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.