Let's start this series on vintage guitars with a report on the 20th anniversary of the Greater Southwest Vintage Guitar Show, held March 21-23 in Dallas. This granddaddy of guitar shows is a fair barometer of what's going on in this part of the music biz.
First, what is "vintage?" Our dictionary defines it as being of a past era; representing the high quality of another time. Whew, have things changed in 20 years! In 1977, a few dealers and collectors gathered in Dallas to exhibit and trade only their finest instruments, bringing them together in one place for the benefit of all. Pre-war Martin and Gibson flat tops; D'Angelico and Gibson arch tops; Fifties and Sixties Gibson, Fender and Gretsch electrics. Afterwards, we'd go back to our respective businesses to take up where we left off.
Since then, though, vintage guitar shows have evolved from a social gathering of dealers and collectors to a big business, a business that has evolved from a seller's market, where demand exceeds supply, to a buyer's market, where supply exceeds demand. This year's show, however, was significant in that the largest exhibitor was Brook Mays Music, a new products chain based in Dallas. No vintage stuff, just shiny new guitars and amps – lots of 'em. Whether they sold or not, I really couldn't tell.
I love old guitars and old cars and find a distinct parallel between vintage guitar shows and custom car shows. What started out as vintage exhibitions has evolved into more commercial events, with increased emphasis on new products and sideshow activities – bands playing, beauty queens promoting new lines and plenty of nachos. But with over 400 exhibitors set up in Dallas, there was something for everyone.
Make that almost everyone. Two foreign buyers visited our store in Louisville right before the Texas show, feeling it was much easier to shop here than in a loud, sensory-depriving concrete exhibition hall. This year the show's promoters, Charley's Guitars, offered a special soundproof area in their booth for trying out acoustic instruments. What a great idea – I wish more show promoters would put some effort into improving the environment for trying out both amps and guitars. But most of us have gotten used to three noisy days so that we can have an opportunity to buy, sell and trade instruments that we wouldn't have had otherwise. With so many people and instruments gathered under one roof, everyone has an opportunity to benefit, or at least mingle and have a good time.
Experience has taught me to have low expectations for guitar shows. That way, we are usually pleasantly surprised at the amount of business we do while having a good time hanging out with our cohorts in this fraternity. This year, business for us in Texas was so-so. There was a very satisfying amount of buying and selling of vintage Fender and Gibson amps. We sold quite a few 50s Fenders. Original or restored – it didn't matter. We also did our typical business with new Matchless amps, which are basically modern "vintage" amps.
Hollow body Gibsons electrics were also hot, and we sold several 50s and 60 hollowbodies. But our acoustic guitar business, which has been very strong in recent years, especially for 50s and 60s Gibsons and Martins, was practically nil. Ditto on our Fender business.
Where were the buyers for all the Strats and Teles we took!? It seems that baby boomers, who buy Strats and Teles, are giving away to Gen X and Mustang players. Just six or eight years ago, we would not have considered taking any Mustangs, Duo-Sonics or Musicmasters with us. So much for predicting what going to happen. But that's one of the great things about the guitar business: it changes constantly.
I especially enjoyed seeing the '73 Martin D-45 and '59 Gibson Super 400 brought to our booth by a Swedish guitar shop owner. He wanted to trade them in for something he thought he would have better luck selling in Sweden. This is not the first time foreign dealers have brought vintage American guitars back to the land of milk and honey. Although we didn't end up with either the Martin or the Gibson, they did get traded and everyone was happy.
As long as new guitars get made and new generations keep pushing the music-making envelope, we can rest assured that some guitar being made today will become tomorrow's vintage dream.
If you have questions about vintage (or new) guitars or amps, send them to: Talking Guitars, c/o LMN, P. O. Box 148, Pewee Valley, KY 40056 and I'll take a crack at answering them in a future column.
Until then, keep rockin'!