A "classic" can be described as the definitive expression of a particular art- the standard of excellence to which all others are compared. Looking at today's classics with this in mind, we can have some insight into what it will take for an instrument to achieve this status in the future. Among acoustic flat-tops, there hasn't really been much in the way of improvement since the mid-'30s. By the late 1920s, truss rods had been invented, and 14-fret necks with solid headstocks were around. The acoustic flat-top in its modern form was pretty well developed by that time. Martin introduced the dreadnought with the 14-fret neck in 1934, and I think that in the case of Martins, at least, there haven't been any real improvements made since then. I think this is true for acoustic flat-tops in general. The only innovation I've seen in recent years in this area is the Ovation, which I personally consider to be an innovation in production technique rather than guitar design. If it becomes the guitar of the future, it will be because it is a good utility instrument that's cheap to make, not because it has outstanding quality, beauty, or sound.
As we've already seen, most of the classics among electric guitars were made in the '50s. In very recent years, there's been a lot going on in the field of guitar electronics and guitar synthesizers, but I think it's safe to say that the conventional electric guitar had been perfected by the late '50s. Gibson came out with the humbucking pickup in '57, and they had tune-o-matic bridges by that time as well. The Telecaster was fully developed by 1951, and it actually didn't have anything very different from the Broadcaster, which came out in 1948. The Stratocaster was fully developed by '54, and those made between '54 and '59 are the most valuable today. The Strats with rosewood fingerboards which were introduced in late '59 are good guitars, but they're certainly not such collector's items as the earlier ones with maple boards. All the collector's-item Fenders were made before CBS bought the company in 1965, and that year also saw the end of the collector's-item Gibsons, the last of which were the original reverse-body Firebirds made from '63 to '65. Despite company propaganda to the contrary, both Gibson and Fender collector's guitars absolutely end with 1965. In my opinion, the guitars they made after this simply don't have the same quality.
Many people have asked me whether the limited-edition models such as the Martin D-76 and the Gibson reissues of the Flying V and Firebird will become collector's items in the future. l don't think that any of the reissues are really as good as the originals, speaking generally, and they certainly aren't as valuable on today's market. The D-76, in fact, has been something of a flop, and the factory and dealers around the country still have some of them in stock. Many of these so-called limited editions are not so limited. Martin made 1,976 D-76s during the Bicentennial year, but their total production of all models of guitars back in 1935 was only 3,268. Many limited edition models, though they were only mode for a year, were produced in such large quantities that they're much less rare today than guitars such as the late-'50s dot-inlay Gibson ES-335, which has simply been out of production for a number of years. I think the entire concept of limited editions in guitars is pretty illusory, since any time the specifications on a particular model are changed to any extent, that model becomes a "limited edition" for all intents and purposes.
I think there are many reasons why there are no real "classics" being made today. Good quality wood and materials are becoming increasingly hard to get. Some types of wood such as Brazilian rosewood are virtually no longer available in any quantity. The Brazilian government has had an embargo on rosewood logs for several years, and the few sawmills in Brazil generally sell only slab-cut rosewood, which tends to warp and crack with age, rather than the more expensive quarter-cut wood preferred by Martin and other guitar makers.
The manner in which wood for guitars is aged and processed is also very important. In the past, wood was usually air-dried for five years or more, but today, it's kiln-dried and aged for only a few months. The large guitar companies are also having trouble getting good quality pearl for inlays in the quantity they need. Gunter Klier, a pearl supplier in Germany, told me that the shells he gets today are only half the size of those he could get 30 years ago, due to the fact that increased harvesting has greatly reduced the supply.
Many guitar makers have adopted new production techniques in recent years and are now using different finishes on their instruments. Early Martins had a French polish finish, and early Gibsons had a varnish finish. Later, both companies went to lacquer finishes. Today, they and most other makers use polyurethane finishes or artificial-base lacquers. These modern finishes can be applied in fewer, heavier coats than the old lacquers, but their acoustic properties are not the same; they tend to deaden the sound of acoustic guitars. While this is not a problem with solidbody guitars, I think the new finishes make the instruments look like they've been dipped in plastic and lack the natural warmth and depth of the old ones.
One of the most noticeable changes I see in the new guitars is the quality of workmanship. Fine old Gibsons and Martins were produced on an assembly line, but there was a good deal of handwork involved, as well as a certain amount of judgment on the part of each worker as to the exact dimensions of the instrument, selection of wood, graduation of the top, etc. Today, most of this work is done by machine, and almost every process is automated to some extent. Most of the workers in the large guitar factories are not skilled guitar makers. They have learned a particular skill on a certain machine, and they repeat the same process over and over. This is not especially conducive to the manufacture of high-quality instruments. (Today, Martin still does quite a bit of work by hand and still has a number of employees who are capable of building a guitar with hand tools.)
Next month we'll talk more about hand workmanship and this question of future "classics."