od West is no stranger to the business of selling and repairing guitars, having picked up an ardent interest as early as 18 years old. Acoustic Music Shop then, is somewhat of a haven for him as he spent most of his early years experimenting on garage sale finds, “real hopeless cases”, to gain repair experience. While he studied techniques by a few builders as well, he admits that most of what he knows is self-taught by study and trial and error. Initially he didn’t think he would ever make a living off of his passion for guitar repair, but through a series of coincidences and trying other avenues that didn’t work out, he came to realize his perfect fit at the Acoustic Music Shop in 1996.
Acoustic Music Shop first opened its doors 25 years ago. The original owner had a family band and they put a shop together “to sell stuff, but mostly they would just jam. I mean, if you went in there and needed some strings they might scowl at you because you interrupted their session [laughs], but they’d sell you some.”
The second owner was a guitar builder and Rod found a synergy there when he joined to manage the repairs and retail side of the business. “Things really started to evolve from 96’ to 97’ and finally in 98’, he wanted to do other things so I took over.” And since he began all those years ago, it’s been one continuous highlight. Not many people are lucky enough to work at their life’s passion every day, but that’s just what Rod does. And he wouldn’t trade it in for anything.
Vintage and Inspired Originals
Though he brings in a variety of new pieces, it’s the vintage ones he especially loves. Why vintage? It’s the stories attached to the instruments, he says, that bring a special life and character to their “unique voice”. And each musician and music lover coming through his doors share that reverence for vintage pieces. Though several notable musicians have stopped by his shop in the past, Rod admits that he didn’t know who many of them were until after they left “because they were just guys telling stories”, chatting him up about a mutual love of music. And that’s how it is with all musicians, he says. “Its an enthusiasts’ business, you know, people coming together who love music and love talking about it. Getting to talk about music and share stories with people every day, that’s what gets me out of bed each morning.”
Showing off a few of his current favourite vintage pieces around the shop and drawing from an impressive well of knowledge about each instruments history and lineage, he picks up an original 1971 Fender Stratocaster, made in the USA, which is in nice original shape and wonderfully aged from the original Olympic White to a soft cream banana colour. “It’s had a few things done to it over the years, but anything done has been kept in the original spirit of the time period in which it was made and all the work done has been pro. The Stratocaster is a good collectors piece because it’s an iconic guitar. Hendrix, for example, played an Olympic White [cream] 68’ model.”
“This one sounds really good and is 100 years old” he says, pointing to an antique acoustic parlor guitar next. “It was made in Philadelphia by some guys called Graupner & Meyer. They obviously had some real skill; you can tell by looking at the features, such as the perfectly inlayed rosette trim around the hole or the purfling around the edge that is equally as neat. It’s also got a V-neck, ebony fingerboard, and mother of pearl inlays but one of its most unique qualities is that it’s got a back made from Brazilian rosewood [a rare and expensive treatment given that wood has been legally restricted from being harvested since the 70’s].
We would call this one a ‘parlor’ acoustic – a more antiquated shape these days thanks to Martin standardizing the dreadnought shape in the 40’s. People wanted bigger guitars in that time to compete with the banjo, mandolin, blue grass sound and the small parlor guitars just didn’t cut it. There was a huge explosion of artists at that time, and the dreadnought lent itself better for amplified performance prior to the introduction of electrified plug-ins for acoustics in the 60’s and 70’s (when the folk music scene exploded).
So, these kind of guitars fell out of favour for a while until a bit more recently, when people have been collecting and playing them again.”
Clearly a lover of vintage pieces with a history, it’s not hard to imagine that Rod has a few favourites tucked away over the years. He doesn’t hoard though, as he firmly believes in valuing a few cherished favourites instead. He admires gifted luthiers taking their craft to the next level such as Santa Cruz Guitar Company out of California and Collings Guitars out of Texas who “make some amazing stuff”.
When asked about his absolute dream guitar? “Lately I’ve been liking the Santa Cruz acoustic guitars…they’re beautiful works of art. Each one is unique.” The price tag on some of the models is definitely upper end, but as Rod notes “for the amount of hours and expertise that goes into production of each one, it’s difficult to put a price on that because you’re going to have it the rest of your life”; heirloom pieces to be lovingly tended and handed down for future generations to enjoy.
Whether you are shopping for a collectable or players grade piece, check out Rod’s Top 5 List on scouting the market for a Vintage Guitar:
First, if you are looking at a used or vintage piece, you want to take a look at brand name. Is it an original piece? Has it been modified? What are the structural characteristics of it? Was it made when the company was small or expanding? There is a lot more mass production now due to globalization, so you have to watch out. The instrument may have been traded among dealers several times too, and there may be inconsistencies in either the description or price tag.
Without being an expert or knowing much about the vintage piece you are about to buy, you’re definitely at the mercy of whoever you’re buying it from to some degree, but the key is to source out a reputable retailer who puts their name and guarantee behind what they sell. There are a lot of resources online to help you in your independent research as well such as brand websites, price guides, and online catalogues. There are a couple of good websites like reverb.com (like EBay for musical instruments) that provide very detailed seller and product info, and they have price guides built right in so you can compare and verify what you’re purchasing.
