A Musical Investment

Collecting vintage guitars can be even more rewarding than the sweet sounds you can strum out of them.
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Collecting rare guitars isn't just a hobby for rock stars: Fretted musical instruments have proven themselves to be valuable investments to dive into. While stocks and mutual funds may be anything but easy money, anyone with cash to invest can opt into a commodity like vintage guitars.

A vintage guitar is a work of art in itself, but its use goes far beyond that for professional musicians and even collectors -- it can very well be a source of income, whether played or encased and displayed.

"It is clear that prime vintage instruments have appreciated tremendously during the past five years and are likely to do well in the future," says George Gruhn, founder of

Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tenn. "Whether one is a professional musician or not, a fretted instrument portfolio, properly invested over the past five years, would easily have done better than most any mutual fund."

Gruhn can be considered an authority on the subject: He moved to Nashville in 1969 and has since established one of the largest dealers of vintage and used instruments in the world. He has been a featured columnist for publications including

Guitar Player

and

Vintage Guitar

, was the former vice president of research and development for Guild Guitars and his designs are featured on a line of Tacoma guitars.

"Unlike the stock market, in which there have been great peaks and valleys, it has been my observation that the fretted-instrument market has had periods in which prices go up, and times in which prices plateau, but

they do not drastically fall," adds Gruhn.

But the real reason Gruhn has chosen to invest in vintage guitars? "I personally do not put my money in stocks, bonds or mutual funds, but choose to invest in my own business and in the instruments I understand best and enjoy the most."

A Motley Crew

Of course, there are other reasons to collect vintage guitars besides trying to make a return on investment. Novelist

Jonathan Kellerman explains that the joy he gets "out of owning these pieces of utilitarian art comes primarily from playing them, but also from appreciating the craftsmanship that went into building them."

"I've played guitar since the age of nine and during my early years, couldn't afford good instruments," says Kellerman. "When I could, I began seeking out those with the best tone. For me, it's always been about sound."

Since guitars are so individually voiced, "seeking tonal variety led me to collect, but I never set out formally to do so," Kellerman notes. "A few years later, I realized I had a collection."

The rare quality of some vintage instruments is what makes some collectors rabid, while how the instrument plays and sounds may drive the purchase for professional musicians. Sometimes, the quest to acquire a specific guitar can yield a story that can be told for years to come.

"Thirty years ago, I'd use my lunch hour to chase down instruments," recalls Kellerman. "One excursion led me to a rather scruffy exurb where I purchased a vintage Gibson Super 400 from an Assyrian lounge singer on his way to Vegas. The sale of the guitar was to finance his trip. His intention was to be the Assyrian Elvis."

On the Hunt

As Kellerman notes, it can be extremely difficult to chase down a certain type of guitar or year of a model. The Internet has made it considerably easier to track down a specific guitar; Web sites like

craigslist and

eBay

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have shortened the process of searching for an instrument to mere minutes.

A more traditional approach to guitar hunting is to visit a guitar shop. They can range in size from a monster-store like

Guitar Center

(GTRC)

to a smaller mom & pop store like The Music Nook in Milford, Mass., to a vintage-specific retailer like

Hoboken Vintage Guitars in Hoboken, N.J., or George Gruhn's shop.

Of course, all can differ greatly in price, quantity and quality. Large vendors like Guitar Center have limited inventories, while a dedicated vintage guitar shop will be able to fulfill more demand -- but most likely at a higher cost. Auction houses, such as

Christie's, also have viewing and auctions for extremely hard-to-find musical instruments.

Wondering about the value of some of these gems? Check out some of the most sought-after classics:

1960 Gibson Les Paul Special

: During 1960, Gibson changed the official model name to SG Special, but guitars with the double cutaway body shape are still referred to as Les Pauls. In 1960, the guitar was given a complete makeover, much to the dismay of Les Paul himself. In good condition, it can fetch as much as $12,000.

1965 Fender Stratocaster

: One of the original versions that many players choose even today as the most popular. While the first of these guitars were issued in 1954, this solid-body version was one pioneered by Jimi Hendrix as well as George Harrison and John Lennon of the Beatles. In excellent condition, it could cost collectors more than $20,000.

1958 Gibson Flying V

: This year was when the Flying V model was introduced by Gibson as part of a modernist, futuristic line of guitars. In later years, guitarists including Eddie Van Halen, Lenny Kravitz, James Iha (of the Smashing Pumpkins) and members of Metallica would employ this style of guitar. The original line from 1958 can be valued up to $40,000, depending on the condition.

1953 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top

: Considered to be the most highly regarded guitar by many rock musicians, this was the second year of production for the Les Paul guitars. While initially introduced with a black finish so that it would appear guitarists' fingers moved faster on the fret board, Les Paul also designed a gold-finished guitar to bring a classy feel to the line. With a distinct sound generated from the humbucking pick-ups, this year of Gibson Les Pauls remains extremely sought after. Prices fluctuate greatly based on the condition of the guitar.

1958 Fender Jazzmaster

: This was the first year the Jazzmaster was introduced as a high-end line of guitars. The floating tremolo feature and tone controls are what made this model famous, and gave it a jazzy feel. Users of this style of guitar run the gamut, from Elvis Costello to Kurt Cobain, to Robert Smith (of The Cure) to Mick Jagger. The 1958 Jazzmaster can fetch near $10,000.

Before You Buy

Important for collectors to keep in mind is that many guitar makers do produce reissues, so don't confuse them with the original releases. Major manufacturers, such as Martin, Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and Taylor, produce limited-edition models and reissues at premium prices -- which targets investors, rather than players seeking utilitarian instruments.

Potential buyers can also be turned off by the careful storage, maintenance and insurance required for a vintage instrument. Finding the elusive part necessary to complete certain older instruments can become a hopeless rescue mission as well, despite endless Internet searches and visits to specialty shops. In addition, the guitar will yield a tangible value only when it is sold.

But for collectors and lovers of guitars, anything is worth the trouble of getting their hands on that perfect one. It can be for the love of the instrument, for the collector appeal, for the investment or for a type of reward even greater.