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There are no Rules

Monday, July 13th, 2020

This ES-355 has a 66 serial number but it has a wide-nearly 1 11/16″ nut. It could be that it was a leftover from 65 as 355’s were pretty low volume sellers. No rules.

I try very hard to find consistency when discussing Gibsons from the so-called “Golden Era”. Certain rules and features seem to apply most of the time…PAFs until 62, then mixed PAFs and patents from 62-64, wide nut until mid 65, stop tails until early 65 and a whole lot of other features that follow a fairly predictable timeline. Except when they don’t.

One of the most desirable features of 58- early 65 ES models is the wide nut. We call it 1 11/16″ but it varies from just over 1 5/8″ to just over 1 11/16″ but all of them are wider than the 1 9/16″ nut that was introduced in mid 65 and has rendered mid 65’s to 1981 models less desirable to many players and that’s a really big deal. Imagine if 68’s had the wide nut (it’s a common misconception that they do). They would be the most desirable year post 64 for sure. Yes, 68’s had the trapeze and often had t-tops but those things can be changed. But you can’t make a narrow neck into a wide one without some very expensive (and invasive) surgery. Then a rule breaker shows up.

It is pretty commonly known that models like Byrdlands, L-5’s, Kessels and 355’s sold in fairly low numbers. Even with the low volume, they would generally make a “rack” of the same model (usually 35 guitars) all at once and then sit on the unfinished guitars until they had an order to fill. That’s why you sometimes see patent number pickups in a 61 guitar or some other earlier feature in a guitar with a later serial number. The guitars were simply built in one year and sold in the next year (or later). That’s how we end up with 1960 guitars with 1958 factory order numbers for example. But there are no FON’s after 61, so we have only the features to go by when we are trying to figure out what year the guitar was built (or at least started).

I recently purchased a 1966 ES-355 with a wide nut-just under 1 11/16″. It is the second 66 ES-355 I’ve encountered with that feature. That probably means that the guitar was built in early 65 (or at least the neck was carved then) and sat somewhere until an order came in some time in 66. I’m sure that a bunch of narrow nut 355’s went out in 65 and early 66 because I’ve seen plenty of them. So why did this one sit? Maybe it had a small flaw or maybe it was at the back of the pile and more newly made ones were headed out the door first. Without a time machine, it’s hard to know. The larger point is that all the rules I write about get broken time and time again and it isn’t always possible to come up with a reason. You could easily ask “was it re-necked later with a custom ordered neck?” Or maybe it was simply a custom order that specified a particular nut width. I know it wasn’t re-necked (it’s pretty easy to tell) but I suppose it could have been a custom order. Again, where did I leave the keys to the time machine.

I’ve had a similar experience with another 66. This was a 345 with honest to god Mickey Mouse ears. Left over early 60’s body? Maybe. Probably. The rule is that MM ears were gone by late 63 when they redid the jigs for making ES 335, 345 and 355 bodies. But this 345 and at least two others I’ve seen made their way out the door in 1966. So, no rule is a hard and fast rule and no feature is 100% consistent over the era of 1958 to 1969. After 1969, you’re on your own-I just don’t see enough of them to know much. Let me know if you have an oddball like these. It gives me something to write about.

A 66 should not have Mickey Mouse ear cutaways. And yet, this one does and at least two others I’ve seen do as well. There is a fair amount of inconsistency in the shape of the cutaways from 66 to 67 (pointy ear, “fox ear”, etc) but Mickeys? No. Great player too, by the way, although I’m sure it had nothing to do with the ears. If I recall, this one had early patent numbers which might have had something to do with it.

Pandemic Buying

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

Pandemic shmandemic. High end is selling. The low end is selling and in between is selling. This 60 burst went to Texas not too long ago. I’ve got another if you’re looking.

I thought that the pandemic was going to affect he vintage guitar market and I was right. But I thought the market would slow down and I was wrong. It hasn’t. I thought it might tank but I was afraid to say that (not that I have the clout to tank the guitar market-I don’t). What I didn’t think would happen was that folks would be buying guitars like there was no tomorrow (and maybe there is no tomorrow which would explain it). I am selling nearly twice as many guitars now as I was selling before the pandemic and social distancing began. I can’t say with any certainty why this is happening but I can certainly tell you what I see and what I think might be going on.

First, it’s everywhere, not just the USA. In the past two months I’ve sold guitars to folks in Taiwan, Ireland, England, Israel, Japan and Canada. So, what is selling? Well, everything. High end stuff is selling. Player grade stuff is selling, stuff I’ve had in my shop for two years or more is selling. Guitars that aren’t terribly popular are selling. I sold a Guild Thunderbird, an Epiphone Wilshire, an ES-175, a J-160E, a Gretsch 6120 along with the usual assortment of 335’s and 345’s ad 355’s. I even sold my personal Partscaster which I hardly ever played. But the usual high end stuff is selling too-a couple of 59 ES-345’s, a refinished 60 burst, a 58 335 and a 59 335. Tweed amps are going. Two Bassmans, a Super and a Deluxe since this thing began. I lowered some prices in anticipation of a weakened market but it hasn’t happened. Anybody know why?

