Were the eighties good for more than nostalgia?

In the last two issues of Premier Guitar I discussed the Golden Eras of various American guitar makers, and I expressed the opinion that there have been no Golden Eras since the 1960s. Furthermore, I’m of the opinion that it is much harder to come up with a revolutionary idea now than it was in earlier eras, and consequently, we’re unlikely to see any future Golden Eras of guitar making. That assertion prompted some interesting thoughts from B.C. Rich enthusiast, David Kuther, that warrant further discussion about the fine lines between nostalgic designs, collectible instruments and true Golden Eras for guitar makers.

While certain guitars from makers like Jackson, Charvel and Kramer (above) have become highly sought-after, they do not have the clout of Golden Era instruments

Kuther has a different perspective and experience in the guitar market than do I or most of my clientele since I first started buying and selling used (they weren’t called vintage yet) instruments in the 1960s. I was part of the first wave of Baby Boomers born in the years after World War II, and much of the vintage instrument market as we know it today has been driven by my fellow Baby Boomers. The Golden Era electrics – the pre-CBS Fenders and the McCarty-era Gibsons – were made during my youth and played by the guitar gods of the 1960s. Kuther was a teenager in the 1980s and a member of Generation X, who, as he pointed out, had their own guitar gods and their own important guitars.

“Each generation creates a new sound and then when they get older, they long for the sound of their youth,” Kuther explained. “I grew up listening to Guns ‘N Roses, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Metallica, Whitesnake, Poison, L.A. Guns, Skid Row, Aerosmith, etc. – and that’s not a sound that was created on late-fifties Fenders and Gibsons.

“I’m 36 years old now,” he added, “and only in the past few years have I been in a position to spend any serious money on guitars. I imagine the same is true of anyone who came of age in the eighties and I think over the next 10-20 years we will see a major shift as the nostalgia factor for guitars like Eddie Van Halen’s Charvel really kicks in and people like myself have more disposable income to collect these types of guitars. Growing up, Van Halen, Satriani and Vai were my guitar gods, not Clapton and Page (although I’ve since come to appreciate them and I think they’re incredible as well – they’re just not ‘mine,’ they belong to my parents). And as I’m sure you’re aware, expensive reissues of guitars like Van Halen’s Frankenstrat are already in production.”

Kuther likened the vintage market to a time bomb that goes off 20-30 years after a guitar maker’s Golden Age. “Since Bernie Rico’s Golden Age was in the late seventies and eighties,” he said, “my guess is that the people who currently drive up the prices of the late-fifties Gibsons and Fenders are of a generation that doesn’t appreciate B.C. Rich. At some point I believe the collectible ‘vintage-market’ for B.C. Rich will rival that of Gibson, Fender, etc. It’s just a matter of people like me who grew up idolizing these guitars becoming old enough to have the disposable income to match their desire and support such a market.”

As evidence that demand for 1980s guitars is on the rise, Kuther points to Gibson’s new Les Paul Traditional, which Gibson markets as, “taking design and visual cues from the eighties and nineties.” Slash’s new signature model is also based on his 1987 Les Paul. And according to Kuther, Slash’s opening to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” has replaced Stairway to Heaven” as the most often-heard, badly played guitar line in guitar stores.

Kuther’s points are well-taken. I fully agree that every generation has its own nostalgia and that the U.S.-made guitars by B.C. Rich, Kramer and Jackson/Charvel are highly sought and considered collectible by many Gen-X players today. They will probably rise in value as Gen-Xers become more affluent. But I draw a line between nostalgia and Golden Era. Golden Era instruments are highly regarded not only for nostalgic reasons but also because they really are fundamentally different from anything that preceded them, and they have not been equaled by anything that has followed. Moreover, they were so well designed that many of the great Golden Era instruments are used today for music that was never imagined by the original designers.

The “dive-bomb” vibrato and “Super Strat” pickup configuration are certainly important refinements that delineate the guitars of the 1980s from those that preceded them, but not all the trend-setting designs of that era were actually new. Active electronics, for example, started with Alembic in 1969 and neckthru construction goes back to Bigsby in the late 1940s and Rickenbacker in the 1950s. The overriding factor that keeps the 1980s guitars from attaining Golden Era status is that they have yet to transcend the music of their era to become the tools on which new styles of music are created. It is my personal opinion that the true Golden Era classics will still be very highly regarded even 50 years from now, but I have serious doubts regarding how well the metal type guitars of the early to mid-eighties will fare in the future.

George Gruhn
has been dealing vintage guitars since the 1960s. Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars (co-written with Walter Carter) is the “bible” for vintage collectors. Visit www.gruhn.com or email gruhn@gruhn.com.

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