Lore of the Rings

M69 pickup rings come in a few sizes. The middle one and the one on the right are the typical ES-335 sizes. The bigger one sometimes shows up as a bridge ring but is more typically found on Les Pauls or ES-175s.

Want to get a Les Paul guy all excited? In the immortal words of Mr. McGuire in “The Graduate” …”Plastics”.  It must be something about white plastic that gets them going (and big prices) because most of us ES-335 types don’t really get that worked up.  The little bitty piece of plastic they get all hyperventilated about? Pickup rings. You think it’s crazy that a little decal on a pickup can make a $1000 or more difference, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. A pair of black pickup rings will cost you a pretty ridiculous $275. A pair of (authentic) white ones? $10,000 or more. I get a surprising number of emails asking about these things. Questions about the height of the bridge pickup ring is a big one. Because the rings were made in a number of different heights, it’s no wonder there is some inconsistency in them . To be certain that your ES has the correct rings, look at the underside. If your ES is from the 60’s or earlier, then both rings will have the letter M and the number 69 on them. That’s why they call them M69 rings. The left leg of the letter M is always missing or weak. Some fakes don’t get it right but there aren’t a lot of fakes out there in black. There are plenty of repro white ones (which didn’t come on any ES except the ES-295).  There are all kinds of “mold marks” and little inconsistencies in the rings which is important in identifying whether they are original or repros. If you want the really fine details, you can find them on Clay H’s excellent vintage guitar site here.  I can’t do better than he has done-it is very comprehensive.  I will note that all of the little “mold marks” that he catalogs aren’t always there-probably due to wear and inconsistencies in the pouring of the molds. I just pulled a pair off an all original 59 ES-355 and the bridge ring is missing a few on the bottom. I usually make the assumption that if the pickups are original and the plastic shows the M69 and other “readable” markings and the right amount of wear for the guitar they are on, then they are probably original. If a “mold mark” is missing from the bottom, don’t lose any sleep.  There is often a lot of wear on them-even the bottom.  Also worth noting is that the rings on an ES-335 are not the same height as those on a Les Paul. The neck ring on a 335 is 3/16″ tall on the tall side and 5/32″ on the short side. The bridge ring is taller but not as tall as the one on a Les Paul (or an ES-175). The bridge ring should measure 3/8″ on the taller side and 9/32″ on the short side. I have occasionally seen a taller version of the bridge pickup ring on some later 60’s ES-335s. While it’s often impossible to tell what’s original and what isn’t 50 years after a guitar was made, I’m guessing that taller rings were sometimes used as the neck angles became steeper . The “tall” rings are more like LP rings and measure 1/2″ at the tall side and 13/32″ on the short. There might be some variation in the heights from wear and from the fact that people sometimes sand them down to make a curve that fits the arch of the guitar. Black M69s have gotten a little pricey lately but they come on so many models that there is no shortage of them. There is another number on the underside of the rings and it will be MR490 on the bridge ring and MR491 on the thinner neck ring. If your ring says M8, it’s from the 70’s or later. I’m not certain exactly what year the change was made-I don’t see a lot of 70’s ES’s. By the early 80’s, they were using M8’s. Feel free to help me out here. One other thing to note is that if you pull the ring on a blonde or sunburst model and you see a thin red line where the edge of the ring sat, it’s normal. The plastic in the rings reacts slightly with the nitrocellulose lacquer and very often leaves a faint red ring. It probably leaves the same ring on the red finished ones as well-you just can’t see it. I’ll take a photo next time I see it.

You can see the little halfmoon shaped mold marks on the cleaner of the two M69 neck pickup rings but just because thet are mostly worn off on the other one doesn't make it any less authentic. Wear on these rings is pretty common, so if a mark is missing, don't sweat it.


3 Responses to “Lore of the Rings”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, the bridge pup ring on my 1963 ES-355 is full height, as you noted due to the neck angle. I had heard many of the rings used on ES guitars were ground down by the Kalamazoo craftsperson to accommodate differing bridge angles and requisite bridge height? I have noted grinder marks on the bottom of a number of ES rings…

  2. OK Guitars says:

    That’s what I’ve heard but no one has ever confirmed that. I do find that a lot of them are odd heights but I don’t measure all of the ones I get. The 59 ES-355 I had recently was very clearly ground down-especially the neck pickup. That’s why using the mold marks on the bottom isn’t always the best way to authenticate M69 rings

  3. RAB says:

    Yes, thanks, BTW I meant “neck” angles above, not bridge angles…

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