What’s The Deal With “Player Grade” Guitars?

You can’t spell player grade without DiMarzio. This 1974 Rickenbacker 480/483 has it all.

Player grade guitars are a wide spectrum and the subject is full of controversy in some guitar circles. Some swear by them, and some swear they don’t exist. In short, a player grade guitar is a used or vintage instrument that has been well played and lost some (or all) of its originality over time — this can range from a few changed screws to total overhaul. It typically comes down to three things — finish, hardware and wood. If an instrument has significant alterations to any one or more of these three categories, it’s prime for player grade consideration.

Show pony: old hippie refin and a vintage reissue neck on a 1965 Fender Mustang.

The most important thing if you are faced with an intriguing purchase is to ask as many questions as you can. If something drastic has been altered on the guitar, it was typically done for a reason. What is that neck overspray covering up? If the pickups are changed, are they an upgrade? If an instrument is refinished, it will typically cut the value in half, and changed hardware and pickups will bring the value down if it’s not period stuff. Maybe someone had the bright idea to take a chisel to their early 70s Telecaster for a P.A.F. upgrade and now the wood under the pick guard looks like Paul Bunyan’s paradise — there are a million horror stories, and it’s a wonder any guitars survived the 1980s without getting Kahlered.

1958 Gibson Les Paul Junior with the famous 70’s “smuggler’s hold” mod.

The most down, dirty and dangerous corner of player grade guitars are those with repairs or alterations to the body. Headstock and heel repairs can be gnarly to look at but not always the end of the world if they are repaired properly. It’s almost a relief to know that someone else has already broken it instead of you, and a repair can leave the instrument stronger than when it started. This is one of the reasons why it is crucial to check out the instrument in person if you can. It can be tricky to see just how cooked the neck angle on a bad neck reset is from blurry iPhone photos.

Sorry bro, I broke your 40s Gibson acoustic. Don’t worry, my buddy has a metal shop — he’ll fix it right up.

In short, player grade is probably a vintage guitar you can actually afford. The minty collector stuff that we drool over on social media is nice on the eyes usually doesn’t cut it at the bar gig or recording session. Most player grade instruments are dynamite deals for the picker who doesn’t want to have to carry their prized possession around with rubber gloves, just remember to do your homework and try before you buy.

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