GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Existential Dilemma

June 5th, 2019 • ES 330, ES 335, ES 345, ES 3559 Comments »

This is my main player. It’s an original finish blonde 1959 ES-345. It has had the neck replaced and a couple of holes filled. I don’t know what it’s worth but I know for sure it’s worth a lot less than it would be if it was all there.

I don’t usually comment on guitars for sale elsewhere but I came across a listing recently that brings up some interesting (and important) questions. I think we all agree that a refinished guitar is worth around half of what an original finish guitar is worth. Maybe as high as 60% in some cases and maybe lower but always in the neighborhood. But I recently came across a blonde 1960 ES-335 that was listed for $41,000. A blonde 60 with the original finish would sell for between $80,000 to $95,000 depending on condition and a few other factors (pickup bobbins, neck profile). So, $41,000 is a reasonable price. Or is it? The listing points out that the guitar was a factory blonde and I suppose that should count for something. But, a properly stripped sunburst 60 that has been refinished blonde would be, in theory, a $15,000 guitar. So, is the fact that the guitar left the factory as a blonde really worth an additional $26,000? Therein lies the dilemma.

Let’s look at it from a different perspective for a moment. Let’s say I have a refinished Stratocaster. It’s a sunburst 64 but it was originally surf green. Is the fact it was once surf green-a rare and valuable color-have any bearing on the value of it in its refinished state? If not, then if I refinish it again in surf green, is it worth more than it was as a sunburst? Or, conversely, if it was originally sunburst and has been refinished in a rare color is it worth more? Most of you (and me) would say no. Otherwise, we’d be refinishing refinished guitars and making a good living doing it.

So, what is refinished blonde ES-335 worth? Good question. To answer it I think you have to ask “what is it that I’m paying a premium for?” Let’s say the guitar as an instrument is worth whatever a refinished sunburst is worth-a refinished sunburst and a refinished blonde will be, ultimately, the same guitar from a players standpoint. As a collector’s piece, it’s value as an original (beyond the value as an instrument) is gone. I justify that by saying that a sunburst that has been competently refinished blonde looks exactly the same as a blonde refinished blonde. I’ll ask another question that might shed light…is a factory stop tail that has had a Bigsby added worth more than a factory Bigsby that has had a stop tail added? I would say they are worth the same. By that logic, the sunburst refinished blonde and the refinished blonde are worth the same.

I can confuse the issue even more. A blonde has only  clear lacquer. A sunburst has color and clear. A sunburst that has its original color but has been over-sprayed with clear is worth more than a total refinish. So, do we treat a refinished blonde that has always been blonde as an overspray?  Just a thought.

A few years ago. I had a client looking for a blonde 345. Blonde 345’s don’t come up for sale very often. They made 211 335’s in blonde but they only made 50 345’s. I was offered a refinished 60 ES-345 that was originally sunburst. The finish, while not perfect, was decent. There was some dark paint left in the routs and it would never be passed off as anything but a refinished sunburst. It sold for $20,000 which was way less than half the value of a blonde 345 at the time. But, and it’s a pretty big but, that $20,000 was a whole lot more than a sunburst 60 refinished in sunburst would have brought. I find that hard to justify but I don’t make the rules. I guess if you want a vintage blonde and you don’t want to pay a huge premium for it, then perhaps this makes sense.

So, I guess that a blonde that’s refinished blonde is worth more than a sunburst refinished blonde. But that begs the next question. Is a blonde refinished sunburst worth more than a sunburst refinished sunburst? I sure don’t think so but I’ve really just made a pretty good argument that it actually is. I think the key is the desirability of the end product. People want a blonde and will pay extra for it, regardless of its former configuration. If you had a truckload of refinished sunburst 59 ES-335s and you refinished them all in blonde, you would probably make money not that I suggest you do that.

This is making my head hurt. I’m going to go play a guitar for a while. There’s a blonde one around here somewhere.

Blondes will always command a premium. A blonde refinished blonde (with documentation) should be worth more than a sunburst refinished blonde…right?

Changes 1962

May 22nd, 2019 • ES 3354 Comments »

It’s a dot neck AND it’s a 62. Last of the dots were shipped in early 62. Then the blocks took over.

OK, back to the “changes” series just in time for Gibson to make a couple of big ones. It’s 1962. Men have flown into space, the young president is scaring the crap out of us with the Russians and their missiles and rock and roll is here to stay. But the dot neck 335 isn’t. Most folks equate 62 as the year of the block neck but it didn’t start that way. The first 62’s were, in fact, dot necks. You don’t see a lot of them and, while I don’t know exactly when the change was made, it seems like it had to have been very early in the year-my guess is early February. Out of the hundreds of 335’s that have passed through my shop, only two 62 dot necks have been among them. Why change from dots to blocks? As I understand it, a lot of buyers were put off by the dot markers because they were associated with the cheapest guitars in the Gibson lineup and the 335, while nowhere near the top of the line, was not a cheap guitar. So, to bring in those buyers who didn’t want to appear to be playing a cheap guitar, Gibson changed the markers to small blocks. Probably cost them about 75 cents extra per guitar. They were still cheap plastic. Only the 355 got real MOP.

