Why Are Some Vintage Guitar Parts So Valuable?

"Leo Fender never would have believed that people today are looking through magnifying glasses at the screws in his guitars to check if they're correct," says Steve Poole. Steve runs Vintage Haven in England and specializes in vintage parts for electric guitars. He smiles at this notion, and adds that Leo probably would have been more interested in how cheaply he could get those screws.

Some of the vintage parts that dealers like Steve find and sell can bring big money. Believers will beam and explain that an original Telecaster bridge plate makes all the difference, whatever the price. Unbelievers will wince and ask how come an original pair of Les Paul pickup rings can sell today for five figures.

Vintage Gibson Original Gold 1969 Les Paul Custom Decal Humbucker Set with Rings
1969 Gibson Original Gold Les Paul Custom Decal Humbucker set with rings.

There's a simple calculation at work. When the guitars from a certain era become valuable then it follows that so, too, do their individual parts. Maybe you want to complete an old instrument that doesn't have all its original appointments, or perhaps you have a reissue you want to pimp with parts that might supply some vintage fairy dust?

It's not hard to side with the unbelievers for a moment in struggling to find logic with some aspects of the mania for vintage parts. There are parts that are liable to have an effect on the tone or playability or feel of a guitar—the pickups, say, or a bridge and its saddles, a vibrato top plate, or maybe a stoptail

Beyond those, though, the prices for original items like pickup rings or pickguards or Rhythm/Treble discs (and, yes, even screws) have more to do with relative rarity and perceived desirability than any tangible benefits.

Those unbelievers feel the prices for some of these parts make no sense for what they see simply as bits of metal and plastic. "I think there's both truth and fallacy to that argument," says Izzy Miller, "and it all depends on where your interests lie." Izzy heads up Izzy's Vintage Guitars in Alabama and always has vintage parts, paperwork, and case candy alongside the instruments he offers.

Izzy says he falls somewhere in the middle of that truth-or-fallacy argument. "If you own a clean Burst or dot-neck 335 that's missing the original bridge, then that $1,100 ABR-1 bridge is a no-brainer," he continues. "Would I pay $400 for a cream '50s Gibson jack plate? Probably not, because I play my guitars out, and I know that as soon as I take the guitar out, my knee will hit the cord and break the plate. I've been known to pull the original jack plates off of my personal instruments and sell them."

Early '60s Gibson ABR-1 non-wired bridge and tailpiece
Early '60s Gibson ABR-1 non-wired bridge and tailpiece.

Izzy mentions that, by way of example, he just sold the jack plate off his '59 Les Paul Junior. "It has been routed, so it's far from a collectors piece—and that $200 piece of plastic doesn't mean anything to me to have on it when I can buy a new one for $10. But to someone with a mint '59 Junior that has a cracked or replaced jack plate, it's worth every penny."

How do the pros identify these old parts as the real thing? Surely there must be plenty of fakes—a certainty when there's money to be made—or unscrupulous people passing off replicas as vintage pieces? Steve at Vintage Haven explains that this is where his experience pays off. There's also a blacklight, for example, that can be helpful for checking old plastic parts. This is an ultraviolet lamp, often used to check for original finishes as well, that will make plastic fluoresce or "glow" in a particular color.

"Modern plastic is always a sort of dark blue or purple," Steve says, "whereas '50s plastic fluoresces very cream-yellow colored. It's to do with the butyrate in that original plastic, the way it gasses out. I remember there were some replica Les Paul pickup rings, made by a company that no longer exists, and they actually put something in the plastic to make them fluoresce like a '50s set would. But even those weren't quite right. You've got to have seen a lot of them to know."

Vintage Bodies & Necks

There's a further quality to original plastic parts from the golden era that gets right up some people's noses. "The smell is the other thing," Steve explains. "Butyrate always smells like baby sick, a very distinctive smell. It's part of that smell you get when you open a vintage case. It's a smell we all love, but to other people, well," he pauses, laughing, "it's like phwoar! What on earth's that!"

Izzy at Izzy's Vintage Guitars says his friend Ron puts it best. Ron says that once you've seen enough '57 Chevys, you don't need someone to tell you that it's a '57 Chevy. "Once we start talking about PAFs, though, or some other part that's expensive and commonly faked, you really have to start digging deeper," Izzy adds.

"Are the tool marks there on the bases? Is the font on the decal correct? Do they read within spec? There's a checklist that must be gone over," he says. "And if you're in doubt on something, it never hurts to have a second opinion. My friends and I who are all in this business call each other a lot for those second opinions. Sometimes, things can get missed. It happens. If you have a knowledgeable group around, they're generally always happy to help."

It's no surprise that the vintage parts world largely centers on original Fender and Gibson bits and pieces from the '50s and '60s—and principally on Les Pauls, Strats, and Teles, because it naturally mirrors the big hitters of the vintage guitar world. But as Izzy points out, for a dealer the hardest part to find is the part that you need right now.

Pre-CBS 1950s Vintage Original Fender Strat Bridge.e
Pre-CBS 1950s Vintage Original Fender Strat Bridge. Photo by AEG Mic Lab.

"At the moment," he says, "we're short a bridge for a Harmony Silhouette. While that's not necessarily a rare part, it is when you need one right this moment. The best advice I can offer has been said many times before: The time to buy it is when you see it—as long as the price is within reason. Another example will always turn up, but when?"

A parallel business exists in reproduction or replica parts, and that's another story. But as Steve says, there is a psychological element at play that makes some of his customers want nothing but a part that's vintage, when a replica might be cheaper and more or less identical looking. "I sell these fantastic gold bonnet knobs," he says by way of example, "which are pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing. You'd have to be very knowledgeable to tell the difference—and they sell for 90 quid, where a set of real vintage ones will be 450, 500."

Steve will suggest to people that they might as well have the replica ones. "And it's like: No, no, they've got to be vintage! It's all about that personal thing. And I must say I get a real pleasure from making a proper vintage guitar right again. But I'd be kidding myself if I didn't admit that the majority of my business is people putting vintage parts on non-vintage guitars."

1965 harmony silhouette/bobkat sunburst
Harmony Silhouette/Bobkat. Photo by J's Gear Outlet.

To close, I ask Steve Poole and Izzy Miller to nominate a Gibson or Fender part they'd like to find right now, untouched for decades and ready to go. Izzy interprets "part" rather creatively. "It's a hard question," he replies, "as I've already owned a ton of new-old-stock parts. I also collect advertising pieces, so I'm going to go a little outside the box here and say a '50s or '60s Fender banner in the original shipping box. That would be super cool to add to my personal stash. And I've yet to see one!"

Steve sticks with the brief and goes for Gibson's revered ABR-1 bridge, which as all fans of the brand will know came in the '50s without the retaining wire added in the early '60s. "I'd choose a really clean never-used non-wire ABR bridge, because all my customers want them with original saddles," he explains. "And of course most ABRs have been on guitars, so the saddles are always really badly notched, not centered—and there are no after-market saddles that are tonally the same or will fit a vintage bridge very well."

Actually, he already has one, but that's a keeper. "It's in its original box, and I wouldn't sell it," Steve says, "because I've put by a set of parts that are perfect examples. I couldn't bring myself to sell those. They're my benchmarks, they're great to eyeball against stuff that comes in. People have tried to buy them off me, and I say well, you couldn't pay me enough. They're a necessity to me."

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Sunburst, The Telecaster Guitar Book, and Legendary Guitars: An Illustrated Guide. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.