This one goes to 11
March 5, 2010 6:57 AM   Subscribe

When purchasing a vintage electric guitar, what are the primary things I should be looking at to judge quality in terms of both value AND playability?

I'd like to treat myself to a 40th birthday present - namely a telecaster from the 70s. This will be primarily for playing, not for hanging on the wall to impress people. My gut in the month or so I've put into looking is that the vintage guitar market might be a little like the baseball card market...rife for fraud. Any insight into what I should look for in a 5 to 10 minute inspection to clue me in that the price might be inflated or the pedigree overstated would be helpful. Here are some other things I'd like help with:

1) what should I be looking for fret-wise to know how much life the frets have left in them, other than just playing and gauging action and buzz?

2) is it ok to request the dealer take the pickguard off to show me the pickups and wiring so I know that any claims about originality of electronics can be visually checked?

3) anything else I should pay attention to in order to gauge claims of "10% original"?
posted by spicynuts to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have never played one but 70's Fenders are notoriously overpriced and have a reputation of not being particularly great guitars. If it really is for playing why not spend the same money on having a someone build you a nice custom one or pick something up from the Fender custom shop range? If you have really set your heart on a '70's tele then yes by all means get the dealer to remove the pickguard. Also get them to remove the neck so you can check the join - sometimes you'll find extra holes drilled in the neck where two different pieces have been shunted together (I've been stung by this myself). Play it for a long time and don't pull the trigger unless you're 100% sure. Good luck!
posted by oh pollo! at 7:31 AM on March 5, 2010

First, the serial numbers. I can't search right now, but guitars have serial numbers that tell you when it was made, for the most part. Somebody will doubtless jump in here with the obscure low-down on Tele serial numbers.

Second, buzzes and fretwear. Clearly play every fret seeking buzzes. Look at the fretwear too, esp. near the headstock where a lot of the open chords are played. Heavy fretwear means it will need to be refretted. Low fretware could mean it was refurbished or restored--might not be original and reduce guitar value.

Neck--make sure it is straight by looking down the length.

Tone--if you are gonna play, make sure it sounds good clean and distorted. Bring your gear and signal chain to see how it sounds on your rig.

Also do your research. If I remember correctly, Fender was acquired by recreation giant AMF during the '70's and the guitars made after the acquisition suffered quality-wise, resulting in a lower value. Wikipedia has all of this in depth.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:31 AM on March 5, 2010

Response by poster: Couple of things:

1) why a 70s tele - I'm looking at 72/73 because I like the double humbucker sound, the neck, and I like the big headstock. I think they are great only because the 5 or 6 I have played sounded awesome, felt great in my hands, and I thought were great works of art. If they are all notoriously over-priced, there really isn't an option, right?

2) fret wear...what is the clue that fretwear is heavy? ruts under the strings?
posted by spicynuts at 7:39 AM on March 5, 2010

Fender lists its serial number system in a convenient fashion. Like everything else on earth, these are fakeable, but a good way to weed out the bad fakes.

I envy your situation, you have the chance to get a killer guitar. One thing of note is that, if you want a player that might respark your love for the stage, you might want to check out a custom shop model? Fender has done an interesting thing in increasing its prices and significantly increasing its quality recently (likely as a result of their aging, wealthier buyer-group), but this means that they're making great guitars which will be classics in a few decades (at least one hopes :)
posted by tmcw at 7:56 AM on March 5, 2010

If you are after a 72 custom or deluxe then yes you really don't have an option. The number one thing to check with these guitars is the pickups. A lot of the original Seth Lover "Wide Range" pickups were removed and replaced by normal humbuckers. All you need to do is get the owner to take off the pickup cover. Wide Range humbuckers are larger than standard pickups.
posted by oh pollo! at 8:02 AM on March 5, 2010

Response by poster: Is there a reputable website out there that talks about these kinds of things, specifically for fenders or teles?
posted by spicynuts at 8:39 AM on March 5, 2010 is good. Lot of very knowledgeable people on there.
posted by oh pollo! at 9:22 AM on March 5, 2010

If the frets are squashed and noisy, that means somebody played the hell out of this guitar. If they played it that much, it might be because it sounds, or sounded, great and it is nice and broken in.

If this is a guitar you are going to play, and it has noisy frets, you are going to want to the neck re-fretted. It will make the guitar sound better by improving the intonation and playability.