The ABR-1 bridge was still the no wire type in 1962 but by the end of the year, the nylon saddles start to appear. I’ve always thought the nylon saddles showed up in 63 with the wire type bridges but I recently bought a 62 from the original owner who said he never changed the saddles and they were nylon. There is also some question about when the wire type bridge appeared. I’ve seen them on 62’s but I’ve seen no wire bridges on 63’s. Two things going on here. One, the change probably transitioned over a period of time and second, some folks are probably scavenging the no wire from a 62 and replacing it with a wire bridge and selling the no wire for big bucks.

The other big change to occur in 62 is only big in the collective mind of the collector. The venerable “Patent Applied For” pickup finally got its patent number assigned. Oddly, the number that Gibson put on the sticker wasn’t the correct patent number for the pickup. It’s the patent number for the Les Paul trapeze tailpiece. Why that is has been the subject of debate for as long as I can remember. As most of you already know, the only thing that actually changed when they went from PAF to patent number pickups was the sticker (The $1000 sticker). There are 62’s with two PAFs, two patent numbers and one of each. You also start seeing pickups with no sign of any label at all. There could be a number of reasons for that. Some pickups got neglected or somebody had a 62 with one PAF and one patent and wanted to make it look like both were PAFs and if one had a PAF sticker and the other had no sticker, well, doesn’t logic dictate that they are both PAFs? No, it doesn’t and don’t be fooled by some genius who tells you that.

So, 1962 is the year of some big changes but not a year for a lot of changes. If it ain’t broke… 62’s are wonderful guitars-to me it is a real sleeper year. The neck profile is still slim but it is usually slightly larger than a 61 “blade” neck. The center block is still solid (with a few exceptions) and the ears are still Mickey Mouse. And the 335 is still great

One of each. 62 is the first year of the patent number pickup, replacing (slowly) the PAF. PAFs will still show up for years but not as frequently. The pickup didn’t change, only the sticker.

A block neck 62 with the short lived (and horrible) sideways trem. I know, it’s not connected but it’s the only photo I have. It looks pretty cool but unless it’s perfectly set up, it just goes out of tune. You could still get a Bigsby and many trem equipped 335’s had the stud bushings for a stop tail covered with the “Custom Made” plaque (which they weren’t).

 

His Royal Harness

May 12th, 2019 • ES 330, ES 335, ES 345, ES 355, Gibson General4 Comments »

This is 1959 harness. The bumblebees are the Mylar type. The black tubing was added except by the jack. Some harnesses have no insulation some do. It’s a crapshoot. These are Centralab pots-the date code is on the side on three of them. The fourth is also a Centralab but the code is on the top. Go figure.

OK, bad pun. Best I could do with the word harness. Electricity doesn’t know how old the parts are that it’s flowing through. If the values are the same, then the signal is the same. If the old parts have drifted, then the signal will change. I don’t usually measure the components in the harness when I get a guitar. If it sounds good and the pots work properly, I leave it alone. I have dropped new harnesses into a lot of guitars and I can’t say that a good new harness sounds any different than a good old one. Oddly (or, given the mindset of most of us vintage idiots, not so oddly) we will pay $1000 or more for a 58 or 59 date coded harness. I know, I’ve paid it. If you’re going to spend all that money to make your guitar right (or make your reissue closer to the real thing) you should know what’s in there.

There are four pots (you  knew that), two capacitors, a three way switch, a jack and a bunch of wire in a 335 or mono 355 harness. The pots in a 335/345/355 are 500K. There is a shielding can around three of them in a 345 and a stereo 355. The bridge pickup tone pot doesn’t get a can because it won’t fit (the pot is too close to the rim). So, don’t get your BVD’s in a bunch if your expensive 59 ES345 has only three cans. The capacitors have a value of .022uF. A 345 has the Varitone circuit-a two sided inductor (choke) and a 6 way switch with a load of resistors and capacitors (or two big multivalue chips). I’ve covered the Varitone in earlier posts so we’ll leave it alone.

Gibson used pots made by a few vendors and all the pots I’ve ever seen have a date code which is pretty useful if you don’t know what year your guitar was made. But keep in mind, a date code only shows you the oldest your guitar can be. You might find a 58 date code in a 60 guitar. You won’t find a 60 date code in a 58, however. Pot codes have 6 or 7 digits. Gibson generally used pots made by Centralab from 58 to 62. The three digit manufacturer code on a Centralab is 134. The next 3 or 4 digits are the week and the year. So a pot with the code 134832 would be the 32nd week of 1958. From 63 until 69 Gibson usually used pots made by CTS which have a 137 code. Same deal a pot with 137409 would be 9th week of 1964. Note that they added a second digit to the year in the 70’s to differentiate 60’s pots from 70’s and later. There were a few other manufacturers pots-mostly early on-that made their way into Gibsons. That’s another post.

The capacitors exert control over the tone pots. A higher number will be darker, a lower number will be brighter. The .022uF cap found in all ES non Varitone models is made by Sprague. The well known bumblebee (it has stripes, thus the name) cap was used from 1958 until around mid 1960. The Sprague “black beauty” (it’s, uh, black) was used from 1960 onward. I don’t know what they used in the 70’s. The very early ones (58 and early 59) are paper in oil type and the later ones are mylar. I don’t think it matters much except the paper in oil caps are supposedly more prone to drift. Any ES model with a shielding can used the same value cap but it was the disc type so it would fit inside the can. I’ve experimented with caps but since I usually have the tone control dimed, it doesn’t make any difference-the cap only affects the tone if the pot is backed off.

