The Story of the Vintage Reissue Guitar

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 21 November 2020 |

Gibson Les Paul '59 Sunburst Vintage Reissue
Ohhhh yeahhhh! As Gibson themselves put it in 1970, the 1958-1960 sunburst Les Paul Standard design really was the “Daddy of 'em all”.

The vintage reissue. Ideally a faithful replica of an old guitar, with period features, and sometimes, long-abandoned attributes such as bakelite scratchplate, nitro-cellulose lacquer and braided cloth insulation. Okay, so not all vintage reissues have observed that level of accuracy, and some have barely reached any further into the past than an old-style logo. But have you ever wondered how all this vintage reissue malarkey started? Why it started? And who started it?

To understand where the vintage reissue came from, and when it made its grand entrance, we need to explore the story of the vintage guitar market. That's going to take us way back into the 1960s. We'll look at the roots of the market, how its escalating price snowball was first triggered, and how the vintage reissue not only addressed inflating demand, but changed the face of electric guitar manufacture.

It's a long journey, but I can virtually guarantee there's at least one fascinating nugget of info in here that you didn't know. Or five. Or ten. So step into the Tardis, and let's go...

WHEN DID THE VINTAGE GUITAR MARKET START, EXACTLY?


Today, we generally consider the term “vintage” to refer to a guitar that's been around for decades. But strange as it may sound, the crude concept of the vintage electric guitar started only a few years after the first piece to gain serious vintage appeal was built. That guitar was the 1958-1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard, or 'Sunburst'. The Gibson Les Paul lay at the centre of vintage lore from as early as 1966. But for some years after that the vintage market lay in incubation, with prices low and stable, waiting patiently for a trigger which would start the price snowball rolling...

In 1960, the spec of Gibson's Les Paul Model was not just altered - it was completely re-envisioned from scratch, with a wildly different body shape. The replacement Les Paul shipped from 1961, having dramatically morphed from a weighty chunk of mahogany and carved maple with a sunburst finish and a single cutaway, into the twin-cutaway beast we now identify as a Gibson SG.

Les Paul himself was not impressed, but the SG-style revamp did initially outsell the heavyweight 'Sunbursts' of the late '50s. In its Custom form, the SG-type revision also scored an early hit with mega-cool, high-profile gospel star Rosetta Tharpe, so Gibson's decision to radically modernise the product looked to have been vindicated. Subsequently, Les Paul's name was removed and the new model simply became the SG, but the Gibson SG was originally a drastic update on the Gibson Les Paul.

However, the old-style Les Paul was far from dead. As a younger generation of guitarists began to experiment with heavy overdrive and long sustain through the mid 1960s, the late '50s Les Paul was quickly recognised not only as the ultimate means of expression in a powerful new blues-rock genre - but as an instrument that had no obvious alternative. That lack of an acknowledged alternative, combined with total unavailability in the retail market, sent demand for '50s Les Pauls into a frenzy, and when that happens, it's time to cash in...

Gibson SG oil painted by The Fool
Surely the most famous Gibson SG is this '64 example hand-painted by Marijke Koger and Simon Posthuma - at the time of painting, two thirds of a hip 1960s art trio called The Fool. The guitar was used by Eric Clapton whilst he was fronting The Cream. Clapton then gifted it to George Harrison, Harrison gifted it to Jackie Lomax, and Lomax ultimately handed it to Todd Rundgren in exchange for a $500 financial bail-out. Like many stories of chartable vintage guitars, there's a sense of the instrument being passed around as if virtually worthless until the mid '70s, then after the vintage market gains momentum, suddenly the doors slam and the ownership disputes begin. Although many people have replicated this one-off instrument, doing so accurately and economically, with the precise detail it had in the Clapton era, would be close to impossible. It also incorporates third party intellectual property, and if anyone were to use the correct type of oil paint, it takes literally years to properly dry! So despite its high desirability, the guitar has remained an unlikely subject for a Gibson vintage reissue.

