Whats the difference between Used and Vintage?

Anyone who’s read my blog before will remember these two Chinese SX guitars: they’ve been my main guitars for over the last half a dozen years.    How did THAT happen?twins twoI’ve had the one on the left, with the white pickguard, for 6 years this month.  The band I play with (The Trunkslammers) is doing it’s first gig in a couple of years (with a new lead vocalist) on Thursday the 12th of September.    (9:00 at the Camel’s Breath Inn here in San Diego) I decided that I’d do a little overdue maintenance while changing strings.  Nothing major, just dressing the frets, setting intonation and cleaning the fretboard, and finding a ground problem in one of them.   While doing this, I started thinking about how long  I’ve owned these two.   (I bought the second one about 6 months after I got the first one, because I liked the first one so much.)

My first nice guitar was a second hand, two year old Telecaster that I bought in October of 1965, (I still have it, 48 years later) by the time I was in college, (1970) it was already considered a “cool” guitar because it was, as they used to say “Pre CBS”.  I was never tempted (fortunately) to trade it off for something “new and improved”.

The foundation of the whole “vintage guitar” thing was that the guitars and amplifiers being made by Fender and Gibson (and other manufacturers) of lower quality  that those manufactured in the 50’s and early 60’s.   (I’m speaking of electric guitars as I actually know little about acoustic guitars: I do know that some consider anything build before the explosion in instrument sales brought about by the Beatles.)  “Blackface” amplifiers were already spoken of as superior to the “Silverface” series.  Old Les Pauls were starting to go up in value, (I have a 52 Goldtop I bought in 1970 for $25) and people were saying the newer series weren’t anything like the ones Gibson discontinued in 1960.

The new corporate owners of both Fender and Gibson were producing instruments in such quantity that QC suffered (not that the occasional great guitar didn’t make it out of the factory: Jimi Hendrix played pretty much standard CBS era Strats).   But there were brand new guitars that cost as much as a decent used car that wouldn’t play in tune and other major flaws being foisted on an unsuspecting public at this time.   Most famous professional guitarists in the 70’s played, for the most part, guitars that were of either 50’s or early 60’s vintage.    Eric Clapton used old Fender Strats that were often mongrel guitars built by selecting the best parts from several old Fenders.   Used guitar shops (later morphing into “Vintage” shops) seemed to spring up all over, often with barnwood covered walls and every city had several that would eventually become legendary.

You didn’t see $20,000 guitars at this time, the wealthy collector wasn’t yet part of the scene and there were few guitars bought as “trophies” and hung on the wall.   But the “older is better” philosophy that holds to this very day was already taking hold.   It wasn’t called a “reissue”, but Gibson returned to making  a Les Paul model after not doing so for 8 years when it noticed that older ones were fetching “new guitar” prices because so many Guitar Heroes were using ones made in the 50’s: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh and a host of “Guitar Gods” were using guitars that nobody had wanted in 1962.   Gibson had discontinued them due to poor sales and the last couple years there were very few “Les Paul” models being built.

Flash forward a decade and the first of the “reissue” Fender Strats and Teles appeared on the market.   These were actually some very nice guitars and they were much closer to the guitars that were built in the late 50’s—early 60’s in terms of materials and features.   I’ve seen some of these “Fullerton Reissues” selling for upwards of  $4,000.  Gibson also followed suit and Fender stated building reissue amplifiers in the late 80’s.  The idea was that you could capture the “Mojo” of the older stuff only be re-creating it as accurately as possible.

Leo Fender conceived the Fender Telecaster as a guitar that could be built in a factory by hourly workers that could be sold to professional working musicians at a price lower than other electric guitars of a similar quality.   I’ve always found it more than a little odd that people would pay lots of money for a “hand built” replica of something that was originally built on an assembly line.  It would be like buying a  hand built 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air for $70,000.

I’ll admit to being a “guitar snob” for a bunch of years and I’ve owned a few “Made in USA” Fender and Gibson guitars, but nothing I’ve held on to.   I always ended up playing either the Telecaster of the Goldtop, and having an expensive guitar just sitting in a case gathering dust didn’t make sense.   I tried a few Fernades replica Strats and a couple of Japanese made “Strats”, as from time to time the desire to make a few of the “Strat” sounds you can’t easily make with a Tele.  After a while the novelty of those tones would wear out, and I’d end up selling the guitar.    I had better luck with finding a substitute for a Gibson 335 with a 1979 Ibanez AS100 that I’ve had for about 15 years, so that at least qualifies as a “keeper”. But every other guitar I’ve had has lasted maybe a year or two, or three at best.  Until now.

In the late 90’s I played a couple of Fender “Custom Shop” guitars I might have been tempted by if I hadn’t already had my Tele.   Some of them, if evaluated objectively, might be considered “better” guitars than my Tele, but none that really sounded “better” or were more inspiring to play.    I could also not get over the idea that they were outrageously overpriced.

In 2007, on one of the guitar discussion pages I frequented at the time, a member mentioned they bought a decent quality, Tele style guitar, made in China,  for $109 from a place called “Rondo Music“.    At the time I was a sales manager for a company that sold consumer A/V equipment.   Polk Audio was having a jam session that fall in Denver that I really wanted to go to, but wanted to bring my own guitar, as the last session of this sort had a cartage company bring some amps and instruments and I found the guitars were quite a struggle to play.   I also didn’t want to bring any of the guitars I had at the time, for a number of reasons.

I found a “Strat Style” guitar with P-90 pickups, (which is something I always wanted to try, a Fender style guitar, with P-90 pickups) so I thought, “What do I have to lose?”.  It turned out to be a MUCH better  guitar than I’d anticipated.   Some of the hardware looked a little cheap, but the basic guitar was great and it had a wonderful luxurious feeling bound neck that felt like it was made for my hands, plus it also sounded great, Fender-ish, but a lot fatter sound from the pickups.  Unique.

