In this interview, Clay Harrell talks about his experiences collecting vintage guitars, especially pre-1964 Gibsons, Martins, Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, Nationals and Dobros. Based in the Detroit area, Clay can be reached via his website, Vintage Guitars Info, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I grew up in upstate New York in Rochester, and started playing guitar when I was about 10 years old. We had this place in Rochester; called the House of Guitars. It was this huge independent music store, I think it was the largest in the world at that time. Originally, they just sold used guitars, and the place kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It was literally an old house that they kept adding on to. When you walked in there, they always had their old guitars in their display cases, and this was long before people were seriously collecting guitars. I would always see these Strats and these Gibsons hanging there.
When I went with my dad to buy my first guitar, they were steering me towards a new guitar. And I kept looking at the old stuff going, “God, that looks so cool, though.” I don’t know. I just had this draw to it. The other thing, too, is I was a huge Hendrix fan, and when I started playing, Hendrix was dead. He had already died, but I was still a fan. I had all these Hendrix posters in my room with Jimi playing small headstock Strats, pre-1966 stuff, earlier in his career.
Collectors Weekly: What does that mean, small headstock?
Harrell: Well, by late 1965, early 1966, Fender changed the size of the peghead. Originally, it was a fairly small and sleek design with a smaller decaled logo. Then CBS bought them in the beginning of ’65, and I think the marketing department got a hold of them, and then they wanted to put a bigger Fender logo on so they made the headstock bigger. It looked dorky, at least to me. But most of the stuff Hendrix is associated with is the large-headstock Strats because he would go to Manny’s and he’d buy used Strats.
Hendrix never really bought new guitars. He blew through a lot of guitars for whatever reason, either burning them, breaking them or just because he liked getting new guitars, I’m not really sure. Towards the late ‘60s, he was buying a lot of large-headstock Fenders because that’s what was a year or two old. But in ’66 or ’67, if you were buying a used Strat, you’d be buying basically a ’65 or earlier. So earlier in his career before he really got famous, he was playing small-headstock stuff.
That day at the house of guitars with my dad, we bought a new Gibson, and I played it for a few years and it got stolen. We went back to the House of Guitars, and they still had all this old stuff, but now the prices were higher, which irritated me because I had been saving up money. I wanted to get an old Strat, but I couldn’t afford it. Literally at this point, I was going down every month to drool over the old guitars. There were two pre-CBS Strats, a ’62 and a ’63, that I really wanted, one was white and one was red. And I swear, every month the prices were higher. It was the mid ‘70s. I’d go home to cut more lawns to get some more money, but I was never able to buy those guitars.
Then I started scanning the local buy-and-sell papers, I think it was called the swap sheet, to find Strats. Every once in a while, something would appear, but I didn’t have a car and my parents didn’t really see the value in dragging me around to do that kind of stuff. So I still wasn’t really able to buy anything. When I was finally in high school, I got my own crappy car, and then I started chasing guitars harder. The swap sheet came out on Thursdays, but I knew some places that it was distributed Wednesday nights. That was the start of buying these old guitars. And when I would get them, God, I would never sell them. I worked so hard to get them. The only way I would sell something is if I had a bigger fish on the line, and needed the money to finance it.
My aunt lived in New York City, and I’d go visit every year and we’d go to 48th Street, which at the time was the guitar Mecca. It was literally a block where both sides of the street had nothing but guitar stores. It was amazing, they just had everything. One day, I was drooling over a Strat, and my aunt said, “I’ll buy it for you.” A ’61 Fender Strat. And that was the hook, from then on I was just on a hunt to buy every vintage guitar I could find and afford.
Collectors Weekly: What was it about that guitar that hooked you?
