A forest of guitars on the floor of the Chicago Guitar Show.
At the vintage market’s peak, guitars were one of the sexiest investments around. Now, two years later and 30 percent lower, what’s in store for the vintage market? We head to the Chicago Guitar Show to find out. Sitting with Dave Crocker and John Brinkmann, two parts of the prominent 4 Amigos show organization, on the second day of the Chicago Guitar Show, things were both looking and sounding better than they expected. I’d made the four-hour drive to St. Charles, IL, to spend a day finding out what state the vintage guitar market was in, and the first impressions were promising.

There was a steady, robust stream of players coming through the doors of the 23,000 square foot DuPage Expo Center, even on one of the first truly beautiful weekend afternoons of the summer season. The tabletops stretched from corner to corner without leaving any significant holes in the floor plan, and all were well stocked with beautiful pieces. Abbreviated guitar and amp demos bounced off the walls and floated around the room—thanks to flyers littered around the hall requesting that players limit their testing to one minute, for the sake of the acoustic dealers in attendance. Dealers eyed the front entrance for walk-ins. You might not call it a smash success, but for all intents and purposes, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. I asked the two amigos about their impressions of the show thus far.

Dave Crocker (left) and John Brinkman (right).
“Saturday was a good day. Traffic was about what it was last year, maybe down a little bit,” says Crocker, a 30-year veteran of the vintage world and owner of Fly-By-Night Music in Neosho, MO. I got the feeling that he keeps a very precise pulse on the show’s comings and goings, and that he’s been pleasantly surprised by the outcome. “We’re not seeing as much stuff walk in as we did last year, but there have been a few pieces—a ’58 EB2 [Gibson electric bass] just walked in with an original owner.”

Although it may seem a bit odd for a longtime show organizer and savvy vintage player to be pleased with flat traffic numbers, it’s a sharp reflection of the odd place the vintage market has found itself in. Recently one of the hottest investment opportunities available to people with nostalgic memories and cash to burn, the vintage market is now down 20 to 30 percent from its 2007 peak, with oversaturated pockets of the market down even further. It has been battered by the same economic forces that have plagued every other collectible market in the US, from muscle cars to guns. An accelerating foreclosure rate, pervasive consumer uncertainty and a drastic contraction of the credit markets brought the emphasis from high-end investments and “pleasure” purchases back to the essentials.

But, interestingly enough, even as the general economic news continues to look unimpressive at best, most of the dealers gathered for the third show of the 4 Amigos 2009 calendar seemed to be optimistic, albeit cautiously so. Perhaps it’s because any investment market is, at its core, a confidence game. If you can first sell yourself on a turnaround, you can sell others on it, too. Or perhaps it’s because it is difficult to extinguish people’s deeply-held excitement in a “passion” market like the guitar. Whatever the reason, it seemed that even the most buffeted dealers were looking forward to the coming months with high hopes instead of high anxiety.

“After Dallas [in April], even the other dealers I talked to there said they had seen an increasein sales before Dallas, and it’s been brisk ever since. I think we’ve turned a corner,” says Jim Singleton, owner of Jim’s Guitars, as we sat in his compact, U-shaped booth. “Things are starting to pick up.”