Great old guitars are like museum pieces that should be kept in their original condition, or so say hardcore collectors.
But some owners say the instruments are still mostly tools for making music and can be modified and even souped up if sound or playability require it.
These opposing viewpoints came to mind with the release of a glittery new book called “Guitar Aficionados: The Collections” (Time Home Entertainment, $50), about the high-end collections of some famous rock and blues guitar players. These are instruments with the age, rarity and celebrity ownership to put their values well into the six figures.
Generally, books of this sort address pristine guitars in nearly original condition. We are not talking centuries-old instruments, as the electric guitar didn’t arise until about the 1930s and the most valuable collectors’ items were made by Fender, Gibson and a few other companies between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s. They were constructed in relatively small batches until the folk boom and the Beatles made the guitar a can’t-miss accessory for growing up in America. With big increases in production, quality took a dive.
“Guitar Aficionados” features some great stories and the instruments of musicians who do all sorts of things to them. That includes bluesman Jimmie Vaughn, who used a pocket knife to gash his own name into the back of an old Fender Stratocaster.
With these guitars, pickups, tuners and necks get replaced, sometimes more than once. Robbie Robertson, of Bob Dylan and the Band fame, even dipped a collectible Strat in bronze.
“That’s where the collector and the player diverge,” said guitar authority Walter Carter, co-owner of Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville. “If you’re playing in a local club and you customize your collectible Gibson Les Paul or your vintage Stratocaster, you’re probably devaluing it — unless you make it big in a few years.”
Thus another factor enters the discussion: the proscription against changing guitars can melt away if the owner is, say, Vaughn or Eric Clapton. Modifications by such guitar heroes will likely hike values.
So, what’s the deal? If Jimmy Page or Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen owns one of these, is it a sin to defy collecting dogma and convert it to make it sound or play better? There’s a very rough parallel to the high-end world of antique and art collecting, except in this case the objects are being used for contemporary purposes. Even so, would you touch up a Renoir to match the colors of your sofa?
On this issue, the great guitarist and longtime collector Greg Martin, of the Kentucky Headhunters, gave a thoughtful response:
“For the most part, I prefer the original vintage pickups in an old guitar and the original finish still intact,” Martin said, adding that he’ll change frets or other elements if they simply wear out. “In the ‘70s I ruined a couple of nice vintage guitars by changing parts, pickups and refinishing; now I try to leave them as original as possible. If the old guitar is in shambles, then changing it is probably necessary. If I want a different sound, I’ll play a newer guitar and change pickups to achieve the tone I’m looking for.”
In the end, it comes down to individual preference, and to the owner’s hipness. Carter Vintage Guitars just obtained a gorgeous 1960 sunburst Les Paul Standard — think Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin II, although his was a ’59 — that is going on the market for $325,000. (A similar model has fetched as much as half a million.)
What if a guitar player in years past had been fixated on fixing his sound and swapped out one of the Carter Les Paul’s two pickups — the devices that capture string vibrations so they can be amplified?
“That’d be a $25,000 hit,” Carter said.
My advice? If you can afford a great guitar from Carter, from the original Nashville vintage dealer Gruhn Guitars, or one of the many other sources for these beauties, keep it clean and original. As far as making changes for sound or appearance, do as Greg Martin suggests: buy a much more recent Telecaster or Les Paul and have your way with it.
But if you are Clapton, Page or Nielsen and want to tamper? Go for it, gentlemen — you’ve earned the privilege.
If you’re truly obsessed and have some spare dough, check out “The Guitar Collection: Solidbody ’54 Collection,” another Carter production, at www.amazon.com/Guitar-Collection-Solidbody-54/dp/1603801715. If you have to ask how much it costs, you definitely shouldn’t be changing out the pickups on your ’54 Tele.