Collectible Guitars – Part II


George Gruhn
Guitar Player Magazine, May 1976

Who Plays A Particular Model

The identification of a well-known artist with a particular model guitar definitely affects its collectibility, not only in electric guitars, but also, to a lesser degree, in acoustic instruments. If Bill Monroe did not play a Gibson F-5 mandolin, signed and dated by Lloyd Loar, it is doubtful that bluegrass musicians would pay such disproportionately high prices for them today. The same is true of sunburst Les Pauls, Explorers, and Flying V’s. For example, in my February ’75 GP article, I traced the early Les Paul craze of the 1960’s to the influence of Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton.Bloomfield first played a black-guard Telecaster, and at that time Les Pauls could be bought for less than $100.00. Then he began playing a gold-top Les Paul with single-coil white pickups. Telecasters went down a bit, and no one wanted Les Pauls with humbuckers, not even sunbursts. When he started playing a sunburst with humbuckers, they began bringing $800.00 almost overnight. Other famous musicians began using them too, and within a short time they were the most sought-after electric guitar on the market. Certain people really are trendsetters, and their fans want to play the same instrument they use, whether they sound good or not. It is well-known that many companies give their instruments to artists as part of their advertising campaigns for this very reason.

In addition to this Influential Musician Syndrome, there also exist certain models that, by virtue of their excellent sound and playability, are in demand by good musicians. Pre-war Martins are popular, not because a star plays one, but because their superior properties are self-evident.

The Test Of Time

When a model has been popular with good musicians for a number of years, it meets another criterion of collectibility: it has withstood the test of time. These models become classics of their genre – old Les Pauls, Teles, old Mastertone banjos, old Vega banjos, Gibson artist model mandolins, to name a few. They have shown that, not only do they play well and sound good, they are physically able to hold up during twenty, fifty, even a hundred years of playing.

An instrument will not sustain interest if it doesn’t have good construction and playability to begin with, regardless of who endorses it. Lasting quality makes the difference between a piece that is a passing fad and one that becomes a collector’s item. For example, the popularity of Vox instruments waned dramatically when the Rolling Stones changed from Vox to other instruments. When Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Rick Derringer appeared with Gibson Explorers, the guitar’s popularity rose phenomenally. However, since it is basically a fine instrument that plays well and sounds good to anyone, expect it to be around for a while, although it might not maintain the value it currently has.

Snob Appeal

We may question whether snob appeal is a psychologically healthy reason for buying a musical instrument, but let’s face it, the right instrument will do more to impress friends and fellow musicians in some circles than a new Rolls Royce. It will also get plenty of attention it festivals and concerts – free tickets, backstage passes. Some people who don’t even play carry around a D-45 or a Flying V for just that reason. Owning a superlative instrument is sometimes a compensation for inferior musicianship. Of course, this is not true of most collectors and musicians. But it is a fact that certain pieces do have enormous resale value. In the counterculture, owning expensive instruments is one of the few forms of prestige one can indulge in without being accused of having sold out to the establishment.


I don’t want to talk about cash prices, but everyone knows that old collectible instruments are valuable. A new guitar may be expensive, but it probably won’t be a collector’s item. On the other hand, a collector’s item may not necessarily be expensive. It would be a mistake to think that every collectible guitar is worth thousands of dollars, and there are many excellent instruments of interest to collectors that can be bought for quite reasonable prices – some of the older Martins that don’t have a lot of ornamentation, for example, or a good Les Paul Junior or Special.

Guitar collecting really started about 1960, and has become increasingly popular through the years. Historically, instrument investments have had a good growth potential, and have returned more than bank interest would have. However, I think this was in part due to the instruments having been ridiculously underpriced to start with. About two years ago, prices began stabilizing on most items; and, while I don’t see any evidence that things will decline in value, I feel that the days of skyrocketing prices are past.

I have tried to outline the factors that make a guitar collectible, and it is obvious that most of my references have been to older instruments. I don’t wish to imply that no new guitars are, or will be, collector’s items. It is certainly possible to make a guitar today that has the potential to become a classic, provided that materials and skill equivalent to the older models are used. It may take a while before a new instrument can be said to have passed the test of time, but there are no doubt instruments being made by today’s master craftsmen that are destined to become the collector’s item of the future.