Collecting guide: guitars

One of contemporary music’s most important instruments, the guitar is a fascinating collectible, coming in all shapes and sizes — and often with some legendary previous owners

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  • Look at the maker

Key to collecting any musical instrument is the quality of sound that it can produce, says musical instrument specialist Kerry Keane. ‘As wonderful and beautiful as a Stradivarius violin is, if it didn’t sound better than all the others, we really wouldn’t care.’

With its roots in 19th-century German marquetry guilds, the most coveted name in acoustic guitar manufacture is C.F. Martin and Company, which was founded in the U.S. by the emigre luthier Christian Frederick Martin in 1833. His revolutionary ‘X’ bracing system at the instrument’s top boosted tonal quality and strength — supporting the steel-string sound of American popular music in the decades that followed.

In the eclectic guitar market, two names are most highly sought after: Fender and Gibson. The latter is known for its high-quality materials and finishes, and always sought the market’s top end, including valuable endorsements as early as the 1930s.

Aside from the big two, other notable — and collectable — guitar brands include the Santa Ana-based Rickenbacker, whose models have been endorsed by the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison and Tom Petty, and the New York-founded Gretsch, pioneer of the ‘great Gretsch sound’ favoured by big names from Chet Atkins to Bono.

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  • Research models

The pre-war, acoustic Martin D-45 and the Gibson Les Paul solid-body electric guitar are, in their two fields, ‘the emperors that share the throne at the top,’ says Keane.

Large-bodied, with pearl inlay and spectacular sound quality, the 1939 Martin D-45 was its manufacturer’s finest guitar and the most expensive in its day.

In 1952, Gibson collaborated with the guitarist, inventor and developer of the solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul, on the famed guitar that bears his name. From an early age, Paul had been experimenting with sound amplification. Eventually, with a piece of a steel train track, elements from a home phone and radio, and a guitar string, he would discover the basis for all his electric guitar developments. The Gibson Les Paul is a legend in the music world with pioneering effects such as reverb.

While Fender offers several popular models, the Esquire then Broadcaster later renamed Telecaster, or ‘Tele’, was the first mass-produced solid-body electric model — still in production today with few alterations since its launch in 1950. The Stratocaster, or ‘Strat’, first manufactured in 1954, is another sought-after model, thanks to its distinctive, contoured design. Fenders are renowned for their versatility and for being ‘affordable for the working musician’, says Keane. In the music business, this has meant major names across rock, funk, punk and country, from Jimi Hendrix to Buddy Holly.

Left A solid-body electric guitar, known as ‘Number One’ Les Paul model artists prototype, Gibson incorporated, Kalamazoo, Michigan, circa 1952. 17 516 in (44 cm), length of body. Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in New York. Right Les Paul with the ‘Number One Les Paul’ with Mary Ford circa 1952 in Paul’s studio in Mahwah, NJ
Left: A solid-body electric guitar, known as ‘Number One’ Les Paul model artist's prototype, Gibson incorporated, Kalamazoo, Michigan, circa 1952. 17 5/16 in (44 cm), length of body. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in New York. Right: Les Paul with the ‘Number One Les Paul’ with Mary Ford circa 1952 in Paul’s studio in Mahwah, NJ
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  • Rarity is a factor

The value attributes that are important for many collectibles also apply to guitars, and one of the key things to look out for is a model’s rarity. In the acoustic field, for example, only 91 of C.F. Martin’s D-45s were ever made; likewise, the desirability of the Les Paul can be partly attributed to its uniqueness. This is amplified in specially created or customised models; the Les Paul Model Artist’s Prototype from circa 1952 was Paul’s personal Gibson, developed with the company to meet his exacting needs.

Keane calls this ‘a time capsule of Les Paul’s ideas [and] his theories on electronic tonal sound. He altered it almost by the day.’ Paul would come to call the instrument his ‘Number One’.

