Let's face facts, collecting mainstream American made guitars from the 50's, 60's and 70's is beyond the budget of most people interested in guitar collecting. With prices for unmodified American Classics ranging from $2,000 to $20,000, most of us would be lucky to sport a collection of one or two guitars. Fortunately for us, however, there are a lot of very interesting and well-constructed non-American made instruments from this era that are still within the budget of a collector with modest means. I consider vintage guitars that sell for less than $800 to be budget guitars, but in some cases, prices can slip up to $1000 for really nice examples. On this page, I'd like to offer some opinions concerning the relative value of a variety of budget American guitars, as well as import guitars from the 50's through the 80's. Of course, the largest market place for acquiring these guitars is online auctions and dealers, however, buying guitars without being able to handle them is a risky business. Let's start by discussing the problems associated with purchasing guitars online.
General Guidelines for purchasing Vintage Instruments Online
If you plan to purchase instruments from an auction site or dealer on the web, it is generally impossible to inspect the instrument personally before buying. Clear pictures can help, but no digital picture can capture the many factors that go into placing a value on an instrument. When I make an online purchase, I definitely want clear answers to the following questions. In my mind, all of these factors can influence value so if the seller refuses to respond to your questions, look for a different instrument.
Is the neck straight?
Assuming you want to play the guitar, this question must be answered first. If your guitar does not have a truss rod to adjust the neck and the neck is bowed, it is now a piece of art, not a musical instrument. Unless you are buying from a knowledgeable dealer, your seller may not really know whether the neck is straight or not. Three fairly simple tests can give you clues whether or not the neck is straight. First, ask about string buzzing when single notes are played up and down the neck. Excessive buzz is indicative of a bow. You can also ask the seller to hold the low E string down at the first and twelfth fret while sighting along the edge of the fretboard. Is the string the same distance from each fret all the way down the neck? If not, you have probably got a bow. Finally, you can ask the seller to sight down the neck from the headstock to the body and simply look for a bow or warp. Although a luthier can sometimes straighten a bowed neck by applying heat and pressure, it's best to avoid this problem if possible. Of course, small amounts of bowing can be fixed by a truss rod adjustment.
Is the intonation accurate?
Poor intonation can be the result of a bowed neck, worn frets or improper adjustment at the bridge. Many cheap guitars have a bridge that cannot be adjusted for intonation. Bad experiences have taught me to generally avoid buying a guitar unless it has an adjustable bridge. If you buy a guitar with a non-adjustable bridge and the intonation isn't right, you've got a very nice piece of wall art. If your seller owns a guitar tuner, ask them to play the same note at different places on the neck to see whether the note sounds at the same pitch at each location. Many guitars cannot pass this test perfectly, but the notes should be pretty close to the same. If no tuner is available, you are rolling the dice.
Is there excessive fret wear?
The best place to check for fret wear is the B and E strings at the third fret. Ask the seller to describe the wear on the third fret and whether the B and E strings buzz when picked at this position. Also, you can pull the strings up and down as if applying finger vibrato. If you heard a pinging sound, the wear is significant enough to warrant fret dressing.
Do all pickups work?
Pickups may not work for 2 reasons. If it is a broken wire, bad potentiometer or bad switch the fix is straightforward and relatively inexpensive. If the pickup is defective, you are stuck with rewinding the existing pickup ($50-$75 per coil plus labor @ fralinpickups.com ) or searching for a replacement on a parts guitar. Note that pickups epoxied into their covers cannot be rewound. It is also problematic to rewind pickups on Vox and Hagstrom guitars.
Are the pickguard screws all there and original? Do they show signs of wear?
I use this observation as an indication whether anyone has been inside the guitar meddling with the pickups, wiring or switches.
Are all the original parts still with the instrument?
