In the last post, I discussed three elements-uh, let’s see, there was tone, there was playability and there was one more. Oh, yeah, the Department of Energy. No, that was Rick Perry. It was great looks. The fourth element worthy of some discussion is originality. For the collector, it’s really important-to some more so than playability or tone. But there are some paradoxes when it comes to originality that probably drive collectors nuts.
First, there is a limit. I did have a 66 Stratocaster come into my shop from the original owner who tried to play it for a month when he was a kid (now in his 60’s) that still had five of its original strings. Apparently, he got discouraged when he broke the E string and never played it again. But, as the title of the post implies, I don’t care about the strings. And, to be fair, collectors don’t care either. It’s kind of cool that 50 year old guitars exist that still have their original strings but seriously, nobody cares. It’s like buying a classic automobile that still has it’s first tank of gas in it. The gas will be about as good as those strings. Beyond the original strings, there is room for debate. Some stuff, I care about. Some stuff I don’t.
Here’s the tricky part. You can’t know for absolutely certain that any removable part is original. Oh yeah?, you say-what if it’s the original owner and he knows he never changed any parts? Well, that will give you a fair level of assurance except when he brought it to his local luthier for a setup and the unscrupulous luthier scavenged the PAFs and replaced them with fakes. It happened to a 60 ES-345 I bought from its original owner in North Carolina a few years back. When I buy a guitar that is supposedly all original, I look at a few things. First, I check to see if all the parts are from the correct era. That’s easy. It won’t tell me if the part is original but if it’s vintage correct, I don’t really care because you simply can’t know for sure. But then I look at the wear pattern on the guitar. If the body is beat to hell but the gold is still on the tailpiece, an alarm goes off in my head. If the hardware is perfect and the neck has heavy player wear, there’s that alarm again. This type of forensics is really useful and generally follows simple logic. The guitar and all it parts should make sense as a used guitar. The less wear the guitar has, the easier it is to make the assumption of originality. That’s simply because there’s less evidence that tells you something is wrong. Counter intuitive, right? Sort of. But it’s harder to find a mint part than a worn part, so it makes sense.
Frets are a great indicator of a few things . If they are original and not worn much, the guitar probably either didn’t get played much or had flat wounds on it. It doesn’t tell me much about the rest of the guitar though. I do not care if a guitar is re-fretted as long as it’s done well. A serious collector will care and I understand that. If I’m looking for my holy grail guitar (59 stop tail 355 mono in black?), I won’t care about the frets (or much else). And that’s an important element. The real serious collectible and valuable ES models are often rare. Even the “common” ones are pretty rare in the over all scheme of things with hundreds, not thousands made. I had a buyer looking for a 59 mono big neck 355 the other day. I had a good one but it had been re-fretted and he decided to wait for one that wasn’t. Any big neck 355 is rare, monos more so. I hope he’s a patient man. There are probably less than 50 of them.
So, what else don’t I care about? Tuner tips on a 59-most are shrunken and if they are replaced, it isn’t a big deal to me. Saddles. Again, if they are correct, I don’t care (they should have the mill marks on the flat side). Saddles got lost all the time with a no wire bridge. Any part that is removable without evidence of it having been removed has to be vintage correct and have a wear pattern that makes sense. Otherwise I care. Use common sense and logic. If a part looks wrong for the guitar its on, it probably is wrong. Even if you know its vintage correct.
So, if you’re a collector looking for the most original guitar you can find, learn what’s correct and apply some simple forensics. You’ll be more comfortable with your choice and you’ll probably be right. Buying from a reputable dealer who knows his stuff will probably reassure you as well. As the old Russian proverb goes, Doveryai, no proveryai (trust but verify). And you thought President Reagan came up with that.