The three way switch was made by Switchcraft and is the long body type with a steel frame in a 335 and a brass frame in a 345 or 355. Brass is closer in color to gold, so that’s why they used the brass on guitars with gold hardware. The 1/4″ jack is also made by Switchcraft and is essentially the same today as it was in 1958. The wire is coaxial with a two strand braid on the outside and a cloth covered stranded wire on the inside. That about covers the “what”. The “why” is a longer story. Why 500K pots? I dunno. Why .022uF caps? Ask an electrical engineer.

Paper in oil bumblebees on the left. You can tell PIO from Mylar by the little filler at the top. The Sprague Black Beauties on the right are Mylar and don’t have the fillers.

The Weight (Take a Load Off, Fanny)

April 29th, 2019 • ES 3355 Comments »

You can’t tell until you pick it up. This 335 (it’s a 60) could weigh 8 and a half pounds or it could weigh 7 lbs or so. The components are consistent but the weight of the wood is not. Old wood generally weighs less than new wood. Weight and tone are not tied together in a predictable way.

A reader wrote to me and said I have never done a post about the weight of 335’s. I’m not sure how I missed that considering how many people seem to ask what guitars weigh when they are considering a purchase. It was never much of an issue to me until I got older and my back started acting up. Then again, I don’t play standing up that often so even now, it isn’t that much of an issue. But the weight of a guitar is sometimes more than just a question of comfort.

ES-335’s are relatively consistent weight wise. The range is a good bit less than, say, a Les Paul. I’ve had 7.5 lb Les Pauls and I owned a 1972 Les Paul Custom that weighed nearly 13 lbs. The lightest 335 I’ve had weighed just a hair over 7 lbs and was a 62. The high end for a 60’s 335 is around 9 lbs but there are things to consider. A stop tail will weigh less than a Bigsby given that the Bigsby B7 unit itself weighs 12.5 ounces whereas a stop tail and studs weighs around 3 ounces. Another consideration is the somewhat inconsistent depth of the bodies-anywhere from around 1.6″ to 1.8″ and when the body is deeper, the center block is larger (and heavier). I’m going to assume all the maple blocks were the same size and the extra space was taken up by the spruce “filler” element that sits on top of the block. Spruce is pretty light but we’re talking ounces here. The variation in the neck sizes will also affect the weight-there’s a lot more wood in a big neck 59 than there is in a blade neck 61. Again, ounces. The 58’s and some 59 335’s had a three ply thin top and later 335’s all have four plies. That will make a small difference as well.

I’m not a wood expert but I find a great deal of the variation comes from the composition of the wood itself. Much of that weight has to do with the density of the wood and the moisture content. One of the things I don’t like about 70’s Gibsons (besides the subpar build quality) is the weight. 70’s 335’s are generally heavier than their 60’s and 50’s counterparts. I’m going to blame the quality of the wood for that or perhaps the treatment of the wood. The 70’s were about profits and I would bet that Gibson was buying the cheapest grade they could get away with. Folks talk lovingly about “old wood” and I tend to agree that the age of the wood is a factor in the tone (and the weight) of a 335. Wood dries out over time. Moisture has weight. Dry wood weighs less than wet wood. I’m not sure whether the wood used back in the 50’s and 60’s was better dried than wood today but it seems to weigh less.

So, what’s an “average” 335 weigh? Just under 8 lbs. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say 7 lbs 12 ounces. That’s a pretty comfortable weight for most players. I get asked whether weight has any bearing on tone. I would say that it can but it would be impossible to quantify. I’ve played great 335’s that weighed 7 lbs 2 ounces and great ones that weighed 8 lbs 10 ounces. I find the light ones to generally sound sweeter and, for the lack of a better term, “airier”. Or maybe that’s all in my head (or my back). Like I said, I’ve played some killer 335’s that are close to 9 lbs.

What about 345’s and 355’s? That’s a different story. They can weigh up to 10 lbs due to the weight of the stereo components. A Bigsby 345 has an extra 1.5 lbs hanging off it when compared to a 335 stop tail. The choke, Varitone switch and the shielding cans (no cans on a 335 or mono 355) weigh around 12 ounces. Add in the Bigsby and you’re right at 24 ounces (1.5 lbs). Stop tail and studs only weigh a few ounces. That is lessened a little by the cutout in the center block (which 335’s eventually got as well) but you can depend on a stereo ES being noticeably heavier than a 335. Add in the extra weight of the factory Grovers on a 355 and you’ve got a heavy guitar. Even with all that extra weight, it still weighs a lot less than a Les Paul Custom.

A 345 has a little less wood than an early 335 because the center block has a big piece cut out to accommodate the harness and choke. But it has about 3/4 of  pound of extra electronics that a 335 doesn’t have. Add in 12 ounces of Bigsby and you can easily hit 9 lbs. .

 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes 1961

April 15th, 2019 • ES 33512 Comments »

An early 61 looks a lot like a late 60 because an early 61 is the same as a late 60.Most of the changes straddled late 60 and early 61.