We should note that the 'vintage' demand initially mounting from around 1966 was not specifically for the '59 'Sunburst' Les Paul, but for any 1950s-style Gibson Les Paul, including the 'Gold Top' and the Custom. (You can see some of the main 1950s Les Paul Standard variations in Ten Things You Didn't Know About The Gibson Les Paul). And by 1967 when Gibson finally recognised the need to reissue the '50s-style Paul, it was just a case of covering the broad bases. Thus, the mid '50s-type P90-fitted 'Gold Top' and the dual humbucker Custom were re-released in 1968, but the '59 'Sunburst' was not.

One of the reasons the classic Les Paul 'Sunburst' didn't re-appear at that stage was its higher manufacturing cost than the 'Gold Top' for the same perceived retail value. In 1958, Gibson had visually sugar-coated the Les Paul Model in a bid to boost lagging interest. But by 1968 lagging interest was no longer an issue, so Gibson had no need to go to the same lavish lengths they'd gone to in the 1950s.

And in 1968, there was simply no licence for a manufacturer to say: “Yeah but this is a definitive version, so there's a price premium”. At that point in time, a Les Paul Standard was a Les Paul Standard. And there was a 'pawn shop scene', in which bargain hunters could track down secondhand originals for regular secondhand prices. That would make it very hard for Gibson to persuade dealers that an accurate '59 'Sunburst' Standard revival was worth more or less the same as a Les Paul Custom. Hence, there was no impetus for them to produce such a thing in '68.

So, why no secondhand price rise in line with high demand? Simply, the people running pawn shops and other non-specialist secondhand stores had no real knowledge of guitars, and there was no information-source they could use to determine the value. Even the experts back then did not have the kind of knowledge they have today. For example, it was actually the end of the 1980s before the Dutch dealer Hans Moust revealed that volume and tone pot codes could be used to date vintage instruments. And until then, the Fender Broadcaster was believed to have been introduced in 1948 - two full years before its actual introduction took place. There was a lot of misinformation in the '60s, '70s, and even the '80s.

Fender guitar lineup
A decidely vintage look, but only one of the guitars in this wicked Fender lineup is not a reissue. Can you guess which one?... It's actually the Mustang on the far left, which is a genuine '65. From left to right there's then a Fender AVRI '52 Telecaster in Butterscotch Blonde, a Fender AVRI '62 Stratocaster in Ocean Turquoise, a Fender MIJ '60s Jaguar in Candy Apple Red, and a Fender MIJ Jazz Bass in Sonic Blue.

Although original '59 Les Paul flametops would take some tracking down in 1968, if found, they would not at that time carry a fetch-me-a-chair price ticket. And the effect of Hendrix actually cooled off demand for Les Pauls to the point where, around the end of the 1960s, people were actually trying to palm 'Sunbursts' off. In The Guitar Magazine, January 1998, Jimmy Page spoke of Joe Walsh proactively badgering him to buy the flametop '58 that became Page's main Led Zep touring guitar. This gives a perfect illustration of the nonchalant attitude to '58 Les Pauls just over a decade on from their date of manufacture...
“When Joe Walsh was trying to sell me his Les Paul, I said, 'I'm quite happy with my Telecaster'. But as soon as I played it I fell in love.”
So yes, incredible but true - Page had to be persuaded to buy a cheap '58 Les Paul. Different times indeed.

But with the help of Jimmy Page, and the many other top guitarists who'd played a '58-'60 Standard - including Eric Clapton (whose 'Sunburst' was quickly stolen), Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green and Keith Richards - the '58-'60 Standard was, by the early 1970s, recognised as the definitive incarnation of the Gibson Les Paul.

The 'pawn shop scene' persisted into the 1970s, however, and for a while, the prices of vintage guitars remained modest. In the May 1994 issue of The Guitar Magazine, Eric Clapton recalled buying a clutch of vintage Fender Strats on the cheap in Nashville, in 1969...
“There was also a shop there called Shobud, which was Bud Emmen's shop, and they had a pile of old Strats in the back. They were so unfashionable then, the Stratocasters, they were all going for like, $100, $200 each. And I bought about 12 of them for virtually nothing, 'cause they could not get rid of them.”
Hendrix was a big deal by then, but remember, he was playing new Strats - not vintage. The models Clapton bought included 1950s examples, most notably the custom colour black one whose body formed the basis of 'Blackie'. But he gave all but four of the guitars away, to the likes of Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, etc. That's how flippant the attitude to pre-CBS Fenders was at the end of the 1960s. For reference, a new Fender Stratocaster circa 1969 cost $349.50. So what we now see as supreme vintage specimens, were going for bog standard secondhand prices in '69. Note, however, the number of vintage Strats Clapton bought. Whilst the supply chain didn't yet see their value, top guitarists clearly did.