I have theories. The most obvious is sheer boredom. Staying home, especially if you live in an apartment (which I don’t) must be suffocating. Nothing brightens up a dull existence like a “new” guitar. I get at least a hundred a year and it still feels like Christmas morning every time one arrives. Of course, you’re going to drive your family up the wall if you’re using all that spare time to practice your scales and learn some new licks and aren’t you all ready to kill each other as it is? No? OK. But there’s a limit to how much boredom can drive the market. You need money to feed the vintage habit and with so many folks out of work, you might think this is a bad time to be buying and selling guitars. Apparently not. That leads me to another theory. It’s the “I might die tomorrow, so I should get the things that will really make me happy now” theory. I like this theory because it transcends money and boredom. It also has no end. Just because a 59 335 makes you happy today doesn’t mean a 54 Telecaster won’t make you even happier tomorrow. And then there’s always the day after tomorrow to think about. Or maybe you just want to park your money somewhere other than the stock market. Let’s consider that.

The stock market has taken a hit and it is coming back strongly but with the long term economic effects of the pandemic still in the theoretical realm, who knows how long any perceived recovery is going to last. How long before the airline, entertainment, hospitality and restaurant industries will get back to something approaching normal? Opening states too early is showing some bad, bad results. See you in September? I think not. This thing is here until they can vaccinate about a zillion people. So, where do you put your money once you’ve lost faith in the stock market? Gold is way up so you’ve probably missed the boat on that one. Vintage automobiles? There’s no place to go (there’s a pandemic going on or haven’t you noticed?) and looking at your 54 MG in the garage has a limited appeal. Vintage guitars? At least you can sit and play your vintage guitar while it appreciates (or not) even if the wife and kids are ready to kill you for spending hours on end trying to be Jimmy Page in that little shoe box of an apartment you’re stuck in. How about real estate? Get a house with an outbuilding so you can play your guitar without raising the homicide rate in your town. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Amps are flying out the door as well. I started this pandemic with 7 tweed Bassmans. I’m down to 5 (woe is me).

Fun Guitars that aren’t 335’s

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

One of the (few) upsides to Covid-19 is that I have more time to play the guitars that I have in my possession. As a dealer, I have a pretty broad selection and during the old days (pre Covid), I didn’t play them all that much because I was too busy. I played my ’59 345 and one of the 12 strings (Ricky 660 or Breedlove Classic 12). But here at OK Guitars, there are a fair number of cool guitars that, until now, I haven’t played much. Here’s a sampling:

One of my favorites is the Epiphone Wilshire with P90’s. They only made a few hundred of them from late 60-63, so they are rare. This one is sold but I have another.

What I like so much about the Wilshire is the configuration of two P90’s and a stoptail/ABR-1. Gibson made these guitars in Kalamazoo on the same assembly line as the SG’s of the day. But an SG Special has a wrap tail. In fact, the only P90 Gibson with an ABR-1 other than the Wilshire is a Les Paul (55-57 and 68 and later). So, in the early 60’s this was it. Light weight, loud and nasty (and rare). These are a true sleeper in the vintage market. You can still find them in the $4K-$8K range but look out for changed bridge and tailpiece. Those two items are worth $2000 or more alone. Folks have started scavenging these guitars for parts.

Another rare one. This is a Rickenbacker Susanna Hoffs model. This guitar has monster pickups. The two single coils are as hot as a Mosrite at 12K ohms. The humbucker at the bridge is pretty nice too.

I think the Ricky 325/350 series are pretty cool little guitars. The Lennon connection has always been a factor, being a huge Beatles fan/aficionado. But the 325/350 is a little dull to play. It’s a decent rhythm guitar but it falls short when you want to step out front and wail. Enter the Susanna Hoffs model. Even cooler looking than the Lennon with the checkerboard bindings, the SH comes alive when you plug it in. It’s aggressive in any position and will send your amp into overdrive with a twist of the volume knob. And why is that? How about single coils at 12K? The humbucker at the bridge is pretty hot as well. Yeah, the middle pickup gets in the way for some but there’s enough room to work around it. My only complaint about the Hoffs is the nut width. It’s pretty thin at around 1 9/16″. I have short stubby fingers and I kind of fall all over myself playing narrow fingerboards at the first few frets. It weighs almost nothing and, while it’s a little pricey due to the fact they only made 250 of them, the SH is a fun diversion that couldn’t be more different than what I’m used to playing.

