During the past 20 years, baby boomers looking to reclaim their lost, garage-band youth have contributed to the surge in vintage guitar collecting. As you’d expect, prices for the best examples have risen accordingly. But whether it’s a pre-World War II Martin flat top, a Gibson Les Paul from the 1950s, or a Fender Stratocaster like the one Jimi Hendrix used to play, there’s an instrument for every type of guitar collector.
Let’s begin with acoustic guitars. The biggest name in this category is unquestionably C.F. Martin, which was founded in 1833. Style designations for its flat top guitars have remained fairly consistent since the 1850s. For example, a 15 is considered a basic model, with increasing levels of detailing and finishing in models numbered 16, 17, 18, 21, 28, 35, 42, and 45. Thus a Martin D-18, one of Martin’s best sellers, is a big, boomy Dreadnought (that’s the "D") with enough extra touches to make it feel special, but not so many that you’d be reluctant to play it by a campfire.
Some of the most collectible vintage Martin flat tops include the Dreadnoughts from the 1930s, but any 12 or 14-fret steel-string models from the mid-1920s until the mid-1940s will bring a good price. The best part about collecting Martin guitars is that the company has made it so easy—vintage Martin guitars from 1898 to the present are easy to date because each instrument has an individual serial number.
Archtops are the other umbrella category of acoustic guitars. Gibson’s L-5 is one of the most coveted. First introduced in 1922, the guitar didn’t become popular until the 1930s, when guitars in general overtook banjos as the stringed instrument most beloved by the public. In 1934, Gibson came out with the Super 400. Epiphone answered with the Emperor. Gretsch competed with both companies via its line of Synchromatics, which had a cat’s-eye sound hole (Gibson and others went with more traditional f-holes). As for D’Angelico, it offered the incomparable Excel.
Other vintage acoustic guitars favored by collectors are the so-called cowboy guitars from the 1930s through the 1950s. These inexpensively made guitars were sold by Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and featured stenciled or decaled scenes of cowboys and cowgirls on their flat tops. Some bore the "signatures" of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Lone Ranger.
Collectors who like guitars with a really big sound usually end up considering a 12-string by Martin, Guild, Gibson, or a host of other guitar makers. Leadbelly played a Stella, as did fellow bluesman Blind Willie McTell. Artists from folk singer Pete Seeger to Byrds front man Roger McGuinn popularized the 12-strings in the 1960s. And both Neil Young and Leo Kottke swear by their Taylors.
Resonator guitars are yet another acoustic category. Some vintage resonators, like the ones made by National, have bodies made from aluminum and a nickel alloy that’s sometimes c...
When it comes to electrics, no guitar has had a bigger impact on popular music than the Fender Stratocaster. The Strat was not the Southern California company’s first electric guitar—that honor goes to the 1950, solid-body Fender Broadcaster, which was renamed the Telecaster the following year. But the Strat defined the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and was the choice of everyone from Buddy Holly to Eric Clapton.
Another legendary Southern California guitar maker was Rickenbacker, which started out in the 1920s making metal bodies for National, and even made a Bakelite guitar in 1935. By the 1950s, Rickenbacker was known for Hawaiian guitars, but new models late in the decade caught the eye of John Lennon. When he played a Rickenbacker 325 with The Beatles, the company’s place in history was assured.
Fellow Beatle George Harrison played a solid-body Duo Jet Gretsch. Hollow-body Gretsch Streamliners and Country Clubs were big in the 1950s, and Chet Atkins played a hollow-body 6120—some models with his signature were sold as Tennesseans and Nashvilles. Seminal rocker Eddie Cochran was another early Gretsch customer.
Gretsch’s stiffest competitor was Gibson, whose solid-body Les Paul debuted in 1952. Collectors of vintage Gibson guitars are always on the lookout for a good Firebird or Flying V, and semi-hollow body ES 335s from 1958 to 1964 have proven quite collectible. But the Les Paul remains the most sought-after Gibson electric guitar, the choice of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, The Who’s Pete Townsend, and the Mother of Invention himself, Frank Zappa.
More recent entires in the electric market include ESP, Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, Jackson, Schecter, Musicvox, Modulus (whose bass guitars are made of lightweight graphite), and Gittler (whose minimalist creations are fashioned from titanium).