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The vintage bug

I got a taste of it playing a '49 D-18 at Vintage Instruments last summer, but spending time with the "Dawg" '56 D-18 has really made me understand that there's something special about old guitars. Admittedly I don't have any experience with pre-war dreadnoughts, but I've now played a few D-18s from the late-40s through mid-50s (a '48, '49, '55, '56, and '57) and I'm starting to see why guitar-geeks go crazy over vintage guitars. Sound is so subjective and hard to describe, but I can say that they *feel* different. Much like your favorite broken-in faded blue jeans, they're worn in just the right places to be comfortable. Your hand knows exactly where it's supposed to be on the neck, following generations of players before you.

I'm a bit concerned that I'm developing a taste for vintage guitars. I'm starting to get it; there is something special about vintage guitars.

Willie Nelson's well-loved "Trigger"Of course, as I scientist I'm trained to think about various possible explanations. Why are old guitars different? Maybe it's attrition: the best guitars are the ones that made it through the last fifty or sixty years. It's musical survival of the fittest. Great sounding boxes were loved and cherished, while the dogs were cast aside as disposable guitars. I don't really buy this explanation; Martins and Gibsons have never been been cheap. Musicians wouldn't be carelessly casting these aside instruments, even the ones that might sound sub-par. And great sounding guitars would have been played a lot (i.e., used and abused); one can just as easily make a compelling argument that great sounding guitars would have been less likely to have survived.

If it's not a selection bias, it has to be either the quality of the construction (the materials and craftsmanship) or processes associated with aging. Good grapes, a skilled vintner, and some years of waiting make for a fine bottle of wine. Guitars aren't that different.

The Martin factory in Nazareth, PA circa 1939Clearly there was more premium wood to build with in the mid-20th century, and some of the more labor intensive building techniques that contribute to tone (e.g., hide-glue) were abandoned as production increased in the 60s. With less production it's possible that the craftsmen in Nazareth and Kalamazoo spent more time and care tuning each individual instrument. Then again, costs have always always been partly determined by the hours it takes to build an instrument; turning instruments out quickly would always have been important. But there is clearly a reason to believe that the quality of materials and construction techniques contributed to the great tone of these instruments.

The aging process is much more mystical. Maybe the wood settles in the the patterns of vibrations associated with musicality. Just like those old jeans get comfortable in just the right areas, guitars might start to loosen up at points corresponding to the frequencies where they'be been played. Maybe the wood continues to dry; the cellular structure changes and the wood becomes more dynamic and resonant.

I don't have any answers that this point. I'm just thinking out loud. This is a journey is just starting; I've got a lot to learn. But my guess is that there will be some old guitars in my future.

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