Harrell: It may just have been the fact that old Strats are what Hendrix played. A lot of collecting is just opinion. Were old Strats really better than new Strats? I had some ‘70s stuff, and God, they seemed crappy. They just didn’t have as neat a feel. But there was no going back at that point. And I found I wasn’t the only one that was thinking this. You’d buy Guitar Player magazine, and even back then they had this column that George Gruhn was doing called Rare Bird, every three or four months about some old guitar.
I went away to college, and guitars took a backseat, because I was too busy trying to get a degree. But when I got out of college and got a real job, I found that I had disposable income and could actually buy stuff. But I had the same problem which was finding it. Now I was in Detroit, and there was nothing like the House of Guitars or 48th Street. I was getting the Trading Times, the buy-and-sell swap sheet in Detroit, but it seemed like I was fighting these other yahoos who were doing the same thing.
So then I get this bright idea. Well, why not get an 800 number and put ads in the paper? Ads in little newspapers out in the country like wanted to buy, guitar collector paying up to $5,000 for guitars like Fender, Gibson, Martin, Gretsch, National, Dobro, whatever. And I’d run those ads and people would call, and I had really good success with that. And that’s how I started to find guitars. Then in 1994 or 1995, I decided to do a vintage guitar Web page, and taught myself HTML. All of a sudden I started getting e-mails from people, “Hey, I’ve got this guitar, and I want to sell it.” At the time, there weren’t any other guitar web sites. There wasn’t a lot of hobby stuff.
I started buying a lot of stuff, and pretty soon, I had a lot more guitars. Before, my fishing limit was 10, maybe 15 guitars, and all of a sudden I had a hundred. I was having a really hard time saying no to anybody that had something that was cool. I probably have 85 in my collection now, which really to some guys is not a lot.
“You’ll find a Tele or a Strat in nearly every guitar player’s arsenal.”
What happened is that about a year ago, I got this itch I couldn’t scratch for vintage sunburst Les Pauls, ’58, ’59 and ’60, which for collecting purposes is the high end. It doesn’t get any more expensive than that. It’s a very elusive guitar. I’ve only been able to buy one or two in my life. Even if you’re buying it from the most naïve person, they always seem to know that they’re worth a lot of money.
So a friend of mine said, “I’m thinking about quitting my job and opening up a vintage guitar store, but I don’t have any guitars. You got to sell me some of yours.” And I didn’t want to. But he said, “what if I get a Sunburst Les Paul, and we trade?” And I’m like, “OK, but I’d have to give you a lot of guitars,” and he goes, “That’s the whole point. I’d have inventory, and you’d have the Holy Grail.” Before that swap I probably had 150 guitars.
My collection initially started out as just electrics and mostly just Fenders. But as time marched on, I got more into the other brands, including flat tops. I was never a huge archtop person. I always had a few nice archtops, but never really liked playing them, how they sounded or felt. But they’re a piece of guitar history and you should have a representative example. I always ended up trading them off, and right now I don’t have a single archtop. I ended up with electrics and flat tops. When I say solid-body electrics, I also wrap 330 semi-hollows into that. Even though semi-hollows are really a type of archtop, I look at them more as solid bodies. I got a lot of Gibson 335s, for example.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about the big name makers… where do their guitars fit in guitar collecting?
Harrell: Sure. There’s something I call STP 5, which most guitar collectors fall into. STP 5 is Fender Strats and Teles, Les Pauls, and Gibson 335s. That’s what most vintage guitar collectors seem to collect. I’d call it mainstream vintage. I try to stray outside of that, but that’s where most people fall.
Let’s start with Fender. The two top dogs are the Stratocaster and the Telecaster. They’re pretty much the most versatile guitars. You’ll find a Tele or a Strat in nearly every guitar player’s arsenal. There’s also Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, but to me those are goofy guitars and I never really liked them. Of course Fender basses too are great, the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass. I usually have a Fender bass hanging around, but not a lot of them because I’m not really a bass player.
