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Making the Grade

This is the cleanest ES guitar I’ve come across. There was light wear to the gold on the tailpiece and a single small ding on the back of the headstock. I’ve seen brand new guitars hanging in Guitar Center in much worse condition. Collector Grade is a given but guitars in much worse condition can be collector grade as well

Anyone who is selling a guitar is tasked with describing the condition of that guitar and, while some conventions are in general use, the description of a guitars physical condition is still a bit of a crapshoot. Condition shouldn’t be subjective. We all are aware of the rampant misuse of the term “mint” and, the preposterous “mint for its age”. The 1-10 scale can be useful but nobody ever uses the lower end of the scale. A true beater is usually described as a 7. Also, the numerical scale doesn’t really take the parts into consideration-it generally refers to physical condition not originality. I’m partial to terms like “player grade” and “collector grade” as they encompass more aspects of the guitar beyond condition but they are limited. For example, a near mint guitar with a single large gouge out of the top isn’t player grade nor is it collector grade. We need more terms.

This Guild is a great example. This guitar was near mint but for a really nasty 1″ gash in the upper bass bout (the flames hide it pretty well). It goes deep into the finish but to call it player grade would be wrong. It’s closer to collector grade but that damage has to be pointed out.

There actually are more terms but they are jammed up at the top of the collector grade designation and overlap with it. We have “museum grade” which should refer to a mint example. We have investment grade which seems to mean collector grade guitar that will hold its value or appreciate. A dot neck in 9/10 condition would be considered investment grade whereas a dead mint Gretsch Rancher might not be considered an investment at all. I’m at a bit of a loss as to how the vintage community has neglected what might be classified as “not quite collector grade” and “not quite player grade”. I guess part of it depends on how you define these two grades that are in common use. To me, a player grade has one or more of the following issues: refinish, repair, changed parts, certain mods or major wear. Collector grade, to me is always 100% correct or original. I would argue that a re-fret doesn’t take it out of collector grade status but that is arguable. That leaves a lot of space in between.

What do you call a 59 ES-355 that’s in great condition but somebody swapped out the PAFs for patents? Or my earlier example of a near mint guitar with a huge gouge in the top. Or how about this? A 9/10 1964 with original frets but all of the hardware is repro? I’d call it “collector grade…but…” That seems dodgy. Acquire all of the correct parts and the grade changes. We need another category for those guitars that fall somewhere between the overly broad player grade and the overly narrow collector grade. Player grade plus? Collector grade minus? ‘Tween grade? I don’t have a good answer. Maybe you do.

The other good option is to dispense of the “grade” terminology all together. There is no better way to describe a guitar than by listing every part that is correct or original, every part that isn’t, mention all wear points and all damage worthy of mention. I find that when I do a highly detailed description, I eliminate most of the post sale complaints about how I didn’t mention that one of the saddles has an extra notch or the pickguard nut is replaced. Your buyer deserves to know exactly what he is getting. I do like the idea of adding a “grade” to a detailed description that would describe the over all state of the guitar. Two grades is simply not enough. Until we can come up with something that everybody accepts, there is nothing better than a good, complete, detailed description and good photos.

This 64 335 had something like 22 separate holes in the body. 10 in the back for a Gretsch style back pad, 6 in the headstock for other tuners, and 6 from a Bigsby. Condition was probably an 8. I would call it a player but it was 100% original. It was just full of holes. To call it a player grade is probably accurate enough but there is little to differentiate it from a 64 with a few changed parts and no extra holes. That’s where the detailed description comes into play.

15 Responses to “Making the Grade”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, interesting as always. A generic description in the form of a word (excellent, good, etc) or number (9, etc) and then additional verbiage as to important details (changed parts, etc) seems like the most effective approach. And of course providing a good number of clear photos from varying perspectives is critical. Condition descriptions can certainly be abused, misused or purposely misleading in the vintage guitar world. The one I love is “mint condition” (oh yeah, except for a complete refin…hilarious!) I always find your descriptions and associated photos very clear and helpful!

    Happy Holidays all and play yer git-tars! I’ve been boning up on Matt Schofield instructional videos. Our band’s next gig is 3/20/21!