Bet you didn’t expect this. When I was 17, I fell in love with the looks of the Ventures Mosrite and bought one. The nut was so narrow and the frets were so small that I had to change my playing style to accommodate it. But I sure looked cool playing it.

From around 1969 until 1974, I played a Mosrite Ventures Model. It was a 65 and I put a patent number humbucker in the neck and it sounded pretty great. It was not the easiest guitar to play but it sure looked good on stage (I was still gigging until 1973). The pickups in a Mosrite are way overwound (10K-12K) and these bad boys will overdrive your amp to distraction. The frets are tiny (not so great for string bends), the nut is really narrow, they don’t stay in tune very well if you hit the whammy too hard and the single tone knob can be a problem for some players, although the single volume can be a good thing, I think. With the German carve on top, it’s still one of the most distinctive and recognizable guitars of its era even though it’s essentially an upside down Strat. Not expensive unless you are after one of the early “sidejack” ones from 63.

What’s this? Some low volume Gibson solid body with humbuckers. Yes. It’s a burst. This 1960 has been in the house for a while and, even though I’m not a Les Paul guy, this guitar could turn me into one. It’s heavier than my 345 by a pound or so and the neck is a little thinner but it’s a wonderful guitar to play. It looks pretty good too even though the red seems to have disappeared from the finish.

The first time I ever saw a Les Paul was while watching one of the mid 60’s after school programs-it was either “Shindig” or “Hullabaloo” or maybe “Where the Action is”. These programs ran from around 65 until 67 on network TV. The show that day featured the Lovin’ Spoonful and there was Zally with his Guild Thunderbird (also a fun guitar but I just sold mine) but Sebastian was playing a little solid body that I had never seen before. It looked really little and kind of funny (and it was black and white TV so the color and top weren’t much of a factor). Most folks first experience with a burst was Bloomfield, Clapton or Page but this was 1965 and those guys hadn’t really emerged to the mainstream yet with their LPs. I don’t think I have to describe what these sound like or play like. There is hardly a guitar on earth that has had more written about it. I have little to add other than they seem kind of pricey compared to a good vintage 335. Or maybe the vintage 335’s are undervalued. Hmm.

To Tank or not to Tank

Friday, April 24th, 2020

This photo is not totally relevant to the content but it’s such a cool picture, I thought I would show it again. I don’t think the guitars in this photo will go down in value.

Every year, in January, I write a year end post giving you my take on the market over the past year. Telling you where the market has been is easy. telling you where it’s going is something I’ve avoided and with good reason. Nobody can predict the future. If I had a crystal ball, I’d probably be living on a beach on my private island somewhere warm. I do not. So, in these difficult times, why would I go out on a limb and predict where the vintage guitar market is going? Because you asked. I’ve had a lot of emails and phone calls over the past month or so and that seems to be the compelling question. The economy is on hold. Is the market going to tank? I never took an economics course. I never took a business course. I don’t know Keynes from Fibonacci. I’m going to hypothesize based on what I do for a living.

I don’t know. That’s the simple answer, so take everything that follows as simple logic from the inside. I’m selling a lot of guitars. I dropped some prices-not so much because I think the market is in trouble but because I have no room for the gear. I moved out of my shop last month because my lease wasn’t renewed and I have to put my inventory somewhere. I will say that the current social distancing and the resultant diminished economy is going to be with us for a while yet. I don’t expect to open a new retail space for months going forward. But most of my business has always been online and that appears pretty healthy.

There are at least two important factors driving the current guitar market. One, folks are stuck at home with nothing to do and, for the guitar obsessed (like me), searching the internet for a “new” guitar is a fun, time consuming activity. (So are jigsaw puzzles but c’mon, what would you rather get delivered to your house?) Two, a lot of folks are out of work but even with that, the unemployment rate is “only” at 10%. Not a good recipe for a robust market but not lethal blow either. There will be folks who have to sell one or more of their guitars in order to meet their financial obligations (and to eat). But, I think that, in general, these aren’t the folks who were buying vintage and collector grade stuff in the first place. I believe the collector grade guitars will remain strong but will likely level off somewhat during the next few months. There will likely be some guitars hitting the market put there by sellers who really need to generate some cash. But they won’t list them at bargain basement prices. That’s human nature. This market is not one to tank over night. Look at 2008.

2008 is not the same as now; in many ways, it was worse. Yes, unemployment is worse now but long term prospects are better. But even as the economy tanked, the stock market sank and the housing market sagged, the guitar market held on for quite a few months before it started a relatively slow decline. That decline lasted a very long time and eventually took as much as 40% off the market but in 2008, that market was a bubble. The market today is the result of a slow, steady rise that, in many cases, still hasn’t reached 2008 levels.

