Golden Era Electrics
When I started buying and selling guitars in the 1960s, most of the used
– no one called them “vintage” yet – electric guitars that I found in
Chicago pawnshops were from a time period that we now think of
as a Golden Era for the major makers of electric guitars.
finest ever made by the company.
I didn’t know at the time, of course, that I was in a Golden Era, but
by 1970, when I opened my shop in Nashville, musicians as well
as dealers who took in used instruments were well aware that the
current new models made by Gibson and Fender weren’t quite
up to the standards of those from the 1950s and early-1960s. I
still have one of my handwritten inventory lists from 1973, which
featured a 1958 sunburst Les Paul for $1200 and a ’ 60 for $1300
– already more than double the price of a new model.
Rickenbacker guitars and basses, 1950s-1960s
The Golden Era for Rickenbackers began in the 1950s with
the Spanish-neck models designed by Roger Rossmeisl. Rick’s
12-string electrics are among the most collectible 12-strings ever
made by any manufacturer, and their neck-thru-body basses have
always been highly regarded. Unlike Gibson and Fender, Rick’s
Golden Era is not tied in with an ownership or management
change, but with the end of the “toaster top” pickups and check-
Much has changed, as digital technology has revolutionized
manufacturing, recording and amplification – just about everything
except the electric guitar itself. The Golden Eras that we recognized in the early-1970s are still Golden Eras, and virtually no new
ones have appeared. Here’s a quick rundown of the Golden Eras
for various companies.
While there are some collectible and historically important Epi electrics
from the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn’t until Gibson bought
Epiphone in 1958 and began making Epis in the Gibson plant that
any semblance of a Golden Era began for Epiphone. It ended when
Gibson’s Golden Era ended, with Ted McCarty’s departure.
Pre-World War II Electrics
The period from 1932, when Rickenbacker introduced the modern
electro-magnetic pickup, to World War II, when manufacturers
curtailed electric production, is a fascinating period, but it was
the dawning of an era rather than a Golden Era. With the exception of Rickenbacker’s electric Hawaiian guitars with
the horseshoe-shaped pickup, which are as viable
today as they were when they were new, and
Gibson’s ES- 150 and ES-250, with their “Charlie
Christian” blade pickups, the typical prewar
electrics had weak pickups or were cheaply
made, and they fall far short of the Golden Era
standards set by the acoustic guitars of Martin
and Gibson during the same period.
Gretsch collectors may disagree, but the classic era for Gretsch electrics was not really a Golden Era. Yes, Gretsch played an important
role in the 1950s and early 1960s, leading the industry with colorful
finishes and Western-themed “rockabilly” ornamentation, rivaling
Gibson in developing a humbucking pickup, and marketing (though
not with lasting influence) such innovative features as stereo electronics, string mutes and (the worst) the tuning fork bridge. However, in
my opinion Gretsch fails to qualify for a Golden Era because the guitars from the company’s most important years fall short of Gibsons
and Fenders when it comes to quality.
The Golden Era for Gibson electrics is – not coincidentally – the same period that Ted McCarty
was president of the company. McCarty oversaw
important developments in electric archtops
(the triple-pickup ES- 5 and the artist signature
models of the 1960s) and solidbodies (Les
Pauls, Korinas, SGs), along with the humbucking pickup and the semi-hollowbody electric.
Most musicians and collectors view these as
some of the finest sounding and aesthetically
pleasing electrics ever made.
What makes a Golden Era?
The instruments that elevate a company to Golden
Era status have typically been superbly made, with
great sound and great looks. Moreover, they intro-
duced innovative design concepts so that they were
effectively not competing with any used instruments
of the day. In many cases, these designs have yet to be
Just as we didn’t realize in the 1960s that we were
in a Golden Era, we may look back on current
times as a Golden Era of digital technology. It has
certainly improved consistency of guitar produc-
tion, and it has revolutionized the processing of
a guitar signal. However, as long as Strats, Teles,
Les Pauls, ES-335s and the other Golden Era
models continue to meet musicians’ demands
for sound and playability, we are unlikely to see
Fender guitars and basses, 1950 to early 1965 another Golden Era with revolutionary innovations in
Instruments made from 1950, when the Broadcaster Fender’s Stratocaster debuted in 1954 guitar design.
(soon to be Telecaster) and Esquire were introduced, and has been an enduring model of the
guitar industry ever since
until Fender’s acquisition by CBS at the beginning
of 1965, are viewed as the ultimate Fenders. In the opinion of most
players, as well as collectors, these instruments remain unrivaled in
tone. Fender basses made from the introduction of the Precision in
1951 through the end of the Leo Fender era are considered to be the
has been dealing vintage guitars since the 1960s. Gruhn’s
Guide to Vintage Guitars (co-written with Walter Carter)
is the “bible” for vintage collectors. Visit gruhn.com or