Collecting Vintage Guitars: What You Need to Know

We have drawn all the venom from the phrase, painful drop by painful drop. We have applied it to presidents, cardiologists, weathermen. Crammed it into every help-wanted ad for a barista or programmer or call-center employee.

It’s easy to forget that there was once truly such a thing as a “rock star.”

Think back to the barbaric yawps of Robert Plant or Axl Rose, when the rock star occupied a particular apex not seen before or since in human society. Rich as Rockefeller, famous as any actor, and more desirable than either because he answered only to his own fearsomely rebellious and youthful self. He blazed fiercely but briefly, then he was replaced. Anybody could be next. All you needed was a guitar, preferably an electric one that could be cranked into an overdriven scream by a stack of Marshall amplifiers.

The first electric guitars appeared shortly after World War II, but the apogee of development and craftsmanship was realized in the latter half of the 1950s. “I opened my shop forty-eight years ago,” says George Gruhn, “and the guitars that I’m looking for now are the same ones I was looking for then.” Gruhn, widely considered to be the dean of the guitar-collecting hobby, operates Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, ground zero for the stratospheric high end of vintage-guitar deals.

He says that management and ownership changes at major American guitar makers, coupled with skyrocketing demand that could not be fulfilled building instruments the old-fashioned way, effectively killed the quality of guitars during the 1960s and 1970s. Musicians like Eric Clapton and Michael Bloomfield responded by walking into pawn shops and buying sunburst-finish Gibson Les Pauls made from 1958 through 1960. A blurry photograph of a “Burst” Gibson on the back of the 1964 album Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton launched the vintage-guitar craze.

Sunburst Gibson Les Paul

By 2007, speculators had raised the price of those guitars into the low seven figures. The book Million Dollar Les Paul by Tony Bacon tells stories of cash-only transactions in dimly lit parking lots and a shadow industry devoted to the counterfeiting of Bursts. The market correction that occurred afterward returned some sanity to the hobby, but prices are still high enough to daunt all but the most committed players.

It only takes a few minutes with a genuine vintage Gibson to understand why. They were made with wood from old-growth forests, seasoned in open-air workrooms for decades. Give the body of a 1959 Les Paul a rap with your knuckle, and you can feel the sympathetic vibration at the top of the headstock. According to Gruhn, the guitars made today have largely returned to the standards of assembly quality found in the 1950, “but the wood isn’t there.”

“This is all newly grown wood, heavily restricted by import regulations, dried artificially in a kiln,” he says. “The tone isn’t the same.”

Unlike a vintage automobile or a piece of antique furniture, an old Les Paul is still capable of rocking as hard as it did in the hands of Keith Richards or Jimmy Page. Stored and handled correctly, that should be just as true fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago. Perhaps that explains why Gruhn is seeing sales increase, despite the fact that many older baby boomers are no longer actively adding to their collections.

Interested in getting one of your own? Guided by Mr. Gruhn, we’ve picked three top-shelf vintage electric guitars, covering the spectrum from classic to glam. All of them would be fine additions to an existing collection, or investment-grade pieces for the budding connoisseur. And any of them will make you feel like a rock star, regardless of your day job.


George Gruhn recommends…


THE STANDARD-BEARER: 1959 Les Paul “Burst”

Approximately 1,400 Sunburst Les Pauls were made between 1958 and 1960. Fewer than 650 of them were 1959 models, which had bigger, more playable frets than the 1958 “Lester” but a more comfortable neck than the 1960 version. Even the roughest examples now fetch well over $100,000, and convincing fakes outnumber originals, so take your time and find one with a few decades’ worth of ownership history.

THE ARTISAN: D’Angelico New Yorker

From 1932 to 1964, John D’Angelico made the world’s finest archtop guitars in his Manhattan shop. While archtops are not considered rock-music guitars, they were often used in the fusion-jazz that paralleled rock’s development in the 1970s. Figure $15,000 for a decent one, though some of D’Angelico’s more elaborate efforts can sell for significantly more.

THE WILD CARD: 1982 Charvel Van Halen

Guitar dealer and builder Wayne Charvel was the source of Eddie Van Halen’s touring guitars during the band’s salad years. He sold the name to Grover Jackson, who built high quality “Superstrats” in the 1980s before cashing out and sending production overseas. Gruhn estimates that a Charvel by Jackson could be worth as much as $20,000, but beware: As with Bursts, counterfeits abound. And if you want one actually played by Mr. Van Halen, however briefly, expect to pay up to five times more.

Hours, Minutes, Centuries: 150 Years of IWC

One hundred and fifty years.

Not much of a lifespan for a university, a European town, or a Sierra redwood. Five minutes and a few dollars spent on eBay can put you in possession of a coin or a book that was already ancient in 1868, the year Florentine Aristo Jones traveled from Boston to Schaffhausen to found the International Watch Company. If you deal in matters cosmological or geological, a century and a half barely merits mention. It is an eyeblink.

In matters horological, however—in this new era of watchmaking where opportunistic investors wrap whole-cloth start-ups in tissue-thin histories of dubious or borrowed provenance, where long-dead marques and models are hydraulically fracked from the past to adorn commodity movements and generic designs—IWC’s claim to 150 years of continuous production feels truly rare, deliciously enviable. All the more so for its aristocratic approach to that history—how the company has always refused to be handcuffed by its own weighty tradition.

