7 things you should know before buying a vintage electric guitar
My standard advice to anyone thinking of buying a vintage solid-body electric guitar is this:
Don't do it.
But being there are going to be those of you who are going to do it anyway, this is a list of things you need to know before buying one.
1. There is no way to fix a weak neck
Over time, the neck of a solid-body electric starts losing stability and eventually will never be able to stay in tune.
You have most likely watched a lot of vintage guitar demo videos on YouTube, and from that you've probably noticed the vast majority of the videos have the guitar slightly out-of-tune.
That is not the player's fault. It's the guitar's fault. The neck is weak and unstable from age.
Of all the vintage electrics that exist, the neck which is least prone to losing stability is a Fender with a neck made from maple that was quartersawn. The straighter grain of a quartersawn board is stiffer and takes a lot longer to lose its stability. Eventually at some point it will become unstable, make no mistake about that, but if you want a neck where you can be mostly assured it won't be unstable, quartersawn maple is what you want.
2. "All original" is not as good as you think it is
Some vintage electrics use an early plastic called Bakelite, and if it's over 35 years old, it will start to disintegrate. This material was used anywhere there was plastic involved. Tuner buttons, switch tips, knobs, pick guards, etc.
Another thing most vintage buyers don't take into consideration is screw heads. Those little screws have a nasty habit of the heads popping off because of metal erosion due to age, where even the slightest turn of a screw will break that head off. On a $30,000 instrument, just one screw head breaking makes the guitar lose $500 of its value. I'm not joking.
In other words, if you see a guitar that's real vintage but is not 100% original, give it a look anyway. Not only is it cheaper, but it's also probably true the seller is being more honest compared to others.
3. A vintage electric that has been refretted properly is a much better player
Original frets on a '50s or '60s electric just plain suck because they're awful. Fret wire of that era is tall and skinny. And if it's original wire, weird reshaping happens due to age.
If the guitar has been refretted, I personally consider that a good thing because it won't be a buzzy nightmare. It will still buzz because it's vintage spec, but not nearly as much with proper new wire on the board.
However, there are good fret jobs and bad ones. If you find a refretted vintage you like, ask who did the refretting. Hopefully it will have been a luthier with the proper skills that did the job right.
4. Turn every single thing that can be turned before buying
I mentioned screw heads having a nasty habit of popping off from metal erosion. Those screws and everything else that turns can suffer from the same thing happening.
Every single thing that turns must be tested before purchasing. Every saddle height screw, every tuner, every tuner screw holding the tuners in place, the truss rod, the knobs, the claw spring adjustment screws if it has them, every pickup height adjustment screw... all of them.
Also, let the seller turn everything that can be turned, and watch him do it. If he refuses to do it, walk away, because it probably means one or more turning points of the guitar is either broken or about to break - and he knows it.
5. If you think a pickup is dead, you're right
Some sellers will try to sell vintage electrics with dead pickups in them, then say "that's the way all these guitars are like." That, of course, is a boldfaced lie.
If you think a pickup is dead, it's dead. Trust your ears and walk away, because it's not like you're going to replace vintage pickups and wreck the guitar's value.
6. If you think something feels too fragile, you're right
When guitars get old, stuff on them gets fragile, including the overall feel of the instrument. If feel the guitar is too fragile to use, trust your instinct on that one.
7. Consider newer alternatives (they have a warranty)
"Vintage mojo" simply isn't worth it. You're better off with a Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster in Butterscotch. Or maybe a Mexico-made Fender Classic Player '60s Stratocaster. Or even if it's not either of those guitars, buy whatever you want as long as it's new.