Dave’s Corner: The Golden Age of Electric Guitar Building Is… Now!

As often as guitarists bemoan the high costs of the most-prized vintage guitars — the implication being that you need to buy vintage if you want a top-flight instrument — it’s important to remind ourselves occasionally that we are living in the golden age of electric guitar design and manufacturing.

Don’t get me wrong: I have experienced that certain indefinable magic in many late-’50s Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335s, pre-CBS Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, ’50s Gretsch single-cut 6120s and Duo Jets, and several other vintage guitars. But I have grown convinced that I also have heard, seen and felt a similar level of magic in the best electric guitars being built today, and on a more consistent basis. And that is something worth celebrating.

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Old is not the Same as Vintage

Okay, sure, maybe the occasional vintage piece exhibits a presence and delivers a tone that is simply incomparable. But along with every one-out-of-a hundred that truly is stellar, plenty of vintage guitars of the same make and model simply aren’t particularly inspiring to play.

If they are in good original condition, they still will be worth a small fortune, and often the experience of playing an old, valuable guitar produces such a butterflies-in-the-gut feeling that it’s difficult to assess the thing objectively as an instrument. On the whole, though, I’m willing to bet you could pick up thousands of guitars made by several dozens of luthiers working today that are all more faultlessly constructed and consistently stellar, and which will sound and feel superb in every way, too. Perhaps these will exhibit more of that vintage magic after they’ve been played, loved and sympathetically vibrated for 50 or 60 years, but my own feeling is that many of them are outstanding guitars right now, and the equal of all but the few best of their vintage predecessors.

Small Batch vs. Factory Built

There are some significant differences between the prized electrics of the ’50s and ’60s and the best of the bunch today. But the vast majority of top-shelf vintage guitars were factory made. They were assembled by skilled workers, to be sure, but not every hand laid upon them through the birthing process was that of a craftsman. Different components generally were generated by several different departments and put together on assembly lines. Very few of the makers that existed in the ’50s and early ’60s applied the kinds of skill and attention to detail that several dozen small-shop makers devote to their craft today.

'61 D'Angelico New Yorker Special

We’ve always had small builders in the acoustic market, specifically of classical guitars and archtop jazzboxes. But look at D’Angelico, one of the most revered small-shop archtop makers to cross over into the electric realm. A D’Angelico from the early ’50s, for example, often may possess a major dose of this indefinable quality that I keep calling magic, but they also frequently exhibit a few rough edges. And I’ve heard from several reputable sources that many were like that when new. They are great guitars, make no mistake, but not the faultless creations that their prices on the vintage market might lead us to think they’d be; and these were produced by some of the most revered craftsmen working in the field at the time. That’s just how it was.

Now consider some of the better guitars being made today, and it’s clear that we’ve got it pretty good as players in the 2010s. Not only can we buy excellent reproductions of all of the most desirable vintage makes and models, but more-accurate reproductions, with impressive pre-aged looks for those who swing that way, have never before been available. The market also is rife with stunning original designs that offer looks, sounds and playing feel to suit just about every conceivable desire.

Fano Alt de Facto GF6

Contemporary Quality

In the past few years I’ve had the great pleasure of testing, owning or otherwise groping guitars by plenty of the finest makers working today, and the level of achievement of many has been utterly breathtaking.

I’ve spent quality time with creations by Johan Gustavsson, Gil Yaron, Ron Thorn, Michael Stevens, Stefan D’Pergo, Nik Huber, Saul Koll, Gene Baker, Joe Knaggs, Michael DeTemple, Dennis Fano, Tom Bartlett, Jeff Senn, Echopark, Ronin, Chihoe Hahn, Ulrich Teuffel, Damien Probett, Tom Anderson, Don Grosh, John Suhr, James Tyler, Chris Swope, Roger Giffin, Terry McInturff, Doug Kauer, and several others that currently escape me. Yeah, I should keep a list handy. Plus there are excellent custom shop renditions of current Fender, Gibson and Gretsch models, PRS Private Stock guitars, and repro-style guitars from Danocaster, K-Line, LSL, Scott Lentz and others. A surprisingly high proportion of these are nearly flawless in terms of build quality and offer superb sound and playability, which really is a mind-blowing achievement. And those that couldn’t accurately be described as faultless still exhibit a ton of character, a great veracity of design and were entirely worthy additions to the marketplace.

Sure, it’s easy to deride the high cost of boutique guitars in general, especially if you haven’t played enough of them to realize just how much you get for your money. But the best electric guitars made in any era never have been a cheap proposition.

Today we might get a little nauseated when we hear that a new Gibson Les Paul with case cost a little under $300 in 1959. But consider that the federal hourly minimum wage was $1.00, the average annual salary was $5,016, and the average cost of a new car was $2,200. In that light, $300 looms a little larger. None of which is to say it wouldn’t be absolutely wonderful to step into a time machine with your pockets full of today’s money and go back to the late ’50s to buy up some great new Gibson, Fender and Gretsch guitars. But given what we’ve got available today, for both variety and quality, I wouldn’t trade now for then. And I’d sure love to be around to see what 50 years of hard playing does to the best of today’s electric guitars, when they too become comparably vintage.

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Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books, Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

See some of Dave's books on Reverb here.

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