The most frequent missing parts are tremolo bars, headstock logos, bridge covers and pickguards. Although these parts can sometimes be found, they are generally hard to find and expensive to purchase. I've been asked to pay $35 for an original replacement screw. I recommend buying a guitar with all parts intact, it may be more expensive initially, but the rate of increase in resale value will generally enable you to recover your higher investment and more. I've seen a headstock badge make $150 difference in the selling price of a $300-$500 guitar.
Can you describe all dents, chips, scratches, cracks, dings, or other finish flaws on the body and neck of the instrument?
We can't expect perfection, but the fewer the better. I avoid guitars with cracks in the wood, chips in the neck, or obvious signs of abuse. I also don't like old screw holes, cracked pickguards and excessive pitting/rust on metal parts.
Are all parts on the instrument original?
The most frequently replaced parts on old guitars are the tuners, knobs, bridge and output jack. Often when tuners have been replaced, the screw holes for the original tuners are still visible. You will probably need to find pictures of you guitar to determine if the knobs and bridge are correct. Pickups and pickguards are also often replaced so make sure you are getting the originals.
Is the finish original?
A new refinish is generally pretty obvious since a 30-50 year old guitar isn't going to shine like a new one, however, an old refinish can sometimes be difficult to detect in pictures. Popular refin colors are solid black, brown, white, red and blue as well as natural. If you are planning to buy a guitar with one of these finishes, it probably wise to ask the seller if they believe it has been refinished.
Is there anything about this guitar that might influence it's value that I don't know?
In the end, buying guitars online is like gambling, sometimes you get an exceptional value and sometimes you get burned. By resisting auction fever and asking relevant questions before the purchase, I think you can reduce the number of unacceptable instruments you might buy. This question isn't fool proof, but it may get you some leverage with the seller if you discover you have been misled.
My Picks for Good Value in Vintage Instruments
My instrument picks are based on several criteria. First is quality construction. I like to collect guitars that exhibit fine workmanship, good design and excellent materials. Consequently, I tend to avoid guitars that use very poor quality components like non-adjustable bridges, cheap tuners and unresponsive pickups. My second criterion is cool looks. A guitar with distinctive aesthetics is likely to stand the test of time and increase in value as each new generation of players discovers it's charm. Besides an innovative body and headstock style, the guitar should also have a quality paint job and finish. Finally, the ultimate test is playability and sound. Not only should the guitar be well balanced with a great neck feel, but it must also produce a variety of very useable tones.
Below I have listed manufacturers that produced guitars that I believe generally meet my criteria during the era in which they are identified. In some cases, guitars are on my list for their cool looks with playability a secondary consideration. In other cases, I have tried to identify guitars with special sounds or quality construction even though the design might be fairly ordinary. In most cases, I have identified specific models from each manufacturer that I believe are worthy additions to a budget guitar collection. I have also focused on models that are generally available in the market, however, that doesn't mean you can log on and find one tomorrow. Finally, there are clearly many other worthy brands and models that bandwidth has prevented me from listing, so if you don't see your favorite instrument listed, don't fret. If you love it, it's certainly valuable to you and potentially collectable. None of us have a crystal ball. Who knows what famous star of the future might decide to play your guitar and rekindle interest with a whole new generation of fans.
Granted, it is tough to find a bargain on any guitar produced in the 50's but there are a few possibilities that should be investigated.
The 1950's - American made instruments
Kay was founded in 1890 and gained notoriety for supplying the mail order catalogs of the day including Spiegel, Montgomery Ward and Sears. They didn't earn much respect until three of their guitars were endorsed by Barney Kessel in 1955. Unfortunately for Kay, this relationship only lasted five years.
Gold Kay Series
With their plastic covered "Kleenex box" pickups and "Kelvinator" headstocks, Kay hollow-body, electric guitars of this era scream 1950's. The Barney Kessel models include the Jazz Special, Artist and Pro. Their non-electrified archtops during the 50's are also of good quality. Models like the K11 manufactured from 1953 through 1959 are made with solid carved spruce tops and solid maple backs and sides. The necks are also maple and fitted with Kluson Deluxe tuners.
