2.28.2013

What's so Great About Vintage Guitars?


Vintage guitars are hard to get, generally more expensive yet seem to be very much sought after in the world of the guitar consumerism.

It begs the question: Why? What's so special about these guitars that we're all expected to be clamoring for them?

The answer to that question is largely up to opinion, but it's certainly worth looking a little deeper into the price tag and desirableness of these older instruments. Is the allure and cultural value of vintage guitars worth the extra money?

Here's my take.

What makes vintage guitars superior to modern guitars?

First of all, vintage guitars aren't necessarily "superior" to modern guitars in all, or even most categories.

Vintage Guitar
57 Fender Stratocaster
If you take the price of a vintage guitar and match it up with a more recent model of the same price (or even far cheaper), you'll find that the newer instrument would win out in several key areas, which we will get to in more detail later.

What we need to know on the surface, is that simply because a guitar is older and rare, doesn't automatically mean that it's the better choice in terms of quality and sound. Vintage guitars don't have the benefit of years in advancement of technology and sound improvement, thus it's hard for them to take full advantage of the sounds that guitars are now capable of producing.

Then what do you pay for?

The exclusivity and collectible status makes up a big portion of what you pay for when you buy a vintage guitar. For some people, that's all they're looking for, thus the classic appeal of the instrument and its cultural notoriety are enough for them to justify the purchase price.

However if you're not exclusively concerned with that, you'll end up paying an awful lot of money for a guitar that probably isn't going to be worth it to you in the long run. While having a collectible guitar might be nice, you'll have a hard time trying to make it your go-to axe.

That's not to say that many players don't swear by vintage instruments and find the newer more modern models completely inadequate in just about every guitar quality category. Usually these are people who have grown up during a particular musical era and thereby prefer the guitars that remind them of that era as opposed to modern alternatives that they associate with today's music.

Do modern guitar win out in terms of quality?

Unfortunately for the vintage enthusiast, it's an undeniable fact that newer guitar models in the same tax bracket (price range) are almost always better in terms of quality and value, simply due to the advancement in sound technology and guitar engineering in recent decades.

That's true in any area of improvement or development. We learn over time how to make things better, stronger, more durable and efficient. Guitars are no exception.

Modern instruments have better electronics, are friendlier to digital effects and often produce less excess noise because of their more sophisticated technology.

That's not to say the vintage models aren't great guitars, but they don't "overtake" the modern models in terms of quality, simply because they're vintage.

You still get what you pay for, and a lot of what you're paying for, is simply the "vintage"  tagline.

So, Vintage or Modern Model?

As a result, there are plenty of people who would argue that vintage guitars are overpriced, simply because of their age and cultural gravitas. Those people wouldn't be too far from the truth, but they should be too quick to disregard some excellent vintage options, some of which would include:

  • Fender American Vintage 57 Stratocaster -- For many, the 57 strat is one of the gold standards when it comes to Fender guitars. There's no arguing with it's history and pioneering design.

  • Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster -- A lot of people still play Clapton's strat as its been one of the more popular guitars through recent decades. Collectible significance seems to be less of a draw for this instrument than the simple fact that it's just a great guitar that has stood the test of time.

  • Rickenbacker Vintage Series -- Rickenbacker guitars are expensive, but they've been a gold guitar standard for a long time and their vintage series is true to their superior quality. Like any vintage instrument, you're paying a good bit for the vintage appeal, but these are still great guitars.

If you're already a collector, than the stock of these kinds of guitars goes way up; though if you just want a guitar to play and enjoy, and not get overly worried about scratching, you'd be better off to go with a more modern model:
Modern Guitar
Paul Reed Smith Custom 24

Here are some good examples of high quality modern guitars:
In terms of flat out quality and specifications, these guitars are pretty solidly in front of most vintage models. More modern technology in the form of wiring, pickups and overall design give these guitars an edge in terms of quality. It also bears mentioning that many of them, though expensive, are still far cheaper when compared to the vintage options.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with just preferring the sound or feel of a 50s Stratocaster. It's just a matter of preference, and if you're willing to pay for that sound, then you're probably getting your money's worth.

Vintage Guitars are an Investment

One of the main draws of vintage instruments, above and beyond their playability, is simply their resale value.

Vintage guitars hold their value much better than more recent models and many people do buy them primarily as collectors items with the intention to take advantage of their high resale value. This is of course contingent upon their ability to keep the guitar in mint condition, which usually means that they won't be playing it often, if at all.

If this is any part of your reasoning for purchasing a vintage guitar, you definitely don't want to use it as your main gigging axe.

What you're doing in this situation is investing in a guitar, instead of simply buying one with the intention to jam on it. As far as collector's items go, they are definitely a good investment. I wouldn't argue with that.

Yet, the fact that they're better in terms of being an investment doesn't necessarily mean they surpass the more modern models in quality and value.

100 Percent Authentic Vintage Sound

In some cases, people who buy vintage guitar might be completely unconcerned with the financial aspect, and just want to buy one because it's the only way they can get that true, and genuine vintage sound.

Getting an authentic vintage guitar sound almost requires that you buy one of these instruments, since replicating it is never as good as the original. Once again, this contributes to the cost of the guitar, since it's going to be one of the only ones that can re-create authentic guitar sounds from a certain time period.

If you're looking to replicate that sound yourself, it's best to go straight for the original.

Additionally, the difference in sound between the two types of instruments is actually quite noticeable. Here's a quick run down of the uniqueness in sound of the vintage and modern guitars:

Modern Guitars

  • Have more low end and bottom.

  • Geared towards a heavier, more saturated distortion.

  • Smoother and fuller sound overall.

Vintage Guitars

  • A brighter more high-end sound.

  • Lighter playing feel and more bluesy twang to their sound.

  • More accommodating of lighter distortion and clean sounds.

Personally, I'd go with the newer models...

My own personal preference, is to stick to the newer models. While I do appreciate the timelessness of the vintage guitars, the price tag outside of an investment or a pursuit of genuine vintage tone is just too high for me.

I own a 2005 PRS CE-24, a PRS Santana SE with custom pickups and an Ibanez Artcore hollowbody. They've all been great guitars for me, particularly the Santana, which definitely outperforms its price tag.

While it's absolutely a matter of preference and there is no right or wrong answer, I would definitely contend that a vintage guitar is not good for gigging or even frequent use. You'll be hesitant to play it because of its value, and in the end, it won't be worth the extra cost unless you turn around and sell it.

Maybe the best place for a vintage guitar is to be a crown jewel on top of an established guitar rig. Once you've got the guitars you need and have some extra money to spend, maybe then it's time to spring for the 50s strat.

What does everyone else think? Vintage or modern? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

Print Friendly and PDF


About Robert Kittleberger

Robert is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk and Guitar Bargain. You can get in
touch with him here, or via Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.