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The Evil Volute

Volute on an ES-355. Big, fat later type.

Volute-evil shorter brother of Voldemort? Not exactly. Whenever I see an Ebay ad that shows a 335 with questionable dating, it is inevitable that there is no shot of the back of the headstock below the tuners. Some owners are very very careful not to show that telltale bump that it so hard to describe. I’ll email the seller and ask if the guitar has a volute. Answers like “it has 2 and 2 tone controls as well” or “no, but I have one I can sell with it” and any number of other erroneous and often humorous descriptions of whatever it is people think I’m asking about.  I usually call it a ridge or bump at the base of the headstock-usually at the thinnest point on the neck behind the nut or slightly toward the first fret. Anyway, it’s pretty useful when it comes to dating 335s because they began in mid 69 and were used until 1981. The reason for them was that Gibson was getting too many complaints about broken headstocks. The volute is intended to be a reinforcement for the weakest point on a Gibson. It is carved into the neck. It’s interesting, Fenders never seem to break there. I see 100 broken Gibsons for one broken Fender. maybe it’s because it’s easy just to unbolt a Fender neck and put on a new one if you break it. Or maybe maple is stronger than mahogany (which it is) or more likely, a combination of a number of factors.  I’ve knocked my Stratocaster off the stand at least once and it made a lot of noise but it didn’t break. And yes, I have a Stratocaster-everyone should have at least one. Actually my son took it to college and I haven’t seen it since. Anyway, I digress.  I can say a couple of things about the volute categorically. Everybody hates it. It’s ugly and ungainly. It doesn’t work. I’ve seen plenty of volute equipped Gibsons with broken headstocks.

Volute with a 3 piece neck and the big, dopey looking 70's headstock. No wonder they couldn't give these away.

One other thing is certain-even though you hate it, it doesn’t affect the playability of the guitar to any great extent and it doesn’t affect tone at all. The problem is that coincidental to the addition of the volute came the cost cutting that  ruined Gibson for all of the 70’s. the volute was the least of their troubles. I had a 73 Les Paul Custom with a volute that was a very nice guitar (if a bit heavy). It never got in the way and the guitar had wonderful tone. The first volute which appeared in mid to late 1969 was very small-just a bump really but that wasn’t enough for the suits at Gibson, so shortly after-within months-it became really huge and downright offensive to look at. The necks also became 3 piece which are much cheaper to make. I could write about why everybody hates them but I think I’ve got that covered, so why don’t I take a positive approach. Let’s assume you have a limited budget and you have your heart set on a 335 and you can’t afford a 60’s, a mid 80’s or a Historic. Let’s say you have less than $2000. I would look for a cheap mid 80’s first. Then I would consider a recent Memphis 335. Then maybe a late 80’s. But if you really, really want a vintage piece-the older the better-look at the early 70’s. They are currently way overpriced-nobody should pay even $3000 for one of these in this market. But if you find one from 1970-1974, you may get a good sounding, good playing guitar. By 75, they start getting really poor in terms of build quality and I would avoid them. With few exceptions, which I’ll get into in another post (like the ES Artist), stay away from 76-early 81 unless you can play it before you buy it.

This is original small volute seen mostly in late 69. This is a Les Paul Recording but you get the idea.

4 Responses to “The Evil Volute”

  1. Eric says:

    Was browsing ebay today and saw a 72 ES-335 so I decided to check it out since I had just read your post about volutes. Sure enough this one has one…and it’s cracked at the headstock, haha. Sounds like the volute wasn’t Gibson’s smartest idea.

    Oh and here’s the link to the guitar: http://cgi.ebay.com/72-Gibson-ES-335-Cherry-w-Original-Case-ES335-/180526672667?cmd=ViewItem&pt=Guitar&hash=item2a083a6b1b#ht_500wt_928

  2. OK Guitars says:

    Read my post about the 70’s (April, I think). I’d buy a recent 335 before spending money on a 70’s unless I could play it first. Nine out ten 60’s 335s are good to excellent. I would say two out of ten 70’s are good. I think the nadir of the 335 is 1975-1980. They went steadily downhill from 68 (excellent) to 69 (some excellent, most good, some fair) 70-74 (few good, many fair to poor).

  3. Thomas Raven says:

    I see no down side to the addition of a volute to the neck. If you want a historical repro, I get it, but I prefer function over a slavish devotion to history.

  4. cgelber says:

    Lots of guitars had volutes. I don’t really think the volute was the larger issue. I think they screwed up a good thing by making major changes simply to make more money and that turned out to be bad business and bad guitar making. Eliminating half the center block, adding the volute, three piece necks, short tenons and cheaper wood added up to an inferior instrument in most cases. the biggest reason there even is a vintage market for both Fender and Gibson is the 70’s. Note that Guild wasn’t sold and their guitars continued to be good through the 70’s. Being a smaller company, they had their own set of problems but i’ve played plenty of 70’s Guilds (especially acoustics) that blow away any Gibson made during that decade.

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