There are plenty of things that get better with age — a vintage whiskey bottle from 1860 can ring in at a value of around $10,000, while an old guitar might be worth well over $50,000.
While drinking whiskey from the 1800s may not be such a great idea, a vintage guitar from the same time may sound better with age, but older is not necessarily better.
A guitar may sound better over time, depending on several factors, including whether it was factory-built or handmade. The mere fact that older guitars that have stood the test of time appear to sound better could be because they always have, not necessarily because they are particularly superior to newer ones.
We must also consider the historical context in which some very old guitars were created, and even the intended buyer, to fully appreciate why some guitars seemingly sound better over time.
Read on to learn more about the ongoing debate, and the various points of consideration when it comes to discovering whether old is better than new.
The Debate: Old Versus New
If you read blogs and forums from avid guitar players, you’ll find plenty of comments that confirm that an older guitar seems to sound better than a new one. The question you have to consider is why that is the case and what variables are at play.
A luthier, or craftsperson who builds guitars, was working in quite a different historical context in the late 19th century, when some of the oldest guitars with six strings, as we know them today, were created (source).
At that time, luthiers were held in high esteem for their craftsmanship, as they are to this day (source).
We’ll talk more about the artistry of esteemed luthiers of the 19th and 20th centuries a bit more below, as well as why some of the guitars made by these luthiers likely sound better than a few newer options available today.
Before we do that, we need to understand a bit about the historical context of the 1890s and what impact music had on society at that time.
The Impact of Music in the Late 19th Century
If you ask yourself what was different about 1890, quite a few things come to mind, of course. The availability of today’s innumerable options for entertainment was certainly not a reality back then.
So, when we consider the cultural impact of instrument-making and music, the differences are more significant than you may realize.
These distinctions have much more influence than the current generation of YouTube and other video streaming sites.
In the late 19th century, most everyone knew how to play at least one instrument. Music was an integral part of culture and society. Unlike today, there was no debate over the value of the arts in schooling and education, certainly not music.
Children were situated in a time when knowledge of music was part of day-to-day life, with many homes having designated music rooms where intimate gatherings took place.
Family-time centered around neither playing video games nor fixating on iPhones, but rather on stringed instruments and pianos.
Builders of instruments were employed by growing companies that met an increasing demand for the artform (source). The making of a guitar at this time was a unique craft, a notable profession, and one which a luthier took very seriously.
The concept of mass production or lowering distribution costs was not nearly the reality that it is today. Indeed, there are still many creators and builders of guitars that produce high-quality, beautiful instruments.
As a matter of fact, luthiers have more competition now than ever.
But the cultural context has shifted dramatically. Students are no longer automatically assumed to be required to learn an instrument in school or elsewhere.
Mass production and global distribution have replaced many small-scale shops and the idea of a personalized piece. Also, the availability of other devices that impact the sound of guitars, in particular, has evolved and changed.
Understanding the Production of Guitars Over Time
A luthier who was a skilled craftsman in 1890 created uniquely-designed stringed instruments that withstood the test of time — from the wood and laminate to the size and shape.
They were handmade with care by an artist who was likely a player or collector himself. The same holds true today.
If you go to a small guitar shop or work directly with a luthier or dealer, the guitars you have an opportunity to touch, feel, or even play were likely made by someone passionate not only about the guitar itself but about the wood used to create it.
Some high-quality woods are known to improve the resonance of the guitar as they age, with the wood drying out and the sap breaking down.
The materials used by luthiers are not lightly chosen, and instruments are woven together with intricacy.
These pieces also likely cost more than a similar guitar fashioned by a large company that mass produces and distributes instruments globally.
The reputation, creative knowledge involved, and the difference between factory-produced products and those made by a represented luthier lead to a higher value, a longer history, and, indeed, an instrument that may even sound better with time.
Handmade Versus Factory-Made
Another thing to consider is the intended market for a guitar differs between those that are factory-made and those that are handmade.
Each guitar is crafted and sold differently — one to a mass market, and the other to an individual whose intentions are likely different.
One may not necessarily be better than the other. The question lies more in the purpose of the guitar itself; is it intended for sale on a global market on a large scale or for an individual musician who wants to create a unique sound and, further, a distinctive tone?
If you think about how factories work, most production line equipment is capable of performing one job with automaticity, quickly and efficiently creating hundreds or even thousands of pieces.
That same guitar moves to a different production line where the next step is added, and so on.
In contrast, a handmade piece is not created in this way, though power tools are certainly part of the process. The tool is held by a single craftsman, the sole creator of all aspects of one guitar.
The creativity is specialized and, unlike factory produced pieces, one guitar, whether acoustic or electric, is not identical to another.
Comparing Quality with Quantity
When determining whether or not a handmade piece is of higher quality and, thus, will sound better over time, there are a few additional things to consider. Again, even in this comparison, you must bear in mind the purpose of the buyer.
A musician who uses his instrument as a tool to create music, and perhaps a living, will differ in his definition of what a quality guitar is. He bases his perspective of quality on both how the guitar feels as well as how it sounds.
It also depends on his ability to request features that fit with his style of playing, whether that pertains to guitar length, neck width, strings spacing, fret size, or even the type of wood used.
Even the smallest of variations in any of these specifications will create different distinctions in sound and tone (source).
All of these factors together inherently lead to a piece that is as unique as the musician’s particular sound and artistry. In a sense, this guitar sounds better over time because it fits a personalized preference and a customized sound.
In defining quality from a factory perspective, the emphasis is placed on how efficiently they make each part of a guitar with precision, consistent in playability, look, and feel. Each guitar will thus sound the same.
It is not that their methods are poor but, instead, that they made them differently and in large quantities.
There is also the factor of price to consider. The goal of a factory is to use materials that are easier to obtain and apply — as well as cost less.
Those savings in price trickle down to the buyer, and as a result, factory-made guitars are often much lower in cost than their hand-made counterparts.
A luthier tasked to create a unique piece is focused on a more labor-intensive process that results in a work of art with a standing reputation at play.
Materials are chosen not for ease of use, but durability and longevity, uniqueness of sound, and beauty of the finish.
Which Guitar Sounds Better?
As to which guitar sounds better with time — the factory-made newer one or the handmade older one — it has more to do with the quality of its construction and the materials used. Factory-made guitars are indeed good guitars; they are merely different.
Bearing that in mind, if it sounds good today, it will probably sound good in the future if you take care of it.
On the other hand, from a musician’s perspective, that same well-made, newer factory-produced guitar may never have sounded great in the first place because it did not carry with it an ability to create a unique, characteristic tone.
And for musicians, this is integral to their success and memorability.
So, yes, older guitars likely do sound better with time. But the reasons for this are not always so straightforward, and the definition of what makes a piece sound “good” may be too subjective to answer conclusively.
To learn even more about why many believe that older, classical guitars may sound better with time, including more on design aspects, style, and the type of wood used, take a look at “Do Classical Guitars Get Better With Age?” and “Why Do Old Guitars Sound Better?”
An old guitar may sound better with age, and the reasons presented here are not exhaustive. Music changes with time, with culture, and in creation, and there are multiple factors at play in answering the question.
A mass-produced guitar may be given to the student who is learning, or to the budding musician who dreams of being like his idol – until that is, he is ready for a luthier to create his own masterpiece, the one that will grow with him and indeed, sound better with time too.