  2. RAB says:

    Mint vintage guitars are certainly rare and beautiful but useless to me since I won’t own a guitar I can’t gig. I guess they’d make a nifty addition to an investment portfolio stored in a hermetically sealed vault along with your Picasso and Ming vase…

  3. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Thought provoking as usual. Agreed that terms like “mint”, “near mint” and “collector grade” are too subjective to be reliable/useful. At least “player grade” is a (typically) honorable attempt to lower expectations and point to irreversable changes.

    What if some authority (e.g. Vintage Guitar Guide) — or a consortium of respected dealers (you should start one, Charile) — were to come up with a universal grading system like those used for coins, comic books, etc.

    Verbal descriptors like “good” “excellent” “near-mint” with a corresponding whole number would describe the general consensus condition, with standard decimal point reductions for typical irreversable alterations. True mint is a 10 and it goes down from there. Say all original with minor surface scrathes or small chips is an “Excellent-9” — extra tuner holes drop 2 tenths – so it becomes an 8.8.

    As far as restorable with original parts – no permanent changes – like bridges, knobs, etc — they could be described as “potential.” A solid excellent losing .4 for changed bridge and tailpiece (and the discount could relate to the cost of the original replacement parts) — might be rated as a 8.6 with a “true 9.0 potential”.

    Maybe this is getting too esoteric — but this seems to be how other collectibles are graded. Thoughts?

  4. peter says:

    I have always had a problem with the designation “museum grade”. Have you ever been to a museum? They exhibit chards of pottery and limbless statues. It seems perfect specimens is not the goal. Does “museum grade” imply that Maybelle Carter’s L5 (which sold for over half a million dollars) is not worthy of display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Oh my, a changed tailpiece and tuners squarely places this instrument in the player’s category. Is some smart-ass collector going to point out to the Hall of Fame that it could have purchased an L5 that was all original and in better condition for far less. The reality is that museums pay scant attention to condition as their primary focus is on historical artefacts, which to a large degree is equally true for the vintage guitar industry. “Museum grade” is a misnomer and should be excised from the vocabulary of vintage guitar enthusiasts.

  5. RAB says:

    Nelson, well thought out and presented! And maybe very commonly used descriptions such as “awesome tone” or “hot P90” should be discounted or relegated to the “incidental” description category…with minimal weight given in the buyer’s decision-making process…RAB

  6. okguitars says:

    There would have to be broad acceptance by dealers and sellers. A grading system is only as good as its users. I think a fixed number deduction for the usual issues is smart. The hard part is agreeing to what that number is. For example, minus .1 for every hole unless it’s in the top. Minus .2 for every hole in the top. Big holes from mini switches would have to be more than that. Of course you would have to address cracks, moved bridges, neck cracks, neck breaks, refinishes, changed parts, overspray, nicks, dents, scratches, decals and stickers, checking, fading, touchups…I could go on. It’s a big undertaking.

  7. RAB says:

    Establish a new Federal agency, the Vintage Guitar Review Board! Vintage instruments to be submitted 6 months in advance of sale for testing and grading! Evaluation fee of $1,000 to be added to eventual sales price! Ha, ha, just kidding!

  8. Leeds says:

    A fine and much needed post. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of carefully and completely listing all changes, damage, parts, etc. There will never be universally agreed upon ranking system, so it’s up to the buyer to decide which sellers provide an accurate description. “Buy the seller, not the item” so to speak. Glad you pointed out the absurdity of the “for its age” qualifier. That’s been said to me by “America’s preeminent” vintage authority/dealer. I probably would have bought guitars from him had he been more straightforward.
    Anyway, happy holidays and a much better 2021 to all.

