Hello TNAG Connoisseur readers. I’m delighted and honoured to be writing here. I’ve been a friend and customer of TNAG since its early days and have done the odd demo for them too.
I’m a UK-based player/collector and I’ll be writing mainly about things vintage—always a popular subject, especially since the pandemic locked us down.
My own collection is modest compared to some folks in these pages, though if you stay with me, you’ll see I do have some nice things.
Most of my career was spent in advertising where I did well and rose to some influence but was not a real high-flyer. I’m just a regular, comfortably-off middle class family guy. All my instruments were bought out of saved income, not inheritance, investments or royalties.
I still practise professionally, but most of my time nowadays is spent playing, collecting, writing and my YouTube channels. (And gardening, but that’s another story).
I’ve always bought guitars to play. I consider myself mainly an electric blues and rock player as befits a boomer, though I have some acoustics too.
The term has fallen into disrepute, but I’m a semi-pro. I play frequently, usually with pros and always for money, because without it bookings are flaky and not serious. I do my own setups, light maintenance and repairs but use top luthiers for serious work like fretboard levelling.
I keep all my instruments in their (usually original) cases as it’s better for them but they’re in frequent use, not mothballed. I also share them more than most pure collectors, who are sadly often rather cagey with their things.
Over time, I have built a network of like-minded people who have become close friends and often exchange guitars on reciprocal loan. In coming columns I plan to cover some beautiful instruments of my own and from this ‘diaspora’, but first I thought I’d set my stall out.
A teenage dream
I’ve been playing ever since my dad bought me the first Led Zeppelin and Goodbye Cream vinyl albums over my first half-term home visit from boarding school aged thirteen.
I remember listening and thinking that I didn’t understand but that it was very important. And so, a lifetime later, it has proved to be.
Within a few months I’d acquired my first guitar, a Japanese Zenta copy of a Mosrite Ventures model, which I strung with the then-new ‘super light’ strings, .006-.036 as I recall. I’ll leave you to imagine what that might have sounded like.
In two years, I graduated to another copy, a Shaftesbury-branded Japanese lawsuit era copy of a Ampeg Dan Armstrong plexiglass model. I sold that to a schoolfriend and later bought it back—I still have it.
That led to my dear dad buying my first proper guitar, a new ’72 Gibson SG Deluxe. History has not been kind to these, made at the perigee of the Norlin Corporation’s ravaging of Gibson. But, of course, I loved it and I was on my way. I played pro for a few months, but it wasn’t for me.
Like many I know, I accumulated lots of guitars over the years but my proper collecting actually started with the big one. Something I’d dreamt of since I was a teenager—a 50s Les Paul Standard which will probably be the subject of my next column.
Ok, I already owned other things but didn’t really consider them collectible. Like the ’61/2 Shoreline gold Fender Stratocaster I bought for £180 / $250 in ’74. What would now be seen as beautiful natural ageing of a rare finish was just a worn, offbeat color then.
Likewise, the clean ’60 Gibson Les Paul Special TV my dad bought from a London pawn shop in ’63 alongside a super-clean Hofner 500/5 bass which I also still have and a Selmer TV8/T red and cream combo which I trashed.
A vintage voyage
I should perhaps break off here to talk about vintage guitar (and parts) dealers. It’s a pretty shady world, lots of guys looking for an angle, most of which don’t really interest me.
I buy guitars that are straight, clean, play very well and sound as they should (fantastic, plugged and unplugged). For that, I’ll pay fairly. I’m not really after cheaper, questionable guitars.
I’ve found the top US dealers to be pretty straight, if also expensive. They have great instruments and hard-earned reputations to defend. They respond to direct questions with straight answers. So the skilful buyer does their prep and asks the right things…
I’d love this to be true further down the chain and in other markets, but sadly it’s not. Caveat emptor is the rule, so you have to be very careful, especially if buying at a distance.
Many instruments are no more than screen pulls. Needless to say, never transfer funds unless you’re sure of who and where they are going to and trust the recipient. I know folks love a bargain and the bragging rights it affords, but if something looks too good to be true, it usually is. And it’s much worse for parts. Original pickups, hardware and plastic now change hands for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
I’ve never been caught but dealers and their luthiers often remove original parts during service visits or sales. There are now some very good replicas around which few beyond the experts can spot. I choose who works on my instruments very carefully.
