A Player’s Guide to Finding the Right Vintage Guitar

Playability and structural integrity are critical in a used guitar, especially those made half a century or more ago.
Vintage acoustic guitars hanging on a music store wall.
Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Maybe you’re drawn by the special look, sound, and feel of an instrument that’s been making music for decades. Maybe you dream of having a guitar like an early hero played, or one built in your childhood years. Whatever your motivation, you have your eye on a vintage guitar. If you haven’t shopped for a vintage acoustic guitar before, though, the process can be intimidating. 

You can find lots of information online about brands and models, but the descriptions of specific instruments offered for sale are often sparse. And if you’ve looked for a vintage acoustic in the past, especially before the advent of the music gear marketplace Reverb.com, you’ll find the shopping process to be a very different game today. Search engines throw guitars from all over the world onto your screen, and what a vintage model sells for in Tokyo is very different from a realistic price in Los Angeles. 

Those who live in a metropolitan area with some guitar shops nearby will have more options for doing research and checking out instruments in person. But no matter where you’re starting from or where you live, there are some guidelines that will make your search a little easier, as we will explore in this article.

If you’re after a collector-grade investment instrument, this guide won’t cover every detail you should consider. Instead we’ll focus on playability and structural stability, assuming you want a guitar you’ll play and enjoy for the long term.

1941 Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar
1941 Martin 000-18 detail. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Widen Your Search

First of all, it’s helpful to avoid making your search too specific, as that may severely limit the number of guitars you can choose from. 

Let’s say your musical hero’s late-1950s Martin 000-18 is your dream guitar. Does it have to be a 000? A 00-18 could work equally well for you, as the neck size, scale length, and body depth are the same. Sure, the 000 body is slightly wider, but the difference is less than 7/8-inch, so in a blindfold test you might not hear much difference. Limiting yourself to narrow time periods can also slow your search. In this case, an early ’60s 000-18 will be quite similar to one made in the late ’50s, as both are made of the same woods, in the same factory, with the same specifications, and about the only difference is the tuners.

Of course not all guitar companies are as consistent as Martin, and makers like Gibson and Guild made more changes more often. Sometimes those differences were primarily to the model code, so if, say, you are looking for an early ’60s Gibson B-25, an LG-2 or LG-3 from a couple years earlier is essentially the same guitar. On the other hand, while Gibson’s LG-2 and LG-3 are structurally the same, its LG-1 model looks similar but has lateral, not X, top bracing, making it a different-sounding guitar. 

All this can be confusing, and a no-nonsense reference book such as Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars is a worthy investment that can help you sort through models and specifications. 

In general, a wider search will give you more instruments to choose from, and a model on the edges of your search may surprise you and have the sound and feel you’ve been looking for. 

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1959 Epiphone cortez acoustic guitar
1959 Epiphone Cortez detail. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Play the Field

A good way to do your homework before you begin your search is to play other guitars besides the one(s) you now have, which will broaden your comfort range and test your playability parameters at the same time. If possible, borrow guitars from close friends for a day or two, as instruments that feel and sound great in a five-minute test may not seem as ideal when played for half an hour. Sweeten the deal by offering to return the guitars with new sets of strings! 

We all agree that measurements and specifications and woods are important, but be aware that those facts can color your thinking, which in turn has an effect on what you hear. Are you really averse to necks that are 1-3/4 inches wide at the nut? Not all manufacturers finish the edges of the fingerboard the same way, and a vintage guitar may have been refretted, resulting in slightly rolled fingerboard edges. What a caliper reads and what your hand feels may not be in sync, as the depth and shape of the neck can be just as important as the width.

Similarly, are you sure only rosewood models will suit you? Remember that you’re hearing the whole guitar, not just the back and sides, so try to play without prejudice. Once you’ve tried playing a guitar and you have a sense of how it does or does not suit you, then go over the specs. 

Remember that along with string action height, string gauge and scale length are critical. Sometimes players fall for the plays-like-butter feel of a guitar only to find that much of that difference was because it was outfitted with lighter gauge strings than they’ve been playing. Shorter scale lengths also result in lower string tension than a longer scale, so take this into account when you are comparing the playability of two guitars. The higher string tension of a long scale may make the strings feel slightly tighter, but it can also mean the guitar’s string action can be lower before you run into dreaded fret buzz when playing a little more aggressively.

