Today’s Hardball topic deals with the vintage guitar market from a different point of view: the ever-so-slanted perspective of the
jazz guitarist. We are all aware of the ongoing vintage market feeding-frenzy over ‘50s and ‘60s Les Pauls, SGs, Teles, and Strats.
A mint and all-original ‘59 Burst will easily command staggering sixfigure prices, but what is going on with the archtop family, such
as the Gibson artist signature models of the ‘60s, old Guild archtops, Epiphones, D’Angelicos, D’Aquistos, and Gretsch archtops made
famous in early big bands?
Most of the vintage archtops are steadily increasing in value over time, although for many it is a slow,
tortuous journey (i.e. many of the pre-Gibson Epiphone models and some Guilds). No one can deny that in the vintage archtop guitar
market – for sheer resale desirability, for volume of re-sales, and for investment security – Gibson reigns supreme. All the others
struggle for distant second and third places. Late ‘50s and early ‘60s Gibson archtop models are highly valued in the vintage guitar
market: a PAF-loaded, blond L-5 can command $20,000. That’s a tidy sum of wampum … until you compare it to a Les Paul Burst of the
same vintage, which can draw 15 times that figure!
A 1924 Lloyd Loar Gibson L-5 – the flagship model that started the whole evolution
towards electric and, hence, solidbody guitars – might bring a paltry $35,000 dollars. Shouldn’t jazz players everywhere be insulted
by this? After all, compared to a Les Paul, a ‘59 L-5 has more expensive materials, takes hundreds of hours more to make, and in many
ways is an acoustical musical instrument intended for a music master. What accounts for this market discrepancy?
The answers are in
some ways painful: first, many collectors/investors, who drive up prices, may not know very much about music in general or about pop
music history in the U.S; second, our pop culture has a huge role in determining which guitars are the most valuable. Consider for
a moment the small percentage of the population that listens to or plays jazz (music associated with the archtop). Then consider how
many solidbody guitars there are on any college campus, where the majority of students are familiar with all the classic-rock stars.
The Les Paul wins out over the L-5, not because it is a better musical instrument, but because at this time in our history, the popular
genre of music is rock, and the Les Paul has had a central role in rock music.
Historically speaking, isn’t it totally arbitrary to
say that a ‘59 Les Paul has a more important role in art-music in the U.S., and is hence a more highly-prized collector’s piece, than
a 1939 Charlie Christian model ES-150? Think for a moment about the role of that Charlie Christian guitar – it is the model that,
for the first time in history, drove the electric guitar into the spotlight and made concrete the role of the electric guitar playing
single line solos! Yet, a mint condition ES-150 of that era (late ‘30s/early ‘40s) struggles and gasps to even reach a humbling $4,000.
Jump Swing music of the late ‘40s was the crossover point that marked the end of the popular big band and the start of small electric
combos, paving the way for rock ‘n roll. It was this direction change in pop music in the U.S. that has the most to do with the guitar/market
value system, which now overvalues certain rock-associated instruments, and undervalues certain jazz-associated instruments. The majority
of people in the U.S. are somewhat familiar with our recent (back to the ‘50s) music history, and are very unfamiliar with what occurred
before that time. Most people in this country are familiar with Jimmy Page and not Charlie Christian; therefore, they identify more
with the Les Paul model. As common sense suggests, any collectible piece brings more (and thus higher) bids if there are more people
knowledgeable about and interested in the item.
That was going the long way around the barn to say that archtops are going up in value at a slow but steady ascent, while some overinflated
solidbodies are quickly ascending, for various reasons. This raises an equally important question: is enough being done to promote,
celebrate, and perform the various musical styles that are important parts of our American heritage, especially jazz, one of America’s
original art forms? The dollar value placed on old archtops – as compared to that placed on old solidbodies – would seem to answer
a resounding “no!”
It would be interesting to know what trends in pop music will unfold in the next fifty, the next hundred years,
and what effects those trends will have on the value of “jazz” versus “rock” instruments. Will the place of the Burst diminish over
time as our musical interests shift to other trends and styles, and as the Baby- Boomers die off? We can be certain that the market
bias will continually evolve – and seriously affect prices – when it comes to musical instruments.
Vintage Jazz Guitar Market – Bullish, Bearish, or Biased? HOME
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