Rock star investing: Five tips to starting your vintage guitar collection

It may sound like rock-opera fiction, but it happens: Weekend Warrior hits garage sale and buys dusty old Fender guitar for $50 (or, cleans attic and finds the Gibson he bought in high school for $100). He visits a guitar shop in "Antiques Road Show" fashion -- and discovers the "beat-up axe" is a vintage collectible, worth $10,000. Or $20,000. Or $100,000.

The vintage guitar market has declined like other investments in this recession. But if you have cash to seed a small collection, why not start a fun hobby that's financially savvy? After all, when your 401K takes a beating, you're broke. When your vintage guitar takes a beating, it may continue to appreciate anyway, just because it looks so cool. Besides, who ever plugged a stock portfolio into a Vox amplifier and woke the neighbors?

I tapped a veteran vintage guitar expert, Wayne Sefton, owner of Midwest Buy and Sell in Chicago since 1990, for tips on what to look for when building your own collection. (His Web site is being revised; visit his MySpace page here.) Sefton has sold instruments to Wilco, Franz Ferdinand and Death Cab for Cutie. And in a 2002 Chicago Tribune article (now only available via an old Geocities link), I rated Wayne's shop as Chicago's coolest and friendliest, along with Terry Straker's Guitar Works in Evanston, Ill.

Here are Wayne's five tips for starting a valuable vintage guitar collection on a budget -- in this case, less than $5,000 per instrument, usually 10-years-old or more.


1) Buy brands collectors love. Sefton says Fender and Gibson are heritage brands bound to rise in value. Rickenbackers (played by the Beatles, Byrds and Tom Petty) are a bargain because even the rarest often sell for under $5,000. "They're great American-made guitars," Sefton says.) Avoid overseas brands.

2) Beware eBay. Guitars get bid into a frenzy there. "There's also a lot of shill bidding going on," Sefton warns. "They'll start stuff at $2,000 you can easily buy for $1,500 elsewhere." Plus, you can't pick up and play the guitar if it's halfway across the country.

3) Get an honest appraisal. Guitar Center chain stores can't do it; they may even try to give much less than your attic axe is worth. But guitar genius George Gruhn of Gruhn's Guitars in Nashville, does appraisals for the bargain price of $50. Many (including this writer) think Gruhn's is the best in the business, and so does Sefton. "I' do written appraisals for free, but that's because I'm a nice guy," he says, laughing.

4) Inspect for cracks, replacement parts and playability. A re-glued neck, refinish, or new tuners can drive a guitar's value down, Sefton says. If the guitar is all original and "mint," that's great. But so are older Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls with that "road-worn" look. "Make sure the neck is good and playable," Sefton adds.

5) Relationships matter. Sefton takes time to educate and advise his customers, steering them toward smart investments. (Instruments I've bought on his advice have appreciated up to 300%.) "Get to know who you're dealing with," Sefton says, noting that a dealer wanting your money is far different from a dealer earning your loyalty.

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