1945 Gibson J-45 Banner acoustic guitar soundhole closeup
1945 Gibson J-45 Banner detail. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Get Into the Action

Playability and structural integrity are critical in a used guitar, especially those made half a century or more ago. Nobody wants to open the case containing the just-arrived result of a long search only to discover that the guitar’s frets have been milled to less than half of their original height and, combined with high string action, the result is compromised playability. 

A good rule of thumb is to look for guitars with approximately the same string action height you would find on a new instrument; three and two is a common code for a string height of 3/32-inch at the 12th fret for the low E, and 2/32-inch for the high E. (This standard reference is measured from the top of the 12th fret to the underside of the first and sixth strings.) 

If you’re buying an instrument online, especially from a private party, make note of how much saddle is visible above the top of the bridge, as well as how high the strings are above the 12th fret. If the action appears higher than what you prefer, and there’s very little saddle above the bridge, you may be faced with significant repairs to make the instrument playable by your standards. This doesn’t mean the vintage guitar you are considering is defective or damaged; it’s been under lots of string tension for many years, and both the neck and the body have changed as a result. Compensating for those changes, so an older guitar plays as easily as a new model, can be expensive. 

1943 Martin D-28 acoustic guitar
1943 Martin D-28 detail. Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Consider the Cracks

Playability and sound are the most critical considerations, but condition is also important. Let’s talk first about cracks. Everyone would prefer to find a vintage guitar with no cracks anywhere, but for those interested more in playing the instrument—as opposed to thinking of it as an investment—some cracks, once repaired, are little more than a cosmetic annoyance. Others, however, are permanent flaws that suggest serious mishandling and should be avoided even if the instrument is playable and attractive. (A few hours in a hot car trunk can do serious and lasting damage). Here’s a quick sketch of which cracks are dangerous and which ones are less troubling.

For starters, most of the tight cracks that you see on a guitar have no impact on the tone or volume of the instrument. If you think of a guitar’s body as ringing like a bell, it would seem that cracks in those vibrating wood surfaces would have a negative tonal impact. But guitars, like most plucked stringed instruments, defy that logic. 

Side cracks are the least worrisome and they’re also the most common, especially on mahogany instruments. Unless the cracks in the side are next to the neck joint, they can be easily repaired and then ignored. Do such cracks have a negative impact on the guitar’s value? You bet—a guitar with side cracks is usually worth less than a similar model with no cracks. But if the cracks are tight and have been repaired, they’re a cosmetic glitch and little more. 

Cracks in the back of a guitar are more visible because it’s a relatively large flat surface, but backs on most flattop guitars have horizontal braces, so there’s not a lot to worry about structurally. (Back braces run across the grain, while typical cracks follow the grain, so the back braces reinforce them.)

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Soundboard, or top, cracks deserve more scrutiny both because the resulting visual glitch is harder to ignore and because the soundboard is under a lot of string tension. Some top cracks pose little threat, such as the ones around a pickguard resulting from the plastic shrinking. Cracks at the outer edge of the lower and upper bout, usually caused by the guitar being dropped on its side or bounced against a hard surface, are compression fractures that can be ugly but usually don’t signal a serious structural weakness. 

Cracks around the bridge, soundhole, and especially around the end of the fretboard, however, are red flags because this is the part of the top that’s under the most tension. If a crack has traveled into the soundhole and distorted the rosette, or the inner soundhole rim, it’s best to move on. Cracks around the bridge can be difficult to repair because that part of the soundboard has lots of bracing, plus a bridge plate supporting the bridge itself and anchoring the string balls. Cracks in this critical high-tension area are often signs of heat damage.

Cracks in the neck always affect a guitar’s value, regardless of how well they’ve been repaired. Those where the headstock meets the barrel of the neck are bad news, and mention of a headstock crack usually ends consideration of a used guitar. However, a cracked neck heel, while noticeable, is usually stable once repaired, as there is plenty of gluing surface and a better chance of long-term survival as a result. 

