If you love acoustic guitars, and want to know where the best values are—if your motivation is to have and play something that you love—then you may want to consider vintage and antique instruments that are often overlooked in the marketplace.
The guitar market can be overwhelming. Prices for some guitars continually reach levels well out of the range of the average player or collector. But you don’t have to go broke to get a nice vintage guitar.
The two strongest names in American vintage guitars are Martin and Gibson. Martin is famous for having consistent top-quality construction and design. Gibson is the opposite in terms of consistency. They have changed their designs over and over through restless experimentation, and have had big hits and misses, along with some variation in quality of construction.
If you are considering the purchase of a fine vintage guitar at auction, don’t immediately try to get the most expensive, big-body, pre-war Martin guitar, because that’s going to cost you $100,000 or more. You can find a lot of quality Gibson guitars from the 1930s through the 1960s for anywhere from $2,000-7,000. The price will depend on the condition, quality of materials, and level of ornamentation, but it’s generally lower than that of a Martin.
The other type of vintage acoustic guitar to consider is the smaller “parlor” guitars that were made between c. 1860 and 1920. They may have smaller bodies but they play beautifully and they can be absolutely gorgeous, often decorated with some beautiful inlay work. Look for parlor guitars made by Martin, Washburn (a division of Lyon & Healy), and Larson Brothers (which includes the Maurer brand). The workmanship is nearly always first-class, and you may even be able to get one at auction for $3,000-6,000.
There are two reasons people buy guitars: for love and for profit. One reason the prices of the Gibson and parlor guitars I’ve described stay low is because speculators can’t usually flip these pieces for a big profit. But for those more interested in a guitar they can fall in love with, these instruments are beautifully made and can be a pure joy to play. The smaller guitars have an even, balanced tone and ease of playing that is ideal for the finger picking style. Delta Blues artists like Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Lonnie Johnson used smaller Gibsons, and the smaller Martin instruments are still used by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton and many others.
If you want to collect nice stuff and you’re just starting out, this is what’s underrated in the guitar market. Keep an eye out for it, and you’ll get a great deal on a gorgeous instrument.