Oh, Norlin.

A 79 with a factory stop, big wide neck and a natural finish. Why does it look sort of funny?

A 79 with a factory stop, big wide neck and a natural finish. Why does it look sort of funny?

Norlin, in case you haven’t heard, was an Ecuadorean cement and beer conglomerate that bought Gibson from CMI in 1969. To most, the sale signaled the end of decent guitars coming out of Kalamazoo. In fact, the conventional wisdom goes, there would never have been a vintage market if the big makers kept making high grade instruments instead of putting profits before quality. I’m not even certain that they’re beer and cement was all that good either. But, as my readers tell me loudly and often, there are exceptions. I’ve never disagreed with that – I’ve touted the early 80’s Norlin 335’s “dot reissues” again and again but rarely had anything nice to say about the 70’s (and that goes beyond guitars). I had a 79 blonde ES-335 on my Gbase site as a consignment for a very long time but until recently I never had it in my hands for more than a minute or two. I sold it recently and was able to spend a few hours of quality time with it while I set it up prior to shipping. I also went through it pretty carefully to see all the terrible 70’s things that Norlin did to my favorite guitar. There are a lot of things for a purist not to like on a late 70’s Norlin 335. The body shape is very strange. It appears to be smaller and more pinched at the waist with thinner horns. It is ungainly looking but perfectly functional-it just doesn’t look like a “real” 335. Norlin made a lot of changes to simplify the construction process in order to raise profits. They shortened the center block and did away with the mahogany ends. They started using three piece necks with the dreaded volute and eventually switched to maple necks. I haven’t studied 70’s 335s with anywhere near the same level of detail as I have the 50’s and 60’s models but I saw a few things in this ’79 that struck me. First, it played and sounded excellent. Certainly on a par with any early 80’s Norlin dot neck. The build quality was as good as any I’ve seen but that may be because this guitar might have been a custom order. It was unusual for a 79 in that it had no coil tap, it had a factory stop tail and the center block went the distance from end to end and was very neatly glued in place. Even 50’s 335’s usually have pretty messy glue inside.  It had a big neck and a wide nut. The 70’s catalog says that the top ply of the top is birch and this sure looked like birch to me. Birch and maple are easy to confuse but this looked a lot like the wood used in most kitchen cabinets which is, in fact, birch. There were some things I didn’t like about it (but tone wasn’t one of them). I don’t like a Nashville bridge because they look wrong on a 335 but they do function just fine. It has horrible cheap tuners on it with metal buttons. It has a too large headstock. I never checked to see what pickups are on it but they sounded like t-tops. Given the price, the guitar was a deal for the eventual buyer. This 79 felt like a 60’s 335-except that it must have weighed close to 9 lbs. Weight is very often an issue in the 70’s, although I’m not certain why. So, while I tend to characterize 70’s 335’s as hit or miss with considerable emphasis on the latter, I really liked this one. So, there must be others and if the emails I get from all the readers who own them is any indication, there must be a lot more good ones than I realized. Who’da thunk?

Three piece maple neck, volute, crappy tuners and a birch plywood body. Most peculiar, Mama.

Three piece maple neck, volute, crappy tuners and a birch plywood body. Most peculiar, Mama.

18 Responses to “Oh, Norlin.”

  1. RAB says:

    Ah yes, the dreaded Norlin period…Interesting that Fender took a big dip in quality too though a bit later than 1969, more around the early 70’s and with bad design ideas like the bullet truss rod and 3-bolt neck attachment. It was a breath of fresh air when Gibson and Fender recognized the error of their ways and began to revisit the past with their reissue models and more attention to quality. Their current offerings are quite good…I recently played a friend’s $600 lost price “Roadworn” Strat that was one of the best Strats I’ve ever played including Golden Era examples!

  2. RAB says:

    Meant to say $600 list price!

  3. Nelson Checkoway says:

    I’m not sure these late 70s stop tails were as much a custom order as a transition toward the DOT models. I’ve seen about a half dozen listed online over the past year – 78-79-80. Another in blond, several in “mocha” – probably walnut (There’s an 80 listed on GBase in brown), and one in cherry. All but one without the coil tap switch, all with no hint ever of a trapeze. One with photos under the pickups showed the newer long tenon the DOTs have – rounded and slightly narrower than the originals. At this time Gibson had already begun to issue a few stop tail models – the 345 with the TP-6 tailpiece and the PRO with the open coil dirty fingers pickups. Some of the late 79s stoptail 335s also have a “SECOND” stamped on the back of the headstock (not a “2” but the word SECOND). Why do you think? Because they weren’t an official catalog item? Mystery?

  4. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Correction – Above, I meant to say 347 with TP-6.

  5. cgelber says:

    Truthfully, I couldn’t tell you. My knowledge of 70’s ES-335s isn’t what it should be. I do know that they were building guitars based on what parts they had lying around rather than showing any kind of consistency. It wasn’t until the ’81 model year that they began to try to improve the 335 to be at least close to it’s “Golden Era” ancestor.

  6. Kpurcell says:

    I have to say that if you can get past the ‘issues’ with 70s Gibsons in terms of the cosmetics and neck/nut width, they’re pretty good guitar for the money.

    I have a ’76 355 that is still my no.1 guitar, despite being part of a constantly rotating cast of instruments. Recently I had the opportunity to try two 60s ES 335s – a ’68 converted to a stop tail, and a mint condition (and I do mean mint – down to the hang tags) ’67 trapeze. My intention was to trade the 355 against whichever of those two was nicest … and damned if I wasn’t surprised to find that neither felt the same as the 355 …and in fact they all pretty much had the same tone (the 355 has been converted to mono some years ago).