I could go on for pages but I think I’ll just lay out my thoughts. The player market will, I think, drop. Possibly significantly. The high end market will level off. Because so many guitars are currently priced way ahead of the market (read as “overpriced”), the folks who need to sell will eventually cut prices probably down to where they should be. The one great truth in this business is that everybody (yes, everybody) thinks their guitar is worth more than it is. Does sitting on the market for months or even years deter those sellers? Nope. Not until they need to sell (for any reason-not just starvation).

So, if my opinion means anything, don’t worry about your guitars. Play them. If you’re in the market to buy, make offers that are fair and reasonable. If I’m wrong and the market tanks, you can tell me I’m an idiot but go back to paragraph two. Sentence one. That tells you everything you need to know.

This is our dog, Zoubi. She doesn’t know there’s a pandemic out there. She just knows I’m home all the time and that means more treats for doggies.

Things to Do (During a Pandemic)

Monday, April 6th, 2020

Watch some old episodes of “Shindig” or “Hullabaloo” from the mid 60’s. Why aren’t the Hermits’ guitars plugged in? Because there aren’t any amps…it was all lip synched).

Well, this is week number 4 that I’ve been conscientiously social distancing. A few trips to my shop to finish clearing out before my lease expires at the end of the month and one big trip to the local Stop and Shop for groceries and that’s about the extent of my travels. Binge watched “Ozark” and “Unorthodox” and am working on the Aussie quasi soap opera “A Place Called Home”. Oh, and there are guitars here. What to do.

Play. Just sit down and don’t just noodle the stuff you always play. Go to You Tube and learn a new song. Download some blues jams and try to break out of your old habits (I really need to do this). Or just practice your scales and picking. Learn to finger pick if you don’t already do it. Learn alternate tunings (which I’ve never really done other than drop D). For me, I’ve never been able to master any Steely Dan, so I’m going to try to learn a few of my old favorites. My up/down picking can always use a little more practice (I’ve got 55 years of bad habits-I only took lessons for 6 months when I was 11). You a blues player? Play some Bluegrass. A rocker? Learn some country licks. Put aside some time every day to play. I’m lucky to have a space where I can play and not wake anybody up. Play loud-just for fun. If you play sitting down, stand up. If you play standing, sit down. Mix it up. Play along with a favorite song and imagine you’re a rock star. You know you want to-even old guys like me never lose the dream.

Social Media. Post some of your favorite guitars on social media. Sharing your gear with others is a good way to make some new friends. OK, there’s a few douchebags out there who will tell you that your 66 is really a 69 or that the neck pickup looks like a t-top but mostly, everybody is nice. Go to You Tube and look for old footage of your favorite band from your favorite decade. I spent a couple hours watching old “Shindig”, “Hullabaloo” and “Where the Action Is” episodes. For anybody under 60, those were after school American Bandstand type programming with go-go dancers and big pop stars mostly lip synching their hits in black and white (man, I feel old). They aired from around mid 64 until late 66 or early 67. Watch some music documentaries. Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” is wonderful. “The Wrecking Crew” is worth watching as well and there are lots of others.

Maintenance. Change your strings for crying out loud. What’s it been, six months? A year? And oil the fingerboard while you’re at it. Your guitar will thank you. Lube the tuners-nobody ever does this and spray the pots with some De-ox-it. How about you go and clean some of the gunk off your guitars as well. If you’re a gigging musician, you aren’t gigging at the moment and you’ve sweated all over your guitar for long enough. Virtuoso Cleaner is a good product. I’m sure you can order it online. Just let the box sit in the garage for a day or two or open it with your gloves on. This virus knows where you live and will wait you out.

Finally, go and buy yourself a “new” guitar or amp. You know it and I know that nothing makes you feel better than a new piece of gear. I’ve sold an astonishing number of vintage guitars and amps in the last few weeks and while everyone seems to be crying gloom and doom for the vintage market, some folks are taking advantage of that by making offers and getting some deals. A new amp will make you happy and not cost you an arm and probably both legs. I just bought a 70 Marshall JMP 50 because my 55 Twin wasn’t loud enough. Can’t afford vintage? I also bought a 3 Monkeys “Virgil” (best boutique amp out there). Or get an old Supro. A few hundred bucks for a whole new experience.

There’s lots to do at home. Just stay there until this is over. Somebody’s life depends on it. Maybe even yours.

Bored after a few weeks of social distancing? Buy yourself some “new” gear. Here’s a 69 335 in factory black. It will make you feel much better about being cooped up in your tiny apartment or your manor house.

