For most of us, the quest is for tone. Then it’s playability. Or is it the other way around? What good is extraordinary tone if you can’t play the thing? And what good is a guitar that plays like butter but sounds like crap? So let’s call it both. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Originality? Condition? Rarity? Looks? Provenance? Well, from my experience, it all depends on who is buying. I don’t have a degree in psychology (but I took a psych course in college once-does that count?) but I’ve learned a thing or two about folks who buy vintage guitars. Some play and listen and are sold (or not) on that basis alone. No questions, no worries about its history or provenance and no worries about whether one of the saddles got changed in 1963. Some ask 1000 questions and still can’t decide which guitar is right for them. And I don’t blame them-a vintage guitar can be a huge investment as well as your tool of your trade. But the one thing that all of you can do is take advantage of my experience.
I’ve owned 600 ES-335, 345 and 355’s and played every one of them. Tweaked and set up most of them as well. If I can make it play and sound better before I sell it, then it’s my obligation to do so. Likewise, if it has some changed parts, it behooves me to change what I can to make it as right as possible (and disclose it). But lets go back to the original premise here. I called the post “Bargain Basement” and the reason it’s called that is because you can get the playability and tone of a great 58-64 for half the cost or less. There are some kind of dumb rules that apply (that I didn’t make) to vintage guitars. We all know that originality trumps everything. Neck repair? Half the value. Refinish? Half the value. Bigsby? Knock off 15-25%. Grovers? Knock off $1000-$4000. Refret? I dunno-depends how good the fret job is. Buckle rash? Missing some binding? replaced nut? There are lots of things that affect the value but don’t necessarily change the two big factors of tone and playability.
Let’s take a stop tail refinished block neck-say it’s a 64. If original, that’s a $20,000 guitar more or less depending on condition. The refin drops it to $10000 or maybe a little more if it’s a really good job. $10K for a killer player 64 with all of its original parts that can sound 100% as good as any with an original finish is a bargain. Especially with new ones getting up over $6000. Make it a Bigsby/Custom made version and set it up as a stop tail and you could be at $8000. In 5 years, that brand new reissue you paid $6K for will be worth $4K or less. That $8000 64? I’ll bet you a dot neck and raise you a tweed Bassman that its worth the same or more in 5 years. Headstock break? If properly repaired, it cuts the value in half but most of the time it will have no effect on playability or tone. Add in some other benign changes like Grovers or some good repro parts and you could drop the cost below that of the high end reissue.
Want to save even more? Buy a mid 60’s 335. I’ve seen plenty of 65’s with early patent number pickups (same as a PAF) and I’ve seen plenty of pre T-tops right up to mid 69. If you can manage the narrow nut, you can get a killer player for under $4000 if its refinished or repaired. Don’t like the trap tail? Have your luthier or tech convert it to a stop. You aren’t going to hurt the value any further-just make sure he puts it in the right location. Want to save even more? Make it a 345 or a 355. I’ve picked up some junkers that have played great and sounded great. In fact one of the best sounding 335’s I’ve ever played cost me around $8K less than 5 years ago. It was a refinished early 62 (dot neck). I wish I had it back. I’ve had $40,000 59’s that didn’t sound as good as that one. I also had a killer 65 with a neck repair that cost me $2500. Not in the top ten but still a great player.
So, ask all the questions, play as many as you need to and, above all else, be happy with the guitar you buy. No, be ecstatic. It should make you play more, play better and play happy. Ultimately, when it comes to the important stuff, buy what you can afford. If the one you can afford doesn’t do all of the above, wait for one that does. They are out there for sure.