There’s No Right Time to Find Your Bucket-List Guitar
This clean 1938 Martin 00-18 is the sort of checks-all-boxes, bucket-list vintage guitar that only comes around once in a blue moon.
Guitar shopping is certainly different than it was 18 months ago. And we’re all grateful that manufacturers like Martin and Taylor are shipping more new guitars. That means your favorite music store probably doesn’t have as many empty hooks as it did during the crazy days of Covid. Stores that sell new instruments are also moving inventory more slowly as recent Wall Street jitters over inflation and the economy filter down to dinner-table talks about family finances. Even worse, personal budgets for music gear have to compete with vacations, events, and dining out. As a result, some guitar shoppers are wondering if that new guitar purchase should be postponed, especially considering that most new models will be available in the future when the world will hopefully feel at least a little more secure and predictable.
The put-it-off brakes are harder to apply, however, when it’s a bucket-list vintage instrument you’ve been looking for since long before we even knew how to spell “Covid.” What do you do when a guitar turns up that has everything you’ve wanted and the condition is just what you were hoping for, with the right combination of real-life wear and originality? It has the sound and playability you’ve been after and doesn’t need any work, so there’s no guessing about whether a neck reset and gluing those loose braces will change the sound, but in the wrong direction. And what will make passing up your bucket-list special even more difficult is knowing you might have to wait years before another example comes along that checks all those boxes.
“Even if only a few hundred Gibson J-185 models from the early 1950s, for instance, have survived in playable condition, there will still be significant variation in those examples today.”
This is where the differences between players who buy new guitars and those who buy used and vintage become obvious. Those who search for new models are often looking for the right combination of woods, body style, and neck shape, but within a known set of parameters determined by the builder. A new Taylor is always going to have a certain feel and look that’s distinctly different from any Martin or Gibson, for instance. But Taylor offers a lot of variety within the boundaries of “Taylorness,” especially when you add torrefied tops and different bracing patterns into the mix. Taylor probably offers more distinctly different steel-string models today than all American guitar manufacturers combined were putting into music stores in the 1960s. Martin and Gibson now offer multiple options of the same model, depending on how far back you want to turn the clock. The reissue of a D-28 from 1937 is different from a reissue of the 1954 version, which is different from the Standard Series D-28, and so on. Martin and other instrument manufacturers more than hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to offering variety, yet all new or nearly new guitars have one thing in common, and that is while they do vary, they are not unique. This is partly because current manufacturing methods are so dialed-in thanks to technology like CNC, but it’s primarily because those guitars haven’t lived a guitar life yet.
In contrast, a production guitar that’s many decades old is often very different even when compared to other examples of the same model from the same year. Yes, guitars back then were made more by hand, so even siblings from the same batch will often vary both in how they sound and how they feel. But the biggest difference is usually because of what happened to those guitars after they left the factory. A few lived ideal under-the-bed-in-a-case lives, some were played often but carefully, some got played a lot—often carelessly—and show it, some were heavily modified, and some were simply played and cracked and cooked and traveled until they were worn out. Even if only a few hundred Gibson J-185 models from the early 1950s, for instance, have survived in playable condition, there will still be significant variation in those examples today.
Those who seek out vintage guitars usually have their own standards for what kind of wear and repair they will tolerate. Some are more focused on originality of all parts and finish and will tolerate small cracks and repairs; others can’t live with a cracked soundboard no matter how superb the condition of the rest of the guitar. So, when a vintage-guitar seeker finds the right combination of features in an old instrument … well, you can see where this is going. Fiscal uncertainties may prevail, and the purchase of a new guitar will get postponed. But when the just-right old guitar comes along, many of us will go for it, even if the price is steep. As one true vintage hound told me years ago, “I’d rather buy the right guitar at the wrong time than be dreaming about the one that got away years later.”