You don’t have to be a talented musician to love vintage guitars. In fact, people collect vintage guitars for lots of different reasons. Some children of the 1970s and 1980s may collect them for nostalgic reasons. After all, those decades produced incredible music from some of the best guitarists of all time, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani, Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson and more. Amateur and professional guitar players likely own more than one guitar. According to Guitar World, the average player owns between seven and eight guitars, as well as at least one good amp.
I’m always interested in seeing how celebrity vintage guitars do at auction. In April, Eddie Van Halen’s iconic “Frankenstrat” guitar that he played both onstage and in the “Hot for Teacher” video sold at auction for $3.9 million. The guitar came with a letter of provenance from Kramer Guitars’ Paul “Unk” Unkert, who custom-made the guitar to Van Halen’s specifications in late 1982. In 2020, Kurt Cobain’s guitar from Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged performance sold at auction for a record $6 million. Cobain played the 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar during a live performance five months before his death.
We’ve sold hundreds of guitars at auction over the last decade, and like any collectible, their value depends on many factors, including the brand, luthier, age, and condition. In April 2022, we auctioned a vintage 1931 National Tricone Resonator guitar that realized $3,000. And in June 2020, we auctioned a 1964 Gibson Country Western model acoustic guitar that sold for $2,750. Just last month, we held a specialty electric guitar auction that did well. An Epiphone limited edition Custom Shop V electric guitar sold for $700 while an Epiphone Set Neck Flying V electric guitar sold for $475. In addition, a Swart Space Tone Tube guitar and combo amplifier realized $650.
Unlike pianos that need a lot of upkeep, many vintage guitars hold their tonality well. It’s always a good idea to check the guitar for warping, bowing or twisting of the neck. Before making a purchase, check to see if the guitar was modified in any way. For example, it’s good to know if the guitar has been refretted, if the electronics have been changed or replaced, and if there’s been a respray of the finish.
Most importantly, make sure the guitar is playable. Unlike rare collectibles that should be protected, you’ll have more fun if you play your vintage guitar every now and then. Be sure to wipe it down with a soft cotton cloth after you’re done and store it in its case when it is not being used.
Whether you’re looking to buy a vintage guitar or sell a guitar collection, make sure you do your research to fully understand market value. And when in doubt, consult with a professional appraiser or industry expert.