For those of us who are looking for a real vintage acoustic Martin Co. and Gibson will very probably be on our list. And for good reason. They build quality guitars, they have a huge legacy and a rich history. And we kind of assume that they will maintain their value. Ofcourse they are quite an investment. And laying your hands on a good one can be tricky. But the history of the instrument, the worn looks, the played in feel and the vintage tone make it all worthwhile, right? But what if you could get most of that without breaking the bank and the elaborate search? Is there anything remotely comparable if you are looking for let’s say a vintage D-28, a J45 or an OM model? Well, let’s find out.
First of all, let’s have a quick look at vintage and iconic guitars. We mostly use those words to describe well known older acoustic models and usually combine that with a specific decade in which they were build. Vintage is commonly used for guitars older as 25 years. As far as models go, we may be looking for Martin dreadnoughts such as the D-28 and D-18, Martin OM models or the Gibson J-45. If these models are built somewhere between 1930 and 1945 they will be referred to as golden era or pre-war guitars. The years from which those guitars are now considered the best money can buy. History, looks, feel and tone it is all there. Now bear in mind that these things are expensive. They will cost you anywhere between €15.000 and €100.000. If you have that kind of money to spent, you may want to look a little deeper in the pro and cons of getting a golden era guitar. But obviously for most us this is out of our league.
A little less vintage maybe
So what about getting something a little less old, say something from the fifties or sixties? Well there are definitely more guitars on offer from that period. So, prices tend to be a bit more modest and they will max out at around €15.000. But still that is lot of money. And when buying guitars like that you need to know what to look for. Because just because it is sold as old that does not necessarily mean that it is good.
Re-issue Vintage Acoustics
For those of us who rather stay on the safe side of things it is practical to look for guitars that have that vintage feel but none of the risks that come with a real vintage instrument. Martin and Gibson have discovered long ago that revisiting their rich history is very lucrative.
Both Martin and Gibson build new instruments based on old specs. And they will brand them as true vintage or authentic series. These are guitars based on old specs but build with modern building techniques and todays quality standards in mind. Martin really makes an effort here with the Authentic Series. Prices will start around €10.000,- and go up to €65.000,-. And that my friends, still is a lot of money. So what are the alternatives?
Off the beaten track
We love to leave the main road and travel the back roads. And while doing so we discovered some alternatives to a real vintage guitar or a re-issue from the big brands. In the UK we found Allister Atkin and his team building vintage models that actually look and feel like they are from back in the time. And in North Carolina we discovered Pre-War Guitars doing exactly what their name suggests, building replica pre-war guitars. Not only do they look the part, they will do anything to achieve that coveted dry 30’s tone. So let’s have a closer look at them. And find out if they are a realistic alternative to the real vintage thing.
In Canterbury a small team lead by Allister Atkin build around 350 instruments a year. Each instrument is build by hand. Their aim is to create instruments with more feel, more personality and more spark. They build upon the classic Martin’s and Gibson’s models but are not afraid to make modest innovations if that will enhance the sound, feel and look of the guitar. The result is a series of guitars that tick a few boxes when looking for a ‘vintage’ guitar. The guitars are surprisingly light and have that worn in feel. They offer aged versions of their guitar. Do not expect heavy relic stuff here. It is done very delicately and realistic. Fine crackle in the finish and coloration make it look old but well looked after. The guitars have a big classic sound and the baked tops and braces have a lot to do with that. An Atkin Guitar will set you back between €3.500,- and €4.500,-. And that is a modest price level when compared with a real vintage Gibson or Martin or even their modern day reissue’s
Pre-War Guitars, the new old guitar
In Hillsborough, North Carolina Wes Lambe and Ben Machal build replica’s of old Gibsons and Martins. Like their name suggests their focus is on the Pre War era. And they go the extra step to make their guitars undistinguishable from the real thing. This ticks all the vintage guitar boxes except that of the collector’s value and subsequently it’s price. They vary the aging process of the guitars from level 1 (new old stock) to level 4 (seriously distressed). They feel and looks great but the miracle is in the playability and the sound. While these guitars sound like they are decades old. the playability is comfortable and modern day reliable. Pre-War prices start at €5.000,- and can go up to €9.500,- when you enter the Brazilian Rose Wood territory. And although that is serious money it is still nowhere near a real vintage Pre War Martin or Gibson.
Vintage vibe without the price tag
We have learned that there is something very similar to a vintage guitar. And it is possible to enjoy the greatness of a vintage guitar without having to own a real vintage guitar. If you are not looking for a collector’s guitar as an investment, but you are simply looking for vintage tone, looks and vibe then Atkin or Pre-War could very well be worth checking out.