The Myth of Fingerprints

I’ve got this crazy clean 59 ES-335 and it plays and sounds as good as at least 95% of the 335’s I’ve had. Just because it was well cared for OR simply not played much doesn’t mean it’s a dog. That’s a myth. Well played beat up guitars are often excellent players but very clean guitars aren’t always unplayed. Sometimes they are simply well cared for. Sometimes they are unplayed for reasons other than they suck.

With apologies to Paul Simon because I’m sure this isn’t what he meant when he wrote about the “myth of fingerprints”, there are certain myths and legends that seem to creep into the vintage guitar consciousness. Like early 60’s Les Pauls were made from leftover bodies (they weren’t) or Brazilian rosewood fingerboards sound better than Indian rosewood. Both persist and you can argue the latter all you want but until somebody can prove the point, I’m sticking to my guns. But the myth I’m going to try to blow a hole in today is the idea that if an old guitar is mint or close to it, it must be a dog because nobody wanted to play it. I’m writing from experience here as I get to play a lot more guitars than you do and probably a lot more mint ones.

First off, the reverse has some truth to it. A guitar that HAS been played a lot is probably a good one because bad ones actually don’t get played as much. But just because a guitar didn’t get played doesn’t mean it sucks. It CAN mean that but I think the more likely scenarios follow. Little Johnny gets a spectacular red 335 for his 12th birthday in 1964 from his Aunt Mildred who played ukulele in a USO band in 1944. Johnny has no talent and even less patience, so after a half dozen lessons from Mr. Orsini (who will only teach jazz and Johnny wants to be a rock star so the girls will like him), he gives it up and it sits under the bed at his Mom’s house in Schenectady. Johnny goes on to greatness as a prosecutor and has a wonderful life until he gets caught taking bribes from the mayor. Johnny goes to jail for white collar crimes and has to put his mint 64 335 on Reverb in order to make bail.

OR Billy saves up the money from his paper route that gets him out of bed a 4 AM every morning for a lousy $4.49 a week (plus tips from Mrs. Van Dyck up the street who thinks Billy is cute). He scrimps and saves and finally after 2 years is able to buy that Stratocaster that’s in the window of Hermies Music Store in Schenectady. Billy plays in a band and he wipes down his Strat after every song and puts it in the case between sets rather than leaning it up against the Super Reverb that took him another year to get (Dad helped out but Mom doesn’t know about it). 55 years later, Billy still has his prized Strat (and plays it every day and still wipes it down) until he passes away in 2020 of Covid 19 and his no talent son puts it on Reverb to get money to buy weed.

OR little Jimmy’s father was a semi-pro player and he “inherits” Dad’s nearly new ’73 Les Paul Custom when Dad suddenly disappears with his administrative assistant and is never heard from again. Little Jimmy has a ton of talent but the guitar weighs 13 pounds and sounds like crap. Jimmy has his beat up Telecaster and leaves Dad’s guitar at Mom’s house when he finally moves out at the age of 25. Now Jimmy isn’t little Jimmy any more but Dad’s old LP is still under the bed at his Mom’s. Jimmy bought himself 20 or 30 guitars over the years but that old LP is just a dog of a player. Then 2020 happens and the economy tanks and Jimmy has to sell some things to make rent and he remembers the old LP at Mom’s house in Schenectady and puts it on Reverb.

Both Johnny’s and Billy’s guitars are tone monsters but neither got beat up-one because the owner had no talent and the other because the owner was careful. Both scenarios are made up but they illustrate the disconnect between the idea that a mint guitar is a bad player and a beater is a great one. Only the third scenario gives any credence to the myth. The guitar that has no fingerprints (and dings and dents and scrapes) CAN be a dog but it isn’t necessarily a dog. A beater is less likely to be a dog-I will grant that but I’ve played enough great mint guitars to know that the myth is false. There is something known as “The Curse of the Mint Guitar” which I’ve written about if you can find it. Or I’ll just write another post about it later. Now, I think I’ll go play the mint 59 335 I’ve got in my shop.

The stories are made up but based in truth. I am, in fact, from Schenectady, NY but this is not biographical (mostly). Hermie’s Music is a real place in Schenectady and Mr. Orsini was my guitar teacher in 1964 who hated rock and roll. I am neither Johnny, Billy or Jimmy. They all exist but the names are changed.

14 Responses to “The Myth of Fingerprints”

  1. Leedsy says:

    An appropriate time in history to discuss myth v fact, Charlie- but only coincidental, no doubt. I’ve played my share of old instruments, but nowhere near as many guitars as you have. Condition correlating inversely to sound and playability never occurred to me as being remotely logical or scientific.
    Myths can be interesting and entertaining, but usually tell us more about those who believe in them (or find them useful) than the subject of the myth.
    Thanks for another excellent post.

