Verities and Rarities

This guitar is crazy rare but not crazy expensive. It’s a 60 Epiphone Sheraton and you could probably buy one (if you could find one) for under $30K.
Two rare stop tail 355’s. They only made around a dozen. These are expensive because you want one.

One of the great truths about vintage guitars is the fact that rarity usually doesn’t count for much. We all know how valuable a 58-60 Les Paul is but there were more than 1600 of them made so it’s not exactly rare. A blonde 58-60 ES-335 can be had for less than half the price (still a lot of money) even though they made about 1/8 as many. Wait. It gets worse. Look at a less popular guitar like a blonde Epiphone Sheraton. A great, great guitar made right alongside the very pricey blonde 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. Some of those Gibson badged blondies have reached the $125,000 mark but a Sheraton? Not even close.

Let’s look at some raw numbers. There are only perhaps ten 59-64 blonde 355’s. They will sell in the $75K-$125K range depending on year. There are only 12 Sheratons from 59-60 (NY pickups) and 29 from 61-63. A 59 or 60 will cost you perhaps $28K if you can find one which I assure you, you probably can’t. A 61-62 blonde Sheraton will cost you maybe $22K. Need a

Anyway, you get the idea. Rare doesn’t count much especially in models that aren’t very popular. But there’s a whole ‘nother kind of rarity that needs a little sunlight. Take a very, very popular model like a 335. Within every year, there are rarities that you simply don’t see. The factory customs and one offs that you may not even be aware of. The blonde block neck is one of those. I know of two of them. A 63 and a lefty 64. There are probably a couple more out there but, believe me, you won’t see many of them. A red 59 dot neck (or a red 58) is another. I know of 6 red 59’s- most of which have Bigsby’s and, famously, one 58. There are around 10 red 59 345’s. There are 5 black 59 345’s and, as far as I know, 3 black 59 355’s, one of which belongs to Keith Richards. Here’s the reality. There is no logic to the values.

But a blonde block neck is rarer and impossible to set a fair value on. I’d rather have the more common blonde dot neck just because I like the earlier 335’s and they are so much easier to find. 211 blonde dot necks . 2 blocks. Do the math. A blonde block neck should be outrageously expensive. Block necks from 62-64 are wildly popular and not cheap-$20K plus for a good stop tail. So, where does that put a blonde 62-64 ES-335? Conventional wisdom used to be double the price of a common color. OK, the a blonde 63 should be $42K or so. Then why is a collector grade sunburst 59 dot neck $40K but a similar blonde is three times that (and 100 times more common than a blonde block)? Like I said, there is no logic.

There is an easily understood explanation to the seemingly random and illogical valuation of rare vintage guitars (this is the “verities” part of the post). It’s simple. Do you want one really badly? Yes? Then expect to pay some very serious money for it. That’s how it works.

How about a 60 355 with a Super 400 board and a Byrdland tailpiece? Probably one of a kind but not particularly valuable. Probably because it never occurred to you to want one.
They didn’t make any block neck 335’s in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. As rare as they come but not six figure expensive. I want one. Do you?

11 Responses to “Verities and Rarities”

  1. RAB says:

    All true! Then there’s the “Rock Star” factor…we tend to want to play what our guitar heroes played. Finally, we want to play a guitar that sounds, plays and looks good. Try doing deep Blues bends on a Jazzmaster, even a cool ‘59. When the string suddenly pops out of the bridge saddle grooves the axe ain’t so cool! Food for thought!

  2. chuckNC says:

    It only occurs to me to want one of those stoptail 355’s when I actually see them. Then I am possessed with a great and overpowering desire. A desire which only the possession of such treasure can satisfy……

    You, sir, are the devil. LOL

  3. okguitars says:

    Like many collectibles, certain vintage guitars fall into the “must have” category. You know you don’t need it. You know it won’t be good for your bank account but you can just about rationalize it by calling it an investment. I’ve never seen a red 59/60 dot neck that I didn’t have to own.

  4. Nelson Checkoway says:

    It’s a great point you raise, Charlie, that some uber-rare examples of desirable vintage guitars don’t earn a value correlating directly to their rarity. I’ll offer a few theories:

    First, custom one-offs are often guitars with unorthodox features that are dictated by the customer. Pre-’65 ES-3×5 guitars with no f holes or florentine cutaways, custom fretboard inlays or binding, etc: these are customer designs, not “official” factory issues and the vintage market doesn’t reward crowd sourced guitar design.

    Sometimes they’re simply “too rare” as not to be recognized within the canon of top shelf vintage guitars. Sometimes–especially with respect to rare colors–authenticity comes into play. If you can’t match an instrument back to official catalog specs, is it 100%?

    And then there is the bandwagon effect: owners of desirable rare guitars want to have an example that may be among the rarest that are factory sanctioned, but they still want to have a guitar that is ‘accepted’ in the owners’ community.

    Finally the investment issue: as you said, the market establishes the prices for the more and less common instruments, making them a safer bet for buyers (and therefore sellers).

    Personally, I love the one-offs–having something that no one else has. But for some folks, that means that if they have the one-off, then Clapton or Beck or Page don’t … and that’s a problem.

  5. RAB says:

    Nelson, good points. Also there are some factory finish colors that are rare but are also very ugly making those guitars less desirable. E.G. Epiphone’s Royal Olive or Fender’s Antigua!

  6. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Yes, RAB, and let’s not forget the Fender’s vaunted 1979-81 International colors. Anybody want a Monaco Yellow Stratocaster? Hmm, how about one in Capri Orange? Sahara Taupe??? I didn’t think so …

  7. RAB says:

    Very true!

  8. DavidK says:

    I remember the unique 64 Greenburst 335 Charlie featured here a few years ago. Horrible sight in my humble opinion – wonder what the market would be for that?!

  9. okguitars says:

    The green burst was apparently made to match the owner’s car. Fortunately, I like red cars, so I don’t have to have my 335’s made to order.

  10. Collin says:

    Agree with a lot of points above, but I’ll add that the single biggest factor for value is the stability and predictability of prices, and the need for that just increases as prices get bigger.

    Like it or not – many people treat collectibles (and yes, that includes vintage guitars) like any other financial asset and when you’re paying five-figures for a guitar it’s always helpful to expect it’ll be worth at least the same amount in the future. Unless you’re wealthy enough to not care at all (we can all dream..).

    With custom guitars, a complete one-off has no precedent for prices. There’s no mutually-agreed value in a price guide or even with dealers. Some people might assume it has incremental value over a garden variety example, but most people are hesitant to pay MORE for something with an unclear value.

    Demand is far more important than supply, when it comes to collectibles.

  11. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Collin – I’m on board with your thinking on this. It seems that the rare option still need enough numbers/examples to gain traction in the market. I think it’s also that certain rarities have acquired mojo and desirability — even among features that are equally uncommon.

    A good example might be the Argentine Grey ES-335. I believe this finish had its own official catalog designation, along with red, sunburst and natural. And I’m guessing they’re the rarest of the “standard” Gibson colors at that time. But I don’t hear of players or collectors clamoring for them. Are they too close to a sunburst — and a bit duller looking at that, without the red/yellow highlights?

    Charlie – you’ve probably had some pass through – maybe you can shed light on why this sanctioned rarity seems to be overlooked — or at least overshadowed — by more common brethren in the ES-3X5 family.

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