Here are five reasons people prefer a vintage guitar to a new one
1. Old guitars are better for retro-styled music: Surely a modern guitar is an improvement on an old one? The materials, style of manufacture, pickup style and placement etc all have a major impact on the sound a guitar can produce. This is something people forget. Manufacturers could make guitars that are very similar to the instruments of the 1950s and 1960s, but they tend not to. The majority of guitar sales are to players that want a cheap easy to play modern sound; not an expensive to produce large-bodied jazz guitar that feeds back when turned up too loud, neither a bass with a muted acoustic bass sound. But if you want to recreate your favourite jazz trio or rockabilly combo, a modern guitar might not do.
2. Old guitars were better built, with better materials: Not always the case, true. But 1950s and 1960s guitars were regularly made out of tropical hardwoods that are simply not available today. Old trees, sometimes hundreds of years old, have grown in such a way that they possess incredible tonal characteristics that can not be replicated by other woods. These ancient trees, often from the Amazon rainforest have either already been cut down, or are now protected. These differences are subtle, and lost as soon as you step on your fuzz pedal, or turn up the gain on your amp. But an experienced musician with a preference for a clean guitar tone will notice immediately. Even some budget guitars of the 50s and 60s were made of these great woods, and can be had for great prices for what they are. Furthermore the skilled craftsmen employed by the likes of Gibson, Gretsch, Epiphone and Guild could produce instruments to a standard few manufacturers can reach today. For example, the hand carved tops of higher end Gibsons were 'tuned' as they were carved. Completely impossible with a mass produced, C&C machined guitars being built today.
3. Vintage guitars are highly collectable, and can be a great investment: You can't just buy any old guitar and have a profitable investment. But vintage guitars that are playable, especially when associated with an iconic performer tend to rise in value, year on year. There is of course one major caveat: if you overpay in the first place you might be waiting years to recoup your investment. Don't invest your life savings in vintage guitars without doing your research first!
4. Old pickups just sound right: Lots of people rave about old pickups, and it's true that the magnets themselves change a little over time, which will have a subtle effect on tone. But the fact is, a lot of vintage guitar pickups were hand-wound, so there is always some natural variation from pickup to pickup. One thing is for sure, when people find the pickups that are 'right', they hang on to them.
5. You won't lose any money on a resale: Well this does depend on where you buy. If you pay over the odds from a vintage guitar dealer you may well struggle to recoup your money, but in a typical private sale you can usually flip the guitar for what you bought it for. More canny buyers can usually even make some money; after all this is exactly how a vintage guitar dealer earns their living.
Different guitars go in and out of fashion. In the early 1950s the typical guitarist was a jazz, bluegrass or big band player. Guitars were large hollow body instruments designed to be as loud as possible, even without amplification; amplifiers were in their infancy, and guitars had to compete with much louder instruments; brass and pianos. Guitar playing was a serious business and guitars were not especially cheap. However this was the decade in which Fender facilitated the musical revolutions of the second half of the twentieth century by introducing the legendary Telecaster and Stratocaster solid bodies.
As the fifties progressed, rock 'n' roll and blues became more popular; combined with advances in amplification, the electric guitar rapidly gained in popularity, and more and more younger players started to learn to play the guitar. The solid body guitar started to increase in popularity although electric-acoustic guitars were still the choice of most serious players.
In the early 1960s the surf and folk scenes had a marked effect on the popularity of guitars in the USA, but it was the beat boom of the mid 1960s that had by far the biggest impact. Many of the musicians involved were playing fine American guitars by the likes of Gibson, Epiphone, Fender, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, hollowbody and solid body guitars alike. Bands were in, and thousands of youngsters wanted to be like their favourite star. Guitar sales were at an all-time high, in the United States and worldwide, with entry-level solid-bodies making up the bulk of the sales by the end of the decade.
But what started out as an outstanding time for American manufacturers was actually the beginning of the end for some brands; Guitars made in America and Europe were suddenly joined by cheaper copies coming from Japan, and although poor at first, these quickly improved in quality. By the end of the decade companies competing at the lower end of the market were in trouble indeed.
The early 1970s were a hard time financially for the guitar-buying public, and the manufacturers alike. As the decade progressed, the threat from overseas manufacturers increased. Initially the copies continued, but rather than just being a nod to the shape and style of the American models, they started to be accurate reproductions. Today these are called the lawsuit models, as indeed lawsuits were forthcoming in order to protect the original designs. Ironically enough, this pushed the Japanese manufacturers to produce their own guitars, many of which gained popularity making the likes of Ibanez even stronger competition than they already were.
1970s vintage guitars don't have as good a reputation as guitars from the 50s and 60s - and this is warranted in some cases; every manufacturer was scrambling to fulfil the demand for cheap, mass-produced guitars for student guitarists. But high end instruments were still every bit as good as they always had been. Guitars like the Gibson Citation, in fact, were as good or better than anything the company had ever produced.
Towards the middle of the decade, fashions had changed, hollow body instruments were out, in favour of solid bodies; often with natural wood finishes and more advanced electronics. This was the decade that spawned the very popular active guitars and basses.
By the 1980s, guitar sales were in decline. Just as punk pushed out the excesses of rock, in a lot of cases synthesizers began to replace guitars. Many guitar companies were really struggling now, but there was still a rock/heavy metal scene. Bands with big hair and pointy guitars were still playing to their niche audiences, and the manufacturers were still able to produce new models in garish colours to fit the times.
The 1990s and beyond
Ever since the golden days of guitar music people have harked back to the heroes of the time. Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton. But it was not really until the late 1980s/early 1990s that the bigger guitar manufacturers realised that there was a significant market in the great guitars of the past. With vintage guitars becoming ever more collectable, and desirable as playable instruments, and with prices of vintage gear rising, companies started reissuing models, often both as very expensive 'custom shop' historic issues, and as cheap entry level models with different branding.