap for one thing. What makes a guitar cheap? Issues. Holes in the guitar that don’t belong have no effect on tone or playability. A worn finish (or in most cases, a refinish) won’t affect the tobe or playability. A bad headstock break or poor repair should be avoided as should a less than straight neck. Some problems can be adjusted away, some can be planed away, some (like a twist) are better left to be someone else’s headache. If you pick up the beater in question and you love the way it plays and the way it sounds, do you really care what its been through? I don’t.


Here’s the same 61 in all its “beater” glory. A really excellent player that didn’t break the bank for a savvy buyer.

2 Responses to “The Beauty of the Beater”

  1. RAB says:

    I agree a beater can be a worthwhile vintage guitar option. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the common statement that “all the good ones got played” and hence are beat to crap. I believe a guitar can be played a lot and still remain in nice condition if properly cared for by an observant owner. Like me…I’ve been playing electric guitar for 46 years. My guitars generally started out in very clean condition and have remained that way thru prudence and care. Yes fretwork and a few dings here and there but no warped necks, broken headstocks, body cracks, etc. Oh yes, at the gig the guitar is either in my hands or in the hardshell case…no exceptions, no guitar stand!

  2. RAB says:

    Another challenge is keeping your vintage guitar out of the path of potential gigging hazards such as falling cymbal stands, clumsy lead vocalists (like the time our singer nailed my mint ’62 blonde Epiphone Sheraton right in the previously pristine headstock with his harmonica) or unruly spectators…still with a moderation of care these hazards can be minimized!

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