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  • The electric and acoustic markets differ

Electric guitars have been a driving force in much of the vintage market, partly for their connection to the prevailing popular culture and the figures who have shaped it. While aesthetics play a role, depending on taste — some may be drawn to the mid-century modern lines of a blonde Les Paul Special from 1960; others to the hard-edged minimalism of a 1980s Steinberger — the passionate acoustic community places more value on material quality and workmanship.

C.F. Martin is among the most revered brands in the acoustic category because ‘they never cut corners’ when it came to production, Keane says. Whereas electric guitar-makers benefited from the post-war boom in mass production, anything other than artisanal craftsmanship is detrimental to quality in acoustic instruments, and so the more exquisite the handicraft, the more prized the piece is.

Left A solid-body electric guitar, Stratocaster, known as ‘The Black Strat’, Fender Electric Instrument Company, Fullerton, 1969 and 1983. 15⅞ in (39.7 cm), length of back. Sold for $3,975,000 on 20 June 2019 at Christie’s in New York. Right An acoustic guitar, D-35, C.F. Martin & Company, Nazareth, 1969. 19.1516 in (50.6 cm), length of back. Sold for $1,095,000 on 20 June 2019 at Christie’s in
Left: A solid-body electric guitar, Stratocaster, known as ‘The Black Strat’, Fender Electric Instrument Company, Fullerton, 1969 and 1983. 15⅞ in (39.7 cm), length of back. Sold for $3,975,000 on 20 June 2019 at Christie’s in New York. Right: An acoustic guitar, D-35, C.F. Martin & Company, Nazareth, 1969. 19.15/16 in (50.6 cm), length of back. Sold for $1,095,000 on 20 June 2019 at Christie’s in New York
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  • Know the provenance

Just as in the early 19th century, the names Stradivari and Guarneri became desirable partly because they were used by revered performers, ‘every guitarist is searching for the instrument that their hero played on,’ says Keane.

The opportunity to own a specific instrument that was played by a musical, naturally fuels interest, but there are nuances to the question of provenance.

For instance, David Gilmore’s standard-model black Stratocaster, the ‘Black Strat’, appeared on all Pink Floyd albums between 1970 to 1983, and toured extensively. ‘Everyone recognised that guitar,’ says Keane. It sold as part of the David Gilmour Guitar Collection at Christie’s in 2019 for nearly $4 million — a world record price at the time for a guitar at auction.

Another model in the 2019 sale, a Martin D-35, had been too delicate to take on tour, but was used to compose and record Wish you Were Here, a critical factor that resulted in a world record for a Martin guitar. ‘They never saw Gilmour on stage with it,’ says Keane, ‘but they knew it was on this guitar that he wrote Pink Floyd’s anthem.’

When purchasing a guitar associated with an artist, Keane advises, ‘there can’t be any questions — you want an irrefutable line of provenance.’ Avoid complicated narratives and seek photographs to help identify unique wood grains, finishes, and patterns of wear.

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  • They are working machines

When some of the most coveted guitars have withstood sold-out performances and hours of studio time, what constitutes perfect condition? Instruments that excite buyers might be worn and have multiple modifications alterations made by the artist who used to play them, including tuner adjustments, pickup, knob and scratchplate swaps, and neck alterations. Eric Clapton’s own black Fender Stratocaster from 1956-57, also known as ‘Blackie’, bore scrapes, cuts, and the original stain bleeding through the finish when it sold at Christie’s for $959,500 in 2004 — ‘but it had a lot of mojo,’ says Keane.

Likewise, a semi-hollow-body Gibson ES-355 once owned by B.B. King is an example of an instrument with this particular quality. It bears sweat marks, craquelure on its finish, and wear on the gold plating. It was played hard by ‘The King of the Blues’ and that adds to its appeal.

