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Victor V. Gurbo's vintage 1917 Gibson L-1 Arch Top Acoustic Guitar.
Victor V. Gurbo’s 1917 Gibson L-1 Arch Top Acoustic Guitar, made in Kalamazoo Michigan.

On January 1, my co-writer published a list of our most-read articles in 2020, narrated by two fictional characters (Justin and Justina) from some of his posts. My review of three boutique guitar strings registered as the fifteenth most-read New Leaf Journal article. I had tested two of the three guitar strings on vintage guitars. In the brief dialogue Nick added, “Justina” asked: “Why does he like old guitars?” It is a good question – Why do I prefer vintage guitars when they require so much work?

Vintage guitars are expensive, and they also need to be properly maintained, including being kept in the right humidity (as “Justin” noted in his conversation with Justina). But despite the trouble, I collect, restore, and use these older instruments because I believe vintage guitars sound better. In this post, I will explain why guitars sound better with age and make the case for using vintage guitars.

I Prefer Vintage Guitars, But Use Whatever Works Best For You

While I will make the case for using vintage guitars instead of newer models, my preference is ultimately subjective. I start every guitar review with the qualification that if you play it and it sounds good to you, that is all you need.

I recall seeing a musician play a budget Fender Squire guitar, which used to sell for about $50 second hand, with incredible skill. At the end of the day, the musician matters more than the instrument. Folk musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform a bit on stage to illustrate this very point. They swap instruments for the purpose of proving that David Rawling’s little vintage Epiphone arch top is not the source of his sound – he is.

With that being said, I do have my reasons for preferring vintage instruments to a $50 Squire that I could find on Craigslist.

Wood Guitars Sound Better With Age

Guitar aficionados will argue endlessly about what kind of wood produces the best sound for a guitar. Different woods do produce different sounds. But the age of the instrument and how it aged is just as significant in how it sounds.

Older wood sounds better because of how wood dries over time. As wood air dries, the sound of a guitar improves. The moisture in the wood dissipates, the body becomes lighter, and the wood becomes stiffer. This all comes together to make a pleasantly resonant instrument. New freshly cut wood has the opposite qualities.

Modern guitar companies are aware of the benefits of aging for wooden guitars. For that reason, they try to remove moisture from newer guitars by kindle-drying the wood. While this does lead to an improvement in the guitar’s sound, it does not fully capture the sound of a guitar that aged naturally. There is no substitute for the real thing.

In short, it’s the age, bro.

Vintage Guitars Tend to Have Superior Build Quality

Victor V. Gurbo's vintage 1920 Gibson L-Jr Arch Top Acoustic Guitar, made in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Victor V. Gurbo’s 1920 Gibson L-Jr Arch Top Acoustic Guitar, made in Kalamazoo Michigan.

While wood is important, a guitar’s sound is also affected by its build quality. From my experience, vintage guitars that were built before the era of mass production were made better and with more attention to detail.

Aspects of a guitar’s build, such as the thinness of its top (or face, for those of you who are less familiar with guitars) contributes to its resonance. Another detail is how the braces (the wood pieces that hold the top together) are carved, or how thick they are.

As guitar companies such as Martin, Gibson, Guild, and Fender became stressed by demand, they were forced to create guitars more quickly. As a result, guitars in the era of mass production are crafted with less attention to detail than vintage instruments.

I prefer guitars built by individual master craftsmen over instruments that were chunked out at factories. More specifically, however, many vintage guitars have unique designs that are not readily available on the market today. Those designs, in turn, produce unique sounds. In some cases, a vintage guitar may have that “special sound” a guitarist needs that is not otherwise available in contemporary mass-produced models.

In short, it’s how they’re made, bro.

Vintage Guitars Were Made With Different Kinds of Wood

While I do think that some guitarists focus too much on wood, the type of wood that a guitar is made of is important.

In my view, it is hard to pin down the sounds of particular woods to the same extreme other folks do. I do agree that mahogany produces a dark sound, rosewood produces a warm sound, and so on and so forth – but as I said above, there are many factors in the sound of vintage guitars.

Some vintage guitars are made of woods that are uncommon, or in other cases, unavailable today. One notable example is Brazilian rosewood. Today, it is illegal to cut and use Brazilian rosewood because of its endangered status. As a result, all of the guitars that sport Brazilian rosewood are vintage (or sometimes illegal, but that’s an article for another day.) Other materials, such as birch, are uncommon in new guitars because they have fallen out of favor with today’s guitarists.

Using vintage guitars is the only way to find the sound of woods that are uncommon or entirely unavailable in instruments made today. For that reason, those who put a guitar’s wood above all else have reason to prefer vintage instruments too.

In short, it’s the wood too, bro.

Vintage Guitars Can Be Unique

Many guitarists want to have their own special instrument. Some look for the same guitars that their idols play, or similar instruments.

Legendary musicians have often used unique instruments. Bob Dylan played a hybrid guitar made from repaired Martin, Gibson, and Guild parts in the mid 1960s. Jack White used a plastic guitar made by Airline. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and George Harrison played hand-painted guitars at sometime in their careers.

When I have a special guitar, I want to take it on stage as soon as possible. This psychological component to unique vintage guitars is no less important than the physical aspects that give them their sound. Whatever it takes to make a guitarist excited to play his or her instrument is of paramount importance.

In short, it’s in the mind, bro.

Final Thoughts on Why I Play Vintage Guitars

This article is just a short list of reasons why I collect and play vintage guitars, and some of the reasons that I have seen other guitarists cite to as well. If you have your own take about vintage guitars or would like me to elaborate on anything I have written here, please tell me in The New Leaf Journal Guestbook.