Burning Question

Mid 60’s Kay Value Leader. Pretty cool looking and old enough but is it vintage or just old?

A guy came into my shop today and said he had a question. “OK, shoot”, I said. He said, “What is a vintage guitar?”

To be honest, no one has ever asked me that before and I answered without giving it any thought at all. “It’s old. It’s used.” That boils it down to its essence without a hint of explanation as to any difference between an old, used guitar and a “vintage” one. Is “vintage” a particular age? Is it a particular brand? Value? Is “collectible” the same as “vintage”? This is going to require some thought and more than a little finessing, I think.

Let’s look at three old guitars. A 1963 Gibson ES-335, a 1983 Zemaitis Custom and a 1963 Kay Value Leader. All three are old. All three are used. I would argue that all three are collectible. The differences? The Gibson is expensive at around $20,000 as is the Zemaitis at around $25000. The Kay is relatively cheap at around $600. But are they all “vintage” guitars? I would argue that “vintage guitar” is something of a contrivance cooked by the guitar community to differentiate old guitars that are highly sought after and highly regarded from those that are simply old. My basis for that is the word vintage itself. It refers, of course, to a bottle of wine. In general, it refers to a wine from a particular year. But there are good vintages and bad vintages. But when most folks refer to vintage anything, they are considering it a good thing. OK, that makes sense but in applying it to guitars, I suppose that quality is the deciding factor and that, as in wine, is pretty subjective stuff.

Most decent wine tastes pretty much the same to me. It tastes better than cheap wine which generally tastes pretty awful to me. The subtle distinctions are, however, lost on me. I couldn’t tell a rare  64 Chateau Petrus at $10,000 from an easily available high end 2009 Napa Cabernet at $200.   And I don’t like white wine at all, so I’m not much of a judge of quality for half of the wines out there. Guitars, however, are not all the same to me. Interestingly, age, desirability and quality are not necessarily  factors in the value of used guitars.

Let’s consider age first. I’ve heard arguments on the various guitar forums about the “cutoff” for vintage. Many consider guitars from the 80’s to be too new to be vintage. So, what is that 80’s Zemaitis? Simply a used guitar? I think not. Is an 80’s 335 vintage? How about an 80’s BC Rich? And that 1963 Kay Value Leader? It’s from the 60’s which is considered vintage by pretty much everybody but maybe the quality of the Kay isn’t up to snuff. Maybe it’s the vinegar or rotgut in the mix here. Is a Kay Value Leader a vintage guitar and if it isn’t what is it? Just an old guitar? Nobody will argue that the 335 from 63 isn’t vintage. It’s got the age, the quality and the desirability to be considered by nearly everyone as vintage. But look at 70’s Gibson’s and Fenders. We all know the quality of these brands suffered in the 70’s. In fact, many believe the vintage market was created because the 70’s guitars were so inferior when compared to those from the 50’s and 60’s. So, age is part of it but certainly not all of it.

Quality is certainly a factor but there are plenty of old guitars that are of dubious quality and plenty of non newer that are wonderful. So, let’s assume vintage has to be high quality and old. How old? I don’t know. I could pick a year and get a good argument pro and con for any given year. Thirty years old? That makes an 87 vintage. That doesn’t seem right. Forty? Fifty? The problem is that the really great stuff is more like 60 years old. If I had to pick a cutoff  year, it would probably be 1969. That coincides with Gibson being sold and the quality starting its downhill slide. I would argue that Fender, even though it was sold in 65, didn’t really go too far downhill until 1972 or so (three bolt Strat). Brands like Martin and Guild didn’t suffer much, if at all,  in the 70’s at all but 70’s guitars seem to be tarred with the same brush and considered less desirable than 60’s guitars. But something like an 80’s Zemaitis throws that out the window. Hmm.

So that leaves desirability which is a bit of a slippery slope because it changes over time. In 2017, new guitar heroes are an endangered species. Many of the 60’s guitars are desirable because one of our guitar heroes played one. A red 64 ES-335 is the easiest vintage Gibson to sell because Eric Clapton played one. But, a 63 Gretsch Country Gentleman, as played George Harrison, is neither valuable nor easy to sell. While I would consider a 63 Country Gentleman to be a vintage guitar, it is not a particularly desirable one.  Plenty of guitar heroes played or play Stratocasters and they are certainly desirable because of that and they are good guitars. It makes sense that when they went downhill, the desirability went down as well. So, perhaps, the Stratocaster is the one that best proves the rule. A vintage guitar has to be old. It has to be desirable. It has to be good. That leaves me with this: How old? How desirable? How good?

It’s pretty subjective stuff and there will be plenty of disagreement. To me, good means great tone, playability and looks. Desirable means there will always be more buyers than there are guitars. Old means…I dunno. I think the 80’s were like only yesterday but they were 30 odd years ago. So, maybe the 80’s are ready to be vintage. You decide and let me know.

