Newsletter #4, March 6, 2003
Readers' response to the newsletters has been overwhelmingly positive. Your comments and questions are greatly appreciated. I make an effort to personally respond to all emails I receive. This time around I would like to respond to a few of the questions and concerns I have received from readers.
In my previous newsletter discussing and contrasting the differences in manufacturing techniques and materials between new and vintage instruments, I had stated that lacquer formulas today are quite different from the old style nitrocellulose lacquer used during the 1950s and earlier due to changes mandated by OHSA, the Federal Occupational Health and Safety Agency. A reader pointed out to me that these changes in fact were dictated not by OHSA but by EPA the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA-mandated changes were designed to reduce emissions into the outside environment rather than due to concerns for the internal environment of factories or safety of the workers. Either way, the result is that the lacquers available today, in the opinion of most makers and musicians, are not acoustically as good as the older versions. Many of them are harder to work with from the maker's point of view and the tonal results on the instruments do not appear to be as good.
It was pointed out to me that while the modern lacquers may emit fewer pollutants into the outside atmosphere, ironically the new formulas are much more toxic and dangerous to the workers who manufacture and apply them. Changes made in the name of progress can be a double-edged sword. It is at best highly debatable if damage to the environment due to lacquer spraying was nearly as great as the harm done to those involved directly with the manufacture and use of the new formula finishes. Lacquer emissions into the outside environment are quickly dispersed. There is little documented evidence to show they cause any great harm, whereas the new formula finishes are quite toxic such that those involved in their manufacture and use must take great precautions. They are not only immediately toxic but they are carcinogenic and many workers find that these finishes can cause severe allergic reactions. From the guitar player's point of view the main concern, however, is tonal results. Once the finishes have been applied and the solvents have evaporated, the final result is not toxic to the user.
My previous newsletter covered my opinions regarding differences between new and old finishes and the use of air seasoned wood versus kiln dried wood, which effects the tone of both acoustic and electric guitars, but I did not go into nearly as much detail in my opinions regarding factors influencing tone of vintage electric guitars versus the newer models. A luthier desiring to build vintage style new acoustic guitars can secure air seasoned wood in small quantities and can certainly age wood on his own if he has the time to do so. It is also possible to purchase or make from raw components old style French polish finish and varnish as well as hide glue such that a modern luthier can set up to make acoustic guitars the 'old fashioned' way, but a maker desiring to produce new electric guitars to virtually the same specifications as the 1950s vintage original faces the challenge of trying to secure vintage style electronics as well. While there are currently numerous manufacturers of electronic components who claim to offer vintage style pickups, it is my opinion (shared by many collectors and musicians) that there is a certain "magic" to the sound of the original 1950s Fender and Gibson pickups which has yet to be duplicated.
Virtually every component of a pickup affects the sound of the finished product. To duplicate the sound of a vintage Fender or Gibson pickup one must not only copy the design and the manufacturing technique, but one must have the exact same components. During the 1950's metal alloys used for the magnets as well as for the wire wrapping of the pickup coils was different than the modern formulas. In addition the wire available today is coated with synthetic compounds which differ from the formulas used during the 1950s. The magnets and wire and used during the 1950s were not specifically designed for guitar manufacturers. They were the same materials developed for use in the automotive and electronics industries.
While some people have expressed the opinion that pickups age in such a way as to improve tone, I disagree. I have been dealing guitars for forty years and remember very well what the 1950s and 1960s instruments sounded like when I started. I am firmly of the opinion that the new pickups sound different from the old ones due to differences in materials as well as design and manufacturing techniques. The fact that an original old pickup which has been rewound with modern wire seems to loose some of its "magic" in my opinion is due not to the need for this pickup to be "re-aged" but due to the fact that the new wire is not equivalent in composition to the old. While a modern luthier can set out to duplicate old acoustic instruments down to aging wood and replicating old style finishes, it is much more difficult for today's luthiers to replicate vintage electric guitars since the luthier is not set up to be a metallurgist or electronics manufacturer.