In the dot neck universe, the 1961 ES-335 is kind of the red headed stepchild. The reputation is not deserved. There really isn’t all that much difference between a 1959 and a 1961 ES-335 but the 59 will cost nearly twice what the 61 will cost you. What is it that makes the 61 so very inexpensive compared to the other years? Well, mostly, it’s a change that actually occurred in 1960.

As noted in the last post, there were some significant changes that were put in place in late 1960 and these changes are more associated with 1961 than 1960. Because most 60 335’s have the long guard, the general perception is that the short guard is a 61 thing. Same goes for the very thin neck profile and the white switch tip. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of changes that actually were implemented in 1961. Like the transition from 59 to 60, the transition from 60 to 61 was marked by…nothing. A late 60 is the same as an early 61.

There are long guard 61’s (not many) and there are 61’s with the amber catalin switch tip. As with most changes, they are phased in over time and the timeline in this case happens to straddle the end of the year and the beginning of the next. So, what changed during the year? The most significant change, I think, was in the pickups. They are still PAFs but 1961 marked the change from the long magnet version (A2 or A4) to the short (A5) magnet. You can probably find a 60 with a short magnet and I don’t make a habit of opening sealed PAFs but it is my best guess that the change occurred in early 61. There really isn’t that big a difference between long and short magnet PAFs-the shorter magnet is to keep the strength the same-an A5 is stronger than an A2 or A4. I find short magnet PAFs to be more consistent than long magnet but that may be due more to changes in the winding machine technology.

I think the biggest reason for the 1961 335’s relatively low price is the neck profile. In 1961, the guitar playing public was showing a preference for thinner “faster” necks and Fender, as far as sales were concerned, was eating Gibson’s lunch. Player preference has been for larger necks for a number of years now but some of that is simply “mines bigger than yours” macho BS from online forum posters who probably have never owned a 61 (or a 59) ES-335. When folks come into my shop to play multiple 335’s, the response to the big neck 59’s is “you got anything a little smaller?” It seems that when the money is on the table, the slimmer neck seems to suddenly become more palatable (and it saves you some serious money).  The 61 neck is really slim front to back-the fingerboard is still 1 11/16″ wide. There is so little wood between the truss rod and the back of the neck that even a slight over tightening of the truss rod can cause a hairline crack-usually right down the middle of the back of the neck extending from the third fret to the seventh fret. It’s an easy repair and it doesn’t cause long term problems but it’s something you should look for and be aware of. For the record, the 61 neck is pretty easy to play on. For anyone switching from a 60’s Fender, the 61 should feel pretty good. It’s not that far off from a mid 60’s Strat profile.

The 335 was intended to be a relatively low line instrument and it was considerably less expensive than the big Gibson arch tops and just over half the price of the ES-355 which is really a 335 with fancy appointments and an ebony board. That explains the cheap dot markers (which their lowest priced guitars all had) and the plastic strap buttons. In 1961, I guess they decided they could spend an extra 5 cents per guitar and upgrade the strap buttons to metal. Not a big change and, like most, it seems to have been phased in over time. It’s hard to know exactly when this occurred because a lot of the plastic ones broke and were replaced by metal over the years. It seems to have been implemented in early 61 or very late 60.

Another 1961 change doesn’t affect the guitars at all-it’s the case. Early 61’s still have the brown with pink lined case. The black with yellow case was phased in at some point probably during the first quarter. Most 61’s I’ve had have the black case. Most have the leather covered metal handle and have the Gibson badge. There are Liftons (label inside) with a heavy leather handle and the heavier textured covering but they are also black with yellow.

The only other change to occur in 1961 is not terribly significant. In 1961, the serial numbers beginning with the letter “A” were abandoned and after serial number A36147. Supposedly, the next serial number was 100 but I don’t think that’s right. I think they started at 1000. I’ve owned a lot of 61’s and I’ve never seen a three digit serial number. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. Also, at this time, Gibson started stamping the serial number into the back of the headstock as they do now. There were some odd transitional serials where an “A” serial is shown on the label but a different all digit serial shows up on the headstock. Go figure. Lastly, 61 marked the end of the factory order number. At some point in early 61 they simply stopped. The letter “Q” is the prefix for 61 but I’ve seen very few of them.

If you want a red dot neck, a 61 is very nearly your only option. There are fewer than 30 from 58-60 but over 400 in 1961. It’s not the old red that fades so beautifully. In fact, the later red often fades toward brown which is not so attractive. On the other hand an unfaded 61 in red can be stunning.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes 1960

April 1st, 2019 • ES 3356 Comments »

This beauty is identical to a late 59 and will cost you 30% less. This one is probably from March of 60. It has all the 59 features-bonnet knobs, long guard, amber switch tip, single ring tuners and a pretty big neck. I’d buy this guitar in a heartbeat if it was for sale again. I sold it a couple of years ago and it was a great one.

It’s January 4th 1960. It’s Monday. Gibson gave the workers New Years Day off last Friday and you’re back in the factory in Kalamazoo. Your hangover has, mercifully, gone away and you are ready to start a new year at the Gibson factory. You roll over a rack of 335’s to your work area and start doing whatever it is you do. This rack of 335’s (there are usually 35 to a rack) were all built last week and stamped with a factory order number beginning with the letter “S” which stands for 1959. These guitars will get their serial number once they are completed and ready to ship and that serial number will tell us that these guitars are from 1960. OK, why should I care about that, especially nearly 60 years later. Well, I’ll tell you why.