Consider, for instance, that iconic trio of 1970s Gerald Genta sports-watch designs. Audemars Piguet has tirelessly extended the Royal Oak to a multitude of variants, while Patek Philippe has carefully conserved the core Nautilus concept across four decades. IWC, on the other hand, simply abandoned its Genta-designed Ingenieur this year, like a child tossing away an unwanted toy. And why not? The firm had an older design, from 1955, that it felt deserved a reboot into the new “Ingy.” Such behavior is the hallmark of pur sang, whether in Frankish nobility or watchmaking royalty.

Florentine Ariosto Jones (1841–1916), American engineer, watchmaker, and IWC founder.

Yet there has always been an iconoclastic streak in IWC’s history, starting from the moment of its birth. F.A. Jones was no Swiss burgher; he was New Hampshire born and bred, and his eyes were firmly fixed on the American market. Thus, “International Watch Company,” to emphasize the advantages of a Swiss product over the domestic competition. It did not entirely pan out, and Mr. Jones was to leave the firm after seven years. By 1884, IWC was Swiss in both management and ownership, headed by Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk. He was fascinated by the recently unveiled Pallweber system.

When Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” he likely didn’t know about Josef Pallweber’s innovation, which predated Hamilton’s Pulsar P1 of 1972 by nearly 90 years but was, strictly speaking, a true digital timepiece. IWC would go on to produce approximately 20,000 Pallweber-system pocket watches, which used jumping-minute and jumping-hour complications, along with numbered discs to power hour and minute displays, much like the date indicator on a contemporary mechanical watch.

Early IWC Pallweber pocket watches. 

The decision to terminate production of the Pallwebers put the digital watch into a Rip-Van-Winkle-like slumber until the beginning of the Space Age. Still, IWC continued to innovate as the tide turned from pocket watch to wristwatch after World War I. The Special Pilot’s Watch, Reference IW436, arrived in 1936 to serve the needs of a new class of adventurer. Antimagnetic and proofed against the freezing temperatures encountered by open-cockpit aviators, the IW436 established aesthetic and functional directions for pilots’ watches that continue to this day.

One of the brand’s few stubborn loyalties—to its own hand-wound movements—prevented IWC from taking advantage of John Harwood’s “Perpetual” patent for self-winding mechanical watches. But in 1950, technical director Albert Pellaton designed and patented a unique bidirectional winding movement that would first appear in 1955’s Ingenieur. It used a soft-iron case to deflect magnetic fields, and can be considered an early example of what is now called a “tool watch.”

The original IWC Ingenieur, circa 1955.

The quartz era brought a variety of conventional and “mecha-quartz” hybrid movements in watches that might seem eccentric to modern eyes, but should start enjoying a well-deserved renaissance of regard. Similarly, a partnership with Porsche Design resulted in a series of highly regarded sport watches, including the wonderfully campy “Compass” collaboration. Here, the dial and movement could be flipped up to reveal—you guessed it—a liquid-filled compass. The entire watch was made from aluminum, so as to prevent interference with the directional needle.

A more significant product was the Titan chronograph, the first wristwatch to use a full-titanium case. IWC expended substantial effort addressing the challenges of machining, offering an unprecedented combination of lightness, durability, and corrosion resistance. The follow-up effort, 1982’s Ocean, could be used at depths of up to 2,000 meters and was available in a completely antimagnetic version for military divers whose jobs could take them close to magnetic mines.

IWC x Porsche Design Titan chronograph.

Renewed interest in Swiss mechanical watches soon found IWC well-positioned, a notion which perhaps did not occur immediately to the nouveau riche, but which nonetheless offered impeccable historical credentials, producing a variety of sports and luxury pieces. A diverse series of cobranding efforts, with entries ranging from the Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to the Mercedes-AMG Formula One team, has kept IWC firmly in the public eye; radical designs of the Da Vinci and Ingenieur lines have demonstrated a commitment to keeping its core models fresh.

But the main attraction is the mechanical-digital display for hours and minutes. Whereas the unusual jumping mechanisms of the 1884 original required frequent winding by the standards of the era, the new tribute rectifies that issue by decoupling the minute wheel for 59 of every 60 seconds, reducing drag and allowing for a 60-hour reserve. The unique manufacture movement requires 50 jewels and operates at an impressive 28,800 vph. As one would expect nowadays, the dial is a relatively large 45 mm. The caseback is sapphire, all the better to allow one marvel at the complications within.

The IWC Tribute To Pallweber Edition “150 Years'”

In that spirit, IWC has chosen to mark its 150th anniversary by issuing no fewer than 27 commemorative editions, including tourbillons, perpetual calendars, and a new movement with ceramic internals. The spotlight will, however, undoubtedly shine brightest on an all-new effort that reaches back to that 1884 Pallweber design for inspiration. The IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition “150 Years” (Ref. IW505002) is a very different take on the modern digital watch, using an 18-karat red-gold case, a white dial with a lacquered finish, white display discs, and a blued seconds hand.

Priced at $36,000 and limited to a total production of just 250 examples, the Pallweber tribute is not meant for general consumption. Nor does it presage a new era of mechanical-digital watches. (Although such a development would be a welcome change from the current focus on hypertrophic case-size and increasingly recherché combinations of complications.) No, it’s better to think of this latest piece as a statement, a celebration of what IWC has always done best, a testament to its singular position in the industry: that tireless champion of innovation, free to alternately disregard and venerate its history, both deeply rooted in tradition and fearlessly focused on the future.