Q: I’m curious about the mystique of old guitars. I know that a mid-’30s Martin D or OM is a highly sought after and expensive guitar, and I understand the value of such an instrument as a piece of antique “historical furniture,” but I have never actually played one. On the other hand, I have played and owned some great contemporary instruments that cost less than $5,000. Is there really much difference, tone-wise, in an 80-plus-year-old guitar and a well-played five- or ten-year old guitar, or is it just a case of the “emperor’s new clothes”? —Fred Finke, Thornton, Colorado
A: The short answer is that the best vintage guitars sound pretty dang amazing. On closer inspection, though, the picture can be more complicated.
Vintage guitars simply have their own sound. It’s the real deal if you play roots-influenced music. If your music is decidedly non-rootsy, maybe not. And not all vintage guitars sound equally good. Those that are structurally compromised or have been poorly repaired can sound downright disappointing relative to their price tags. Many mid-’30s guitars have imprecise fret and saddle locations and may not play in tune like modern guitars, requiring frequent retuning on a song-by-song basis and a sophisticated playing technique.
A vintage instrument that doesn’t get played a lot may require a break-in period each time it’s played—or maybe just sometimes—taking a while to achieve optimum tonality, then sometimes losing fullness again, like an over-oxidized wine. The sound of an older guitar, with a rich, complex voice that easily saturates a room or barks out in a parking lot pickin’ session, can be vexingly difficult to accurately capture in the studio without Alison Krauss’ recording budget, or impossible to amplify and mix without equipment more valuable than the guitar itself (not to mention a sound engineer who knows how to use it). And, by the way, don’t even think about replacing those worn-out original tuners.
But, yes, vintage guitars can sound truly fantastic. As a player, I find that nothing gives me more sheer pleasure than test driving, and sometimes owning, a top-notch vintage Martin or Gibson. I have, in fact, devoted a career to attempting to reproduce the inimitable ideal of these amazing guitars. But, for me, the pleasure of playing the real thing is often short-lived, perhaps because I’m not enough of a player to make a truly great vintage guitar sound like I know it can. And perhaps, living inextricably in the world of contemporary guitars, I’m like a guest in the Hotel California who can check out any time I like, but can never leave.
It’s a good thing to have satisfying, well-played, five-to-ten-year-old, $5,000 contemporary guitars—hopefully, they will serve as a seed crop for future vintage markets. Consider that when I started playing, there were no vintage guitars, only used ones. Classic guitars from the ’30s and ’40s could be found on the walls of many music stores—and at affordable prices. As the vintage market developed, though, these instruments slowly but surely became valuable and rare.
The guitar world is now at a point where a great many players, like the questioner, have never experienced playing (let alone living with) the actual instruments on which our American musical heritage was forged and that serve to inspire so much of the contemporary acoustic-guitar market. To the uninitiated, I recommend seeking opportunities to experience these amazing instruments while they are still available outside museums. You might find the best ones out of your price range, but you can at least judge for yourself how the emperor’s vintage clothes compare to his new ones.