Collector's Guitars, Part III

George Gruhn
Guitar Player, November 1978
I ENDED LAST MONTH'S ARTICLE with a comment that, in the guitar industry, workmanship isn't what it used to be. Well, the virtual disappearance of old-time craftsmanship can't be blamed entirely on the companies. Highly skilled, cheap labor is a thing of the past, and modern economic realities dictate that the manufacturers produce guitars as quickly as possible using available labor and materials.

In addition, many guitar companies today are owned by corporate conglomerates and managed by business people who know very little about the products. The Martin company is still owned by the Martin family, but in recent years it has become more and more like the other corporations. Fender is owned by CBS, Gibson is owned by Norlin, which also owns a number of other music companies and businesses, and Guild is owned by Avnet, another corporation with a variety of interests. Ovation is owned by Kaman, originally an aerospace engineering firm, but at least Mr. Kaman, unlike most of the other company executives in the industry, is interested in guitars and knows something about them. Some of these companies are producing 50,000 or more instruments a year and can turn out an acoustic guitar in 18 to 30 hours and a solidbody in 15 to 20 hours. This type of operation can and does produce perfectly adequate utility guitars, but there's not much room for the fine craftsmanship needed to build great collector's guitars.

While you won't find many skilled guitar makers on the production lines of the large companies, there are quite a few individuals building instruments by hand these days. A hand craftsman can take a great deal of time with each instrument, carefully selecting materials that are only available in small quantities, cutting the wood exactly as he or she wants, and doing custom carving, inlay, bracing, etc., to the customers' specifications. Some people see this increase in the number of craftsmen doing custom work as an indication that we are approaching a sort of golden age of instrument making, but, frankly, I'm not so optimistic. Very few craftsmen I see nowadays have really been through the mill and paid their dues to master their craft. They make some good instruments, but few great ones.

One notable exception is Jimmy D'Aquisto [see GP Sept. '78], co-worker of John D'Angelico for many years. He turns out 12 to 15 arch-tops a year, and in my opinion, they are as fine as any that have ever been built by anyone. Unfortunately, folks like him don't make the market, and most craftsmen have a pretty hard time competing with the big companies and other instrument makers to gain recognition for their guitars. While I think that there is some future for the small custom maker who produces good quality instruments, I doubt that many of these brand X guitars will become recognized widely enough to attain the status of collector's items in the future.

I think we've pretty well answered the question of whether a guitar made today is likely to become a collector's item in 20 years. It depends on the quality of the guitar as well as its suitability for the music of the future--a difficult area in which to make predictions. I don't think there have been any significant improvements in the design of the acoustic guitar since 1934 for flat-tops and 1939 for arch-tops. I don't think you'll find any mandolins that will exceed the Gibsons made in the '20s and even before, or any banjos that will be better than the Gibsons, Vegas, and Bacons of the '20s and '30s. The economic situation today, the diminishing supply of good wood and other materials, and the decline in craftsmanship make it unlikely that these great classics will be equalled or improved upon today. I have the same opinion about the collector's-item electrics of the '50s and early '60s, although it is possible that recent developments in electronics may eventually change the whole idea of what a good electric guitar is. However, even if the semi-synthesized, electronically sophisticated guitar becomes the instrument of the future, I don't think the models of this type being made now will necessarily become collector's items in 10 or 20 years. They will become obsolete rather quickly, as progress continues in this area. and in the future may be considered merely as historical oddities.

In evaluating the guitars being made now in terms of their potential as collector's items and investments, it's my view that since they are, at best, unproven, you're probably better off investing in the older instruments that have already stood the test of time. When someone asks me what his or her guitar will be worth 5, 10, or 20 years from now, or how much they can expect it to increase in value each year, I can only tell them that these questions are really impossible to answer. Even the most knowledgeable economist would hesitate to predict where the economy will be in 10 or 20 years, and you'd need a crystal ball to know what the trends in music will be in even a year's time. Although I don't have any hard and fast answers, there are a few points worth considering before you buy an instrument as an investment.

Some collectors and dealers will tell you that the right instruments are better than money in the bank, but I don't agree. You can't be sure that an instrument you buy will show an increase in value comparable to what you'd gain with an investment in a savings and loan. Money can be withdrawn from an account at any time, but if you want to get your money out of a guitar, you have the job of selling it first. A bank guarantees a certain rate of interest; a guitar can go up, down, or sideways. If you have limited capital to invest. you should certainly think about whether you want to tie up your money in an instrument or whether. considering the current inflation rate of better than six percent a year, you could invest it more profitably elsewhere. Obviously, some instruments do prove to be wonderful investments and actually are better than money in the bank, but I can't guarantee it. You should carefully consider all the factors involved before deciding whether an instrument would be a worthwhile investment for you. It seems to me that the best reason for buying any guitar, new or used, is because you like it and can use it. It may not prove to be as worthwhile an investment as stocks or bonds, but after all, you can't play a balance sheet.