We guitarists sometimes take the collecting thing to a whole different level. Begin by the fact that our guitars cost way more than (most!) coins, stamps or sports cards. So unless our pockets are extremely deep our guitar collecting is limited by personal economic realities. This is not always the case however. I’ve met a few guitarists who weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination but had a very impressive bunch of guitars. Usually though someone with lots of high-end guitars has the resources to feed their obsession. I met a guy recently who quite modestly described his collection of Martins and Gibsons but it was pretty obvious by his clothes and demeanor that he could afford to keep buying very nice instruments. Was I jealous? Ummm….yeah, you could say that!
He is one type of guitar collector: one who loves and appreciates relatively recent American made instruments and has no particular interest in “vintage” stuff. I respect that because I feel that we are in something of a golden age of guitar making right now. Even the average Martin, Taylor or Gibson coming off the assembly line today is in many ways a better instrument than some of what was made in the good old days. I’ve written about this before – just because a Martin made 50 years ago was made of Brazilian rosewood doesn’t necessarily make it a great sounding guitar. Because of the hand-made nature of the guitars of yesteryear compared to the more consistent nature of the manufacturing process today there was a lot of variation in both sound and quality of the guitars coming from the famous makers. Sure, there are gems from the old days, many of them, and they have price tags to match their rarity and wonderful sound. But there are some real dogs out there too.
The serious collectors of vintage guitars know this but often they look past the overall condition of their guitars (the latest way to describe a vintage instrument that has lived a rough and tumble life with battle scars to show is said to have “serious mojo” and this kind of cracks me up). Sometimes they even overlook guitars in their collections that have dull and lifeless sound because of the rarity of the instrument. OK, I get that I guess but if I play a vintage guitar that is just old and tired sounding I am never tempted to drain my bank account to acquire it. But that’s just me, I guess.
Even more curious is the recent phenomenon of collecting guitars (especially electrics) that were curiosities or beginner instruments back in the 1950s and 60s. About 20 years ago I had a young student who played electric guitar and was quite proud of his collection of strange stuff, guitars made by companies like Kay, Eco, Standell, Stella, and others. Now, I’m old enough to remember when these guitars sold for about $100, give or take, and that was precisely what they were worth. Many of them had a dizzying array of buttons, knobs and switches, many of which didn’t affect the sound much at all. But they sure did look cool! Problem was, the necks often had the profile of a baseball bat, the intonation was terrible, the tuners could not keep the guitar in tune, the bridges tended to break being made of cheap pot metal, and worst of all the pick-ups were prone to horrendous feedback (assuming you could stand the sound of them in the first place!) because they were essentially cheap microphones. I saw a music special with Elvis Costello a couple years ago and he was playing one of these types of guitars and at one point he actually held the guitar body up to his face and sang into the pick-up!
But there’s a hint of why those weird clunkers have suddenly risen from the dead. Some famous musicians are using them – so they must be good, right?! To a lesser degree this is happening with acoustics from the same era but thankfully most musicians come to their senses after buying a beat up old Kay or Silvertone and realize just why those things cost $50 in 1965. Old does NOT equate to good, most of the time. “Vintage” often just means just old, awful sounding and impossible to play these days, especially in places like Craigslist or Ebay.
OK, but you’re missing the point, Gene, I can almost hear you saying. Some people just collect guitars they LIKE for no logical reason at all. That young man with all those weird electrics bought them because they were (at that time) inexpensive and well, cool. And today I guarantee if he still has his collection it is worth three or four times what he paid for it twenty years ago.
Collect guitars based on your wants, needs and budget. Just know that there will always be another one in your future, maybe not something you were expecting. And keep in mind that wonderful quote I heard on one of the guitar forums a few years ago when one member was bemoaning a guitar that “got away.” One of the other members chimed in: Don’t worry, guitars are like buses in the city. If you miss one, another will come along in fifteen minutes!
Peace & good music,