gruhn guitars

Watch a ’59 Strat & a ’59 ES-335 Get Refretted in Under 10 Minutes

In the debut episode of our new DON'T Do It Yourself? series, repair gurus from Gruhn Guitars in Nashville demonstrate an exceptionally delicate procedure on two classic axes.

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Each brand of guitars has its own "golden era." Read to learn how we break it down.

Older is not necessarily better. Typically, the most desirable instruments are from a maker’s accepted “Golden Age.”
As an appraiser as well as a dealer of vintage and used instruments, I constantly have to place dollar values on instruments. And I often hear back from owners who don’t understand why their instrument was appraised at a certain value.

While appraisals can be subjective, based on the appraiser’s feel for the market at that moment, there are certain factors that form the foundation of virtually all appraisals.

Instruments made by famous luthiers or manufacturers are typically more valuable than those by lesser-known makers. This makes sense; Martin, Fender, Gibson, D’Angelico, Stromberg, etc., became famous because their instruments were superior to those of the competition. A great guitar by an unknown maker will rarely sell for as much as a similar model by a famous maker.

Some models are far more sought after than others, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the cost of making the guitar. A smallbody Martin, for example, costs almost the same to manufacture as a dreadnought, but the demand for dreadnoughts makes them significantly more valuable than the smaller sizes. In the electric market, new Jazzmasters and Jaguars were more expensive in the early 1960s than Strats and Teles, but the market demand is much higher today for Strats and Teles, so they bring more money.

Older is not necessarily better. Typically, the most desirable instruments are from a maker’s accepted “Golden Age.” Martins made before the advent of steel-string bracing in the late 1920s are not as highly sought or as valuable as the newer (relatively speaking) examples from the 1930s.
With individual luthiers, the finest instruments by any hand-builder are likely to be the most recent ones, since a luthier almost certainly is a better builder now than he was when he was just starting out. That same pattern holds true through Gibson’s original production period for Les Paul Standards (1952-60), where the original goldtop is the least valuable and values increase with each newer version of the model up to 1959.

Generally, the cleaner the better, but structural condition is equally as important as cosmetic condition.

Collectors place a great premium on a fully original, pristine example of a prime collectible, but such pieces are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Repair and restoration is a controversial issue. An instrument that has been refretted will bring less than one with original frets, but if an instrument is good enough to be played with any regularity, a refret is inevitable. As pristine original instruments become scarcer, collectors are becoming more and more accepting of routine repairs. The better the repair and restoration work, the more valuable the instrument will be, although it will never regain the value of a pristine, unaltered original.

Supply and Demand
Rarity does not always equate with value. It usually does equate with low sales and lack of public interest at the time the model was new. Some of the most valuable instruments today, such as prewar Martin D-45s or 1958-59 Gibson Flying Vs, fall into that category. Numerous other instruments are rare simply because they were not good instruments, and they deservedly have little or no vintage appeal. On the other hand, some highly desirable instruments, such as pre-CBS Stratocasters and 1958-60 sunburst Les Pauls, are not nearly as rare as some other models, but demand is still greater than supply, and that translates to higher prices.

Planned rarity doesn’t count. Limited-run “instant collectibles” fall into the same category as limited-edition commemorative plates or coins. While many are exceptionally fine guitars, the majority never generate any higher level of demand – or value relative to the market – than when they were new.

Sound and Playability
In evaluating vintage instruments or setting prices, the sound of an individual instrument makes relatively little difference. A 1959 Les Paul with a highly figured top and average sound will bring more money than the bestsounding example with a plain top. A clean 1937 Martin D-28 with average sound will bring more than a beat or refinished one with a fantastic sound.

Prior Precedent
Just as a home appraiser uses “comps”– prices of comparable houses that have recently sold – I consider previous sale prices, gained from my own experience and from other dealers. Unfortunately, there is no database for comparable guitar prices as there is for homes. The price guides are not comps; they are asking prices. Just as in the housing market, asking is not getting, and the true market value may not be anywhere near asking prices.

Celebrity ownership can push the value of a guitar far beyond its collectible or utilitarian value. I take into account the importance of the celebrity owner, how extensively they used this particular instrument, how many instruments they had, and how frequently their pieces come on the market. Needless to say, documentation of celebrity ownership and use is critical.

The bottom line is that an instrument’s value is the amount someone will pay for it. It’s ultimately a guess, but if all of the above factors are considered, the guesswork is minimized.

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 or email

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.

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