"Rare guitars, $50,000 per
Some vintage guitars
now command astronomical prices as non-playing investors jam the
market. But while prices for the rarest models are still rising,
new buyers who head into this arena may get burned.
By Jim Washburn
Just how much can a guitar possibly be
The question came up as several top vintage-guitar dealers sat at
a picnic table backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in Arizona on
a December day in 1981. They were guests of Keith Richards' guitar
tech, Alan Rogan, who, along with keeping Richards' guitars in
tune, was charged with obtaining more rare ones for his
collection. As with other guitar-driven bands, a Stones tour was
like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking up America's rare instruments,
and these dealers were the bristles.
Over the previous decade, dealing in old guitars had gone from
being a girlfriend-repelling hobby to a lucrative business that
put one backstage with rock royalty. Yet, as the band warmed up
some yards away, the dealers' conversation suggested the bloom had
gone from the rosewood. In 1981, the flagship of rare electric
guitars, the 1958-1960 sunburst Les Paul Standard (original list
price, $265), was changing hands for the ludicrously high price of
$10,000. Some dealers felt it had reached its zenith.
"A couple of the guys at the table started arguing over which
would be a better investment: putting a Les Paul in a vault for 10
years, or putting the $10,000 in a T-bill account," recalls Steve
Soest, one of the dealers present. "That knocked a bit of the
magic out of the day."
Those arguing against the guitar's longevity would have done well
to heed a song in the Stones' set that day: "Time Is On My Side."
Within 10 years, sunburst Les Pauls were selling for $50,000 . . .
then $60,000, and then $80,000. Now they are so coveted that
plainer ones go for upwards of $150,000, while those with a
pedigree or particularly dramatic flamed-maple tops have pushed
past $300,000. The nine-pound guitars are worth their weight in
gold, five times over.
The spike in the value of Les Pauls, as with other iconic
instruments such as pre-1966 Fender Stratocasters and pre-war
Martin acoustics, is a consequence of non-musical investors piling
into the market. Even the decidedly non-rockin' Forbes magazine
trumpeted the trend in a 2005 article titled "While My Guitar
"The reason is easy enough to see," says Richard Johnston,
co-owner with Frank Ford of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo
Alto, Calif. "Anyone who's followed the prices of these guitars
would have to be pretty stupid not to realize that there's hardly
anything else, even California real estate, that's gone up at such
a horrendous rate."
Meanwhile, Southern California dealer Soest muses, "I used to get
musicians asking me to help find a guitar with a sound they
wanted. Now I get calls are from people who don't play and never
intend to, saying, 'I've got $50,000 to invest. What should I buy
and can you help me find it?' I don't know anymore if I'm a guitar
dealer or a stockbroker."
From inexpensive workhouse to rock icon
Such times would have been hard to foresee when Leo Fender
introduced his solid-body electric Broadcaster guitar (soon
renamed the Telecaster) in 1950, intending it as a durable tool
that working musicians could afford. When Gibson followed suit two
years later with its solid-body Les Paul model, the company was so
dubious of its prospects that they considered leaving the Gibson
name off the instrument.
The Les Paul was only a moderate success, and by the time Eric
Clapton started playing one in 1966, it had been out of production
for six years. Other players adopted the Les Paul -- including
Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Mike Bloomfield
and Duane Allman -- and suddenly everyone wanted one.
Fender nearly discontinued its now-legendary Stratocaster in the
late 1960s, until Jimi Hendrix came along and created a new
musical vocabulary on one. The Strat remained in production and
Gibson reintroduced the Les Paul in 1968, but the demand for
vintage guitars only increased through the 1970s.
"That's because the new guitars were such crap," says Laguna
Beach, Calif., musician and dealer Dan Yablonka. "The guitar
companies were bought up by corporations, and they became like the
car companies in the '70s, where instead of Mustangs and Coupe de
Villes, they were foisting Chevettes and Pintos on us."
CBS bought Fender in 1965, and by 1970 "pre-CBS" had become a
catch-phrase for a quality Fender. In that corporate era, product
quality also suffered at Gibson, Gretsch, C.F. Martin & Co and
other U.S. brands.
It wasn't until the 1980s that manufacturers got back on point,
for the same reason that U.S. automakers did: The Japanese were
cooking their goose, making copies of classic American guitars
that were truer to the classic designs than the current domestic
New guitar-minded owners at Fender and Gibson restored the brands'
reputations. But by then, the "older is better" maxim was so
firmly established that the manufacturers contributed to that
mystique by issuing "vintage reissues" of their old guitars. These
remain a substantial part of their lines, with some companies even
offering "relic" guitars, which, like pre-distressed jeans, come
with factory-applied scrapes, tarnish and cigarette burns.