A 1959 ES-335 is worth, in todays market, 30-40% more than a 1960. You could argue that the factory order number is more significant since it signifies the year the guitar was built which is more important than when it was shipped but your buyer is going to look up the serial number and argue that it’s a 60 and your buyer would be right. But they are the same, aren’t they? Yes. They are the same at least for a few months. There were no changes at all made in early 1960. The significant changes occurred in the Fall of 1959-the slimmer neck, the steeper neck angle. An early 60 is the same as a later 59. The 1960 changes really don’t get under way until the late Spring or early Summer and, as usual, the changes occur over a period of time

The most significant change is in the neck profile. By around May or June, the profile of the neck (front to back-the width stayed the same) started to slim down from an average of .83″ at the first fret down to a very slim .79″ or so. The 12th fret measurement goes from the .94″ range down to .87″ and even less. That’s pretty slim. I won’t get into the discussion about neck girth and tone. It’s a slippery slope. But other changes were soon to follow.

I’m not totally clear on the timeline for the tuners-they get changed by their owners so frequently that it’s hard to pin down the period of change. They were still Klusons but the tips went from single ring to double ring and the oil hole went from big to small. They still shrink and fall apart. The knobs go from bonnet (burst type) to reflectors around the same time-again mid year or so. The capacitors, up to the Spring of 1960 were bumblebee Spragues but changed to Black Beauty which are pretty much the same as a later bumblebee.

Very late in the year-probably in December, another round of changes occurred. The very desirable long guards ran out and the economics probably dictated that a shorter pick guard would save a few cents on every guitar. That change is perhaps more significant than most-not because it made much functional difference but because the long guard 335’s are revered nearly as much as the big neck ones. You can’t tell a big neck 335 from a foot away but you can tell a long guard from across the room. At around the same time, the switch tip went from catalin material which turned amber to white plastic which stayed white (and usually cracked). Finally and sadly, it was the end of the line for the blonde finish. They made 88 of them making 1960 the most common of the blondes. But it also marked the beginning of the long tradition of red 335’s. There are a few 59’s (perhaps a half dozen) but red was not offered as a catalog option until 1960. What surprises most folks is how a rare a red 60 is. They made only 21 of them. A long guard red 335, to me, is the most desirable 335 ever made. It’s also worth noting that the red finish itself changed in 1960-probably in the 3rd quarter. It seems the early red dye was very reactive to sunlight and faded to that watermelon color that everybody wants. Yes, it’s the same red that disappears from a Les Paul burst.

In many ways, an early 60 ES-335 is one of the great deals in vintage. It is the same as a late 59 but minus the nearly irrational desirability of that year. 59’s are wonderful guitars-I play one myself (OK, it’s a 345 but its still a 59) but a 60 will cost you a whole lot less do everything that 59 does.

Long guard red 60. Rare and then some. There are plenty of red 61’s but the red is different and the guard is the short version. This, I guess, explains why a red 61 will cost you $20K and a red 60 will cost you more than twice that.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Part 2-1959

March 26th, 2019 • ES 3351 Comment »

When someone says dot neck 335, this is what should come to mind. A 59 sunburst, arguably the most coveted Gibson this side of a Les Paul. They sold 267 sunbursts in 1958. By 59 that number would nearly double. Why no red 59’s? Red wasn’t available as a standard color until 1960 and even then, they are as rare as hen’s teeth. There are, however, around 6 red 335’s that shipped in 1959-probably special orders or employee guitars.

So, it looks like the new ES-335 is a success and it’s time to capitalize on that success. First off, the folks at Gibson added the ES-355 to the line at the end of 1958 making what was, at the outset, an upmarket version of the 335 with a Bigsby as standard, fancy inlays, fancy bindings, an ebony fingerboard and a new see through red finish. Also, in February of 59, they released the very first of the mid market stereo ES-345’s. We’ll get to 345’s and 355’s down the road. Right now, we’ll see what changes were in store for the 335 as we entered the final year of the decade.

There were a lot of changes in 1959-some obvious but most were simply tweaks made to fix a few missteps. As I’ve said many times, the changes didn’t occur on January 1 with a change in the “model year”. Gibson didn’t really see the guitar as having a “model year”. They simply made improvements and changes (not always the same thing) when they felt it was necessary and there were few “necessary” changes made in early 59.

The tops were cracking and the bridges were collapsing. The neck angle was so shallow that the use of a thinner ABR-1 was necessary on the debut version. By late 58 and into early 59, they had to address that. Folks were apparently sending back collapsed bridges to Gibson and Gibson was taking full size ABR-1’s and milling them down to accommodate the neck angle with a somewhat beefier bridge. They did change the neck angle so that the low profile ABR-1 was no longer needed and the full profile ABR-1 was used from then on. The thin top had to go as well. Too many were cracking and the solution was pretty simple. Make the top thicker. So, they added a fourth ply and while thin top 59’s are out there, most of them seem to show up in mid year-most likely because the 335 was so successful in 1959 that the got behind and needed to crank out more guitars than they were equipped to produce. So, most likely, a sizable batch of thin tops, left over from 58 with 58 FONs show up in the A302xx range in mid June. Look for those. They are among the best.