(Anti) Social Distancing

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

The fun part was that you never knew who (or what) was going to walk in the door next. We had some very interesting folks, some real cool guitars and lots of very cute doggies. Unfortunately, all of that is gone for now and the old train car is no longer mine, so when I come back, it will be in a new location (in the same town)

When you run a small brick and mortar business, it is kind of important to be sociable. Buying a guitar, especially an expensive vintage guitar, is a very often a process that requires a lot of interaction. It’s easy if you know exactly what model, year, finish and configuration you want. You walk in, you play it and you buy it, assuming you like it. But if there are 6 or 8 or a dozen 335’s in the shop, it becomes a process that requires a lot of discussion and a lot of handing guitars back and forth and in the current era of social distancing, that is a problem.

Corona virus is able to live on hard surfaces for a very long time. Nobody is quite sure now long but from what I’ve heard and read, it can live for days on a metal surface. That means the guitar strings are a Corona virus’s paradise. Good for the virus, not so good for you and me. For OK Guitars (meaning me-I’m a one man band), the timing of this crisis is notable. If you have checked my Facebook page lately, you will know that I lost my lease on my store at about the same time the virus hit. I was there for five and a half years and OK Guitars had become a destination shop for tourists. Kent CT’s economy is nearly 100% tourism driven. It’s a big hiking destination with the Appalachian Trail running along the ridge just west of town. And, being only an hour and a half (if you’re lucky with traffic) from New York City, making a day of hiking and a visit to OK Guitars to play a bunch of 335’s was a common Saturday or Sunday endeavor. Sadly, that’s over. At least for now.

I spent this weekend taking down the guitars from the hangers and taking down the hangers for the guitars. Fortunately, I mark all the cases but somehow I still ended up with 12 extra cases. I boxed up all the tools and the strings and the capos and the picks. I unplugged all the amps and covered the ones that have covers. I took down the little Beatles display that was on your right as you walked in (’66 Hofner, 64 Country Gent, Ricky 325, Ringo drum head and photos). Frankly, it was kind of depressing-I worked hard to make my little train car into a place that was equally friendly to well heeled collectors and to AT through hikers who just wanted to play a guitar-any guitar- after three months on the trail (and occasionally three months away from a shower). It was my pleasure to swap stories about the one that got away even though I have heard that story 1000 times. And the best part was that you never knew who was going to walk in and what guitar was going to walk in with them.

Neil Young and Daryl Hannah stopped by out of the blue on a Wednesday afternoon last October. Steve Katz from Blood Sweat and Tears was the very first customer I had-even before I had officially opened. Former Yankee Bernie Williams came in and bought a 59 Bassman. Old friends I haven’t seen in 50 years from my home town of Scotia, NY came by and Michael J. Fox and his entire family were here last Thanksgiving. He wasn’t up to playing that day but seemed happy to just talk about guitars. And it wasn’t just the people that made it so interesting and so much fun, it was the guitars. Litchfield County, CT is a place full of old hippie types a lot of acoustics walked in the door. A couple of Brazilian D-28’s from the 60’s, lots of Ovations and Guilds and probably the best J45 I ever played. A 1917 Martin 00 and a near mint 1939 Gibson L-0. The former president of RCA Records came in one day carrying two guitars and a mandolin and told me he was moving to Arizona and he didn’t want to take these instruments with him. A mint late 60’s Strat, a mint ’64 Gibson J50 and an absolutely stunning 1913 one owner (his wife’s grandfather) Gibson F4 mandolin changed hands that day. This is what I will miss.

So, even without the current pandemic, it would have been the end of an era at OK Guitars but I simply would have found other space and continued as before although in a somewhat less charming and distinctive space. Now, I don’t know. If everything gets back to normal or close to it, then I’ll open another shop. Buying online is fine if it works for you but for those of you who want to come in and hang out and play and talk guitars, I’ll be back eventually and we’ll tell all the same old stories and play all those great old guitars. We’ll crank it up to eleven and drive the neighbors nuts just like old times. See you then.

Jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli came in a few Summers ago and went right for the ’52 Super 400. At age 90, he was playing chords I couldn’t even name (let alone play). He was a little disappointed that he only had 6 strings to play on (he’s usually a 7 string player). That’s me in the background trying to figure out how he does that.

Best Defense…

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

This is what the virus looks like. It’s too small to see so just assume it’s there lurking on the guitar box that just arrived or maybe on the neck, strings and fingerboard. Either leave it for a few days or disinfect it before you play it.

