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When I was about 15, I got a job working for a very busy luthier who kept a small shop in the basement of the local music store, where he toiled away six days a week “improving” old guitars. Walk in with an original pre-CBS Strat suffering from a weather-checked finish, and he’d quickly strip and repaint it with a shiny, bulletproof poly finish. Those original pickups giving you 60-cycle hum? No problem, he’d route out that body and stick in three new humbuckers. The stock, noisy, “inferior” pickups were unceremoniously tossed in a junk box under his bench.
By ’85, nearly every week another old Les Paul or Strat would have its body routed for a Kahler or Floyd Rose whammy bar, leaving mountains of sawdust around the shop. The original nut was tossed in the garbage and the headstock was forever gouged out to make room for the locking nut. Prefer a stop-tail on your Strat? Or how about a brass nut? It seemed like every guitar and bass got one.
I watched as ’61 ES-335 tuners were upgraded to new Grovers, the originals tossed. Original volume and tone pots were dumped every day in favor of a grit-free new replacement. The few goldtops from ’52 to ’56 that came in the shop left with humbuckers, the original P-90s tossed into the junk box.
For some reason, the out-of-phase switch enjoyed a lot of popularity. My boss would swap out your original pickup, drill a hole in the top of your Les Paul, and—shazam—with the quick flip of a switch, your 1970 Les Paul Custom could sound thin and trebly through any amp.
It seemed like the majority of guitar greats modified their guitars, as well. Look at Clapton’s “Blackie”—which was put together using parts from several old Strats—or Alvin Lee’s red 335 with its Strat middle pickup. Or Pete Townshend with that middle pickup and those weird switches on his Les Paul Deluxe. Dickey Betts stripped the finish off his ’57 goldtop and painted it red. John Lennon hacked up his ’56 Les Paul Junior with a new bridge, neck pickup, and an LP switch, then stripped off the finish. He also stripped his Epi Casino and Gibson J-160E. Eddie Van Halen, SRV, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Albert Lee all similarly defaced old guitars. Hot-rodding was the norm, not something esoteric.
With all that routing, stripping, painting, pot-changing, pickup-swapping, whammy-bar-installing, tuner-upgrading, etc., etc., going on for most of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, one has to wonder where all of these non-original guitars have gone. Look on eBay, and all you see are “all original,” “completely stock” guitars from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It just doesn’t add up. Twenty years ago, if you randomly checked 100 Strats from the ’70s owned by working musicians, more than likely at least half of them would have a humbucker routed in the bridge. But check eBay and it’s unlikely you will find even one, so unless somebody has a Delorean and a flux capacitor that they employ to travel back in time to a period that predates the hot-rod ’80s, somebody is lying. There simply cannot be that many old guitars on the market that survived the ’80s unaltered.
I don’t mind modifications. Vintage buffs may consider this heresy, but there are times when old guitars need a little updating. I have a 1969 Gibson ES-340 with original “patent-sticker” pickups that I never played. This incredibly cool guitar just laid there like lox until I installed DiMarzio PAFs (although I did safely store the original pickups in case I should ever sell or trade the guitar). Now the guitar sings. I love it and use it often. Here’s the irony: This great modded guitar is now technically worth less then the bad-sounding stock version.
If a guitar needs a little tweak, I do it without regret. Every year, I change tuning keys that break, pots that go bad, switches that break, knobs that fall off, and cases that are destroyed by airlines. I’ve also changed saddles when I’ve had tuning issues (Graph Tech is my go-to brand). I replace and repair whatever needs it, and I don’t worry about it—because I’m a player, not a collector.
A good deal of the used gear for sale today has at one time been owned by players like me. This gear has seen wear, tear, and mods. Original gear retains more value, and that being the case, buyers should get what they pay for. Regrettably, there are some unscrupulous people selling gear as “all original” when it’s not, effectively swindling buyers in the process. There are also sellers that have no idea they are selling gear that is not original. Be skeptical about a pristine, 40-year-old guitar. Unless the instrument was purchased and then stored under a bed until it went up for sale, more than likely something has happened to it. You don’t want to pay “10” prices for what is actually a “5.” Be cautious about buying a guitar you’ve never played. But if you find an old player’s guitar with nothing original on it, it may be amazing because somebody spent years getting the guitar right. And it will cost you less.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville-based guitarist who works primarily in TV and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger.