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In•to•na•tion (and the Little Holes You Can’t See)

September 24th, 2019 • Uncategorized4 Comments »

Looks like a near mint 62 that will fetch top dollar from the most discriminating collector, right? Nope. It seems there was a problem with the intonation and a small but unfortunate mod was done. Can’t see it, can you.

Intonation is one of those technical things that a lot of guitar players are aware of but don’t entirely understand. To be truthful, I don’t entirely understand the physics behind it but I do understand how to deal with it. Rather than explain the physics (after all, this isn’t a blog for guitar techs), I’ll try to explain how to deal with it on your ES guitar and warn you about some of the idiosyncrasies regarding intonation of early 335’s.

So, you tune your guitar perfectly with open strings using your handy little clip on tuner or your phone app. It’s dead on. But when you play a chord at the the 8th fret, something doesn’t sound right. Probably your intonation isn’t properly set up. Unlike a violin where you put your finger anywhere on the string to get the note you want to play, the guitar was frets which dictate where the note you’re trying play is located on the fingerboard. The trouble is that not all strings act the same way due to differences in thickness and other factors. The actual length of the vibrating string dictates what note (and whether its in tune or flat or sharp) will play at any given fret. So, if your string length isn’t exactly right, your guitar will be out of tune in some places but not in others. Yikes.

You’ll note that most electric guitars have bridges that have some degree of adjustment forward and back-some for each string, like an ABR-1 and some more generally like a wrap tail. Setting the intonation is really easy on an ABR-1, so I’ll give you the two sentence “how to” and then talk about the weird stuff that goes on with 335’s which is why you’re reading this in the first place. Play the open string. Tune it. Play the string at the 12th fret. If it’s flat turn the little screw that moves the saddles so that the saddle moves toward the nut, shortening the string. Move it until it’s in tune at the twelfth fret (and still in tune when played open). If it’s sharp, turn the screw so the saddle moves away from the nut, lengthening the string. Once its in tune at both the 12th fret and open, you’re done with that string. Do that for all six strings and you’re done.

But there’s sometimes a problem. What if you run out of room to move the saddle and the string is still sharp (or flat) at the 12th fret? This is a really common problem on 335’s and it’s almost always the G string. Why is that? Well, if you’re as old as I am and you were playing guitar back in the early to mid 60’s, you might remember that, back then, the G string was always wound. Now, on electrics, it’s nearly always plain. So, when these wonderful “Golden Era” guitars were made, they were designed to use a wound G string. Remember, I mentioned that the differences in string thickness affect intonation? A plain G is way thinner than a wound G and the bridge placement and saddle travel of a 50’s or 60’s 335 didn’t anticipate the plain G and often, that string simply won’t intonate. There are solutions. Look at the saddle itself. Usually the flat side of the saddle faces the fingerboard but that limits the rearward travel of the saddle (the issue is always that the G is sharp at the 12th fret). Take the saddle out and flip it around so the flat side faces away from the fingerboard. That will allow you to jam the saddle flat up against the back side of the bridge getting you that last bit of string length you need to intonate that G string. Probably 90% of the 335’s in my shop have the G saddle all the way back and turned around. It works. But this brings up an issue that comes up pretty frequently.

A reasonable solution to the intonation problem was to simply move the bridge posts back. By drilling a couple of new holes for the posts maybe an eighth of an inch back from where they are, you could fix the problem forever. In the era of multi thousand dollar vintage guitars, that’s a terrible idea even if the extra holes are hidden by the thumbwheels. Extra holes are worth as much $1000 each off the value of your vintage 335. But back when a 59 335 was just an old guitar, it made perfect sense and there are quite a few vintage 335’s with this mod. The thing is, you can’t see the holes unless you take the thumbwheel off or at least unscrew it part way. It’s the issue that almost never gets disclosed because nobody notices it until long after the approval period has ended. Like years after. After all, who takes off the thumbwheels? There’s no reason to for regular maintenance and adjustment. Well, I’ll tell you who takes off thumbwheels…I do and now you do. You don’t want to discover two holes in the top of your $40,000 vintage ’59 years after you bought it. Worse, you don’t want the guy who you just sold it to for $40,000 to discover it and send it back to you. This just happened to a client of mine who bought a 62 335 from a very reputable dealer. The client checked but the dealer didn’t. He, of course, returned the guitar and the dealer was embarrassed by the error of omission. If he had discovered it a year later, would the dealer have taken it back? If I missed it, I would but I can’t speak for other dealers. Bottom line. Look under the thumbwheels when you get the guitar. It takes a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did.

