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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

Jay Scott, a guitar dealer and author of four books on guitar history, reflects on what may be a change in the attitude of collectors regarding earlier guitars: "Pre-1833 vintage European guitars have become more sought after. Steve Howe is one important collector who is into them. A lot of that has to do with the fact that in the past 20 years, all of the great American guitars have been bought up, and now everyone's looking for new frontiers because all the good shit is gone. At a guitar show today with thousands of instruments for sale, maybe 10 are of top investment quality."

What about more modern guitars? When do they cease to be considered vintage? The general consensus seems to be around 1970. Larry Wexer, a professional musician as well as a collector and sales manager at Mandolin Brothers, sees a change in that arbitrary cut-off date.

"While the classics that were collectible initially are still collectible, now there's a younger market," he says. "What was considered late-model junk is starting to go up in value. In our perception, it's like, 'Seventies Stratocasters collectible? Have you lost your minds?' But now there are these kids who say, 'Well, when they were made I wasn't born yet, so those are old guitars.' So it is definitely a matter of perspective."

Larry Acunto, publisher with his brother Jim of 20th Century Guitar, has another take on the "What is vintage?" question. "The cut-off is about the time when all of the small, often family-owned companies started selling out to the major corporations, from the mid-'60s to about 1970. In '65, CBS bought Fender, and Fender went downhill pretty quickly. In '67, Norlin bought Gibson and Baldwin bought Gretsch. All of these big companies were going into the guitar business and they didn't have a clue as to what they were doing. At that point American guitar manufacturing went right down the tubes."

One unfortunate side effect of this semiofficial vintage cutoff date is that most of the good instruments have already been collected, so it takes a hefty bank balance to be a collector these days.

Chinery has such a balance. In 1984, he sold his vitamin and nutritional supplement company, called Cybergenics, for the kind of money that puts a Lamborghini Diablo in the driveway, Cuban double coronas in the walk-in humidor and the world's greatest private guitar collection--1,000 vintage guitars--in his "simple" chateau in Toms River, New Jersey.

Chinery, who has studied the guitar for the past 20 years, is one of those collectors who believe that the instruments are there to be played, no matter what their value. Larry Acunto recalls his first visit to Chinery's house to look at the collection. "The first time my brother and I met Scott," Acunto says, "we walked into the guitar room and there he was, surrounded by guitars, strumming on what was then one of the most valuable guitars in the world, a $100,000 Stromberg Master 400. Les Paul once said that he couldn't imagine living in a house without guitars everywhere. I guess Scott feels the same."

Jay Scott agrees. "Guitars that are played regularly are better instruments, but generally not worth as much, as an untouched, mint instrument. Players tend to buy musical instruments; most collectors buy investments."

Many famed guitar players collect vintage guitars, including Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, Steve Miller, Rick Nielsen, Greg Martin and Chet Atkins. Other notable collectors include actor Richard Gere, author Jonathan Kellerman and "Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson.

If vintage guitars are valuable because of who made them or how they advanced the art of guitar making, what about guitars that are valuable because of the celebrities who played them? Robert Levine of Sotheby's collectibles department looks at the world of guitar collecting from that perspective.

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