Vintage gear: the cons and cons

Wait, isn’t it supposed to be “the pros and cons”?  Well, it’s true that there are lots of pros out to con you.

We’ve all seen and heard endless claims about how older instruments and gear are better; nobody makes ’em like they used to; the originals are the only ones worth having; and of course vintage mojo is the source of sweet tone.   Sometimes those things are true, in specific instances, but not true to nearly the extent that so many people would lead you to believe.

Some older gear is simply old.  Equipment gets beat up over time with use, and electronic components will commonly expire and drift out of their ideal operating range.  This can cause older electronic gear to perform and sound quite differently than it did when it was new, to an unpredictable extent.  Capacitors are one common victim of old age–you will hear repair techs talking about a “cap job” pretty often when refurbishing older gear, and this just means replacing all the capacitors, especially the electrolytics.  When somebody says their old preamp or EQ for sale is just like the ones the Beatles used at Abbey Road Studios, you have to wonder: did it sound different for them when it was operationally new?  Remember that vintage gear was new back in the old days, and probably did not have all the quirks, mechanical hiccups, noise, or distortion that such an item may have 50 years later.

So when you see a piece of gear or an instrument being advertised as vintage, just replace the word “vintage” with “old” in your mind, for a quick reality check as to whether the item will be sure to give you the tone or performance that is claimed.

I’ve only recently realized what an issue this could be in my compressor reviews, as many of the comps (especially rack units) were old, well-used, and probably out of spec.  Is the MXR Dual Limiter really as bad as I said, or was it just that the one I happened to buy was decrepit?  I’ve been told by a former Aphex engineer that the Dominator 720 was designed to be totally free of coloration or distortion, yet the two I bought had terrible tone and distortion, even though one of them looked like it was in “mint” condition.  Should I buy a third one, brand new, just to find out the truth?  One of my internet acquaintances bought an Aphex 651 that was unused old stock, still sealed in its original box, and it’s giving him all kinds of trouble–even though it could be sold as “new”.  Sure it had never been used, but it still got old.

Some people have had great experiences with vintage gear.  Their favorite items might be old, but were well-maintained over the years, or were refurbished recently.  Or they just got lucky.  You might get lucky too, but you may have to buy an awful lot of duds before you find the good stuff.  If you see (for example) a vintage guitar in really good condition, you have to ask yourself “why didn’t it get played much?”  Even the great instrument companies turned out plenty of not-so-good units, even during their glory days.  That’s a natural side-effect of using natural (highly variable) materials like wood, and of course human error in the assembly.  As a result, there are lots of vintage guitars out there which are in surprisingly good condition, because nobody wanted to play them–they sucked.  70’s Fender basses are a classic example: for many years people avoided them because they were thought to be much lower quality than the early 60’s stuff; but when the frenzy of vintage guitar buying hit its peak in the late 90’s and early 00’s, and prices skyrocketed for 60’s guitars, both buyers and sellers started looking at stuff from the 70’s as a plentiful and more affordable source of “vintage mojo” for sale.  Sure, there were certainly some gems from the 70’s production; but you’ve got to realize that the only real selling point today for a typical 70’s Fender bass is that it’s old.

So does “old wood” really sound better, after aging and playing in smoky bars over the years?  Maybe, sometimes.  Wood and metal do both change on a molecular level over time, and under vibrational stress, so there is legitimate science behind the claim.  However, the actual audible results are not at all predictable.  Maybe a certain piece of wood sounds better when it has aged, but maybe worse or maybe the same.  No guarantee, and no way to know without trying the instrument yourself and hearing whether you like it.

Naturally we consumers want to buy mojo that will make us sound better and look cooler.  And naturally a seller wants to unload their merchandise on anyone they can convince to buy it.  This creates a “perfect storm” of fools parted with their money.  Sellers will say all the right things to make you believe that magical fat sweet tone will be yours, if you just buy their classic vintage gear.  And we suck it up.

It’s the same axe I always grind: “Use your own ears, and don’t believe the hype”.  And realize that any old gear you buy may need some work to be brought back into spec, for proper performance.

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  1. Chris said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    This post rings very true. I work for a company that sells and repairs woodwind and brass instruments (saxes, trumpets, etc). The same issue you speak of is very present in the world of professonial wind instruments, particularly if they are old (i.e. hand made/pre cnc machines) There is a sort of mythology that springs up around these old wind instruments, sometimes rightly deserved. Selmer Mark VI saxes from the 50s and 60s are a good example. Selmer made them until the tools and machinery used to make them wore out, and despite the usual margine of error involved, the design was good, the matertials were good, and usually the results were good. They command a high price on today’s market, even if they need a complete rebuild. I’m sure that if you look at the production #’s, however, for every one that still exists, there are 100 that didn’t make it past the 1970’s. It just so happens that the ones that survived are the particularly good ones, that have also aged well. This perpetuates that idea that all old saxes are better, when in fact, today’s instruments are superior in many ways, particularly in terms of consistancy. In other words, most of the bad saxes were not picked by good players, not maintained, and did not survive. Mind you, this is a best case scenario, dealing with a particular model that was superior in many ways. Alot of the older saxes/brands did suck, and/or the good individual instrument vs. scrap heap ratio is much less favorable. Incidentally, I am thoroughly enjoying your analasyis of compressors! I am a trumpet player from way back (went to college for it), who has recently gotten back into bass (or more accurately, has gotten seriously into bass for the first time). Your reviews are immensly helpful, since I am about to purchase a compressor, and have to do so sight unseen (my area is devoid of good guitar/bass stores). I really appreciate your seemingly unbiased, honest, and fair appraisal of each compressor, and your insightful, pointed comments on each. Thanks! -Chris

  2. Evan said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    It’s really funny sometimes how musicians think. There are so many superstitions that run rampant throughout the community, and they would never survive in other occupations. It’s about the only field I can think of where old stuff is usually considered better than new stuff. I can understand that mentality from a collector’s point of view, but it’s a little silly coming from a player.

    I’m not saying it’s never true, but just consider the analogies. You don’t see computer programmers talk about buying vintage computers because the “mojo” will bring out better performance. I’m pretty sure carpenters don’t go out in search of the legendary 40-year-old hammer that pounds in nails just perfectly. (These analogies aren’t perfect, but I think I’m getting my point across.) In most fields, people strive to buy the best, most modern equipment they can afford. It’s only very occasionally that something old will better fill the role.

    This isn’t to say that old stuff isn’t fun to have around or isn’t any good. It’s just silly to place anything old on a pedestal and claim it’s “THE best ever, period.”

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