Roll Out the Hardware

OK, it's an SG but it's easier to see because of all that hardware. This is new looking nickel-even though this is a real 64. Looks a lot like chrome.

This is what nickel looks like after 45 years of wear and tear on a real player. Chrome won't do that.

Yes, another Steely Dan (Aja) reference. Can you actually tell chrome hardware from nickel? It’s easy when it’s old but not so easy when it’s new. And why do folks today like nickel on their guitars so much better when the world was all but demanding chrome back in the early 60’s? It’s a pretty interesting story and illustrates how tastes change and how people perceived their guitars. For reasons known only to Gibson, the first humbuckers had stainless steel covers but by 1958 they had switched to nickel plated covers. In fact, all of the brightwork on the first 335s was nickel plated (which probably isn’t really nickel, by the way, but nickel-silver which, by the way has no silver in it, it’s copper, nickel and zinc). Pure nickel is pretty corrosion and tarnish resistant and, whatever it was Gibson was using, wasn’t. So, I’m guessing nickel-silver (or German silver). And the tarnish and corrosion was the problem. Within a couple of years, especially among performers who tend to sweat a lot, the pickup covers, stoptails, bridges and anything else that got sweated on or came in contact with the players hands, started looking pretty crappy. From 58 until 64, every ES-335 had a nickel plated bridge, stoptail (if it had one), pickup covers, pickguard bracket and tuners. You can see on most vintage pieces from this era that they get pretty dull. Back before the days of “relics” and “VOS” and all the other trendy fake worn guitars, people wanted their brightwork to look bright and they took care of their guitars usually getting visibly upset when they smacked the headstock into a cymbal or dinged up the body. Gibson was getting lots of complaints. Somehow it took 6 years for someone to listen but eventually (by 1965) Gibson started a slow transition to chrome plating. The pickup covers seemed to be the first component probably because the covers showed the most discoloration. By early 65, the stoptail was history and the trapeze was substituted and they were often the next item to go chrome followed by the bridge and even later, the pickguard bracket. The tuners stayed nickel throughout the 60’s. It interesting that you can still find nickel pickguard brackets into 1967 (I guess they had a lot of them on hand). The transitions were not consistent nor were they short in duration. It seems that they even used one nickel pickup cover and one chrome cover on occasion which probably looked OK when new but would shortly take on a mismatched appearance. The chrome plated parts stayed bright and shiny pretty much forever or until the plating wore off. But chrome is pretty durable so most of the 65 and later 335s you see still have shiny brightwork. It pits and corrodes eventually but it doesn’t tarnish. It’s sort of surprising that most of us now prefer the look of tarnished nickel. I’m guessing because most vintage players like their “naturally aged” vintage pieces and nickel allows that to happen. I, on the other hand, really like the way nickel looks-especially when it’s still shiny. Most people have chrome plated bathroom fixtures. Mine are all nickel. It can be pretty hard to tell chrome from nickel until you put them next to each other. The nickel will have a greenish warmer cast while the chrome will be bluish (funny you don’t look bluish) and cool looking. Cool as in not warm, not as in “what a cool looking pickup cover”. Gibson has long since listened to their consumers and gone back to nickel plated parts but I suspect that it might be a slightly cheaper process. they probably would have used chrome from the beginning if it saved them a buck or two. Cost consciousness has always been a somewhat unfortunate part of the Gibson credo, after all. Still is.

It's tough to photograph shiny things without the reflections causing the metal to look different than it does. The nickel looks a little gold but the chrome has a cold blue look. The nickel will dull out and tarnish but the chrome will look the same in 40 years as it looks now. In fact, that chrome cover is 44 years old.

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)