The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Friday, July 18, 2014

My Guitar Hall Of Shame: Guitars I sold cheap that later could have funded my retirement

Any guitar player who started playing in the 60s or 70s should be able to relate to the list of guitars below. I know that for a fact because at various guitar stores, I've stood there at the counter exchanging SOB stories about the guitars that got away with other musicians, like two drunks comforting each other at a bar over some heartbreak.

In reality there are some regrets, but they tend to be colored more with black humor and dismissed with a shrug that says, we simply had no way of knowing that the guitars that we sold and traded back then would eventually escalate in value to ridiculous levels.

The guitars seemed pretty costly even back then, but sometime in the 80s or 90s, a sort of perfect storm of Guitar collecting occurred. Both baby boomers who wanted to buy the same guitar as their music heroes, Japanese investor/collectors, and more than a few millionaires got into the act. Guitars that used to cost a few hundred dollars could go for over a million if it was played by the right musician, or a sizable percentage of that if it was the right type.

My very first guitar was a late 50s Gibson gold top Les Paul, with the white "soap bar" pickups. It's peak value I think was in the late 90s (keep in mind this is a blog and not an authoritive article), and I believe the figure was about a quarter million.

I bought it for $400, and in the early 70s that took just about every cent I had. I enjoyed it for a bit, but found that the neck was so thick I had a hard time playing with my small hands.

I took it down to Dean Markley's music store (before he became a string manufacturer), and he told me it was worth when I could get for it.

Back then the main people who bought guitars were other musicians, which was another way of saying that I wasn't going to get anything more than what I paid for it, and most of the offers came in at around 60% of its price.

So I went to another music store, and traded it in for an early model Gibson ES 330, plus no charge on the $150 in repairs it needed. That one was a relative cheapie, maybe worth a few thousand now.

I was also doing acoustic music at that time and wanted to upgrade the guitar I had. Since I had more electrics than acoustics, I traded the Gibson for their acoustic "country and western" model guitar plus $200. I later sold it to a friend for a decent Yamaha guitar and 150 cash as a favor. The remorse factor is relatively low on that one, as I think the highest I've ever seen that model go is maybe 2500 or so. Peanuts.

I finally settled on a 1972 Fender telecaster, bought for $250, which was stock except for a rewound front pick up. I later sold for 850.00, which was less than it was worth by then. I had been in the Midwest for couple years, and hadn't realized that the guitar collecting boom had begun. I just simply thought the guy was just some really well off dude that was willing to pay way more than the guitar was worth.

During this time I put a cheapie Buck Owens guitar on layaway, but shifted the funds to another purchase. Decades later it became known that Buck Owens wanted the guitar to be inexpensive, but a few higher end companies wanted to be associated with the product and were willing to subcontract it. The company that ended up doing it was Gibson, and of course now that guitar is worth over thousand dollars.

The reason I ended up not buying it was simple, once I got past the cool red white and blue striping, it simply didn't sound that good. The fact that the subcontractor was Gibson has escalated the price drastically, but there's $200 acoustic guitars out there on the market that sound three times as good.

I do have to admit that because of that cool American flag coloring, it is one of the few regrets I have in my guitar buying life.

In the middle 70s I added a bell shaped Danelectro electric 12 string guitar to my collection for $100. Nowadays you can probably easily get at least 800 for it, but for the life of me I can't remember what happened to it.

As the more expensive Gibsons skyrocketed in value, it increased the cost of some of the lower line models. I've owned two student model ES-125's, one in mint condition. They were cool guitars, but frankly not very good unless you played blue slide, so those were traded off for various other guitars. The one in mint condition could probably get at least 1800 now, maybe more.

The escalation in price for many of the guitar that used to be economy or beginner models is an interesting subject in itself. I'll definitely cover it in the future blog.

A few years back I bought a 1920s Gibson mandolin that was in pieces for about $200. It turned out to be easy to repair, and the neck was in perfect condition (rare for that era now). It was an economy model back them, and since it didn't quite have the sound I wanted it was sold off for a few hundred dollars. I've since been told I should've sold it for at least 800, it's top value more like 1200, but I figure once you've lost out on a quarter million dollars, what's a few hundred now?

