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An Interview With a Collector: Vintage Guitars

We’ve all imagined what it would be like to strap on a guitar and stand on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans, right? Well, maybe not all of us, but I know I have. I have been playing drums for over 20 years, but both of my grandfathers were guitar players and collectors. I have always had immense respect for anyone that can play. While I may not be an expert in vintage guitar collecting, I do know someone who is!

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Adam Hellman to talk about everything vintage guitars. He is an avid collector, a great guitar player, and just so happens to be my bandmate. Adam has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to guitar collecting, and he is going to guide you through what you should look for next time you come across one of these six-stringed beauties at a sale.

How did you get into guitar collecting?

“Like most collectors, I started as a player. You gravitate towards certain instruments because of the sound you want, or a player you admire used a particular model. And then inevitably you get carried away. One or two is never enough.”

What was the first guitar in your collection?

“My first guitar, like the first guitar for many players, was a piece of junk. It was an off-brand acoustic probably built in Japan in the late ‘60s or early '70s. But it was enough to give me the bug. The first guitar I bought for myself was a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster, and it was a night-and-day difference.”

What is your favorite guitar in your collection?

“I have a few guitars that are favorites for different reasons. I lean heavily on my primary gigging instrument, a factory second Japanese-made Fender '62 Reissue Telecaster from the ‘90s, just because it does everything and it's comfortable to play. My Gibson J-45 is the guitar I most often play around the house and just feels good. And, finally, my 2001 Fender American Stratocaster. I worked an entire summer to be able to buy that guitar, and I'll never sell it. None of these are the most valuable in my collection, but those are the ones I'd grab if my house were on fire.”

What are considered to be the most valuable guitars on the market today?

“The holy grail guitars are really those from what would be considered the "golden eras" for particular manufacturers and models. "Burst" Gibson Les Pauls from '59 and '60, '58-'59 Gibson ES-335s, Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters from the ‘50s, and Martin or Gibson acoustics made prior to World War II. Some of these guitars command prices well into six-figures, though they are extremely unlikely to be found in the wild.”

What are some of the vintage guitars you might come across at an estate sale?

“The "vintage" guitars you're most likely to find at sales and in places like resale shops or estate sales are, generally, the guitars that were most widely and cheaply available in the heyday of American guitar consumption in the ‘60s. Many of these guitars were made by the Harmony company and branded for the department stores through which they were sold. Harmony, Stella, Kay, Silvertone, and Airline are common finds. In general, they were budget guitars and often their build quality reflects that, though some of them, especially the electric guitars with DeArmond-built "gold-foil" pickups can sound really great. The acoustic instruments in this category aren't generally regarded highly by collectors, but there are exceptions. Special attention should be paid to the structural condition of these guitars. Sometimes, a guitar isn't "vintage", it's just old.”

If someone isn’t sure what they’ve got, what’s the best way to get a vintage guitar appraised?

“The best way to get a vintage guitar appraised is in-person, through a reputable dealer that deals in vintage instruments. Condition, repairs, and originality all factor heavily into the value of vintage instruments, and an in-person appraisal allows for all those things to be thoroughly accounted for. If you simply want an idea of what your guitar may be worth (and you're sure of what it is), searching popular resale sites like eBay and Reverb.com can give you an idea of the value of your instrument.”

What advice would you give to someone who is wanting to get into instrument collecting?

“For anyone starting out with collecting, I recommend starting with the instruments that really interest you, and instruments you want to play. If you don't intend to play them or look at them more as a speculative investment, sticking to the desirable eras of the major American brands is the safest bet. While your budget may not accommodate the "holy grail" models, other playable and collectible models from the same manufacturers may be within your reach.”

What are some common mistakes people make when they’re on the hunt for vintage guitars?

“The pitfalls of collecting guitars, especially vintage guitars, can be many. Originality of components and the presence and quality of any repairs are especially important to the value of any vintage instrument. There are some repairs that won't diminish the value of an instrument, provided they're well-executed. If you have an old acoustic guitar, chances are it's had a neck reset, or will need one in order to remain playable. That said, you should always factor in the cost of necessary repairs into the investment you'll be making into any instrument.”

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