This doesn’t mean a guitar with a well-repaired headstock crack can’t be a great instrument for a player; just be aware that you may have difficulty selling or trading it. When shopping for a vintage guitar you intend to play, you may be able to use awareness of which cracks matter and which ones can be ignored to get a better instrument for less cash. A guitar with a couple of repaired side cracks and a pickguard shrinkage crack in the top may be priced significantly lower than one that’s crack-free, but to a player both will function—and sound—much the same.

Cracks in the finish, often called lacquer crazing or weather checking, can look much like cracks in the wood itself, but if they travel in curved lines and cross the grain, they’re a finish issue and not a structural flaw. These are usually caused by exposure to rapid changes in temperature, such as pulling a guitar out of a very cold car into a warm room. Finish crazing lines can be so faint as to be part of a pleasant patina—after all, finish checks are often added to new instruments for a distressed finish. On a guitar with a thick finish, especially when sunburst, heavy lacquer checking can be hard to ignore. Again, it may not cause any structural issues, so if the look of the crazing doesn’t bother you, the guitar might work for you.

1945 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar "banner logo" detail.
1945 Gibson J-45 “banner logo” detail. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Finishing Touches

If you peruse listings of vintage guitars for sale, and especially if you follow guitar forum threads on the originality of older instruments, you’ll find a lot of chatter about original finishes. On forums you’ll find advice on how to tell if the finish is original, how refinishing lowers a guitar’s value, etc. It’s far beyond the scope of this article to cover all the angles about finishes on vintage guitars, but here is some general advice.

Most vintage acoustic guitars manufactured after the late 1920s were finished with nitrocellulose lacquer, which is still in wide use today. One advantage of a lacquer finish is that a fresh coat sprayed over a clean older finish bonds and blends into the original, with no telltale layer between new and old. 

A term you’ll see often is oversprayed, which means the original lacquer finish wasn’t removed and a new finish was applied on top of it. Factories like Martin and Gibson routinely oversprayed instruments that were sent back to them for repair, simply because they wanted to please their customers by making the instrument look like new again. This added coat of lacquer was often very thin, and with time it can be nearly impossible to detect. Guitars that have been repaired are also often oversprayed to blend finish touch-up into the overall surface. This is especially true of the guitar’s neck, as it sees a lot of wear and many players object to the feel of an uneven surface. 

An old lacquer finish can often be made to look shiny and new again without adding any finish at all. Machine buffing with an abrasive compound can remove fine scratches, producing a glossy surface appearing much like what you’d see on a new guitar. This is especially true of older factory finishes that were often quite thick—the trend towards thinner finishes is relatively recent. A decades-old lacquer finish usually settles into the pores and grain of the wood over time as the solvents evaporate and the finish shrinks slightly. The resulting patina is considered desirable by fans of vintage guitars, but that doesn’t mean a buffed or oversprayed instrument will sound different as a result of being made shinier.

If part or all of a vintage instrument has been refinished, it usually means the original finish was removed down to the bare wood and a new finish was then applied. When this work is done professionally, especially by the manufacturer, it can be difficult to detect that the finish isn’t original. While refinishing does have a negative impact on the value of a vintage guitar, in general the price drop is not as dramatic with acoustics when compared to electric instruments. It’s often an insignificant downgrade on lower models, so while a refinished top on a ’60s sunburst Gibson J-200 is a big deal, regardless of how well it was done, the same change to a Martin 0-16NY of that age isn’t nearly as critical to its value. (The J-200 was Gibson’s most expensive flattop model, while the 0-16NY was one of Martin’s lowest-priced guitars.)

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1945 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar bridge and soundhole
1945 Gibson J-45 detail. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Beware of Buying for Investment

I hate to throw cold water on the buying-vintage-guitars-for-investment mantra, but it’s important to remember that wise investments of all kinds are often determined as much by when you sell as by when you buy. If you compare what that dreamy 1959 Martin 000-18 would have cost you a half dozen years ago to what you may have to pay for one in 2024, the earlier purchase would have been a smart move. But if you’d bought that same guitar a decade earlier, in 2007, only to find you had to sell it a few years later because you’d been laid off, the story might have had a less-rosy ending. Prices of vintage guitars were high just before the subprime mortgage fiasco, but were much lower during the hard times that followed, and similar but less severe fluctuations in prices and demand have accompanied the Covid pandemic. 

