One Man’s Opinion on the Vintage Market

I think I’m a lot like most people caught up in the world of vintage (or at least semi-vintage) music gear. I always look for a great deal and to pay the lowest price when I’m buying and then I look to get the most return on my dollars when selling. That’s just human nature.

But within the past couple of years, it’s been a lot harder for me to do any buying. The deals have been difficult to find and the prices of the things that I’m interested in have gone through the roof. It frustrates and pisses me off that I can’t have the same fun in the marketplace like I used to.

With guitars, it was already too late for me when I began to be able to afford any serious vintage pieces. Early ‘60s custom-colored slab board Stratocasters that were my dream guitars were running from $7K-$12K, that’s just more than what I wanted or could really spend. A late ‘50s or early ‘60s Les Paul – I didn’t even bother to dream about such an instrument that was hitting past $50K at the time.

In hindsight, any of these instruments would have made great investments and I could have turned them for a substantial sum. But unfortunately the cost of entry into that market was too steep and so I couldn’t ever play in that field.

So I turned toward the vintage Fenders and Les Pauls that I could afford which were the late ‘60s and early ‘70s instruments. Being born in 1972, I also had a fixation and interest in obtaining "birth year 1972" instruments. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great year for American guitars – a fact that didn’t take me long to find out.

Those who know me well also know that I love old tube amplifiers, in fact I’m much more of an amp-guy than a guitar-guy. Fortunately for me, the greatest vintage amplifiers were definitely still affordable so I played in this market for some time. Also going in my favor is the fact that amplifier prices have never touched those of guitars because they are electrical items that are prone to having failed parts which necessitates repairs and thereby moving away from the ultimate "all-original" status. I’ll admit, I’ve had some very valuable, all-original amplifiers and overtime I did sometimes think about the drop in value that would hit me should a transformer blow out. I like to work on amplifiers and maintain them, so that is in my favor, but the simple fact is that amps will never be in the same league of guitars for collectability and relative value because the electronics/repair element scares off a certain percentage of the market. I’m o.k. with that.

Now I should clarify something. When I say I "played" in this market, it doesn’t mean that I was simply buying amplifiers or guitars and then reselling them for profit. It meant that I’d buy and play something primarily to enjoy the piece of gear, and sometimes I’d later resell it to obtain something else to try something different, and sometimes I’d sell out of financial necessity. Truth be told, if I could’ve just bought and kept everything, I would have. That goes for my guitars as well.

I like to reminisce about many of the guitars and amplifiers I’ve owned that were vintage or semi-vintage. In the age of the Internet, I was definitely pumped up to learn as much as possible about the pieces of gear that interested me the most. The Internet has been a tremendously valuable tool for education in this particular market. It has also been the fuel for my GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and I believe also that the Internet is largely responsible for the dramatic rise in prices and values.

All in all, I believe the Internet and Ebay are healthy and ultimately great tools, even though they’ve also made it to the point where again – I can’t play in the market any longer. Why would I say such a thing?

In the old days, I’d go to used guitar shops local to me and I’d see some nice pieces here and there. That was great and I took advantage of finding some great deals sometimes. However, in the times when I went to sell, the choices were limited. There were basically newspaper classified ads, billboards in music stores, or you’d take it in to a shop and if you were lucky they’d give you half the price that they would sell the item for.

This last one really got to me. Mentally, going into music stores and knowing that the items for sale were largely given up by desperate musicians needing cash just didn’t sit well with me. There were a few times where I was in that category of being a desperate musician needing cash as well. I know that a music store has overhead and costs, but the whole business smelled rotten to me. My gear would get verbally ripped apart to often be to the point where I’d take (or be offered) less than half of what the dealer would sell the item for. This wasn’t just one dealer, but half a dozen that I dealt with and they ALL were the same. Big chain or mom and pop shop – it didn’t matter. You only sold to gear to a music store if you needed immediate cash and were desperate to pay a bill.

When the Internet came, and then Ebay, it empowered us regular folks to stop having to take a beating from music stores and we could now go online and sell on our own. Over time, the inventories at these shops declined as more people went online. I smiled and loved every minute of it. On several occasions I’d hear salesman grumbling about the fact that everything good was on Ebay and only the garbage remained in their shops.

Now this article isn’t about Ebay or the Internet, but make no mistake that even with the many flaws online, the fact that people have empowered themselves to buy/sell/trade online is a wonderful thing.

Unfortunately for me, it has also made the world much smaller. Essentially when buying gear online, you’ve now opened up the marketplace to the world’s pocket books. Currency exchange rates can be more favorable in one country versus another. And of course, even within the U.S. market without International influence, the fact that the battle for gear has been opened up to many, means that prices are going to rise.

And unfortunately I don’t see that changing. There are too many people now that are willing to pay $5K-$7K currently for early and mid ‘70s Stratocasters. These are three-bolt CBS era guitars that I’m sorry to admit are largely junk. Remember I said I was interested in birth year instruments? That means I REALLY wanted to love owning a ’72 Stratocaster in particular. I went through ownership of no less than half a dozen of those Strats until I just finally gave up on them. Not to say that there weren’t some examples that I owned that were decent, but they were nothing that could beat any contemporary guitar I owned.

So why are they worth what they are now? Limited supply and enough people out there that want them for perhaps historical reasons (Uli Roth or Blackmore fans), or perhaps because they are the closest they can get that is affordable and close to their other hero’s (e.g. A lower-cost Hendrix strat), or maybe they are all 30+ y.o.’s out there searching for their birthday year instruments and money is no object. Or perhaps they used to play one when younger and they’re looking to recapture the memories of their youth. There can be an infinite number of reasons. They may be for less admirable reasons too, such as simply having "bragging rights". This is something I don’t care to try and understand – it’s not really in my mentality, but some of the other reasons certainly are.

