Saturday, July 6, 2013

Collectible Guitars

The Wall Street Journal had a mildly interesting article yesterday on collectible guitars. I say "mildly interesting" because the focus is very narrow, just on electric guitars of the last sixty years. Oddly enough, only a couple of guitars are actually worth more than the one I have been playing for the last thirty years, my Robert Holroyd guitar built in Vancouver in 1983. The big exception is Eric Clapton's cobbled together Stratocaster from the 1970s which sold for $959,500. But supposedly really special instruments like a 1962 Gretsch sold for under £3000.

What all the instruments in the article have in common is that they were made in a factory. There are lots of classical guitars, mostly student models, that also come out of a factory. But all the serious concert guitars are hand-made. In the case of my guitar, the builder made a guitar about every three months. With each one he changed the design a bit so there are no two alike. That's why it is worth five figures. If you look here, you will see that concert guitars commonly sell for from $2000 at the low end to $20,000 at the high end. An average is probably around $6000.

Of course, compared to the prices of violins and cellos, this is a trivial amount! 

Guitar by Robert Holroyd, 1983


Anonymous said...

Right, but isn't the expectation that a guitar is a much more vulnerable instrument than a violin and therefore not destined to be played by many generations?

A concert level violin or cello costs how much more than a guitar? Aren't they in the neighborhood of $50K?

BTW, I remember reading "Glenn Gould and the Search for the Perfect Steinway" several years ago and was surprised by the somewhat limited life a concert piano has (at least as a stage instrument for a leading orchestra).

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, you are quite right! Concert classical guitars seem to have a limited lifespan. In fact, my Holroyd guitar may be reaching the limits of its useful lifespan as it is thirty years old. The problem for guitars is that the top is flat and so, even though reinforced with internal braces, the torque from the strings on the bridge, which amounts to about 125 lbs, over time slowly breaks down the physical integrity of the soundboard--and with it the quality of sound. Violins and cellos, with their arched soundboards, are much stronger and no-one knows how long they might last as there are instruments build in the 17th century that are still being played and not only that, but considered to be the finest sounding instruments!

I wonder if one reason, apart from lifespan, that guitars are much cheaper than violins and cellos is not the simple economic fact that one can earn more money playing them than playing guitar?

Concert violins and cellos may start in the $50,000 range, but they go up from there. Stradivarius violins sell in the one to two or more million dollar range!

RM said...

I also have a Holroyd guitar, purchased in Montreal in the 80's. Guitar #13 - I was told that it's his first classical after building 12 steel strings. Can I ask what number is yours? Mine has the same type of bridge, and a Haida-inspired design for the head.

I always assumed the same as you said, that guitars have a limited life-span, but lately I've seen interest in vintage classical guitars (some from the 19th century) - still valued for performance.

Bryan Townsend said...

MIne is #24 and I think he only built 27 in total. Sometimes I think my guitar is getting to the end of its useful life. I had a problem with a "wolf" a couple of years ago, but it seems to have gone away. The sound seems a bit less bright and forceful, but perhaps it is just a bit warmer and more complex.

Sam Thomson said...

I own a steel stringed Holroyd guitar. The label is # III, date 1974. I would like to know more about Mr. Holroyd. Please contact me at
I would be happy to provide pictures & description of guitar and what little I know of Mr. Holroyd.