Frank Lucido on Vintage Guitars

Vintage Guitars Are Not Worth The Bucks

1. Modern guitars are made exactly the same that vintage guitars were made in the old days.
Sure, large pieces of Brazilian rosewood are in short supply, but 98% of the material used in the 40’s and 50’s is still available. In many ways, the materials available today are superior. The plastic in pickguards and pick-up covers is better made today for example. The old Bakelite would crack and discolor. The original Strat pick up covers from 1954 to 1956 broke so often that Fender stopped using the material. Anybody trying to twist a “vintage” plastic tuning peg has to say a hail Mary so the damn thing doesn’t break off in their fingers. There’s a good reason that Grover tuners were the rage in the 1960’s and were almost de facto on your Les Paul Standard at that time. It’s because the original pegs were pretty cheap. If you bought a Les Paul Custom, which was a lot more money, Gibson threw in the gold Grovers. But the stock pegs were really lame in many cases. Tuning pegs on today’s quality guitars are far superior.

Electronics of today are light years ahead of the stuff from the 1950’s. Sure, for the most part, a pick-up is a pick-up. It’s hard to be innovative with what is essentially a magnet with copper wire around it! The law of diminishing returns starts to apply. A humbucker is a very simple device. It was wonderfully designed and improvements on it are possible but the results will be negligible. HOWEVER! I am sick to death of morons telling me that PAF’s from the 50’s sound better than modern humbucking pick-ups. That’s just a lie. Anybody who knows anything about guitar electronics will tell you that the sound of a guitar is not produced by the pick-up. The pick-up is merely an amplifier. What you hear coming out of your amp is the sound of the guitar AMPLIFIED by the pick-up. So if the guitar sounds dead, doesn’t sustain and has flat wound strings on it, guess what? The guitar may sound like crap; the PAF’s aren’t going to override the guitar and magically make it sound like Eric Clapton on the Bluesbreakers records!

In the early days of vintage guitars, before all this stupidity took over, we would swap the PAF’s in our Flying V’s, sunbursts and gold tops trying to see if we could find some holy grail pick-up. The thing I immediately noticed was that a set of PAF’s would sound a little different in every guitar. In some it would sound amazing and in others it would just sound average. Obviously, the pick-ups are only one factor in the sound of a guitar. If the guitar sounded average or bad with one set of PAF’s, it tended to sound average or bad with a set of PAF’s from another guitar. When I say “bad” I mean subtle differences like high end frequencies and sustain. We wanted a lot of treble and endless sustain. Some guitars just wouldn’t do it no matter how many pick-ups we’d stick in it. So people need to get over this attitude that PAF’s are somehow superior. PAF’s are no better than the pick-ups in the Les Paul hanging right now at your local music store.

Anybody that doesn’t believe me should accept my $10,000.00 challenge. Just bring your stock 1950’s Les Paul to your favorite music store. I’ll pick the amp and I’ll take down 3 new Les Pauls off the store wall. Then I’ll plug in while you stand 20 feet away with a blindfold on. You have to pick your guitar out of the 4 when I play it. If you can’t identify it repeatedly with any true certainty, I keep your guitar. If you can always tell which one is yours, you get $10,000.00!

Let’s talk about your 3 most valuable collector’s items. The Les Paul, the Strat and the Martin D-45. The Les Paul Standard from the 50’s as we all know, has a maple top (except for the Custom), mahogany back sides and neck, two pick-ups, 4 control knobs, stop tailpiece, tune-a-matic bridge, a toggle switch, an input jack, some switch and control covers on the back and a rosewood fretboard. By 1958, Gibson had refined that guitar by redesigning the bridge and pick-ups but it has essentially remained unchanged in design since 1952. In 1959 Gibson wisely went to a larger fret wire and Voila, the guitar graduated and has been made exactly the same except for decorative cosmetic changes ever since.

In 1954, Fender brought out the Strat with an ash body, maple neck, plastic pick-guard, 3 pick-ups, selector switch, and tremolo bridge. The changes on the Strat over time were even less dramatic than the Les Paul. All Fender changed for the first 4 years was the shape of the holes on the tremolo cover, the pick-up cover material and the paint from two color two 3 color sunburst. Later years saw the advent of the rosewood fingerboard, multi-laminate pickguards and by 1965, plastic fingerboard markers and by 1966, a bigger headstock. Fender makes an EXACT copy of their 1954 Strat as we all know along with many other “vintage” designs culminating with the ridiculous “relic” series in which you are paying the manufacture of your new guitar to beat it up enough to make it look old. And you pay EXTRA for that!