It doesn’t just apply to strictly guitars or amplifiers, but old electronics and pedals are commanding big bucks as well. If you haven’t checked out what an early fuzz face will cost you these days, don’t be surprised when you see them going in excess of $1000 for certain particular ones. For all the same reasons, the bottom line is we music guys love to be passionate about gear when we can.

Whatever it is and the reasons, we know the Internet is global and growing and the more people and eyeballs there are out there that are searching for old instruments, the more the prices will continue to rise.

The dealers have gotten wise to it too. They’ve gone online, searching for gear to buy and then resell, and using Ebay and other dealers to generally monitor the marketplace and trends. As we’ve made the world smaller with the Internet, all of us have access to current market pricing and values with a bit of work and time.

And while I may gripe about the rising prices, I’m still a capitalist looking for maximum gain on anything I sell. While I can argue that dealers will often try to push the market prices forward prior to true demand/value being there; in essence creating what I call a virtual or b.s. demand market of sorts, I again know that eventually the market will get there – even if I don’t want it to be. But for me, it doesn’t really matter at this point because I’m no longer playing in this particular market. Maybe sometime in the future I could, although the question would be, "Would I still want to?"

So what interests me now the most? Custom shop Fenders and Gibsons. They offer everything I could want in an instrument and those companies and their offerings have grown tremendously in response to the astronomical vintage marketplace. Had it not been for the crazy rise in values of original vintage pieces, one can make an argument that the custom shops of the world would likely not exist – there would be no need!

The only thing that the custom shops of today are missing is the fact that no matter what it may sound, feel, smell, or play like, it still isn’t an original. It still wasn’t there in 1964 or 1959. It doesn’t have the genuine history and mojo factor that we all find appealing to a certain degree.

And this mojo factor is what drives the vintage market and will keep it moving. Even as I sit here complaining about the fact that the early ‘70s Stratocasters were junk, AND the fact that I owned several that validated that fact, the really strange part of this equation is that if money were no object – I’ll admit that I would still like to own one. It would bring back thoughts and memories of those early times of my youth – even though I don’t personally remember the year 1972 nor did I have any experiences with any particular guitar at that time. The guitar itself was still born on that date and thus has a lifetime that parallels my own – which allows me some comfort of experience that is difficult to describe.

Do I need a guitar to help me think back to these times? Certainly not, but it can be more fun having and playing a guitar or amplifier in this way. I think it’s also cool that this "old stuff" (I sometimes wish it was categorized just as that) can still be musically relevant today.

In some way, I do regret certain sales of guitars, even the ones that weren’t considered great instruments. It’s the mojo and reminiscent aspect that no custom shop can give me no matter how much artificial aging that they can create with some lamps, cigarette burns, or other things (sounds like a fun job to relic though!). All said, I love custom shop guitars because they give as close to the experience as any and the prices are inline and not through the roof. But would I still love to have my ’72 3-bolt Strat back, and would I consider paying the crazy price for it if money weren’t an issue holding me back? You bet. I’d also finally consider adding that slab board ’63 Strat and would maybe give a ’59 Les Paul a whirl too. Unfortunately, I don’t see the demand or pricing drop substantially due to the factors listed earlier. There are just too many folks out there with money and the market has expanded globally and price verifications and sales figures can be obtained instantly. We can’t fight that.

So what’s my final thought and recommendation to you, the reader here? If you’re longing for an instrument of vintage caliber but are waiting for the prices to go down, you may be waiting indefinitely. However, if you can afford it comfortably, then take the plunge (the key word is doing this comfortably within your means – don’t strain yourself otherwise you’ll likely be forced to resell at a loss and I’ve been there many times myself!). If you’re not sure whether or not an instrument is right for you, I can’t answer whether you should still consider getting into it or not. Custom Shop instruments are a good gauge of what the "real" ones are going to feel/sound like to a degree – only you can decide if the mojo factor of the real thing is worth it to you or not.

While I don’t have my ’72 Stratocasters any longer, I do still have my trusty ’72 Marshall Super Lead. It wasn’t too long ago that I was almost tempted financially to offload it. But I learned the lesson of the Stratocaster and had regrets for that sale – especially now since there is a cost barrier to me should I ever decide to get one again. With the Marshall, it would be even more painful since it happens to be the best sounding amp I’ve ever owned. That, coupled with the fact that it is a birth year model means I can’t imagine it for sale ever. And that in the end is just one example of when I know I’ve made a good purchase decision. I hope each of you too can find your own instruments that you can be passionate about and love and ultimately help spark musical fires and creativity. Enjoy the music and have fun!

2 thoughts on “One Man’s Opinion on the Vintage Market

  1. I have to weigh in on this one. I own two vintage Gibson archtops from the 1950’s: a 1953 ES-175 and a 1956 ES-225. I paid top dollar for these guitars at the time I bought them. I have no regrets. Some might say I overpaid, but the point is I have them. Equivalent instruments could have been found for less, no doubt, but my search may not have been successful. And these particular instruments would have wound up in someone else’s hands had I not been willing to pay what was required. Time passes. A thing of true value holds its value at the very least, and most likely gains value. I recently watched an interview in which a famous auctioneer from Christie’s art house was opining on his long career and the many landmark art sales he had made. He said something like this: when a buyer gets a great deal on something mediocre he feels like he has won, but when he in fact overpays for something truly excellent it is always better deal in the long run.

  2. Appreciate the insight and your opinion. I hope to build a nice collection on my own again someday (I sold many vintage pieces over the years). I do enjoy the history and the fact that these great pieces can still be put into use and played is fantastic.

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