They don’t show when the bridge is in place and they don’t show when the bridge is off. You have to take off the thumbwheels to see them. No big deal? If you’re paying top dollar for a mint or near mint guitar, just knowing the holes are there will drive you batty. Still was a great guitar but a couple of grand came off the price. Intonated real well too.

Build Your Collection II

September 9th, 2019 • Uncategorized10 Comments »

The Nigel Tufnel collection goes to eleven (that’s one louder than ten). Note which guitar seems to have an elevated position among the others. Sure looks like a blonde dot neck.

OK, so the idea of a guitar collection appeals to you and you’d like to get started. So, let’s get started. There are lot of approaches to collecting and each has its charms. A good place to start is to look at what you already have. Got a nice old Stratocaster from, say, 1961? Well, you could start filling the years or filling in the finishes or filling in the types. A nice Strat collection would have to include a maple board and a slab board, maybe a later curve board with grey bottom pickups and maybe a custom color or two. If you really have a Strat obsession, maybe one from each year from 54 to 65. Build slowly and look for great examples. That’s a dozen good years and with a bit of patience, you could build a wonderful collection that is manageable and impressive. Not cheap but vintage collecting of any kind seldom is. Strats too expensive? Collect Jazzmasters or Jaguars.

But maybe you feel like your collection only needs one Stratocaster. So, instead of collecting just one model, collect the classics. Most folks would want a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, a Telecaster or Esquire, a 335, a Martin acoustic and maybe a great 12 string like a Ricky and a Fender bass. Once you’ve done that, you can build on that adding perhaps variations of your chosen “classics”. A Les Paul Custom to go with your Standard. A slab board Strat to go with your maple board. A white guard Esquire to go with your black guard Tele. A 345 or 355 to match your 335 and so on. And you don’t have to stop there. A Junior and a Special. A hard tail and a custom color. There is no end to how you can expand your “classics” collection. It will, as long as you have space and can afford it (and your wife or husband doesn’t divorce you), take on a life of its own.

Or maybe a different approach. Folks born in the 50’s and 60’s love to do birth year guitars. It’s not terribly appealing to me since I pre-date most of the good stuff. My ’52 collection would be awfully dull. I’d have a nice Telecaster and maybe an L5. But if you were lucky enough to be born in a truly golden year like 59 or 60, you could do a spectacular collection. But I’m being a bit of a snob. I know of a collector who has a wonderful collection of 60’s Japanese imports. Teiscos, St. Georges, Kents and Guyatones make for an interesting and fun collection. Collecting a single brand can be rewarding as well especially if your favorite is something from Gretsch or Guild. These can be great guitars and there’s a great deal of diversity within the brand. Neither brand fetches prices at the Fender and Gibson levels and you can build a very comprehensive collection for relatively little money. Of course, if one of your goals is investment, you might want to reconsider your Guild collection. They have not shown much appreciation over the years.

How about oddball European guitars? Geddy Lee’s wonderful bass collection has a load of Italian Wandres which are as weird as they come. Or the British Burns’ or even the Czech Futuramas (Resonet). I think a collection of 60’s Vox guitars would be great-they made about a zillion models-some English, some Italian (Eko). Or maybe you’re a bit younger and have a thing for 80’s guitars. There are some seriously collectible 80’s guitars that haven’t quite reached vintage status. BC Rich, Hamer, all those “Superstrats” and even 80’s Gibson and Fenders are all still very affordable. They don’t have to be great guitars. They just have to be interesting and appealing (to you).

Bottom line: Buy what appeals to you. Don’t try to anticipate which guitar will be the next burst. There probably isn’t a “next burst”. And don’t get too caught up in the investment aspect. That’s not where the fun is. If you buy guitars that you love (and will play) then even if you break even after many years, you will have had all the positive feelings that go along with creating and owning a personal collection. Collecting is an active hobby and active hobbies keep you engaged and will make you a happier person. Even though I’m not a collector, I still feel like it’s Christmas morning every time a new guitar shows up for me to unpack. It simply never gets old.

Joe Bonamassa has a pretty serious collection and perhaps no one has been more vocal about the joys of collecting than Joe. You can see that he leans toward the classics and seems to like Les Pauls a lot. Collecting amps is almost as much fun as collecting guitars.

Build Your Collection I

September 2nd, 2019 • Uncategorized4 Comments »

Scott Chinery’s collection was broad, diverse and famous. Just goes to show you don’t have to be a rock star to curate a great collection. Having deep pockets helps, however and Mr. Chinery was not a poor man. His collection consisted of over 1000 guitars including a collection of blue guitars that he had built by well known luthiers. His death in 2000 broke up one of the finest collections in the world. I’ve owned three of them (so far). He also owned the Batmobile.

I’ve been asked to sell most of a very important guitar collection. I was struck by the breadth and depth of the collected guitars and I took the time to talk to the owner about how a major collection like this gets put together. As a dealer, I do something similar. I don’t simply buy guitars that will turn a profit. I buy guitars that fill the broad needs of my clientele. But buying a guitar that is to be your main player is not the same as starting (or building) a collection.

A collection of any kind whether it’s guitars, classic automobiles, watches, art or any of a thousand other things serves a few purposes. Some are practical or at least relatively so. You can get to the grocery store in your 1937 Bugatti Type 57 but thank god you don’t have to. You can tell time with your rose gold Patek Nautilus. You can play your 59 Les Paul burst. But the limiting factor is usually that you can only use one at a time. OK, you could wear a dozen watches at once and keep track of time in twelve different time zones but I think you might be better served to just do the math. You get the point. But a collection goes way beyond practicality.

A collection is, often, an investment. I have made the point that you can’t play a song on your stock certificates. Guitars have been a generally good performer over the past two decades with only one real correction in 2008 when Wall Street greed broke the economy. There are ups and downs for sure but the general trend has been up. A collection also is a leisure activity that can border on obsession. Call it that or call it passion-it’s the same thing and that makes us happier than we might be without it. And it doesn’t matter if your collection is worth $5000 or $5 million. You get a high level of enjoyment simply knowing you have it and by spending time looking for the next acquisition. That is where being a dealer intersects with being a collector. While I don’t have a permanent collection, I seek out guitars the same way a collector does. I want the best possible examples and I want the best years and models.

That goes to the heart of collecting. I don’t know a single collector who seeks out the least expensive player grade guitars he can find. Players do that but serious collectors are much more discriminating. Playability and tone are everything to a player but just two elements of many to a collector. Originality, condition, rarity, provenance and beauty each play a significant role. The price does too but to a much lesser extent than those previously mentioned. Nobody wants to overpay but most collectors don’t want to have to explain the issues when it comes time to sell. And they don’t want to open the case and see those issues every time they do so. Put simply, most collectors want a great example of a great guitar. And once they have that, they want another great example perhaps in a different finish or a different year. That’s where the collection building process becomes important. Building a great collection isn’t randomly buying cool guitars that you like. An important collection is focussed, thematic and reflects the personality of its owner. The next post will address the various ways to curate a great collection that will make you happy (or at least happier), proud, wealthier (maybe) and probably drive your wife (or husband) nuts.

On the other hand, being a rock star doesn’t hurt either. Some of the largest collections belong to well known rockers. Keith Richards, Rick Nielson, Jimmy Page and, of course, Nigel Tufnel all have large important collections. Geddy Lee has perhaps the most important bass collection in the world. It is wildly diverse and yet focussed. Here is Geddy and me and 10 per cent of the red 60 ES-335’s ever made. Do yourself a favor and buy his bass book. It is beautifully done and worth the money.

Don’t Get No Respect. The ES-345

August 25th, 2019 • Uncategorized8 Comments »
Here’s a photo you won’t find anywhere else. All 59 ES-345’s. In 59, they shipped 446 sunbursts, 32 blondes, 9 reds and 5 blacks. There could be more reds and blacks but they haven’t surfaced yet. There are at least two Argentine Gray ones (two tone sunburst).

It was 1959, arguably the pinnacle of Gibson’s guitar making empire. The ES (Electric Spanish) line had been well established and the thin bodied semi hollow entrants into the line had already established a respectable level of popularity. The ES-335 hit the scene in April of 1958 and, while not wildly successful out of the starting blocks, certainly merited note among the top brass at Gibson as a moderate success. The gilded ES-355, then only available in mono, showed signs of becoming a success as well as the calendar turned over and 1959 began.

It seems that when there are three models in a lineup, the middle one suffers. Automobile lines are a good indicator. The top of the line is great, the bottom of the line is you get what you pay for and the middle is neither. Same with middle children (I am one-4th out of 9). I remember an old aphorism that said “go first class or third class. Never go second class.” I think it was the author John Barth who came up with that and I actually took it to heart as a twenty something and have followed the wisdom of that statement ever since. I could get into why but it’s actually kind of irrelevant here. This is about the middle child in the ES semi hollow lineup, my old favorite, the ES-345.

If the 335 and the 355 didn’t exist, the 345 would be positively revered by guitarists. OK, the stereo wiring has become an anachronism and the technologically archaic Varitone circuit is beyond quaint but the rest of the package is everything I want in a guitar. My main player is a blonde 59 ES-345 with a couple of repaired holes and a new neck. Why a 345? I can have any 335 I want (one of the perks of being a dealer) or maybe a 59 mono 355. It’s pretty simple. I like the way the 345 looks. The parallelogram inlays are much more interesting than the dots or the blocks. The simple but not too simple body bindings are appropriate for a guitar of the caliber. The simple headstock of the 345 and 335 seems to show a little more class than the somewhat tarted up 355 headstock. The wood is often a little fancier than the 335 gets. I like a rosewood board over the ebony of a 355 and while I don’t care one way or the other about gold hardware, I really like the fact that you can buy a ’59 345 for about half the price of a same year 335.

Now why is that? Why is the bottom of the line twice as expensive as the middle and top of the line? Simplicity? Is a 335 a better guitar? No. Is it simply because a 335 isn’t stereo and it doesn’t have the Varitone? That’s part of it but not the whole story. If that was the reason then a mono 355 would be the equal of a 335 in value and desirability and it isn’t. I always thought the players were a big part of it. Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Alvin Lee and lots more. But wait. What about the 345 players? Freddie King, Elvin Bishop, Jorma Kaukonen and don’t forget Marty McFly who played one years before it was even invented. My conclusion? Guitar people are quirky. The LP Standard is way more desirable than a Custom. A Strat or Telecaster is more desirable than a Jaguar or Jazzmaster. A Firebird I is about equal in price to a V or a VII. I’m a pretty logical guy and logic doesn’t really come into play here. All that said, I still prefer a 345. Mine is now converted to 335 specs. The stereo and the weight were big considerations. Who wants to haul two amps to a gig on the second floor of a walkup building. And the Varitone? It’s an old school notch filter. It has some interesting tones that you might use for one song out of twenty. Or not. It weighs nearly a pound and you can find a pedal that does the same thing and doesn’t hang off your old, tired shoulder. But take the original circuit out or leave it in, the ES-345 is a wonderful guitar and perhaps among the best deals in vintage. You can take that to the bank.

This is my current main player. It’s an original finish blonde 1959 ES-345. It has had the neck replaced and a couple of holes filled. It has been converted to mono and the Varitone removed.

Gibson Custom Shop ca. 1959

August 1st, 2019 • Uncategorized3 Comments »

Custom Shop logo on an 84 ES-335. Nothing “custom” about it.

Custom Shop. Sounds great, right? The idea of the factory custom shop is not new. Gibson first started using the term in 1984. Fender in 1987. But the idea was more of a marketing ploy than an actual shop that made custom instruments. How custom can it be if they make 100 or more of each model and none are made to actual customers specifications?  I think guitar players are particularly susceptible to marketing gambits that use the word “custom”. A Les Paul Custom is no more “custom” than a Les Paul Standard. Let’s take a quick look at Webster’s dictionary.

cus·​tom | \ ˈkə-stəm adjective. 1: made or performed according to personal order. Well, that’s pretty clear. And it also isn’t really what the Custom Shop actually does. The “Custom Made” plate used to cover the stud bushings on an early 60’s ES-335 (and others) is a good example. There are probably more than 1000 of them out there. They certainly could have continued to use the more attractive pearl dots that they used in 59 or the black plastic dots or the cut down studs. Or even a blank plate. They all would have served their purpose. But putting the words “Custom Made” on the plate somehow made your guitar (and you) special. It was so successful that folks were sending their guitars back to Gibson for the plate even if there were no stud holes to cover. In early 65, the Bigsby models still had the plate even though there were no stop tail studs under it. Eventually, they stopped doing that probably because it cost more to put a plate over nothing than it did to put nothing over nothing. I’m sure it saved them less than a quarter per guitar.

