Guitar market strikes a nostalgic chord

Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. Flame-topped Gibson Les Pauls. In one upside to a down economy, collectors are finding there’s a string of vintage options on the market — and some lower prices.

Signature guitars of the rock ‘n’ roll era — candy-colored Fender Stratocasters, slab-bodied Fender Telecasters, flame-topped Gibson Les Pauls and voluptuously shaped Gretsch hollow bodies — are symbols of a uniquely American pop culture that continues to excite guitar enthusiasts. But aside from their nostalgia value, they’ve proved to be good investments.

A Gibson Les Paul Standard that sold in 1958 for less than $300, including the guitar case, can now fetch $420,000 or more — an average annual gain of 32% since 2000, according to vintage guitar price guides.

But in today’s economy, some onetime investors are looking to cash out: More and more of these prized instruments, long held in the hands of collectors, are turning up in music shops throughout Southern California.

Collectors and guitar dealers have two pieces of advice: If you own one and can afford to, hang on to it — prices may have dipped recently but they will rise again. But if you’re in the market for one, there are plenty on the market as the economy forces people to sell. And bargains can be found.

Actor and musician Billy Mumy has long been a collector, although he points out, “I don’t have any guitars I don’t use.”

For Mumy, collecting old guitars was initially a practical matter. “In the late ’70s, and for the bulk of the ’80s, I think, nobody was making good guitars. If you walked into a store and played the older stuff, you realized there was a gigantic difference between the guitars made in the ’50s and ’60s and the stuff that was being made in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Mumy has seen the prices of vintage instruments escalate over the years. “I remember when a ’58 Les Paul was $12,000 and I thought ‘$12,000? No way!’ Now some of those guitars are like half a million.”

Even if one can’t afford the often astronomical sums these guitars can command — $12,000 is not an uncommon figure for a “player’s condition” ’60s-era Fender Stratocaster that, new, sold for less than $250 — the dedicated fan can spend hours, even days, in Southern California looking at some of the greatest six-string instruments ever made.

Inquiries on the rise

Drew Berlin and David Belzer operate Guitar Center’s Vintage Room in Hollywood. Berlin noted that they are getting calls from sellers “every day.”

“There are a couple of good things about that,” Belzer said. “Yes, there are people trying to sell things they bought at the top of the market, and we tell them, ‘If you don’t need to sell, try to hang in there.’ The other side is that there’s a lot of original-owner, family-owned guitars that are coming [on the market] now.”

Ellen Harper of Claremont Folk Music Center said sellers who have decided to cash in their old instruments because they need the money might have unreasonable expectations because of the high prices some of the “holy grail” type of instruments have been commanding.

“My theory is — because we see instruments come in here all the time — people that used to come in were kind of desperate to sell, but right now people want to be able to replace their [paycheck],” Harper said. “Some of those people will come back two or three times with lowered expectations. People are hurting and they need money.”

Ken Daniels, owner of Truetone Music in Santa Monica, has been in the business for over 30 years and has observed that the vintage guitar market can be cyclical. Often, a deciding factor for a particular guitar’s desirability are the players associated with it.

“In the early ’80s, Gibson ES-335s from the ’50s and ’60s were hot as a pistol,” Daniels noted. “You had guys like Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon who were all 335 cats. All of a sudden, here comes Eddie Van Halen and the whole ‘hockey-stick headstock’ era started and all those iconic instruments sort of fell out of favor. During that time, 335s went up to $5 or $6 grand and then a year or two later, you were lucky to get half that.”

The prices eventually rebounded and, currently, pristine examples from the late ’50s can sometimes command up to nearly $40,000, depending on various appointments and finishes.

Norman Harris of Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana says, “The love people have for these instruments has not diminished. They want them. They dream about them. They look at pictures of them. It’s like great cars. When things turn around, I’m sure they’ll go up accordingly.”

At McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Jessica Huebner said the market value of vintage guitars had increased at a steady rate for more than two decades.

“When I started to get aware of it was about 15 years ago,” she said. “It sort of depended on what [model of guitar] it was. It’s been a steady increase, regardless. The explosion happened probably in the ’80s when people became hyper-aware of the ’50s and ’60s being special.”

Then there are the rare birds.

Daniels at Truetone told of the recent sale of an unusual 1958 Fender Stratocaster outfitted with uncommon factory gold hardware and showing virtually no player wear. “It came from the original owner in Manhattan Beach,” said Daniels. “It was the first year of the three-color sunburst. There’s always a segment of the population that will pay for the really primo stuff and here’s a rare guitar. Just a stunning piece. That sold for about $55,000.”

Guitar Center’s Berlin sees some new trends developing. “Dealing with younger bands and being located here on Sunset, we have a sense of what’s coming, and early ’70s stuff is hot, late-’60s stuff is hot.” Belzer noted that “acoustic [guitars] are hot right now — ’70s Martins.”

With prices for fine stringed instruments remaining beyond the budgets of most guitar fans, Daniels pointed out some less-expensive options. “There’s a lot of underappreciated stuff out there that’s still really affordable: There are things like Danelectros, Silvertones and other things that were lesser brands. Harmony, Kay and that stuff that are kitschy-cool and most of them are wholly usable as instruments.”

Composer, performer and session player Michael Georgiades, who has recorded with Bernie Leadon and Johnny Rivers, puts things in perspective. “I had a Martin 000-28 my dad got me in 1963. The Beatles hit in about ’64 and I acquired a ’58 Strat. I’ve kept all that stuff. Sentimental value. I’ve been acquiring guitars all along. There was no ‘vintage’ terminology years ago. These were just used guitars.”

By Michael Albo 
May 2, 2009,