When a middle-aged man buys an electric guitar, it can be written off as the sign of a mid-life crisis. But investment in vintage instruments with profit in mind has been something that’s caught on like wildfire over the past seven years. In the States, private equity firm Bain Capital bought out instrument retailers Guitar Center in 2007, suggesting investors magazine Forbes had a point when they ran an article last year under the title ‘Guitars are hot, guitars are sexy – and guitars can be worth big bucks.’
But what goes up must come down, and the global financial uncertainty of the past couple of years seems to have stalled this once purely upwardly mobile trend. And is that a bad thing? Certainly, if guitars are built to be played, anything that puts them within the financial reach of real musicians must be applauded. On the other hand, no-one wants to see the value of their guitar, played or otherwise, fall through the floor.
It’s also true that, in order to have enough ready cash to invest in a vintage guitar, you are probably over 40. What is the guarantee that, when you decide to realise your investment in 10, 20, 30 years’ time, there will be enough like-minded younger collectors/investors around for you to get back what you paid, let alone make a profit? Then again, despite the proliferation of fakes that have entered the marketplace, vintage guitars are rare and getting rarer by the year. It’s a fascinating conundrum.
When movie actor Michael J Fox, as time-travelling teen Marty McFly, returned to the 50s in Back To The Future and played a new Gibson ES-345TD, he must have had a shrewd idea he was holding a potential investment. We all now know how the value of top-level vintage instruments of the ’50s and ’60s has appreciated over the past decade, and they’ve been joined by selected ’70s and ’80s ones as time has gone by.
But when pop group McFly (who borrowed Marty’s name) did a gig at Wembley six months ago, Phil Harris, guitar renter to the stars, found they weren’t into hiring vintage axes to put the icing on their big day. ‘I said I’d take a ’59 Les Paul Standard there for Tom, who plays a ’59 reissue, and an original 1950 Nocaster for Danny, who plays a reissue. They didn’t even bother to make the call. No interest.’
In Harris’s view, Tom (27) and Danny (26) are typical of young players today who choose Gibson and Fender as they would their clothes – purely as a label. ‘They just play what they think is fashionable right now. It’s like jeans and T-shirts to them.’
And what of pre-aged relics? ‘If people want a guitar that’s been towed around a car park, they pay £800. They’re not going to pay 20 grand for a real fiesta red Strat. It’s like buying a pair of jeans, cutting a hole in the knees and letting them fray – there’s no interest in original Levi’s with frayed knees. They couldn’t care what year or what part of the world any part of their gear comes from, and that’s the view of the young generation coming through.’ If this is typical, then people who have invested in vintage instruments as an investment have a problem on their hands.
1. Old Fashioned Values - The Vintage Guitar Market