Supro was basically the “budget” brand of the National Dobro, and later, the Valco company.
The edge beveling, excellent pickups and closed back Kluson tuners make this a good quality guitar for the money. The offset pointy headstock as well as the Art Deco pickguard and tailpiece give this guitar a classic look that should appeal to future generations of guitar players. I think the Gibson Les Paul shape and linear headstock design is well balanced and unique. The super fat neck and short scale may not be to everyone's taste, but it feels great to me. The toaster pickups have a great fat tone at the bridge and a nice bite at the neck.
The most notable phenomenon of the 60's guitar market was the huge influx of budget guitars into the United States from Japan and Europe. American manufacturers responded to this competition by producing a vast array of their own budget models. This is truly fertile ground for the budget guitar collector since many of these guitars were made with excellent materials and workmanship by today's standards.
The 1960's - American made instruments
Montgomery Wards used the Airline brand name on their instruments in the 60's.
Airline Res-o-Glass guitars have been climbing in price ever since Jack White of the band White Stripes adopted the instrument as his main axe. The "Jetson" models with the Gumby headstock are selling beyond the budget limit, but you can still pick up the guitars with the Les Paul shape and wooden neck in the budget range.
The "Dual Guard" Models
Montgomery Ward was never good about identifying their guitars by model. The Dual guard guitars have a row of control knobs above the pickups with a thin, long, linear plastic guard underneath. Below the pickups is a second wider guard the same length that served as the pickguard. These guitars were produced in one, two and three pickup models.
Better known for producing great bass amplifiers than guitars, in 1969 Ampeg contracted with Dan Armstrong to produce lucite body guitars. Sadly for Ampeg, the collaboration only lasted until 1971.
The lucite guitars and basses produced by Dan Armstrong are icons of instrument design. The fact that you can frequently find these instruments for under $1,000 while mediocre post CBS Fender instruments of the early 70's sell for 50% more is a crime. Musicians are such a conservative bunch.
Produced in 1966-67 this truly unique bass has f holes through the body and a scroll headstock. Reissued in 1997-98 as the AEB-2. Honestly, it is very unlikely you will find this instrument for under $1000, but if you do, grab it.
In 1942, the National-Dobro company was purchased by Valco. Although the National brand is most closely associated with resonator guitars, Valco did produce a variety of fiberglass and wooden electric guitars under the National name.
Fiberglass Map Guitars
These models include the Newports (84 & 82) as well as the Glennwoods (95 & 99). These guitars don't have a truss rod so make sure you get a straight neck.
I love these little res-o-glass guitars.
Supro continued to be one of the main brand names used on guitars manufactured by Valco in the 1960's.
The most outragous of the Belmonts are the ones "shrink wrapped" in red pearloid. The pearloid will separate from the core so check for splits and cracks with this finish. A similar but somewhat more conservative model would be a fiberglass Sahara.
The 1960's - Japanese instruments
In my opinion Arai produced some of the highest quality instruments coming out of Japan in the late 60's to early 70's. Their guitars were sold under the brand names of Arai, Arai Diamond, Aria, and Diamond. Arai also supplied guitars and components for guitars branded Arita, Bruno, Conrad, Domino, Lyle, Maxi-Tone, Orpheous, Pan, Univox and others.
I've seen the Model 1832T guitar style marketed under the Arai Diamond and Conrad brand names. While the look is fairly ordinary, sort of a cross between a Burn's Bison and Mosrite, the playability and sound is fantastic. The neck feels just like my Fender Strat and the pickup are very bright without being shrill.
This Gibson ES335 copy is a very high quality instrument for a budget guitar. It is fully bound with both front and back made from a single panel of wood. Note that even the f holes have binding on this one. The single coil pickups are hot and tend to feedback at stage volume but it is a great instrument for recording. I love the deep red marbling in the pickguards. I've seen similar guitars branded Conrad, Lyle, Orpheous, and Univox.