Vintage Reissue guitars
Unrestrained lust for the drop-dead gorgeous late 1950s Gibson Les Paul 'Sunburst' eventually drove secondhand prices so high that original manufacturers could charge a significant premium for replicating the vintage spec in a new instrument. The red in the sunburst on the original nitro finishes was prone to fading - sometimes to invisible, leaving an amber effect like the one on this Gibson Les Paul Classic. The Classic of the early 1990s was essentially a 1960 reissue with a very “fast” neck, and I can confirm it is an instrument which has actually reduced grown men to dribbling. I'm serious!

Speaking at the dawn of the 1980s in the Complete Guitar Guide, Stuart Sawney - one of the UK's early vintage guitar dealers - expressed a good encapsulation of the growth of the vintage market...
“...Ten years ago you could walk into a pawn shop and find vintage guitars going for good prices... Now it has become very difficult to find vintage instruments in good condition anywhere in the States, let alone in pawn shops.”
So we're looking at a point somewhere between 1970 and 1980, at which something, somewhere, sets off that pricing snowball. We'll soon see what that trigger was. But I should clarify that even in 1980/81, “vintage instruments” was not a blanket term for literally anything old. It referred to specific classics such as 1950s Les Pauls (very especially 'Sunbursts'), pre-1965 Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters (especially in custom colours, and especially 1950s models), old D'Angelico jazzers, 1950s Gretsches, and a few other Gibsons such as dot-neck Thinlines, reverse Firebirds and the like.

Conversely, some oldies had not begun to inflate in price at all. In 1981 it was easily possible to get an early 1960s Jaguar or Jazzmaster for about three hundred quid, if not less. But at the other end of the scale, a '59 Les Paul 'Sunburst' was, by 1981, valued at between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on condition and the amount of flame. That was an exponential escalation, most of which had occurred within the previous five or so years. By the mid 1990s, the most desirable examples were nudging the $100,000 barrier.

Anecdotes of star guitarists giving away vintage guitars to their pals, continue up until around the mid 1970s. After that, things begin to get very possessive, and the stories are more likely to involve certain parties wanting their giveaways back. “I really only thought I was loaning it to him...” etc. That perfectly illustrates what was happening with the monetary value. Somewhere around the middle of the 1970s, something happened. And old-time guitar guru Willie G Moseley was able to shed light on what that something was.

Moseley wrote about his dealings buying vintage guitars from pawnbrokers, and spoke about a dealer awakening. In essence, what happened was that guitar collectors became such incessant visitors to pawnbrokers, that the pawnbrokers began to wake up. Realising there was money to be made, pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers began to strike deals with guitar experts, in which the experts would provide guidance on value, in return for first choice on tasty buy-ins. Moseley himself recalled thinking nothing of travelling 150 miles to visit various secondhand dealers. Guitar hunting ceased being a semi-passive affair and became a very serious, proactive business.

Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster
It wasn't only idiosyncratic features that disappeared with time. Colours disappeared too. This highly alluring Lake Placid Blue metallic Fender finish was revived on Tokai's series of pre-CBS Fender replicas. After being dropped by Fender themselves in 1973, it was brought back in 1980 for Fender's special "The Strat" model, and then ported over to the Vintage Reissue Stratocaster from 1982.

Once these arrangements were set in motion, the inevitable consequence was a sharp escalation in the prices of desirable vintage guitars. Through the second half of the 1970s, the idea of finding vintage beauties in the hands of people who didn't understand their value, all but evaporated. By the late '70s, ordinary guitarists were beginning to accept that they could no longer realistically acquire certain models - unless someone could replicate them at a much lower price. Finally, manufacturers could justify a premium on vintage replicas. By 1979 the ground was beyond fertile for super-accurate vintage reissues. But neither Gibson nor Fender really wanted to deliver them...

