Bluebook Publications, Inc. www.bluebookinc.com
Blue Book Publications has made a name for themselves by publishing comprehensive and respected guides for used guitars, both acoustic and electric. Now in its 13th edition, the Blue Book of Electric Guitars weighs in at a whopping 1,300+ pages. Its unplugged counterpart, Blue Book of Acoustic Guitars, also in its 13th edition, is over 800 pages. These books are available in different formats: soft cover (price listed above), combo pack ($59.95), a three-pack (which includes amps, $74.95), or CD-ROM ($49.95, MSRP). My review units were the soft-cover books, which happens to be my preferred medium. I don't mind my reference and trade materials being an actual book. The larger format (it’s now 8.5"x11" instead of 6"x9", as in earlier versions) allows for more information on the page and makes it more of a true reference tool.
I can see the value of a CD-ROM for search purposes, and for being able to look up a guitar's value on my laptop while on the road. For serious and professional collectors, this would be the way to go. But it's so much fun to thumb through the pages sitting at my dining room table, I wouldn't want to lose that experince to a screen. Besides, the Blue Book offers web access to see over 6,000 color images of selected guitar models.
Both volumes are identical in organization and structure; they're merely separated by whether the instruments are acoustic or electric. If you have trouble deciding whether a certain archtop jazz guitar is in fact acoustic or electric, you should just buy both volumes to have the complete set. For less than $60, you'll be the envy of your used-guitar collector friends.
The info in the Blue Book is collected and assembled by author Zachary R. Fjestad, with support from contributing editors, auction tracking results, and dealer and collector reports. Mr. Fjestad & Co. manage to make quite readable and entertaining a large collection of listings and data. Most people will be tempted, as I was, to immediately flip open the book and look up a guitar that they either already own, or have been following with interest, and therefore may know something about its market value. A quick look at the entry for a Gibson L-5 CES (Fig. 1), a guitar I own and track on the used markets, revealed that the price estimates are very much in line with my experience:
Fig. 1. The listing for the Gibson L-5, a jazz guitar in several configurations, which will fetch a pretty penny on the used market, if it’s in 100\\% new condition. (Click images to enlarge.)
As Figure 1 shows, each piece information in the listings is intuitively presented, and the terms are easy to understand. But there is a lot to take in, so you can benefit by reading up on some of the Blue Book’s specific nomenclature, notably, explanations of the gray bars that signify the instrument's condition (and price determinant), and the guitar icons in the left margin.
So before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how to use the Blue Book effectively, and take a look at some of its key sections.
Though you certainly will use this book in a modular fashion—skipping around to the various alphabetical section looking for specific makes and models, it’s helpful to start at the beginning of the book. Here, informative front matter tells you how the book is organized and explains the updates and enhancements for the current edition. For example, there’s a new 15-page Color Grading System, which features high-quality color photos on coated paper stock (Fig. 2). This is a nice addition to the book showing exactly what differentiates, say, a 100\\% New-condition specimen from a 90\\% Excellent one, or an 80\\% Very Good Plus guitar from one that’s merely 70\\% Very Good. The Blue Book uses nine grades, with detailed explanations defining the different qualities:
Fig. 2. The Photo Grading System is useful for showing the conditions of used guitars, and the criteria on which the value is based.
While perhaps not a standard everyone may recognize, a buyer or seller in possession of a Blue Book can refer the other to this guide as a point of common ground for negotiating. It’s well thought out and logical, not only in the divisions and descriptions, but the price variances assigned to each grade. As the book correctly notes, condition is the most important factor for determining a guitar's value, so knowing the differences well--and even committing them to memory--is critical to understanding the whole used-instrument market.
A big question that concerns used instruments is what vintage they are, and the way you determine that is most often through its serial number (though this is not always a foolproof way). The Blue Book’s guide to serialization may not list serial numbers for every guitar make and model on the planet—as such a thing would be impossible—but it does provide general information that’s quite helpful. It’s a real kick to hear how different companies have tried to tackle this seemingly straightforward task. You learn, for example, that B.C. Rich was quite successful using a five-digit scheme, encoded XYZZZ, with the first two digits indicating the year and the last three for consecutive models in production. But by the late ’70s, they exceeded 999 units, and therefore ran out of numbers. They began using serial numbers meant for the following year’s production. In 1980, the serial numbers were two years ahead; by 1981, they off by four years! Figure 3 shows a sample page from the very entertaining (who knew?) chapter on Serialization.
Fig. 3. The chapter on serialization provides serial number ranges (where available) as well as insight into various guitar maker’s strategies.
In its latest edition, the Blue Book has taken steps to integrate the printed page with the web. The book puts a guitar icon in the left margin whenever a listed guitar has a corresponding photo. For example, in the listing of PRS models, the Custom 22, one of PRS’s most popular models, is not only shown in a photograph on the page (see Fig. 4), but has a photo on the web. This makes it handy if you need to refer someone to the specific model you’re talking about. Also, if you weren’t aware of—let alone had seen—the 12-string version of the PRS Custom (the 22/12), the Blue Book will send you scrambling to the web (Fig. 5). You can also subscribe to a web version of the entire Blue Book for as little as $4.95, which will give you access to updates and additions as they become available.
Fig. 4. Listings in the book that have a guitar icon in the margin have a corresponding photo on the web.Note in the page excerpt above, both the PRS Custom 22 and 22/12 have icons.
Fig. 5. Shown here are the PRS 12/22 models on the Blue Book website, as indicated in Fig. 4 above.
Another helpful tool is the book's index. This is perhaps the best way to familiarize yourself with a manufacturer's models and lines, as it hierarchically lists editions as separate entries. For example, under Gibson/Les Paul Series, the book provides 15 different sub-classifications, including Classic, Custom, Double Cutaway, Special Studio, Anniversary, Signature, and more. If you don't know exactly what model you're looking for, but have it narrowed down to a model or line, the index can help you sort things out. Figure 5 shows the index page that has Gretsch, Guild, and Hamer. This is one of the book's secret weapons--showing the various models and lines throughout a company's production history--and it's in the index!
Fig. 5. The index is a helpful tool for showing makes and models in a hierarchical fashion.
Another nice touch in the book's interior is that every manufacturer's listings begins with a history or overview of the company, often mentioning relevant aspects for the collector. If you're unclear as to when CBS bought Fender, for example (and why collectors always crow about "pre-CBS" model guitars), you can read about it here. And it's not just the majors (like Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, Washburn) who get the historical treatment, but smaller companies and luthiers, such as Dan Armstrong, Bob Benedetto, and Ned Steinberger.
The Blue Book of Guitars (both volumes, electric and acoustic) provides a comprehensive resource for investigating used guitars. More than being comprehensive, though, the Blue Books, with their reader-friendly layout, logical A-to-Z organization, and helpful articles and guides surrounding this well-organized listings, provide a rich narrative of the history of guitar making itself, and makes it easy for a reader to "become lost" in the pages--even if you just set out to check a simple fact or compare an eBay asking price. And when a reference book can do that--allow you to wander off to your heart's content amidst a catalog of good organization and consistent presentation--it's a testament to its success as an indispensable resource.