Although best known for pianos and keyboards, Kawai began producing guitars in the 1960's. Often accused of supplying more flash than substance, there are Kawai guitars that I believe meet my criteria of quality, playability and design.
A thinline hollow body like the May Queen with two deep cutouts on the sides and a Burns style headstock design. Introduced around 1968.
Tokyo Electric Instrument and Sound Company sent more guitars to America than any other Japanese exporter in the 1960's. Mostly imported by WMI Corporation of Chicago, Teiscos have been sold under a variety of brand names including Teisco Del Ray, Kingston, World Teisco, Silvertone, Kay, Kent, Kimberly and Heit Deluxe.
Yes it's true, the Spectrum 5 is the "holy grail" for Teisco guitar collectors. It's headstock and German carved, pointy body make it one of the most desirable guitars to come out of Japan in the 60's.
Produced in 1968-69 shortly after Teisco was sold to Kawai, the May Queen is another Teisco classic. Besides cool looks, it has excellent playability.
EB-200 B Bass
Asymmetrical hollow body violin bass produced from 1968-69.
A variety of Teisco Del Ray models deserve low-end collector status. The "Hound Dog Taylor" guitar deserves mention, as well as the 4 over 2 headstock guitars of the mid-late 60's. Use discretion here, but look for cool body styles, adjustable bridges and straight necks.
This Japanese company has a track record of producing high quality electric guitars. Yamaha was most successful producing conservatively styled guitars in the 70's but I believe their most interesting designs were produced in the 60's.
These late 60's "flying samurais" have an asymmetrical body shape and a dramatically extended lower horn that pre-dates the Ibanez Iceman by eight years.
The 1960's - European instruments
These guitars were manufactured by Oliviero Pigini and Company of Recanati, Italy and imported by LoDuca Brothers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I love the style of 60's EKO's although I must admit that their playability/tone is pretty average.
A double cutaway hollow body with pointy horns and a great looking pickguard. Comes in both a guitar and bass version.
Also known as the "shark bite" guitar, I think this instrument has a unique and pleasing form. As Fat Dog says, "enough buttons and switches to satisfy NASA"
I think the 62-64 models with the round pushbuttons are the coolest but the later models with square buttons are also good. Nothing says rock and roll like Blue, Gold or Red plastic sparkle.
Comes in both a guitar and bass version, a somewhat demented Flying V that only Italian manufacturers would have the nerve to try to market.
I think the EKO model 995 is one of the best values in a violin bass on the market today. Made when there was still a lot of straight grained spruce around and finished with a beautiful honey blond stain. The tuners aren't great but the tone and playability are excellent. If it's good enough for Les Claypool, it's good enough for me.
Beautiful body shape but scarce.
Goya was a brand name applied to guitars imported by Hershman of New York and Wexler of Chicago. The first Goyas were imported from Hagstrom and a little later Italian manufacturers like EKO supplied Hershman with guitars. The Goya name passed to Guild in 1966 and then later to Kustom and Martin.
Goya Model 80
The Goya 80-90 "hollowbody" electric guitar was made by the Hagstrom Guitar Company of Sweden from 1960 to 1961. These guys are not common but show up occasionally on the market. Basically a Les Paul shape with a grill between the pickups and a very interesting pearloid fretboard and headstock veneer. Playability and sound is average, but what a look.
Goya Rangemaster hollowbody
Similar to an EKO Florentine with a pierced "G" tailpiece similar to the style of Rickenbacker. Pushbuttons along the top control different pickup configurations. This one is made in Italy, probably by EKO.
Goya Rangemaster solidbody
The body style is similar to a Galanti, but it has an oversized and uniquely shaped headstock.
Operating from Alvdalen, Sweden, Hagstrom began making guitars in 1958. Hagstroms were marketed as having "the world's fastest necks" and I must say the claim is well founded.