BIRTH OF THE VINTAGE REISSUE


Whilst the first 'vintage reissues' had arguably appeared in 1968 with Gibson's re-introduction of the single-cutaway Les Paul, they had not been called vintage reissues, and they hadn't recognised the extent to which discerning guitarists could lust after certain subtleties. While Gibson were deciding whether to fit the '68 Les Paul Standard with humbuckers or P90s, leading guitarists were on a much higher plane of consideration. A plane that saw a clear difference between a '68 Gibson humbucker and a '59 Gibson humbucker. Or a '61 Gibson humbucker, for that matter.

Gibson Les Paul Classic
The sound and feel of an old Les Paul Standard, without having to trade in your house.

As far as Gibson were concerned, their humbuckers were the same as ever, and even humbucker inventor Seth Lover insisted there had not been a documented change in spec. But subtle differences in supplies, and more significantly the prevalence of unintentional overwinding in the late 1950s, gave many, but not all PAF (Patent Applied For) humbuckers, a pokier upper midrange. That made for a rockier and more exciting sound when driving a cranked up valve amp. It was a sound guitarists just instantly fell for. But late '60s Gibson humbuckers, manufactured with tighter controls and hence no overwinding, could not precisely duplicate it. Wood supplies were nothing like as good by the late 1960s either, which further increased the superiority of the late '50s Les Pauls.

Fender pickups conformed to similar traits. 1950s and early 1960s units were prone to winding idiosyncrasies, and thus displayed more character than the precision-built late '60s variants.

By the end of the 1960s, discerning guitarists were way ahead of the supply chain in their understanding of vintage lore. And as all of the big US brands fell into the hands of bullish corporate management, the response on the production lines was going to be very slow. But upstart Japanese brands had already begun pumping 'close alternative' instruments of varying quality into the void. And that was the thin end of a very big wedge...

It was 1970 before Gibson re-introduced a cherry sunburst finish for the Les Paul, but by that time the Standard P90-fitted 'Gold Top' had been dropped in favour of a Deluxe model. The Deluxe was a very different guitar from a classic '59 Standard. Mini humbuckers only, unfigured maple top, Custom-sized headstock, etc.

It would in fact take Gibson another five years to finally bring back a sunburst Les Paul Standard with full-sized humbuckers, and another five after that to release a 'Heritage' version that captured the essence of a '59 with a figured top. By then, circa 1980, with original 1958-1960 Les Paul 'Sunbursts' nudging $10,000 territory, Japanese manufacturers had raked in untold monies supplying Les Paul copies and equivalents. But you'll note, even though very large sums of cash were being thrown at the vintage Les Paul Standard, and there was a bustling market for copies attempting to look like it, Gibson had still not yet used the term “vintage reissue”.

Fender Japan mid 1950s Telecaster replica
Fender Japan's replica of the mid 1950s Telecaster. Superb quality with a retro feel and sound, at a budget price.

Neither had Fender, and they'd faced even greater problems with Japanese copyists than Gibson. Unlike the average Fender, Gibson guitars were not easy to copy on the cheap. The construction methods Gibson used inflated the cost. And a carved top in premium-grade flame maple was not the sort of thing that could be incorporated into a £150 guitar. So the sub-£200 Les Paul copies would have compromises like bolt-on necks, and/or reduced-thickness bodies, and they were most unlikely to have genuine, solid, carved maple tops. Some of them were made from plywood. Badly.

Cheap Paul copies did sell, but not to discerning guitarists or professionals. The most successful serious Japanese alternatives to the Les Paul in fact took a derivative, rather than a direct copy approach...

The Yamaha SG Series captured the essence of the Les Paul, but re-packaged it into a subtly original design. This not only sidestepped the lawsuit threat and enhanced Yamaha's image - it also meant there would be no obsessive comparison with vintage originals. That afforded Yamaha greater licence to play around with the spec.

