Prowling around a closet or attic you come across that daisy decal-festooned ‘60s-era electric guitar you remember your dad occasionally plinking on. How do you tell if you’ve got a potential treasure worth thousands, a piece of family memorabilia that has keepsake value or a Goodwill giveaway?

Read on to learn how you can assess whether you’re sitting on a treasure, trash or something in between.

In the world of music gear the term “vintage” carries a lot of cachet. Manufacturers invoke the V-word to cash in on the allure of classic gear. Brand-new guitars receive aging treatments to give them the look of a much-played elderly instrument. Manufacturers put oxblood and tweed grille cloth and coverings on spanking-new amps to conjure a retro vibe.

What’s drives a lot of this quest for vintage mojo is the fact that certain highly collectible guitars command huge sums these days. Because of their iconic status plus wonderful playability and craftsmanship, well-preserved Gibson Les Pauls, Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, and vintage Martin acoustic guitars can bring in a king’s ransom.

Even lesser known brands and models in good condition command big price tags. There’s a huge market in vintage guitars, that includes collectors who specialize in all sorts of offbeat instruments. For example, some collect 1960s vintage Japanese and Italian models bristling with strange control knobs, futuristic plastic parts and three or four no-name pickups.

Factors That Primarily Dictate a Guitar's Value

Condition: A mint-condition instrument that includes its original case and parts commands top dollar. Any modifications or repairs, even those expertly performed, will likely reduce the value. The value drops off sharply for guitars rated in “good” or “fair” condition.

Rarity/Demand: These two factors often go hand-in-hand. As mentioned above, however, there are many specialty collectors willing to pay more for a less in-demand guitar if it fills a missing spot in their collection.

Age: While an older guitar will generally command a greater value than a newer one, there are many model-specific exceptions. Consulting price guides and checking the prices of similar models will help zero in on a value.

Memorabilia/provenance value: Instruments owned by notable players or those having other historic interest will bring in top prices. For example, charred Stratocasters that Jimi Hendrix immolated onstage have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

1. Identify What You’ve Got

To the untrained eye, a highly desirable 1960s model and a recent reissue will look essentially the same. It is essential to identify exactly what the vintage of a given instrument is. Serial numbers, hardware, finishes, workmanship, electronics, woods and materials will all offer clues. As noted below, guitar price guides are invaluable in running down the pedigree of the instrument.

2. Check The Condition

  • Are there any scratches or cracks?
  • Is the neck warped?
  • Are the frets worn?
  • Are there any separating glue joints?

Any significant blemishes will diminish the value of the guitar. It’s normal for older guitars to have a little wear and tear, but truly vintage instruments will be structurally sound, play well and reflect pride of ownership.

3. Has it Been Altered?

Musicians don’t usually consider the value of their instrument 50 years on when they change pickups or slap stickers on it. The less a guitar has been messed with, the better. An instrument that has a few scratches on it but has all its original parts and finish is usually worth more than a perfectly refinished specimen.

4. Listen to the Tone

Even if the body looks perfect, the guitar is no good if its sound is muddy. It should sound clear and crisp. Issues such as fret buzzing may be significant or minor depending on their cause. If the neck is severely warped, that will usually seriously diminish the guitar’s value. On the other hand, if a little set up work will cure buzzes and tuning issues, the impact on value is negligible. A guitar tech should be consulted if you’re not comfortable with setting up a guitar.

5. Rare Woods and Materials

Due to their endangered status and scarcity, certain prized tonewoods such as Brazilian rosewood are no longer used to build guitars. The same is true for tortoiseshell, ivory, and ebony inlays and embellishments. Their presence signifies a quality instrument and will usually positively impact the guitar’s value.

6. Do Your Research

A quick Google or Ebay search of your make and model will show you what others are selling guitars like yours for. You can also consult the Blue Book of Guitar Values to see what it is worth. Another great resource is Vintage Guitar Magazine's Price Guide, which is regularly updated and available at Amazon.

7. Get An Appraisal

If your initial research leads you to believe you’ve unearthed a real treasure, getting an appraisal from a reputable luthier may make sense. It’s best to find someone who comes recommended and who doesn’t have an axe to grind. A disinterested third-party expert may give you a more honest appraisal than a dealer interested in maximizing his profit when he resells your instrument.