A collectible instrument is carefully constructed of high-quality material. This does not mean that it must be fancy. Quality of construction can be judged by neatness, excellence of finish, careful joints, good glue seams, properly proportioned bracing, accurate fret scale, good dimensions and symmetry, among other things. Elaborate inlay work and fancy binding do not necessarily indicate a good instrument, and in general, a poor instrument, even with beautiful trim, will not interest the collector.
As a corollary to high quality construction, a collectible instrument should be physically comfortable to play. At the very least, it should be possible to set it up in good playing order with minimal adjustment.
Another result of good craftsmanship is that most collector's items do sound good. If they didn't, they would have value only to art or antique dealers. The ultimate goal of a master craftsman is to produce an instrument that plays well and sounds good, not something that has a good appearance alone.
Many, but by no means all, collector's item instruments are quite beautiful, especially some pre-World War II acoustic guitars, banjos, and mandolins with elaborate carving, inlays, and trims. Some of these models, by virtue of their beauty and artistic appeal, command very high prices. However, I would like to stress that the ornamentation has been added to instruments that were already of very good quality. There were many guitars with a lot of pearl trim made in the early part of this century that are not valued by collectors because they were of inferior construction. In future months, we will study specific makes and models to determine what features make them the quality pieces they are.
Most collector's items are out or production, and are readily distinguishable from current models. However, the fact that a model has been discontinued does not make it desirable, nor does rarity alone. Some instruments are discontinued for the understandable reason that they aren't very good, and no one wants them. When a good instrument is rare, it is also often collectible. Since it is no longer made, money alone won't buy a collectible guitar; first you have to find one. With some models, this can take years. With a new guitar, it's possible to buy one in any music store, or at least to order it and know that it's coming. You can be sure that it will be in good condition when it arrives. With an older guitar, however you nave no such assurance. Nor do you know for sure whether the guitar is what the seller says it is, since forgeries in the vintage instrument business are fairly common. Most "Pre-war F-5" mandolins, for example, are copies, and it is safe to say that 99.9% of the banjos that look like pre-war Gibson Flatheads are either conversions or assembled from Darts. Finding an original piece in good condition is exceedingly difficult.
In the past, the demand for fretted instruments was not as great as it is now. Before World War II, none or the companies were producing instruments in the quantities they are today. Even in later years, some models were manufactured in very limited quantities, such as the Explorer and the Flying V, and are consequently very rare. Not only were instruments produced in smaller quantities but the older an instrument is, the greater the odds are that it will have been lost to fire or flood, damaged beyond repair, "customized" with a poor refinish, inappropriate inlays, or removal of the pickups, badly repaired, or abused. Every year that passes increases the chance that an instrument will not survive intact. I should say, however, that age in itself does not make something valuable. A guitar that was a student model junker at the turn of the century is likely to still be trash today.
There are some pieces that, by virtue of their great historical appeal, extreme oddity, or abundant ornamentation, may be outstanding additions to a collection and yet be of little or no practical use to a professional musician. In these cases, the market is dominated by the collector rather than by the musician. I should stress that all of these instruments are the products of master builders. The rarest and fanciest instrument by an incompetent craftsman is worthless. A highly ornamented, one-of-a-kind piece by a famous maker, on the other hand, will bring an enormous amount of money, often more than is warranted by the instrument's tone and playability .
The rarity of a model on the market is not determined by the absolute numbers made, but by how many potential buyers there are or each instrument. For example, Gibson made thousands of Les Pauls, but there are hundreds of thousands of people who want them. Even though the sunburst Les Paul might be more common than a Super 400 of equivalent age, it brings more on today's market because of the great demand. What I have termed rarity, therefore, is largely a function of supply and demand.
Next month, I'll explore further the criteria used to determine an instrument's collectibility. Part II