Returning to my quest, I approached the main UK vintage dealers I was aware of to alert them to my being in market, but also to enlist help gaining the in-hand experience I’d need to make a confident purchase. I discovered how diffident most dealers were to the sound of my real money.
Some have grumbled that I haven’t bought from them since. Reminds me of the great scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts returns laden with expensive purchases to a shop that wouldn’t serve her the day before.
A beautiful ‘Burst
Nevertheless, I became a ‘Burst owner. Owning it made me realize how good instruments from that period were and how I could likely get my money back if I overshot. So whenever I’d saved some money, I bought another piece.
As I’ve gone on, I’ve learned about these instruments I love, how they feel, and how they should sound, weigh, smell…
Interviewed in V1E1 of Connoisseur, Joe Bonamassa refers to his long experience giving him an instinct. Not a substitute for rigorous evaluation, but just as important. It gets easier if you live with some and play them frequently as I do, but it’s still a minefield.
The world is full of talented craftspeople for whom the profit from counterfeiting an iconic guitar can be life-changing, so the incentives are very high. As the well-worn joke goes, of the ca.1500 ‘Bursts ever made, only 4000 survive!
Likewise, late 50s Gibson Korina guitars of which less than 150 were ever made as they corpsed at the time. Solid and custom colour guitars are even easier because there’s no wood figuring or shading signatures to replicate. So Fenders, Firebirds and even the few factory black doublecut Les Paul Juniors and Specials are not for the faint of heart unless there’s hard provenance or they’re guaranteed by a very reputable dealer.
Especially as the finishes and the originally-clear top coats yellow over time (for example Fender’s rare Lake Placid Blue tends towards super-rare Sherwood Green, rare Gibson Pelham Blue towards super-rare Inverness Green and so on).
Usually it’s possible to determine a lot about a guitar from potentiometer date codes, serial number stamps or stickers, factory order numbers and exact components and positions.
Lots of people subject them to black (UV) light. The world’s biggest ‘Burst collector reputedly has a whole UV-flooded room. UV can show up inconsistencies in the finish, oversprays at the neck and heel which might indicate a repair, for example. But it doesn’t confirm the age of the finish, merely that it is the kind which glows milky yellow under UV.
This combination of things takes time to pick up and learn. And I still know relatively little compared to some who have been trading vintage guitars all their lives.
It’s a bit like mushroom hunting. There are tens of thousands of varieties and each can take various shapes and sizes, so if you’re a geek you might want learn them all. But if you just want them for the pot, you only need to learn with certainty the few that are poisonous (as some are irreversibly lethal) or delicious enough to merit getting backache picking them…
If you’re collecting and want to see your money back and maybe even a profit one day, I’d buy the very best you can. Better a really fabulous Les Paul Junior than a beat up SG Custom, for example.
If you’re a player seeking a sound or to project a particular image, this may not be as important—there are buyers and prices at every level of the market.
I was rehearsing back in the day with a guy, sadly now deceased, who was in the band that became the Sex Pistols (from which he was fired when Malcolm McLaren took over as manager). He offered me a beat sunburst singlecut mid ‘50s Les Paul Junior for £50 cash. According to the biographies, he and his bandmate Steve Cook were famous for nicking other bands’ gear…
The thrill of the chase
Some like the thrill. Some seek the Holy Grail. Some are forever hunting bargains, presumably to flip for profit. Many love stories. I don’t, because all too often they hide something.
Many, particularly in the States, travel huge distances in search of these things. I guess that’s more possible where there are simply more instruments and where travel may take time but is relatively easy. No language or customs barriers, cheap gas and places to overnight everywhere.
I’ve only travelled to see and acquire a guitar once, and interestingly it was almost my only trade as I don’t trade much at all. I buy carefully and as well as I can so I seldom sell anything unless I have really fallen out of love with it and don’t use it.
I’ve covered must of my preferred bases so my buying has slowed of late—though I am in the market for one final great piece and might share my experiences as that quest unfolds…
Last thing to get off my chest is that I should have realized decades earlier that the instrument is not just the guitar but the amp and cable too. Although I’ll be writing mainly about my and my friends’ guitars, why we have them, how we acquired them, and the quest that is about to start, this will always be on my mind and may show through on occasion.
I realize I’ve zigzagged across quite a lot of ground here, but hello and I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride. Until next time, happy playing!
Images: Richard Ecclestone Photography