Do Rare Guitars Even Matter?

by Ryan Gabrinetti, Burbank Shop Manager

If you have ever engaged in the intellectual high stakes game of watercolor talk in a guitar shop, you will know that one of everyone’s favorite subjects is the rare bird. Something so elusive and impenetrable that can only elicit wonder, fierce debate, and a lot of cash on the table. Rare guitars are a tough subject to unpack, but we can start with a simple adage: just because something is rare, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valuable.

1960 Jazzmaster — definitely rare, definitely doesn’t suck.

There are generally two types of rare guitars — the ones that people want, and the ones that people want, eh, not so much. There are a short list of models and variants that certainly meet the criteria for the former, but the latter is a little more broad. Custom built instruments, on paper at least, are rare since they are typically one of a kind if spec’d out for the original owner. If a guitar was built for a particular player, these can be some of the most difficult to sell because the ideal buyer is the previous owner’s clone. Spec’d instruments become an item on the open when someone like the client has a Rig Rundown video, or when enough demand results in a signature model, and then the process repeats itself. 

This 70s Greco Explorer hit the market right before the “cease and desist” did.

Usually when production numbers on a guitar are low, there are more than a few factors in play. Since most builders are decently in tune with their market, certain years will see higher production for certain models over others, and naturally, others will fall by the wayside. Increased production can come from a demand sparked by a particular player, a particular price point or a unique feature that comes into style — a good example would be Vox’s line of Italian-built semi hollow guitars that exploded in the late 60s with built-in fuzz and repeater effects and largely fell off when those fads died out. In the mid 1960s, The Beatles not only transformed music and pop culture, but the guitar market directly, with companies like Gretsch and Rickenbacker getting squashed with demand overnight. Even the larger makers were being stretched thin to the point of noticeable quality differences by the end of the decade. This is a huge reason for prices shooting up across the board once you get into early 60s stuff.

“You want to charge HOW MUCH for my intellectual property?”

Another factor can be a hard pill to swallow for some collectors — sometimes rarity simply means that the product was not viable or desired, more often than not for a good reason. A 1952 Gibson Les Paul is rare in being the first year of production of an iconic guitar, but unless you come across one with significant work done to remedy the poor neck angle and bridge, you can’t even really play the damn thing. The same can’t be said for its 1959 cousin, which is rare because few saw the potential of the instrument for what it was when they were new. Sometimes it takes a few years for the wider market to see the appeal of a particular model or feature, and once a certain year or model becomes buzzworthy, then hype takes over.

Every gearhead is not so silently looking for the next holy grail item to horde in hopes of cashing in, but truthfully, it is nearly impossible to predict what’s going to be en vogue next. Most of the time, rare is just a euphemism for “hard to sell” and the more I hear the word, the less it means anything at all. But that’s not to say rare isn’t worth it. There are so guitars many out there, but there is a chance that old case in grandpa’s attic is one in a million. 

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