Given close to almost 4 decades of my faithless attitude towards guitars and other instruments, I could easily add a dozen more examples to the list.

The reason I don't have any remorse about any of those sales and trades is twofold.

One, I wised up and got smart about my guitar buying and trading, and because I've become reasonably competent at basic repair, my collection may not be as big as it used to be, but every one was obtained at a good price, and in some cases were a bargain.

Second, after a few years, most of the major guitar companies wised up and began to work harder at finding ways of providing guitars that were reasonably priced.

The guitar industry had done better than that. It's gotten to the point were at every price range you have a choice of several guitars that are all beautifully made. In fact, given what was available as entry-level guitars back in the 60s and 70s, more than one writer has wished that these modern guitars had been available back then.

America is a unique guitar market. If you read the discussion boards on the Internet, you'll find a lot of opinions and ideas that to people in other countries would think rather strange.

For example, many seem to think that each guitar has a basic sound, and even if the guitar is versatile, it's basically built for a narrow range of music. That means to play a wide variety of music, it's considered best to have a few guitars that can get you each of those special sounds.

Also we assume that the more expensive the guitar is the better it is. In the case of blues music, that's totally out of step with the history of recorded blues. A lot of the early blues in the 20s was recorded on cheap instruments like the old Sears catalog guitars and Stellas. The idea that you need a $5000 Martin guitar to reproduce that sound is a tribute to consumerism.

That 1972 telecaster that I had was my only electric guitar for 20 years. It's image is that it's basically a country guitar that can also play blues and certain types of rock. However it's also a guitar that's been used as a serious jazz instrument.

In the 60s and early 70s the idea that a guitar like the Les Paul could only play certain types of music was probably true. The reason was amp technology wasn't as far along.

These days amps are so sophisticated that even the cheap $100 ones have the option to do a competent imitation of at least two or three other brands of amps at the flick if a switch. Guitar design hasn't changed all that much since the 60s, whereas amp technology has made huge advances every decade.

Which is why I could just play one electric guitar for 20 years. As the amps got better, I found my guitar was capable of more and more.

What the smartest guitar players know is that skill and talent is what brings out the best in the guitar, or can make the sound they want. Ted Nugent and George Thorogood, for example, play Gibson hollow body jazz guitars, and neither could be accused of being a jazz musician.

Of course certain guitar designs bring out certain types of sounds that are unique. But I would say a majority of the guitars sound more similar than different.

The whole collecting boom has subsided a bit, if for no other reason that most of the rare guitars are already owned by collectors, beat up copies of the same model have become overpriced and way too many of the ones out for sale are counterfeits. 

There's a lot of 50s Fender stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls on the market that were actually made in the Philippines or China. Many of these counterfeits are so good, at least in terms of appearance, even the best experts can't always tell.

The ironic thing is it's not illegal to sell a counterfeit, as long as you identify it as one. There's companies that make replica 50s strats, complete with nicks and scratches, that are eagerly bought by guitar players for up to a few thousand.

Being somebody who prefers to keep guitars in nice condition, the idea of deliberately scratching and wearing out the paint on the guitar (called "relicing") seems pretty weird. But it's their money, and if it makes them happy, well shoot, that makes me happy for them.

So the second point was the longest to explain, or at least led to the most digressions, but the fact is the collector boom had a positive affect on the mainstream guitar industry.

From entry-level to advanced, for those who want a top quality replica of a vintage model, or super cheap copy of a vintage model looks at least 90% accurate, there's a guitar for you.

As far as that gold top Les Paul, I actually have a more modern version, and it's neck is slim and easy to play. Taking away the issue of money, if given a choice of the two I would still definitely take the one I have now.

The reason is that guitars are for playing and enjoying, not for investment to be put in a glass case and never played again.

An instrument that isn't being used to create music, and treated like some museum exhibit, is basically a gift of life turned into a joyless object. I'm very lukewarm on the "work of art" argument.

There's a lot of incredibly expensive Stradivarius violins out there in the classical world, and most are being played, and the music world is richer for it.

Maybe someday the guitar world will catch up with the classical world and how it treats valuable instruments.

 One can only hope.