Vintage electric guitars attract both avid collectors and musicians. For collectors, it's the financial investment and historical intrigue. For musicians, it's the one-of-a-kind sound and style. In either case, the vintage guitar becomes a prized possession.
What Makes an Electric Guitar Vintage?
The answer depends on how you define the term "vintage," which can be subjective. A quick look at the various opinions across different industries demonstrates this subjectivity though the range seems to fall somewhere between 20 to 50 years old:
- Experts on Quora say it depends on the item, but in most cases, from cars to furniture, vintage is defined as at least 25 years old. (And antique is anything more than 100 years old.)
- In the Ebay's collector community, the opinions range from 20 years old to at least 50 years old for something to be vintage.
- In real estate, it's anything from mid-century (fifty to sixty years old).
What about electric guitars? The opinions are also mixed in the guitar world, but here are a few samples from guitar collector hubs:
- Reverb.com, a company that specializes in selling vintage guitars, defines a vintage instrument to be at least 30 years old.
- The Gibson guitar forum has a consensus of around 20 to 25 years old for a guitar to be considered vintage.
- The Share My Guitar collector hub defines a vintage guitar as at least 25 years old.
With collectors giving a definition as low as 20 to 30 years, this means guitars from the 1980s are now being perceived as vintage.
Vintage Also Means Valuable and Desirable, Not Just Old
It's also about quality. The original definition of the term vintage meant a wine from a past year that was of high quality. To a guitar collector, a vintage electric guitar isn't just old. It also must meets specific criteria of quality and desirability:
- It must have some historical attraction or romance about it that makes it desirable: This means it's from an era and a maker that has significance, such as the Fender Telecaster in the 1950s, which was one of the first great electric guitars. Alternatively, it is a vintage model made famous by a celebrity musician, such as the Schecter customs from the late 1970s.
- All parts must be original: Fake vintage guitars are a common headache for collectors. A true vintage has all original parts, and no modern parts mixed in with old parts. A vintage guitar with the original parts, even if those parts are worn looking and the finish has come off, is worth more than an old but refinished guitar that looks new.
- It doesn't have to be rare, but it must be in-demand: Most vintage guitars are out of production for their specific year model, but not all collectible vintage guitars are rare. Fender made thousands of Telecasters in the 1950s, and they are not rare, but they are still extremely popular and in-demand because of their quality and historical significance.
- Condition: It's true a vintage electric guitar must have all original parts. At the same time, it should at least be in good condition. If half the guitar is falling apart and significantly damaged and unplayable, it no longer meets the "quality and desirability" requirement.
For purist guitarists, it's all about sound quality and style. A musician may not be a collector, yet vintage instruments still attract their attention. The reason is simple: quality vintage guitars that meet the criteria above produce a sound and convey the vibe of an era with an authenticity that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.
Popular Names in Vintage Electric Guitars
The popular models of vintage guitars range from classic household names, such as Fender Stratocaster, to obscure, eclectic models such as Greco's Shrike guitar with its bizarre boomerang pickups.
1950s Fender Telecasters
One of the most popular names in electric vintage guitars is the Fender Telecaster. Produced for over 50 years, the guitar's original blond finish is one of the most requested vintage Fender models. Models made in the '50s with all original parts range from about $29,000 to $50,000. You can get a 1970s model, which is still vintage, for about $3,000 to $4,000.
1950s Gibson Les Paul Goldtops
One of the most desirable Gibson guitars are the Les Pauls made in the late '50s known as the Goldtops. Their iconic place in American culture, and their instantly recognizable gold finish and sound are partly why the guitar sells from about $65,000 to $85,000.
Early 1960s Rickenbacker Guitars
When The Beatles invaded America in the early '60s, they brought Rickenbacker guitars and basses with them. This launched the Rickenbacker brand, one of the earliest bass and guitar manufacturers, into the average American household. Also for this reason, original Rickenbacker electric guitars from the early '60s are valuable but a little more affordable than Fender or Gibson. They range from about $2,000 to $20,000.