    The nut width certainly isn’t for everyone – but being a long time Fender player (before switching to ES models) the nut doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’ve no plans to off load the 355 – indeed I think it would be the very last guitar I would sell, perhaps even after my old ’57 J-50.

  7. cgelber says:

    There are plenty of good 70’s ES’s. There are also plenty of truly awful ones. The trick is to get a good one. I buy 58-65 vintage sight unseen on a regular basis and I’m rarely disappointed in the tone and playability once I get them adjusted and set up. I don’t buy any from the 70’s but the ones I’ve played have been less than 50-50 good to not so good. I certainly wouldn’t buy a 70’s Gibson anything without playing it first.

  8. Kpurcell says:

    I’m with you on that one – I’ve played plenty of 70s Gibsons that have been complete lemons. Similar with 70s Fenders – I’ve had quite a few telecasters over the years and the one that’s stuck around has been a ’74 Tele Custom that’s lightweight and rings like a bell before you ever plug it in.

    It’s always a case of try before you buy with those Norlin Gibsons … and even the nicest playing/sounding 70s ES will still have those unavoidable shape issues to contend with.

  9. cgelber says:

    With ya all the way.

  10. Paul Coupland says:

    Just read this.
    I have an all original 73 walnut 335. At what point did the Norlin gibsons go downhill. I’ve never played an early sixties 335 so how would I know if I had a ‘Lemon’? What signs are there to look for?


  11. cgelber says:

    It’s all in your ears and your hands. If you like the way the guitar plays and you like the way it sounds, then it probably isn’t a lemon. The typical problems that occurred once Norlin took over are extreme weight (9lbs or more), poor build quality-necks separating, bad frets-and poor sustain-the guitar sounds like there a blanket over the strings. The problems of the Norlin era didn’t happen in a day. There was a steady decline and then a later uptick in the quality (1981-1985). I think the nadir was ’76-80 but that’s based on a pretty small sampling. I’ve played late 70’s Gibsons that have been pretty good and others that were just awful. Your 73 has a good chance of being a very good guitar but I would say that you’d be pretty impressed with a 58-64.

  12. Paul Coupland says:

    Thanks for the reply.
    Yeah I’m pretty happy with my 335. I always wanted to own a guitar the same age as myself so I will prob never get rid of it. I gig with this guitar every week and I don’t think I’d want to take a £4000 + guitar out on the road.
    I had the same issue with a 70s Rose Morris Vox AC 30 where forums said they were the worst AC30s ever made. Think the 60s was obviously the golden era for music and the instruments used.

  13. Larry says:

    Those poor build qualities were already in process prior to the Norlin takeover . The three piece necks and short neck tenon as well the volute which started out as a small almost indistinguishable bump behind the neck/headstock. Also with fast easier methods of production in mind Gibson started generating larger headstocks in 1969. So I think the profit/cost mentality was already in motion well before the Norlin takeover. I see this with the resurgence of the 1968 Les Paul reissues which were phased out and morphed into totally different guitars within a year.

  14. cgelber says:

    I think that is largely true but the change from long tenon to short and one piece to three piece necks (and volute) happened in the middle of 69. The changes were probably in process before the papers were signed but the sale was probably in process too before the changes were instituted. I believe the sale was completed in December of 69.

  15. Larry says:

    Right. Norlin bought Gibson on 12/22/69. The takeover wasn’t formalized until 1974 when CMI was ousted and Maurice Berlin was side whacked off the board. I’m thinking the volute and made in USA stamp really did not happen until mid 70 or so. Seeing goldtop Deluxe models with pots dated 10th week of 1970 and no shelf like contoured volute yet. By late 69 around September or so when the new Gibson catalogue came out the pancake bodies were coming out and the volute was a very subtle bump. The pots are hard to distinguish the build date because Gibson was still using pots dated from early 69. The Deluxe came out in the summer with the mini humbuckers, short tenon, and three piece neck. The pots from that build were still coming from late 1968.

  16. Andreas Fetzer says:

    Hi , I am a professionel guitar player from germany. Now i am 52 years old. I bought a blonde Es 335 from 1977 when i was 16 years old. I had other 335s, guilds, L5s, Super 400s but still i love the 1977 335 the most. I dont know if it comes from playing it so often and so many years, it is and will be my No.1 guitar. Other guitarplayers , playing 335 here in germany tryied to make me sell it to them because it sounds so much better than theirs. Sustain is better, the maple neck adds so much brilliance. To say that mid 70ies gibsons are bad, is just a bad joke.

  17. cgelber says:

    There are good 335’s from the 70’s but there are some not so good and even downright bad ones too. You need to play a 70’s 335 before you buy. In the 60’s, it’s hard to find a bad one. In the 70’s, it’s hard to find a good one. You were lucky to find one you love.

  18. Andy says:

    Hi, i play a 335 from 1977 for 40 years. Being a professionel guitarist, I allways bought other guitars, to get new inspiration, new sounds. L5, Super 400, Es 355, Lucille … I allways compared my ES from 1977 with other ES guitars, played by other guitarists here in germany. To make the story short, my 77 ‘ ES is still my “go to” guitar, no matter if its a jazz/swing gig or top 40 gig. I played around 700 gigs with it and it still works fine. The coil-switch on it is fantastic!!! I will never , ever sell this guitar. For me, it is the “one and only” guitar.

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