I’m not decided on this myself.
Some collectors hanker after the cleanest possible example of any vintage instrument. Collecting orthodoxy supports this – “always buy the cleanest, best condition item you can”; “Better to buy a really mint example of a lesser item than a poorer-condition example of a more expensive item”. Etc etc.
But does it apply to guitars, which are after all both highly variable and were created as tools of a trade?
I acquire instruments to play first and foremost. Only latterly has the appreciating value of my collection forced me to consider its investment aspect. Coming from this perspective, my experience suggested that it was better to go for well-played examples. The fact that they had been played suggested they were good, and over the years I had come across a number of very clean but unplayable or dull-sounding guitars – in other words, guitars that were very collectible cosmetically because they hadn’t been played much, probably because they weren’t good examples to start with.
I’ve also played some beat but fabulous guitars – the Les Paul John Squire played in The Stone Roses and the Seahorses, now apparently in Richie Sambora’s hands – is a case in point. The finish is all chewed up like melted, burnt barley sugar, all lumpy, but it plays and sounds fantastic.
The wonderful ’56 Goldtop now in the possession of the guy in Horslips is another. Or my mate’s early and very well-used blackguard Tele, which made me completely reassess the instrument and showed me exactly what all the fuss is about. Along with my ‘burst, the most musical guitar I’ve ever played.
But then both my mint ’60 TV Junior, ’60 Special or ‘59 ES-335 (the latter bought sight unseen from Norms in LA on the recommendation of a trusted collector friend who had been over there) serve to refute this view. Their condition shows they have not had a hard life, indeed there’s hardly even any fret wear. Yet their playability is exceptional and their sound well played-in and intense.
Out in the collector market, condition usually trumps sound and playability, since many collectors can’t play very well. There is a third dimension – celebrity provenance – which adds considerably to price and tends to underpin an instrument’s sound and playability credentials.
But again there are exceptions. A few years ago, I was looking for a ‘57/8 Goldtop Les Paul with humbuckers and I was offered Gary Moore’s #3, which had the more unusual – and to my eye, less appealing – black plastic parts. It was strung heavy with 11-53’s, but this didn’t fully explain what a pig it was to play. Maybe that’s why he wanted to liquidate it, and boy, was he looking for serious (silly) money!
If could specify things exactly, most times I would end to go for instruments with provenance but no famous previous owners to inflate price; in better than average condition for their kind; that play well and sound good. Not necesasarily stupid-clean, prime examples. But that’s just me.