Do electric guitars sound better as they age?
In most cases, we'd say no.
While the answer to this question is highly subjective, I would argue that in most cases electric guitars don't necessarily get better because of age alone. Unlike acoustic guitars, solid body electrics don't really settle or break in. If their tone improves, it's going to be because of upgraded parts or other aspects of your guitar rig.
This is a difficult question to answer because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, some people swear that their electric guitars sound better or have improved as a result of age.
I would argue this is more perception than reality.
In fact, my experience has told me that electric guitars get noisier, and tend to sound worse as age accrues. Pickups especially can corrode and have wear and tear that causes your tone to get worse.
You can also see parts loosen and electrical components need replaced.
So it's not tone that gets better, though there are a few things that do improve as an electric guitar ages.
We'll cover four in particular.
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1. Resell Value
The value of an electric guitar behaves similarly to that of an old vehicle.
When you buy a car initially, it loses a lot of its value. But if you take care of it and keep it nice, after it's old and considered an antique, it'll actually increase in value, perhaps even eclipsing its initial cost.
This process takes a long time with cars, but can happen much quicker with electric guitars, especially longstanding models like the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul.
The same is true of amps and pedals.
Have you tried to buy one of the old DOD envelope filters lately?
There's no way this pedal was over $100 back in the day. $40-$50 at most.
An electric guitar's fretboard will break in after years of consistent playing. It's not something you'll notice, but it happens over time and sort of shapes to your fingers. As this progresses, your fretboard begins to feel more familiar, becoming particularly noticeable when you play a guitar you don't normally play.
Notice how your guitar just feels like your guitar? Maybe another guitar doesn't feel quite right after you've played yours for a long time?
This is primarily because of wear on the fretboard, getting used to the guitar's shape (more on that in number four), and the responding muscle memory.
3. Pride of ownership
I prefer to stick with one thing and get used to it. I don't like to bounce around to different guitars if at all possible.
That's why I only own two and haven't bought one in the last 12 years.
These are two guitars I currently use:
- 2004 PRS Santana SE
- 2005 PRS CE 24
As I've used these guitars, I've become more and more attached to them. And I'm proud of the fact that I've had them this long. It gets to a point where there's a pride of ownership that's hard to describe.
Moreover, I've made adjustments and upgrades that have made it more unique to the sound I want. In that way, it has certainly improved tone, but that's more because of mods and less because of age.
Still, pride of ownership increases as you spend more time with the same instrument.
4. Overall comfort and feel
Going back to the fretboard comfort, the overall comfort and feel of an electric guitar also improves over time. You can even get used to how the strumming feels and how the strings react to your movements. You also get used to the weight of the guitar and how it feels in your hands.
If you have a guitar with a whammy bar you'll get accustomed to the tightness of the bar, where it rests and how it moves.
When you spend a lot of time with an instrument, every nuance becomes part of your playing experience. For that reason, I think it's worth keeping instruments you like around for as long as possible.
I'm hoping my CE 24 lasts me a lifetime.
So far so good.
What changes can improve an electric guitar's tone as it gets older?
As an guitar ages, pickup upgrades are the most effective way to improve tone. Here are some other suggestions that can also make a big difference:
- Strings, preferably coated, like Elixirs
- Hardware upgrades (bridge, tuners)
- Cleaning (guitar-specific solution for fretboard and body like the Jim Dunlop kit)
- Pickup cleaning
- As mentioned, pickup upgrades (especially if you started with some kind of stock pickup)
Typically I don't recommend changing fretboards, though that's another way you can improve a pickup's tone. Strings, hardware, and pickups are your first stop if you want to get some quick improvements in.
To summarize, electric guitars don't really improve with age. Their value increases after a lot of time has passed because they become more rare and harder to come by. But generally speaking, it's hardware upgrades, pickups, and more regularly changing strings that are gonna make the most difference.
If you have questions about aging or your own knowledge/experience to share. Jump into the comments section below and we'll chat about it.
We'll talk then, but just keep in mind that this content is opinion, written by a lunatic, and probably wrong.
Proceed with caution.