Do guitars really sound better with age?

It’s Labor Day. I guess I will have people coming to the house later, but I didn’t invite them. The missus invited ’em. She can entertain ’em. I’m pretty sure she only invited a bunch of old ladies!

When they get here, I might go out and see how many of ’em I can make swear. There’s not a whole lot funnier than swearing old ladies – and they’re used to me.

In an entirely unrelated thought, I bet at least half of ’em can play a bitchin’ solo. Seriously, they’re old. They’ve had lots of time to learn to play a bitchin’ solo. One of ’em is an organist in one church and another one plays piano when the first one is not there.

I’ll probably ask them if they want to hear my collection of dirty limericks.

One will, at that point, say, “Damn it, David!” They know me pretty well!

Secret: If you ask the right people, they never want to hear your collection of dirty limericks. I really only know maybe 3 of ’em. Anybody I really want to tell dirty limericks never lets me make it past maybe one of ’em.

See? I’m helpful!

Not even the missus wants to hear my dirty limerick collection. Trust me, I’ve asked her lots of times.

Anyhow… I was gonna write an intro, but I found a shiny object and here we are!

So, happy Labor Day. I’m pretty much refusing to do any labor today. Today’s topic is not labor, it’s fun! I’m so excited to start this that I don’t feel like writing more of an intro – and I’m not gonna, ’cause it’s Labor Day.

Do guitars sound better with age? (And related topics.)

I get variations on this question – and umpteen opinions on this matter. I’ve been getting this question for many, many years.

Being a man of science, I had faith that someone else would do the leg work!

Lo and behold, they have.

Take a tuning fork. Whack it. Rest the butt of the fork on the guitar. Measure the resonating frequencies carefully. Repeat and objectively quantify the data to find a statement that you can have reasonable confidence in.

There ya go. That’s the methodology. I have seen the work but I’m sure as shit not going to personally replicate this.

The statement that I can have confidence in is that a well maintained acoustic guitar, kept in good condition, may sound a little better.

Woods age and become more resonant. Wood settles down and, as the moisture lessens, the weight decreases.

Some manufacturers pay more attention to this and use woods with known qualities and have many decades of observation.

But, let’s be fucking honest about this…

This doesn’t apply to that guitar you found in an attic that had variations in temperature from -20 to 105 degrees for 50 years. This doesn’t really apply to the guitar you beat on. This probably doesn’t apply to anything you gigged with with 20 years.

It also is not true that electric guitars sound better with age. No, don’t be silly. Today’s high quality electric guitars are fantastic and there have been steady generational improvements.

No, old electric guitars sound distinctive – which is not something we can objectively qualify as sounding better. At best, it’ll sound pretty much like it did when it was new.

“What about hollow body electrics?”

Yeah, not so much. I’m not sure you’re going to get anything out of it the normal human ear can distinguish, but there’s probably a marginal improvement – but most of the sound that makes a hollow body what it is really comes from the amount of space the air can travel through than it does from the qualities of the wood.

There’s also the idea that a played guitar accelerates the process by making the wood vibrate. This leads to the idea that a played guitar sounds better than an guitar that hasn’t been played. That’s probably true, to some extent – and it really depends on how it is played.

Anyone who thinks the physics of musical instruments are easy might want to look more closely.

There’s also inconsistencies within individual guitars. All guitars are not built to the same standards. Guitars from the same luthier will have some variation. Guitars from the same production line will vary.

Guitar manufacturers know this and some take advantage of these things. Yamaha was doing something to speed up the aging process, but I never bothered to look deeper into it. I probably should.

Do you want your guitar to sound the very best it can sound in 20 years?

Take care of it. It probably came with a book with such witty titles as “Care and Feeding Guide.” (Looking at you, Martin.)

I know this is crazy talk, but maybe read and keep that book? It’s got directions! They know how to care for it – they made it!

Don’t beat too hard on it. We do tend to get pretty passionate and passionate playing does loosen things up! But, they can only withstand so much abuse – and that’ll vary per maker, model, and even defects. Inspect them frequently.

So, I can only say don’t beat on it too hard. There’s just too many variables there to make a more confident statement.

Not beating them too hard? Where’s the fun in that?

Their silly book wants you to keep it at steady temperatures and humidity.

You’re a gigging musician. Your car heater broke 6 years ago and you’ve got to drive three hours to make $50. It’s being tossed in cold vans, trucks, trailers, and played passionately.

You’re sure as shit not keeping that in optimal condition. You fool exactly nobody!

I also sometimes get, “Should I buy that sweet 1973 Martin?”

“Fuck no.” That’s the only response. That’s retarded. That way lies madness, hardship, expense, and error. Yeah… I don’t think any guitar player hasn’t bought a piece of shit and overspent on it.

“But what if it’s one of those that really does sound better?”

“That’s still retarded. You should buy it.”

Or…

“But I really want it!”

“That’s still retarded. You should buy it!!!” Welcome to the disease, sucker!

I sometimes wonder if, from an outsider point of view, do we guitarists look completely and totally insane? The used guitar market has to look batshit crazy to an outsider. I’d suggest most people avoid it, but that seems really unlikely. I’m pretty sure buying guitars is as addictive as crack, and it’s probably even less healthy!

