Guitar Prices and Guitar Collecting
By Greg Gagliano

Copyright 1998, 20th Century Guitar Magazine.

Stratmania: The Aftermath

The events that took place in the vintage and collectible guitar market between 1986 and 1987 will not likely be duplicated. This period, known as Stratmania, was characterized by a frenzied period of escalating prices, most notably for the Stratocaster, but for other "blue chip" collectibles such as pre-War Martins and late ‘50s Les Paul Standards. The catalyst for the meteoric rise in prices was the increased presence of foreign buyers and American buyers who felt pressured to "buy now before they’re all gone." Dealers were able to raise prices since the buyers were willing to pay for the right guitar.

Some people may argue that the escalation in prices that occurred in the 1990s were a direct result of Stratmania. Since I wasn’t paying much attention to vintage and collectible guitars prior to 1990, I thought I’d do a little research to answer the question: Did Stratmania influence the prices of non-Blue Chip guitars? To test this hypothesis I chose the 1965 Fender Jaguar and the 1966 Gibson ES-335 as subjects since they are abundant and do not necessarily belong to the "golden age" associated with their marques or models. I compiled prices for these guitars from dealer stock lists and advertisements graciously supplied by two true packrats, James Werner and James Strahm.

The results are presented in the two graphs and show that the prices for these guitars did not increase immediately following Stratmania. The price of the ES-335 increased the usual 10% or so per year until 1996 when it increased by 25%. My guess is that Eric Clapton’s recent use of a mid-1960s ES-335 for his album and video had something to do with it (Eric, if you’re reading this, please use an mid-1980s G&L Cavalier for your next video. Thanks.)

Likewise, the Jaguar’s price did not appear to be affected much by Stratmania. Yet the Jag’s price rose by over $500 between 1990 and 1995 and has stabilized around the $1150 mark. This increase may have been due the "grunge factor," i.e. - Jaguars were being used by many alternative rock bands (now known as modern rock bands) and grunge bands.

So, based on these two examples, Stratmania at best, may have had a minor influence on the prices of non-Blue Chip vintage and collectible guitars. What Stratmania did have major influence on was the awareness of vintage and collectible guitars in general and the number of people collecting guitars increased as a result. Since so many people are collecting guitars, let’s look at the four major phases that a collector (any collector – shells, coins, stamps, etc) is likely to go through. My knowledge is based upon my own collecting experience as well as the experience of collectors with small to moderate size collections, i.e. ordinary people with 10 to 75 instruments. I didn’t include the "super collectors" here as their experiences are in an entirely different class.

The Four Phases of Guitar Collecting

Phase 1 – The collecting bug bites. Most of the people I have spoken to that have small to moderate collections basically started out as players, not collectors. Their acquisitions were simply tools in their musical arsenal, but at some point there was a trigger which resulted in further acquisitions being deliberate and planned around a theme. The theme could be as broad as "electric solid bodies" to a slightly more focused "pre-1970 Gibson electric solid bodies" to the very specific "Gibson Les Paul Jrs." All but one of the collectors polled started with broad based collections when they began their journey into this hobby.

As an aside, collecting hobbies in general, most notably coins, stamps and shells, are gentrifying and very few young people have an interest in collecting these items. If you watch antique and collectible shows on television, you’ll notice that most of the people are middle aged and older, partly because they have the financial means to collect things, but partly because there aren’t as many young people interested in collecting anymore. However, I think guitar collecting may have some immunity to this trend as long as rock and country music remain guitar based. Rock and country is, and will be, the music of the Baby Boomers to the present generation. Most importantly it is the music of youth and that’s where the crucial link is.

Phase 2 – Focus and acquisition. As additional acquisitions are made, most collectors begin to focus the theme of their collection. Of the collectors that I polled, over half of them focused their collecting efforts within 3 years of being bitten by the collecting bug. Some focused by one or more brands, some by one or more models of a given brand. Of the collectors polled, those that have been collecting for less than 10 years said that financial resources play an important role in the decision making process for focusing their collection. For instance, it is a very expensive proposition to collect pre-CBS Fenders at this time in terms of money and in terms of the quality of the instruments for sale (yes, nearly all the collector grade FEI guitars are gone). However, it is not as expensive to collect just pre-CBS Musicmasters or recent reissues of pre-CBS guitars.

Once focused, most collectors then pursue certain pieces that fit the criteria of their collection. This is the part of collecting that all the collectors agreed was the most fun and challenging, namely; the hunt for another guitar to add to the collection. The thrill of the hunt must be an addictive, endorphin-producing activity because some of the collectors used terminology such as "guitar junkie" and "getting a fix" when referring to searching for and acquiring guitars. During this phase collectors often refer to the guitars that they don’t have rather than the ones that they do have, even if their collection is rather nice, extensive, and/or complete. I suppose it’s part of the "check list" mentality that we pick up from baseball card collectors, i.e. "got it, got it, need it, got it, etc."

Phase 3 – Fine Tuning and slowdown. At some point, collectors have either acquired most or all of the pieces they desired, lack room for additional guitars, lack funding to continue acquisitions at the pace they did in Phase 2, or all of the above. As such, the growth of the collection in Phase 3 is slow. Instead of making new acquisitions, many collectors will fine tune their collection during this period by trading or selling a guitar in order to replace it with an example that is in better condition, from a different year, or perhaps has particular features that are preferred by the collector.

During Phase 3, some collectors look for items associated with the guitars within their collection, such as hang tags, catalogs, accessories, ad slicks, and promotional materials. In addition, it is not uncommon for a collector to acquire (and even begin to collect) amplifiers associated with their guitars either by brand name or by time period or by association with a particular artist.

This fine tuning keeps the thrill of hunt alive for collector which also keeps the interest level high as well. In addition, this is phase where many collectors begin to amass more information by researching about their guitars and sharing information with other collectors through dialog. This again enhances interest and, quite frankly, provides new information not previously published. This information can be disseminated in magazines such as 20th Century Guitar, books, and in discussion groups, such as the Telecaster Discussion Page and the G&L Discussion Page, on the Internet.

Many of the collectors polled who have been collecting prior to the mid-1980s stated that they have long been priced out of the market for the guitars that they collect and new acquisitions are few and far between. However, their enthusiasm comes not from the hunt but from the acquisition and sharing of information. This "networking" provides opportunities to meet other collectors which sometimes leads to trading of guitars.

Phase 4 – The big sell off. Eventually, a collector will reach the point where all the guitars desired or that can be afforded have been collected. At this time, interest in the hobby may or may not wane, i.e. the "Been there, done that" syndrome. At some point in this phase, it is not unusual for a collector to sell off all but the most prized or favored guitars especially if the collector is reaching retirement age or has already retired. In some cases, the collection is willed to the immediate family so the collector simply hangs on to it until he or she croaks…. or some evil family member tries to poison the collector so he can cash in on the collection early… but I digress.

If Phase 4 is reached early in the collector’s life, he or she may choose to sell some guitars in order to begin collecting something different, thus starting the cycle again from Phase 2 onward. But no matter how quickly or how long it takes to go through the four phases of collecting, the bottom line is that the journey is fun.

About the author: Greg Gagliano, who is currently in the throes of Phase 3, can be contacted c/o TCG.

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