Gibson is the most well-rounded of the guitar manufacturers by far. Fender made semi-hollows and solid bodies and acoustics, but pretty much the only thing that’s any good are the Strats and Teles. Gibson, on the other hand, they made the best everything: Gibson mandolins, Gibson archtops, Gibson flat tops, Gibson electrics, Gibson semi-hollows. The only thing Gibson never really excelled at was basses. They could never get that right.
I’ve got a lot of Gibson flat tops. To me, they’re the best. I just really like them, how they feel, how they sound, how they look. They’re less expensive than, say, Martins, and also a lot harder to find because they didn’t make as many. Martin was the king of the hill as far as flat tops went and Gibson was always second fiddle. But I’ve always liked them better.
And then of course you’ve got the Gibson solid bodies. It’s hard to beat the Les Pauls and Firebirds and Flying V’s and Explorers, they pretty much hit it out of the park with all those. And then their semi-hollows, the ES-335s, ES-345s and ES-355s, those are all amazing guitars too. The Gibson archtops, the L5s and Super 400s and L7s and L12s, those are all great guitars, too. But archtops are not really my cup of tea.
Martin is a lot like Fender in that they really only ever did one type of guitar right and that’s flat top. They made electrics and archtops, but nobody wants them. Not because they’re not good guitars but because they’re just goofy. They just never got it right.
People go for all the Martin prewar stuff. The D represents the body size, and the number following the D is the style or how fancy it is. All the prewar Martin stuff is highly regarded, but there’s a lot of postwar stuff that’s good too. I’ve got a fair number of Martin flat tops pre-1945, but I don’t have anything after 1945.
Collectors Weekly: Were all these guitars handmade or mass produced?
Harrell: Depends on your opinion of mass-produced. To me, all this stuff was handmade until pretty much the 1990s when CNCs became the norm. Prior to CNCs, even though it was a production line, it was manned by workers. Even today, my understanding is that all guitars are painted by humans, not machines. The stuff prior to World War II was just mostly different materials, and also there was a different philosophy.
The 1930s was the time when guitar construction, as far as flat tops go, really reached the apex. They’ve really never come up with anything after the mid 1930s that’s a better design. The mid ‘30s, too, was the beginning of electrics. Up to that point, they wanted guitars to be as big as possible, to be as loud as possible. So they kept making the bodies bigger to project more. But you can’t really make flat tops any bigger than they are in a D size, practically speaking, because they’re just not really comfortable to play.
The other thing is the bracing, that really came to fruition in the mid ‘30s with the X-style scallop bracing. And they’ve never really been able to surpass that as far as sound. Even today, everything is still patterned after that style of design and bracing.
Collectors Weekly: What about some of the other makers like Gretsch and Rickenbacker?
Harrell: A lot of people liked the Gretsch Chet Atkins stuff, what I would call 16-inch archtops. Most people like the Gretsch 6120, the archtop stuff. I was never really a big fan of those. I like what they called their solid bodies. They made a Les Paul-style single-cutaway solid-body guitar that had a Les Paul body shape, and they really pimped them out with Western ornamentation that gave them this stench of cool. Those are the ones I like. Now, are Gretsch solid bodies as good as, say, Gibson? Hell no. The sound was very singular. They had one particular sound, and weren’t very versatile. Also, the materials weren’t as good, but they just had this certain level of cool that just oozed from them.
In terms of Rickenbacker, I’m not a huge fan. I like their early stuff, their late ‘50s Capris, the 330s and the 360s, all the stuff prior to the Beatles in 1963. After that I really lose interest in Rickenbacker because the association with the Beatles was so strong. After Harrison picked one up they changed a lot of their designs and really started cranking those guitars out. Then it was cool; everybody wanted to play a guitar. And production numbers for all the manufacturers went up dramatically. I’ve got a couple of pre-64 Ricks, but they’re really hard to find. They weren’t made in huge numbers.
