Buying a vintage archtop guitar by Paul Alcantara

Dealer, private sale or online auction?

In the past, used instruments were purchased from a store, found in the ‘for sale’ columns of a local newspaper or bought from a friend or colleague. Today the commonest alternative to buying from a dealer is via an online marketplace such as eBay or Reverb. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the above approaches.

For those who are new to vintage archtops, buying from a store is the probably the safest route – but only if the dealer in question has experience with this type of instrument and a reputation for honesty. A dealer who specialises in vintage solidbodies for example, may have an in-depth understanding of 1950s Fenders and Gibsons but struggle when it comes to authenticating a pre-war L-5 or Super 400.

Another advantage of buying from a store – especially one that specialises in vintage instruments – is the ability to try the guitar hands-on and perhaps compare it to other similar models that happen to be in stock. You may arrive with your heart set on a D-28 but leave with a D-18 simply because, to your ear, the latter sounds better!

Online auction sites like eBay offer the promise of nailing a bargain but in reality this is seldom the case. Putting aside intentional fraud, sellers often have little knowledge of the item they are listing and as a result, the description they offer may be inaccurate and misleading.

Whether you buy from a store or online, make sure that the seller allows a specified period in which to examine the guitar and return it if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t meet your expectations. Most good dealers will be happy to agree to this. 

Educate Yourself 

There have never been so many books available on vintage instruments! ‘Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars,’ which covers Gibson, Fender, Guild and a host of other brands, is a good place to start. More specialised books include ‘The Gibson Super 400’ by Tom Van Hoose, ‘Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941’ by Joe Spann and ‘Gibson Electrics: The Classic Years’ by André Duchossoir. Visit our website for a detailed look at the pre-war Gibson L-5 and other associated archtop models.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the item that you are interested in. If the seller is reluctant to – or unable to – provide answers, wait until another example comes along!

Importing a guitar

If you live outside the United States you may decide to import a guitar. Before going ahead, check out the cost of freight and make sure that the guitar will be shipped fully insured. You will also need to factor in import duty and other taxes payable when the instrument arrives. The sum total may make the deal appear less attractive.

The issues that surround importing a guitar that incorporates parts made from Brazilian rosewood are too complex to go into here. Suffice to say that Brazilian rosewood is listed on CITES (The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) and as such requires a CITES permit from any exporting country and, in certain countries, requires an import permit as well. As a result, many US dealers are no longer willing to export instruments built from this timber.

Establishing a price

It’s important to understand the factors that determine a used instrument’s value. These are: desirability, rarity and condition.

Desirability is of primary importance. Rarity and condition matter little if the instrument is not viewed as desirable. A desirable guitar, mandolin or banjo is one that is perceived as being the finest example of its type. In this regard, the cost of the instrument when new has limited bearing on its current value. An ES-335 for example, is worth more than an ES-355 of the same vintage, despite the fact that the latter was significantly more expensive when new. In the same way, a late 1950s Sunburst Les Paul is more desirable – and consequently more expensive – than a late 1950s Les Paul Custom.

Demand also hinges on the current popularity of the style of music with which the instrument is associated. Interest in Rock music remains sufficiently high that the market for vintage Gibson and Fender solidbodies is healthy. By contrast, there is little interest in Dixieland and as a result, the tenor and plectrum banjos that were used to perform this style of music change hands for a fraction of their intrinsic value (the term used here to indicate the cost of manufacturing an identical replica today).

To quote dealer/collector George Gruhn: “Most tenor and plectrum banjo collectors are now dead and gone.” As a result, the demand for these instruments is low. An exception is perhaps the top-of the-line Bacon No. 9 ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ Silver Bell Tenor banjo (pictured above in the 1928 catalogue), which cost $900 when introduced in 1927. That’s around $13,500.00 in today’s money! “So few come up for sale in good original condition that one hasn’t been offered to us in over a decade,” says George. “It is highly speculative what one would bring at the present time but my gut reaction is that I might be able to get $35,000 if I had one today.”

Images courtesy of John Croft TheUkuleleMan

Given that a model is deemed desirable, rarity can significantly affect its selling price. A 1960s Stratocaster with an original Burgundy Mist Metallic finish will fetch more than an otherwise identical Sunburst example, despite the fact that it won’t sound or play any better.

Which brings us to condition. Despite the popularity of relic and distressed finishes, the vintage guitars that fetch top dollar are those that remain as close to the condition in which they left the factory as possible. Almost any modification will impact negatively on a vintage guitar’s value. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! A re-fret or neck set done by a professional luthier should not be a deal-breaker and most players/collectors will be happy to accept a degree of honest playing wear. If you are not put off by an irreversible modification – an acoustic archtop that has had holes cut through the top for pickups and associated electronics for example – make sure that this is reflected in the price you pay.

‘Upgrading’ this late 1920s L-5 with three pickups and associated electronics has irreversibly reduced its value.

In short, it boils down to supply and demand. If demand is high and supply is low, expect the instrument to be expensive.

You can use to compare the price asked for a specific model by different dealers but this only works if the model is common enough to turn up a fair number of examples. Remember to factor in condition and as stated above, expect a clean, all original instrument to be priced higher than a guitar that has been modified or requires work in order to make it playable. In addition, take note that asking and selling prices can be quite different!

The current ‘Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide’ can also be useful in determining an instrument’s value as can checking the ‘sold listings’ on eBay.  

Will my guitar prove a good long-term investment?

As with any other investment, there is no way of guaranteeing that a vintage guitar will hold its value. Having said that, it’s interesting to note that the instruments regarded as desirable back in the 1970s – pre-War Martin D-45s, Herringbone D-28s, Loar signed F-5 mandolins, Mastertone banjos and 1950s Fender and Gibson electrics – are still highly regarded today. Other vintage instruments haven’t fared so well but unlike stocks and bonds, you can continue to play and enjoy a guitar, mandolin or banjo regardless of its monetary value.

There are four features that in conjunction tell us that the headstock pictured here belongs to a mid to late 1920s 16-inch L-5. Can you spot them?
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