Late 1970s-Early 1980s Schecter Custom Guitars
Schechter started as a boutique custom shop that only made a handful of custom guitars at a time and sold them to their owners directly for high prices. Some of these customers included legends like Pete Townsend from The Who, whose guitar went for $32,000 in an auction. Its unique design includes a Frankenstein-like combination of a Fender guitar body style with Gibson-style Humbucker pickups.
If these American vintage legends are a little out of your price range, a great place to turn is vintage Japanese models.
1960s Greco Shrike Guitars
American culture sometimes forgets Japan became quite famous in its right for building electric guitars in the twentieth century. In the 1960s, Japanese builders like Greco and Aria produced superb guitars that have become highly sought after. Greco's Shrike guitar, for example, has become famous for its boomerang-shaped pickups, which sells for about $1,000.
1960s Aria Diamond Line
The Japanese company Aria, which started in the '40s with acoustic guitars in Japan and eventually waded into the electric guitar craze in the '50s and '60s, produced high quality guitars that eventually gained a stellar reputation globally. Its models from the '60s have excellent quality but are more affordable than most vintage guitars, with most of them below $1,000.
Buying Vintage: Investigate Claims of 'All Original Parts'
Unfortunately, there are many con artists who make a quick buck by claiming a guitar is vintage with all original parts. If they succeed in tricking a buyer, they can make thousands of dollars more in profit than if they were selling a modern guitar or an older guitar with new replacement parts.
For this reason, it's important to investigate claims of all original parts. While doing so, you can also look for repair issues that might cost you money down the road. Some important things to look at when examining a vintage guitar:
- The finish: Does it look like it has been used or does it look brand new? It's likely the guitar has been refinished if it looks brand new.
- Hardware: Does the guitar have a worn control plate, neck plate, pickups, tuning pegs, and other worn parts? If there isn't any evidence of wear and the guitar is allegedly decades old, beware.
- The neck: The neck on an electric guitar is crucial to its sound and its value. Be sure to check for any curve or warp. This may signal a problem you'll need to worry about later. Guitars can't be repaired haphazardly (or at a small cost).
- Pickups and electronics: The best way to check the condition of pickups and electronics is to hear how the guitar sounds. Is there static and other dirty sounds every time you turn a knob? Do the pickups sound as if they're barely alive when you strum? This may signal repair issues for you down the road.
- Price: It is important to remember that just because something is expensive doesn't mean it is worth the price. Remember to research the market. Look at how other similar models sold to ensure you are getting a great deal.
Gruhn's Guide To Vintage Guitars Updated and Revised Third Edition is an excellent resource to learn the finer details of examining vintage guitars for authenticity.
Places to Buy a Vintage Guitar
Besides the links mentioned in the sections above--i.e. the most well-known used guitar stores such as Reverb and eBay--the following stores are great places to search for vintage guitars. Some are popular, and some are obscure but quality outlets:
- Riff City: With a wide selection of hundreds of guitars and many famous guitar brands, Riff City has vintage guitars ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
- Guitar Center: This famous music store has its own section dedicated to vintage guitars, and it might be the premier place online to find a vintage guitar. It can often have as many as 1,500 or more guitars with every maker represented and prices ranging from around $500 to the truly prestigious vintage guitars that cost around $50,000.
- Joe's Vintage Guitars: While the site design is a bit dated and homespun, it is an excellent stop online to find especially rare guitars. The site has a small inventory of stock, and guitars sell quickly, but big-name rock bands buy from this site, and it has offered some real treasures. Prices range from a few hundred to about $30,000.
- Sweetwater: Sweetwater has hundreds of vintage guitars on sale with a similar price range as Guitar Center, ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Its inventory isn't as large as Guitar Center, but it is another excellent place to search if you can't find your desired guitar model at the other stores.
- Sam Ash: This store adds another quality shopping stop online if you've searched the other stores and can't find what you want. While Sam Ash has a smaller inventory, it has some eclectic brands in addition to the big names such as Gibson. Prices range from about $200 to $10,000 or more. It also has a nice menu-style on the sidebar that makes it easy to see what exactly they have in stock.
With Research and Caution, You Can Find a Treasure
A quality vintage guitar adds aesthetic, musical and financial value to your life, and it's no wonder so many collect them. If you do careful research, avoid fake vintage guitars, and buy from reputable the sellers, you could come home with a treasure.