(The story of that guitar is elsewhere on this site, go down to the fourth paragraph: SX Story   I own a few other SX guitars, and if you’re curious as to what modifications I’ve made, take a look here:  MODIFIED SX )

I ended up really liking the guitar.  The big neck allows me to play the guitar in comfort with my arthritic fingers without kidney and liver endangering doses of ibuprofen (washed down with a beer) far longer than I can manage with most other guitars.  Ironically, this is counterintuitive, since I have relatively small hands (The same size as Eddie Van Halen’s.  I placed my hand in his hand imprint on the “Rock Walk” in Hollywood, found it an EXACT fit, and then thought: “Well there goes THAT excuse.”) but that’s the way it works for me.

There are only two original parts  on each these guitars, the neck (with the original frets) and the body.  Everything else is new, and exactly as I like it.  They don’t impress anybody, and some of my guitar playing friends give me a hard time about them.   But everyone who picks one up is amazed by it, and if you were blindfolded you’d never guess they were “cheap”  guitars.

But that is what they are, after all.   I never saw an ad for one and then stayed up nights dreaming about it and thinking: “If I had one of those, my guitar collection would be complete.”or that “I will sound like (insert the name of some legendary guitarist who uses one) if I get one.  I never lusted after one.  To date, I’ve spent less on both of them than many people pay for one guitar of similar design.

After a show at San Diego State and young guitar player came up to me and  asked me “Why do you play that guitar?” in a voice that told me he wondered by I was playing such a cheap guitar.  I asked him “You don’t like the way it sounds?”  “Oh, no it sounds good, is it the amp you’re using, then?”, he wondered.  “No, it’s a decent sounding guitar, but I just like playing it.”   He looked skeptical and walked away, unenlightened.

Since buying these guitars, I’ve thought very differently about the “stuff” that I own.   Over the years, I’ve got enough “oohs” and “ahhs” from the two vintage guitars I do own, which, after all, were just “old Guitars” when I bought them.  The best comment I’ve heard about the SX’s has been:  “you must be a pretty good guitarist to make those Chinese guitars sound good”.

These guitars are a lot more fun to play than they are to own.    For years, I’d wanted a BMW motorcycle, ever since seeing one when I was about 13.    I’d often thought how cool it would be to go on 200 mile rides and not be tired, and how nice to own something that was so well made.  When I finally could afford to get one when I was in my early 30’s, I discovered it was a lot more fun to clean, polish, and admire than it was to actually ride it.  It was relaxing to ride on long distance rides, but not as comfortable as a Honda Civic.   Turns out I didn’t enjoy 200 mile rides, I was more of a “25 miles in the mountains” sort of rider.    I have become attached to both of these instruments, but is because of what they can do, rather than what they are.

Taking this full circle, while I was cleaning the headstock on one of the SX’s, I noticed the words CUSTOM HANDMADE” and “VINTGAGE SERIES”.  This stuck me as somewhat wishful thinking on the part of someone, and I seriously doubt the words ever influenced anyone’s decision to buy one.   There is a certain irony in that I’ve taken guitars that were made in a factory by computer controlled machine tools to sell dirt cheap, and completely rebuilt them by hand.  Now I wonder how long it will take for them to actually become “vintage”?

A Guitar Story

I’ve played the guitar since the summer after I turned 12 (1964, to put it in context; the year of the Beatles).  I started playing my step brother’s acoustic and tried to play along with songs by the Ventures, Dick Dale and The Fabulous Wailers (A Seattle band, not Bob Marley’s group).   I was actually pretty good at this because the muscle memory from playing the violin for three years carried over to the guitar fairly easily.  When my step brother moved out of the house, my parents bought me my first electric: a single pickup Kay hollow body archtop ($69.95) $30 of which came from the trade in from my violin.

The guitar was an attempt by my mom and my new step-dad to focus my attentions in some positive direction, as I wasn’t (for various reasons outside the scope of this column) coping well with life in general, and haging out with a bad crowd.   (I was arrested for vandalism: writing vulgarities on seats in the local movie theater with a felt pen.)  The Kay wasn’t really what I wanted in a guitar, but my parents told me that if I continued to have interest in the guitar, showed progress in my ability to play it, managed to avoid another arrest and  stayed out of trouble in school, they would match how ever much money I managed to save over the course of the next year and buy me a nice guitar.  I think this ploy managed to succeed beyond their expectations.

Over the course of the next year I managed to save $150 dollars from various sources: picking beans, my allowance, doing extra chores around the house,  bottle deposits and stealing change from my mom’s purse.     I ended up buying a used 1963 Custom Telecaster (this was the fall of 1965) for the sum of $175, (less $25 trade in for the Kay).   My parents kept up their part of the bargain, perhaps relieved they didn’t have to match $150.   I can’t remember exactly why I settled on the Tele, but I do rememeber I’d chosen it over a Hagstrom III.   I think it may have something to do with how easy it was to play, since the fat neck and high action on the Kay were things I hated even more than the total lack of treble the guitar managed to produce from the pickup mounted up near the fretboard.  I do think I made the right choice, though.

I still have that guitar.   It accomplished what my parents had hoped it would for the most part: my grades improved and I had no further brushes with the athorities.   Moreover, it has given me a rewarding lifetime activity and  provided me with a sense of identity I might ontherwise not have.   Music is a the prism through which I experienced the spectrum of life as it unfolded before me.   It helped me to understand not only myself, but those around me and spurred my curiosity towards many things.