Yamaha SGs were very popular in the late '70s, exploiting what's sometimes been referred to as the “dead zone” - an uninspiring period in Gibson and Fender production. They traded as classic yet original modern rock guitars. But they were basically Japanese Les Pauls, and everyone who understood guitars knew that. They were certainly a truer Les Paul copy than the Columbus, which at first glance looked more accurate, because it had the right shape. It definitely did not, however, have the quality, feel, playability, sound or sustain.


Fernandes' take on the Gibson Les Paul 'Gold Top' - the Super Grade. These Japanese-made beauties had authentic construction, the right weight, ass-kickin P90 replica pickups, and a neck that would be very familiar in shape to seasoned Les Paul players. They sound amazing and are incredibly versatile, covering everything from Gary Moore, through vintage Bluesbreakers, to reggae, country and deep jazz. The only giveaway as to them being copies is the rather synthetic feel of the back of the neck, due to the polyurethane finish. An old Gibson's nitro-cellulose gives a slicker feel with less drag.

It was a different story with sub-£200 Fender copies. By the late 1970s, Japanese-made 'Strats' and 'Teles' could be produced pretty much bang on vintage spec for well under £200. And brands like Tokai and Fernandes were only too happy to oblige, with extremely accurate copies of pre-'65 Strats and Teles. Both Fernandes and Tokai also made accurate Les Paul copies in the shape of the Super Grade (Fernandes) and the Love Rock (Tokai). But these high quality replicas were not particularly cheap, and were subordinated by the Yamaha SG, which had the endorsement of Santana, and was considered an original, hence more worthy of respect.

Two of my favourite bands whilst in secondary school were fronted by vocalists who played Yamaha SGs. David Hinds with Steel Pulse and Jake Burns with Stiff Little Fingers. Stuart Adamson from Big Country also used them, as did Bill Nelson. And Nelson definitely selected the Yamaha SG2000 specifically as a replacement for a Gibson Les Paul. They were very well connected guitars. At that time, had I been in possession of any actual money, I would definitely have bought a Yammy SG2000 in preference to a genuine Les Paul.

Both Gibson and Fender had sleepwalked into an environment where Japanese brands were not just copying - they were to some extent taking the lead. Japanese factories produced accurate vintage Strat and Telecaster replicas well before Fender USA did. There had been Japanese Fender and Gibson copies throughout the 1970s, and even in the late 1960s. But the point at which the Japanese copies became accurate vintage replicas, was the late 1970s. That's as good a measure as any as to when the vintage guitar market first became a big money-spinner.

And whilst those Japanese brands were copying vintage guitars, you could also say they were thinking ahead of Gibson and Fender, who took longer to grasp the mindset of guitarists and understand the appeal of past guitars built under their own roof. Whilst Tokai copied Fender's guitars, Fender in turn copied Tokai's concept of the obsessively accurate vintage replica.

It's unknown how long Fender would have taken to introduce vintage reissues had it not been for Tokai's raging success with the idea. But the US guitar giant finally began playing catch-up in 1981. Reissuing long-obsolete spec - even their own long obsolete spec - proved much trickier for Fender USA than it might at first have looked to an outsider. Indeed, so difficult was the task, that Fender found they could get their vintage reissues onto the market quicker if they contracted out the production to Japan.

fender Japan Stratocaster - Candy Apple Red
Some of the most accurate vintage reissues ever came from Fender Japan. Japan had an obsession with vintage American guitars, and produced them with a passion pretty much on a par with that of the guitarists who bought them. This is a mint Japanese Fender '62 Stratocaster reissue in Candy Apple Red metallic. And no, it's definitely not for sale.

Fender Japan's vintage reissues launched in spring 1982, with spectacularly high quality, a wide range of price tiers and devastating accuracy at the top of the range. The top Japanese Fender reissues of the early 1980s were unbeatable replicas, and it's said that many of them have since been passed off as actual pre-CBS USA models, at very high prices. Even the budget models - the earliest Squiers - observed detail such as the old cloth-insulated electrical wiring and correctly staggered alnico pickups with period fibre top and bottom plates.

The Fender USA vintage reissues didn't make it onto the market until late 1982, and even then they were not completely accurate. Unlike the best Japanese versions, the US Fender reissues of the 1980s could never be passed off as originals. Not to an expert, anyway. That was due to the incorrect spacing of their twelfth fret fingerboard dot markers - an anomaly which could not be addressed without detection.

