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Retro Riot! Vintage-Styled Guitars are Striking a Chord

Christian Wissmuller • RoundtableSeptember 2020 • September 8, 2020

“Retro” guitars have long appealed to players who long for the classic vibe of instruments from the past, but who don’t necessarily have the cash to purchase the real thing (or who don’t want to get onstage at a dive bar with a $30,000 guitar slung over their shoulder).

We touched base with representatives from five brands that help define this market segment to learn what’s new in 2020. These vintage-styled guitars – and we’re not talking “reliced” or even, necessarily, custom shop exact reproductions of iconic models (although two of the participants in this month’s Roundtable touch upon the latter) – are seemingly more popular now than ever, with new models and entire lines being introduced, players

of all ages and backgrounds snapping them up, and well stocked dealers turning a tidy profit.

What is it about electric guitars with a “vintage” appearance that appeals to certain players? What types of folks are drawn to these instruments?

Laurie Abshire

Laurie Abshire: Vintage doesn’t always mean classic, but with our reborn 5/51 line, our goal was to get a classic looking and feeling guitar out into the market for players on a budget, and to bring life back into the 1960s Framus Vintage Studio Archtops. With Framus having such deep roots in the 1960s and 1970s worldwide guitar history (largest European guitar manufacturer of the late 1960s), these archtop style guitars are in our blood.

Vintage style guitars have always held one of the top spots among guitarists, both tonally and aesthetically. All types of players have some level of respect for these timeless designs. Whether you’re picking one up because your dad or grandpa had one just like it back in the day, or simply the fact that you’re looking for a guitar to fill a specific hole in your arsenal, these guitars have the potential to find a happy home with every player.

Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis: I think it’s the body of work they represent. We all have our favorite Fender artists. And those artists have written, recorded and performed music on or with these guitars. So when you see them or hear them, it hits you right in the heart. You identify with it. It spans the whole spectrum. We have players of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels.

Lincoln Smith

Lincoln Smith: The guitar industry is always reflecting a great deal of nostalgia. The 1950s and ‘60s were a hotbed of new and exciting innovations for the electric guitar. Guitarists have been drawn back to the styles of this era consistently through the decades after. Our goal has been to dig up some of the less-known or less-celebrated designs of that era, and give them the spotlight they deserve. Besides – not everyone wants a guitar that looks like everyone else’s. A large majority of guitars on the market today point back to a specific few designs from the 1950s. We let people celebrate the nostalgia without the often associated monotony – or price tag.

We’ve seen a huge demographic bandwidth shop our models. Sometimes it’s the experienced player who’s looking to branch out from their standard Gibson and Fender rut; sometimes it’s someone looking for their first guitar, and they’re drawn in by a particular style or finish. I would say that most of Eastwood’s customers are those of us who have an affinity for obscure vintage brands and models, but are turned off either by the poor build quality or the astronomical prices of the originals. Usually both! We’ve made it our goal to kill two birds with one stone and build stage- and studio-ready guitars that are affordable to a broad spectrum of players.

Mat Koehler

Mat Koehler: The guitar market is mostly comprised of platforms that are many decades old. Some say that’s because guitarists tend to be conservative in their tastes, but another possibility is that guitars have only evolved so far. A 1930s flattop acoustic is tough to improve upon as an instrument. Same goes for a 1950s electric guitar. But since those are scarce and extremely valuable, the sliding scale becomes the ability to recreate the same value as an instrument in the context of modern music. The peripheral technology may improve, but you’re not going to “improve” on a 1959 ES-335 as a guitar, if that makes sense.

Frank Thompson

Frank Thompson: At Italia, we have noticed two buyer personas that gravitate to the “retro” vibe of guitars. First are the players from a generation that had true guitar hero role models that they aspired to be like, as well as sound like, that are after capturing that very same vibe for themselves. Secondly is the new generation of players that is looking for something unique, that can represent that uniqueness in themselves as players, that doesn’t look like the same three main body styles that have dominated the electric guitar market for decades.

These players want to have a sound, style, vibe, and look that separates them from the masses, and is a true extension of what makes them truly their unique self. Italia has always focused on capturing that vibe and attitude of yesteryear, but without having the playability issues that are common to many of the original vintage instruments that still remain, and can buy them without breaking the bank, and having to worry about damaging, losing or – God forbid – having the irreplaceable instrument stolen. They can enjoy all of the benefits without the worry and expense of owning the originals.