At the end of the 30’s, CF Martin introduced a remarkable large new style guitar they christened (no pun intended) the D-45. They gave the first one to Gene Autry and put his name on it. The first few had twelve frets to the body and a slotted headstock. Later ones had a western style, unslotted headstock and 14 frets to the body. This guitar evolved far less than either the Strat or the Les Paul. I believe less than a hundred were made in the 30’s and 40’s. By the 1980’s, you could buy an exact copy of the first one made complete with Gene Autry’s name on it.

These are not 16th century handmade Cremona violins. They are mass produced, machine made commodities. A Les Paul or a Strat probably takes 10 hours to make. If they didn’t have to wait for the paint to dry, they could probably make them in 5 hours.

So you have to ask yourself a question. Why the hell would I want to own an original 1954 Strat when I can go buy the exact same guitar in better condition with a warranty at my local music store for about one percent of the price of a 1954? Why would I want to buy a 1959 Les Paul sunburst that I’m afraid to take out of its case when I can go down to Guitar Center and buy one with 5 times more flame for literally one percent of the price of an old one? Why would I sell the house I live in and sleep in my car to buy a Martin D-45 from the 1940’s when I can buy one cheap and sit in my living room and still play “Stairway to Heaven” (badly) and have a place to sleep at night? Frankly, I don’t know the answer to those questions.

2. Anytime you are buying something used (vintage) you have to worry about the provenance.
Okay, so you submitted to the peer pressure and you bought a three hundred thousand dollar guitar with the money grandma left you. The guy at the vintage store said it was a good deal and even threw in a set of strings. Question: Seeing how you spent three hundred large, which was your life savings, did you wisely insist on a certified history of the guitars ownership making certain that the guitar has a clear title and wasn’t stolen back in 1963 out of the back seat of Larry Nerdenmeyer’s Impala? YOU DIDN’T? Do you plan on sanding off the serial number? Do you ever plan on taking the guitar out in public? Will you be exhibiting your Les Paul soon at your local vintage guitar show? Seeing how you don’t really have the protection of an escrow service with a title company, and you are effectively taking the word of the seller as to the title of the guitar, you have to ask yourself a question. What the hell are you gonna do if Larry Nerdenmeyer (or his best friend) spots your guitar and wants it back? Good luck getting the guy at the vintage store to refund you the money, or even worse, the private party that you bought it from!

Let me inform you of the awful truth about this. Every vintage guitar dealer eventually buys something stolen. Many times, the guy selling the guitar to the dealer has no idea that the guitar was once a stolen item. This stuff is OLD. It changes hands a LOT. When the poor guy that had the guitar stolen founds out you have it and asks for it back, keep in mind, he’s not going to reimburse you the 300 thousand. He will probably have the cops with him and the cops will tell you the same thing they told me and every other vintage dealer- you’re screwed. You lose the guitar. You have to hire a lawyer to chase the vintage guitar store or private party that sold it to you. The store that sold it to you will tell you it was a consignment item, that they never owned it and they were just selling it for a guy named Dick Gozinya and then they will give you a P.O. Box in Biloxi, Mississippi and a cell phone number that was disconnected two years ago. If grandma was alive, she’d be bitch slapping your stupid ass all over the back seat of the car you’re living in.

3. The values are so high now that Counterfeiting is commonplace.
Extreme valuations are causing counterfeiting

I know a vintage dealer in Hollywood that charges other vintage dealers a fee to examine guitars to make sure they are all original. All of these guys have been in the business for over 25 years and you would think that they would always be able to spot something that wasn’t correct or original on a guitar. But the truth is, some dealers are good and some are great. Once in a while, even a really savvy dealer will buy something refinished or modified and he won’t spot it. Personally, I’ve always thought that the issue of “originality” was way overblown. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, vintage guitar freaks like myself had no qualms about taking a really nice blond 1959 Strat and converting it into a maple neck model by swapping a 1958 neck on to it. We didn’t have a problem putting a set of PAF’s we swiped out of a 1959 ES-175 into a 1956 Les Paul Gold Top to make it look like a 1959. I know this is sacrilegious now and in retrospect I can’t believe I took a bitchin’ 1959 candy apple red Telly and painted it white! But it was a different time and nobody cared about that stuff. It was more important to own a nice looking, nice playing, nice sounding guitar. The fact that you pirated a neck or stuck humbuckers on something was not a big deal at all. Nowadays of course, the anal retentive pinheads have charts that document exactly how much money your guitar decreased in value when you had it refretted or changed the tuners. Never mind the fact that the guitar had no frets or wouldn’t stay in tune. If these guys had their way, you wouldn’t be allowed to change your strings.

