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 a group, we’ve lost our way.
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 inspecting a bridge plate with a mirror, waxing poetic about a Les Paul ‘burst, or claiming that original frets sound better even if they’re unplayable.
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 value has just gone down.
He notices a replacement bridge plate. That’s hypothetically killing the tone. As an investment, the guitar may be better off with a sketchy plate that’s original. If a seller is to get a fantastic R.O.I., 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.
How many Martin D18s have you seen that look exactly like a Martin D18? 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.
Let’s step back just a little bit. Take a deep breath. 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. Life happened to these objects, and they took on the scars of use.
Occasionally, I’m fortunate enough to spend time with instruments that are equally personalized. The lovely devaluations include pick wear, carvings, paint, stickers, cracks, dings, and grime (I’ll be honest: I don’t like that one as much).
Thoughts of current market value are of no importance here. These things have intrinsic value. They’re important, just because they are important to their players. A well-used, and sometimes 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 experiences 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 world of stock tickers too far into the world of artistic expression and raw human experiences.
Now let’s go back to the guy that’s sad about the structural upgrade (replaced bridge plate) and accompanying paint. In front of him lies, quite literally, the only one. There are not thousands of others out there with the same painting. Many of the same model are running around with chewed up, but original, bridge plates. 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, as he frowns at a little piece of someone’s life.
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