New Guitars vs Vintage guitars – What’s the Difference?
And what to look for in buying used & new guitars
By Robert of Freya Guitars
People often ask me about “older guitars” – why are they better than the new ones? Not a simple question to answer I’m afraid, but I’m around long enough, working on and playing guitar to give a pretty solid answer. Let’s take a look at some of the pluses and minuses of newer and older guitars here. We’ll mainly focus on electric guitars by Gibson & Fender, as these are the two main US manufacturers most often spoken of in terms of “vintage”, and we’ll also take a look at some of the pluses and minuses of newer and older guitars.
When you buy a new guitar nowadays you will almost ALWAYS get a “good ‘un” due to consistency in production – which means buying online from a reputable dealer usually offers a safe bet, and all reputable sellers (including ourselves – Freya Guitars) offer a money-back option if you don’t like your guitar.
Let me say again – your chances of getting a “good ‘un” are far better today than they were in the past. This is because modern manufacturing techniques are far more consistent than they used to be. A guitar body cut on a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machine is consistent – one that is/was mostly hand-made will stand a better chance of having inconsistencies from one guitar to another. Leaving aside the argument that “human hands created my guitar”, the fact that older guitars could vary a good bit from one to the other is often the reason for one particular guitar being perceived as being ”better” than another similar model.
Same goes for electronics. Older pickups could vary in output quite a bit due to the fact that the wire was inconsistently wound a certain amount of turns on the bobbin, and if the person winding the pickup had their mind on something else (bathroom or coffee break, tonight’s date, vacation…….you get the picture) then they might miss the point where they were supposed to stop winding and wind on a bit more. The opposite also applied, if the reel of wire was running out and there wasn’t much left to wind on the bobbin anyway, what did it matter if it got wound a little “short”, eh? In the past it was considered inconsequential, but this would not be tolerated today.
Nor was the wire consistently wound evenly from one side of the pickup bobbin to the other, or the tension on the wind consistently distributed evenly throughout the pickup (humans were winding, remember – and were using the “feel” of the wire running through their fingers for tension).
Likewise with wood – in the old days it wasn’t considered a major issue in the sound of the guitar. Most Fender’s made in the early 1950’s were either Blonde or Sunburst finish, and the wood grain showed through the paint, so the wood underneath had to have a pretty grain structure. Then in 1957 they got the idea of painting them with the General Motors automobile colours of that year – and viola! – Custom Colour guitars were now available – which meant that Fender could charge you more for the colour upgrade and use a cheaper piece of wood as you could no longer see the grain through the finish! Happy days for Fender!
All of these things applied to every guitar maker, and no matter how they boasted of “heritage” or “craftsmanship”, they all cut corners when they could, and all of these things wound up giving each guitar inconsistencies – we now call it “character” and “individuality”.
I should point out here that ALL guitars are hand-built to a large degree. Yes, the parts might be made on a CNC machine and the electronics machine-made also, but it takes a person to assemble and set up every guitar – no matter the price point. Even the cheapest guitars!
There was a period of change during the 1960’s when CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) bought Fender and Norlin Corporation bought Gibson. Post-CBS Fenders and Norlin-era Gibsons are considered to be “not as good” as the earlier ones. From this period both companies are perceived to have put the emphasis on increased production at the expense of quality, and maybe they did, but they really did try to make the best guitars they could, and many innovations were tried to fix ongoing problems – for instance, the Gibson LP & SG guitar necks, so prone to breakage at the nut, were changed to a 3-piece maple neck with a volute (a strengthening piece at the rear of the neck) to strengthen this vital area. At the time of writing, 2020, these guitars are not considered to be worth as much as the older breakage-prone construction of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Guitars made after the mid-1980’s reverted to the older (weaker) type of construction.
Really? Wasn’t this an improvement? Unfortunately, apparently not. To traditionalists, it was seen as a break with “tradition” and discontinued…….So Gibson necks can still be broken easily in 2020……. So be careful……
Fender introduced the much-maligned 3-bolt neck in 1972, however, this also included an means to adjust the neck angle, known as the Micro-Tilt. This meant no more bits of business cards or matchbooks stuck between the neck and body to adjust the neck angle. However, nobody focused on the positive side of this, but instead castigated the three-bolt joint for being “unstable”. I mean, what are you doing with the thing? Play your guitar – don’t try to pull the neck off of it. Ritchie Blackmore, of Deep Purple fame, who could hardly be described as a gentle player, never seemed to have a problem with his 1970’s three-bolt Fenders………. In recent years Fender has been using a 4-bolt system that incorporates the Micro-Tilt adjustment.
Yes, Gibson & Fender did try to improve on ongoing issues with their guitars, it wasn’t all just about accountants and the bottom line.
Nobody will argue that mistakes were made, and both Fender & Gibson had takeovers in the early 1980’s, both eventually leading to a revival of these brands. Fender rose from the ashes of the CBS era into the modern successful company it is today, but Gibson seems to have been less successful, apparently hampered by the new owner’s management style, guitars that nobody wanted and a few other issues. That story is available freely on the internet and not the subject of this article.
Rest assured though, almost every guitar both Gibson & Fender produce these days is very consistent from one to the other, bodies are cut on CNC machines and pickup winding is computer-controlled (though some custom pickups are still being produced by the old method).