Replicating 1950s style magnets and wire is beyond the capabilities of almost any guitar manufacturer. However, if some of the larger manufacturers of pickups were to demand proper type magnets and wire, it certainly is conceivable that with research and enough money to back up sufficient size orders to warrant production of the components that they could be made available. There are a greater number of highly skilled luthiers today than ever before in the history of the guitar. What human ingenuity and hands produced in the past should be possible to replicate today. As much as I revere vintage instruments, I readily concede that it should be possible to design new products which rival and perhaps exceed the capabilities of previously available instruments. The guitar should not be considered an evolutionary dead end.
Quite a few readers have asked my opinion regarding which new model instruments are likely to be collectible in the future and which would be good investments. Hindsight may be 20/20 but I don't have a crystal ball to give such clarity of vision into the future. I have written extensively in Vintage Guitar magazine regarding my opinions on the future collectibility and investment potential of so-called "limited edition" models. It is my opinion that instruments made to be "instant collectibles" designed more to be put in a glass case of display rather than to be played will generally not be great investments. While limited edition instruments may by definition be rare, major manufacturers have whole departments producing instruments of this type such that even though each individual limited edition may consist of fewer than 100 instruments. By the end of the year after producing numerous different limited edition models there may be thousands of such items in circulation.
Some companies such as Martin keep meticulous records of the various limited editions and are very willing to share this information with the public, whereas it is much more difficult to get information of this type from Fender. Needless to say, if one cannot get information, the collector's item appeal of the model and its subsequent investment potential may be limited. Even in the case of a company such as Martin which has excellent records and will share the information, the fact remains that during the past twenty years the company has made so many different limited edition models that virtually no one can easily remember all of them. Even I must rely on guidebooks and frequent calls to the company. At least Martin guitars are clearly stamped with a model number and serial number which is backed by excellent records and help from the company, whereas some other manufacturers produce a wide variety of models which are not clearly stamped anywhere on the instrument such that dealers and potential buyers may be at a loss to identify exactly what they have, especially when it is difficult to get information from the manufacturers.
Not only are there many hundreds if not thousands of different limited edition models floating around in the marketplace today, but virtually all manufacturers have expanded their standard lines to offer many more models than in the historic past. When Walter Carter and I were working on our book, Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars, we discovered very quickly that there were far more models made from 1980 to the present than in the previous 100 years. While it was our original intent to prepare a guidebook to vintage instruments, it soon became clear that a book covering the various models produced by major American manufacturers from the time of their founding up to the publication date of the book would end up devoting more space to models made after 1980 than to the earlier "Golden Era" instruments which are so greatly revered by collectors and investors.
Walter and I made the decision to cover as best we could models produced up to the publication date of the book since inclusion of the new models would not in any way lessen our coverage of the vintage instruments and because such a high percentage of the inquiries we receive are related to used recent issue instruments. The fact remains, however, that there are now so many models in the marketplace that it is virtually impossible for any person to keep it all straight in his head. Companies such as Martin, Gibson and Fender had relatively simple easy to comprehend model lineups during the 1960's and earlier, whereas today all of them produce so many different models that virtually no one seems to be able to keep the current lineups for any one company straight in their mind. In the 1960s, for example, there is only one type Martin D-28, whereas today there are many variations. During the 1950s the Fender Stratocaster was available with or without tremolo and sunburst finish was standard. Today there are so many different variations of Stratocasters that I do not claim to know all of them without looking at a guidebook. In 1959 there was one Les Paul Standard model which was easy enough to keep in one's mind, whereas today Gibson produces so many variations of the Les Paul Standard that I must refer to company literature to keep them all straight.