Always have a very experienced luthier do the re-fretting.
posted by chillmost at 9:38 AM on March 5, 2010

i asked my brother and had the following to say.

there are a lot of fakes out there. or at least ones that are quasi fake. like some real parts etc... one good way to tell is check the wiring. if it looks like the pickups have been out of the guitar it can be a sign that it is not all original. not always of course. also the pots have dates on them. the date codes can be found on the web. this is another decent way of telling.

he added that the guys at southside guitars are good and will tell you all that is wrong/not original.
posted by phil at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2010

A few comments:
- There are some really crappy 70s fenders. Hell there are crappy fenders of every era. These were mass-produced everyman guitars. My personal opinion is to worry much less about authenticity and much more about sound and playability.
- Forget about the frets. Frets can easily get played through in 5-10 years and you are buying and instrument that is almost as old as you. A quality fret job is cheap and relatively simple.
- The neck is the thing you are most worried about as an instrument ages. It should have only the slightest forward bow and there shouldn't be any cracks (at all!). A slight bow could just mean that the instrument is not set up properly, but you won't know that. Plus, I wouldn't trust anyone who triest to sell you a guitar for more the 1500 dollars and doesn't have a professional set up beforehand.
- Most fender parts are stamped. The seller should be willing to, after letting you play the instrument dissemble the pickguard and neck to check dates, or provide a reasonable photographic substitute.
- You really should be working with a known shop/seller. I know very little about the NYC guitar shop scene, but I have to believe there is a trustworthy shop that stocks vintage fenders. Ludlow guitars has a decent reputation and has exactly what you want in stock according to their website.
posted by yeoldefortran at 10:04 AM on March 5, 2010

You might want to check out Fender's custom vintage options (they're infinite). The ones I've seen have been VERY fucking nice. And old teacher had a copy of a 60's blonde tele with crackle finish, oxidation, pick guard wear and everything. you couldn't tell the difference except it sounded like a custom luthiered instrument. Which it was. For $5000 IIRC.
posted by cmoj at 10:37 AM on March 5, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah I know the custom shop is nice but I figure if I'm going to drop this kind of money it should be on something that already has a market value and also the woods used back in the day are not necessarily available anymore. I did see a couple of nice custom shop teles that unfortunately were not dual humbucks. Not a deal killer but I'm being particular cuz of the money involved.

Also, right now the one I have my eye on is at Rivington Guitars. I've been to Ludlow and I'm not really into the ones they currently have. Nothing against them - you all I'm sure know how it is with a guy/girl and his/her axe.

Maybe the take away is just go with what I like, period, and not worry about it as long as the neck is solid.
posted by spicynuts at 11:16 AM on March 5, 2010

What everyone else said.

- Make sure the neck isn't warped.
- Make sure the pickups are original (e.g. there are no new solder points on the pots/pickups).

Do whatever else you can to authenticate the individual pieces of the instrument - such as bring an expert in to appraise it. You're buying a collector's item, then treat it like a collector's item & get it appraised.

Have you looked at the Roadworn series? They're killer guitars & basses - play & sound great, and around ... if I remember correctly $1200. No dual humbuckers though - not enough market for it. There's some variability there, and none of the ones I played was "oh my god, the ONE" but they've pretty much nailed the vibe, and in a production instrument, that's amazing.

It's been my experience that if you buy an instrument to be a collector's item & you don't really know what to look for, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

But when buying a guitar because it's 'the one and price doesn't matter' then you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of happiness.
posted by MesoFilter at 1:52 PM on March 5, 2010

This is a whole lot better investment than a Custom Shop model. Stick to your plan.
posted by Wolof at 12:49 AM on March 7, 2010

Response by poster: Update for everyone. First, thanks for all the input - much appreciated.

So, after much back and forth and much embarrassment standing around in various shops staring at the same guitars, feeling like a tool, I finally pulled the trigger. I went with a used custom shop model I found at a local shop.

It actually meets none of my original criteria - it has single coils, it's not vintage, it doesn't have the big headstock. However, it felt extremely natural in my hands, the neck is very lightly finished so there is no wearing in needed, it's nearly new so I don't have to worry about bad electronics (an experience that ended my transaction on my original choice...a 74 vintage), and it was half the price. My logic is that I intend to actually play this thing a lot and I'd like to personalize it. I figured I didn't want to worry about consequences to an investment value if I re-wired, changed pickups, etc etc. I decided that kind of thing was a headache I didn't need. Finally, I realized that with the processing equipment I have, the type of pickup in the actual guitar is irrelevant..I can model pretty much any pickup/amp/mic set up I want in the computer. So why worry about the dual humbuckers.

Anyway, here's a couple pics of the new addition:

Close Up

The whole thing

And, with the money left over from my original budget, I bought one of these guys used:
posted by spicynuts at 8:22 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, happy birthday. Enjoy that thing.
posted by Wolof at 12:28 AM on March 9, 2010

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