Vintage vs. Modern Gear: The Great Guitar Debate

The electric guitar world has long been divided over the merits of vintage gear versus modern gear. Players, collectors and enthusiasts have strong opinions on both sides of this debate, with valid points argued on each end. In this article, we’ll explore the origins of this controversy, the pros and cons of vintage and modern instruments and gear, and try to find a sensible middle ground.

The Rise of Vintage Gear Fever

The fascination with vintage electric guitars and amps took hold in the 1970s and 80s, as iconic instruments from the 1950s and 60s became collectible. Early Les Pauls, Stratocasters, Telecasters, Gretsch and Rickenbacker models from the 1950s were fetching ever-higher prices at auction. Similarly, amplifiers like Fender Tweed and Blackface Twins and Deluxes, Gibson GA series amps, and Vox AC30s from the 1960s were becoming coveted and scarce.

As the supply of original vintage gear dried up and prices skyrocketed, a mystique grew up around these old instruments and amps. The received wisdom became that “they just don’t make them like they used to.” The woods, electronics, transformers and construction methods of the 1950s and 60s were exalted and considered superior to the mass-production techniques of the 1970s and beyond.

This vintage fetish really took hold in the 1990s, as guitarists and collectors sought out pristine original examples or vintage reissues of classic models. The holy grail was to find an untouched 1959 Les Paul or Stratocaster still in its original case, or a “plexi” Marshall stack from the late 60s. Vintage gear became a status symbol and point of pride for many guitarists.

The Case for Vintage

So what makes vintage gear so special? Ask any vintage enthusiast and they’ll talk your ear off about the superior craftsmanship, materials and sound. Here are some of the main arguments in favor of vintage:

  • Older wood is better – The wood used in 1950s and 60s guitars is now 60-70 years old. The argument goes that older, more seasoned wood imparts a superior tone. The wood is drier, less porous, and has been exposed to decades of vibration, “opening up” the wood’s grain to create a complex, resonant tone.
  • Superior craftsmanship – The hands-on craftsmanship and attention to detail at places like Gibson, Fender and Marshall in the 1950s through 70s is impossible to replicate today. Custom winding pickups, hand soldering, carved and tuned necks, etc created instruments with more mojo and personality.
  • Better electronics – From custom-wound pickups to hand-wired tube amplifiers, the electronics in vintage gear is glorified. NOS (new old stock) tubes, vintage-spec capacitors and resistors, original pickups and transformers – these components are all touted as being intrinsically better.
  • Magical vintage tone – This is the biggest, most ambiguous claim about vintage gear. The argument goes that vintage instruments and amps have a special, magical tone that can’t be replicated today. The tone is organic, dynamic, uncompressed, and reacts to the player’s touch. Modern gear sounds too processed and sterile by comparison.
  • Cool factor – For some players, vintage gear is just cooler. The look, vibe and history behind a ’59 Les Paul or a Marshall Plexi amp is intrinsically cooler than a modern mass-produced equivalent. Vintage gear has soul and mojo.

The Case for Modern

On the other side of this debate are the pragmatic guitarists who insist modern gear is just as good as vintage, if not better. They make counterarguments like:

  • Improvements in materials – Modern plastics, metals and electronics are vastly improved over what was available in the 1950s. Graphite nuts and saddles, advanced shielding paints and wires, tighter tolerances thanks to CNC machines. Today’s materials can make instruments more consistent and roadworthy.
  • More consistency – The hand-built nature of vintage gear means inconsistencies guitar to guitar. Each instrument and amp has quirks and unique traits. Modern manufacturing standards and tech allows for much tighter consistency. You generally know what you’re getting quality-wise.
  • More options – Modern guitar and gear makers offer far more options than companies did in the 1950s and 60s – more body shapes, pickup configurations, switching options, amp voicings, etc. There’s more diversity today.
  • Improvements in design – From ergonomic neck shapes to more stable hardware to better tremolo and bridge designs, there have been incremental improvements in electric guitar and amp design over decades. The best modern instruments represent the pinnacle of this evolution.
  • Affordability – While the most elite custom shop instruments are costly, guitars and amps from the big manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, PRS, Marshall, Mesa Boogie are attainable for working musicians. A road-worthy guitar rig no longer requires a second mortgage.
  • Reliability – When your livelihood depends on your gear working night after night, reliability and consistency are paramount. Modern manufacturing methods and components simply tend to be more reliable.

Finding Middle Ground

The debate between vintage and modern gear doesn’t have to be so black and white. As in most things, there are passionate opinions on both sides of the argument. But there are nuances too. Here are a few sensible ways to think about the issue:

  • Don’t universally glorify old or new – Well-made instruments and amps have always existed, in every era. Likewise, mediocre gear has always existed too. Judge an instrument or amp on its own merits, not just its age.
  • Vintage inspired is often a good compromise – Many modern makers do their best to recreate vintage looks, feels and sounds using a mix of old and new techniques. This allows for some of the cool factor and mojo of vintage gear, with the reliability of modern manufacturing.
  • Components matter most – The specific woods, pickups, transformers and speakers used will have the biggest impact on an instrument or amp’s sound. An amp with vintage-style components can sound quite vintage and organic.
  • Playability is paramount – An instrument’s playability – its neck profile, action, tuning stability – trump nearly everything else. A vintage instrument that plays poorly is pointless.
  • Your hands and ears matter most – An experienced player with a good ear and touch can often coax great tones from nearly any amp or guitar. Gear is important, but the musician matters far more.

The vintage vs. modern debate may never be fully settled. But for most working guitarists, a sensible mix of gear that covers the bases – some vintage for inspiration and mojo, some modern for consistency and reliability – is often the best approach. Keep an open mind, trust your own hands and ears, and use the gear that best serves the music. The rest is just details.

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