Verifiable, celebrity-played axes will generally set your portfolio on fire - you can't get a genuine Jimi Hendrix guitar for less than $150,000 - but the market for those is too narrow for most collectors. The majority of guys - and this is a guy thing - gravitate toward models made famous by guitar heroes of the dinosaur-rock era. The backbone of the trade is formed by 1950s and '60s Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls - "powerful talismans that became the voice of the Woodstock generation," according to the Museum of Musical Instruments in Santa Cruz, California - but collectors get sentimental for all kinds of instruments. Large-bodied Dreadnought acoustic guitars (the most famous models were made by Martin) were created in the 1930s for the blossoming bluegrass, country, blues, and jazz scenes. The guitars are cherished today for a beauty and craftsmanship that largely vanished in the late 1960s when "blue-chip" American manufacturers - Fender, Gibson, Gretsch - were bought out by large corporations. The 1965 CBS buyout of Fender is viewed as a turning point.

"One day you had Leo Fender himself watching over every aspect of production, then CBS bought the company and it was all about the bottom line," says Larry Acunto, editor of 20th Century Guitar magazine. Quality was sacrificed for quantity. The story of American guitar manufacturers mirrors the 1970s' auto world. Japanese com­panies - once ridiculed as inferior - began producing some of the world's best guitars. American makers fell behind the curve. "In the mid-'70s, Fenders were lousy," notes Acunto, pointing out one of the maxims of the trade: The best collectibles of today are generally the best guitars of their day.