Collecting Vintage Guitars: Everything You Need to Know About Selecting the Ultimate Functional Design Object

The beginner’s guide, courtesy of Nashville's George Gruhn—the ne plus ultra of high-end vintage guitar dealers.

The D'Angelico Guitars showroom in Manhattan, circa 2007. (Photo: Daniel Riff/ Wikimedia)

We’ve drawn all the venom from the phrase, painful drop by painful drop. We’ve applied it to presidents, cardiologists, weathermen. Crammed it into every help-wanted ad for a barista or programmer or call-center employee. It’s easy to forget that “rock star” once truly meant something.

Think back to the barbaric yawp of Robert Plant or Axl Rose, when the rock star occupied a particular societal apex not seen before or since. Rich as Rockefeller, famous as any actor, and more desirable than either because he answered only to his fearsomely rebellious and youthful self. He blazed fiercely but briefly, then he was replaced. Anybody could be next. All you needed was a guitar, preferably an electric one that could be cranked into an overdriven scream by a stack of Marshall amplifiers.

The first electric guitars appeared shortly after World War II, but the apogee of development and craftsmanship occurred in the latter half of the 1950s. “I opened my shop forty-eight years ago,” says George Gruhn, “and the guitars that I’m looking for now are the same ones I was looking for then.” Gruhn, widely considered the dean of the guitar-collecting hobby, operates Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, ground zero for the stratospheric high end of vintage-guitar deals.

He says that management and ownership changes at major American guitar makers, coupled with skyrocketing demand that could not be fulfilled by building instruments the old-fashioned way, essentially killed the quality of guitars during the 1960s and 1970s. Musicians like Eric Clapton and Michael Bloomfield responded by walking into pawnshops and buying sunburst-finish Gibson Les Pauls made from 1958 through 1960. A blurry photograph of a “Burst” Gibson on the back of the 1964 album Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton launched the vintage-guitar craze.

By 2007, speculators had raised the price of those guitars into the low seven figures. The book “Million Dollar Les Paul” by Tony Bacon tells stories of cash-only transactions in dimly-lit parking lots and a shadow industry devoted to the counterfeiting of Bursts. The market correction that occurred afterwards returned some sanity to the hobby, but prices are still high enough to daunt all but the most committed players.

It only takes a few minutes with a genuine vintage Fender or Gibson to understand why. They were made with wood from old-growth forests, seasoned in open-air workrooms for decades. Give the body of a 1959 Les Paul a rap with your knuckle, and you can feel the sympathetic vibration at the top of the headstock. According to Gruhn, the guitars made today have largely returned to the standards of assembly quality found in the 1950s, “but the wood isn’t there.”

“This is all newly grown wood, heavily restricted by import regulations, dried artificially in a kiln,” says Gruhn. “The tone isn’t the same.”

The best part of a vintage guitar? Unlike a vintage automobile or a piece of antique furniture, an old Les Paul is still capable of rocking as hard as it did in the hands of Keith Richards or Jimmy Page. Stored and handled correctly, that should be just as true fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago. Perhaps that’s why Gruhn is seeing an increase in sales, despite the fact that many of the oldest Baby Boomers are no longer actively adding to their collections.

Guided by Mr. Gruhn, we’ve picked three top-shelf vintage electric guitars covering the spectrum from classic to glam. All of them would be fine additions to an existing collection, or investment-grade pieces for a budding connoisseur. And any of them will make you feel like a rock star, regardless of your day job.

(Photo: Courtesy Gruhn Guitars)

The standard-bearer: 1959 Les Paul “Burst”
Approximately 1,400 sunburst Les Pauls were made between 1958 and 1960. Less than 650 of them were 1959 models, which had bigger, more playable frets than the 1958 “Lester” but a more comfortable neck than the 1960 version. Even the roughest examples will be worth well over $100,000. Convincing fakes outnumber originals, so take your time and buy an example with a few decades’ worth of ownership history.

The alternative: The 1957 Fender Stratocaster fixed the problems of the 1954-56 models, most notably the Bakelite parts that dissolved over time, while retaining their quality and distinctive sound.

(Photo: Retrofret Brooklyn/

The artisan: D’Angelico New Yorker
From 1932 to 1964, John D’Angelico made the world’s finest archtop guitars in his Manhattan shop. Although archtops are not considered rock-music guitars, they were often used in the fusion-jazz that paralleled rock’s development in the 1970s. Today, $15,000 should get you a decent one, but D’Angelico’s more elaborate efforts can sell for significantly more.

The alternative: A post-war Gibson L-7 offers most of the sound but none of the bling for $5,000 or less.)

(Photo: Live Auctioneers/Guernseys)

The wild card: 1982 Charvel Van Halen
Guitar dealer and builder Wayne Charvel was the source of Eddie Van Halen’s touring guitars during the band’s salad years. He sold the name to Grover Jackson, who built high-quality “Superstrats” in the 1980s before cashing out and sending production overseas. Gruhn figures a Charvel-by-Jackson could be worth as much as $20,000. But beware: as with the Burst, counterfeits abound.

The alternative: Sorry, kemosabe. There’s only one Eddie Van Halen. And if you want an axe that The Man actually played, even briefly, be prepared to pay the better part of six figures.


Opening Image: The D’Angelico Guitars showroom in Manhattan, circa 2007. (Photo: Daniel Riff/ Wikimedia)

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