Long before there was something called the Custom Shop, you could order a true custom made guitar from Gibson. For a price, they were happy to do just about anything you wanted. Inlays that spelled your name were popular with artists big name and not so big name. Custom fingerboards, added switches, custom colors, custom neck profiles, non standard hardware and a host of other personal preferences were all available if you had the money and the time. Some custom orders might be as simple as putting nickel hardware on a guitar that usually has gold. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you could order a double neck with any two necks you wanted and your name on one fingerboard and your wife’s (or your dog’s) name on the other.

If you were a big name artist, you might ask Gibson to make a special guitar for you and if they liked your idea enough, they might make a limited run of them. The Everly Brothers model comes to mind. It was a black J-185 acoustic with two big tortoise guards and star inlays. Of course, the Les Paul model is perhaps the best example although Les himself was an incurable tinker and modded his own guitars pretty regularly making the Les Paul model more of an artist endorsed model than a true custom.

As a player and collector, I love the custom orders. My idea of a great find isn’t a mint 335 from under the bed but a one off that makes you scratch your head and say “what were they thinking?” It would never occur to me to order an ES-355 with a Super 400 fingerboard and a Byrdland tailpiece. I’m not sure a green burst 335 would be on my radar either. On the other hand, something as basic as a blonde 335 in 1963 was a custom order. As a dealer, the one of a kind custom orders pose all kinds of challenges. Pricing a unique guitar is difficult-it can be worth many times what a non custom is worth or it can be worth considerably less. For example, a guitar with someone else’s name inlaid in the fingerboard doesn’t compel many buyers to come running with their credit cards waving unless the name is something like “Elvis Presley” in which case, the guitar’s price goes from 5 figures to 7. But a black 59 ES-335 would sell in a minute or less

Some customs are pretty simple-an engraved guard and truss cover and an extra guard. Hey, Del…You’re not using that old double guard 64 anymore, are you? So, it’s got a coupla extra holes-I’ll still take it off your hands. Hey, I’m a walkin’ in the rain…just to get your 335.
How’s this for rare? The 1964 Greenburst from Rumble Seat Music’s collection. I’m guessing there isn’t another like it.
Rare as they come. Certainly a custom order. The fact that it has the “custom” trc acctually helps authenticate it and the fact that its a lefty helps too. Who would fake a lefty? It’s a stunning and important find. Too bad I’m not the one who found it.

Verities and Rarities

July 27th, 2019 • Uncategorized11 Comments »
This guitar is crazy rare but not crazy expensive. It’s a 60 Epiphone Sheraton and you could probably buy one (if you could find one) for under $30K.
Two rare stop tail 355’s. They only made around a dozen. These are expensive because you want one.

One of the great truths about vintage guitars is the fact that rarity usually doesn’t count for much. We all know how valuable a 58-60 Les Paul is but there were more than 1600 of them made so it’s not exactly rare. A blonde 58-60 ES-335 can be had for less than half the price (still a lot of money) even though they made about 1/8 as many. Wait. It gets worse. Look at a less popular guitar like a blonde Epiphone Sheraton. A great, great guitar made right alongside the very pricey blonde 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. Some of those Gibson badged blondies have reached the $125,000 mark but a Sheraton? Not even close.

Let’s look at some raw numbers. There are only perhaps ten 59-64 blonde 355’s. They will sell in the $75K-$125K range depending on year. There are only 12 Sheratons from 59-60 (NY pickups) and 29 from 61-63. A 59 or 60 will cost you perhaps $28K if you can find one which I assure you, you probably can’t. A 61-62 blonde Sheraton will cost you maybe $22K. Need a

Anyway, you get the idea. Rare doesn’t count much especially in models that aren’t very popular. But there’s a whole ‘nother kind of rarity that needs a little sunlight. Take a very, very popular model like a 335. Within every year, there are rarities that you simply don’t see. The factory customs and one offs that you may not even be aware of. The blonde block neck is one of those. I know of two of them. A 63 and a lefty 64. There are probably a couple more out there but, believe me, you won’t see many of them. A red 59 dot neck (or a red 58) is another. I know of 6 red 59’s- most of which have Bigsby’s and, famously, one 58. There are around 10 red 59 345’s. There are 5 black 59 345’s and, as far as I know, 3 black 59 355’s, one of which belongs to Keith Richards. Here’s the reality. There is no logic to the values.