The situation is further compounded by the fact that companies such as Martin, Fender, and Gibson do not simply produce one model line as they did in the past but now have multiple divisions each producing model lineups of their own. For example, in the 1970s and earlier Martin had one standard line, whereas today they produce the X Series, Technology Series, Standard Line, Vintage Series and Golden Era Series, each with their own model lineups. Similarly Fender today has multiple different lines made in different factories such that they now offer Mexican instruments, Oriental imports, Standard line American instruments, Vintage Series, Custom Shop Series and hand crafted master built instruments. Whereas Gibson used to produce all of their instruments in one factory, today they have separate factories for different divisions such that standard-line solidbody electrics are made in Nashville in one building, Historic and Custom Shop instruments are made in Nashville in another building, hollowbody electric standard models are made in Memphis, Bluegrass Division banjos, mandolins, and Dobros are made at Opry Mills in Nashville, and acoustic flat top guitars and the L-7 archtop are made in their Bozeman, Montana factory. Whereas in the past there were few enough models being produced by major manufacturers that it was relatively easy for a dealer or collector to keep all of them straight in his mind, today there are many hundreds of different models available new at any one time such that I know of nobody who truly can keep all of them straight in his mind. As time goes on the information overload becomes such that it is not only not possible to keep it straight in one's memory, but no published guidebook of model identification is available for all of these instruments and certainly no currently published 'blue book' does more than scratch the surface.
The situation is further compounded by the fact that not only are there so many new models, but the model nomenclature is in many cases so confused as to be virtually incomprehensible. In the past, for example, Martin produced body sizes 0, 00, 000 and D and model numbers 15, 17, 18, 21, 28, 42 and 45. A buyer or dealer could learn the basic model specifications and sizes in a few minutes such that if one called out a model number such as 000-21, a person would immediately know the size, shape, ornamentation, and type wood of that model. Today the nomenclature is no longer nearly as clear for Martin or other makers.
While model nomenclature may seem to be simple "antics with semantics," in my opinion the issue goes much deeper. If a model line is relatively simple and easy to comprehend, it is much easier to market the product. Sales reps don't push products to dealers unless they themselves understand the various models. Dealers certainly don't order models they never heard of, and customers don't come asking for models unless they know the model name or something about the product. Companies such as Martin, Fender, Gibson and Taylor now offer so many different models that it is virtually impossible for any dealer to stock and display even one of each, but it is also virtually impossible for any dealer or customer to keep the lineups straight in their mind. As a result instruments which may in fact have great merit can be overlooked. In my opinion, well-defined comprehensible model lineups with model names or numbers which are easy to comprehend are critically important. Those models which the dealers can comprehend and remember will be the ones that they stock and which will therefore be shown to the public. Conversely, those models which sell well will be the ones which not only the dealers understand and order but which the customers are able to comprehend. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet but it might not sell as well.
While the economy and the political scene are currently quite unstable, the guitar market seems to be faring well. Although there are so many new models as to constitute sensory overload, the better known models continue to sell very well. Used high quality utility instruments of recent issue, while they may not be great collector's items, are certainly selling well. True vintage collectibles are not only moving well for dealers but have been appreciating significantly at a time when many other investments such as stocks and mutual funds are doing poorly. Late 1950s Gibson sunburst finish Les Paul Standards with patent-applied-for humbucking pickups, 1930s Gibson flathead Mastertone banjos, and 1922-24 Gibson F-5 mandolins signed by Lloyd Loar have all gone up dramatically in price since the year 2000.
Just as gold is now selling at an eight year high, it would appear that at least some investors who were able to get out of the stock market in time are now putting money into fretted instruments as more secure investments. Regardless of their investment potential, fretted instruments are certainly more fun than a stock certificate. I regard a fine instrument as one of the ultimate pieces of art. Whereas one can look at a painting but not appreciate it with any other senses and one may look at and touch a piece of sculpture, a fine instrument can be seen, touched and heard. In the hands of a musician the instrument truly comes alive. It is a very different experience to use one's senses to play an instrument rather than just to see it on a guitar stand or see and hear someone else play it. Just as one does not have to be a professional racecar driver to appreciate the experience of driving a fine automobile, one does not have to be a superlative musician to enjoy playing a fine guitar, banjo or mandolin.