Now that guitars cost the same as condos, the issue of originality has become HUGE. The trouble is, no one out there is knowledgeable enough to know with 100% certainty that a guitar is all original. I’ve owned and sold literally thousands of vintage guitars. Over the years I’ve seen some amazing oddball stuff that was highly unusual. I owned a 1960 ES-175 Gibson with a Charlie Christian style pick-up and an L-5 style neck. I’ve owned a 1958 Strat with a gold anodized pickguard. I’ve owned a double cutaway Gretsch White Penguin. I’ve owned a candy apple red 1954 Strat. If you ask the average vintage dealer, they’ll tell you “the manufacturer never made anything like that”. Well, I’m here to tell you that THEY DID! You have to remember when someone is telling you that a guitar is all original, he is only really stating that the guitar has all the typical features of a guitar from that particular era.

Can you really be sure that the neck on your 63 Strat is the one Fender put on it and not another 63 neck from another guitar? Let me ask you a question- do you think that every vintage store that got two 63 Strats avoided the temptation to take that refretted neck/original body guitar and swap parts with that original neck/refinished body guitar? You’re naive if you don’t think that went on. Hell, in the early days, stuff like that was rampant. Once again, I’m not saying it was right; it was a different time and the sensibility was different. You had businessmen trying to make money.

But never mind a few people swapping parts, how about the people taking old necks and electronics and putting them in re-issue bodies? Are you sure you can spot that 100% of the time? How about the counterfeit Gibson Korina Flying “V”‘s and Explorers? I got stuck with one of those and I’ve owned probably two dozen original Korina pieces.

PS that guitar sold for $90.000.00 in 1992 By a dealer in Bristol Ct.

Did that brown Les Paul case come with the vintage guitar you bought or did you buy it later and put the two together? Is your guitar just in extraordinary condition or was it refinished 20 years ago?

I’ve walked around a guitar show and shown the same guitar to 30 different dealers. Without a doubt, I’d usually get 10 different opinions. It was always the guy that was telling me the guitar was re-finished who would change his story completely after he bought the guitar from me. Then the guitar became 100% original. So, seeing how you can’t even trust the opinion of the so-called experts some of the time, you have to ask yourself a question: Is that $300,000.00 Les Paul you bought completely original? Isn’t that a little overspray, I see behind the 3rd fret? What if it boils down to dealer A’s word against dealer B’s word? The people in this business are not trained at Harvard. They are people & people make mistakes. Who are you going to turn to with confidence when you need an expert opinion? Before you answer that question I think you should know that in the early 70’s I spent a lot of time with the factory repairman for Fender. He took a lot of damaged Fender Strats sent in by customers and refinished them. I’ve seen these same refinished guitars for sale at vintage shows as all original. And you know what? They DO look all original. I just hope you don’t pay $50,000.00 for one!

4. There is NO guarantee that vintage guitars will hold their value.
Let’s face it. Vintage guitars are only desirable because they have gone up ridiculously in value in the past few years. If you manage to buy one, hold on to it and sell it for a profit, you are apparently a wise man. When I started dealing vintage guitars in the early 70’s, I’d sell a rosewood board from the 60’s for $400 and a maple neck from the 50″s for $600. Last week I went to a show in Santa Monica and a vintage dealer had 15 vintage guitars on display at a “Modernism” show. Just what the guitars were doing there was a mystery to me. Anyway, he had a really average ’54 Strat on display and it was tagged $100,000.00 He also had a nice white ’65 Strat tagged $50,000.00 I walked up and said like a smartass: “Selling lots of stuff?” He sort of hemmed and hawed and said: “Well, this is just sort of an exhibition”. I had to suppress my laughter. I guess I’m supposed to believe that the guitars I sold as recently as the mid 80’s have appreciated 15,000 percent? What’s wrong with this picture?