But a blonde block neck is rarer and impossible to set a fair value on. I’d rather have the more common blonde dot neck just because I like the earlier 335’s and they are so much easier to find. 211 blonde dot necks . 2 blocks. Do the math. A blonde block neck should be outrageously expensive. Block necks from 62-64 are wildly popular and not cheap-$20K plus for a good stop tail. So, where does that put a blonde 62-64 ES-335? Conventional wisdom used to be double the price of a common color. OK, the a blonde 63 should be $42K or so. Then why is a collector grade sunburst 59 dot neck $40K but a similar blonde is three times that (and 100 times more common than a blonde block)? Like I said, there is no logic.

There is an easily understood explanation to the seemingly random and illogical valuation of rare vintage guitars (this is the “verities” part of the post). It’s simple. Do you want one really badly? Yes? Then expect to pay some very serious money for it. That’s how it works.

How about a 60 355 with a Super 400 board and a Byrdland tailpiece? Probably one of a kind but not particularly valuable. Probably because it never occurred to you to want one.
They didn’t make any block neck 335’s in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. As rare as they come but not six figure expensive. I want one. Do you?

I Learn Something New

July 2nd, 2019 • Uncategorized11 Comments »

A guy walks into my shop with a guitar and would like an appraisal. It belonged to his late brother and, while it has sentimental value, he wonders whether it has vintage value. I open the case and it’s a thin body, single cutaway, double humbucker Gibson. The neck volute tells me 70’s but there is no label and no serial number-only the letters BGN on the headstock. Well, for those who don’t know, BGN stands for “bargain”. BGN guitars were, essentially, factory rejects-too substandard to be called a “second” and too good to toss in the trash bin. But that’s another post all by itself (which I think I already did). It looked like an ES-125 with hum buckers and parallelogram inlays. Or an ES-175 with a thin body.

I’m not an expert in 70’s Gibsons but, in general, the model names didn’t change all that much during the much maligned “Norlin” period (1969-1985). I don’t think I can remember a Gibson guitar coming in my shop that required my having to research the model. I thought ES-135? No, that came later and had stacked hum buckers that look like a P90. ES-137? No, that was later and had different inlays. It also had a very strange finish. Almost blonde but maybe more like a cherry sunburst that had been left in a shop window for year or two. It was, essentially, dark reddish blonde around the edges and blond everywhere else. I recall that Ibanez made a lawsuit thin body that looked like a 175 in the 70’s that had a finish that looked like that but this guitar had a Gibson neck and logo. Nobody is dumb enough to counterfeit a Gibson and put the BGN designation on the headstock. So, I conclude (yes, Dr. Watson, its definitely a Gibson, says so right here on the headstock) that it’s a Gibson.

To the Googler…I search ES-135 and 137 and they are, as I thought, later and a bit different. But wait, there’s a photo that looks right in with the 135’s and 137’s. If I was Homer Simpson, I’d smack my head and go d’oh. It’s an ES-175T. Never heard of it? Neither had I. The ES-175T is exactly how I described the guitar in the first paragraph…a thin body ES-175. How did I miss this? It was introduced in 1976 and sold poorly. According to the information available online, it was gone by 1980. Except it wasn’t. This one has pot codes from 1981 and pickups from November of 80. So, it’s likely an 81.

It is my opinion that the very bottom of Gibson/Norlin’s quality troubles occurred during this very period. Sales were down and the company had squandered 80 years of customer good will by making some pretty awful guitars and ruining some really good ones. In 1980 (I think), somebody decided it was time for Gibson to make decent guitars again and by 1981, they actually started doing so. Tim Shaw (yes, that Tim Shaw) was an engineer at Gibson at the time and was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting Gibson back on track. Again, that’s another post for later.

But back to the mystery guitar. It hadn’t been played in decades but seemed to have weathered its years in the case without major damage. The label was gone and I dunno about that finish. The truss rod needed some adjustment and the strings were 30 years old but those are easy fixes. The pickups are dated embossed t-tops which makes sense for the era and the bridge is a Nashville type-also makes sense. It isn’t pretty but it does play reasonably well and there’s nothing wrong with t-tops. So, I took the guitar as a consignment. Let’s see where it goes.

