Your Guide to Buying a Vintage Electro-Acoustic Guitar

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Your Guide to Buying a Vintage Electro-Acoustic Guitar

The guitar was originally an acoustic instrument, which was unamplified, and used as a solo, group or accompaniment instrument. As groups and bands of the era became larger, guitarists wanted, or needed, to amplify their instruments. This could obviously be done with microphones, but this approach carries certain disadvantages. If the guitarist moves away from the microphone, the guitar becomes inaudible. Microphones are unable to distinguish between instruments, so they could pick up other instruments or non-musical noise in the vicinity.

Origins, Developments, and Recognising Vintage

The first commercially-produced guitar to be fitted with a magnetic pickup was the Gibson ES-150, and for many years the only electro-acoustics were steel-strung guitars with magnetic pickups. These models of electro-acoustic guitars were typically used for jazz stylings, and are referred to here as early electro-acoustics. By some definitions, as they are primarily designed for electric use, they might be termed semi-acoustic.

Makeshift solutions emerged in later years in terms of clip-on microphones and self-adhesive contact pickups, but these both had their disadvantages, and it wasn’t until makers adopted permanently-installed contact pickups that we came into the ‘modern’ era of electro-acoustic guitars, where the pickup and electronics are integrated into the guitar at the time of manufacture. This approach also brought about the inclusion of nylon-strung guitars in the electro-acoustic category, as the contact pickups used are independent of string design, and rely on vibrations from the wood of the guitar. These guitars are referred to here as modern electro-acoustics. As this category are all of recent manufacture, it’s only possible to truly regard them as ‘vintage’ if they were of particularly small manufacturing runs, have some unique feature no longer in production, or were custom built.

Age, Rarity, and Materials

Broadly speaking, the older the guitar, the higher will be its value, after making a suitable allowance for condition, and whether or not the guitar is in original condition. Aftermarket modification tends to reduce value, as most collectors will prefer vintage guitars in or close to factory condition. Aftermarket modifications, if improperly carried out, can ruin a guitar, as the original parts can sometimes be a key element of the guitar’s sound or performance, and guitarists sometimes stockpile various parts, or whole guitars, where they are crucial to the player's sound, technique or genre. A prime example of this is the materials used in guitars prior to World War 2, such as the cobalt used in the pickups. Pre-war, a certain grade was available which gave the Gibson Charlie Christian pickup a unique sound. Post-war, this wasn’t available, and the unique sound was lost. Unfortunately, the post-war pickups are physically similar, and there’s also an active market in reproductions of these pickups. Certain woods used in early guitar production are no longer available, and some woods are explicitly banned due to their rarity or endangerment, with Brazilian Rosewood (especially suitable for fingerboards) being a notable example. It is widely recognised that the wood used in guitar making matures over the years, giving the guitar a tone that matures with age, becoming deeper and more resonant. This can vary according to the materials used, and it’s generally held that guitars ‘settle in’ according to the way that their woods mature.
Collectors and enthusiasts also recognise that mass production methods as early as the 1970s were producing guitars of lesser quality than previous eras, and the value of the earlier instruments, often hand-crafted and individually built, began to rise. Martin acoustic guitars (while strictly not in the electro-acoustic category) from prior to World War 2 can fetch many thousands of pounds, illustrating succinctly this demand.

Documentation and Research

Many guides have been published, in online, book, and magazine form, to guide players and collectors to valuations of vintage models.
Online versions can be found from web searches, and the various books and magazines from libraries, or perhaps from online auctions. Many other online sources can offer advice on matters other than valuation – provenance, condition, original fittings and modifications, etc.

Early Electro-Acoustic Guitars

In the early years of the swing era, bands were getting bigger, and guitarists needed more volume to compete with the enhanced wind and brass sections. Gibson had developed larger and larger arch top acoustic guitars over this period, and in 1936 they introduced the first acoustic guitar with an electric pickup and matching amplifier, the ES-150. This was also of an arch-top design, with a symmetrical double-waisted body, and Gibson termed this their ‘electric spanish’ (ES) model. The factory moved to wartime production, and thereafter introduced a number of other variations following the theme. The ES-150 re-emerged with a different pickup, the P90, and Gibson introduced further classic electric archtops such as their ES-5, which was the first triple-pickup guitar, and the ES-175. They followed these with the L-5CES and Super 400CES (the suffix indicating their ‘Cutaway Electric Spanish’ models) in 1951. In some quarters, the ES-150 and many of the post-war models introduced in the late 1940s and early 1950s are referred to as ‘electric archtops’. Models of this era are naturally highly desirable, and while production of many of them continued for many years, it could be said that since they are designed and used as primarily electric instruments, it’s perhaps debatable whether they fall under the banner of ‘electro-acoustic’ or ‘semi-acoustic’. Guitars of this type and vintage are, unfortunately, likely to be rarely seen for sale.

Modern Electro-Acoustic Guitars

The modern electro-acoustic guitar emerged in 1966 when Ovation introduced the first modern electro-acoustic, the Ovation Roundback. With its innovative approach of building the pickup into the guitar, the Roundback also featured a unique rounded back, fashioned from a fibre glass and resin composite material called Lyrachord. Some experts take the view that the synthetic build of these early acoustics, while leading to a consistently-made product, results in a guitar with little character of its own. Most modern electro-acoustic guitars are of the steel-strung variety, but a number of mainstream models with nylon strings are available. These are generally far too recent to be regarded as either collectable or vintage instruments, unless a particular custom-built instrument or limited edition. A number of guitars manufactured in recent times have been styled to resemble those of previous eras, and their makers will usually refer to these as vintage models, or use other key terms such as Heritage or Classic in the model name. Often the vintage term merely relates to the finish, but occasionally the maker will be trying to replicate the whole style of a guitar from a bygone era. Buyers should bear in mind, however, that there is actually a guitar maker/brand named Vintage, which, unfortunately, may cloud matters when carrying out web searches and browsing through catalogues, books, and magazines. A good rule of thumb to follow is that when one of their guitars appears in a search result, it usually appears as Vintage [model name and style], whereas other makers’ guitars will be likely to appear as [other maker] Vintage Jumbo or [other maker] in Vintage Sunburst finish When searching on eBay for electro-acoustics, the vast majority of guitars found will be likely to fall into this 'modern' category of electro-acoustics, so there's no need to tailor a search specifically to them.

Finding Vintage Electro-Acoustic Guitars on eBay

Most sellers of vintage guitars will use that keyword in their listing, so a simple search for vintage guitar from the search box on any eBay screen may suffice, either on its own, or with some other keyword, such as a maker’s name, or a year, if a particular period is of interest. Otherwise, from the eBay homepage, select the All Categories button, and from the category list select Musical Instruments, Guitars, and Electro-Acoustic. Vintage electro-acoustics are unlikely to be found in any of the New categories, so select Used from the left-hand panel to narrow the search results.

Conclusion

Vintage Electro-Acoustic Guitars can either be those of original manufacture from many years back, or more recent models which are no longer in production or were in limited production runs when first made. Vintage guitars are usually chosen for some unique quality, whether that may be some aspect of their sound, appearance, or suitability for certain styles or genres of music.

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