Left A semi-hollowbody electric guitar, ES-355 TDC, Gibson Incorporated, Kalamazoo, Michigan, circa 1967. 18½ in (46.4 cm), length of back. Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in New York. Right A solid-body electric bass guitar, model 4001, Rickenbacker Incorporated, Santa Ana, California, 1977. 44½ in (113 cm), overall length. 33½ in (85.1
Left: A semi-hollowbody electric guitar, ES-355 TDC, Gibson Incorporated, Kalamazoo, Michigan, circa 1967. 18½ in (46.4 cm), length of back. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in New York. Right: A solid-body electric bass guitar, model 4001, Rickenbacker Incorporated, Santa Ana, California, 1977. 44½ in (113 cm), overall length. 33½ in (85.1 cm), scale length. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in New York
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  • Don’t necessarily leave them alone

In the same vein, Keane believes that buyers shouldn’t feel the need to leave all vintage instruments untouched. ‘I think instruments are most happy when they’re being played,’ he says.

Conservation issues might also be missed if guitars are not examined and used. For a model that has a distinctive history, such as something owned by B.B. King, it is hard not to feel that ‘you’ve got to go out find a nice, smoky bar on the south side of Chicago and play some kicking blues.’

This may not apply across the board, however. Keane would draw the line at truly one-of-a kind pieces — he suggests an instrument such as Paul Simonon’s solid-body electric bass Rickenbacker 4001, with its colourful bands of paint added by the Clash bassist may belong under glass. ‘You’d hate for that finish to get worn off.’

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  • Consider the guitar’s history

On 10 August 1937, the Electro String Corporation was awarded the first-ever patent for an electric guitar. Known as the Rickenbacker Frying Pan, the guitar was invented by vaudeville performer George Beauchamp alongside his partner Adolph Rickenbacher. Because there was so much confusion at the US Patent Office — they originally didn’t know if the patent was for a musical instrument or an electric device — it took over five years to be granted. During that time many more significant strides had been taken in engineering electric guitars, both by Electro String and their competitors.

In fact, Electro String, now known as Rickenbacker, made its greatest contribution to electric guitars in 1935 with the Bakelite Model B Spanish guitar. Though not entirely solid, the Model B virtually eliminated the acoustic feedback that had plagued guitar makers — leading the way to the solid-body electric guitar.

However, it was not until the 1960s that Rickenbacker began to soar in popularity. Having been taken up by The Beatles, several of the brand’s models became synonymous with their sound and style. The brand quickly became a fan favorite for members of The Who, Queen, and The Clash amongst many others.

The history of several other guitars cling to celebrities as well. The Les Paul, for instance, was first popularised by American blues and jazz musicians, but had fallen out of favour by the early 1960s. Then the Rolling Stones arrived in America. When Keith Richards saw blues players such as Michael Bloomfield using Les Paul guitars, he brought his own back to the UK — to a ‘cadre’ of British rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Plugged into a Marshall amplifier dialled up to 10, the model entered the history books for new reasons.

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  • Know your time periods

The most coveted guitars fall predominantly between two-time bands. For acoustic instruments, those made prior to 1942 fetch the most interest. This was a high point for acoustic music both in repertoire and performance, and, in tandem, guitar-making. Innovations in construction also allowed for larger bodies — and larger sounds. ‘The storyline that threads its way through all musical instruments is the search for more volume,’ says Keane.

Following the Second World War, electric instruments entered their own heyday. The necessary components were no longer experimental, as they had been in the 1930s, and production quality was high.

This was over by the 1970s, however, when cost consciousness at the large corporations that took on makers such as Fender and Gibson led to a decline in quality. It was at this point that the vintage electric guitar market took off, as the music community began to buy used instruments that were cheaper — and sounded better — than their newly manufactured counterparts.

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  • Keep an eye on shifts in the market

As demographics change and potential buyers from new generations come of age, electric models from beyond the 1950s and 60s are becoming more desirable. As Keane puts it: ‘People are trying to buy their youth back.’

Moreover, the dilution in quality that began in the 1970s eventually began to reverse. From the mid-1980s, major marques including Martin, Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch started to revisit previous manufacturing techniques. Keane first noticed this phenomenon when 1960s guitar legend Stephen Stills told him that he was no longer using old models, but buying new ones.

As a result, new collectors looking to enter the market at accessible prices can find trophy pieces by marquee brands produced within the last 25 years.