The prices for the most highly sought-after vintage guitars remain in outer space, but you can still spend plenty on bottom-barrel instruments from the same era—if you’re into that.
The link between guitars and cars has enjoyed an indelible bond for generations, and for good reason. Flashing chrome, curvaceous lines, aggressive angles, and the scent of latent power are the language of both these parallel worlds. To a young person who sets sail on the sea of life, the guitar can represent freedom and expression. Likewise, the automobile symbolizes—or literally delivers—the promise of a journey towards new horizons.
It’s no wonder that California’s Kar Kulture of the 1950s and ’60s also drove Fender—America’s most forward-looking guitar company—to emulate the styles and even borrow the names and colors of popular vehicles. Even stodgy Gibson copped the finned look of the ’50s to capitalize on our love affair with wheeled speed. The suits in Kalamazoo famously hired venerated auto-designer Raymond Dietrich to create the Firebird models, and in an act of reciprocity, General Motors borrowed the name for their Pontiac pony car five years later—touché.
Along with the jet age and space race, the world’s infatuation with cars and mobility was a defining factor in the arc of our industry. Even now it’s a presence felt in musical products, though it’s more of a romantic tie to the past in a sort of hipster retro-rehash as opposed to anyone’s love of E-Type Jaguars or Maseratis. Still, the symmetry continues to exist.
In tandem with the love of old-growth wood fashioned into musical instruments, our worship of mythology fuels the desire for instruments produced in the halcyon days of rock and blues. The emotional echo chamber of our dreams and desire for simple answers keeps us looking over our shoulder for clues on how to rock a more authentic life. Like wizened elders, old gear promises to reveal the secrets of a life well lived. The fact that these instruments sound incredible is merely the justification. These factors, and more, drive the prices of legendary gear upward into the stratosphere—where only high-flying tycoons or serial debtors can fly.
So what do mere mortals do? Many buy custom instruments carved out by people like me. It’s the modern-day trip to the blacksmith’s shop to be fitted for hand-hewn wares of a bespoke nature. But for a much larger contingent, the allure of possessing a vintage instrument still calls. As the saying goes, “a rising tide floats all boats,” and it’s never been truer than today’s hobbyist market. Classic Ferraris and Porsches are multi-million-dollar, blue-chip rolling investments that are rarely navigated down scenic country roads—let alone the drive-thru at Wendy’s. This offers an opportunity for next-tier hardware, as the vacuum sucks lesser gear into the “affordable” spotlight.
A quick scan of the automobile auction results show vehicles that were once viewed as footnotes are now collecting six- or even seven-figure sums. When pedestrian Mercedes sedans from the 1970s routinely blow through the quarter-million-dollar mark, that Corvette looks pretty tempting at $80k. Likewise, a Fender Starcaster (that wasn’t fit to be kindling when it was new) is suddenly the new darling of those who work for a living. The popularity of any given instrument is owed to many factors. Sometimes it’s a middle-finger salute to the status quo, but more often it’s purely affordability. All said, it’s amazing how we convince ourselves that rags can be riches.
I was lucky enough to be born at a time when those classic items were new. An old Telecaster was just a used guitar hanging in a pawnshop. The Jazzmaster was a redheaded stepchild and nobody cared about a single-cutaway Les Paul anymore. New artists today are chasing different sounds, and some of those tones are hiding in offbeat and previously overlooked guitars. But things change, as they will change again. The sun will rise, followed by the moon, and the tides will swell and float the yachts and the bay boats alike.
They have a saying in the collectibles world: “You can never spend too much, you can only sell too soon.” Now that the tide is in, I can’t afford the guitars of my youth, but I won’t play junk either. Thankfully I can make any guitar sound lousy.