There is a lot of talk about vintage guitars. This is partly because everybody wants one and partly because vintage guitars often need much explanation. Unless you have been with a guitar every minute since it was built you can’t be sure of it’s history. People often make claims that a particular is all original – but how do they know if they haven’t slept with a guitar since its conception. With the values of guitars skyrocketing as they did ten to fifteen years ago many people started to have regrets about things they did to their guitars in something I call the “dark time”.
I suppose with most things rock and roll the Beatles could be credited for starting the trend of refinishing and altering their guitars. It seems like when George Harrison Psychedelicized his blue Fender Stratocaster, and John Lennon stripped his Epiphone Casino, (actually a friend did it for him claiming it would improve the tone) the rest of the world was soon to follow people also started taking it upon themselves to “customize” their guitars. This included stuff like changing tuning pegs, pickups, other hardware, adding switches for more sounds, whammy bars, brass nuts, unplated brass hardware of all kinds… you name it. Some of these modifications were for good reason, a lot of good guitars came with bad tuners and many Gibson guitars had bridges that could not be intonated for example. People often experimented with pickups replacing them with different ones or sometimes altering them by rewinding them or by putting in different magnets. As I pointed out it is hard to know where a guitar has been. You have to remember back in the “dark time”, guitars did not have the crazy value they do now and people didn’t think twice about making modifications. I have said many times I spent my youth taking Kluson tuners and “F” tuners off of Gibsons and Fenders and replacing them with Grovers and Schallers and I am getting old removing and replacing the Grover and Schaller tuners with “repro” tuners or old worn out salvaged originals (which sell for a lot of money on Ebay), even though they don’t work well. Similarly, a Fender guitar can be completely taken apart with a screwdriver, some of the parts are dated, some of the parts have distinct details that identify to a particular year or period, but not every part.
You have to take a guitar apart and be a serious expert to be able to tell if pickups have been rewound or solder joints have been resoldered or even routed holes in guitars that have been filled in and finished over.
Unscrupulous people have been perfecting this art for decades. There are many all original guitars still out there – but you want to be sure. You might be able to find an “all original 1962 something” but even if all the parts are dated correctly and look correct – how do you know the pots and the switch didn’t come from one guitar and the neck and the body from another, etcetera. Given how easy they are to take apart and how popular it was to change them, not to mention the bins of “original” parts for sale at guitar shows and EBay, it is likely that many “original” guitars today are actually collections of rare authentic parts from a particular year.
If you are a collector or investor, buying an all original guitar might be important to you, be educated and buyer beware. For many people that just want a good guitar to play sometimes an old guitar that is not all original is a great thing. Do you really want old worn out tuners and a thirty year old volume control and a sagging tune-o-matic on a guitar that you want to enjoy? I feel that the wood and other materials in some older guitars are superior to those used today. But, this does not mean that everything old is great or that an old guitar will always perform perfectly.
There are a lot of deals to be had on really good older guitars that have been refinished, routed or had headstock repairs. a lot of them just need some love, glue and maybe a fret job. An old guitar, (all original or not), with old growth wood and whatever might remain of natural lacquer will always sound and feel better than any new polyurethane covered sweatshop guitar you can buy today.