If you study collectables, (as you should, because vintage guitars are nothing more than collectables), you will know something about the other collectable markets. Baseball cards, comic books, vintage cars, and other kinds of collectables will give you valuable insight into what happens and CAN happen in this volatile market place. Baseball cards and comic books were really hot in the 1990’s. There was a time when a baseball card collector would send his best cards off to a company that specialized in the careful determination of the exact condition of a particular card, seal it in plastic, certify it and charge plenty for this process. Well, the baseball card market has taken a huge bath. Prices have dropped dramatically. Comic books have suffered a similar fate. No one is completely sure why this happened. Some people think Ebay made the availability too easy. Others think it was just a fad that got played out. Ferraris that sold for a million dollars at one point in the 70’s dropped to much less than half that a few years later.

The vintage guitar market has done amazingly well. If you charted it, it would be impressive. There have been huge gains in value in the past ten years. I think that rock and roll and the electric guitar have become cultural icons. What started as a small club of geeks (myself included) grew exponentially and caught fire all across America. Publicity about the auctioning of guitars owned by rock stars became commonplace on television. No other collectable can boast the success story of that of the vintage American guitar. I wish I had held on to a few sunbursts obviously, but only for one reason- so I could cash out on them. I hate to be the Alan Greenspan of the vintage guitar world but sorry ladies and gentleman, there is irrational exuberance afoot in the vintage guitar world. You have to ask yourself a question. Does the fact that the guitars have steadily risen in price mean that they will always be going up in value? Is it a good investment to buy a Les Paul for $300,000.00? Do you like to buy stocks when they are cheap or when they are at their highest ever recorded levels? Will a Les Paul be $500,000.00 in 10 years or will it be $200,000.00? or $20,000.00? or less! The truth is that vintage guitars will be a really good investment until they aren’t. That’s about all you can say.

Do yourself a favor and Google the word Tulipomania.

5. How do you protect and insure a valuable vintage guitar collection?
Okay, you have two sunbursts, a Broadcaster and a 1954 Strat. You called your insurance man and told him that you own guitars with a total value of $800,000.00. Yeah, he hung up on you a couple of times until you finally convinced him you weren’t prank calling him. After his secretary revived him with smelling salts, he told you that he have to call the homeowners insurance company and “check into it”. After a couple of weeks of waiting, you call the guy and he says “I can’t get an answer”. After two more weeks, he calls you again and says: “We can’t do it”. Next you try a company that specializes in vintage gear. You get a quote for $8000.00 However, the guitars are “only covered for fire, theft or water damage”. You are chagrined to discover that if you manage to drop your Les Paul on the floor and break off the headstock, you aren’t covered for that! You also aren’t covered if the neck warps because you are afraid to take it out of the case or if the top on your D-45 cracks because you forgot to leave the air conditioning on in July when you went on vacation. And don’t even think about picking them up and strumming them! They are far too valuable and you have to protect this $800,000.00 Unfortunately, unlike money in the bank, your guitars take up space, are susceptible to damage, are vulnerable to temperature and moisture and draw no interest while they are sitting in your closet. And for God’s sake, don’t show them to anyone and don’ tell anyone you own them!

The safest thing to do is put them in a bank vault ($400 a month) and just keep pictures of them at home that you can look at!

6. Nobody Cares But YOU and a few other guys that haven’t discovered girls yet!
Besides collecting vintage guitars, I’ve collected a variety of interesting things over the years. I loved coins when I was a kid. Stamps soon followed. Comic books and baseball cards were a blast. Eventually, of course, you outgrow these things. One of the last things I collected was vintage clothing- especially rayon Hawaiian shirts from the 40’s. I had a couple of mint condition old shirts that I loved to wear on the rare occasions when I felt like putting them on. It was always a kick in the ass when I’d show up in my beautiful 1940’s Duke Kahanamoku shirt and people would have no reaction. I expected them to think my hobby was as cool as I thought it was. Guess what? Nobody cares!

Take your finest vintage guitar and walk up to a guy on the street and show it to him. Don’t expect him to start salivating and scream at the top of his lungs “Oh my God, a vintage guitar!”. He’s far more likely to think you are just weird and say “Yes, your guitar is very nice; you’ll have to excuse me now as I have a girlfriend and we are going to be engaging in adult activities”.