  9. RAB says:

    To Leeds’ excellent point about “buy the buyer” I’d happily pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for a quality instrument procured from a reputable seller. Money well-spent to avoid that unpleasant surprise of receiving a piece that wasn’t as represented. Nothing kills the fond anticipation and joy faster than that. I recall receiving a “mint and all original” 1962 Fender Deluxe Amp. It was immediately apparent upon opening the box that it had poorly installed, repro grille cloth so back it went to the nefarious dealer…needless to say I never purchased anything from that dealer again…

  10. okguitars says:

    You make an excellent point but it’s also a little elitist. There are museums for historic artifacts and there are art museums. Not to put too fine a point on it but there is also The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka and “The National Poo Museum” (Isle of Wight, England). If I say a guitar is “museum grade” it is pretty clear I’m talking about a mint or close to it guitar. It’s a term that says “wow, that thing is so clean it belongs in a museum”. If I call something museum grade, your first thought isn’t likely to be “who owned it?”

  11. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – Thinking this through some more, I came up with an idea for a weighted rating point system that discounts each weighted area for various imperfections from minor to major and runs across 5 types of degrading categories, from simple patina/age to player wear, restorative repair, alterations and finally irreversable damage.

    The four general areas (and the arbitrary weights I assigned) that would make up the total score (a 0-100 scale) are:

    40% Wood-Body/Neck
    40% Finish
    10% Fingerboard/Frets
    10% Hardware

    I’m attaching a jpeg of what the scoring grid would look like (sorry -it’s a tiny, blurry image — just to give you the idea). Each imperfection that is checked would deduct points from that category and ultimately from the total. TYpically only the worst in a row or column would be checked (it would supercede lesser imperfections) Finally a plus/minus adjustment could be used subjectively to account for truly superior or inferior features compared to factory specs/standards.

    I’d like to email you a copy of the worksheet if you’re willing to look at it, and take it for a test drive by rating some typical examples you encounter and see where the score ends up. The score should be roughly a percentage of what a near mint/no issues guitar would sell for.

    I don’t think my point assignments are necessarily accurate – but the workability of the system could be tested and tweaked.

    Are you willing to take a look?

  12. okguitars says:

    I agree with much of what’s on your chart but it’s not always so linear. A percentage approach is bound to fail because the high end and the low end are so far apart. 5% for minor tarnishing is fine on a $2000 guitar ($100) but on a $50000 guitar, $1500 is ridiculously high. This is the easiest example of why percentages don’t always work. And, by the way, tarnish shouldn’t be a deduction at all. It’s a normal thing to occur over time (and not from use-nickel will tarnish even if you don’t play the guitar). You don’t want tarnish? Polish the parts. It’s no different than cleaning the sweat off a guitar that’s been played a lot (if its done correctly).

  13. Collin says:

    It seems like a futile exercise trying to nail down an “official” ranking of condition because the terms mean something different to everybody. In fact, I tend to think of these descriptors as being very old school and unnecessary in 2020. They’re a throwback to the old days of print classified ads, where dealers would have to list “EXC” or “MINT” to describe the condition of a guitar in the back pages of Vintage guitar magazine or whatever, in lieu of photos.

    These days, with the ability to attach dozens of high-res photos of a guitar, the seller can let photos speak much more accurately to the condition and buyers are a lot more educated about what they’re looking at.

    Ultimately, we all vote with our wallet and the final offer laid on the table means a whole lot more than whether or not we agree on the meaning of “collector grade” or “mint” or other pointless descriptive terms. They’re about as useless and tired as “plays like butter” (What??)

  14. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Thanks, Charlie, for looking at my chart exercise and your thoughtful reaction. I tried to distribute the “issues” from least to most serious and assigned percentage ranges as placeholders to consider and test, knowing they’re probably not accurate. And I agree that some percentage discounts for lower cost guitars would not be scalable to high priced instruments. My percentages and assignments were just “test guesses” –a starting point to demonstrate whethere such a system could be tweaked to reasonable/acceptable performance. Thanks again for the scrutiny and feedback!

  15. Nelson Checkoway says:

    And Collin, I agree that the vague and subjective descriptions like “excellent” and “near mint” and “all original” are pretty useless and are often used to obscure a serious flaw. Who hasn’t seen the “all original” boast with a too-good-to-be-true price and then find “minor headstock crack with nearly invisible repair” in the 4th paragraph? OR the “mint” Strat with the “perfect, very old body-only nitro refin” – as if that word salad will hide “REFIN”. Yes, high res photos and full disclosure is what we need!!!

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