In our little corner of the universe, there’s a lot of talk about keeping things “true to vintage” or “all original.” Working for various collectors and dealers, I’ve heard enough of that chatter to last multiple lifetimes. Are we all getting ready to sell? Is every old guitar an investment now? Doesn’t anyone play these things? Perhaps, as players, we’ve lost sight of what matters most. Should we fail to course-correct, I fear we’ll be more like stamp collectors than songwriters. A powerful tool of self-expression, human bonding, and social justice movements will have lost its purpose.
Please join me in a thought experiment. Don’t feel pressured to agree with where I go here, but try to remain open. It might help to toss your Vintage Guitar Price Guide out of the room for a few minutes.
First, let’s set the stage. We’ve all been in the guitar shop with the guy. You know the guy. You know the shop. The guy is actually thousands of guys, and he works at hundreds of shops. The guy is probably waxing poetic about a Les Paul ‘burst. Maybe he’s claiming that original frets sound better, even though the pitted nickel silver causes nearly every note to buzz. He’s inspecting the bridge plate with a little mirror now.
The funny thing about his bridge plate obsession is that it’s not necessarily about whether the wood is damaged. It’s about whether the bridge plate is original.
Now things get interesting.
Perhaps, somewhere on the guitar, there’s paint. The paint isn’t original. Maybe it was applied by a college student in the ‘70s. The unoriginal paint forms a bouquet of flowers and someone’s face. That face might be someone whom the painter loved, or it could be made up. You and I, along with the guy, will never know. The guitar’s market value has just gone down.
He notices a replacement bridge plate. That’s hypothetically killing the tone. As an investment, the guitar may have been better off with a sketchy plate that’s original. If a seller is to get a fantastic return, it’s better to have the finish untouched. The guitar should be, according to general consensus, completely original. That is what makes it worth something, after all, isn’t it?
How many Martin D-18s have you seen that look exactly like a Martin D-18? How about the number of Les Pauls that have just about the same sunburst? Strats that look just like a Strat? They may be older or younger to some degree, but they’re sort of the same.
Yeah, I said it. They are basically the same.
Important note: I don’t talk tone. You may turn to your neighbor now and argue about forward shifted bracing, rosewood vs maple bridge plates, nitro letting the wood breathe (it doesn’t), and so on. Guitar players eat that stuff up. Some build their entire identity around the legends, myths, and unverifiable secret knowledge talked about in forums all over the internet.
Let’s step back just a little bit. Take a deep breath with me. Relax the jaw. Let those shoulders drop. Maybe allow the edges of your mouth to tip up in a slight smile. I learned that at a Buddhist gathering once. We all like guitars here. We’re safe, and we’re here to have fun.
There’s a guitar known as “The Fool.” Perhaps you know about the “Monterey Pop Festival” guitar. A certain famous instrument was beat to shit and just had three letters on it: SRV. If I simply say the name “Eddie Van Halen,” you know exactly the guitar that comes to mind. Isn’t that awesome?
Many would make the case that these guitars are truly valuable because they were played by someone influential. That is a reasonable point to make, but it’s skipping half of the whole truth. These instruments became part of their person. They were the embodiments of stories. Some artistic alterations were made. Others were functional, or just plain necessary. I’ve seen Mexican coins, bottle caps, and eye bolts used as “strap buttons,” for example. One 60’s Strat that hit my bench had labels on the back to help the owner remember various tunings. Life happened to these objects, and they took on the scars of use. They changed, just as their players did.
In my shop, I’m fortunate enough to spend time with instruments that are unforgettably personalized. They’re covered in pick wear, carvings, paint, stickers, repaired cracks, dings, and grime (I’ll be honest: I don’t like that one as much). These are the guitars that get me out of bed in the morning.
Opinions regarding current market value are of no importance here. These things have intrinsic value. They’ve paid their dues. They’ve written songs. They were there when friendships formed or fell apart. A well-used, and perhaps altered instrument is as beautiful as one’s oldest item of clothing. Somehow, that jacket or shirt contains within it a multitude of experiences and emotions. Through the unique events anything endures, it becomes the only one like it. The only one.
Could it be that each one-in-a-million piece like this is actually more important, because of its unique interactions with individuals throughout its decades of existence? Maybe we’re bringing the mindset of stock trading, inflation, and interest rates too far into the world of art and self expression. Sure, collectors and investors will forever be concerned about that kind of stuff. But what about the rest of us? Do we care? Are we holding onto our instruments to play them, or to make a buck?
Now let’s go back to the guy that’s disappointed by what could be a structural upgrade (replaced bridge plate) and the accompanying paint. In front of him lies, quite literally, the only one. There are not thousands of others out there with the same painting. Some of the same model are running around with chewed up, but original, bridge plates. The string ball ends may be inside of the plates at this point, but that bit of maple or spruce is original. He’s noticing little dings and scratches. These are all lowering the dollar amount the shop is willing to pay for this piece of history. “Folk art,” he thinks, frowning down at a little piece of someone’s life.
We’ve allowed some pretty unreasonable standards to be placed on our instruments. If a guitar is played, it changes. If you like a guitar, you’ll play it. There’s no way around it. You are going to change the guitar. It could be pick wear, dents, scratches, a bent tuner, worn frets, replacement pickups, a bone nut, or any number of things. Some changes are improvements. Some aren’t. These changes happen, though, when we allow our instruments to really be a part of our lives.
Like our instruments, we age and change. All sorts of experiences leave marks, scars, and alterations. In the end, we’ve each got our story. Your guitar can be a part of that story. And it’ll be the only one like it. The only one.