  2. Marvin Mitchell says:

    In 1969 i was 17and I sold my nova super sport for 500$. Went to buy a les Paul and all they had was a custom black beauty. I wanted one like duane Allman but close enough. I played it for a few years and bought a fender Les Paul sat from then to2019. I said this thing is valuable so I sold it mint condition no aging or marks. Boy was I sorry. I missed it so much I bought a 59 reissue new. Beautiful. Then I bought a 59 reissue es335. Now all I play is the es335. I fell in love With it as i never played one. So another les Paul closet classic is born. But that 335 is magic. Love your blog

  3. RAB says:

    Charlie, thanks for busting some guitar myths. I’ve always treated my musical equipment with care and respect. In return the guitars, effects, amps and yes, even connecting cables, perform at their best and rarely let me down at the gig. A well-maintained tool performs better than one that was treated like crap. I don’t own or use a guitar stand. Seen too many busted head stocks when the stand fell over. Why wouldn’t an artist treat their tools with care? A carpenter does. It isn’t “cool” to mistreat your equipment. It doesn’t take any talent nor is it artistic to abuse your axe. Yes Pete Townshend, I mean you. And I give Jimi a pass for igniting his Strat because that was darn cool! Finally, a well kept axe is worth more than a beat to shit one if you go to sell it! Rock on!

  4. Steve Newman says:

    A coincidentally well timed post, connecting to my story about the ’61 ES 345 I talked about on your previous topic of unstickered PAF pickups, Charlie. There are certain individuals that take fanatical care of their prized possessions, no matter what they may be (cars, firearms, artwork, books, etc.) to the point of obsession. I was the lucky recipient of that kind of compulsive care when I was able to acquire that super clean (dare I use the word mint?) 345. It was a superlative guitar by every measure…..looks, sound and playability. You have rightly busted the myth of the super clean guitar being a dog…well done.

  5. RAB says:

    Steve, right on! The only negative about a mint or near mint guitar in my book is my reluctance to gig it. I had a 1954 Les Paul Standard that was so terrifyingly clean I was scared to even open the case for fear of inducing the first weather check. Hence the guitar was useless to me and I sold it. RAB

  6. RAB says:

    Oh yeah, and the time I did gig my mint 1962 Blonde Epiphone E-212TN Sheraton. We were playing in a very small, crowded club with a postage stamp sized stage. Our oaf of a lead singer whacked the Sheraton’s headstock when flailing around with his harmonica. Put a “nice” sized divot into the edge of the headstock. Back into the closet the Sheraton went, soon to be liquidated…

  7. Collin says:

    Glad to see somebody else sharing this thinking. I get so tired of the trope about mint guitars being dogs, it has no basis in reality. In my opinion, this is a logical fallacy created in reaction to the fact that super worn guitars are usually good (which I have found to be true), but it doesn’t hold up.

    Some of the nicest guitars I’ve ever played were mint examples, with no fret wear or poor neck angles or other issues that arise from a guitar actually being used. It’s a glimpse of what these guitars were like brand new.

    I tend to prefer the really worn guitars for a number of reasons (affordability and vibe certainly being factors), but that’s just me. Mint guitars are usually excellent, in my experience, but out of my price range.

  8. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Great post, Charlie. Love to see myths get busted. Since you’ve probably seen and played many many more “under the bed’ guitars than most of us, let me ask you: how often have you encountered “mint” guitars that didn’t play well, not becuase they were dogs to begin with … but because sitting under a bed or in the hall closet for decades was not the most hospitable environment (warped necks, corroded parts, etc.)?

  9. RAB says:

    I’ll pipe in…all the clean to mint guitars I’ve played have played well or did after some fairly minor neck and bridge adjustments. Conversely beat to shit examples often played poorly and/or would require significant luthier work (replacing a broken truss rod, complete refret, extensive electronics repair (broken pickups, etc) to put them in playable condition. Once again, I can’t relate to a “musician” who mistreats his tools…it makes no sense from any reasonable perspective…it isn’t “cool”, its negligent or ignorant at best…

  10. okguitars says:

    About 10 years ago, I saw an ad on Craigslist for a 1961 ES-335 in Indiana. After a few emails back and forth, I bought it and drove out to pick it up in person.
    The guitar had been “under the bed” since 1962 (it was actually in a closet). Apparently, the closet was not heated and the guitar was subjected to some pretty extreme temperatures
    but the checking was fairly minimal-probably because the changes were always gradual. But, the neck was back bowed pretty significantly. As they say, “Gravity…it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law”. Because the guitar was lying flat on its back, as most “under the bed guitars” are, gravity went to work over the decades and, like those bookshelves you built in college, the wood sagged after a while. The good news is that it was fixable with a “compression”re-fret and truss rod adjustment. Fortunately the truss rod had been tightened at some point and there was room to back it off. That’s not always the case. I have found that guitars that have been left in the case for decades almost always need some work and that may be where some of the “myth of fingerprints” comes from.

  11. RAB says:

    A helpful guideline is “don’t store your guitar anywhere you wouldn’t want to be”, I.E. somewhere too cold, too hot, too damp, etc. A classic example was the guy who stored an uber-rare 1957 Gibson Futura on the package shelf under the back window of his Cadillac. Oh yeah, this was in Texas, I believe where the scorching sun and years effectively baked off the finish…still worth a fortune of course!

  12. RAB says:

    Here it is…

  13. RAB says:

    Sorry if photo didn’t come through…

  14. RAB says:

    Here ‘tis…

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