I will say this, “Only buy a guitar if you really want it.” It’s really tempting to buy a guitar to give it a good home, but that way lies sheer madness. You will get hurt on an emotional level when you overpay for a guitar that you had great expectations from – and have no option to return it for a full refund at the seller’s expense when you eventually buy one that fails to meet those expectations.

‘Snot gonna help that I said that. Nope… You’re gonna do it anyways and I’m pretty much just saying all this so that I can someday point to this article and say, “Yup. I told you that.”

Secret: New guitars are fucking phenomenal. No, my old guitars weren’t better. I often reach for a modern instrument. Many excellent guitars are being made at some of the lowest prices I can remember – in a nearly five decade span of observation.

I reach for an older instrument when I am after a specific sound – or after a specific experience. I’d love to tell you all of my guitars are specific tools for specific jobs, but that’s a lie. No… It’s a disease. I need a fucking 12 step program, or something.

But, as I was trying to say, I generally play something pretty modern.

Hmm…

In 1959, you could buy a Flame Top GLP for $375. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a little over $3,200 today.

You can buy a Les Paul Traditional, from Gibson, today – for like $2700 – AND it’s better made – usually… Gibson has had some QC issues lately and this is formal notice of my disgust! Still, the average GLP today is better than the average GLP of 1959.

By the way, if you want to buy a used, not the reissue, 1959 GLP Flame Top? I found a good one for you. It’s $275,000. You can probably talk ’em down to $260k. Quick, go get a second mortgage! You need that guitar!

(The reissue is much more affordable, probably around $7k. They tried to make it as faithful to the original as they could.)

Hmm… I appear to have gotten distracted by another shiny.

I was just going to talk about old guitars and if they sound better. But, I seemed to really want to tell you about the used guitar market. I highly, highly recommend avoiding it – as a general rule.

Once you know what you’re doing, you can find some pretty sweet deals! ‘Play before you pay,’ that’s the best rule. You’ll still get burned a few times. Lessons aren’t free, I suppose.

Someone recently asked me if they should pick up guitars at estate sales and they don’t really play guitar. My answer was a pretty firm no. But, if you know what you’re looking for…

Like I’ve said before, I don’t know too many serious guitarists with just one guitar. They eventually end up with bunch.

Wait! Stand back, I shall attempt research to see if my observations match reality!

Hmm… My thoroughly unscientific method is to go check the guitars sites that have had polls and clicking two of them.

It looks like only about 2.5% of guitarists, who answered the poll, have just 1 guitar.

Yeah… Told you so!

Most have 4 to 6 guitars.

The second largest percentage?

They own “10+” guitars.

That’s for guitars they currently own.

Yup. It’s an addiction.

My further suspicion is that quite a few of those guitars were purchased on the used market. Alas, I can find no poll or anything about that. But, 1.12 million electric guitars were sold in the US – in 2017. That excludes acoustics.

Tons of guitars enter the used market.

Which means that, statistically speaking, probably none of you are going to listen to a damned word I said! Sweet! Just don’t spend your rent money on a guitar, or start selling your body for amp money – and you should be okay.

Sometimes, people PM me Craigslist guitars and ask me if they should buy ’em. I don’t usually accept the responsibility of telling them they should! Hell no…

I do usually look around the offers in their area and make suggestions as to which ones they may wish to investigate further and tell them how to make some basic functionality tests. I’m pretty sure that makes me pretty much like a crack dealer! Sweet!

Wait… No… Crack dealers make money.

Anyhow, someday – if you haven’t already, you’re going to buy a used guitar that you regret buying. It’s REALLY probable. Suck it up, buttercup. Lessons don’t come free and I tried warning you!

The most common excuse/justification that I hear? “Well, I got a good deal on it.” No, you didn’t. That’s just your diseased mind talking to you. A guitar you don’t want to play has a value of $0.00 – unless you find a sucker willing to buy it from you.

Ha! Holy shit!

Using my unscientific method of consulting online polls, the highest percentage of guitar effects pedals currently owned? 11 to 20.

LOL About 15% of them have 31 to 50 guitar effects pedals.

Man, we’re fucking retarded. (I’ve previously mentioned our tendencies to acquire stompboxes.)

Go on, wait until your spouse is REALLY mad at you, and willing to tell you the complete truth. Now, ask them what they REALLY think about your guitar playing? There’s probably a reason we don’t have many healthy relationships!

You’re gonna be like 45 years old and playing in a band where at least one member still lives with their parents. Which is kind of cool, ’cause they let you use the garage! You’ll drive through blizzards just to make unpaid jam sessions. Yup, you’ll risk life, limb, and property.

It’s a horrible idea, this guitar playing. You should do it! If you’re thinking about picking up a guitar, I highly recommend it. Trust me, it’s like crack! You should try it!

Well, this was fun to write. Yup… It’s afternoon and I’ve not done anything resembling work. I might not even touch a guitar today. Damned right. Until next time!

Shut up and play us a song!

Hits: 45

Don't be selfish, share this with your friends:

Leave a Reply