The Collection: Shai Ashkenazi of Imperial Vintage Guitars

One of LA’s premier vintage dealers has a personal collection to die for. We head to Sherman Oaks for an audience with the good stuff and to find out about the golden rules of guitar buying.

Back in 2019, we listed Imperial Vintage as a must-visit location in our guitar-shopping guide to Los Angeles. With stores in Burbank, Sherman Oaks and Orange County, a comprehensive online inventory and a client base rich in celebrities, collectors and professional musicians, owner Shai Ashkenazi has carved out a considerable niche. He has also assembled a formidable collection along the way.

As a vintage guitar dealer, there must be a constant temptation to earmark special instruments and put them to one side. How does Shai decide what’s for him, and what’s for the store? “Fairly easily,” he says. “I’m not a musician. I’m strictly a businessman. Basically I have a certain set of rules for stuff I buy for me. Because, as the owner of three guitar shops, it can get very crazy very fast if I don’t have guidelines about what I buy and what I don’t. I can have a thousand guitars a year if I hoard everything! I can’t do that. It’s got to be like, ‘What am I into? What am I not?’”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
All-original Blackguards are Shai’s favourite instruments to collect. This 1953 Telecaster was a one-owner guitar

And he’s into Telecasters in a big way. “I love Telecasters,” he says. “I love their shape, I love their variations. I like simple. I love simplicity and minimalist design. Two knobs and two pickups. I don’t like buttons and switches and complications. But I really like cornerstone guitars, so I’m a lot more into Blackguard Teles than late 50s or 60s Teles – which, by the way, I do collect! But if it’s all-original or almost all-original, I’ll try to keep every Blackguard that comes my way.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
Vintage case-candy and promotional material is now commanding significant sums in its own right

Shai’s first Blackguard – a 1952 model – was the gateway drug. “A few years ago, I got a phone call from a small music shop close to Palm Springs, somewhere in the desert,” he remembers. “It was a Friday at 2:00pm. Friday at 2:00pm is one of the worst times to get into your car and drive anywhere in LA. Anywhere you want to go is going to take you five hours. If you are going down the street, it will take you five hours. But I got the phone call and they said they had a ’52 Tele and asked if I was interested.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
Three Blackguards: Shai’s 1952 Fender Telecaster flanked by a pair of 1953 models

The seller emailed a picture and the guitar looked the part – but they also copied in several other vintage dealers. “I said, ‘I can be at your place in three hours. With money. But I’m not coming if this is a bidding war.’”

After a long and stressful drive, Shai eventually arrived and saw the guitar on the counter. “I started looking at the guitar and I popped up the neck,” he says. “It was that click when you are the first person in the world to ever open that guitar up. It may even have the original strings.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
This well-played 1956 Whiteguard Telecaster illustrates the evolution of the design in the mid-50s

How did this holy grail instrument end up in a small guitar shop in the desert? “Some local apparently came in and said their dad was dying and they were selling everything,” says Shai. “That guitar was sitting in his closet for 20 years. It was a tiny mom and pop guitar shop that sells $100 guitars and mainly does lessons – guitar lessons, trumpet lessons, bassoon lessons. They were nice people but this guitar walked in and they really didn’t know what to do with it. But I bought it and they were very happy with the deal.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
A 1966 Telecaster with a rosewood fretboard alongside 1967 and 1968 models with maple ’boards

Sleepers and safe bets

When it comes to buying investment pieces for his personal collection, Shai says he likes “safe bets” but also some oddities, such as the ‘Bowling Ball’ Stratocasters of the 1980s. “I like those because they are kooky,” he explains. “But usually the rules for me are this: Telecasters, one-owner mint guitars, custom colours.

“I love Les Paul Customs from the 50s, I like Black Beauties. But otherwise I don’t really collect Les Pauls. I’m not into Bursts. I don’t want to collect Bursts. It gives me a lot of anxiety in terms of how they can be faked. I’m usually concentrating on sleepers that I think will be worth a lot of money later, or stuff that is a no-brainer – things that I know will always be easy to sell.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
This Fender Stratocaster was sold along with the matching Vibrolux to its original owner in 1960. It’s also one of the lightest Strats we’ve ever played

So does Shai have any advice for fledgling collectors? “Here are some general rules,” he says. “Rule number one: buy what you like. That’s really where it all begins. You can’t look at everything as an investment and concentrate on making money, because nobody has a crystal ball and can predict what’s going to happen. But don’t look for the perfect one because you’ll be in a rabbit hole for the rest of your life – buy what makes you happy for now. If you never find what makes you fully happy, at least you are somewhat happy in the process.

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
A pair of very clean Epiphone Crestwoods. Shai collects the model obsessively and estimates that he may have as many as 40 pieces

“Rule number two: try to buy vintage. It doesn’t matter if it’s a late 1970s, shitty, heavy guitar, it’s always going to go up in value more than a recent production, limited-edition or limited-colour guitar. There’s always a limited edition coming up next year but nobody has yet invented a time machine – even to go back and get a heavy late 1970s sunburst Strat! You can reissue them, but you can’t make them again.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
Though Shai plays very little and insists he is “really not an artist”, his knowledge of vintage guitars is second to none

When buying vintage, Shai advises going for all-original models… if your budget will allow it. “Honestly, it’s always safe to invest in stuff that everybody wants like Blackguards, Black Beauties and custom colours,” he says. “But to stay in the affordable range, you want to go for vintage stuff that is still low, like Melody Makers or Epiphone Olympics. Even refinished guitars.

“If you have a $40,000 guitar, if it’s refinished it’s usually worth half. It’s worth $20,000. But when the $40,000 guitar becomes a $60,000 guitar, the refinished guitar has become a $30,000 guitar. Essentially, everything goes up in value. It’s just a question of how long it takes. So, if you buy what you like, if you are buying stuff that’s old and you do your research so you know what to pay, you really can’t lose.”

Imperial Vintage Guitar Collection
A pyramid of Les Paul Customs – another “safe bet” that Shai collects

Market forces

Anyone who has been following the prices of vintage instruments over the past couple of years will have noticed a sharp rise since the start of the pandemic.

“We are in a crazy market right now,” says Shai. “We are at the height of the market. I’m not gonna say things will go down but things will calm. A lot of collecting and buying has to do with understanding values versus the current market. A lot of people come in and say, ‘Wow! Three grand for this? I remember when this was $1,000.’ Gas used to be 50 cents a gallon, now it’s four dollars. What are you going to do? Wait for it to be 50 cents again? Because that’s never going to happen. You should fill it up now because soon it’s going to be six dollars.”

What about the inevitable assertion that musical instruments are designed to be played rather than locked away in storage. Does that bother him? “These need to be preserved more than they need to be played,” Shai insists. “These are pieces of history. They should all be played but it’s just like people with a classic car – they are not driving it on a daily basis on their commute to work. They store it in their garage and drive it on the weekend, clean it up and wipe it down. They’ve got their beaters that get dents on them every single day and they don’t care because they are gonna sell them and replace them next year.”

Visit imperialvintageguitars.com for more.