I get asked this all the time. “How do I get a “Golden Era” player without breaking the bank, upsetting my wife and raiding my child’s college savings?”
There are a few ways-some obvious and some not so obvious. Some will get you a great player but a lousy investment (which is sometimes just fine). Some will get you a beat up piece of crap that sounds and plays horribly. The key word here is “player”. “Player” doesn’t mean a piece of crap. It means just what it says and that infers a guitar you can actually play (and sound good doing so). Typically, when a guitar goes up for sale in a public marketplace like Ebay or Craigslist, the seller describes it in such a way as to get you to buy it. That often means not disclosing stuff that will stop you from doing so. The lie of omission is rampant so ask a lot of questions. If the seller doesn’t know the answer, get lots of photos and prepare to pass on the guitar. There are certain issues that drop the price drastically and most of you are probably aware of them. The good news is that many of them have nothing-and I mean nothing-to do with how the guitar plays or sounds.
The best way to get a great guitar for cheap is to buy one thats been refinished. That generally cuts the price in half and, unless somebody dumps a vat of poly on the guitar, has little or no effect on the tone. A bad refinish sounds the same as a good one most of the time. You can argue that poly finishes don’t “breathe” and affect the tone of the guitar. I’ll stay out of that for now. Also, I almost never see poly finishes on refinished 335’s. The next big price cutter is a repair. Any repair. Headstock breaks are good for 50% off in most cases and are often stable and a non issue. I would suggest that you get a lot of photos and show them to your local luthier because a bad repair will affect the playability and possibly the tone of your prospective purchase. The little “smile” crack that is typical is not generally that big an issue. They are relatively easy to repair and often completely stable. You know-the old “glue is stronger than the wood” theory. A headstock that has been broken off and reattached requires a little more scrutiny. I stay away from them but some are quite stable. The best repair? If you can get a good enough deal, get a guitar with a repaired hole somewhere. I recently got a great player for a great price because it had a repaired hole from a mini switch. I also had a dot neck a while back that had a small repair under the pick guard that was as good a player as any $40000 dot. Unless you pulled the guard, it looked just as good, too. It probably saved the buyer $10000 or more. Tuner holes and removed Bigsby holes can save you thousands and don’t affect anything. Changed tuners don’t have much to do with tone and often are an improvement in tuning stability (another story). These are the obvious ones but there are other things that can save you a ton but might not make you happy.
Changed parts are a good way to save a buck and you can always replace them when you feel like it down the road. A repro ABR-1 sounds the same as an original. A Tone Pros or other aftermarket bridge might sound even better. A repro tailpiece will make no difference in tone nor will changed tuners. Knobs and other plastic is strictly cosmetic but they still can have a big effect on the price. It’s pretty easy to negotiate $1000 off a 58-60 missing its long guard because everybody knows that $1000 is about what they cost. Missing PAFs should really knock down the price of an early example but expect to pay $4000 or more to replace them if you don’t like the pickups that are in the guitar. Most folks don’t care much if a guitar has a vintage correct bridge, tailpiece or plastic as opposed to the actual originals. You couldn’t possibly prove they weren’t original unless the wear patterns are wildly different between components (again, another story). But when the pickups are replaced and the solder broken, folks get concerned. Again, a broken solder joint won’t affect the tone or the playability but it will affect the investment value of the guitar. But you wanted a player, so don’t worry about the investment value. Next, we’ll look at some things to avoid and some not so obvious ways to save a buck or two.