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Are vintage guitars, amps and pickups really better?

June 28th, 2014

There is no denying that vintage musical equipment holds great allure for many players. Famous players and people of means often have prized vintage gear and swear by it. There is a general unquestioned belief that old gear is just inherently better, but is it really?

Humans by nature are nostalgic, and are predisposed to believe that the old days were always better. You know, things like Polio, Segregation, and AMC Gremlins. And once people perceive a change from the way things were, there is a reflexive yearning for whatever it was that is no longer the way it was. With Fender, this was of course the purchase by CBS. With Gibson I suppose it was the move from Kalamazoo to Nashville, and the Norlin era of ownership. I’ve even had a customer opine that any post-1999 Taylor isn’t as good because they changed their neck joint technique. Really?

These days, mid-70’s Fenders have asking prices well over $2000. Frankly, I was around in the 70’s and nobody thought much of a 70’s Strat. The 70’s was a true low point in American product quality, and manufacturers were trying to reduce costs and compete with the likes of the Japanese, but did not have the tools and processes to do so effectively. But now these indifferently assembled products of the 70’s are over thirty years old, and suddenly they are vintage? No, they are just old. So before you consider plunking down three grand on a post-CBS Strat with a wobbly micro-tilt neck and a 1/4″ thick finish, let’s somewhat objectively consider whether vintage really should mean anything to you in regard to playing value.

Guitars – In terms of solid body electric guitars, there really is no technical reason why a modern guitar can’t be as good or better than a vintage guitar. Why? Because basically all the materials that go into building an electric guitar 50 years ago — the woods, hardware, electronics, pickups, nitrocellulose lacquer etc. — still largely exist today in the same form (we’ll get to vintage pickups later). If you want to build a guitar just like it was 50 years ago, for the most part you can. Except today we have CNC machines, better hardware, and much better process control than ever existed 50 years ago. Guitar companies have gotten very good a letting machines do what they do best, and having people do what they do best. That’s why you can buy a $400 guitar that plays amazingly well and sounds good to boot. While some of this value is tied to low cost labor, it’s more a function of advancements in manufacturing.

Interestingly, there was a test in 2012 involving professional violin players that in double-blind testing could not reliably tell a prized Stradivarius violin from a high quality modern violin. Their ability to identify which instrument was the Stradivarius (they were wearing dark goggles) was virtually no better than random. When asked for their preference, most players chose the newer violin, but thought they were playing the vintage instrument.

There are various intangible reasons for owning a vintage guitar: The look, history and feel of an old instrument is hard to quantify but compelling for many players. Have a piece of gear with a sense of history can be a cool thing, and any instrument purchase is a combination of head and heart. But like many products today, the price-to-value ratio for new guitars is at a very high level (even for American gear) so don’t buy into the “only vintage is good” argument. Sometimes old stuff is just old stuff.

Pickups – Much like guitars, the materials available to build pickups the way they were built in the good old days still largely exist. The great pickups of yore were largely a function of good fortune.  Guitar manufacturers sourced wire and magnet materials based mostly on availability, the tension of the winding machine was generally controlled by hand, and the number of windings was approximate. On other words, not all pickups were created equal. Today’s boutique winders have studied the characteristics of a good pickup, and can faithfully reproduce a “good day” in Fullerton in 1957 on a consistent basis. And large pickup manufacturers utilize process controls and modern equipment to produce consistent product that can also sound awfully good. Spending $200 – $400 on any single pickup is probably never necessary, and spending that kind of money on a parted-out vintage pickup is basically a crap shoot.

Amplifiers – Compared to guitars and pickups, amplifiers are probably least likely to be truly reproduced in the exact manner of materials and construction as their vintage counterparts. Partly this is due to the complexity of an amplifier and myriad of components and materials used. Some of chemicals used in capacitors, speaker adhesives, transformers, etc. can’t be used anymore because they are hazardous or even carcinogens. Vacuum tubes, while still available new, differ from their vintage counterparts for either reasons of cost, health, or availability of materials (and some of the NOS tubes really are magical, and never to be made again). But that does not mean that there are not lots of fantastic sounding new amplifiers using available modern materials.  I’ve personally gone through a “must have blackface” phase only to come to the conclusion that they really weren’t for me, no matter how much I was told I would like them.

Plus even more than vintage guitars and pickups, older amplifiers varied widely in component selection, tolerance and speaker type. Fender used several different speaker brands depending on what they could get a good deal on (vintage Utah speaker anyone?) and Marshall was equally cavalier with component values and sources. Lastly  given the fact that few vintage amplifiers survive without some amount of component drift, component replacement, or “improvement” and it’s easy to imagine plunking down a good deal of cash for a box of rocks. Then there is just the whole reliability issue of of gigging a 50 year old amplifier. Now if you want an old amp purely for historical vibe, go for it, but sonic nirvana is not guaranteed.

Wrap Up – The great mystery of analog sound, is that everything does matter to some degree. Sound is an interaction of guitar, amplifier, and player. And within that there is a subset of pickups, components, speakers, cables, tubes….everything. Chasing the perfect sound can be fun, inspiring, and sometimes obsessively frustrating. And as Frank Zappa said, sometime you just have to “Shut up ‘n play yer guitar.” Because as we all know, the greatest variable is the player. I’m not down on vintage equipment, and sometimes owning something only for its aesthetic value is reason enough. Guitars and amps can be art, or at minimum great examples of industrial design. But like our 70’s Strat, buying “vintage” equipment guarantees nothing but age, and a little objectivity can save you a lot of money and frustration.