Corona virus is causing all kinds of trouble and it is really important for us to take it seriously. I have closed OK Guitars, my little guitar shop in Kent, CT for the month of March as a precaution. I may close it for the month of April as well if this doesn’t get demonstrably better. The likelihood is that it will get worse. The virus can, as has been reported, live for a very long time on hard surfaces and therein lies the biggest problem in a guitar shop. And what hard surface gets touched in guitar shop, you ask? Guitars. Fortunately, I closed my shop almost two weeks ago, before any cases were active in the state of Connecticut so I’m fairly certain that the guitars are virus free. The good news is that the virus doesn’t live forever on a hard surface and even if a guitar has been played by someone with the virus, it won’t live there forever. The CDC says three days is the likely lifespan (of the virus, not the host).

There are a couple of points to be made here. First of all, if you buy a guitar from me during this time, you can rest assured that it hasn’t been played by anyone for way more than three days. I re-string and set all my guitars up before they hit the showroom floor, so they are ready to be shipped without having to be touched again. The simple precaution of wearing rubber gloves when I pack the guitar will assure you further that the guitar is virus free. I could wipe them down with disinfectant wipes but I don’t think alcohol is particularly good for the finish. I will do so if the buyer requests it. I don’t have any control over how many folks touch the box during shipping but you can take precautions on your own when the guitar arrives. Wear rubber gloves (or any gloves if you don’t have any) or let it sit boxed for a few days or simply wash your hands after you open it (and wipe down the case since you touched it when you unpacked it). Sound like I’m being an alarmist? Go read about the flu epidemic of 1918-19. This virus is up to ten times more deadly, especially to folks my age. I had a guitar delivered yesterday. I unpacked it and looked it over and played a few chords and then washed my hands. Now it will have a three day quarantine before it goes up for sale. Necessary? With cases doubling every few days and test kits still not being distributed widely, I would say yes. Necessary.

Wait, didn’t you say there were a couple of points to be made? What’s the other one? The other one applies if you have been exposed or test positive and you aren’t feeling very sick. Stay home. Quarantine yourself. Play your guitar. Think about how much better you will play after two solid weeks of “woodshedding”. There isn’t much to do if you have to hang around the house for 14 days. The “honey-do” list is out the window since you’re confined to quarters (probably the spare bedroom). It’s you and your guitar and a big box of tissues. What better way is there to run out the clock on this thing?

Gone Viral

Friday, March 6th, 2020

If the economy tanks because of the economic impact of a viral pandemic, I believe that the best of the investment grade guitars will be just fine. This 58 is guaranteed not to harbor any viruses. As a precaution OK Guitars will be open by appointment only for the month of March. Call for an appointment.

If you are an investor, the past week has been discouraging. The stock market is down 15% or so and the threat of a pandemic is the engine driving this. An economy that is chugging ahead nicely, along with a stock market that seemed unsustainably high (and going unsustainably higher) is bound to react to global bad news-especially bad news that has long term consequences. Me? I’m just a guitar guy. I don’t know much about economics (making the previous statements totally suspect) nor do I know much about investing in stocks other than a personal history of investing in a totally safe stock that promptly tanks the moment I buy it. I learned long ago that the stock market doesn’t like me and I don’t particularly like it. But I know about “investment grade” guitars and that’s what we’re going to talk about here.

What does “investment grade” even mean? Isn’t any guitar that has a value that can go up “investment grade”? After all, that’s the point of investing. Buy low, sell high, right? That’s true but history shows us that some guitars are simply better investments than others. I’m not going to be your investment advisor. You’d be nuts to listen to me about any guitar that isn’t a 335, 345 or 355. So, that’s what we’ll talk about. In my year ender posts, I looked at the past year from an investment perspective. But it was a pretty general discussion…block necks, dot necks, blondes, mono 355’s and so on. But now, with your stock portfolio, which did so well over the last…what, ten or twelve years?, heading into losing territory, what does that do to the guitar market? I don’t know-if I did, I’d be rich and retired-but I have a pretty good idea.

Here’s my opinion from a guy who believes in the vintage guitar market and a guy who knows that you can’t play the blues on a stock certificate (although you can sing the blues over a stock certificate-especially recently). The stock market downturn has to do with worldwide economic concerns. The supply chain for new products largely flows through China. A pandemic will keep people from going to work and things won’t get made. The travel and tourism business drops to near zero in a pandemic. The entertainment business, including professional sports, suffers because folks won’t congregate in large numbers. You can trade your stock portfolio in your pajamas from your home office but that doesn’t help the companies whose stock you are buying and selling from tanking in the wake of a worldwide economic standstill. But vintage guitars don’t follow these economic realities. They simply are.

There is no supply chain to speak of except, perhaps, reproduction parts. There are no crowded public spaces required. You can, indeed, buy a vintage guitar in your pajamas. With an approval period, your risk is minimal. Your risk of getting an illness from a guitar is pretty slim. Does a significant economic downturn hurt the guitar market? It could, by diminishing the wealth of prospective buyers. But it doesn’t hurt the demand for the product. Truthfully, if I’m stuck at home because it’s too dangerous to go out in public or I’m self quarantining , I’m going to really happy having my guitars to keep me company and the thrill of getting a “new” one-if I can trust the Fedex man not to have a communicable virus-will likely be enhanced. If I have to wear gloves and a mask to unpack my purchase, I’m OK with that.

