Collecting Vintage Musical Instruments
George Gruhn

  1. Overview of Collecting
  2. New, Used and Vintage Defined
  3. What Makes a Vintage Instrument?
Fine American-made vintage guitars, banjos, and mandolins are the ultimate forms of collectible art. Whereas a painting can be experienced only visually, and a piece of sculpture may be seen and touched, a fine musical instrument can be appreciated visually in much the same manner as a painting, can be handled or touched as a sculpture, but also produces sound.

Each individual player produces a somewhat different sound even when playing on the same instrument. It is an entirely different experience to listen to an instrument played by a series of different musicians and then to play the instrument yourself - a good instrument comes alive when played and has a distinct personality and soul of its own.

Collectible instruments may be appreciated as beautiful visual art, important pieces of history, technological marvels, acoustical wonders, and great investments. I can think of no other form of art which can be appreciated on so many different levels.

High grade American guitars, banjos and mandolins are sought by collectors in the US, Western Europe, and Japan to such an extent that the market is truly global. In today's world of instant communications, easy money transfers, and rapid air freight, market prices are determined every bit as much in Dusseldorf and Tokyo as they are in Nashville, New York or Los Angeles.

The pieces most sought by collectors are pre-World War II flat top acoustic guitars by Martin, Gibson, the Larson Brothers of Chicago, and Lyon & Healy of Chicago as well as archtop acoustic jazz guitars made through the 1960's by Gibson, Epiphone, D'Angelico, and Stromberg. The golden era for collectible electric guitars was the 1950's through mid 1960's. Electric guitars by Gibson, Fender, and Gretsch are particularly sought after. Pre-World War II mandolins by Gibson and Lyon & Healy are considered to be a worldwide standard of excellence. Pre-World War II banjos by Fairbanks, Vega, S. S. Stewart, Gibson, Vega, Paramount, Bacon & Day, Ludwig, and Leedy are highly sought after due to their beautiful artistry as well as great sound and investment potential.

While the music industry prospered during the 1960's and 1970's, guitar manufacturing went in a highly commercial direction such that most instruments of the late 1960's through the mid 1980's are not highly regarded by collectors. They tend to be mass produced, commercial products. During this period many professional musicians used vintage instruments in performance simply because the new ones did not suit them.

Today the quality of new guitars from major manufacturers is greatly superior to what they were producing 20 years ago, and in fact, it could be said that we are experiencing another golden age of fretted instrument manufacturing in the USA. In addition to old established companies such as Martin and Gibson, we now have highly successful newer companies such as Taylor and Paul Reed Smith as well as hundreds of independent builders of high grade hand made instruments. Never before in history has the buyer had so many options.

Defining New, Used and Vintage Instruments
New instruments by definition are pieces received straight from the manufacturer and are in perfect condition with warranty. In most cases these are commercial utility grade products, but as previously stated this is indeed a new "golden age" of guitar building. Some new instruments, especially those produced as limited run custom shop models from major manufacturers or handmade products by individual builders are extremely high quality and are likely to be very good investments.

Used refers to models still currently in production (but not under warranty) which are not sought after as collectibles. These are frequently very fine utility instruments and generally sell for significantly less than a new or collectible vintage instrument. Since a well-made instrument can last several hundred years with good care, a used instrument can be an excellent choice for someone simply desiring good utility. A used guitar - even if it is not a highly sought collectible - tends to hold its value very well and can be a good long-term investment.

Vintage instruments made during the so-called "golden era" for guitars, banjos, and mandolins are the items most sought by collectors and which have appreciated the most in recent years.

The pre-1880 minstrel era banjos are highly sought by collectors whereas the classic era banjos of the late 1880's through 1910 exhibit exquisite workmanship, beautiful ornamentation, and a superb old timey sound. The greatest mandolins were produced in the period of 1905 through the mid 1920's. The late 1920's through the 1930's saw the development of steel string guitars, and it was during this period that some of the finest quality instruments of that style were produced. Electric guitars were first introduced during the 1930's, but it was not until after World War II that their development really took off. The golden era for collectible electric instruments is the 1950's through mid 1960's.

What Makes a Vintage Instrument?
Age alone is not the determining factor in what makes an investment grade instrument. Guitars, mandolins and banjos are judged by maker, model, age, degree of originality, structural and cosmetic condition, historical importance, rarity, and sound and playability. Instruments by the finest makers exhibit design, structural and cosmetic workmanship, materials, and sound and playability which set them apart from their competitors. Just as art collectors may specialize in the works of various artists, guitar, banjo and mandolin collectors frequently specialize. Most specialize in instruments suited for the type of music which they most enjoy.

From 1985 to the present market prices for vintage instruments have escalated considerably. A few of the most sought-after models have gone up in price as much as 1000%. The fact remains however that many models are still very reasonably priced, and in fact, cost no more than and in some cases less than a modern replica.

Vintage and used instruments are available from a great variety of sources such as auctions, flea markets, classified ads and mail order dealers. Just as with any other collectible it is critically important for the buyer to have product knowledge or to confine his dealings to reputable dealers who will provide written certification of authenticity and appraisal. While it is certainly true that there are occasional bargains to be found at auctions and flea markets or from private sellers, unless one has the knowledge to properly identify, appraise and determine originality of the pieces there is a great potential for loss. Just as product knowledge is critically important in collecting art, oriental rugs, jewelry, coins, stamps, or any other collectible the same is true with fretted instruments. Knowledge is power.

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