Cheap Guitars and Vintage Mystique

Back in the ’60’s it was simple.  If you if you were going to play electric guitar you had to have a Gibson, a Fender, or a Rickenbacker.  If you played acoustic, you had to have a Gibson, a Martin, or a Guild.  That was about it.  There were Japanese and Italian-made electrics around, and we played some of them because they were cheap and we were poor, but they weren’t cool and for the most part, they weren’t much good.

American guitars from the 50’s and 60’s now cost tens of thousands of dollars.   If we had known then what we know now, we would have put some of those guitars in storage.  My friend John refinished his candy apple red Stratocaster, of unknown vintage but he bought it used in about 1967, into natural wood with a furniture stain, which pretty much totally ruined its vintage appeal today.  I did the same thing to a ’63 Fender Jaguar that I bought used for $79.  They were not popular at the time.  It needed fretwork and I brought it to Walecki’s  Music in Westwood, where they refused to work on it.  They said “This is a turkey guitar and it will always be a turkey guitar.”  Somewhat taken aback, I decided to refinish it, and in an attempt to create more sustain I disabled the tremolo and turned the tailpiece around backwards to shorten the string length before they went over the bridge.  The original finish had been an ugly two-tone sunburst, and in my view, the guitar looked, played, and sounded better.  But a vintage Fender buff would have been horrified.  There’s one for sale right now at Jackson’s Rare Guitars for $7,500.  Well, actually it’s sold.

These days there are reissues of all of the popular guitars of the 60’s and 70’s, but most of them cost over $1,000, and some are up in the $4,000 range.  However, these guitars are popular because  the guys who lusted after these instruments in high school, but couldn’t afford $250 or so to buy them, can now afford to have the guitar of their high school dreams, even at these prices.  Or at least they could until the recent economic difficulties.

There are also lots of cheap Korean and Chinese copies, and some Japanese copies that are not so cheap.  Some are fakes that say “Gibson” or “Fender” on the headstock, but aren’t.  Some of these are so meticulously made that only an expert can tell the difference.  Some are cheaper versions of American instruments authorized by the companies themselves.  Gibson’s foreign-made brand is Epiphone.  Fender’s is Squire, although Fender also has Fender-branded instruments that are made in Mexico.  And then there are instruments that look very similar to American versions, but have a different headstock shape, or a slightly different body shape, and a different brand name.  Copies of Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters are the most common.   The biggest Korean manufacturer is Samick.  There are numerous Chinese manufacturers.  Gibson recently moved the production of Epiphone guitars from Korea to China.

Asian-made guitars come in a whole host of brands.  Johnson, Jay Turser, Agile, SX, Douglas, Rogue, Carlo Robelli, are only a few.  Often the same guitar is sold in different stores under different brand names.

Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines have revolutionized guitar making.  All the wood shaping that used to be done by hand is now done by computer controlled machines, resulting in very consistent quality.  The bodies, necks, and finish on Asian guitars are usually excellent.  The hardware and electronics are sometimes cheap.  But these things are easy to replace, if the rest of the instrument is well-made.  Another result of the computerization of the process is that once Gibson teaches a company to make a Les Paul, it is hard to unteach them if they decide to move the manufacturing elsewhere.  Any one of these companies is capable of making a very high quality instrument for a reasonable price.

Are the American-made versions better?  Are the vintage ones truly magical?  Not always.

Quality control was actually more inconsistent in the 60’s.  I have taken apart lots of guitars, both then and now.  A friend of mine had a 60’s Telecaster where the neck pocket was cut too wide.   The neck shifted so that the low E string wasn’t even over the fretboard by about the 10th fret.  The screws holding the neck on were bent.  Back then there were great ones, good ones, and bad ones, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying a guitar without playing it.  These days you can mail order a guitar and it is likely to be quite playable out of the box.  You might get lucky too.  It might be great.

I wouldn’t buy a fake guitar that pretended to be a Gibson, but I have an Korean-made Agile Les Paul type guitar that cost $199 and is better in my experience than authorized Epiphone Les Pauls at more than twice the price.  I have a Chinese-made Douglas violin bass (similar to the Hofner that Paul McCartney plays) that is nearly identical to the Epiphone Viola bass, and was probably made in the same factory.  The Douglas was $139 and the Epiphone usually sells for $329.  Is the name on the headstock worth $190?

Today it is much easier to buy highly playable, even very good instruments for a reasonable price.  Brand names seem to mean little, if anything.      In my view it’s time to forget about vintage mystique and focus on playing music.

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About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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