Vintage Guitars are guitars that are older than currently available guitars. How much older? That depends on whom you ask. What is the difference between a vintage guitar and a used guitar? That depends on whom you ask. Some people consider guitars that are 25 years old or older to be vintage. Others consider guitars that were made prior to 1965 to be vintage guitars. Still others say it depends on what brand it is how old it needs to be to be considered vintage.
Regardless of the actual age of the guitar, the real question is why people are interested in vintage guitars, and why do some of them command so much money? Well, there are several reasons why many people consider vintage guitars to be more desirable than a current issue guitar. One of the primary reasons that people state is that "they don't build them like they used to". This statement is true in many different ways. In some cases newer models are made with inferior parts and craftsmanship. But â in other ways many modern guitars are much better made than their vintage counterparts. Another reason that is stated is the "nostalgia" or "mojo" aspect of the guitar. That is, guitars that were played by their heroes when they were young hold a mystique and a sort of magic. Finally, there is another set of people who assert that the mere fact that they are old is an improvement. That is, they say that any guitar will get better as it ages. They believe that as wood gets older it dries out in ways that are favorable for tone, and that as the guitars are played they become more "broken in" and comfortable like an old pair of jeans.
Which of these answers are correct? Well, in different ways, they are each correct. Why is 1965 a magical year? In 1965, CBS bought the Fender company. Fender was a musical instrument company that made some of the most popular electric guitars and amplifiers. When CBS took over, it is generally acknowledged that the CBS executives were not interested in the instruments, but were interested in maximizing profit. Hence, they cut corners, and used less expensive materials. Most guitar players are in agreement that guitars made during the CBS era were more sloppily made and generally inferior to their pre-1965 counterparts. Consequently, the older guitars became known as "Pre-CBS Fenders". In 1969 a similar occurrence happened to the Gibson Company. The Gibson guitars were then built by Norlin the company that bought Gibson, and there were similar stories of lack of concern for materials and workmanship.
In the acoustic guitar world, the main distinction is between "pre-war" and "post-war" Martin Acoustic Guitars. The "war" refers to World War II. Thus guitars made prior to World War II are generally regarded as better instruments and, thus, more desirable and valuable.
Among electric guitars, in the Fender line, the most sought after vintage models are the pre-cbs Stratocaster and Telecaster models, especially in custom colors. In the Gibson electric guitar line, the 1958-1960 Les Paul model guitars in sunburst are considered a holy grail, commanding prices that can reach 6 digits. Any pre-war Martin acoustic guitar model, especially those in the dreadnought style such as the D-18, D-28, and D-45 models are especially valuable.
Of course, as with any collectable, condition means everything. With guitars, a refinish can devalue the guitar by as much as 50% and any component that is not fully original can seriously impact its value.
Buying a vintage guitar can be a very precarious proposition. There are many details that might not be obvious to a novice (or even an experienced) buyer. Due to the high prices involved, unscrupulous sellers might not be forthcoming in telling you that the item has been refinished or has had parts replaced with non-original parts. There is also the problem of outright forgeries. People manufacture guitars (legitimately) to look and feel like vintage guitars. When they do that with ulterior motives and try to pass off reproductions as the real deal, considerable money can be lost.
So â are vintage guitars "better" than modern day issues? I will leave that to the reader to decide. There is definitely a tremendous amount of magic with vintage guitars, however, there are drawbacks to them as well. Being as old as they are, sometimes parts need to be replaced, but that can impact their collectors' value. They are worth too much money to play out on a regular basis where the risk of damage or theft is high. On the other hand, they may provide a sound or a feel that you just can't find in a new guitar. They also have definite snob appeal to some.
Some of the finest guitars ever made are being made today. They also command high dollars, and need to be carefully protected and maintained.
One argument in favor of vintage guitars (beyond their intrinsic merits) is that "they aren't making any more of them". That is, there is a finite set of them on the market and the laws of supply and demand mean that as long as people want them, they will maintain their value.
If you are interested in buying a vintage guitar, be sure to learn as much as you can about the model you are considering, and deal with reputable dealers or individuals. I am sure that if you are fortunate enough to be able to own one of the nice ones you will treasure it forever.