Vintage Guitar Folks are Nuts


This 58 ES-350 was about $400 in 1958 when it was new. It sold last year for around 20 times that amount.

On the other hand, this was a about $300 in 1958. Not sure what it sold for but I'd bet it was around $30K perhaps even more. That's 100 times its original price if you're too lazy to do the math. This photo comes from the nice folks at Rumble Seat Music with whom I spent a very pleasant hour last weekend in Ithaca, NY playing a lot of their very cool stuff. Great shop and nice people.

We really are a strange bunch. Not that vintage guitar collectors are any weirder than other collectors but we have some quirks that are kind of bizarre when you think (rationally) about them. Consider pickups. You can buy a really good humbucker for $130 brand new. A vintage early patent number will cost you $800 or so. The same pickup with a different sticker will cost you around $1500 (short magnet PAF). The same pickup with a weaker but larger magnet will cost you $2000. But wait, there’s more. If the plastic is half white or all white, it’ll cost you double (or more). But, if the sticker is missing, it’ll cost you half. But the sticker alone isn’t really worth much. Consider neck size-an excellent 59 ES-335 will cost you $30,000 with its big fat neck. A late 60 will cost you $10,000 less. A 64 ES-335 with a stoptail and a fat neck will cost you around $17K but change the tailpiece to a trapeze (early 65) and the price is half. Other than the tailpiece, a big neck early 65 is pretty much identical to a late 64 but will save you about $8,500. That’s pretty nutty. I could go on…A Bigsby knocks off 25% even though it was an extra cost option when new. It’s a matter of trends-a 335 with a trem is less desirable to a collector than a stop. BUT a hardtail Strat is less desirable than a trem equipped one. Does that make sense? Really?  I had a guy ask me why it’s so important for a vintage guitar to have its original case. He pointed out that you really can’t be sure its original. Well, he’s right. Even if you are the original owner, the case could have been different than the one it showed up at the music store in. They always removed them from the case and displayed them. Then when they sold them, they went in the back and got out a case that fit. You could argue that any part that is removable is suspect. So, what do we do? We do a little detective work. Refins are a great example. I recently sold a beautiful red 64 and was asked how I knew it wasn’t refinished. There are a lot of tells but one of the best ones is asking yourself why anyone would actually do it. I suppose if you didn’t like the color, you might refinish a nearly mint guitar-it happens with Fenders sometimes perhaps due to the many color choices they had.  But, there were only 2 color choices for a 335 in 64 and you have to scratch your head and wonder why someone would go through the time and expense to take a red one and make it sunburst or vice versa. If it’s black or white or Pelham blue, then I understand why someone might have a near mint 335 refinned-just as I can see if you had a sunburst Strat and you wanted a Sonic blue, I guess but even then, I’m not sure you’d do the refin unless the guitar was a little beat up. But, then again, we are a bit nuts as a group. How about this? Back at the top of the market, I paid over $200 for a switch tip for a 59 345.  That’s a 15 cent piece of plastic (OK, catalin). They still sell for around that but a vintage Dakaware Telecaster tophat is about $30. Actually, you don’t even have to dig that deep to see how nutty we actually are. We’ll pay 100 times the original asking price for  54 year old 335 but you can buy a 54 year old ES-350 for around 15 or 20 times the original price. Don’t even get me started on Les Pauls. LP owners are in a class by themselves when it comes to nutty. And, I’d be right there with them if I could afford to play in their league. If we were all completely sane, this wouldn’t be nearly so much fun, so I urge all of you to be as nutty as I am.

3 Responses to “Vintage Guitar Folks are Nuts”

  1. Permanent Wave says:

    I have been playing the same old Ibanez $200 acoustic for 10 years and recently decided I had to get something so have been doing mounds of research about what I want and why. I’m a huge Rush fan and so I wanted something capable of some faint shadow of what their guitar bits are supposed to sound like. Being an avid traditional bowhunter (I use only wooden or composite bows- longbows and recurves) I know what kind of difference the actual piece of wood used in a tool (or instrument) has on the finished product. And there really is no way to distinguish a decent piece of wood from one that is going to perform exceptionally.
    I mention this because while I don’t want to spend $3000 on an es335 if I thought it was going to make that much of a difference I might. Having been to 4 different guitar centers and various local shops and testing all sorts of 335’s and clones I have to fully agree with this article. Yes, I checked things like what kind of PU’s and electronics were in each, but in the end some very equal guitars in terms of both setup, age, and wear sounded vastly different. I’m a pretty impartial observer because I don’t have any guitar loyalties. I do have an ear for music though and there were some 335s I wouldn’t have given you $335 for except if it were to resell.
    I auditioned some Epiphone DOTs and there were a few that sounded better than $3000 Gibsons- and then again the vast majority sounded awful to me despite their glowing praises. In the end the most CONSISTENT guitar I found was the Ibanez Artcore (now I’m beginning to sound like a fan of Ibanez, I swear I don’t care). It does what I want it to do for the most part and now I’m trying to find a Les Paul or clone to cover all my bases.
    Anyway my two cents, I’ve shot $2000 bows that were measurably worse than $200 bows- we can measure speed- but with guitars it’s a bit of personal choice.
    To say that every vintage ES335 is worth thousands of dollars though is nothing short of some compulsive nostalgic worship of a tool.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    You’ve made my point for me. Current Gibson quality and playability is all over the place. If I go to GC and play a dozen 335s, I might find one that I like. Out of the last dozen 1958-1964 ES-335s I’ve owned, a dozen have been excellent. I won’t say 100% of them are excellent but I would say that 95% of them are. There is remarkable consistency to these guitars (the vintage ones) as long as the bridge is in good shape and the nut and saddles are correctly cut. “Compulsive Nostalgic Worship of a Tool”. Hmmm. Almost poetic but not quite. In a year, when perhaps you tire of your Ibanez, it will be worth less than you paid-guaranteed. If I spent $12000 a year ago on a 64 ES-335 and I was tired of it, I could sell it today for the same $12000. That isn’t to say you can’t lose money on a vintage 335-plenty of folks did when the bubble burst. What I’m saying is that if you buy in this market (which isn’t really rising-it’s flat) you aren
    t likely to lose a dime any time soon unless you overpay in the first place. Vintage guitar folks are nuts but we get to play better sounding guitars than non vintage players.

  3. Permanent Wave says:

    In a year my Ibanez will be worn down to splinters and I’ll Townshend it. I talked to a few guitar techs about switching out the electronics and they echoed my feelings that buying a decently made $2-300 guitar and upgrading the electronics yields comparable results to buying a new $3000 guitar. I haven’t played enough vintage guitars to claim any fair comparison to new but I’d bet 10:1 odds if we did a double-blind test not one in 100 collectors could correctly identify vintage vs. new 335 run through similar setups. It’s a well documented fact that when people pay a lot for something they will defend it even in the face of obvious shortcomings.
    Switch the electronics in a $200 guitar and a $2000 guitar and I guarantee you most people will go for the cheaper one. Of course, as you mention, putting $200 into a $200 guitar still leaves you with a $200 guitar. And in 10 years probably a $100 guitar But one that sounds great.

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