The other thing I collect that a lot of people don’t is Nationals, metal body resonators, and that’s all going to be prewar stuff. By the mid ‘30s, electrics were pretty much making those obsolete. I was working in upstate New York when I found my first one. A guy called me and said, “I got a National. I don’t know what kind it is, but it’s got a speaker built into it.” I’d never even seen anything like it other than some country guys playing Dobros. But this wasn’t a Dobro; it was a National. He whipped this thing out and I was like, oh, my God, I got to have that. After that, man, I couldn’t get enough of them.
Another thing I got into was Dobro metal bodies. Dobros are associated mostly with country, and all the guys you see on the country channels are playing wood-body square-neck Dobros. Well, I don’t like wood bodies, first off, and second off, I don’t want a square neck because I play Spanish style, not lap or Hawaiian style. So I started buying these metal-body Dobros. You go to guitar shows and they couldn’t give them away. Me and my friend were the only two guys buying these things. And they just sounded unbelievable.
I guess we’re ahead of the curve and still are because we’re still the only two guys who seem to collect those. But I just really like the metal bodies, what they call fiddle-edge metal-body Dobros. They were all made pre-World War II, because as soon as World War II came, metal became a scarce resource and amplification and electrification were becoming the norm. After the war, they disappeared.
Collectors Weekly: How many of these vintage guitars were made, and how many have survived?
Harrell: It depends. Some of the Gibsons, certainly only hundreds or maybe even less than that. Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, we’re talking tens of thousands prior to CBS buying them in ’65. Rarity wise, a lot of people go for guitars that were owned by a rock star, but that’s not my thing, I’m just not into that. I’d rather buy a hundred percent original lightly played guitar from a little old lady than one owned by Elvis.
In terms of survival rates, I’d say Gibson survival rates are really high. Fender survival rates are probably a lot smaller, mostly because of how they were made. Fenders were a bolt-together guitar, so anybody with a screwdriver could take the thing all apart. Gibsons, you could take a couple parts off, the tuners, maybe the bridge, but they were a lot harder to work on. And let’s say you wanted to refinish it.
You’re a 12-year-old kid, your dad gave you a guitar, it’s this boring sunburst color, you wanted to paint it Ferrari red. It was a lot easier to do that on a Fender guitar than it was on a Gibson. Plus, the Fenders were solid body, all solid body. It was pretty much what they sold, and it just was more conducive to that hip 12-year-old mentality.
On Les Paul sunbursts, it’s hard to get good numbers, but roughly 1,500 were made between 1958 and 1960. There’s a guy who set up a Web page to track serial numbers on them, and he’s already catalogued about 750. It doesn’t seem like a lot. But for a guitar that’s worth as much as those are, it seems like there’s a lot that still haven’t been found. It’s a big world.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about the materials they used, about the Rosewood.
Harrell: On Fenders, they used solid-body woods that grew in the Pacific Northwest. There’s still a lot of trees up there, and they’re fast-growing trees, too, compared to something like oak or mahogany or rosewood, which is the much slower growing tree. So those woods aren’t scarce. But Brazilian Rosewood only grows in Brazil, I guess.
In the mid ‘60s the Brazilian government started not allowing raw logs to be exported out of the country, meaning you could still buy Brazilian rosewood but you had to buy it cut. It had to be processed in Brazil. And that’s when everybody stopped using it because they wanted raw logs to make sure that the wood was properly quarter sawn. So they started buying raw Indian rosewood logs instead.
At the time, I’m sure nobody thought it was going to be a huge deal, but guitar collectors make a huge deal out of it today. Maybe it’s the ‘if I can’t have it, it must be good’ mentality. But if you’ve ever scratched a piece of Indian rosewood, it smells like dog crap. It really does. But scratch a piece of Brazilian rosewood, and it smells sweet like roses. It also has a nicer look to it, darker and richer looking, and more figure to it. It doesn’t sound any different, so it’s more of the aesthetics.
Collectors Weekly: How big is vintage guitar collecting?