The guitar you play and enjoy is a good investment because it’s also a great musical companion; the guitar you buy but don’t play is just an investment and nothing more. Over the long term, vintage guitars have been good investments, but prices have often gone down for extended periods; they haven’t always appreciated. Some vintage guitars were still below their 2007 highs a decade later. It helps to remember that musical value and market value are often at odds, and that an oversprayed guitar with side cracks and changed tuners may sound as good or better than one that’s all original.

Martin D-16K acoustic guitar
Martin D-16K. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Vintage on a Budget

Shopping for a vintage guitar doesn’t have to be limited to those with five figures to spend on their next instrument. Of course what helps any quest on a tighter budget is a more broad definition of vintage, and fortunately the “gotta be at least 50 years old” rule no longer applies. Pre-1990 is a good benchmark date, as the ’90s were when CNC (computer numerical control) manufacturing took the guitar industry by storm. The 1980s were tough times for guitar makers in general, and most North American companies went through dramatic changes as they struggled to compete with foreign imports during the decline in popularity of both acoustic and electric guitars. There were probably more changes in American guitars in the 1980s than in any previous decade since the end of World War II.

Lots of interesting instruments were made as the guitar industry began to recover. A good example of some little-known gems is Martin’s 16 Series, first released as NAMM trade show specials in 1986. These lower-priced models were never in the Martin catalog, and each year’s offerings were slightly different—the D-16K had koa back and sides, while the D-16A was made with ash. The 16 Series 000 and D models had scalloped top bracing and a thinner finish, but were priced well below the D-18. They’re rather plain but sound great and are often priced very reasonably. 

guild f-20 acoustic guitar
Guild F-20. Photo: Kate Martin/Gryphon Stringed Instruments

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Gibson and Martin have long ruled the market in older vintage acoustics, but if you are shopping on a budget it’s wise to look beyond those two brands. Guild made a number of flattop models in the late 1950s and ’60s that rival many other North American guitars in tone and playability. For those who like smaller acoustics, a Guild F-20 from the early 1960s, for instance, is similar to a Martin 0-18 or Gibson LG-3 of the same period but sells for far less. Guild’s dreadnought models like the D-40 have a similar niche, while its 12-strings, such as the F-212, tend to be more stable and consistent than their 1960s competitors and are highly regarded by players. 

A factory fire brought a disastrous end to Gurian Guitars in the early 1980s, but Gurian models have a unique rounded body shape and are excellent instruments. Gurian made many rosewood models, and if you are a fan of Brazilian rosewood, the company’s guitars with that now-rare wood are far more affordable than instruments by big-name American brands. 

If you expand your search to Canadian builders, a wide range of acoustics were offered by Larrivée, which started in Toronto before moving west to British Columbia in 1977. Both Michael Gurian and Jean Larrivée began as classical makers and never felt compelled to build copies of Martins and Gibsons, so their models offer players the chance to acquire vintage guitars that both look and sound different as well as being relatively affordable.


Richard Johnston, along with the late Frank Ford, is the co-founder of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, in Palo Alto, California. Johnston has written several books on vintage guitars, most recently co-authoring Inventing the American Guitar. He also appraises instruments for PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.


Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Richard Johnston
Richard Johnston

Richard Johnston is the co-founder of Gryphon Stringed Instruments and has been a guitar appraiser for Antiques Roadshow.

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  1. Excellent synopsis! Thank you. I love the perspectives on player grade vintage guitars, the ones you actually play. Owning a guitar you are afraid to take out of the case or goodness forbid let your friends play a few licks on defeats the purpose for some of us. At 24’ prices for collector grade it may be in that carefully humidified case for along time until your grandkids sell it, or take it unknowingly, in spite your years of warnings, to an open mic or campfire jam. Guitars are the sounds of life and life is for the living. Enjoy thise beauties will still be making music long after you are gone.