Shopping frenzy revolves around several times of the year, and to some extent that is true of musical instruments, but those are mostly new instruments. Vintage instruments are a year-round pursuit for serious collectors. We’re seeing that now in Geddy Lee’s tour for his book Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass.
Vintage instruments tend to go for stratospheric prices, and Geddy’s book is as close as most of us will get to the majority of basses shown in it, but what about the older guitars that were praised to the skies when they came out and then seemed to just disappear as fashions changed? I think that there are several good reasons to look into these instruments seriously:
- It’s good for the environment. Although even mass-produced instruments aren’t terribly polluting, and excellent luthiers are making impressive instruments, many of the best tone woods are endangered.
- It’s good for the wallet. There are some great bargains in used instruments. Back when materials were cheaper some great instruments were moderately-priced and are even cheaper now
- Some instruments get better as they age, especially acoustic ones, so playing some older but not yet “vintage” instruments can be very pleasant surprises.
- You can probably think of more reasons for yourself and your situation.
I have been lucky enough to score big on some used instruments. I used to travel a lot and although I had a great traveling classical guitar, I needed a steel-string. Once I started looking at sizes of guitars vs. airplane overhead storage I realized that a Steinberger regular guitar would fit just as well as a new “travel guitar” and have a full size neck as well as that amazing tuning system. Many people think of these as “an 80’s thing” but when I tried to buy one online I found out that a LOT of guitarists wanted these. I started looking for either a Steinberger Spirit guitar or even the Hohner licensed version. It took me a few months on eBay to finally snag a Steinberger Spirit but I got more than I bargained for. It had been treated with loving care, which I found out when I discovered that the seller lived about 20 minutes from me! Not only was the guitar a dream to play, but he had replaced the original pickups with Seymour Duncan ones: a jazz one at the neck and a hot rock one at the bridge. This became my go to guitar immediately. (He was only selling it to buy a custom-made guitar, and was so sad to see it go I felt guilty … until I got home and played it again.)
Another great find was in a pawn shop. These are places I had overlooked, so imagine my surprise when on my second visit to one I found a Fender Jazz Bass on the wall. It was an MIM (Made in Mexico) which I learned can vary greatly in quality, depending on the luthier. I brought in my bass Vox amPlug and played the bass for an hour, and sure enough this was a killer guitar. I was even able to haggle the price down to about $300 (US) with the best gig bag I’ve ever seen.
So if you are looking for a guitar or bass, or most other instruments too, take a close look at used instruments. Listen closely to them, and check for problems since there may well be some. For example, the Jazz Bass had a buzz, but it was easily fixed with a truss rod adjustment. If you buy from a store make sure that there is some warranty. If they have a reasonable return policy take the instrument to a repair shop and have them look it over. Sometimes problems are easily fixed while other seemingly minor ones can be deadly in the long run, such as the head stock that has been glued back on and hastily painted over (I’ve seen this). If you can, just like buying a car, arrange to take it to a repair place before buying and see what work it needs. If it is reasonable, you should be able to negotiate the price to take care of it.
Remember that luthiers are making great guitars all the time, and what is “in” is largely fashion. To paraphrase Drake’s great Grammy speech, this is an “opinion-based industry”, and the look of guitars is constantly changing or “new features” added that you don’t need. What is not changing is the need for a design that gives a good tone and sustain, good pickups, and that indefinable magic that happens when you find the right guitar, bass, or kazoo. Just because you don’t have a lot of money, it doesn’t mean you can’t find a great guitar in your price range. And the money you save can go toward a better amp. (More on amps in another post. They are a more complicated purchase.)
Finally, never be afraid to bargain. No one is losing money selling instruments in a store, and the prices of used instruments are really subjective. If you notice that a guitar has been hanging on the wall for a long time, there’s a good chance they will lower the price just to get rid of it. This is true even of new instruments. If you live in Canada (or a country with a currency stronger than the Canadian dollar) we are in the middle of Long & McQuade‘s annual “Inventory Blowout” sale. I don’t mind giving them a little free publicity because I got my beloved 5-string Ibanez bass for $289 (Canadian) from this sale a few years back.
How often can we say that we are helping the environment as we stock up on guitars? We can do some good and find a killer guitar at the same time. So when you need a new instrument think “used” (or “pre-loved”).