A collector's item is, by definition, something which is sought after by collectors and (in the case of fretted instruments) by musicians also. Such instruments are in demand for their quality, beauty, and utility. They are made of excellent materials. have fine craftsmanship and are aesthetically pleasing. Utility is important on two levels. To be considered a collector's item, an instrument must be durable enough to stand the test of time and provide many years of good service with reasonable care. An unplayable instrument will rarely be a great collector's item. There are French, Italian, and German guitars in existence today which are as much as 200 years old, but since they are virtually unplayable they often bring less money than instruments that were made later.
Utility also implies that the instrument is suitable for the music that's played today. Violins made in the in 1600's for example, with a few modifications such as longer necks and larger bass bars, are perfectly usable for modern music. Many collector's items are being used now for forms of music that didn't exist at the time the instruments were made. The Gibson F-5, which is considered to be the ultimate bluegrass mandolin, was originally designed for classical music. Most of the pre-World War II Gibson Mastertone banjos seen in bluegrass today are actually tenor or plectrum banjos fitted with 5-string necks. The arch-top acoustic guitars made during the '30s, '40s, and on into the '50s were designed for big band rhythm playing, but today, they are often used in modern jazz. Even the electric guitars which are most popular today were not designed for modern rock and roll. When Leo Fender introduced the Stratocaster, most of his customers were cowboys and country-type artists; he could hardly have foreseen Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Gibson designed the Les Paul guitars for jazz and pop music rather than rock. However, these guitars proved to be so adaptable to a variety of musical styles that they are more popular among musicians today than ever before.
While most collector's items are relatively rare, rarity alone does not make a guitar valuable. It must be good as well as rare, of course, and to be valuable, the demand for it must outweigh the supply. If an item is so rare that no one knows it exists, there can hardly be much demand for it. A one-of-a-kind instrument may be a valuable collectors' guitar if it's like something else with which folks are familiar. For instance, a '59 Les Paul Standard with PAF pickups that was original and three times as fancy as a regular sunburst Les Paul would be extremely valuable, since people would know what it was despite its unique appearance. On the other hand, a fine guitar made by an unknown craftsman would have some value based on its utility, but it certainly wouldn't bring as much money as a rare Les Paul, Stratocaster, or Martin. There's simply not much demand for brand X instruments that no one's heard of, no matter how good they might be, and most collectors' guitars are made by well-known makers whose products have gained a reputation for quality over the years.
Age is an important factor in evaluating a guitar, but it's not necessarily true that the older it is, the better. In previous GP columns on acoustic theory I've expressed my opinion that old guitars sound good because they were well made in the first place and probably sounded good when they were brand new. Certainly, acoustic guitars show clear evidence of improving with age, but most of this improvement occurs during the first couple of years of playing. Occasionally, I see a guitar as much as 50 years old that's never been played. It will sound stiff and "new" at first, but after a few months of playing it will usually limber up and sound as good as some that have been played for 20 years or more. Electric guitars don't really seem to improve with age, and an old electric that's never been played will usually sound as good as one that has. In my opinion, old- guitars sound better than new ones because they were made differently. There are very few modern, factory-made guitars that are superior to the pre-60's models, though there have been encouraging signs recently. Gibson, for example, has initiated a major drive to upgrade quality, resulting in some remarkably fine instruments which were exhibited at the most recent Chicago NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show- more on this topic in the next issue's column.
The actual year of a guitar is not as important as the period during which it was made. There are vintage periods for certain models of guitars just as there are for wines. Among the most valuable electrics today are Telecasters made before mid-'54, with level pickup pole bars, brass bridges, black pickguards, and maple-neck construction; Stratocasters with maple neck construction made between '54 and '59; and Les Paul Standards with PAF pickups made from 1958 to 1960. In the case of Les Pauls, especially, we can see that utility has a great effect on value. Those from the early and mid-'50s with single-coil pickups don't bring nearly as much as those from '58 to '60, which have the humbucking pickups preferred by most musicians today. Among acoustic guitars, pre-World War II Martins and Gibsons tend to be the most valuable, and here again we see the importance of utility. The highest-priced Martins on today's market are the 14-fret steel-string OOO's and D's. These models generally bring better prices than the older ones (with 12-fret necks, slotted headstocks, and bracing for gut rather than steel strings), which are less suited to modern music.
In the case of handmade guitars such as Strombergs and D'Angelicos, we have another situation in which older isn't necessarily better. When you buy a guitar made by an individual craftsman, you don't want one of his earliest ones made before he had fully mastered his craft, nor would you want one made when he was well past his prime. You would want an instrument made during his ultimate period of production, when he had fully perfected his designs and technique. The best Stromberg guitars are from the late '40s and early '50s. These are wonderful instruments, but those from the '30s are frankly mediocre. D'Angelico's guitars show a similar development: His earliest guitars are excellent instruments, but they're certainly not on a par with his later ones. Another point to consider here is that cutaway arch-tops tend to be quite a bit more valuable than non-cutaway models. The cutaway was not introduced by Gibson until around 1939, and shortly thereafter was offered by D'Angelico and Stromberg on custom orders. It was not really much in vogue until the '50s. Today, most of the cutaway Strombergs and D'Angelicos that I've see were made after World War II, and they tend to be the most valuable guitars from these builders. Next month we'll have a look at the recent annual NAMM show in Chicago, and then we'll return to more questions about collector's guitars.