There were a number of other changes that weren’t necessary tweaks but help to make 59 the pinnacle year for these guitars. Like the Les Paul, the 335 got bigger frets in 1959. That seems to have happened right around the first of January although its hard to know for sure because so many 58’s have been re-fretted over the years. Another change in 59 really had nothing to do with Gibson-it was the plastic formulation of the tuner tips made by Kluson. I have no idea why the change was made but the “new” plastic is famously prone to off gassing and shrinking. This change coincides with the change from the “patent applied” designation on the back of the tuner to the patent number. Nearly every 59 335 has shrunken, deteriorated tuners, whereas nearly all 58’s are still intact. This didn’t show up for many years and nobody thought much of it until decades had passed and the ravages of time caught up with the flawed formula.

Another change that wasn’t Gibson’s doing was the change to white pickup bobbins that occurred for a period of time in 1959 and into 1960 and even early 61 for gold versions. As I understand it, the manufacturer was unable to get the black butyrate plastic bobbins and simply substituted white until such time as the black became available again. Of course, while the black still lasted, you had zebra and reverse zebra PAFs and once the black ones were gone, you had double whites and once the black ones became available again, you had zebras again until the white bobbins were gone.

There are random little changes that occurred as well. There are variations among tailpieces (some 58’s have a shallower notch for the studs) and there were at least two rather different styles of saddles-some had a flatter top and some had a somewhat more knife edged top. It’s tough with saddles because so many have been replaced. There are small changes that occurred in the sunburst finishes not due to a mandate from the brass but simply because not every painter does sunburst the same and with production ramping up even higher in 59, new painters were certainly hired.

Lastly, we need to talk about the neck profile. This is what 59’s are famous for but there are at least two very different profiles to be found in 59. At the end of 58, the typical profile was round and fat. The depth behind the first fret was usually .87″-.89″ and the depth behind the 12th fret was usually just under to just over 1″. That’s a big neck. In early 59, that profile continued but some even larger necks show up-as large as .93″ at the first and retaining the 1″ to 1.05″ at the 12th. You see these monster necks in the A29xxx range but not consistently. They seem to have largely slimmed down a bit to just under .90″ again by mid year (A30xxx). It’s pretty inconsistent though since they were carved largely by hand without the benefit of CNC technology. But then, in the Fall of 59, the necks slimmed down even further-the so-called “transitional” necks. These transitional necks are very common and seem to start showing up in September in the A311xx range. It was not an immediate change-large necks can be found with later serial numbers and I’m sure there are earlier smaller necks. So, don’t simply assume a 59 has a fat neck. The transitional neck is decidedly “medium”. The first fret can be as slim as .83″ but is more typically .85″. The 12th fret depth is generally in the mid .90’s. These are wonderful, comfortable neck profiles and the favorite of many players who aren’t obsessed with the “mine’s bigger than yours”. Next up will be 1960.

Blondes were more expensive when introduced in 58. Not by much-I think it was $35 over the sunburst. A lot more now. They only made 71 in 1959.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Part 1

March 21st, 2019 • ES 3352 Comments »

The guitar at the top is a very early (April) 1958 ES-335 and the bottom one is a later 58 but still no neck binding. Pointier ears are the obvious difference between these two. There are others.

This is going to be a pretty exhaustive set of posts and they will cover a lot of ground, most of which has been covered in the past but in a more piecemeal way. What I want to do here is create a kind of 335 time line that becomes a handy reference when you need to figure what year the guitar is you are looking at (or playing) or what parts are right and wrong or simply get a better sense of what happened when and why it matters or doesn’t matter.

Just about everybody who likes 335’s will acknowledge that the early ones are better than the new ones and plenty of smart folks have put in their two cents worth as to why that is. The most frequently heard comments are “better wood” and “better pickups”. And that makes a fair amount of sense but there were a lot of changes over the years and some seem to have made a big difference while others just seemed like change for the sake of change. They also didn’t happen at predictable times of the year like on January 1. There really weren’t “model years” like cars have. A 59 is a 59 because it was shipped in 59 or, you could argue, it was built in 59. A December 31, 1958 build is 100% identical to one built right after January 1 1959.

1958

58’s are great but there were a lot of changes that occurred from 58 into 59. Remember, changes rarely happened overnight; they were phased in over time.  So, right off the bat, I have to say that early (April 58 was the release date) 58’s can be excellent guitars but, like with any new product, there were problems and they were addressed going forward. The neck angle on the new model was very shallow and required a lower profile bridge than the standard ABR-1 that had been in use for a few years. These bridges were prone to sagging and collapsing. Fix seems to have occurred around the 3rd quarter of 58. The thin bridges were replaced first with shaved full size ABR-1’s and later in 58, the neck angle was increased slightly to accommodate a full height ABR-1, although it would be increased again later. Whether these changes enhanced tone is questionable. They did improve playability by allowing more adjustment to the string height.

You can clearly ee the difference between a 1958 ABR-1 for a 335 and a later one. They tended to sag, then break and Gibson apparently got more than a few complaints about that.

