"The guitar wasn't truly a symbol of rebellion until it could be plugged in and cranked up," Vintage Guitar magazine editor Ward Meeker said.
Like the '57 T-Bird, the Coke bottle and other pop culture phenomena born in the USA, the electric guitar is an American icon.
Could you have BB King without "Lucille," his big Gibson? Hendrix at Woodstock wailing on "The Star-Spangled Banner" without that white Strat? Would there have been a Jimmy Page without his sunburst Les Paul slung low, a Johnny Ramone without his Mosrite slung even lower, an Eddie Van Halen without his homemade red-and-white-striped Frankensteins? Probably not.
Fittingly, the electric guitar has its own "tour," if you will -- weekend-long guitar shows across the country where dealers buy, sell and trade a variety of stringed noisemakers and related items to glazed-eyed guitar geeks of every genre-preference. (It's like a comic convention; No doubt there are crossover attendees.) The tour stops in Charlotte this weekend for the 10th annual Carolina Guitar Show at the Oasis Shrine Temple.
The rise of the guitar shows has mirrored that of the vintage guitar sales market. Things took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Boomers with increasing disposable income started buying the axes preferred by their musical heroes. Most of those were built in the 1950s and 1960s, the first two decades for mass-marketed electrics. Suddenly, certain models and years, mostly Gibsons and Fenders, started commanding seriously crazy cash -- $10,000-$40,000.
With recent economic hard times, you'd think the guitar market would drop off as well. Not so, says Chip Coleman, owner of China Grove's Coleman Music and a longtime guitar show participant.
"If you've got a really nice vintage or older guitar, and it's really clean, and 100% original, then you'll sell it," said Coleman, who's manned a booth at every previous Charlotte show. "Some of the prices have leveled off. But if you've got a nice instrument, the demand is always there. I don't have any problem selling clean, 100% original vintage instruments. And making good money at it."
The market's been most affected by -- no surprise -- E-Bay, Coleman said. Hundreds, if not thousands, of vintage and recent instruments appear on the Internet auction site each day, doing screwy things to prices and expectations.
But with guitars on E-Bay, you can't see, touch, and smell the instruments. That's the beauty of guitar shows. And sure, you can do that in a new guitar mega-store, but the vibe is much cooler at shows. There's a more pleasant signal to noise ratio (no drummers, keyboardists or ultra-loud store P.A. systems!). It's a gathering-of-the-tribe kinda thing.
Coleman, also a longtime guitar player and area musician who attends shows in Philadelphia, Nashville and Spartanburg, keeps his eyes peeled for amps and selected weirdness to add to his personal collection. "I've bought a lot of Orange amp gear, a lot of old Kustom amp gear. And I've bought some European sparkly guitars. I'm into the whacky shit."
The whacky shit does rule. It's also usually the category you'll find more affordable gear like funky small amps, bizarre crappy guitars, spacey old effects pedals, along with parts, accessories, books and concert videos.
What you aren't likely to find at the Charlotte show: true celebrity-owned guitars. Those have reached Christie's status. Sure, someone might try and tell you Clapton owned this exact Strat right here in my hands, man. That's when you chuckle, mutter "Er, sure," and continue on your merry way. No, Slowhand's instruments are reserved for the high- profile auction block. His celebrated 1999 charity auction of 100 guitars from his personal collection, raised $4.5 million, with the top-selling "56 sunburst Stratocaster he called "Brownie" -- used to record and tour with Derek and the Dominoes -- notching $450,000. (Another recent big seller: three custom-made Doug Irwin guitars owned by the late Jerry Garcia, which brought close to $2 million.)
"As far as non-celebrity sales, they're obviously tougher to track because there's seldom the hoopla surrounding them," Vintage Guitar editor Meeker noted. "But stories abound of guitars emerging from an attic or from under a bed and selling for $20,000 to $200,000. And that's for standard production instruments."
All that for a piece of old wood, painted pretty? "Like dealers are quick to point out," adds Meeker, "true vintage guitars are a finite resource. And finding certain models is a game that fewer and fewer are able to play because of the bling -- or lack thereof."
The 10th annual Carolina Guitar Show will take place Saturday, August 23, and Sunday, August 24, at the Oasis Shrine Auditorium, located at 604 Daniel Burnham Way in North Charlotte. Show hours are 10am-6pm on Saturday and 10am-5pm on Sunday. Admission costs $8 ($7 with an instrument) at the door. Children 12 and under are admitted free. For more details, contact B-3 Vintage at 828-298-2197.