My general advice, from an investment standpoint, is to buy no issue guitars. Mint guitars are great investment pieces because the serious collectors will always want the best example available. Player grade guitars are not the place to go in an uncertain market. Buy them and enjoy them but they will not keep pace with what is still a vibrant and rising market. The values will likely hold up in the short term, but the liquidity (ease of selling) may not and that will drive the values down. If the global repercussions of a pandemic affect all aspects of the economy, including collectibles, then the best of the collectibles will likely become more desirable while the lower grade stuff will likely stagnate or back down. The reality is that the folks who can afford the best of the best will still be able to afford them after the potential pandemic has either fizzled (like SARS) or blown up (like Spanish Flu). It could take a few months or it could change our lives for years.

You can’t go wrong with a Fender narrow panel tweed. These will never die. I’ve heard they are loud enough to drive any virus out of your house.

Band of Brothers

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for Rush died on Tuesday at the age of 66.

Every once in a while there is an event that compels me to write about something other than guitars. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, I pick up a pen (OK, a laptop) and start pecking away. The event that motivates me is the death of Rush drummer Neil Peart. The subject is neither music nor drummers (what do I know about drummers?). It’s brothers, a subject I can call myself an expert in.

The bond between brothers is different than any other. It’s not the same as your bond with your spouse or partner but it can be no less deeply felt. It can be diluted (or intensified) if you have multiple brothers. I have 8 of them, which is what makes me an expert. With brothers, there is love, affection and respect. Brothers, however, don’t usually express their mutual love with words. They just don’t. Action speaks instead. That action can be almost anything-In my family, a nine way text on the phone, a weekend visit, even a loan or a punch in the arm. Brothers express affection in some unusual ways. But here’s the thing…the shared experience of growing up in the same house, under the same circumstances with the same parents forges an almost unbreakable (whether you like it or not) bond that endures. Until death do you part, indeed. You cannot divorce your brothers. They are yours forever and you are theirs. In the best case, they will do anything for you and you will do anything for them with no second thoughts. It’s been easy for me-we all get along and we’re all still healthy. It will break my heart to lose one.

Military guys will tell you about the brotherhood bond between members of their unit. Enduring life threatening danger will make you very close, as I understand it. I have never been in combat but I have spent time in a war zone (and I’ve been shot at) during my years in the TV news business. The bond must be similar but highly compressed-the bond that takes years for siblings to form likely forms in a fraction of the time. Losing your military brother in combat is one of the most gut wrenching stories any veteran will tell. Even without a genetic component, your brother is a part of you and to lose that can be devastating.

You spend maybe 18 years at most living with your genetic brothers. Imagine this. Three guys have worked together almost daily and in very close proximity for more than 40 years doing something that requires trust and respect for each of the others. It also requires enormous concentration, integrity and talent. Do it live on a lighted stage 200 or more times some years and you become pretty close. Bands that don’t, usually don’t endure. Stories of animosity in a rock band are abundant. The death of Neil Peart this week must feel like the loss of a brother to Alex and Geddy. Both are clients of mine and I am saddened by their loss. Making music together and doing it as well as Rush is an incredible gift far beyond the fan adulation, the money and the excitement of live performance. My meager experience as a band member from 1964 to around 1974 is nothing compared to theirs. The band changed members like most of us change their underwear. But my band that stayed together the longest forged bonds of the brotherly type. Tom, the keyboardist and Dave, the drummer and I stayed in touch over all these years. Dave and I grew up on the same street in Scotia, NY. Every time we saw each other over the years, the conversation always went to our few years as a band. That was our bonding experience. I have often referred to live performing as the scariest, most exciting thing a guy can do. Dave passed away in 2019 and I felt the loss in a way that can only give me the slightest inkling of what Geddy and Alex must be feeling today.

Neil Peart was a drummer’s drummer in a monster band. And a lyricist. Drummers don’t write lyrics, do they? Neil did and while I never saw them perform live, I so appreciate their work and talent (and, as a suburban kid, I love “Subdivisions”). I spent much of today on You Tube listening to Rush concert performances and I’m awestruck by how much wonderful noise these three guys made. I’m privileged to know Geddy and to do business with Alex. I send them my deepest condolences for the loss of their brother.

Alex, Neil and Geddy after their final show. So long, Neil. Thanks for the joyful noise.

Stradivari v Les Paul

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

This is the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius. Built in 1727 and formerly owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, it sold at auction for just under $16 million. Nice fiddle but out of my price range.

