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Tortoise Guard

No surprises here-long guard from a 59 on the right and a short guard from a 64 on the left. Note the bindings are different. There are short guards with the binding you see on the long guard but only in late 1960 and into 61 from what I've seen.

No, not the guy who keeps an eye on your turtle. Continuing the discussion of pick guards, we’ll take a look at the ES-355 guard which is, of course, the tortoise guard. The 355 was the only guitar in the line that got a bound tortoise guard and, although the timeline is similar, the guards themselves are anything but. First, the composition of the plastic is different. These are celluloid based and are therefore prone to “off gassing”. You can read about that phenomenon here.¬†You see a lot of 355s with repro guards because the original celluloid based ones tend to self destruct. They are quite different from the 335 and 345 guards in that they are not made from multilayered plastic but a single layer of celluloid with and separate five-ply binding glued to it. Flip it over and there is an extra strip of black plastic glued to the back that appears to act as a stiffener to keep the guard from warping. It doesn’t work that well if thats the function because most of them are warped. The shape of the guard is the same as a 335/345 guard and the long guard has the same timeline-more or less. They seem to have run out of long tortoise guards a little earlier than they ran out of long black ones because a pretty fair number of late 60 355’s have short guards. More than half the 60 ES-355’s I’ve had seem to have a short guard. Also, since there is no bevel on a tortoise guard, there is no wide bevel or narrow bevel distinction to use as a “tell” when dating a 355. But there is a change that occurred. The long guards and the early short guards have a different binding. While both are 5 ply, the early ones have two thin white plies, a fat white ply, a thin black ply and a thick black ply. The later ones which appear to have shown up in 62 also have two thin white plies and a fat white ply but both black plies are thin. OK, it;s a small point but isn’t that why you read this stuff? The bound tortoise guard lasted through the 60’s and into 1970’s. I’m not certain the bound tortoise guard lasted until the model was discontinued in 1982. If you have one, let me know what the guard is like.

This photo of the back side of the tortoise guards shows where they depart from their 335/345 counterparts. Note the extra strip of black plastic and also note how the binding is glued-somewhat less than neatly- to the guard. No bevel at all.

11 Responses to “Tortoise Guard”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, good stuff as always! One other observation is the color and swirl pattern in the tortoise plastic also varies considerably. It seems the earlier guards are a deeper brownish red color whereas the later guards are more see-through and tend to be more brown in color. Yes, the short guard on my ’63 355 is also slightly warped up by the bridge pickup ring, but still serviceable!

  2. rob says:

    The short guard on my 1962 355 appears to be identical to the one pictured on the left. I don’t know if mine’s early or late ’62 because I can’t find a FON anywhere on it.

  3. Steve Newman says:

    Great post, Charlie. Do the Epi Sheraton guards follow the same timeline and binding changes as the 355’s? You can see the “long guard” version on the early Sheraton w/New York pickups in the Current Inventory section of your website, versus the shorter guard on the later models. Don’t know if the “tortise” plastic is the same as on the 355, as I have never seen a Sheraton with the off gassing and deteriation it causes. FYI, most of the high end Gibson jazz guitars (Byrdland, Super 400, L5, etc.) have the same problem with the “tortise” pickguard.

  4. RAB says:

    Rob, Gibson stopped stamping Factory Order Numbers (FON) in 1961 so your ’62 355 likely wouldn’t have one…serial number range is your best bet for dating when it was shipped in 1962. Alternatively, have you requested a copy of the shipping ledger from Gibson Customer Service? I was able to obtain a scan for my ’63 ES-355…

  5. rob says:

    RAB, I didn’t know Gibson could or would provide those. I’ll give them a try. Thanks for the heads-up.

  6. OK Guitars says:

    I’m not sure. I thought the Sheraton guard was always the same. I’ll have to do some research.

  7. RAB says:

    Yup, try emailing Gibson Customer Service, give them your guitar model and serial number and they may email you a copy of the shipping ledger. Just shows the serial number and shipping date…

  8. Kevin Purcell says:

    Hey Charlie,
    I’ve a bound tort guard on my ’76 355 … so they were still using them at least until then. I know that falls outside the window of the ‘good’ ES years, but if they were using them that late in the run maybe they stuck around until the end.

  9. OK Guitars says:

    Thanks Kevin. Does it look exactly like the short guard in the photo I posted? The binding is glued to the tortoise?

  10. Kevin Purcell says:

    Indeed it does look like it from the top Charlie – identical, without the fat black layer you see on the long guard and perhaps the celluloid part is slightly thinner/more translucent. The only difference is that it suffers from ‘shatter’ marks in places – they’re not actual marks from impact, but the celluloid part appears to be degrading at different rates and this leads to stress marks (which look like impact shatter marks). I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t have the black stiffening piece underneath. I will take a pic when I get home and e-mail it to you.

  11. OK Guitars says:

    Actually, there is a long guard and short guard for the Sheraton as well. There aren’t a lot of them around to make comparisons but the one I have which is a 59 has the bottom edge of the guard extending to the bridge. The earliest 60’s one I could find is a 65 and it has the lower edge at the bottom of the bridge pickup, although the lower, rounded part extends much farther down than the usual Gibson short guard. I’m not sure when the change occurred but probably 60-61.

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