For your brand, what specific model (or models) of this type has/have been selling particularly well lately?

MK: One of our most popular models is the Original Collection Les Paul Standard 50s. It’s $2,499 USD Minimum Advertised Price and really the most reverent and accessible equivalent to a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard – the holy grail guitar played by countless music legends which sells for at least about a half-million dollars these days. We also make a Custom Shop 1959 Les Paul Standard Reissue, which is virtually indistinguishable from the vintage model and priced at $6,499. Either way they look like a pretty incredible value when compared to the original 1959 models.

LS: Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of love for models that buck the traditional layouts and tunings. Our tenor guitars, baritone guitars, bass 6, lap steels, and electric mandolins seem to command the attention of guitarists looking for a next challenge, or trying to push themselves into a new creative space. Our Warren Ellis line embodies that spirit, with the original Warren Ellis Signature Tenor serving as a template for things you don’t see every day like our Mandocello, or concepts that are altogether new such as our Tenor Baritone or the Warren Ellis 5. Given the circumstances for many around the world, I would imagine that people, and guitarists in particular, have been looking for new hobbies and challenges while quarantining.

What a better way to occupy your time than by learning a new instrument with new chord shapes, scales, and voicings?

FT: Italia has had a few models in the lineup for decades now, and continue to find there place in the market, but some of the most recent models [already]have found their place in the market. The Italia Maranello Cavo is a short 30” scale semi-hollow body 4-string bass that packs enormous punch in a very comfortable package. Older bass players who have been lugging around these big, heavy basses for years and years are tired of the back issues that come along with that, and are looking for something that’s lighter, has an amazing, unique tone, and that they can play for hours without the pain. The Cavo has a very tight low-mids tone, with amazing definition of sound. It works perfectly as a studio bass, or for playing at the clubs once we are back to a normal COVID-less scene.

The JF6, which is a little more traditional than most of Italia’s lineup has been a real performer. Developed in cooperation with Jeffrey Foskett of The Beach Boys fame, the three-pickup JF6 has a very wide palate of sound possibilities, with access to every possible pickup combination – all with no pickup selector switch. You can “dial in” any combination and fine-tune variation between all three pickups using blend control pots, so you choose exactly the right combination ratio of sound that you want from each pickup. It represents maximum control for just the sound you are looking for from the three Italia Mini Humbuckers.

ML: Certainly the Stratocaster and Telecaster models. In the Custom Shop, we offer just about anything from any era. If I had to call out one model, it would probably be an early 1950’s Telecaster – ’51, 52, ’53. This year we brought back the Limited Edition 1950 Broadcaster (predecessor to the Telecaster) for the 70th Anniversary. It’s been very well received.

LA: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our original release date for these guitars has been rescheduled for late September. However, the Vintage Parlors have been buzzing for quite some time, and have gained an exciting amount of traction within the U.S. We had excellent feedback in January at NAMM. With a MAP of $599, these guitars are extremely attainable and sound and play great. With three beautiful high polish color options – Solid Black, Honey Sunburst, and Burgundy Blackburst – and a beautiful Tiger Stipe Ebony fretboard, these guitars fit perfectly with the modern reprisal of vintage instruments while still keeping that modern Framus edge.

For players who are into the vintage aesthetic, what are the benefits to purchasing a “retro-style” new guitar, rather than simply buying an instrument actually made in the ‘50, ‘60s, ‘70s, and so on?

LS: The hefty price tags associated with the vintage guitar market are no secret. We specifically tackle designs that aesthetically scratch the itch of those pining over a vintage piece without the astronomical cost and poor playability that are usually associated with these guitars. If you do find a guitar from the ‘60s that fits within a casual budget, more often than not, it’s going to require a neck reset and/or other repair costs to wrestle it into an easily playable condition. At Eastwood, when replicating a vintage design, we focus not just on keeping the model affordable, but meeting a modern guitarist’s standards of playability and adjustability. Throughout our catalogue, you’ll see that most models feature adjustable bridges and truss rods, allowing a player to dial in their preferred action with precision. You just won’t find that in a lot of the source material – for example, vintage Airline models.