Only the middle aged, amateur unwashed musicians of the world who happened to be familiar with the fact that you have an old guitar will want to be your friend. Once again, you will have to ask yourself a question- Do I really want to hang out with these people? However, if you sell your guitars and put that $800,000.00 in the bank, you will have tons of new friends!

7. Guitars are just tools.
For the life of me, I don’t understand how the focus somehow shifted from the man playing his guitar to the guitar itself. A guitar in the hands of a novice is not exactly a pleasant experience for the listener. It’s best to learn guitar in your bedroom with the door shut behind you. Once someone has become an accomplished musician, the guitar can be a joy to listen too. It is truly a versatile, beautiful sounding instrument. This fact seems to be lost on the vintage guitar collector. Collectors frequently can’t play worth a damn. The guitars are wasted on them. It’s not about making music or learning to play; it’s about hoarding a valuable commodity. You can only play one guitar at a time. You don’t need 400 of them sitting in a warehouse. Investing is not my idea of fun. I’ve never seen a group of investors get together to compare portfolios and show off their accumulated wealth. I’d much rather play a guitar than look at one. I love playing guitar with my buds and throwing back a few cold ones. Guitars are just tools for making music. It’s too bad they got turned into something else. No one collects the computers that writers write books with or the paint brushes that great artists paint great paintings with. Why would anyone want to hoard an old guitar? I don’t get it. Life shouldn’t be just about making money. It’s bad enough we all have to chase a dollar to survive. People should own an instrument that they can afford and aren’t afraid to play. You don’t need a 1954 Strat to play good music. It’s not the guitar itself that is the important thing. The important thing is to learn to play and enjoy yourself doing it.

The above article was written by Frank Lucido of Studio City, California. 

What are my thoughts?
I do not think there would be too many people of around Frank’s age, or even my age (slightly younger), that would honestly think too differently to Frank here, at least not if they are honest with themselves.

What needs to be remembered in all this vintage guitar mayhem, is that we all started buying ‘vintage’ guitars when the only new things we could buy were 70s Fender and Gibson guitars, which are widely regarded as the worst guitars both companies ever made.

The collecting happened later, but our primary reason was because they were much better playing guitars than the crap coming out of the CBS era Fender, and the Norlin ownership period of Gibson.

Like anything, demand drives the price, and as more and more people caught onto the fact that these old guitars played and sounded way better than the new guitars, the prices took off, and the Vintage Guitar market became a thing.

In those early days around the late 1970s, no one really knew that much, so many of us bought and sold guitars with dubious originality, and I know people who put together an ‘all original’ vintage Stratocaster from bits off other guitars, purely to make money. In those early days it was very easy to be scammed, but as our knowledge grew, it was less of an ordeal. That does not however mean the fraudulent behaviour went away, it simply meant we did not get caught out any more. Knowledge is power right?

So Frank’s suggestion in this article that a new guitar is every bit as good is spot on. But it took a while for that to be true. Those early 1980s Fender Vintage Reissues were absolute rubbish compared to a ‘real’ vintage guitar. But Fender eventually got it right, as too did Gibson with their Historic re-issues etc.

So the only reason to buy a vintage guitar these days is for it’s pure collectable value, not because it is a better playing and sounding guitar. But, it is fraught with danger as the provenance and true originality of a guitar is virtually impossible to determine. It is a fool who decides to start buying vintage guitars with very little knowledge. Everything from the smell when you open a case, to the type of screws used can help determine originality.

I can only truly be satisfied with the 100% originality of two vintage Stratocasters I have owned; the 1956 Fender Stratocaster, and the 1963 Fiesta Red Stratocaster, the rest, who really knows? That is not to say they weren’t all great guitars to play, they were, but I know the 1962 white Stratocaster I bought from the Guitar Center in San Fransisco was re-finished and the pickups were not all from the same guitar or had been rewired, but it was an amazing guitar regardless, and in the early 1980s, I could not buy anything like it from fender.

Some of the Masterbuilt guitars I have owned were every bit the equal of a fine vintage Stratocaster, in particular the Candy Apple Red ‘John English’ made Stratocaster was simply one of the finest guitars I have ever owned, period. Even the 1989 Fender Stratocaster American Deluxe was a brilliant guitar to play. So yes, Frank makes a lot of sense in this article, whether you like it or not.