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Re-Creating the Magic

Here's Ken's completed body without the routs, finish or neck. The 59 he copies is next to it.

Through this site, I was contacted by a 335 aficionado and luthier named Ken McKay up in Traverse City, Michigan. I spent a little time there many years ago when I was making training films for Uncle Sam’s Army. It’s a beautiful spot and probably a nice place to spend one’s life building guitars. Well, Ken so loved the old dot necks that he decided that he would try to build one. He learned everything he could about Gibson’s production techniques from the late 50’s and got hold of a real 59 to copy the specs from. Ken had already built a number of archtops but an ES-335 isn’t your ordinary archtop. He certainly couldn’t tear apart the ’59 he had in his hands-it wasn’t his and it was a very, very valuable instrument. But he was able to figure it all out anyway. He like most of us, was particularly enamored of the blondies and decided to try to build an exact replica of a 59 ES-335 body using the same materials and techniques used back in the “Golden Era”. Ken has found a source for the same type of plywood used in the 50’s and is using the same techniques that the workers in the Gibson Kalamazoo plant used back then. The same glue, the same center block made the same way, the same kerfing, the same binding material too. Early on in the process, Ken asked me for whatever advice I could offer which amounted to “do it.”   He isn’t building complete guitars. You’ll have to get someone else to complete it because Gibson would call in the lawyers if Ken was building complete copies. Apparently, you can replicate the body-just not the guitar. Ken has been sending me photos of the plywood he’s been getting and photos of his progress going forward. The last set of photos he sent me showed a pretty dead on replica and I was impressed. I’ve asked him to find me a lightly figured piece of maple plywood to make one for me and I’m on the list for April. I kind of wanted to be the first but that ship has already sailed. Why would I want a copy when I can have the real thing? It’s pretty simple, really. The real thing-and I mean a stop tail dot neck-has gotten so valuable that you really can’t leave the house with it. I suppose I could have kept the ’61 I had with the neck repair but I had a friend who really wanted it, so it’s gone. I could just go buy a Historic-great guitars, to be sure, but they aren’t made by hand the same way any more. The materials are different, the machinery is different and it has become so much more of a mass produced commodity. Don’t fool yourself, they were always mass produced but the production techniques required a lot of hand work. With CAD routers and the like, the human element is all but gone. They are all the same. Every 59 Historic is virtually the same guitar with few distinct characteristics.  You can visit Ken’s site at http://www.upnorthstrings.com. Ken’s been building double basses for years and has built some pretty cool guitars too. But check this out. A real “tribute” ES-335. Available for order now. The line forms on the right (babe).

3 Responses to “Re-Creating the Magic”

  1. RB says:

    Charlie:

    Interesting story about the Traverse City guy. Along similar lines, Collings has been building incredible ES-335 (I-35) and ES-355 mono (I-35 Deluxe) style guitars since the summer 2006 NAMM show. I have an ’08 I-35 Dlx that is really sweet. They’re carrying on the “Golden Era” Gibson tradition with this guitar IMHO. Anyway, speaking of alternatives, what do you think about early Epi Sheratons, the ones with double NY pickups? Maybe their overall styling is a little over the top but I wonder how they sound? Or what about the mini-humbucker version Sheraton models from around 1960 forward? How do these early Sheratons rate against their more legendary “big brothers”?

  2. OK Guitars says:

    The Sheratons with the New York pickups tend to be a bit thin sounding . The output of those pickups is lower than you would be used to-something like the neck pickup on an old Telecaster. Once Gibson started making changes and put in the mini humbuckers, the sound improved. The later ones-up though 64, are pretty decent guitars. I’m not a big fan of the “skyscraper” headstock and all the inlays but they are still excellent guitars. I played a 59 that had been converted from NY to mini hums and it was just excellent. I agree that Collings makes an excellent guitar and a good alternative to a Historic.

  3. Tyler Jewell says:

    Ah…those bodies look great. So what I’d have to do is order one of these bodies, and scour ebay until I find the appropriate gibby neck?

    -T

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