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  • Just Great Guitars – The Vintage Guitar Story II

    vintage guitarHere’s Part II of the interview with Russ (owner/buyer/founder of JGG) conducted by Huw Price.

    Old guitars can vary depending on their vintage and Russ has a clear preference.

    ‘I have to say that 1966 is my favourite vintage year for Gibsons. I like the gold knobs and I like the neck shape because it’s still got some roundness to it even if they can sometimes be a bit small. Also by 1966 they had sorted out a lot of the problems. ‘I have a 1966 ES335 that I paid a lot of money for and it has a factory original ES345 neck. You can tell from the inlays and I’ve seen this quite a few times. On the day it was made the factory had probably run out of ES335 necks so they fitted this one instead.’

    The most historically interesting piece in Russ’ collection has to be a pre-serial number Les Paul from 1952

    ‘When I sent this to the workshop for a clean and setup they just loved it. They drooled over it, took measurements and couldn’t get over how light it was. They even charged me £10 less than usual because of the sheer pleasure they had doing it. I picked it up from a dealer in America at the beginning of the crash. He was asking something pretty ridiculous but I felt like a retail customer, I just couldn’t put it down. So I engineered a deal with the guy by telling him how much the market was going to drop and making an issue out of the repaired headstock. When he agreed to my offer I was a bit shocked. It’s such an expressive guitar and you just connect with it in a very special way. But of all the vintage Les Pauls it’s the cheapest. As soon as you move up to the stop tailpiece you go to big money.’

    vintage guitar,So if Russ likes it that much, won’t it be hard to part with it?

    ‘Well here’s the problem. My antiques dealer dad always used to say “you’re either a dealer or a collector” and that if you put something in the shop, never put a ‘not for sale’ tag on it. I’ve always lived by that rule and so far it’s not in the shop, but that could change’

    The first vintage guitar Russ bought was a Cadillac Green Gretsch

    ‘..It was monstrous, far too big for me, and it didn’t even have a case but it was my main guitar for a long time. I regret selling it, and it was the only guitar my wife ever cared about. She never quite forgave me for that. So I’ve had a soft spot for Gretsches ever since, particularly the way they’re so over engineered. I’ve got two Gretsch Jet Firebirds, a ’61 and a ’63, and with the chambered bodies they have a great sound. I keep thinking about using the ’61 as my gigging guitar because those Filtertron pickups are really good. Gretsches are expensive and they’re hard to shift but I just like them. I’ve got a 1950 Country Gent and a couple of double cutaway Gretsch Chet Atkins models too and they’re nice guitars, a bit like an ES335 but heavier. I have a ’68 Gretsch 6071 bass too. It’s got Supertron pickups, painted F holes, a mute and a cello stand so you can play it upright. This is a monster and the neck feels like a log. It’s completely hollow and it has a lovely sound with tape wound strings. I got it from a bass player, who also sold me his Gibson EB0.’

    Vintage Guitars UK, Just Great Guitars, vintage Gibson guitars, American classic guitars ,Despite his wide taste in music, Russ’ true love is jazz

    ‘My first jazz guitar was a Gibson ES125 and I couldn’t believe how cheap they used to be. Again it’s my attraction to the P90 sound plus I love George Thorogood. I never really played the deep bodied ones but the thinline ES125s have such an awesome sound. The jazz guitarist Emily Remler played an ES125 too as well as an ES330. From my website point of view ES125s in all variations are our bread and butter. The rarest is the ES125CD model, with a deep cutaway body and two pickups. I’ve only had one of those and everybody who sees it thinks it’s an ES175. My ’63 ES125TCD has a cherry sunburst finish and when they’re in unfaded condition it’s often a shock to discover how bright and vivid they actually were. This one came from a well known dealer who has recently been releasing a lot of the inventory he’s been sitting on for twenty years. The prices of these have gone up quite a lot and I’ve also got other examples from ’61, 62 and 66.’

    Ever a champion of under appreciated models and brands, it’s no surprise that Russ has a passion for Epiphone.

    vintage guitar‘I progressed from the ES125TC to the Epiphone Sorrento. I’ve got a ’64 and a ’66 with mini humbuckers and higher quality hardware, and in the 1950s Epiphone was a better brand than Gibson. Gibson probably bought them to shut them up because they were embarrassingly good. I have a couple of ’66 Granadas too. The Sorrento was the only one that Gibson didn’t insist on being a lesser model. Unfortunately the Epiphone name has definitely been devalued and that has had a knock on effect with the vintage guitar market. So they’re usually less money than the Gibson equivalent but usually just as good if not better. I’m sure that will correct itself one day when players figure it out. ‘It’s exactly the same with Guilds and I think they’re good investment guitars. I have a 1958 T100 that’s the same sort of size as an ES125TC, with a white P980 style pickup, old Guild knobs and it’s clean as a whistle. It has a three piece neck and a pressed top and it’s bound to go up in value. I’ve also got a Starfire I and a ’67 CE-100. The big bodied Guilds are fantastic too and a lot of my customers are jazz players so they sell very well. Again I think Guilds are currently undervalued on the vintage scene so you can get a lot for your money.