This post is meant to get you thinking, not to educate you as to the astonishing value of an iconic musical instrument. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to assess how much any violin is worth but I have done some research into what makes violins made by Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and a few others worth as much as $20 million. Can you compare a 300 year old handmade violin to what is essentially a mass produced guitar? I think you can and the conclusions might surprise (or at least entertain) you.

There have been a fair number of blind comparison tests between these iconic violins and the violins of the best of contemporary builders. The results are mixed but, not infrequently, the modern violins come out on top, even when judged by the worlds top players. So, the idea that a Stradivarius or Guarneri is simply the best sounding violin ever made is put to rest. Fast forward 259 years or so. Is the Les Paul standard the best sounding guitar ever made? It could be but the value can’t be due to that factor because a 58 gold top can be had for less than half the cost of a sunburst 58. I’m pretty sure you won’t argue that a sunburst and a gold top will sound any different. So, what other factors can we look at?

Well, if a 58 gold top is a $125,000 guitar and a 58 sunburst is a $250,000 guitar (I’m using averages here), and the only difference is the top, then can we conclude that the top is the reason a sunburst is worth so much more? Possibly but the we have to consider the huge differences between tops on Les Pauls. Clearly, the figuring is a huge factor. The fancier the top, the more valuable they are. Originality is also a big factor. I currently have two mostly original Les Pauls in my shop with beautiful tops. The refinish probably takes $100,000 off the value of each. One is renecked as well. Knock off another, what, $50K? So, the top alone can’t be the biggest factor. It is worth noting that nobody really cares about what the top of a Stradivari built violin looks like. They also don’t care nearly as much about originality.

Nearly every 300 year old violin has been re-necked. The necks made before around 1715 are rather different than modern necks and few players play the “baroque” neck. Stradivari was the builder who modernized the baroque violin by making the neck angle steeper and made structural changes that made the violin louder and more aggressive. Beyond the change in neck design, it is common to re-neck a concert violin periodically. Many multimillion dollar violins have been refinished and repaired as well. While there has been a lot of speculation about the varnish used on these violins, it has been generally accepted that the original varnish is not the the main factor in their tone. It is, by many accounts, the wood harvested during what is called the “Little Ice Age” lasting from 1300 to 1870 that makes these violins so special. That makes sense but tens of thousands of other violins were made during that period and, I’m sure, many others from the wood grown during that period and they aren’t worth many millions of dollars.

So, when you are out to buy a multimillion dollar Italian violin from the 1700’s, you don’t have to worry so much about re-necks, refinishes or repairs. You do worry about provenance, authenticity (there are thousands of copies) and tone. When you are about to buy a six figure electric guitar from 1958-1960, you look for great tone but it simply isn’t the main factor. I’ve heard equally great tone from more than one 1959 ES 345 which is a $20,000 guitar. What so many focus on is the appearance, mainly the figured top. Next, you pay attention to the finish-it must be original. With the violin, the finish is likely to have been redone or at least repaired. With the LP, you make sure the neck is original. With the violin, it is almost a certainty that it is not. Clearly, they are judged by only one common factor but do I therefore conclude that tone rules in both cases? Nope. It’s a big factor but while a refinish knocks $100K (40-50%) off the value of a Les Paul, a good but not great sounding all original Les Paul might be priced less than a great one. But, if the top of the just OK sounding Les Paul is heavily figured, and the one with the superior tone is plain, the ok sounding one will cost you more.

The violin’s provenance is a big factor in determining whether the tone is good. If it has been played on the concert stage by a big name player, you can be reasonably assured that it is a great sounding violin. The same can certainly be true of that Les Paul you have your eye on. In fact, if a big name player has previously owned your burst, you can bet the price will go up by a lot. But, and it’s a big but, most of the 1500 or so Les Pauls built weren’t played or owned by anybody famous and yet they will still set you back six figures worth of your hard earned money.

This is a lot to process. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. There are so many logical reasons for these instruments NOT to be priced this high. Rarity (they aren’t all that rare), tone (I’ve played plenty of non Les Pauls that sound as good as any Les Paul), provenance (most weren’t played by anybody famous) and appearance (lots of R9’s look as good as any 58-60 burst). I’ve never bought a burst but I’ve spent six figures on more than a few guitars and I can safely conclude that there is one big factor that will keep bursts selling at high prices for years to come. Bragging rights. Guys love bragging rights. Just ask any Ferrari driver. Or Stradivarius player.

What’s this one worth? This is Pearly gates, one of the most famous bursts out there. A million bucks? With the sale of the Gilmour Strat at close to $4M, I would guess that some billionaire would spend that much and more. Does that make provenance the most important factor? Maybe but it’s got a nice top too, so maybe add on an extra million.