New buyers beware
This glut of new "vintage" guitars further complicates matters for
uninformed guitar investors, who increasingly have to rely on the
integrity and expertise of dealers. Is that really a 1953
Telecaster, or a 1958 with changed parts, or a modified 1989
reissue, or a luthier's deft copy? With tens of thousands of
dollars hanging in the balance, authenticity has become a major
"There were only about 1,700 sunburst Les Pauls originally made,
yet people have counted 2,200 that purport to be today," notes
Yablonka. "You need to have handled and studied hundreds of old
Gibsons sometimes to tell the difference."
Before guitars became such rare commodities, musicians commonly
modified them or switched parts around, which can seriously effect
the price. A refinished Stratocaster might look great, but that
new paint makes it worth less than half what one with a beat-up
original finish might bring. Along with making it harder for a
novice to discern what's truly rare, these "players' guitar"
modifications also subtract from the number of "investment grade"
rare guitars out there.
Compared to a flat stock portfolio, rare guitars might look like a
wild new frontier to investors, but it's been mined for decades.
With very few of what Yablonka terms "under grandma's bed" guitars
left to be discovered, collectors have resigned themselves to
paying top dollar.
A super-collector's super-stockpile
No matter how much money an investor spends, he'd be hard-pressed
to match the woodpile of super-collector Mac Yasuda, who owns
what's possibly the world's largest guitar collection, and
certainly its finest aggregation of flattop guitars.
If an investor waves $250,000 around long enough, he might
eventually scare up an abalone-encrusted pre-war Martin D-45,
considered the holy grail of acoustic guitars. Meanwhile, Yasuda
already owns 14 of the 70 or so known to still exist. He has about
500 other guitars, plus some 200 ukuleles and sundry stringed
things. It provides some notion of the caliber of instruments he
deals in to know that he once sold a guitar case for
Yasuda started singing and playing country music when he was a
teenager in Kobe, Japan. When his hero Hank Snow performed there
in 1967, Yasuda and his band-mates got to meet the singer
backstage. "A Japanese company had just started making
steel-string guitars, and we brought ours to show off. Hank was
playing a beat up 1934 Martin D-28, so I asked him, 'Hey, Hank,
you're such a rich and famous guy. Why won't you buy a brand new
guitar like this?' He just kept laughing over that, and his band
did too," he recalls.
Three years later, and somewhat more informed about the virtues of
vintage guitars, Yasuda came to Michigan Tech on a scholarship.
Sent to a conference in Nashville, he skipped out to prowl Music
Row instead. At George Gruhn's guitar shop, he saw a beautiful old
Gibson J-200 acoustic for $450, and he only had $25 to his name.
It was a Scarlett-O'Hara-clutches-the-turnip moment for Yasuda. "I
stood there looking at that guitar and swore, 'Someday I will own
all the J-200s!'"
He's well on the way,
owning 60 choice J-200s now. Since he can only play
one at a time, does it ever concern him that the
instruments are being kept out of the hands of
Too expensive to actually
"I don't think most musicians can afford to play
guitars like this anymore," he says. "They're too
expensive, too risky to perform with. You wouldn't
play a Stradivarius in a country band, and that's
what these guitars are like now."
Yasuda still performs -- he's appeared on the Grand
Ol' Opry dozens of times -- and he used to loan rare
instruments to musicians for their recording
projects, but the value they now hold has raised
insurance issues. He hopes to eventually open a
museum. That, or they may go back on the market.
"I'm going to die someday, and my wife sure doesn't
want them around," he says.
Some longtime collectors and dealers worry about the
implications of the instruments languishing in
vaults and display cases. "It's like selling
Disneyland to the Martians or something," frets
Soest. "These things were made to be played and
enjoyed." He concurs with other experts, though,
that there's no shortage of excellent instruments
Johnston says, "I have less patience than I did 20
years ago with musicians hollering about collectors
buying all the good stuff, because the new
instruments available now are so much better than
they were 20 years ago. That's true for the top-line
guitars, but also moderately-priced and even cheap
guitars are good. You can get a Chinese acoustic
guitar for well under $500 that you could be
confident stepping onto any stage with. And if you
have $1,000 to $2,000, there's a lot of fine stuff."
Another longtime dealer, Rick King, who owns the
Tacoma, Wash., Guitar Maniacs shop, says, "I
remember people whining 15 years ago that
'collectors are buying all the good guitars and
putting them in display cases!' I haven't seen that
it's stopped anyone from making music. There's this
basic economic theory that when the demand for an
item exceeds the supply, the value goes up. As
musicians, we tend to forget this basic economic
theory, which can lead to the basic sour grapes
theory of 'waa, waa, waaaa.'"