Squier JV Series Stratocaster - Fiesta Red
Squier JV (Japanese Vintage) series reissues rivalled Tokai replicas for price, but had an all-important “by Fender” identifier on the headstock. The best of these early Squiers are superior to your average 1980s Fender USA vintage reissue, but they're not as consistent, and the worst of them are no contest. Tokai's output also suffered from qualitative lapses.

Gibson had an even harder time getting their vintage reissues to fulfil the brief. Their main problem was that the guitar everyone wanted - the '59(ish) Les Paul Standard - was, by 1980, horrendously expensive to duplicate with the kind of accuracy discerning guitarists required. You were heading towards the Stradivarius ballpark in terms of the elusiveness of the original instrument's essence.

The quality of wood alone was going to run up a hefty bill, and that was before anyone started looking at all the little detail idiosyncrasies that needed attention. The pickups weren't right, and there were now two full decades of sonic ageing to try to replicate... And duplicating those faded sunburst effects was incredibly difficult to do authentically. It was moving from the realm of manufacture into the realm of art. And every time they budgeted in greater accuracy, the price went up, which would increase expectations, meaning the reissue then had to be even more accurate... The concept was incredibly viable, but taking it into the real world was prohibitive in many ways.

Gibson had skirted around the vintage reissue in 1980, introducing the Les Paul Heritage Series Standard 80. They were off the mark before Fender, but not that far off the mark, since the Heritage Standard was not a faithful '59 repro. It was an impression of a late '50s Standard, and it did have a flametop. But it had modern tuners, a different sunburst, a different headstock, etc. It was a sort of semi-vintage reissue.

It would actually take Gibson until the mid 1980s to deliver a designated '59 Les Paul Standard vintage reissue, and opinions on the model, when it arrived, were mixed. Firstly, it was, some might say illogically, much more expensive than a Les Paul Custom, and the price was definitely a bone of contention. Eddie Allen reviewed the instrument in Guitarist magazine. Eddie, a certified Les Paul nut, was clearly impressed, but did comment on the guitar's tone...
“The reissue is still a bit bright overall but I know it will darken with age.”
Things improved with time. Total Guitar did an interesting feature for its first issue in November 1994, side-by-side testing vintage reissues against the original versions, and putting the results on the cover CD. The differences between new and old varied considerably from test to test. By '94, Gibson had nailed the original sound to within a cat's whisker. Fender's rendition, meanwhile, showed a greater difference. The original '54 Strat had more bite, character and grit than the 1994 40th Anniversary reissue, which sounded a little ill-defined in comparison.

But as someone who's had a mountain of Strat reissues - American and Japanese - I know how much they can vary. And I wouldn't mind betting that if they'd pitted the real '54 Strat against a mid 1980s MIJ '57, the contest would have been a lot closer. And the second half of the 1990s brought Fender's Relic series - a much more obsessive dive into the subtle detailing of '50s and '60s instruments.

Fender Japan Vintage Jazz Bass
Basses have seen plenty of reissue action too. This is a Fender Japan Jazz Bass, replicating an early 1960s model.

The traditional “big two” of solid guitar manufacturing are not the only ones to have revisited old models, and some brand names have re-appeared purely for the purpose of rekindling the past. And no one would want to underplay the importance of reissues from the likes of Rickenbacker, Gretsch, etc. But the vintage reissue has been bigger than the sum of its parts. True, it's been a means for those of us who don't have “investor profiles” to enjoy the features that defined some of the greatest electric guitars ever made.

But it's been more than that. It's also served as a refresher course for manufacturers. It's been a constant lesson to them. It's no coincidence, in my opinion, that both Gibson and Fender started making great, inspiring guitars again at the exact point they turned their attention to vintage projects. They were surprised by how difficult it was to remake their old favourites, and the difficulty they had in getting it right taught them how far their standards had slipped between 1965 and 1979. The vintage reissue is more than just a throwback. Arguably, it reintroduced great guitar building across the board, and restored the passion to an ailing industry.
Bob 'Interesting' Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact Details]