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“Old stuff can be good – but keep in mind that just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s great.” “It can still be absolutely toilet-grade,” says Monty’s Guitars’ Matt Gleeson, who has set up and repaired a wide range of new and vintage guitars in his 20-plus years as a pro guitar tech.
“So experiment with as many as you can get your hands on.” One example will differ from another, and one may speak to you more than another. “Sometimes the ones that look a little rough are actually the better ones – but you won’t know until you check them out and play them,” he advises, adding that the most important thing is that the guitar connects with you in an easy and natural way.
“I know that sounds a little hippy,” he admits, “but the most important thing is that when you pick up the vintage guitar, it resonates with you.” Everything else is usually repairable. But keep in mind that if it isn’t already very well set up and cared for, you’ll always have to budget for a little bit more on top to fix niggling issues.”
Because prevention is better (and less expensive) than cure, Matt offers five tips for determining whether a vintage guitar you’re considering purchasing is a good buy or a money pit.
Examine the Frets Of Vintage Guitar
“The condition of the frets is something I’d always look at first because you have to factor that into the asking price of the vintage guitar,” Matt says. “For example, if you’re looking at a 1970s Strat, which is still reasonably priced, the frets are really small, and they were spraying them with really thick lacquer at the time.”
“With worn frets on top of that, it can feel like you’re playing a fretless marvel.” That means you’ll have to pay for refretting, and if it’s a maple ‘board, you may also have to refinish the fingerboard because the lacquer flakes off like crazy [during refretting work].
“So those items could add a few hundred pounds to the original price.”
When it comes to older Gibbos with slightly wider frets, if those frets flatten out due to wear, you lose an accurate intonation point for that fret.
“If this occurs, the tuning may sound ‘off.'” When you fret a string, it is fluttering across a flat strip of metal rather than meeting a single, well-defined peak. That dulls the sound slightly and has an adverse effect on tuning, so you’d have to consider a fret dress or something to fix that.”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Occasional Crackle
“If someone has had a vintage guitar in a loft somewhere and the guitar hasn’t been used in ages, the electrics may cut out or be a little crackly at first.” You can use switch cleaner, which helps a little, but the best way to clean a pot is to use it.
“So, when you’re looking to buy a vintage guitar, plug it in and roll any crackling pots back and forth.” If a crackling pot starts clearing up while you’re testing it, you’re safe. If you’re feeling bold, you could point out the crackle to the seller and use it to haggle them down a little.”
Inspect All Moving Components
“Make sure that all of the machine heads are operational, which is something that many people overlook. Just double-check everything. Check that all of the grub screws and other items that may need to be adjusted still appear to be adjustable – take a look and see if they will actually move.
“With Strats, you have six individual saddles with grub screws in them for height adjustment, and if they’re caked with gunk, rust, and crud, they won’t move.”
If they’ve deteriorated to that point, you may need to disassemble the [bridge assembly] and soak them in oil, or replace them, which will take more time and money.”
“You must be realistic about the vintage guitar you are attempting to restore. Take, for example, a Hofner Verithin: it’s extremely difficult to get them to play super low, so it’ll never be a shred machine. There are some parameters that cannot be improved – but they sound amazing, really, really good.
“Some of the pickups on them aren’t as durable as modern equivalents because the wire originally used [to connect the pickups to the controls] has a shelf life, which is unfortunately approaching.”
“We see a lot of them where the cable crumbles when you touch it.” That happens on old Gretsches from time to time. They used a braided cable similar to old Gibsons, but the insulation between the braid and the inner core was an obsolete type of plastic that hardens over time rather than cloth.
“That’s fine if you don’t do anything with the guitar, but if you need to change a part or move it around, the entire cable can fall apart in your hand.” There are little things that you have to be aware of.”
Do Your Homework
Do your research and thoroughly inspect a vintage guitar before purchasing to avoid being duped.” I know a big collector who was duped into buying a ’65 Strat.
As soon as you disassembled it, you realised there was nothing original in there – it was all shonky.” Even with the less expensive items, money is money, and you must protect yourself. Taking photos of a potential purchase can also help. We get it all the time: people send us Instagram photos of guitars they want to buy and ask, ‘Is this okay?’
“I’m generally happy to advise them because the worst thing is for someone to be done over.” Every year, George Gruhn’s [Guide To Vintage Guitars] book is updated; you can check serial numbers, pots, and any level of geekery in it. I’d definitely get something like that as a reference.”
Also read How To Choose A Guitar.