Harrell: Let me put it in perspective. Another hobby I’m into is collecting vintage pinball machines, and I’ve got a pretty large collection. When I got into that hobby, it made me realize how much bigger and more popular the vintage guitar thing was. Pinball is tiny. There’s one pinball magazine called the Pingame Journal, which has 1,200 subscribers. Last time I heard, Vintage Guitar Magazine had 25,000 or 30,000. It’s probably twice that now. So I guess the hobby is pretty big because music in general appeals a lot more people.
The big vintage guitar show is called the Arlington/Dallas Guitar Show. It’s twice a year, put on by two different promoters. When you go to that, that’s an amazing show. It used to be a lot bigger, too, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they would fill the Dallas Convention Center. Back then, when the guitars were a lot cheaper, a friend of mine would go down with a hundred thousand dollars cash, and buy six months’ worth of inventory for his store, 200 guitars.
But as time has gone on, the guitars have gotten disseminated and spread out all over the world. I remember this one guy. I’d see him at every show, always with an armful of guitars or pulling a little cart with cases stacked to sell. Every year I saw him, his stack got smaller and smaller until eventually he wasn’t coming anymore. A couple years later I saw him again and asked, “What happened to you?” He said, “Man, I just can’t find anything to buy anymore. I’d put ads out. I go to all the pawnshops. I’m lucky if I buy one or two guitars a year now.”
I started hearing this in the late ‘90s, even before the Internet really took off. The pond just got fished out. The low-hanging fruit is gone. It’s become a lot less fun, a lot harder. I knew a couple guys that started in the late ‘80s and were millionaires 10 years later, buying and selling vintage guitars. Guys like that have gotten out of the business. The guy that I told you that bought 200 guitars at the show, he closed his store five, six, seven years ago in L.A. He said it was just too hard to buy stuff, and expenses were up.
I’d be guessing, but I’d say that most of the good guitars now are probably in private collections. I don’t really scan eBay much, but it seems like it’s dealers using eBay as a sales tool, to sell their inventory, whereas back even a few years ago it was mostly just individuals.
Collectors Weekly: What are some other big trends in vintage guitar collecting?
Harrell: It used to be that the Japanese were huge buyers of vintage guitars, but that always links directly to the exchange rate. I can remember the Japanese coming in, just buying hundreds of vintage guitars at these shows. They’d buy a booth not to sell or display anything but just as a place to stack the guitars that they were buying. Right now the exchange rate is getting pretty favorable again, and that’s when you see the foreign interest in American guitars really go up. It’s like having a 20 or 30 percent discount built in.
Another big trend is that flat tops have become incredibly popular. In the past year, pretty much every collectible on the planet has taken a nosedive in value, because of our economy. But there’ve been a few survivors, and for some reason, Gibson and Martin pre-1960 flat tops, have done well. I didn’t really see that coming. I thought solid bodies were just going to go on forever, but they’ve really fallen hard in the past year.
Still, Stratocasters and Telecasters are 30, 40, 50 grand for certain pre-CBS models. You’d think the Gibson stuff would be worth a lot more. But it’s not just about supply; it’s about demand too. There’s a lot more demand for Strats, even if a lot more were made. But the stuff that’s had lower production numbers, like the Gibsons, has done better value-wise.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the deal with these limited editions guitars?
Harrell: Anything that says limited edition is a new guitar. Even if it was made 20 years ago, it’s still a freaking new guitar. I don’t care what they say, they can always make more. It’s just a joke. I know that sounds awful, but I collect all basically pre-1965 stuff. It was all made in limited editions, but they didn’t put a label on it. I don’t want to say these new guitars are bad guitars. But it doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s just a marketing ploy in my eyes.
Collectors Weekly: Any advice for somebody who’s starting out?
