January 25, 2010

Kitschy or Cool?

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As guitarists became iconic, so too did their guitars (take for example Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster). While this idolatry of guitarists began mid-twentieth century, idolatry of guitars began considerably later. Though the eras of these individual guitarists have gone, the guitars from their respective periods remain increasingly sought after, and the demand and prices of these guitars consistently rise. Vintage guitar collectors may belong to a decidedly “niche” market, but it is most certainly a quirky one, it is nonetheless taken very seriously — likely too seriously. Older guitars often sound better, may be better made, and the instruments themselves are beautiful. Unfortunately, while all of this is valid, (and I am generally of the opinion that vintage is better) vintage guitar collectors often lose sight of what truly makes these guitars so valuable.

Take for instance a 1955 Fender Stratocaster: admittedly an aesthetically pleasing, classic, iconic electric guitar. However, a Stratocaster in good condition from as early as 1955 can run upwards of $50,000 dollars. And this is no rare commodity. These guitars have been mass-produced since their debut on the market; to go after a guitar like this is to seek something because it’s a “collectable,” not because it’s particularly special.

Over winter break, as has become a father-daughter tradition, I attended the vintage guitar show right outside of Los Angeles. These shows for us are more akin to museum going than shoe shopping. While there’s always the possibility of happening upon an amazing guitar for amazingly cheap, going with a mission ends up killing the wonderment. The show was dominated by middle-aged men playing the same blues lick incessantly and peddling the typical but still high-in-demand Fenders and Les Pauls. Yet not every booth’s selection was so predictable. There are still the few collectors and sellers who are not just out to find the most untouched yet commonly made guitar.

My favorite booths are those with the oddities. I have penchant for being attracted to the kitschy and era-specific designs of the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. I tend to be drawn to the Herman’s Hermits of guitars — guitars that are actually very good (well-made, good sounding, “No Milk Today”) but distinctly quirky and uncommon, though still classic in their own right (my favorite being the Harmony Hollywood: painted gold and black, with an Oscar statue on the headstock, “Henry the VIII”). Needless to say, compared to the $50,000 guitars that garner the most attention, these easily don’t break $1,000.

Of course, then, there are the true and undeniable beauties. If able, I would without hesitation find a 1940s-era Gibson LG-1 with the banner on the headstock, or a 1930s Robert Johnson Delta Blues guitar. My dad would doubtless jump at the chance to have a 1930s Charlie Christian guitar. These guitars will surely remain pipe dreams for at least the foreseeable (and if we’re being honest probably the unforeseeable) future, but the chance to see and play an extraordinary guitar is why we go to these guitar shows. Guitars are for playing, not collecting.

Why vintage at all, you may ask. Well, quite simply because vintage guitars better suit my particular taste. The vintage-ness is secondary to the experience of coming across a guitar that you know is for you; one that happened to be in the right shop at the right time and suits your tastes before you even play it. A guitar that you have because you inexplicably love that one specific guitar will be of more worth more than a guitar that has a high “collectibility.” It is in fact collectors that often lose sight of the joy of a magnificent guitar. A 1967 Fender Stratocaster in mint condition that George Harrison may or may not have once been in the presence of is fine, but to set out to “collect” this guitar because it is “valuable” is going to turn the guitar into a mere thing, a possession. (Don’t get me wrong, if this is the guitar of your dreams and you truly love it, it is just as fantastic as the type of oddball-guitar I laud). After a certain point (because of course quality will be a factor) the worth of a guitar is dependent on the demand for it — on what is trendy and generally liked. The value is determined primarily by the buyer. And I can guarantee, my cheap Silvertone is more valuable to me than a 1955 Stratocaster could hope to be (even if George Harrison did touch it once).

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter