An estimated 2.7 million guitars are purchased in the U.S. every year, many of them by aspiring rock idols and guitar heroes.
A small percentage of the instruments that change hands are older examples going to self-described “guitar junkies” like Pete Prown, gear editor for Vintage Guitar magazine and a collector for 25 years. According to Prown, this is an excellent time for collectible guitar buyers, and the market has been active.
In October, actor Richard Gere raised $936,000 for humanitarian charities by selling off his 107-piece collection, including solidbody Gibson and Fender models owned by blues legend Albert King and reggae artist Peter Tosh. Individual guitars by other rock icons have gone much higher. Eric Clapton’s instruments have sold for a half-million dollars each at charitable auctions, and a Jimi Hendrix guitar can go for a cool million.
Even if you can’t afford an axe wielded by Hendrix, “it’s a great time to be a buyer in the vintage market,” Prown says. Classic rock guitars had soared to astounding prices in the last decade, but the bubble burst around 2007. The benchmark electric guitar is the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, which had attracted bids of up to $500,000. In recent years, these Les Pauls have dipped to $150,000 or less. A solidbody 1960 Les Paul went for $98,500 in the Gere auction.
And there are many more affordable choices for those who don’t have a movie- or rock-star budget.
Prown, a Philadelphia-area collector, began by pursuing products of an “underground upstart” company called Ibanez Guitars, based in Bensalem, Pa., when he began playing in the late 1970s. He chose his quarry from the 1978 Ibanez catalog, which became the bible for a particular group of collectors. “There’s definitely a cult for Ibanez that has grown over the years – almost all are guitarists of a certain age when the light went on. We wanted something weird looking and different from the traditional-looking Fenders and Gibsons of the previous generation.”
Among his first acquisitions was an electric-acid-green, limited edition Ibanez Jem endorsed by Steve Vai, a hard rocker who played with David Lee Roth and Frank Zappa. Prown also has an Ibanez Professional, a.k.a. the Bob Weir Guitar because it was played by the Grateful Dead musician. “It has the vaunted Tree of Life mother-of-pearl inlay,” Prown says of the decorative neck.
One of Prown’s “blue chip” underground guitars is a 1987 Paul Reed Smith Custom 24, a gorgeous mahogany guitar with a “flamey” maple top. Smith started his business while he was in high school in the 1970s in Annapolis, Md. He operated out of a tiny shop until 1985, when he opened the first or several factories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“He’s like the Henry Ford of recent guitar markers,” Prown says of Smith, “a very personable, down-to-earth guy, and a complete guitar junkie.”
Prown has accompanied Smith to the company’s “body blank shop,” where he’s seen the guitar maker pull out slabs of wood from the racks, tap on them, and determine which will make a fine instrument.
“They take a chunk of mahogany and glue a piece of maple on top, so you have this big rectangular sandwich. But it’s a sculpture, and inside it is a guitar,” Prown explains. The blank is inserted into a box, where a computerized router will carve the precise specifications entered by the designer.
The Paul Reed Smith guitars are known for their excellent construction, but also for their detailed handwork. Inlaid mother-of-pearl Chesapeake Bay seabirds fly between the frets of the Smith guitars. “He’s the Chesapeake guy,” Prown says.
On a recent trip to the Chicago Music Exchange, one of the high-end guitar boutiques, Prown added an acoustic 1948 Epiphone Spartan to his collection. An archtop with “f holes,” like those found in a violin, the Spartan was a standard design for jazz guitars of the postwar period.
“One of the reasons why this guitar sounds so good is because it’s old. You can make the wine metaphor – it ages. The more you play it, the more the wood vibrates and resonates and opens up,” Prown says. “Which is another reason why old guitars are desired: they sound good.”
So there’s the look and the sound that make the guitars desirable. The third criterion is the “vibe,” Prown says. “What does it evoke?”
Prown’s taste has mellowed from ’70s hard rock to ’50s jazz and blues. “But you don’t want to play old jazz on a crazy electric guitar,” he says as he pulls out a “real blue chipper,” a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty.”
Les Paul, who died last year, became one of the preeminent guitar stars of the ’50s by bringing the worlds of jazz and pop together. “He was one of the first electric guitar players and probably the first guy whose name was on a solidbody electric guitar as an endorsement.”
With its black finish mahogany body, white trim, ebony fingerboard, and gold hardware, the Black Beauty was the perfect complement to the tuxedoed jazz musician. Prown flips the guitar over to show proof of its aged pedigree: belt-buckle scratches. “Old guitars have belt-buckle wear.”
The Black Beauty sold for as much as $40,000 seven years ago; it can be found for $25,000 today.
Besides shops like the Chicago Music Exchange, collectors can buy great instruments from like-minded dealers at the Great American Guitar Show, a twice-yearly gathering in Oaks, Pa., or at the shows in Arlington, Texas, and other cities around U.S., Prown says.
He also directs collectors to Vintage Guitar magazine, which provides dealers’ price lists and an annual price guide.
Boston-based Skinner Inc. Auctioneers & Appraisers offers high-quality guitars at its sales. David A. Bonsey, Skinner’s director of fine musical instruments, explained that the auction house tends to deal in mainstream manufacturers, like Fender, Gibson and Martin, but Paul Reed Smith products are also mainstream these days.
While guitar prices at auction “have not gone down at all,” Bonsey says, “there is not as much of a feeding-frenzy mentality as there was before 2007.” Up until that year, the vintage guitar market rose steadily. “When the economy hit the skids, the instruments were not devalued – they are still what they are – but prices did undergo a self-correcting market change. On average, prices dropped 25 percent.”
Gibson acoustic guitars appeal to a more conservative clientele and the prices have been “less volatile,” Bonsey says. “There are so few of the really great ones. And the acoustic guitars may have more of a magic about them, more mystique. I haven’t seen prices fall for them, but sales have slowed down for mid-range guitars.”
For collectors looking for what’s around the corner, Bonsey suggests archtop electric guitars. “People are not buying a lot of them, maybe because they don’t identify with their smooth jazz sound.”
There has been a surge of interest in “roots-type guitars” made by Silvertone, Harmony and Kay, Bonsey says. “There may be a certain cheese factor. Some of these old guitars have become very attractive as visual objects and for their funky appeal.” Those mid-range guitars that have gone for a couple of hundred dollars are now commanding over a thousand.
Bonsey also has seen renewed taste for lap-steel guitars. “Musicians are coming up with new sounds, sort of the next generation of what Duane Allman was doing – these hyper-technical guitar licks. That market will continue to grow,” Bonsey says.
Prown, too, has watched young musicians steer the vintage guitar market. “All of today’s younger bands like this kind of vintage rock look, the Beatle-y kind of guitars, and yhey’re weaving it into modern rock. They’re not playing Beatles stuff on it, but to them it’s kind of cool and ironic” to use a 1960s instrument in a new way.
Prown has seen another big change in the evolution of guitar collecting. The Les Paul that cost $300 in 1971 and is worth 10 times as much now is rarely seen on stage or in studios. “It used to be a guitar you played; now it’s a museum piece.
“The bittersweet thing is, people are buying guitars that never get played. Unlike some collectibles, a musical instrument is a practical antique. It’s meant to be played, to make music, not to squirrel it away.”
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