Vintage Guitar - June 2018 - open - 74
And while I've never seen buckle rash severe
enough to go through the back, I've seen some
worn enough to cause cracks at wear points.
And while many collectors will tolerate a few
small marks, I don't know of any who'll favor
a guitar with heavy rash.
Even honest wear
can be a sign of
Almost every vintage Martin flat-top with a
pickguard is susceptible to cracking. The reason
is simple - pickguards were installed prior to
final finishing, and the finish was applied over
the guard. The top of the guitar where the
pickguard is adhered did not expand/contract
in unison with the rest of the top, causing it
to crack along the grain, usually behind the
soundhole, near the B string. This is found
on a high percentage (perhaps half) of vintage
Martins, but has a negative impact on value
only when it's not properly repaired; the best
repairs can be virtually invisible.
GOUGES AND MARKS
It's a Fine Line
By Steven Stone
t's fashionable to pick on social media
these days, but I enjoy following several
guitar-oriented groups on Facebook. One
in particular, called "Martin Guitars - Buy,
Sell, Trade," is especially interesting when folks
post photos of instruments they're thinking of
buying. The responses can range from "Great
guitar!" to "Run away, quickly!" What causes
such divergence? Usually, it's condition.
In 40 years of playing, buying, selling, and
admiring vintage instruments, I've heard people
talk about "honest wear," but it's a term with
no actual definition, and what is okay in the
eyes of one player is not so dandy for another.
So, as an academic and practical endeavor, I'll
examine the much-used term.
Which parts of a guitar most exhibit the
effects of being played? Considering the pure
mechanics of playing, frets should be the first
element that shows wear.
For some, fret wear is the only legitimate
form of wear; everything else is "abuse." And
the good news is frets can be replaced easily by
a competent luthier.
The most visible "honest" wear is pick
damage. Wear above a flat-top's soundhole is
typically caused by a thumb pick. Below the
soundhole (especially diagonal strokes) are
commonly the result of a flat pick. I often see
pick wear above the fretboard on the upper bout,
usually caused by pickers seeking mellower tone.
For some collectors, pick wear is acceptable
as long as it doesn't dig too deeply into the top.
For others, anything more than a few rub marks
is too much. Some believe a heavily worn top
is a sign the guitar was played a lot because it
sounds so good. For me, that has always been
a big "maybe."
At a recent picking event, discussion turned
to guitar-contest prizes and how at a festival
several years ago, prizes included big, shiny,
rodeo-style belt buckles - once an essential
accessory for red-blooded American males
who performed onstage. But players who wore
them often induced an effect known as buckle
rash, which today is seen on the backs of many
It took only a few minutes of play to engrave
a nasty "design" in a guitar's back. Some instruments display multiple points of contact.
The term "honest wear" implies there's
"dishonest wear" doesn't it? The primary cause
of dishonest wear is trauma, and the most
common on vintage guitars is a broken neck
Often, breaks are the result of a tip or drop;
if the headstock is not properly supported in
the guitar's case, the whiplash effect of a drop
can cause a break where the neck and headstock
meet. I've never seen a headstock repair, no
matter how well-executed, that did not have a
negative effect on a guitar's value.
Cracks in the body caused by improper
humidification or trauma also detract from a
guitar's desirability. Of course, the quality of
a repair determines whether the cracks create
a problem; done well, a repair can be virtually
imperceptible from the outside. Only by looking
inside can one see cleats and glue.
Even serious body damage can be fixed by
a skilled luthier. My '36 Martin 000-18 had
extensive work to repair cracks, but from the
outside you'd be hard-pressed to find them.
Photo courtesy of Dan Erlewine.
WEAR OR ABUSE?
There was a time when capos were not as
zero-impact as they are today. Many left marks
and dents that can create a serious distraction.
I once had a mandolin that had been re-fretted
by a luthier with a good reputation. It came
back with several small lateral indents at the
center of the neck profile left by a support tool
that was not designed for mandolin necks. I
could not get comfortable with the instrument,
and sold it soon after. If the feel of the neck is
critical to you, a gouge in the wrong place can
ruin the experience.