The Kent , also known as the Hagstrom I was produced from 1962 to 1966. These are the best playing little guitars in the world and the "cheese grater" between the pickups gives it a very unique style. You will occasionally see these guitars with a Cromwell logo.
Once Elvis appeared on his 1968 comeback TV special playing a Hagstrom Viking, this guitar's future in the vintage guitar market was assured. It is a beautiful instrument; the jazz box design coupled with the Fender style headstock makes it a very appealing guitar visually.
Americans were introduced to Vox instruments by the British invasion bands of the 1960's. Although better know for their unique sounding amplifiers, Vox introduced some creative guitar innovations.
Released in 1962 this five-sided guitar was designed by The Design Centre in London. Look for the Made in England sticker on the back of the headstock. Vox transferred guitar production to EKO (Italy) in 1966 making the 1962-1965 English models most desirable. Be careful shopping for these since they have been reproduced by Japanese guitar companies like Domino and Teisco, as well as the American manufacturers Phantom Guitar Works and Eastwood Guitars. Korg has also recently released a Phantom copy.
The brand name of the Orlando Quagliardi company based in Italy. Their guitars were also marketed by Vox, Dynacord, Orpheum, and Wurlitzer. Earlier models were adorned in plastic with later models retaining the shapes but without plastic covering. Look for the crown on the pickguard.
More cool Italian asymmetrical body styling with a Fender Strat style headstock.
The 1970's are considered the "copy era" in the budget guitar market. Many Japanese and European companies abandoned their efforts at innovative guitar design and began to give the American teen public what it lusted for, a Les Paul like Jimmy Page's that can be purchased with allowance money. In my opinion, the more interesting guitars of this era were the unique hybrid instruments that combine stylistic features associated with the major guitar manufactures of the period.
The 1970's - American made instruments
Bernardo Chavez Rico was born in East Los Angeles in 1941 and began building guitars in his fathers shop in the 1950's. The first unusual shaped B.C. Rich guitar designed by Rico was the Seagull that was produced in 1972. Early B.C. Rich guitars are known for their neck-through design and pointy-shapes. From 1983-1986, B.C. Rich guitars were being imported from Japan. These guitars are given an NJ designation that stands for Nagoya, Japan (not New Jersey). After 1986, the B.C. Rich NJ Series was made by Cort in Korea, I don't consider these guitars particularly collectible. There were American-made B.C. Rich's produced in New Jersey from 1990 to 1993 but Bernie Rico had no control over the company at this time. I like a lot of B.C. Rich guitars including old Mockingbirds and the Bich. In my opinion the lines on these guitars will be valued long after it is forgotten that they were adopted by a generation of doom bands.
Dean Guitars was founded in 1976 by Dean Zelinsky of Evanston, Illinois. Their most desirable models were produced between 1977 and 1985 since they began shifting guitar production to Korea in 1986.
The Dean ML is a hybrid between a Gibson Explorer and a Flying V. This pointy instrument was a mainstay for metal guitarists of the 80's, most notably Dimebag Darrell, and it inspired a new generation of equally pointy guitars. Dean headstocks are cool.
Harder to find than an ML, the E'lite combines a symmetrical rounded bottom with a single elongated horn. Not really designed for sitting in a chair soulfully strumming a ballad.
Started in1975, Kramer Guitar Company, of Neptune, New Jersey is known for their attempt to improve electric guitar technology by using aluminum necks. By 1985, aluminum necks were no longer in demand so Kramer dropped them from production.
Made from 1977-80 with an aluminum neck, ebonol fingerboard and symmetrical double cutaway body made from a combination of maple and walnut.
Produced from 1978-81 this series has a double cutaway body with a larger upper horn and a bolt on "T bar" aluminum neck with a tuning fork headstock.
