History of the Electric Guitar
The electric guitar is a 20th century design and cultural icon. At first, early models were considered undesirable, but since 1991, the 42 Guitar Index, an index of prices for a variety of rare guitars, has risen nearly 700%.
Two main brands made the guitars that brought rock and roll to the world in the 1950s and 1960s: Fender (founded in California in late 1946) and Gibson (founded in Michigan in 1902). Both companies launched their first solid-body electric guitars in the 1950’s. By the 1960’s, both companies had seen an explosion in demand, Gibson for instance, saw profits grow by 1500% between 1950 and 1966.
Even Credit Suisse has considered the investment appeal of guitars, clearly they are now a serious purchase. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the market for a vintage electric guitar here are a few of the things that must be considered:
Some of the most desirable guitars are the very first models: 1950 Fender Broadcasters, 1954 Gibson Les Pauls, and of course, 1954 Fender Stratocasters. These are the holy grails to collectors, they represent the first iteration of iconic designs. As such, they were produced in limited numbers at the time, especially compared with their 1960’s counterparts – Fender’s manufacturing space grew by about 400% between 1955 and 1965.
The other guitars to look out for are the first years of the ‘definitive’ versions of the models above. The first years were often considered tests of the new/upgraded designs, so production was limited. For instance, the 1957 Stratocaster featured a host of changes, including a more comfortable body shape, and a greater variety of sounds.
Another example would be the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard. This is the guitar Jimmy Page used, and is viewed by many collectors as the ‘ultimate’ Les Paul. It featured new PAF pickups (first used by Gibson in 1957), a thinner (i.e. easier to play) neck, and a new ‘sunburst’ finish. Competition from Fender meant the guitar was discontinued in 1961, and replaced by an entirely different guitar – though the Les Paul name was retained. This immediately created scarcity which means that what is now considered the ‘holy grail’ of guitars sells for six figure sums – including a guitar selling for $237,000 at Skinner’s in 2009. If you can find one listed for private sale, chances are they will be asking much more!
Naturally guitars that are 60 to 70 years old aren’t going to be in perfect condition. Things like wear on metal parts (provided they aren’t rusting!), minor dings, and others that result from regular wear and tear won’t affect the price hugely, provided the guitar is in good condition overall. Even ‘belt buckle rash’ (where the finish on the back of the guitar has been worn away literally by a guitarist’s belt), can be accepted as simply part of natural wear and tear – although the pictured example has completely stripped the finish down to the wood!
More significant repairs however, should be cause for careful consideration. Gibson SGs, especially the first 1961 models, had thin necks, designed for fast playing, but this also meant they were fragile. The necks were so fragile that by 1964 Gibson changed the design to include a thicker (read stronger) neck. Pictured below is George Harrison’s 1964 Gibson SG standard which sold for $570,000 at Christie’s in 2004.
This being said, it is worth remembering that Eric Clapton prefers to buy guitars with some wear on the neck, on the basis that if they were played that much, they must be good. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily extend to guitars with broken necks, but it shows you where a player’s priorities may lie.
Clapton is also known for taking his favourite parts of various guitars and combining them in one. As manufacturers changed their designs, it became very common to swap or upgrade parts of guitars to get a better or more modern sound.
Although this may have been an improvement from a player’s perspective, it certainly isn’t from a collectors. More so than condition, non-original or replaced parts have a significant impact on value. A guitar which has its pickups, electronics, or ever tuners changed will command a much lower price than one with all these pieces intact.
There are of course exceptions to this. Clapton’s most famous Stratocaster, ‘Blackie,’ a composite of three different guitars, sold for $959,500 at an auction at Christie’s in 2004. In doing so it a set a world record.