What is a vintage guitar?

Black Beauty Gibson Les Paul guitar
Vintage Gibson Les Paul late 1950s

The 1920s to early 1970s is known as the “golden era” of guitar making. During this period, some of the finest guitars in history were made, and these are the vintage guitars that are sought in modern times.

Before the 1920s, guitars were not of good quality and very few survive today. Their playability now is virtually nil, and they are not considered collectable. After around 1972, guitars began to be mass produced via automation, and quality went down significantly. The “sweet spot” for valuable collectible guitars are those made in the 1950s and 1960s.

How valuable can vintage guitars be?

The value of a vintage guitar varies greatly by its condition, craftsmanship, model, and history. These elements are highly subjective, and may often be confusing.

In most cases, the better kept the instrument, the higher its worth, when compared to others of the same ilk – but this is not consistent. Wear from playing can lend it character, and extreme wear on a classic model may add a sense of history and extra value to the guitar – but be mindful of the difference between use and abuse. A guitar that has been outright mistreated will lower and sometimes negate its value.

Players like Jimi Hendrix single-handedly made such models as the Fender Stratocaster historical wonders that are now unanimously looked upon as highly-valued vintage guitars. Other rock legends played the Fenders of the 1960’s, making these some of the most desired guitars ever produced.

Some notorious vintage brands include the Rickenbacker, as played by John Lennon; the Gibson Les Paul, played by the likes of Bob Marley, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Paige, and Slash; Gretsch, once played by George Harrison and picked up by Brian Setzer; and Epiphone, played by Paul McCartney (as well as the rest of the Beatles, later), Frank Iero, Nancy Wilson, and Keith Richards. This is not an exhaustive list, just an example.

Nearly all older Martin steel-string acoustic guitars are considered vintage. The value varies by model and condition of each instrument. Classical and bass guitars have their own classifications, so it’s not one size fits all. As you can see, you must do your homework!

Guitars that can be certified as actually owned by legends will, of course, be very pricey. These are usually sold only through auctions and can run into the millions, depending on who the legend was. The guitar itself may not be vintage; what collectors are purchasing is the history.

What about current “limited editions?”

You may have seen (or even played) a “limited edition” guitar released under the name of a guitar legend, such as Fender’s Eric Clapton series. Guitars like these typically have specially made hardware or may even be designed by the guitar legend him/herself, but simply do not have the fine craftsmanship of a vintage model and most likely will not become known as vintage models, in the classic sense. Some people feel that modern production machines steal the “soul” of instruments. Players contend that they don’t feel the same as a hand-crafted model.

That doesn’t mean that you should toss your limited edition axe, however. If it was made with high quality parts and you take good care of it, who knows what the collectors will be looking for in the next couple of decades?

Where to find vintage guitars

As you read above, the really in-demand vintage models previously owned by a guitar legend can typically only be bought at an auction. For those that are vintage models without the owner history, you may find them listed in classified ads or at your local guitar store or pawn shop. Do your research so you know how much you should be willing to pay.

These are also avenues via which you may sell your vintage guitar, if you’ve decided to stop playing. Bear in mind that while you may get some cash in hand, you most likely will not get paid the full value of your instrument – and some shops will only offer you store credit. Be patient. You may have to wait a bit to find a buyer that recognizes its worth.

But, now that you know what it is worth, why would you stop playing it?

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