The Strange Story of FON T5972

June 15th, 2019 • ES 3356 Comments »

Rack T5972 has an unusual history. This 1960 was built in 58 but shipped in May of 1960.

OK, it’s not an oogly-boogly strange story with intrigue and supernatural stuff, it’s just kind of unusual and marginally interesting to 335 geeks. The FON is a number that is stamped into a 335 when construction begins. It is an ink stamp and it’s usually visible through the treble side f-hole. They are date keyed to a letter prefix that goes in reverse. So, for a 335, the letter T is 1958, S is 59, R is 60 and Q is 61. Then they stopped using the FON. The letter is followed by a 3 or usually 4 digit number, a space and a one or two digit number. So, a typical FON for a particular guitar built in 58 might be T-5972 12. T is the year, 5972 is the rack number and 12 is the rank. A rack is 35 (more or less) guitars, usually all the same model. The numbers are supposedly sequential although there is some evidence that it isn’t always the case. The rank is the number within the rack-usually 1 to 35. So, picture a rolling rack with space for 35 guitars that gets rolled around the factory to the various work stations. It starts as a pile of body parts and ends up a rack of 35 finished guitars. Or does it? Here’s where it gets weird (cue the oogly-boogly music).

The first 335’s appeared in April of 1958, although construction likely began earlier. The earliest FON in my data base of 200 ES guitars is T3804 23 although it doesn’t correspond to the earliest serial. T3804 23 is serial number A27992. Oddly, serial number A27696 has a slightly later FON of T3806 3. So. like I said, maybe they aren’t totally sequential. But these very early 335’s seem to follow a logical and orderly path, so we won’t dwell on them. But some racks didn’t. Our example T5972, did not.

Now, it isn’t unusual for a rack of 335’s to be started in one year and finished in the next. It takes a bit of time to build 35 guitars, so a late 58 rack is very likely to have a 59 serial number. T5972 is one of those “on the cusp” racks. In fact, I have no guitars from T5972 in my database that were shipped in 1958 based on the serial numbers. The first one I have documented is FON T5972 20 with SN A29063 which would be late January. So, they probably had a pretty good backlog. The next one from the rack that I have in my database is T5972 30, A30248 shipped in early June. There could have been many from the rack shipped between those two but it’s odd to have guitars from a given rack 6 months apart. But then, T5972 5 (A 31254) ships in September. What’s going on? There are plenty, hundreds in fact, shipped from “S” racks during this time. Why is this (and a few other) T racks trickling out? Or is it simply random?

That’s weird enough but there are at least two others from T5972 that show up in 1960. An ES-335 with the SN A33765 ships in May of 1960. It shows the FON of T5972 19 and the big fat neck of a 58 and the thin top. By May of 60, most 335’s have gone to the “blade” neck or close to it. T5972 is not the only 58 rack that shows up well into 1959 but I believe its the only one to show up well into 1960. And, with the price of a 60 so much less than a 59 or even a 58, these guitars are worth seeking out. While most of us use the serial number for dating, it is clear that the FON means so much more than the simple ship date biased serial.

What I don’t know is why a 58 build would sit around the factory for over a year. Was there a problem with this and a couple of other “T” racks that show up in mid 59? I know Gibson was having consumer complaints about the tops cracking around the jack which they addressed by making the top thicker. They also had neck angle problems with the earlier 58’s (which T5972 doesn’t have). Maybe they used the leftovers when they got behind in their orders. In any case, A T rack ES-335 is going to be a great guitar. I’ve often commented on how much I like the thin top 335’s and, like so many others I love a big fat neck. It also makes the larger point that maybe the serial number isn’t the best way to date a 335 (at least until the FON was discontinued in 1961). I often mention the FON in a listing for a guitar when it’s on the cusp of a year. Instead of writing up a guitar as a 1960, I’ll mention if it’s a 59 build (“S” FON). When you buy one, you should ask the seller to check the FON. It could get you that 59 you really want for the price of the 60 that you can afford. Knowledge is power, folks.

A30248. Shipped in June 59. Construction began in late 58. Monster guitar.




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 3355 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).