Looking for some inside tips, tricks and information on buying vintage guitars? Look no further! We invited our good friend and ex-colleague Stefan to write a piece on this matter.
I got an invitation from Maarten and Rudi to write a little piece about a few of my personal tips and tricks for buying a vintage guitar. Some of you may already know me , but for those who do not: I am Stefan Meier and I used to work for The Fellowship of Acoustics. I was part of the sales team and gained some expertise on vintage guitars over the time. I regard myself as a “vintage-enthusiast” and spend a lot of time reading and gathering knowledge about any vintage guitar (acoustic and electric).
Originality and condition
The value of a vintage instrument is largely determined by the originality and condition of the instrument. Let’s consider the following example: a completely original 1964 Fender Stratocaster can easily set you back over 20.000 euros, while a refinished 1964 Fender Stratocaster is worth 60% or less of the value of an original one. Do not get me wrong, they are probably both extremely nice guitars, however full-original specimens are empirically more valuable. Nevertheless, I feel that “normal” maintenance (e.g. re-fret, neck-reset) that is required to keep an instrument playable is acceptable. However, purist and serious collectors may find this off-setting and therefore lose interest. Aspects that tend to affect the price the most are: replaced pickups, refinishing, tone wood replacement and modifications to the body/cavity. In the end, the audience for vintage guitars is very diverse. I know collectors that only settle for mint-condition, full original, under-the-bed finds and are willing to pay a pretty penny for the right specimen, while others are looking for a player-graded guitar and are not too picky on an old-refin as long as for example the electronics are still original.
It is true that nowadays (anno 2020) it is becoming increasingly difficult to find good quality vintage guitars in Europe, while demand is ever so high. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to actively participate in the vintage guitar network if you are sincerely interested in buying a specific vintage guitar. There are many groups on social media where collectors display their collection and also trade a lot. This is a great place to gain knowledge and to get in touch with the right folks. There are also many public exhibitions and trade-shows in Europe. There is always a great vibe on these gatherings and you can expect some of the best collections in Europe. Finally, one of the best places to express your interest in vintage guitars are highly-specialised guitar stores, like The Fellowship of Acoustics. Rudi and his team are very knowledgeable about vintage guitars and have seen and held many of them over the years. The TFOA workshop also holds some of the best professionals in the world, who can easily spot any modifications or old repairs or if you like, perform a repair for you. In addition, TFOA has a well-established network of collectors. So, if you are looking for a specific vintage guitar, just send Rudi and his team a message and I am positive they can aid you in your quest for a vintage guitar.
Understand your intention and set a budget
Have it very clear cut what your reasons are to buy a vintage guitar. This may be anything from wanting the same guitar as one of your idols, to tonality and playability reasons, to historical interest (pre-CBS), to investment reasons. However, be careful with the latter! I’ve seen way too many people that think it is easy to flip a vintage guitar for good money. My experience has proven that this is not as easy as you might think and I also believe should not be your primary reason to buy a guitar. In my opinion, the reason you should buy a vintage guitar is because of the fact that it evokes a certain emotional experience. I think a vintage guitar is for many people “a grail guitar”, meaning that is something many of us can only dream about. I have experienced many touching encounters with people finally find their dream vintage guitar after years of searching, saving and studying. Nonetheless, the fact that vintage guitars stably increase in value over time is a very nice addition to this first goal. The beauty is that you can fully enjoy playing and cherishing this instrument without ever thinking about “maybe it was better to leave it on my account”, since the percentual increase of vintage guitars overrules your bank’s interest by miles (at least in the Netherlands).
Study, study and study
The next step from deciding whether vintage guitars are of interest to you, focusses on acquainting yourself with the history of the guitar, the specifications, current market value and of course rules and regulations. There are many ways to gather knowledge about guitars but my favourite will always be books. There are many books regarding vintage guitars from several brands and these sources will be closer to the truth than many online platforms where anyone can post anything. The internet is a good source to determine the current market value of a guitar, reverb has nice price guides but tend to be oriented towards the prices in the United States. In general, prices in Europe are higher, since vintage guitars are harder to find here. It therefore might be very tempting to buy a guitar from the U.S. and get it shipped to Europe but be aware! Within the EU, you often need to pay VAT and an additional import fee. For the Netherlands, this adds up to an additional 30% that needs to be paid over the purchased amount and this off-sets the price difference between U.S. and Europe. Furthermore, many vintage guitars hold endangered wood species that fall under the CITES regulation and therefore may not be imported without the right documentation. So, there are many potential pitfalls when it comes to vintage guitars and given the substantial value of most of them I highly advise “study, study and study!” .
I personally enjoy finding what I call “Sleeper-hits”. These are the vintage/rare guitars of the future, that are still largely available now for a reasonable price but have the feel and sound of “grail guitars”. I will post a few examples below about guitars that made me question “How does nobody notice this?”. For example: A couple of years ago, I bought a Gibson SG junior from 1964. I initially always wanted a LP Junior from the 50s, but LP juniors are becoming rarer and pricier with the day and there were many affordable SG juniors available at that time. However, that SG junior had the sound and the feel that I associate with an old junior and for that reason I bought it. Last year, I had to move places and could use a little bit of money, so I decided to sell it to Rudi and the SG junior's value went up with 40% in just two years. These SG juniors are still out there, floating around, and are some of the future guitars that I think people are going to go “Wait?! Why didn’t we know?” – to quote John Mayer - at. I enjoy looking across the hype and spotting these hidden gems. There are many more examples to be addressed, but like I argued before: “Investment should not be the primary reason to buy a guitar, but it is a very welcoming add-on!”. If you care about what my picks are for current sleeper-hits: Martins from late 50’s and 60’s, the current artist limited-editions from Martin, together with 18-style Martin Authentics and early 60’s Gibson acoustics.