Modern Collector (June 2005)

Why do we collect guitars?

Guitar collecting modern or otherwise is not new. Indeed guitar collections have been assembled since guitars have been made. In the infancy of guitar manufacturing there were top of the line models, with more ornate features at a premium price, and these were collected for beauty as well as tone.

So why collect? And why did some choose to amass so many more than they could actually use?

This question runs deep of course, and there are many explanations, some of which have nothing at all to do with the guitar.

Guitarists have chosen to collect for many different reasons, some amass guitars as tools meant to achieve a variety of tones. A studio or working professional musician might find the need for a nylon string, a steel string, a Tele, a Strat, a Les Paul and on and on. To consider this person a collector is to bend the definition. These tools of that trade, and no matter how sought after the guitar is, this application of the term Guitar Collection is a stretch.

In 25 years of guitar dealings I have met many collectors, and there seem to be some consistencies from collector to collector.

Let me start with the money is no object collector. Most who are in the guitar business will tell you of some of these with whom they have dealt. I think that the phrase "I collect because I can" is very appropriate to this person. The wealthy collector usually plays some, but has a great admiration for the finest and of course has the capital to obtain the best of the best. I have been fortunate to have viewed some of the collections, and have appraised a few for insurance. One thing that is common with the ultra wealthy collector is the passing stages of interest in guitars as opposed to the other many hobbies or passions that may occupy that persons time. That being said the wealthy collector can lose interest and switch to something else very fast.

Some of these collectors even drive the market for a time, pushing certain models higher and higher as their desire for the rare and unusual sends dealers pounding the bushes to find the best, Sometimes in a cost is no object flurry that can artificially inflate the market. Great care is to be taken at this time because all markets are fickle and what goes up can go down.

Some of the finest guitar collections in the world have been assembled in the last 20 years. There have been many factors that have enabled guitar aficionados to obtain better guitar collections. Back in the late 1970s there was a magazine called Mugwumps that was circulated that offered guitar classifieds, then came other small rags such as Musical Instrument Classifieds that were mailed out to a very limited circulation. Around this time there were a few dealers who also began to publish a mailer, among the most famous were Gruhns in Nashville and Guitar Trader in Red Bank New Jersey. In addition to offering product for sale these mailers helped guitar collectors to establish a pricing guide.

In the early 1980s The Guitar Show was born in Dallas Texas, this was the brainchild of Charlie Wirz of Charley¹s Guitar and was held in the Winterland Ballroom In March of 1981. These early shows were an instant success and were soon rivaled by the Arlington shows held in the fall. These events soon became huge and allowed collectors and dealers to meet and do business in a way that was heretofore Impossible.

In 1985 Vintage Guitar magazine was launched and even more accessibility was gained to rare and unusual guitars in this way. These were the days when Inventories were amassed by dealers, then advertised monthly. Creating a cycle for many in which there was a sudden flurry of business after VG came out. This magazine can be seen as the catalyst for what has since become a huge business. Price guides came out leveling the playing field for sellers and buyers, and classifieds led the way to end users having direct access to one another. Many guitars came out of the woodwork in this time frame and many collectors were born out of interest in the hobby. The guitar collecting bug grew into An international phenomenon almost overnight as within months of the first Dallas shows Dealers from all over the world began to show up to take American guitars home to Europe and Asia. The Texas guitar shows were happy hunting grounds for a few short years, dealers and collectors from all over found bargains and international dealers began to buy like crazy, creating the huge increase in prices around the end of 1984 and early 1985. This was the period of Strat mania, which saw dealers from Japan descend in mass on the Texas shows. This was due in part to the end of the monetary controls on the Japanese Yen, as well as the Japanese rabid appetite for all things American and vintage guitars in specific. Strat prices doubled and tripled almost overnight. In the early days of my career in guitar dealing it was not uncommon to buy a pre CBS Strat for $150 and sell it for $350, which seemed at the time to be a tidy profit.

However in 1985 these prices saw a huge jump that has since climbed beyond the grasp of most players and collectors. Virtually overnight the Japanese converged and bought with a vengeance. Semi trailors owned by Nippon Express became a fixture in the parking lots of these shows and many were filled with older American guitars headed to Japan.

The scope and variety of any guitar collection is entirely dependent on the collector. Some collections are all about a given brand, such as Gibson or Fender or Martin or Epiphone, While others have a wide range of interests such as the inexpensive brands of the ¹60 from the US, Asia and Europe with brands such as Danelectro, Tiesco, Wandre, Noble, Elk and others. The collection can be as eccentric as the collector himself or herself. Often times I have viewed collections that were displayed alongside jukeboxes, old radios, antique art and advertising that all worked together as a study of a particular period.

There are other collectors who created collections with modest means over years and include many high end guitars that we simply purchased right or at the right time.

Many have begun modest collections that simply included guitars that collector could afford.

The central theme of the collecting bug seems to be similar throughout the socio-economic ranges, from modest to extravagant there is an immense pleasure that comes from ownership of so many special instruments, and once again the question arises of why do people collect?

Collecting can start early with baseball cards or comic books, Webster defines collection as "an accumulation of objects for study, comparison or exhibition.

While there is immense satisfaction in the collection, one wonders if pride is not central to the collector's motive. Indeed few if any of the privately held collections are ever put on public display, so that the appreciation of the collection is lost on all but a select few.

So who can be impressed if few are exposed to the collection. Is there a simple satisfaction in the things themselves? The answer is clearly yes, and to many collectors these sometimes annual visits with their collection give all the satisfaction necessary to justify the process.

One truly odd pattern that I have noticed in the years of involvement with the collectors is what I call "the rush of the acquisition". In simple terms some truly get a high from the process of the hunt and ultimately the receipt of a special sought after instrument. This buzz is soon gone and in most cases needs to fed again. There is some psychology here.

That would explain why people need this fix, and spend huge sums to get it.

There is another breed of collector who buys and sells guitars as investments. Some came to this practice after the stock market imploded after the dot com boom and bust.

Indeed vintage and modern collector guitars have proven to be terrific investments, with returns that have outpaced traditional investments such as stocks and bonds. These are the collector investors who are driven by the investment aspect and also intrigued by the beauty and esthetics of the instrument, an appreciation that cannot be gained by stock portfolios.

One group of collector that has been omitted is perhaps the smallest, those who prize the guitars for their tonal properties. I am sad to say that while these collectors exist they seem to make up a smaller segment of the collector market than others.

For whatever the reason guitar collecting seems to a growing avocation and has captured the passion of many.

Until next time, Take care and God Bless.

Rick Hogue

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