Vintage Guitars Worth The Money

Along with the stock market, prices of iconic axes have dropped as well. Now is the time to snap up the instruments associated with legendary performances.

At midnight on Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969, Jimi Hendrix should have been plugging in his white Fender Stratocaster in front of a crowd of 500,000 at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y. His performance, meant to close out the three-day Woodstock festival, didn’t start until 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 18. By that point, more than 300,000 concert-goers were trekking down the New York State Thruway.

They missed Hendrix’s interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which still resonates as one of the most important musical performances of the 20th century. The 1968 Olympic White Strat that Hendrix played that morning currently sits in Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, after the Microsoft co-founder spent an estimated $2 million to acquire it.

Those with slightly less buying power than Allen were every bit as inspired, as thousands of enthusiasts began seeking out vintage Fender Stratocasters in the 1970s. A late-’60s Strat, originally worth a couple hundred bucks, could be sold for as much as $30,000 more recently, according to Harvey Moltz of Rainbow Guitars, an Arizona-based vintage and modern instrument dealership that opened in 1975. For the past 35 years, collectors with cash have invested in 1950s and ’60s electric guitars, with some items, such as a ’60s Gibson Les Paul Jr., appreciating by as much as 500% after six months of ownership.

Currently, however, the vintage guitar market is down, alongside stock prices–which means opportunity for those eager to get in the game.

“Now, the baby boomers that bought the guitars are selling them back,” says Moltz. With prices dropping as much as 40%, Moltz finds himself stocking his storage room with vintage guitars for the first time in 30 years. But Moltz doesn’t buy just any old guitar. Besides being in mint condition (with original parts, electronics and paint), the guitars must be tied to an artist or event that resonates in the modern popular conscience.

That sometimes means stocking up on 1980s ESP guitars, like those played by Metallica. While such guitars hold value now, particularly with today’s wealthy who loved metal in their youth, the value of shred-friendly guitars is likely to fade as the collectors themselves age. But Woodstock- and other classic-rock-associated guitars are likely to increase in value yet again. This is due in part to a slew of musical releases and merchandising efforts put forth by Warner Bros. and event founders Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang in preparation for the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival.

Even with prices currently more affordable than in the past, with a ’56 Gibson P-90 Les Paul Gold Top dropping from $80,000 in 2007 to as little as $35,000 now, be cautious with your cash: A year’s difference in a guitar’s manufacturing date can affect the value dramatically. After the Beatles’ 1965 North American tour, electric guitar production increased astronomically, and manufacturers often cut corners to meet demand.

Specific guitars with a connection to history, however, have a better chance at holding their value. Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, for example, was known for his early ’60s Gibson ES-345, a jazz guitar with a stereo output and a varitone, a device that hollows out the guitar’s sound in the mid-range.

“The neck pickup would have had my fuzz tone doohicky, and the bridge pickup would have the VOX cry baby (wah wah pedal),” says Kaukonen. While he usually played a red ES-345, at Woodstock he opted for a mid-’60s Black ES-345, a much rarer find due to its color. Red or black, however, use of the guitar resulted in a haunting lead on “White Rabbit.”

While some guitars may increase in value over time, few instruments will exhibit the long-term value or prestige that Woodstock instruments will, despite their current (relatively) low prices.

Says Woodstock creator Michael Lang, “It was the right message at the right time, and the right sensibility.”

Zachary Fuhrer,