    Final part of the interview next week.


    Just Great Guitars – The Vintage Guitar Story

    Vintage Guitars UK, Just Great Guitars, vintage Gibson guitars, American classic guitars ,We have an illuminating interview this week with Russ (the founder and owner of Just Great Guitars) conducted by writer Huw Price. It offers a great overview of how Russ has developed JGG and why his love for vintage guitars continues to drive him today. Here’s the first part of the interview and we’ll post the second for you next week. Enjoy!

    After renewing his love of guitars with a cheap Chinese acoustic, Russ Lewis began collecting vintage guitars and gradually developed into an online dealer. Huw Price takes the tour.

    So how did Russ get into vintage guitars?

    Gibson Johnny Smith Guitar‘Like a lot of other guys I worked, I built my career, I had my family, then I remembered that the thing sitting in the corner, that had become merely decorative, used to play a much bigger part in my life…we were living in central London at the time and I had a big old Eko acoustic with a neck that felt like it was made of railroad sleepers. I hated playing it, but since we were spending most evenings at home with the kids, I decided it was time to get back to playing guitar, so I went down to Denmark Street and bought myself a Chinese-made guitar. It wasn’t great like the Martin I tried at the time, but it was enough to get me back into playing’.

    ‘I have a theory that most people who end up buying and selling, or even repairing guitars, do so out of a frustrated sense of not being the guitarist they wanted to be. I’m definitely like that, so I just started dealing in them through my website, www.justgreatguitars.com My dad is an antiques dealer so the whole concept of having old things around the house was quite normal to me’.

    Gibson-ES335-1969-9‘I took some of the pension fund money and put a little bit into vintage guitars that I personally liked and that I’d be happy to live with for ten years. That’s my main criteria, and I only buy guitars that I think sound good. I mainly buy in America and when I bring them back I take my time getting them clean and properly set up. Rarely will I do any major work, for instance I’ll never refret a guitar but I’ll always tell customers if I think it might benefit from one’.

    ‘When I put them up for sale on my website I really enjoy trying to describe the emotional experience of playing a particular guitar. So I was initially doing this as an investment, but the dealing had to pay for the investment. After all it’s quite expensive to go to America and travel around. I certainly don’t make enough to give up my day job. I like to think of it as my out of control hobby.’

    Having the opportunity to play so many classic models, Russ has now settled on some favourites.

    just great guitars‘My main guitar is a 1965 sunburst Gibson ES-330. From the very first time that I saw a 330 I just loved that model. It’s not as heavy as an ES335, so it doesn’t kill your shoulder on gigs and I’ve always been drawn to the single coil P90 sound rather than humbuckers. I understand that the P90 is the cheaper pickup but it’s the same with acoustic guitars because I prefer mahogany to rosewood. I know a Martin D28 is supposedly superior to a D18, but I prefer that woodiness. I always keep a few ES-330s in stock and I just bought a cherry red ’61 ES330 with a dot neck and the Mickey Mouse ears. It’s got a really wide and flat neck profile, but I’d like it even more if it had a Bigsby. I know they’re not popular on Gibsons, but I do like them’.

    Which guitars are holding steady or even climbing in value during the current economic climate?

    Gibson-175T-(2)‘I’ve been lucky because I’ve always avoided the high ticket guitars. I thought they were silly money so any drop in value I’d regard as a positive correction. I’ve noticed that ES-330 prices are going up quite a lot and they’re getting harder to find. After rising quite aggressively, Gibson ES175s seem to be holding and I don’t see them coming down at all. Some of the big dealers are hurting financially and they’re letting inventory go just to release money. One collector that I know in the US was recently selling some mint pieces for half of what he would have got a couple of years ago’.

    So with the baby boomers ageing and developing arthritis, will vintage guitars prove to be sound investments in the long term?

    ‘I would say so, simply because although they’ll make great copies and develop software that can emulate them, they will never make those exact guitars again. Purely for that reason these vintage guitars have intrinsic value. Taking it further, I think the archtops have got more room to go up than anything else. With Fender style guitars there’s nothing of intrinsically high quality and they’re simple to replicate, whereas with some archtops the workmanship and the knowledge of how to work with the materials was quite special’.

    ‘The difficulty is that it follows fashions, for instance I have a lovely 1940s Epiphone Triumph with a carved spruce top and no cutaway. It really wants to be played as a swing guitar but there aren’t that many people around who can play that style any more. The jazz scene is healthier in Europe and most of the big bodied arch tops I sell go to places like Germany and Belgium. Having said that, the Triumph is today being shipped-off to its new home – in the Shetland Isles!

    Part two of the interview next week.