May 08, 2006

Editors: Tom Watson    
Rick Landers    

May 08, 2006

Vintage Guitar Market Madness

by Dan Yablonka

In the 30-plus years that I have been playing, collecting, dealing and writing about vintage guitars I have never seen the vintage market in such a state of ongoing change. There was a time when there were about 40 people in the U.S. who dealt in the oldies. We all knew each other, prices were not only static for long periods of time but everyone was on the same page. An example would be in the very early '80s when pre-CBS Fender Stratocasters were $1,000 for a '60s era rosewood board and about double that for a '50s maple board. A 1959 Les Paul Standard was $5,000.00 for a plain one and went up incrementally to $10,000 depending on the amount of flamed maple on the top.

You could carry on a conversation with any one of those 40 people and even "front" (loan on approval) a guitar and let him pay after he saw it. But it was a whole different game then. For the most part, back then even the collectors were players, just players with a little more money or developed tastes.

 

The buyer of a really clean and original Fender pre-CBS Strat or Gibson Les Paul '59 "Burst" today is more often than not an investor. Many of my customers are those who are tired of seeing their stock portfolio not perform, and the musicians are famous ones or "successful" would be a better word since many guys are producers, engineers and not the stars themselves. For the most part, however, they fit into the first category as the prices of these treasures soar into the mid-to-high five figures, and, in the case of some models like the '59 Burst, major six figures.

The phone calls that I and many of my dealer pals are getting are much more typically asking about which will be a better investment than they are about which is a better guitar. As a result, what is happening when you open the magazines and see 30 dealers all with '50s Fenders for 30-50k, is not a bunch of unseen guitars recently unearthed under grandma's bed - you're seeing the guys that bought 20 guitars awhile back for a few grand each now sitting on 20 guitars worth 40 grand a piece. Many of these guys could afford or justify a collection based on the earlier prices but at the current high market values a lot of guitars are "shaking loose" from these collections. I don't know if you've noticed or not, but many of the better funded dealers are not only advertising to buy your guitar, they're advertising to buy your collection.

I have conversations regularly at guitar shows with other dealers and we're all wondering what is going to happen when all the CEOs that have bought up most of the guitars as investments go to cash them out in five years only to find that they were the top of the food chain. When their seemingly insatiable appetite for these gems has been satisfied, to whom are they going to sell these guitars? Right now there is such a frenzy going on that folks are taking "pot shots" at prices. People are buying guitars that last week went for $10,000 less because "speculation" tells them no one knows where the market values will end up. And often, they're buying from each other, bumping up the price a little and turning it over to yet another dealer or collector without much regard for the money. Since pricing has been toward the upside so far, the market is all over the map. For example, I saw a '56 Strat go for about $60,000 recently in an auction while at the same exact time a noteworthy dealer had a 1954 in excellent condition for $36,500 advertised in all of the magazines for three months. Both instruments were sunburst and in excellent condition.

While it's fascinating to watch, I and many other dealers with three decades under their belt are all wondering what happens when all of the kids that grew up after the vintage pieces were made are the only market for guitars. Are they going to mean as much to them? Will there be a shift in modern music in the year 2029 that takes the focus away from rock 'n' roll and the guitar in general? Will bands look like the Star Wars bar scene with a bunch of species playing instruments with LEDs being the only recognizable feature on them? We simply don't know. Meanwhile, we dealers speculate and are very happy when we get 50k today for a vintage guitar. It certainly wouldn't be as comfortable, on many levels, to buy 100 guitars at today's prices and hope that they'll be worth twice that much in ten years.

Meanwhile, my advice would be that if you're interested in investing in vintage guitars, get as clean, original and unique pieces as possible (such as Custom Color pre-CBS Stratocaster). If you are playing either professionally or as a hobby and tone is your focal point, I suggest looking to "player pieces" (instruments below prime but very playable and producers of good tone) to get the sound and feel, unless you're in that elite group of musicians that can drop 50k on an ax without worry. While as a published songwriter/singer myself, as well as a vintage instrument dealer, I can easily see why the phrase "a working musician with 50k to spend" is almost an oxymoron, the good news is that very few, if any, general listeners can hear the difference on "vinyl" between an original-finish '57 Tele and a refin.

If you're lucky enough to have a stash or even one great old guitar, I would suggest you hold on to it for dear life as the amount of money needed to replace even player pieces is astounding and, for now, rising daily.

And for now, I'll have to say farewell. I have to get up early and trade my house for a '68 Tele bridge pickup.

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