The Stuff We Collect

A good friend died near the end of this past August. He had been a hobby guitarist for most of his 76 years, but got “serious” about the collecting part about 20 years ago. When he retired as a waterfowl habitat Project Engineer from the federal Interior Department, he gave himself a couple of options: go back to school for a math degree or “learn to play lead guitar.” Neither of those skills come naturally to most of us, so it’s not like he was planning on slacking off in his last 20-some years of life. He also biked all of the transcontinental trails, north-south and east-west and maintained several other complicated and skilled hobbies. However, after picking the lead guitar option his approach to that skill set was to start accumulating information, instruments, equipment, and tools. In other words, he approached music as if it were an engineering project. If he had pursued the math degree with the same tactics, he’d have been on the path to a PhD. As a guitar player, he quickly stalled while he concentrated on trying different tools (guitars, amps, pedals, expensive cables and cords, books and DVDs, etc) and gathering resources.

I recently joined a Facebook group that focuses on a particularly unconventional electrical guitar design. I’m considering making one of those instruments as a winter project and started lurking on the FB group to gather information. Upfront, I discovered some of these guys are also far more collectors than guitarists or builders. I was reminded of a conversation with a friend who is an accomplished and well-paid professional musician and who also works at a busy music store as a salesperson. At a party, someone asked him about what kind of equipment professionals use and his response was something like, “I have no idea. If the music store had to rely on musicians to pay the bills, it would have closed a week after it opened. It’s the hobbyists who spend the real money.”

That isn’t the world I came from, but the people who own recording studio equipment that needs fixing and are, mostly, willing to pay for it are professionals. The hobby studio geeks (and Prince) just toss broken stuff in a closet or sell it as-is “for parts” on eBay. That doesn’t even happen with 20-year-old guitar amps in the Music Instrument (MI) world. Hobby musicians have been “the rich guys” for at least 25 years.

In the 1980s, places like L.A., New York Chicago, Austin and Dallas, and a good bit of the southeast-coast clubs stuck bands with pay-to-play gig expenses. Instead paying for entertainment, the clubs realized there were a LOT of bands hoping for a shrinking number of stages and decided to make the bands pay upfront for the privilege of being seen and heard. Usually, the band would get a package (50-100) tickets to sell or give away as “compensation,” but the damage was done. The money went out of music for most players. Obviously, the club owners were right. There are a lot more bands that desperately want to be seen and heard than there are places to be seen and heard.

About the time working musicians were getting kicked in the financial balls, analog and digital recording gear started to get cheap and lots of hobbyists discovered microphones, recording equipment, high quality studio monitors, and the internet soon provided a way for the people with excess cash to find the people who would make equipment to sell them. That also went for guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, drums and percussion, and every other instrument that could make a claim to “professional quality,” vintage value,

In the end, we all find that things are only worth what someone will pay for them and that is a hard, sad lesson to learn when you are disposing of an estate. Turns out, a lot of those cool, high-end odds and ends aren’t worth much. Even the stuff we’ve been told “holds its investment value” doesn’t. Unless you stumble on to one of those weird collector instruments owned by Charlie Christian handed down to Les Paul who gave it to Jimmy Page at a R&R Hall of Fame presentation, your money is always better spent on actual investments. Don’t believe me, do your own calculation.

I bought my first guitar, an Airline/Danelectro solid body single-pickup electric, for about $60 in 1963. If I’d have dumped that money into a S&P tracking investment and left it there compounding the interest, I’d have about $19,000 in the investment portfolio right now. Left in the bank accumulating 3% average interest, I’d have about $650. Or I’d have a beat up 80-year-old guitar that would have cost me a few hundred dollars in repairs, strings, and other parts over the years that might be worth $500; if I can find the right sucker and I’m selling at the right moment during the economic swings of instrument value and desirability. Inflation-wise, $60 in 1963 money is $550 in today’s money. For example, I gave my daughter a late-1950’s Danelectro triple-pickup shorthorn 6-string guitar 30 years ago. It has hung on the wall of her office for at least 20 years. There is one on selling for (asking price) of $2,400. My advice to her is “Sell it, if someone will buy it for that.”

As for boutique guitar cables, guitar pedals and effects, and all of the other farkles and toys we buy to distract ourselves from practicing and actually becoming musicians, they will end up in a discount bin at your local Goodwill or Salvation Army store. Nobody wants them and almost nobody knows what they are or why they should want them. It seems like there should be a special place for this kind of stuff to be donated, but even music schools don’t seem to want any of it. Disposing of someone else’s music equipment gives you an interesting perspective on what all that room-filling stuff is worth.

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