The 1970's - Japanese instruments
These guys produced good quality copy guitars with set necks and sealed tuners. Don't mistake these Japanese instruments for the Korean Arias of the late 80's and 90's.
Aria Pro II
Starting in 1975, guitar copies of LP Custom, LP Standard, SG, Strat, Tele, ES175, and ES335. Bass copies include P-Bass, J-Bass, Ricky Bass and the Ripper Bass
The Avenger and Invader series have the most innovative body styles. I also like the double cut-away VP, VS and VSH guitars. They have great features and the multiwood natural finish bodies are quite striking. Don't confuse these early Japanese instruments for the Vantage guitars produced by Music Industries (Jay Turser) in the 90's and abandoned in 1998.
First built for the Japanese market in 1975 (known originally as the 'Artist') and worldwide as the 'Iceman' by 1976, the 2663 model predates the Paul Stanley versions produced from 1978-83. There were 3 variations on the 2663. The basic version had 2 humbucking pickups, the 2663TC had a triple coil pickup, and the 2663SL had a "slider" movable triple coil pickup that the guitarist could slide back and forth on a rail system to achieve different tones. I think the late 70's IC-300's are definitely worth collecting but the 1978 PS-10 has already moved out of the budget guitar price range.
Although still focusing on pianos and keyboards, Kawai quality improved in the 1970's. Several late 70's models copied Alembic's multi-laminate, thru-neck styles.
Early 70's Kawai models are difficult to identify. The company was clearly enamored with Bison-like horns, EKO Kadett-like stubby arm horns and green burst finishes. I would consider most of their instruments from this period collectible.
The 1980's - American made instruments
George Fullerton and Leo Fender began the G&L company in 1979. Although the market tends to believe that all of Leo’s cool shape ideas were on permanent loan to Fender, I think G&L developed a new line of less-expensive instruments that are still professional grade although arguably less than innovative. By all accounts, Leo always tended to be conservative.
Introduced in 1989, the Comanche used the distinctive split pickup design that Leo devised for the P bass at his original company.
L series Bass
Shunning a pickguard since a plucking bass player rarely need one, the early L series basses are rock solid instruments with a great sound and finish. These instruments are professional grade and currently under-valued in today's market. Just ask the "Swami" at the Bass Palace if you don't believe me.
By the mid 1980's, Kramer had grown into America's largest guitar company. This rise in popularity was certainly helped by their partnership with vibrato innovator Floyd Rose in 1982, and the endorsement of Eddie Van Halen. Commonly recognized by their drooped banana headstocks and "superstrat" pickup layout of humbucker/single coil/singlecoil, Kramers are widely considered fine quality guitars. If you want to buy a Kramer from this era, I'd shy away from the Japanese and Korean import models.
The aluminum necked and headless Dukes are similar to a Steinberger. To me, these minimalist guitars reflect the 80's the same way plastic sparkle embodies the 60's.
Ned Steinberger first produced an electric bass (the L-2) in 1981, followed by the GL guitar in 1983. Steinberger Sound was sold to Gibson in 1987 and continued to make guitars through the 90's. If you want a collectable Steinberger, buy a pre-Gibson model.
The 1980's - Japanese instruments
Aria Pro II
The Aria brand name was changed to Aria Pro II in 1975 and all guitars were made in Japan until 1988 when production of less expensive models was switched to Korea. However, more expensive models were still manufactured in Japan after 1988.
Pro II U Series
Certainly inspired by B.C. Rich designs, I think the Urchin is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing of the "eye poker" guitars of the 80's. The Urchin series first appears in catalogs in 1982 and lasted until 1984.
In the 80's Kawai became more Fender inspired and manufactured guitars primarily for domestic consumption. However, there is one notable exception.
Known as the "MoonSault" this guitar was released in 1982 and is the most blatantly crescent shaped instrument I have ever seen. This unusual guitar was only produced for 5 months so if you find one, buy it. Watch out for the MoonSault reissues.
Still have questions about vintage guitars?