Assessing the Condition of Old 78 RPM Discs

By Tim Gracyk

Columbia Disc

Collectors of old 78 rpm records are sensitive about condition. A warp, scratch, or chip can lower the value of an old record considerably. When non-collectors describe to me on the phone the old records they inherited from parents, they lack the special vocabulary that lets them assess condition. Most talk about old 78s this way: "They look playable--they have scratches but that's expected on old records, right?"

Since many record collectors do buying through the mail, sometimes by bidding on auctions, they rely on a special language. Using select phases, collectors help fellow enthusiasts envision the condition of a given record. When people bid on rare records on auction lists, they want to know what exactly they are bidding on!

I list here some standard phrases used by record fanatics across the country. This may help readers who are uncertain about the condition of their own 78s. When we have the right words or phrases, we know what to look for.

Record collectors use a grading system that goes from E (excellent) to VG (very good, which actually means a bit worn) to F (fair, which is a euphemism for unplayable). "Plus" (+) and "minus" (-) symbols are used heavily. Some dealers go overboard. I'm not sure what "+++" or "----" means.

Why would one want an unplayable, or F, record? So one can brag about owning a rare jazz title or obscure blues record. Suppose you are determined to own an original Gennett 78 of Louis Armstrong playing with King Oliver's band. You may have to settle for a copy in unplayable condition and expect to pay a high sum to wrestle it from a jazz enthusiast's collection. Some settle for badly worn records because the labels are interesting and nothing cleaner can be found. I never keep 78s if they are in such bad shape. If a record cannot be played, I put it in the trash. Then I buy the CD.

Any record graded E+ is a disc one can be proud to own. It still has a shine to it--no abrasions, no rubs. Some collectors use M- or N- to indicate mint or new, with the minus indicating that records manufactured decades ago cannot really be mint or new. If records have never been played--let's say they sat in boxes in a warehouse for decades--they are "store stock." Such discs generate excitement when offered for sale!

Some dealers grade records after a simple visual inspection, but this is misleading since not all 78s play the way they look. It is better to hear the records and then grade for surface noise. This is "aural grading."

One of the new Okey Records

Aural grading is important since all 78s have surface noise. Surface noise can be so obtrusive that I avoid certain labels altogether. A misfortune of the bebop movement in jazz is that the shellac used for many bebop 78s was inferior material. These records were pressed around World War II, a period of acute shortages. Charlie Parker 78s are not always a pleasure to hear. Surface noise can drown out the music.

Columbia Viva-Tonal 78s, from the late 1920s, are among the best sounding records, with minimal surface noise. RCA Victor used a tiny "z" in the run-off area of some 78s pressed in the 1930s to indicate that high quality shellac was used. These sound great!

A normal crack in a record is easy to spot, but a "hairline crack" is not. Only the trained eye detects hairline cracks. Actually, if a record from the 1940s buzzes when you tap it, then it has a crack somewhere. Honest dealers specify which 78s have hairline cracks. Lamination cracks result from the type of shellac used (as opposed to cracking from bad handling), and most collectors tolerate these.

Rim chips come in many shapes. The worst is the rim chip that affects the opening grooves of a record.

A needle dig is the mark left by a Victrola needle after someone, perhaps decades ago, carelessly dropped the soundbox of a Victrola onto a record (one must be gentle!). Such holes cause skipping, or the needle gets stuck here.

A "needle run on the label" means that a label has been ruined because a Victrola needle made its way onto the label itself, tearing circles into the paper. Collectors care about labels and pay less if labels are defaced by stickers or writing. Of course, if a notable artist had autographed a label--white ink was used most often--then value shoots up! I have some 78s signed by Elizabeth and William Wheeler. I wonder how much longer I will have to wait before these become collectible?

Portable machine