FT: As touched on earlier, it’s very common for an actual vintage instrument from that era to have playability and reliability issues. As materials age, some will become brittle and break, there can also be neck and action issues, and the wear that comes from decades of play. The other issue, and perhaps more important, is the risk of damage or theft/loss to such a rare and often irreplaceable instrument.

You need to treat it with such care, that for most it’s not worth the risk of damaging such a prized possession. Buying a new retro just makes sense for most players. It removes the worry from all of those issues, and gives them the playability of the incredible and consistent quality of an instrument that Italia has been producing for years. The Mirr factory in South Korea has been renowned for making some of the finest quality electric guitars in the world for decades now and, being the owner of the Italia brand themselves, they give the Italia brand 110 percent of their attention to detail.

LA: For some, it is a safer financial investment than purchasing an “actual” vintage guitar – in cases where the actual vintage instrument has a higher price-tag due to it being antique, as well as the possibility of heavy-duty repair work that comes with true vintage guitars. The guitar may have been taken great care of and requires no “start-up” costs, or you may have to spend the next six months investing time and money into getting the instrument in working order. It is always a roll of the dice, especially with the current market and the uncertainty of purchasing an instrument online or sight unseen.

Mark Agnesi

Mark Agnesi: Straight off the shelf, you’re never going to have to worry about having to re-fret something or change the pots or change the integrity of the instrument. A lot of vintage guitars sound great and they have that look and feel, but then you go to play them [out], and realize there are potential downsides. With a brand-new guitar you know it’s going to have fresh frets on it, you know when you get to the gig and you turn the volume pot, it’s going to work. Certain things like that really are beneficial to the people who want to go out and actually play these things.

ML: We have many players who own original vintage guitars that just don’t want to risk taking them out into the world. Some of these guitars are quite valuable, and actually irreplaceable. So they have us build something just like it for them to use at gigs and such. The added benefit here is the players can specify features to suit their individual needs without altering a vintage instrument.

MK: Because we’ve made them undeniable in comparison and actually improved upon certain elements, whether they be new aesthetic options or the fresh new frets or the lifetime warranty. Why buy a 1957 Les Paul Custom for $40,000 when the Gibson Custom Shop makes one that is identical in every way for a fraction of the price? The only difference is the connection with history. But even that is something we strive to provide, with vintage- accurate cases and accoutrements.

Have you noticed any trends with this particular-market segment of late? What are your expectations for the “vintage style” electric guitar market in the coming months?

MA: There’s always been an emphasis on the ‘50s and ‘60s guitars, but in terms of retro trends, right now the ‘80s are making a huge comeback. And what I see in the future is our other brand, Kramer, really stepping up here. I always tell people that ‘84 is the new ‘59. And those Kramer 84s – the guitar that kind of launched the shred revolution – is going to be making a big comeback here, I think, across genres in a very, very big way.

LA: I think the “modern meets vintage” take that a lot of manufacturers have been doing is a great move for the industry. It is such a unique experience holding up an actual 50 year old guitar next to a brand new one, and to see the history of this exact guitar, and what has changed between the two. I believe that the industry will continue to find a way to harmoniously mix those timeless attributes and modern technology. It is exciting to see these new innovations crafting solutions for long time problems found in vintage instruments. I look forward to seeing what the industry does next.

FT: Italia has seen an uptick in interest in the retro style models, especially during this COVID lockdown period. I think people are getting deep into thought and scrutinization on their sound, their vibe, and their look, and really finding that special instrument that fits their unique style and taste. Italia provides an alternative to those that want to be unique.

ML: It’s always hot for us. So many rock anthems have been written on, and recorded with these guitars over the years, I don’t think they’ll ever go out of style.

LS: It’s important to remember that most of the electric guitar market is “vintage style,” with the most popular models holding over from the 1950s. This instinct of tying nostalgia to guitar design, and the magnetic effect it has on players isn’t going anywhere as far as I can tell. Regarding the recreation of lesser known vintage designs, such as our Musicraft-inspired Eastwood Messenger, or the Yamaha-inspired SG2C Flying Banana, interest has never been higher. Every day we’re receiving requests and suggestions for models down the road, whether that be variations on existing Eastwood models or new tributes altogether. You can see the effect of this demand on our “Bring it Back” page on the Eastwood website, where interested customers are able to crowdfund new models and effectively vote on what model we produce next.

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