1984 Zemaitis Hummingbird. Very cool but maybe not old enough?
I would call it vintage but you might not.


10 Responses to “Burning Question”

  1. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – Great post and full of terrific considerations. Maybe the conundrum is trying to conflate “vintage” with “collectible.” I agree that, based on its roots in wine and its application to guitars, “vintage” implies “a good year” – not just a “an (old) year”. Collectibility is probably the more important criterion – and many collectibles happen to be older while some newer guitars make the bar. I think the Zemaitis is in another sub-category – very limited instruments that were hand-crafted for rock stars (or players with rock star money and ambitions). If prominent customers like Ron Wood were not associated with Z guitars, they probably wouldn’t command the prices or respect that they do. But the “Z” is collectible – if not necessarily as “vintage” as the pre-70s Gibsons or Fenders. Practicality must play a role too–the less desirable Country Gentleman may not be seen as practical a player as, say, a 1964 SG Standard, which commands a high price in the vintage market and often marketed as associated with Harrison’s use in the Paperback Writer/Revolver days.

    Maybe the best way to look at the market is to call it the ‘collectible/desirable’ guitar market that is made up of sectors: true high quality vintage collectibles like Les Pauls, ES-3** and Teles and Strats, rarer, modern handmade instruments (like Kim Walker acoustics that cost 5 figures and a 10 year wait), more recent hand-crafted guitars inspired by their vintage forebears — like 80s D’Aquistos to the 40s D’Angelico designs that inspired (a case of the apprentice taking over for the master), and the odd-ball older and rare guitars that jump in value because an iconoclastic star (Jack White, Dan Auerbach) annoints them as the instrument-du-jour.

    Even the modern replicas have some provenance and element of “unobtainium” about them: the highest-end Les Paul burst replicas feature the hand-relic treatment of an expert like Tom Murphy, maybe an old supply of brazilian for the fretboard, maybe the signature and endorsement of a Jimmy Page or Billy Gibbons, and like fine art prints they come in numbered limited editions.

    The factors that seem to elevate instruments to collectible status are some combination of age, rarity/unavailability, quality and playability, and association with a respected artist. And maybe the last is MOST important–nearly all highly sought-after guitars that stand out from their peers in relative value carry a rockstar premium – what other explanation for the ’65 Epi Casino booking for about 50% more than an identical ’65 ES-330 because it’s “just like the one John and George played.”

  2. Larry says:

    Lonnie Johnson playing single pickup version of the Kay:

  3. okguitars says:

    All excellent points. Collectible is, I think, rather a different concept than vintage. Vintage always implies old (how old is still at issue).
    Collectible can, indeed, be a Gibson like a Billy Gibbons or a Murphy LP. An older guitar can certainly be both but a new guitar can’t be vintage. Similarly, an old guitar can be simply old-neither vintage nor collectible. BTW, I think the Kay is vintage and collectible. There are collectors for almost everything, it seems. Even Teiscos have their followers.

  4. Jose S says:

    What happened to the latest post (before today’s)? It was a hell of a cliffhanger! I am looking forward to your review on your MobyDick-esque 335. It’s a great story for (apparently) as great a guitar.

  5. Steve Newman says:

    Nelson, great points in your post. Sometimes the public “perception” of what makes a guitar desirable has nothing to do with reality (the Epi Casino VS. Gibson ES 330 which were made by the same people with the same tools in the same factory to the same quality standards is a great example). As we all know, a certain model year of a certain guitar doesn’t guarantee a superlative guitar, even if the public perception is “a ’59 model X guitar is better than a ’60 model X guitar”. Seen, played and heard too many examples personally to know that simply is NOT the case, and the perception is not necessarily true. Is a last run vintage dot neck ES 335 “better” than the first run block marker model, which is the same guitar, excluding the fretboard markers, even if the dot neck may command a higher $ value and be perceived to be more desirable than the block marker? The “perception” VS the true reality of what the instrument is, plays and sounds like, has a whole lot to do with desirability and collectability in the vintage guitar market, IMHO.

  6. Rod says:

    Unfortunately, the guitar-buying public has been ‘educated’ by the unscrupulous end of the guitar dealing market to accept that ‘old’ = ‘great quality’ = high value. As most of us know this is by no means always true. What was crap when it was new is still crap now it is old. There are many ‘new’ guitars of exceptional quality just the same as there are many old guitars which were not good then and still are not. As for the question of what constitutes ‘vintage’, this is, to my mind. very much in the eye of the beholder and reflects more on the age of the beholder than the age of the instrument.

  7. okguitars says:

    The post was taken down at the request of the original seller.

  8. Rod says:

    I presume that was a reply to my comment on the last post Charlie?

  9. okguitars says:


  10. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Thanks again Charlie for opening up this provocative topic. I completely agree: sometimes an old guitar is just an old guitar. And when to set the dateline for “vintage” is so subjective as is Steve Newman’s point about perception.

    Here’s an example that challenges all these boundaries: the early 1970s ES-325, a ‘beer and cement’ budget-model 335 with mini-hums, big volute, one f-hole, an ugly plastic plate housing the controls, les paul-style pickguard, and yes, it’s walnut!

    But in the early days of Kings of Leon, singer Caleb Followill, made it his model–probably because it was one of the few affordable “vintage” guitars for a band on the rise. Soon these guitars were selling for $2-3K — more than vastly superior reissue ES-335s — and hyped as the guitar played by Kings of Leon guitarist and singer Caleb Followill.

    And here’s the kicker: apparently at a 2009 concert, Followill hat a fit about poor sound quality (unsure whether about the guitar, the sound in general, or both) and, in a rage, he smashed his “vintage” ES-325 on stage.

    Eight years later, we still seeing ES-325 priced at a premium to get that “King of Leons” sound. Go figure!

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