Guitars Worth Leaving Behind
An interesting yet disturbing trend of late in the vintage-guitar market is perfectly correct instruments being parted out to meet the demand for rare hardware.
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of legacy we’ll leave behind. I’m not talking about big ideas like curing cancer or saving the planet from harm. What I am talking about are much more diminutive contributions, or actually, lack of action.
A few years ago, I awoke one morning to the sound of chainsaws drifting across my property. I live in a somewhat rural area surrounded by rough, hilly terrain and forest, and have a 600-foot driveway that winds past a section of a neighbor’s land. Following the sounds of trees being felled, I arrived at the point where my plot met his. Seeing me, my neighbor looked up, killed his smoking Stihl saw, and walked over to chat. He explained that his livestock hobby needed more grazing land, so he’d decided to level an acre of tall trees and shrubs.
I wanted to continue to enjoy the privacy that the foliage afforded when entering my driveway, so of course I was being selfish as I urged him to reconsider. But it also struck me as irresponsible to just trash an acre of old-growth trees. I’m an advocate of responsible wood harvesting and an avid fan of reclamation, so I reminded him that his deed would remain long after he moved on. Upon consideration, my neighbor compromised and merely thinned out some of his land. This column, however, isn’t directly about forests being decimated for musical instrument use. It’s about stewardship of what already exists.
Although the vintage-guitar trade has existed in one form or another for decades, most of what we consider the “golden age” instruments were built before 1965, the year a big conglomerate snatched up the most visible of guitar companies and laid their offerings to waste in search of profits. The guitar boon fueled by the first British invasion had manufacturers ramping up around the globe, and guitar-shaped-objects of all kinds flooded the market. Most of them were junk, or so we thought at the time. Truth be told, a lot of classic sounds and great music was made on those cheesy guitars, even if they were cheaply built and difficult to play.
Today, the “Pre-BS” guitars are priced out of reach for mere mortals, but a rising tide floats all boats, so the inevitable result is that even the junk is getting spendy. A lot of my Signature Series builds revolve around repurposed parts from the golden age, so I’m painfully aware of this inflation. I’d never tear apart a museum-quality telephone switchboard for the wire and hardware, but a stripped-out chassis might be fair game. That way I feel as though I’m giving new life to orphaned components. Still, somehow I’m complicit in the hot-rod-scorched-earth scenario. What’s really gotten my attention recently, though, is that it seems there’s a lot more complete equipment being parted out to meet the demand for rare hardware. Even the junk guitars are coming apart to feed the frenzy. I’ve witnessed good guitars being sold piecemeal for beyond what they could fetch whole. In a weird and distorted version of a pay-as-you-go plan, guitars are disassembled, scattered, and then reassembled in a sort of musical chairs fashion. The result is a whole bunch of non-original, yet correct-parts guitars, and I think this is crazy. A friend of mine confirms the same thing is going on with vintage Leslie speakers, and I know for a fact that classic cars are not immune. Market forces in action.
I was recently tempted by an eBay auction of a semi-collectible Gibson carcass that I could have easily resurrected to its former glory in my shop—but I stopped short when I realized the seller had listed the rest of the guitar elsewhere. My reluctance didn’t change the facts, but I still couldn’t do it. If I could’ve talked to the seller like I’d done with my neighbor, would things be any different?
Not too long after the tree-cutting episode, my neighbor divorced, sold the livestock, and moved to Boston. I still enjoy the trees that border the south end of my acreage. It made me think about both the environment and the instruments we leave for future generations. Will you be the informed and charitable curator of musical instruments, or the guy who routed out a perfectly correct instrument for a humbucker or tremolo? Will your heirs squabble over a collection of beautiful and historic guitars, or merely a hacked-up pile of parts? With the luxury of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to judge the trespasses of others, but it’s more difficult to know when you are crossing a line you—or others—may regret later.
Jol Dantzig is a noted designer, builder, and player who co-founded Hamer Guitars, one of the first boutique guitar brands, in 1973. Today, as the director of Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to help define the art of custom guitar. To learn more, visit guitardesigner.com.