How many times have you asked that very question when examining a vintage guitar (or amp)? Somebody puts in mini-switches or spray paints the back of the headstock black or cuts a big hole in the back? The issue is, of course, issues (do I sound like an existentialist?). After decades of ownership (and many owners), most vintage guitars are going to have an issue. Tuner changes are probably the most common on ES’s but there are plenty of others. But issues like that are quantifiable. You know why they were done and they really aren’t hiding anything. You put Grovers on because the Klusons kind of sucked, although your tuning problem was probably not the tuners at all but the nut. Same with ill advised mods like adding a coil tap or putting in DiMarzios. Someone thought they were improving the guitar. That’s all 20/20 hindsight. Who knew back in the day that these old guitars would actually be worth this much money decades later? But what about the issues that don’t make much sense? You know, the ones that seem to be hiding something. I had a refinished 62 335 that had a piece of veneer over the back of the headstock. The guy who did it said it was to cover tuner holes from Grovers. The guy who bought it from me insisted it must be covering a headstock break-which, by the way, it wasn’t. I recently sold a 59 with a nickel sized spot of overspray at the top of the back of the headstock. Why would anyone do that? Maybe he smacked the headstock into a cymbal stand back in 1976 and took a chip out of it. Maybe he set the guitar down and the headstock was in the ashtray and got burned by a cigarette (which is what I think). Sometimes it’s just impossible to know why a repair or mod was done. These are the ones that worry most buyers and rightly so. They worry me a lot less because every issue gets priced in if I’m a buyer or a seller. The point here is that if the issue raises questions, then it’s really hard to quantify when pricing a guitar. If the issue is straightforward and clear, then it’s easier.
What about the ones with the ones with the little “2″ on the headstock? They don’t come with a factory explanation as to why they got the “2″. They often have some factory overspray to cover a finish flaw but it could be something else. There is a theory that the “2″ meant it went through some part of the manufacturing process twice (like finishing) to correct a flaw and that these aren’t “factory seconds” at all- just guitars that needed a second pass to be made right. Does that count as a repair and therefore a diminished value if it left the factory that way? I would say yes but it really depends on what was done. I’m sure more than one 335 left the factory with a twisted neck but it’s still a dealbreaker issue to me. Another (like that cool 59 I had with the deep, dark sunburst) may have left the factory with a partial factory respray done before the guitar was ever sold. Not a dealbreaker at all but I did discount the guitar pretty substantially even though it blacklighted perfectly. The 330 I have with the factory red paint in the f-holes (likely used for a black and white photo shoot) is actually kind of cool and doesn’t diminish the value at all, IMO.
Clearly, a case by case approach is the best way to deal with the issue of issues. I get asked to assign a value to various issues all the time but I prefer to take the guitar as a whole and evaluate it. Certain issues bother people more than others even though they may make no difference at all to the playability, tone or appearance. It’s pretty subjective, so you, as a buyer, should take the same “whole guitar” approach. If Bigsby holes in the top drive you nuts, stay away from those but if you can handle a big cut out in the back of the body (which is my number one dealbreaker mod), then you can save a lot of money and get a vintage ES that will play and sound as good as one that has no issues at all.