New Guitars v Vintage Guitars Article

Just read an interesting article in the latest issue of Guitar and Bass (Oct 2015) with vintage guitar specialist Phil Harris – Basically he talks about the merits of a vintage guitar from the ‘golden era’ when compared to similar models from a more recent period – Phil makes a very valid point that Jimi Hendrix never played vintage guitars and to a large degree neither did Hank Marvin – The guitars they played at the time were effectively new guitars – They have only become vintage guitars once we moved on 30, 40 or 50 years – Phil goes on to make very valid claims for the tonal character and playing performance of guitars that were built after the ‘golden era’ – Granted all the USA Guitar builders, Martin, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Fender and Gibson, took a serious decline in build quality, playing performance and tonal quality, throughout the 70’s – A combination of corporate company buy outs , coupled with ‘bean counter accountants’ not knowing the difference between various ingredients that would help to differentiate a good guitar from a bad guitar (remember that once it is hung up on the dealers wall a good and bad guitar still look identical) – Add to that a serious increase in production runs, without all the advantages of today’s CNC technology, so looking back it was no surprise that the 70’s was at best an indifferent period – Yet as the 80’s arrived and now we have moved on another 3 decades the quality of ‘vintage replicas’ has never been better – All the talk about old guitars are better than new, effectively started in the 70’s and looking back it is easy to see why – Fender and Gibson never intentionally intended to build an inferior guitar, it was as a consequence of many issues and if both companies had continued in the same manner as per their own golden era, then would the vintage market have ever happened ? – Who knows – Yet today Fender and Gibson, via their own Custom Shop divisions, both build excellent new ‘replica’ guitars that are every bit as fine as the good old ones and certainly better than the bad old ones

It is impossible to argue with the mystique and history that is part of the package with vintage guitars, along with pride of ownership, but for now let’s just put a blind fold on, then judge a vintage guitar alongside a more recent model, so as to compare the playing performance and tonal quality, then see how the land lies – This task was actually undertaken around 4 years ago in the violin industry by over 20 members of a symphony orchestra – The task was to compare on a blind fold basis, the fine legendary violin builders from Cremona – Amati, Guarneri and Stradivai, alongside 3 modern violins, hand crafted with strong influences from Cremona – Each instrument had to be played, then evaluated on playability, projection, tone colours and response – The violin players were blind folded, placed in a dark room, all violins dabbed with a touch of perfume on the chin rest, so as to remove any old aroma that might give the game away – Players were handed the violins one at a time without been told which was which – After an initial evaluation they could go back and reappraise any of the 6 violins for a longer period – Without getting into all the finer detail, I will quote from the article ‘The upshot was that from the players point of view the modern violins in the study were as good as and often better than their 18th century forebears – The combined value of the 3 forebears was around $10 million, whilst the combined value of the modern instruments was around $100,000 – Maybe it proves if nothing else that if you can’t afford a Strad then don’t despair – That final comment is so valid and applies today to say a Custom Shop Relic Strat when compared to any pre-CBS Strat

If I look at some of our famous Strat hero’s and regardless weather you admire the player or not, the following guitarists, for whatever reason, all choose to play on a regular basis Custom Shop and/or Masterbuilt Strats – Hank Marvin, John Mayer, Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour, Eric Clapton just to name a few but there are many many more I could add to that list

Not all old guitars are good and this is a fact that is not even worth a hint of a discussion – World renowned pick up builder, Jason Lollar makes a similar observation when he talks about ‘the straight truth about pick-ups’ and again I quote ‘ The magic that is found in some (but not all) was created by accident and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’ – He then goes into discus that if you examine 100s of exceptional classic pick-ups, you then acquire a full understanding of how to replicate that magic – That is precisely what has happened with the likes of Fender and Gibson Custom Shop and that is why today we see so many fine vintage replicas on the market place

In many ways my comments above are based on a blind fold test whereby you compare the feel and tonal qualities which in truth are the key parameters – Yet if you can’t afford 10K, 20K or 30K for a vintage Strat then you certainly can’t justify buying one – Equally, if you can easily afford the 10K, 20K or 30K then you probably don’t need to justify it – Yet at those prices, fear would take over my judgement, as is that ‘all original 1962 Strat’ everything that they are claiming it to be – This is a different story altogether for another day, but in passing it is still a very valid comment – Yet the last 3 pre-CBS Strats that have been offered to me by private customers, with a view to a purchase or trade in, were at best mediocre – Customers had placed values in excess of £4000 to £5000 on each guitar as a buying price, yet all 3 guitars needed serious money spending on them to allow them to be brought up to scratch regarding the playing performance – All 3 required a good refret – One had an original pick-up that was dead – Granted the likes of Tim at Bare Knuckles can re-wire it, but then is it original (I’m sure Tim knows how to wind a pick up just as well any member of staff did at Fender in 1962, but to a collector that is then not the point) – All had various issues and changes with regards to pots, switches, tuners and or saddles – One had already had a bad modern 2 pack refin undertaken some while ago, so a good vintage style refin, be it NOS or relic, would set you back £700-£1000 from the likes of Clive Brown – I’m sure as a basic chassis then all 3 guitars were fine, but all 3 needed £1000-£2000 spending on them to make them viable as a playable instrument – So on that basis why not simply buy a new or used Custom Shop Strat, albeit nos or relic finish – Furthermore, if you want to customise a more recent Strat with a Callaham bridge assembly or customise any pick-up options, then you can easily do so without having to worry about any consequences to ‘vintage values’

The longer I leave this article on my web site, the more water that will have flown under the bridge – However whilst writing this article I received notification of a selection of guitars to be offered for sale in an up and coming auction – Granted I have not played it so I can’t fully evaluate it, but I will quote their own details as it appears on the auction listing ‘ 1964 Fender Strat – serial number L15930, neck stamped 2 Feb 64B, one visible pot code reading of 3046334, fiesta red re-fin circa 1985 – previous neck straighten, replaced headstock decal, neck re-fin – re-fret – current frets worn, some replacement screws, electrics appear to be in order – price is expected to be around £3000-5000 plus auction fees and appropriate vat – It sounds to me that £3000 will be fine, but £5000 + fees etc will take it in excess of £5600 – Yet either way it sounds like a visit to a good work bench is required – Why not buy the Custom Shop version for £2000/2500 and have change for a nice European break in the sun

The whole discussion is open ended with many different view points – I personally believe that on a blind fold test I would be very disappointed if I could not tell the difference between a Custom Shop Strat and say a £300-£500 imported Strat from the far east, yet equally the difference between a pre-CBS Strat and a Custom Shop Strat is far harder to detect – Regarding the tonal qualities of old v new, then I think we have just about nailed it, as the difference is far more minimal than ever before – Regarding the playing performance, certainly with modern radius fingerboards and larger frets, I think today that the team at Fender and Gibson Custom Shop are now ahead of the game and maybe this is the most important aspect of the whole issue – If you can’t play it very easily then what is the point of it all, be it any guitar, from any period of history – A recent article with Santana asked him what he thought made a good guitar neck – He effectively stated that he was not clearly able to suggest what constituted a good neck, but could far more easily talk about the merits of a bad neck – He suggested it was like going for a jog when you have a bad cold – You may still get to the other end, but you know it was hard work, whilst on a good day it becomes effortless and to me that just about sums it up.