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Introducing the Gibson ES-355WTF?

Looks like a '63 blonde lefty ES-355 to me but wait....

The conventional wisdom is that anything was possible during the “Golden Era” in Kalamazoo. I recently wrote about a 62 block neck ES-335 with a 1960 factory order number and there have been quite a few other guiatrs with features that somehow defy the “rules” of the ES line. Recently, I was made aware of a blonde left handed ES-355 with black painted sides and back in the UK. The buyer, a lefty, was happy to have found it but was concerned about its authenticity. He picked it up in London and brought it straight to me. We spent some time taking it apart and there are some very strange things going on. Things that make me wonder whether anything actually is possible in Kalamazoo. The guitar is a 63 ES-355.

Why is that top binding so wide?

The top is natural, the sides and back are black. So, the possibilities are factory black with a refinished top, factory blonde with refinished back and sides or factory red and stripped and refinished in this odd configuration. Then there’s the neck. There are signs that the guitar was renecked. So, there’s a lot to look at. The thing that struck me right off the bat was the thickness of the top (OK, it being a lefty struck me first). Most 335/345/355 tops are around .19″ thick (except for 58’s). This one is close to .23 and it looks unusually thick to my eye. Can you retop a 355? I don’t know if you’d be able to unglue the factory top or not but I’m going to assume it’s possible. So, I’m thinking perhaps a righty being converted to a lefty by retopping it. That might explain the very clean and old looking blonde finish on the top. There isn’t a trace of red in the top and that’s not easy to do without a lot of sanding. There is still a bit of a ridge between the binding and the top so it wasn’t heavily sanded or it was re-bound. Strangely, the top binding is thicker than the lower binding. I’ve never seen this before. I don’t have another 355 in the house to compare it to right now but I’ve got plenty of photos and the top and bottom bindings look to be the same width. Wait. It gets weirder. I appears to be a factory stop tail. No Bigsby or Maestro holes in the top but there are three holes at the butt end, so it probably had a Bigsby B3 at some point. Gibson never used a B3 on 3×5’s so this must have been added later. Adding to my retop theory is the odd configuration in the neck rout. Stay with me here. At the top edge of the neck pickup rout, there is normally no top. The wood you see there is the neck tenon. On this guitar there is a lip of wood that is clearly the top. WTF? Never seen that before. Looking more closely at the neck rout, there are a few splotches of red which tells me that perhaps this guitar was originally red. There are a few flecks in the f-holes as well. Not much, though. Most red guitars have overspray all over the place and, as I mentioned earlier, it is really tough to get rid of red aniline dye once its soaked into the wood. Then there are the sides and back…they are black and the finish is old and checked. There is a teeny bit of red visible under the upper strap button and at the butt end. However, where the black is chipped off, the wood underneath shows no red. So was it well sanded with a few blotches in unaccessible places? Could be, except when a guitar is sanding the ridge between the wood and the binding gets smoothed over. This still has the ridge, so, again, I’m thinking re-bound. remember, the top binding seemed overly thick. Finally, the neck join is kind of funky. The tenon is a bit short but i’ve seen that before on factory guitars. There’s a lot of glue in there but I’ve seen a lot that too. There are a bunch of clamp marks too which, taken with the other stuff, says reneck or reset to me. Someone spent a lot of time and/or money doing this. I’ll say this: The guitar looks quite nice and it is an ├╝ber rare lefty 355, so even if it is a retopped, renecked and refinished ’63 ES-355, it’s still a rare and very cool piece. Too bad I can’t play it.

 

This is the most revealing photo. It shows red in the rout which tells me this was a red guitar when it left the factory. But that piece of top around the neck tenon doesn't belong there. The neck tenon should extend right to the edge of the pickup rout and that little lip of the top should not be there. The clamp marks and general slop in there say that work was done.

10 Responses to “Introducing the Gibson ES-355WTF?”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, I agree with your assessment. Lefty conversion. Strange that someone would go to all that trouble and not get the thickness of the top right? And the treatment around the neck pocket…still, as you note, a neat looking fiddle! RAB

  2. Butch says:

    Looks to me like the stoptail is located a bit further south of where the factory usually puts them, perhaps pointing to an aftermarket installation. The pickguard doesn’t look properly shaped and bound between the pup’s?

