Vintage Guitars Just Ain't What They Were

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday 20 March 2012
One question a lot of people have asked since I set up this site is: “Why is a vintage guitar better than a new one?” The very simple answer, circa 2012, is that it’s not, necessarily.

I’ve made it clear in previous articles on this site that I don’t subscribe to the “It’s vintage so it must be better” ethos. But in this piece I wanted to take a more generalised look at why, in 2012, vintage guitars can be money badly spent. Of course, that’s not always true. If an old guitar’s gonna make you blissfully happy, and you have the money, then it’s a good buy. But this piece sets out to move away from the hype and examine what sort of choice a contemporary guitarist is making when assessing vintage vs new. I’ll discuss how the vintage guitar established itself at the high end of the market, and why, in 2012, the oldies which thirty-odd years ago offered big advantages over new instruments, are now much more closely related to disadvantages, and disappointment…

When I was at school, there was a kid called Chris, who had an electric guitar, which he brought one day into music class. It was a Satellite-branded sunburst Strat copy, which wasn’t much of a guitar in the grand scheme of things. But nevertheless, it was amazingly cool to see one of your classmates playing an instrument which looked, and broadly sounded, like the ones your favourite pop bands used. The year was 1980, and from that point forward I became increasingly fascinated by electric guitars, even though I hadn’t a clue how to play one.

Pitted fretboard old Gibson guitar
A noticeably pitted fretboard on a 1960s Gibson. Doesn't harm the sound, but this kind of issue can compromise the feel. Bashes on the back or edge of the neck can feel intrusive and irritating too.

At that time, of course, many of the guitars considered vintage were less than two decades old. Even though a late 1964 Fender Strat was only just over 15 years of age (the age of a late ‘90s Strat today), it had already gained widely acknowledged vintage status. The CBS takeover of Fender from 1965 had created a “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” notion among serious guitarists, who’d perceived a progressive decline in the Fender guitar’s sound, feel and looks through the latter 1960s and the 1970s.

And a similar sentiment had been expressed toward Gibson guitars. Indeed, as early as 1961, Les Paul himself had been quick to recognise that ‘progress’ was not necessarily progress, after the spec of the Les Paul Guitar had been dramatically changed by Gibson in late 1960. Paul stipulated that his name be removed from the revamped Gibson Les Paul Model, because he no longer felt comfortable endorsing it. You can tell we’re talking about a long gone era here. How many product endorsees would be prepared to forego their cut of an endorsement deal on principle today?

So the vintage guitar merry-go-round, burgeoning from the 1960s, initially had nothing to do with a guitar’s age. It was all about features, quality and standards. Buying a guitar with the best spec, but having to go onto the secondhand market to do so, because that sought after spec was no longer available new.

Certainly, when I first started to look at guitars as a kid in 1980, recent model Fenders were inferior in spec to the early 1960s versions. A Strat from the late ‘70s would have a thinner sound, weedier pickups, heavier weight, much less generous body contouring, poorer choice in terms of colour, less sturdy neck join, cheaper finish, etc, than an early 1960s Strat. Issues such as timber quality, or whether the ash bodies of the ‘70s suited the Strat design, were more debatable. But even disregarding age-related factors such as the mellowing of the wood or the attractive fading of old nitro-cellulose paintwork, an old Strat could be interpreted as inherently better than a new one. It was to an extent subjective, of course. In fact, CBS Fender themselves didn’t really take the “old spec is better” perception seriously until copycat companies began to accurately reproduce old Fender spec in brand new guitars, and destroy sales of new Fender instruments as a result.

But today, fact or theory, the “old spec is better” principle no longer applies. Through the 1980s, guitar makers really got to grips with the fact that guitarists were not idiots, and that they could see, feel and hear which guitars were the best. What had happened at Fender in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s served as a lesson for all guitar builders: ignore your customers, and they’ll buy from someone who listens. The ‘vintage reissue’ was no longer some wacko idea which “would not be conducive to efficient mass production”. It was the future, as well as the past.

Guitar manufacturers, purveyors of pickups and components, amp makers… Everyone had jumped onto the vintage bandwagon, and even products not intended as reissues were paying serious attention to what guitarists loved about old gear. So now, in many ways, new gear was old gear. It was old gear as it would have been when brand new, back in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Fender had begun using traditional cellulose lacquer finishing processes once again for some of their guitars, and they’d re-introduced early ‘60s spec for some pickup models. Gibson, meanwhile, had looked at the astronomical sums people were paying for original 1959 flame top Les Pauls, and accurately recreated the model as a brand new offering, as well as reissuing other popular instruments from the past.

1965 Fender Jazzmaster scratchplate join
This mid 1960s Fender Jazzmaster has a nitrate scratchplate/pickguard which has shrunk with age.  The cavities beneath the plate are now visible outside the edges of the shrunken nitrate, and the screw on the right - holding the plate to the guitar body, has been pulled into a skewed alignment. A new guitar with skewed screws and a scratchplate insufficient to cover the routing would be criticised to the hilt.

The era of guitar makers building instruments on their own terms was over. Manufacturers knew they had to offer the best-loved spec (whatever the hassle), unprecedented quality, and unprecedented choice. Computer controlled production meant that modern guitars could be much more reliably made than old ones. So, far from being inferior to, say, an original 1962 Stratocaster, a premium Fender Vintage Strat Reissue could, at least in technical terms, be better.