Junior Watson takes it all
"Let them all fight over it. I've got what I need,"
is how blues guitarist Junior Watson regards the
vintage market. He's had vintage Gibson and Fenders
in the past, and now can't afford them. Even the
oddball budget instruments he favors, such as the
Harmony Espanada (a 1950s department store arch top
that unaccountably has aluminum rims, like a dinette
table), are in collectors' sights now. Watson paid
$50 for his decades ago, and he'd be hard-pressed to
buy another, since they now sell for up to $2,500 on
eBay, with ads that invariably trumpet "Junior
Watson plays one!"
These days he favors a '50s Harmony Stratotone
(which, along with Tom Waits and John Hammond
playing them, has helped nudge prices from $250 five
years ago to $1,600 today) and a Strat copy he
pieced together from $400 of aftermarket parts.
"After I scraped the finish off the neck with a
razor blade, it sounds and feels so close to a '57
Strat now that it's insane," he claims.
The boom in guitar investing is a tide that's raised
all boats. Even some of the '70s Fenders and Gibsons,
whose questionable quality spurred the rise of the
vintage market, can sell for thousands today. Brands
that once sold for $39 in department stores and drug
stores -- such as Silvertone and Teisco -- have
their collectors. Some name companies also made
guitars under different brands, such as some 1930s
Montgomery Wards Radio King guitars that were made
Such esoterica, and the terminology used in the
guitar world (see "Building a
six-string portfolio" for a small sampling)
suggests you had best be an informed consumer before
you put your nest egg in a guitar case. There are
scores of books on guitars, some of which go into
great detail about how to verify their authenticity.
Vintage Guitar magazine is also a monthly source
It's a good idea to have any potential investment
checked out by an experienced dealer or luthier,
because many things that aren't readily apparent can
be wrong with an instrument. Even if a guitar isn't
going to be played, its playability remains a major
factor in its value.
Playing it, though, just might be of value to you.
Johnston says, "I tell people that the only way
they'll be sure of a good return on their investment
is to enjoy the guitar and play it. Then, if it
doesn't go up in value, they can still look back on
the experience fondly. Whenever people buy an object
purely as an investment -- whether it's a ring they
don't wear, a car they don't drive or a guitar they
don't play -- I think they're setting themselves up
for disappointment, because who knows what the
market will do tomorrow?"
Building a six-string portfolio
While it certainly
helps to be rich to get into the vintage guitar
there's still some
fun to be had in all price ranges.
If you're absolutely sagging with cash, here are
the blue-chip investments:
Martin: Pre-war Martins
(especially with herringbone trim or abalone
inlay, and Brazilian rosewood back and sides);
Fender: Pre-CBS Fender
Stratocasters (particularly in custom factory
colors) and Telecasters (1954 and earlier with
a black anodized pick guard are preferred);
Gibson: 1950s Les Paul
Standards (the 1952-1957 Goldtop models can
still be had for under $50,000) as well the
intensely rare '50s Gibson Flying V and
Explorer models, remain the premium
investments. "Dot-neck" 335s and other
semi-solid models are also in demand;
Some less-common instruments,
such as D'Angelico arch-top jazz guitars, also
have a long track record of appreciating.
If you have less than $10,000 to
play with, consider Fender's Jazzmaster and
Jaguar guitars, and Gibson's lower-line 1950's
Les Paul models such as the Special and Junior,
and '60s models such as SGs and the Firebirds,
as well as upper-tier flattop acoustics such as
the J-200 and J-45, and arch-top jazz guitars.
Gibson also had a second line of instruments,
Epiphone (today the brand on its budget
imports), with the Casino model the Beatles
played being particularly desirable. The Beatle
connection also adds to the luster of Gretsch
and Rickenbacker guitars.
If you have only a couple of thousand dollars,
or even just hundreds, there are still plenty of
vintage instruments to be had. Look at Fender
and Gibson's student lines, such as the former's
Mustang, Duo-Sonic and Musicmaster models, or
Gibson's Melody Makers. The Japanese Ibanez
copies of U.S. guitars can also be found in this
range, as can the guitars and basses of any
number of lesser-known U.S. makers, such as
Danelectro, Kay and Harmony.
Rick King considers '50s and '60s Danelectros
(favored by Jimmy Page, David Lindley and
others) to be among the most undervalued
instruments today. Vintage guitar amps --
particularly the '50s tweed-covered or '60s
"blackface" Fenders and "plexi-panel" Marshall
models -- also have yet to appreciate the way