Collecting vintage guitars can be a very rewarding occupation - especially if one is a musician, or has a love for the classic craftsmanship and engineering of the last decades. And vintage guitars can be a great investment in financial terms, often out-performing traditional investments.
Before leaping in and buying the first guitar you see, you have to know a little bit about what you are buying. Investors have made small fortunes from buying and selling the right guitars, but people can lose money too. There are very many guitar dealers attempting to sell guitars at above their worth, and plenty of less scrupulous individuals passing off instruments as something that they are not.
The idea is to buy a desirable guitar at a low price.
Old does NOT mean vintage collectable
As a general rule, guitars that are collectable will have value to musicians. They will still work, and not only that, they will sound fantastic. Many old guitars are pretty much junk. Made from low quality woods, and with low quality components. The most sought after guitars tend to be quality instruments. 1950s Gibsons, for example, were made of very high quality woods. Trees that were hundreds of years old with very tight grains and superb tonal qualities the likes of which simply can not be purchased today. For this reason, some old guitars have qualities that can NOT be reproduced - adding massively to their musical value as an instrument and their financial value as an investment. In general high-end instruments by the major American manufacturers will always be the best investments: Gibson, Gretsch, Fender, Martin, Rickenbacker.
So what should I buy to make a fortune in 25 years time?
Well that's the question isn't it? The general rule has to be quality at its lowest price. Almost any guitar's price (value) drops from the moment it's bought... turning from just a 'used guitar', 10 years later, to an 'unfashionable used guitar' 20 years later. After about 30 years, it becomes 'vintage' and prices start to rise. So, from an investment point of view, it makes sense to buy the best condition, high-end guitars at their most undesirable point in time. Cheaper guitars tend not to increase in value as much as expensive ones.
At the current time, early 1980s guitars by the likes of Gibson, Guild and Fender are relatively cheap, and could offer some of the biggest proportional increases in value over, say, a thirty year period. Older guitars by these maker are already more highly valued, and, if found at the right prices can still make excellent investments. But finding them in good condition, and at the right price is not always that easy.
Originality is crucial
Vintage guitar collectors are looking for originality. Original parts, original finishes and with no repairs. That is not to say slightly modified guitars are never valuable, they can be, but pristine examples will always attract a premium.
So how do you know exactly what you are buying and what it should cost? Well, the only way to know what you are buying is to study the instrument in question. Is it genuine? Is it in original condition? Is it complete and free of damage/repairs? This isn't always easy to do, and it really does help if you know the guitar in question. For example; Gibson guitars with mahogany necks, are prone to breaks below the headstock. Has there been a repair? Hofner guitars are prone to needing neck resets. Is the action un-playably high? Is that Fender Stratocaster body original, or a relic'd repro?
The best way to learn about a vintage guitar is to study books and online resources. Decide what model you want to buy and learn all you can about it.
Time to buy
Vintage guitar dealer's prices are way above the typical prices paid for vintage gear sold privately. Though buying from a store does give you some guarantee as to the guitars provenance - assuming the store is knowledgeable and trustworthy. Better to know what you are looking for and find the same item at auction, in a yard sale, classified listings etc.
Don't just stash it away
So you've got your vintage guitar. Most collectors are musicians too. But if you are considering investing in vintage guitars, purely from a financial point of view... well, you're missing out... guitars are made to be played. You might make yourself some money, but you've missed out on the best part of having a very special instrument.