"It's become so elitist" – Joe Bonamassa weighs in on players being priced out of the vintage guitar and amp market

Musician Joe Bonamassa performs onstage during the "Celebrating Bowie Tour" at Saban Theatre on October 07, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California.
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

The latest episode of Marc Huzansky and Dave Friedman's Tone-Talk podcast has Joe Bonamassa holding court on all manner of guitar subjects for nearly two hours. And he's always got plenty of interesting insight to share, but as a vintage guitar collector and a professional musician, his views on that side of things might be surprising to some players.

After paying tribute to his late friend Bernie Marsden and remembering when he would bring his '59 Les Paul The Beast to Joe's shows, the conversation turned to the spiraling prices of vintage guitars and tube amps.

I'm a collector of things, there's no secret about that

 "I'm a collector of things, there's no secret about that," began Joe. "There's two sides – as a player… what you used to be able to do is, I see a Princeton Reverb [amp] behind you, Marc. What you used to be able to do is [say], 'I'm gonna get a Princeton Reverb and see if I like it. You used to be out of pocket by maybe a $1,000 / $1,200 full retail. Now they're $3,500. Cat's can't swing that on a hunch [now]. Deluxes… they're now $4,500. Cat's can't swing that – they used to be a $1,000 or $1,500."

The problem is now the stakes are much higher for anyone buying vintage amps to actually use them. But on the guitar side things are even more prohibitive. 

"In 1990 I remember seeing my first '59 Les Paul," continues Joe. And I think it was priced at $8,500, which was staggering in 1990, because a vintage Strat would have cost you $2,000, maybe less. Now they're in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you better know what you're looking at because one mistake could cost you six figures if you're wrong about something. And it's harrowing.

At the end of the day it's just a f*****g Stratocaster – it's not going to sound much different to something you can buy new for a thousand bucks or less

"So as a collector they've been great investments," Joe notes from the other side of the customer base that he's also part of. "As a player there's real disadvantages now and I feel bad for people who are into old things, who always wanted to experiment musically with them, which is what they're for, that can't justify $55,000 for a '57 Stratocaster. And at the end of the day it's just a f*****g Stratocaster – it's not going to sound much different to something you can buy new for a thousand bucks or less."

Now that's the kind of thing we want to hear! Maybe we should all buy that new relic'd Mexican Mike McCready Strat after all. 

"That's the vintage market in a nutshell," continues Joe. "It's become so elitist, and this stuff trades amongst people who definitely are buying for either investment, or doing it for the 'gram – 'Look what I got, look how many I've got.' And I do this all the time but people know I'm nuts. And I've been doing this my whole life."

For Joe it's about being a player and a collector who wants to share his passion and knowledge of the history behind the gear.

People say, 'That '55 Strat is rare, or that '57 Strat is rare' – it's not really, Leo made a lot of them

"I put guitar [pics] on Instagram but it's not about bragging, it's about sharing," he says. "I try to share tidbits about them. And it's an appreciation society, that's what I'm trying to start. But I'm lucky because I've had this stuff for years and years and years, and I've really stopped buying a lot of stuff because of how painful it is. There's a threshold of pain on everything – now it's just crazy.  It's beyond where I ever thought I'd see it again after 2006 and 2007. When I see £80,000 on a Blackguard Tele I go, 'Did we not learn ten years ago, or more now, that when the stuff freefalls, it freefalls fast.' 

"There's no telling where the bottom is; it's a supply and demand business, and when there's no demand and there's lots of supply… People say, 'That '55 Strat is rare, or that '57 Strat is rare' – it's not really, Leo made a lot of them. He made a lot of amps, a lot of Teles. Gibson made a lot of Les Pauls. They made few Flying Vs and few Explorers so [they're] legitimately rare, and then the custom colours stuff is very rare. Especially from the '50s. But rank and file stuff, a Sunburst Strat from any year? Not really rare – they made a lot."

When Friedman asks if Joe sells back into the market he admits there's a yearly clearout in his US Nerdville homes – and his reasoning for it is clear.:"I read something about the old CEO of General Electric and he used to do it with people [staff], which is horrible to say, but he jettisoned the bottom 10 per cent of his employees – the lowest performing people every year and hire new people to try and raise the baseline. So what I do every year is take a good look at where I'm at and I probably sell off maybe 3-5% of the collection. It's either redundancies – stuff I'll never get to and I'd rather see someone else play it – and just stuff I don't need or want anymore. And I do that quietly. I won't put it on the Instagrams. 

"I think everyone has that – you just get tired of lugging it around, or it's not working for you on a musical level," opines Joe.  "Maybe, like a lot of times in my case, something very interesting or big will come around and I don't want to come out of pocket for it so I'll jettison some of this stuff and pay for something nice."

Now that's something we can all relate to, surely. 



Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.