However, even in this modern age, there will still be variations between instruments. Some will sing, and some will be like planks. This usually comes down to the piece (or pieces) of wood used, the resonance of the whole instrument and some of it is just the “magic”. When an instrument speaks to you, it becomes part of you, and if you’re wise enough, then you’d better grab it and keep it for the rest of your life….. I have a 1999 Mexican-made Fender Tele here (which sells for much less than the USA models), and is named “Eleanor” – she will be with me forever. It’s just the sweetest Tele I’ve ever played. Leave the brand snobbery at the door when you’re looking at guitars…….I’ve seen guitars costing multi-thousands of €’s (Eoros) that couldn’t compare to that Made-in-Mexico (MIM) Tele, so shop with your ears, not your eyes or wallet…….
So, to the bottom line – are vintage guitars worth the money?
Usually not if you’re a beginner or just want something to “noodle around” on. However, if you can afford the price, most vintage guitars are solid investments, provided you don’t pay over the odds for one in the first place. They can also have that “vintage” sound, oftentimes not available on newer instruments (this is due to a combination of factors), and certainly not something you can get from modelling. If you can’t afford the price of the better examples, refinished or modified (modded) instruments are a cheaper way into this realm, as you can have the sound at a lower cost, as modded or refinished instruments aren’t as desirable to collectors. Depending on the guitar, it can still be an expensive and wallet-busting experience though. It seems that all the bargains in collectible guitars are gone, and even older non-collectible guitars are getting expensive. Age doesn’t necessarily make something valuable: I have stones in my garden that are millions of years old and they’re still not worth anything. Also – don’t listen to anyone who tells you that “this is a future collectible”…….. I’ve looked into my crystal ball several times and I still can’t predict the future. The very first Gibson LP’s aren’t as valuable as the 1958-60 LP Standard models – age notwithstanding. And watch out for fakes – it’s commonly held these days that there are far more of those ’58-’60 LP ’s in circulation than were actually made………go figure.
This leads us to the question of imported guitars – mostly Chinese, though Indonesian, Korean, Indian and other guitars can be included here too. No-one will argue that the quality of Chinese guitars has improved dramatically over the last 20, even 10, years. We import our own Freya brand of guitars from China and work very closely with the factory to ensure that our guitars are manufactured to our own specifications with quality hardware and tonewoods, and we use pickups designed by ourselves to give the best tone for the particular application.
Most Asian guitars use Basswood as a body material, and while the wood snobs consider Basswood to be lesser than more traditional materials, no-one will argue that the Ibanez guitars made from Basswood sound anything less than fabulous. There are many fine tonewoods not in general use today, but I’m sure that in time we will see them emerging.
Maple was hardly considered a tonewood until Leo Fender needed a cheap local source of wood to build his first guitars……now it’s desirable.
There are many fine guitars out there today, at all price points. The question is, how do you tell the better ones from the not-so-good ones? It was easy when I was starting out (in the 1960’s, good Lord!). Back then, usually a cheaper guitar was almost unplayable and almost always played out of tune, no matter what you did to it.
It’s not quite so obvious today. Most new guitars, except perhaps for the really cheap models (as sold in supermarkets and toy shops), feel good and play well after a proper setup.
When buying any guitar, check the fit and finish first. Sharp fret ends can very easily be sorted, hopefully by the shop you buy from – this can be caused by the normal cycle of weather – less/more humidity in the air can cause woods to expand and contract – sometimes when it’s dry the fret ends can protrude a little.
Likewise, looking down a neck is not a reliable way to check straightness – fret the 6th string at the 1st fret and at the 15th – the string will remain straight and any bow in the neck is easily seen. Note that all necks will require a certain amount of bow (we call it “relief”) to work properly. The truss rod is there to adjust this, but do not adjust it yourself if you are at all unsure of exactly how it works (the consequences of improper adjustment can make your guitar unplayable, or at worst, worthless if you break the rod or ruin the adjusting nut).
The shop you buy from should be able to adjust the guitar to your liking. This means a restring, truss rod adjustment, action setup, fret polish if needed, and pickup height adjustment. Some shops may charge a small fee for this, some won’t.
At Freya Guitars, every Freya guitar receives a full setup before you get it – whether we do it while you’re in the shop or whether you buy online – and we provide this service at no extra charge. If you’re buying online there’s nothing worse than excitedly opening the box or case and finding that you now have to go to a tech (and pay them) before your new guitar is playable to your liking.
Remember – when you buy a Freya guitar online from us it will arrive having had a full pro setup before we send it out, and if you buy it in our shop we will set it up before you leave.
As we say in our best Irish accents: “Play your Freya right awaya”.
No extra charges at Freya Guitars, and no hidden surprises.
If you’re buying from a shop that either can’t, or won’t, provide this level of service, you should ask yourself about what sort of after-sales service they are going to provide…….the answer is usually “none”, so choose accordingly.
Always buy from a proper guitar/music store, they will take care of their customers and provide backup & service after the sale, and this shouldn’t depend on the price of the guitar. Good shops will look upon you as a potential future customer and provide you with good service over the years to ensure that when you decide that it’s time for a new guitar you’ll come to them first.
Don’t just buy on price either – here at Freya Guitars we can offer the best prices on guitars because WE OWN the Freya Guitars company outright and do not have European, UK, nor Irish distributors to add their percentage of mark-up to the retail prices (retail shops alone will add between 20-30% to the cost of your guitar). We sell direct to you, either online or through our retail premises in Co. Kerry, Ireland, and you get personal service because you deal directly with the owners of Freya Guitars – Anne or myself (Rob).
This means that you get a great guitar for the price, nothing compares to a Freya Guitar for quality & value.