Assessing Quality and Condition
There is a fine line between a worthwhile labour of love and waste of money. It differs for each instrument, but look for original quality. If it’s a lower end model from a company, it’s never going to be worth a whole lot. Best to look for something with some desirability that hasn’t been messed up, and that has been treated well. You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse; original value has to be there to make it worth doing.
As far as collectability vs. players grade goes, real collectors of vintage generally want something in an almost unattainable state; mint condition with original case, hangtags, and manual…this stuff (over 60 – 70 years) tends to disappear so you’ll rarely see an instrument that’s considered to be true collectors grade. Most stuff you see now is players grade. The vintage guys still like players grade as long as its upper end (more or less), the instrument has been used for its intended purpose, hasn’t been abused or neglected, and maintenance has been kept up.
Chances are, any instrument of better quality that doesn’t sound good just needs an adjustment. When playing a vintage acoustic guitar, the instrument should have a fairly round and pleasing tone. If it sounds rattly, something may have come unglued or loose and needs repair. Wood over time actually sounds better because the sap in the wood has become hard and dry, allowing the instrument to resonate very well.
For electrics, you want to make sure you test all the electronics. Make sure all the switches, jacks, and volume/tone knobs work as they can become oxidized over time. If they don’t work, it becomes a question of, ‘have these components failed or do they just need a good cleaning?’ because contacts can corrode if they’re not being used. You will hear excessive crackling if either is the case.
There is a lot of lineage with guitar companies; a company like Fender (for example) has been bought and sold a couple times, Gibson as well. Martin is one of the only companies now still with the original owners. In our industry most companies have had different owners and they’ve sourced out to different factories, so you have to know a bit of history on the brand itself.
If the guitar has been modified it, is it period correct? Are the mods consistent with the features the company would have originally built into the guitar? It can be difficult (especially with electric guitars) assessing period specific components like pickups or controls and tuning keys, and knowing whether the components come from the original manufacturer. Some of the stuff is pretty obvious, but some of it isn’t.
Ultimately, the buyer should take onus to educate themselves as gut feeling accounts for a lot too. Developing relationships with a solid local music shop, whose credible position you trust, can add to comfort level with the product you want to purchase. As well, for assessments on any vintage or antique pieces you find, you have a trusted source to verify.
We do authenticity appraisals and detailed market assessments, basing our cost appraisals on what the market value is at the point and time when piece is brought in.
Assessing Required Maintenance
Any good shop will let you pick up a guitar and play around with it to feel it out. With something that just needs an adjustment, you should be able to get it into playing shape with a good overall setup. If it is damaged and something structural was broken on the guitar, then you’re moving into restoration instead. It’s wise to bring any vintage instrument in for a check up prior to carrying out adjustments or repairs.
A basic setup involves the following: Changing up the strings, a truss rod adjustment (structural steel rod that runs through the neck that counteracts the string tension), and measuring action (string height above finger board) to ensure it is within reasonable territory for tolerances.
When it comes to self-repair, it is best to take the guitar into a reputable shop for the first setup. You can self-educate on basic repair techniques, but if you know nothing about it you can really damage the guitar. Advice: go slow. One of the most common issues we see with self-repair attempts involve unfortunate run-ins with use of epoxy to fix cracks or glue down lifted components. Most adhesives used to build instruments are ‘liftable’, meaning they’re designed to release using the proper application to enable repairs while leaving the wood and finish undamaged. Epoxy however, is a permanent glue, like cement. Its not meant to come apart and will mess up the finish and permanently damage the wood.
There are some telltale signs of guitar abuse to look out for. If the guitar is really dried out or wood is cracked and joints are coming unglued it hasn’t been stored well. If threads on metal pieces are stripped, changes have likely been made without proper tools.
If it’s an electric and you suspect there might be structural damage, take the guitar apart and assess pieces individually (highly recommend taking to a professional for this). If it’s an acoustic, get in there with a light and a mirror. Instruments tend to tell stories from the inside, so you’re going to have to look in there and make those assessments. A lot of times you won’t know something has been repaired until you look inside and see a patch.
In general, if repairs and modifications are done well and are period correct, they shouldn’t diminish the value of your instrument or affect playability.
Whether looking for a collectors item or just something rad to play, there are many options available out there so make sure to connect with your local music shop guru’s for guidance on selection. Feel free to share your favourite thing about Vintage Guitars with us and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! Happy hunting!
Got any further questions or want to check out current vintage stock? Head to Acoustic Music Shop or call the shop at (780) 433-3545. Ask for Rod West. He’ll be there doing what he loves most: talking music, trading stories, and dealing guitars.
Acoustic Guitar Shop | 9934 – 82 Avenue | Edmonton, AB | acousticmusicshop.com