  3. Steve Newman says:

    Charlie, I think you are looking at a retop done by an independent repair shop/luthier. Possibly the original guitar WAS a lefty (but probably not) that had some kind of extensive damage to the factory top. As the repair was being performed. a decision to try to make the whole guitar natural was made, but after trying and failing to remove all of the original red dye from the sides and back, it was decided to cover the mistake in black. The top looked so good that they decided to leave it natural. As Butch said above. the stoptail distance to the bridge looks a little off, but you have covered some of the factory variations in that measurement before in your blog. He is also correct that the pickguard has been modified from the original factory style and is cut straight across the pickup rings, without binding between the pickups. Lastly, the neck pickup rout does not look factory in the actual routed cavity, as well as the mystery lip on the top. Just speculation, but I think a talented repairperson reconstructed a guitar with catastrophic damage, maybe even adding a new/different neck. I would like to see some detailed photos of the neck joint where it attaches to the back and sides.

  4. OK Guitars says:

    Pickguard was definitely altered-should have mentioned that. You can see some heavy wear where the player rested his thumb (?) so it was obviously an intentional mod. We’re all pretty much in agreeement that it was retopped. Stoptail is close enough to be factory but should probably be a little higher on the treble side. There was a fair amount of variation. I think the idea that the red sides were stripped in the hope of making the entire guitar blonde is a good observation. The blonde top probably didn’t match the sides and back (due to the red in the wood) so black was the solution.

  5. Joseph Capra says:

    I know thls guitar. This guitar was purchased as a used cherry righty with a Bigsby and converted for a musician in Ann Arbor MI named Paul “Mick” McCormick by nearby Kalamazoo Gibson in the late 60’s. He moved to Minneapolis in the mid-seventies and formed a very successful local blues band called the Fabulous Minnesota Barking Ducks ( some videos onlne of him playing this very guitar in the 1980’s). He’s still around the area here. He told me ( 30 years ago) that the only regret he had was not to have them remove the Varitone along with the Bigsby. He stopped playing it years later and sold it t a local dealer who sold it at a guitar show in Texas a long time ago and that’s the last time I heard anything about it until I saw these discussions of you guys sorting it out. This guitar was not re-necked at the time of the re-top/refinish or during the time that he owned it ( ca. 1967-ca. 2000). Since it’s just about impossible to get the cherry stain out of a thing maple veneer ( I’ve tried this) I’m sure you’re right about the contrasting black back and sides ( should be plugged Bigsby holes on the tailblock) an they did this all the time on stuff like Casinos ( (trans brown/sunburst). This is a factory-customized guitar that was heavily played for many years after the FACTORY mods. I don’t think it would be hard to find Paul McCormick (sp?) with search engines or to otherwise track him down to ask him personally, since he generally books himself. Last I heard he was playing in another blues band called Scooter Trash here in Minneapolis.

  6. cgelber says:

    Great stuff to know. I love a good mystery solved. Thank you.

  7. Dr335 says:

    Hi Charlie,

    Although this mystery seems to have been solved I had an idea prior to reading the comments here. Would it be possible that this was a cherry righty factory conversion (as it seems it was) which had an extra layer of laminate as the result of a botched refin where the original top was shaded through? That would explain why it was too thick, it would also explain the lack of bigsby holes on the top and the extra thick binding needed to reach the original rim. Here’s the best bit, I would be itching to pop a dentists mirror and light into the bass f hole to see of the original righty configuration toggle, pot, varitone and input jack holes were still there on the underside of the top…

    Anyhoo, it seems like this was solved some time ago but just wanted to share my initial thoughts.

  8. cgelber says:

    I think it was a full retop-I was in there with a mirror and didn’t see anything. But of course I can’t see worth a damn anyway. It was a cherry righty originally.

  9. Myles Loud says:

    The player is a right player with the guitar strung Lefty. Here’s a video of the Blues Band.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cbR0da1-Yo

  10. Myles Loud says:

    I meant a Lefty player with the guitar strung righty!!!!!!!!!!!

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