And that’s where we’ve been for the past three decades. Vintage guitars earned themselves an amazing reputation for superiority prior to the early ‘80s, but since the early ‘80s, the only thing setting most vintage guitars apart from equivalent new models, has been their age.

So what does age do to a guitar? Well, on the positive side, as I mentioned earlier, it matures the tone of the wood, which normally makes the guitar sound rounder and richer. It also evolves the colour and character of the finish (where nitro-cellulose is concerned at least), and the effect of that can be exceptionally attractive.

But ageing has negative effects too – most of them connected with wear and tear. The fundamental drawback with buying old guitars is that almost inevitably, someone will have, for want of a better expression, extensively knackered them. Unless you’re extremely lucky and you can afford to pay absolute top dollar, a decent model of vintage guitar will be a litany of minor disasters, encountered over many years, and either patched up or simply accepted as part of the instrument. By nature, wear and tear is going to be a far more significant factor today than it was at the end of the 1970s – and there were a lot of wrecks on the market even then.

Gibson lacquer, crazed on 1960s Melody Maker
The crazing in a vintage nitro-cellulose finish. Up to a point this is considered desirable by many fans of vintage guitars, but it can get unsightly and spoil the beauty of a subtly faded finish.

Yes, battered guitars can look cool slung round some ass-kickin’ guitarist’s neck on stage. But a guitar can’t get battered in the course of normal use without suffering. For this reason, and a number of others, extreme caution should be exercised in relation to old guitars.

Typical problems can include… 

Frets on their last legs – refretting necessary within the next twelve months.

Dry/cracked solder joints. This can cause anything from an intermittent or dead pickup to a completely circuit-broken guitar which simply buzzes when you plug it in. Pickups can cut out due to ageing solder at any time, so just because everything’s working okay when you buy, doesn’t mean it will be a few months down the line. Dry or cracked joints can be repaired, but it’s certainly not a risk-free, simple operation for an amateur, and professional attention costs money. 

Noisy electrics – scratchy pots, clicky switches, etc.

Replacement parts. Damaged components replaced with newer equivalents, which probably do the job just as well or better, but detract from the value of the guitar, and aren’t always discovered until after you’ve handed over the money. The seller will often claim he/she had no knowledge of the replacement, and “sold as bought, in good faith”.

I was recently reading, in an old book, a discussion about vintage guitars which was held back in 1982. Even thirty years ago, a leading expert was saying that it had become exceptionally difficult to find an all original vintage guitar, and that the majority of what he was finding had been tampered with in one way or another. He also described rewinding pickups as something which, as a seller, you could "get away with". In other words, a lot of dealers were problably having pickups rewound on vintage guitars. So how many vintage guitars on today's market, three decades later, do you imagine have truly never, ever been tampered with? The proportion is, I'm convinced, very small indeed.

Amateur paint repairs. At one time, it wasn’t cool to have guitars with chips and gouges in the paintwork, and accordingly some old instruments have had knocks and bare wood ‘disguised’ with badly-matched, brushed on paint. One 1960s guitar I saw had what looked like nail varnish dolloped onto an original custom colour. Tragically common.

Poor design. Many guitars now being sold on the vintage market were never well designed in the first place, and have become sought after purely because of their age and collectability. Often the manufacturer is reputable, but the guitar was a budget model with serious corners cut in terms of features. The guitar might even have been adequate in its time, but may since have become unsuitable for current music making. For instance, a cast-saddle (as opposed to adjustable) bridge on a 1960s guitar will make the instrument virtually impossible to tune today, because typical string sets in the ‘60s had different intonation lengths from the typical sets used in modern times.

Serious breaks (snapped off headstocks and the like). It’s not always as easy to spot repairs of this type as you might think, and they may only become apparent as the finish around the repair sinks over time.

Mix and match. Compilations of parts from a similar, but not exactly the same period. Easy to buy – not so easy to sell.

Refinishes. With all the skill and knowledge possessed by luthiers today, a refininsh can be made to look like a 40- or 50-year-old job, and, whether or not it was the intention, end up being passed off as the original paintwork. A seasoned expert can probably tell whether a finish is original or not, but can you? If not, you could be throwing £thousands down the drain.

Forgery. Not all vintage guitars are what they seem. Your ’62 Strat might well be ‘vintage’… but 'vintage' in the sense that it’s an ’82 Fender Japan reissue, and not an original 1962 USA Strat. The unscrupulous know a hell of a lot today about faking and artificially ageing guitars, and then working them into the system. It’s hard to be sure with anything but the highest profile instruments (previously owned by rock stars, etc), that you really are getting something completely genuine.

Some of the other issues encountered on old guitars are illustrated in the photos accompanying this piece, but this is nowhere near an exhaustive rundown.

There's no denying that the romantic vision of the vintage guitar is still very much alive. But that clear-cut reason for buying vintage over new up until the beginning of the 1980s, no longer exists, and hasn't done for many years. In today's market, where even the effects of ageing can be convincingly simulated in brand new instruments, it's very hard to justify investing a fortune in something which does not have superior spec to a great new guitar, is potentially in imminent need of repair, and may not even be what the owner thinks or claims it is. These days, they do make 'em like they used to - some models, at least. I've bought plenty of vintage guitars, and I'd never advise anyone to rule them out. But I would advise caution, mistrust, and realism (as opposed to romanticism) when you make the choice as to whether vintage is really going to serve you better than new.