Harrell: Buy something you’re interested in playing. Don’t just buy a guitar just because it’s old and it’s cool. Because if the value does take a dive for whatever reason, it should be something you can play and enjoy. Don’t buy a guitar as an investment vehicle. It’s not like a stock or bond. They’re guitars. I heard there was a stock fund based on vintage guitars. I don’t think that’s a good plan. It’s a guitar. You’re not going to play your stock certificate.
I’d also say, find out the period you like. I like pre-1965 stuff and pretty much all the manufacturers. Pre-Beatles stuff. When the Beatles came, production numbers shot way up, and corners had to be cut to meet demand. So to me, they’re just not as interesting.
Collectors Weekly: What’s your take on restored guitars?
Harrell: Fully original is always ideal, but there’s an asterix after that. For example, I have a 1929 Martin 00-40H. H means it’s a Hawaiian guitar, which means you play it in your lap, which basically means it has no frets and the action is maybe a half inch off the fingerboard. It’s a really cool flat-top guitar. I bought it and I had it converted. What my repair guy did is he arched the fingerboard a little because the fingerboard’s completely flat, and put frets in it. It was really difficult and uncomfortable to play. It had lines, not frets, so he put real bar frets in it, reset the neck to bring the string action down and adjusted the bridge. Now it’s a regular Spanish-style playable flat top.
It’s not original anymore but it’s a hundred times more usable, at least to me. Some people might say that’s a bad thing. Did it decrease the value? No. Did it increase the value? No, but it made it a lot more appealing to most people, including me. So largely speaking, you want originality, especially when it comes to finish. I can deal with re-frets. Or new tuners, though I’m not happy about them. Sometimes things happen, and you got to be able to tune a guitar. But it’s got to be original finish. And it can’t have any holes poked in the side or new pickups mounted or electronics changed. Stuff like that is always bad.
Collectors Weekly: What are some good resources for vintage guitar collectors?
Harrell: The best thing is to hook up with somebody that’s a more knowledgeable collector than you, just befriend somebody. Go to guitar shows. You’ll get a huge education there, and really the shows to go to are the two Dallas shows. The others aren’t even worth going to. When you go, though, don’t bring any money and ignore the prices. Just absorb the whole thing, especially if you’re a first-time buyer.
The good thing about shows is that the dealers really deal. Especially by Sunday, a lot of guys will, on lower demand instruments, really take a lot less money, but in general, guitar shows are expensive. But as an experience there’s nothing like it. You’ll never see so many types of vintage guitars in one big room. The Dallas show is really Saturday and Sunday, but Friday is the setup day. I always like to buy an early pass and go on Friday before they put all their prices on stuff so I can look at all the cool guitars and not know how much they cost.
Keep an eye on eBay, though buying guitars on eBay is a real crapshoot. The pictures, I don’t know if they’re purposefully deceptive, but they’re not very revealing, for the most part. It opens up the market hugely, and you can end up getting priced out. If you buy things on eBay, you can do a distance search with, say, 200 miles of of your zip code. If you buy guitars where you can actually go and pick them up, you’ll be in for a lot less surprises. If something was misrepresented, and you’re paying with cash, you can always walk away from the deal. The seller isn’t going to be happy about it, but it’s a good escape clause.
Also, always bring a friend because when you go and look at a guitar, and you want it to be what you think it should be. And sometimes things get overlooked. Bring another set of eyes, a disinterested friend, somebody who knows guitars but doesn’t really care if you come home with it or not. They’ll nudge you and say, ‘hey, I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s what it’s supposed to be.’
Collectors Weekly: Just out of curiosity, do you have a display wall for guitars?
Harrell: No, I don’t. For one, a lot of the stuff is UV-sensitive, and when you hang stuff, you’re just asking for UV trouble. I keep everything in its case. I like my guitars to be as original as possible, and I also like them to be in original cases, too. I find the cases to be a piece of the history puzzle, not as much as the guitar, but it’s part of the package.
(All images in this article courtesy Clay Harrell and Vintage Guitars Info)