In 1958, the tops were 3 ply maple plywood with a piece of poplar (usually) in the middle. These thin tops were quite resonant but also rather fragile. A good hard tug on the output cable (especially of you were using a straight plug, could cause serious cracks around the jack over time and, in extreme cases, pull the jack right out of the top sometimes taking a chunk of the top with it. Cracks elsewhere in the top were also common especially in the top layer of the plywood. Fix occurred in early 59. The problem was addressed  by adding a fourth layer to the plywood (another poplar, usually) which increased the thickness appreciably. There were a fair number of completed but unassembled bodies with thin tops that were put aside and were used later in 1959 probably because they got behind in their orders as popularity rose.

Three ply thin top 58. You can sort of see the plies here. A 59 and later 335’s will have four plies in the top.

The thing most folks notice about a 58 is a lack of binding on the neck. I’m not sure why some time in September of 1958, they started turning out 335’s with bound necks. The transition occurred over a period of around two months-I have documented bound necks as early as mid September but I’ve seen unbound necks shipped as late as late November or early December 58. I would assume it was a decision based on someone’s idea of where the 335 should fall in the Gibson guitar line. The downscale Gibsons had unbound necks while the upscale ones had binding. It may be that the brass at Gibson starting seeing the 335 as a bit more upscale than they had earlier perceived it.

There were some smaller changes that occurred in 1958 that were not really addressing an obvious shortcoming. The “ears” went from slightly pointy on the earliest 58’s to the well known “Mickey Mouse” ears that have become iconic. I’m guessing that was a matter of finalizing the tooling once they knew they had a success on their hands. The heel and tenon of the neck was actually two pieces early on and it eventually became one piece. That happened probably in June or July and was again a likely tooling or construction issue that was simplified. It had no effect on playability or tone. Finally, the Kluson tuners went from being designated “patent applied for” to displaying a patent number on the back. That happened over a period of weeks or even months in very late 58 into 59 and, at the same time, the formulation of the plastic changed and that caused some problems years later.

Patent Applied Kluson on the left, patent number on the right. The earlier ones used a different plastic formulation that is less prone to off gassing and shrinking and crumbling to dust. The transition from Patent Applied and patent number occurred in late 1958. You can see the shrinkage in the tip on the right, the patent number one. 

That’s a lot of changes to occur in a fairly short production year lasting only 9 months. Next, we’ll see what happens in 1959-the year that is generally regarded as the pinnacle year of the model.

PAF Theory

March 14th, 2019 • Gibson General11 Comments »

The $1000 sticker. make sure it looks like this or you’re getting ripped off. There is something unusual about the bottom PAF. Anybody see it?

PAF. P-A-F. Call it what you like but it conjures up visions (or the audio equivalent of a vision whatever that is) of legendary rock and blues tones. I don’t think there is anything that shares the legendary status of this pretty simple piece of electronics. Folks have taken to calling anything with a sticker a PAF and, of course, that’s not really accurate. A PAF says “Patent Applied For” on the back. Otherwise-even if everything else is exactly the same, it ain’t a PAF unless it’s got a stainless steel cover and is from 1957. It’s understandable. After all, an early patent number pickup is identical but for the sticker. I’ve written about the “thousand dollar sticker” before, so that’s not what this is about. I want to put out a theory about some early PAFs.

There are, essentially, four versions of the PAF pickup. The early PAF was made in 1956 and fitted in some steel guitars. It had a stainless steel cover and no sticker. By 57, it was being used in a few “spanish” models-the Les Paul, the ES-175 and various other arch tops. By the end of 57, it had acquired the usual nickel plated cover and the very coveted PAF sticker. The next version showed up around the middle of 59 and was identical except that one or two of the bobbins were white instead of black. The reason for this has generally been acknowledged to be a temporary shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins. It wouldn’t matter, thought the brass at Gibson-nobody will ever see the bobbins anyway and even if they did, nobody would care whether they were white or black. A less true statement has never been made. Before I get into the white bobbin theory, I’ll mention the last version of the PAF. Versions one (no sticker), two (black bobbin with sticker) and three (white bobbin(s)) all had what we refer to as a “long magnet” which was usually an Alnico 2 (or 4) that measured roughly 2.5″. The last version was an Alnico 5 and measure 2.25″. Alnico 5’s are stronger, so the shorter magnet was, essentially, the equivalent of the weaker long magnet. This final version showed up in 1961 and lasted until around 64 in the nickel version and was generally gone around the same time in the gold version but the gold ones pop up occasionally in 65 and, so I’m told, as late as 67. I’ve never seen one after 65 but I’m sure someone has.

So, there are 4 versions of the PAF. The sound of a PAF is not consistent. The winding was done by machine but there was no stop or counter on the machine. They simply wound them until they appeared full. This was around 5000 turns and got you a pickup with a DC resistance in the range of 7K to 8K. There were a few with higher DCR’s and some with lower DCRs. Doing stuff by hand will always give you some variation.

Everyone agrees that white bobbin (and zebra bobbin) PAFs are more desirable and folks always say, with a chuckle, that the white ones sound better. Rational folks know that the color of the bobbin can’t possibly make a difference in the tone, right? Well, yes, except that, in a somewhat indirect way, it actually does. Really. I’m not nuts. Here’s the theory. First off, I happen to think pickups with a somewhat higher DCR sound better to my ear. In my player 345, I have a 8.75K double white in the neck and a 8.4K reverse zebra in the bridge. That’s backwards from what folks do-most folks want the higher DCR in the bridge. But that’s not the point. I’ve tested perhaps 80-90 double white PAFs over the years and nearly all of them have higher than average DCR’s. Why is this? Well, clearly, it isn’t caused by the white bobbins-the bobbins are electronically inert. But it is caused by the white bobbins. Need an explanation? I thought so.

