Ask the Expert: Do Vintage Guitars Live Up to Their Reputations?

The best vintage guitars sound pretty dang amazing. On closer inspection, though, the picture can be more complicated.
1933 Martin guitar

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.


Dana Bourgeois
Dana Bourgeois

Dana Bourgeois is the founder of Bourgeois Guitars and regular contributor to our "Ask the Expert" column.


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  1. Thanks Dana. There is a lot of wisdom here. My comment is based on 55 years of playing and searching for great guitars. I have owned several high-end Collings, Santa Cruz, boutique guitars of all kinds…. This is a new golden age. But having said, I keep coming back to my 1930s and 1940s Martins and Gibsons. There is really nothing like them. They have a sound, a feel, a mojo, a HISTORY, that connects with a player who is sensitive to those things. Yes, they are worth it, even as the prices skyrocket.

  2. A well made often played guitar is the best. Devices like the Tonerite (guitar vibrator) can help simulate hours of playing time. A vintage guitar stored under a bed or in a closet for 30 years will not sound much better than a well made new guitar.

  3. With all due respect… I started playing guitar at the age of 12 years. My first guitar, a nylon string acoustic, was purchased in Mexico when I was about 12 years old. I am now 76… My journey: Kingston Trio- folk music- rock and roll -Chuck Berry- Rolling Stones- Beatles-Playing in Electric Bands (High School & College)-Gatherings in the forest of Oregon (in the early 1970s -Acoustic Originals in a Duo in L.A. (Smokey Bars) in the late 70s – Played out with two bands and constantly Jamming with relatives/friends from 1980 – 2024-In 2021 joined a song writers work shop and increased my catalog of originals…My Tennitus increased from years of electric “turned up loudly”, so all acoustic now-Early 2000s, Inherited some money! Told my wife some of it would be invested in Vintage Martins, She said if we buy her a car…I said “Deal!” -With the assistance of a great luthier, I Started obtaining my collection of vintage Martins and one 1944 Gibson in the early 2000s… I have been able to recover vintage guitars with minor-major problems…I also have histories and some momentos from past owners ie: recordings, records, original receipts, pictures, original cases…Best of All- I hold these vintage instruments in my hands every day…Each one has it’s own special sound and feel—Some people climb mountains without ropes- Some people surf 20 ft. waves- (More power and best wishes to them!!!) Much joy comes from the playing of these guitars… Each one is it’s own piece of music history…Some, I will pass on to my 20 year old Jazz playing Grandson, Some will be sold to people who feel as I do, All truly have their own history- that I have now become a part of.
    Happy Daze