The windings in a PAF are enamel coated copper wire and are a very dark brown or purplish brown. Against a black bobbin, the wire is very hard to see. So, if you are winding a pickup using a black bobbin and you don’t want to put on too many windings because if you do, they will fall off the sides and you’ll have to either start over or trim some wire off. That will slow you down and I’m guessing the winders had a daily quota to fill. So, I’m certain that they erred on the side of caution and left a pretty fair amount of room on the bobbins resulting in the 7K to 8K DCRs. DCR is directly related to the number of winds. But if they are winding the pickup on a white bobbin, the dark colored wire is very easy to see and you can add hundreds of additional windings to the white bobbin and still clearly see that the wire isn’t going to “overflow” the bobbin. That results in the higher DCR’s that are very common on white PAFs.

So, do white PAFs sound better than black ones? They often do if you like “hotter” pickups. Is it worth an extra $4000 per pickup? That’s your call. A black bobbin PAF will cost you from $2000-$2800 in today’s somewhat inflated market. A double white will cost you at least $5000 and as much as $6000. I’ve seen them listed as high as $7000 but I don’t think they sell at that price. Zebras and reverse zebras are somewhere in between, although reverse zebras are crazy rare (I’ve seen 6 ever).

I love it when somebody lists a vintage guitar and says that the pickups COULD be double white or zebra. Right. Like they didn’t check. Ask them and they’ll say, “the covers have never been off so I can’t tell”. Ever hear of a screwdriver? If you want to know, you can also tun the pickup over and take out the bobbin screws-that way you can see each bobbin. It’s a small hole and it’s dark in there but shine a bright light and you’ll see the white. 

 

Life Changing Moment.

February 10th, 2019 • Uncategorized15 Comments »

I was eleven. Eleven and a half, to be precise. The rule in my parents house was no TV in the living room, so the big old black and white Zenith was in the basement playroom (remember basement playrooms?). We didn’t get a color TV until a few years later and most of the programming was in black and white anyway. As I recall on February 9, 1964, there were four of us sitting in front of the TV to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. My brothers Bob, Frank and Brian and me. My oldest brother, Ben, was a classical music snob and wanted no part of the “noise” made by these British interlopers (Oddly, he was a big Elvis fan 5 years earlier when he was 11). My parents were not interested although my father generally watched the Ed Sullivan Show and made a short appearance in the basement to offer his opinion. “You call that music?” and he stomped off up the stairs (he did a lot of stomping off). I was enthralled.

It’s easy to look back and try to analyze what goes through the mind of an eleven year old boy. While you would think eleven was a little young to want young girls screaming for you, I can assure you that at age eleven, I was well aware of the attraction of the opposite sex. We knew the music already. It had been on the radio since the Fall of 63 and the four brothers were already, to varying degrees, fans. I loved the music and, as most of you know, I still do. I can play 95% of the catalog with relative competence. I know every word to every song and can sing the harmonies to them. I can recite the American album songs in order from memory (and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning). I remember sitting a foot from the screen, trying to read the brand name on the headstock of Lennon’s little guitar and it sure looked like Rickenbacker to me, although I’d never heard of the company but then that’s no surprise because at the age of eleven, I hadn’t taken up the guitar. Not yet, anyway. That’s where the life changing moment comes in.

I knew, at the moment the first notes of “All My Loving” left Paul’s lips, that I was going to be a guitar player. Not a bass player, not a drummer, maybe not even a rock star, but I was going to play guitar. It was, in part, the screaming young girls or to expand, the adulation from nearly all sides or, more simply, the sheer attraction of being noticed and appreciated. It’s worth noting that when you grow up as a middle child in a family of nine (yeah, nine) brothers, a little recognition and a small bit of praise goes a long way. There was precious little of that. Of course, I loved the music but the visceral desire to play that instrument was so much more than that. It was more like a calling and I planned to do something about it.

I was eleven. I had no income. My father didn’t believe in the “allowance” so saving money was next to impossible. The only money earning options were a paper route (I tried that and failed miserably-too early in the morning), raking leaves for my parents-they paid 10 cents an hour (seriously) and shoveling snow (it was February in upstate New York so there was plenty of that). I’d walk around the neighborhood with a snow shovel over my shoulder ringing doorbells. For a buck, you’d get your walk shoveled. That didn’t exactly pay off either, so I took the next most promising approach. I started bugging my father to buy me a guitar. And, to my surprise, he came home one day in March or April with a Kay flat top that cost him $15 at Woolworths (remember Woolworths?). “Learn how to play this and I’ll get you a better one…and you have to take the garbage cans out to the curb for the rest of your life.” Deal. By the way, a family of 9 kids generates a lot of garbage. I was on my way to something..stardom? adoring fans? a musical career? OK, none of the above but my life would have been very different without the guitar. Very different and not nearly as good.

So, it started with the words “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you…” It ends the day I stop breathing. The guitar takes a back seat only to my wife, my son and his wife, my brothers and my dog. And it fits very nicely in the back seat, so I’m happy with that arrangement.