Big Bang. Little Bucks

This 64 ES-345 was mostly original but it had a load of holes in it. It had been Schallered too but the price was around $6K and that was in a fairly strong market. You can't see all those holes while your playing it and they certainly don't change the tone. And, it was played by Frank Sinatra's guitar player (not the famous one).

This 64 ES-345 was mostly original but it had a load of holes in it. It had been Schallered too but the price was around $5500 and that was in a fairly strong market. You can’t see all those holes while your playing it and they certainly don’t change the tone. And, it was played by Frank Sinatra’s guitar player (not the famous one).

I’ve been a little remiss in doing the third part of my “Bang for the Buck” miniseries and I’ve had a few emails asking for the third installment. I actually covered a lot of the material in the “Old Wood” post since that is the key to getting your hands on a vintage piece without breaking the bank (or upsetting your wife). Take a quick look at a vintage 335. What parts are going to make a significant difference in the tone and playability of the guitar? Wait, don’t bother-I’ll tell you. The bridge, the nut, the strings, the wood and the pickups. Oh, and the design. The strings aren’t vintage so we can throw them out of the equation. A modern repro ABR-1 (or Tone Pros) will probably sound better than a vintage one since metal fatigue and wear take their toll over 50 years, so we can throw that out as well. The nut is important but it’s simply a piece of nylon and a properly cut new one will probably improve your guitar-whether it’s the same material or something else like bones or Tusq. That leaves us the wood and the pickups. And the design. I’m being a little simplistic here and not really taking into consideration the construction techniques-the glue, the hand work, etc. That’s important but we’re talking about vintage pieces here not trying to make a modern guitar sound like a vintage one. We want a vintage guitar that sounds like a vintage guitar for cheap. This leaves us with the body and neck and the electronics. Have you listened to some of the pickups out there? They are very close to PAFs. A good PAF and a particularly good boutique pickup are just about indistinguishable to my ears-which are pretty good ears. I can’t see worth a damn but I can hear. But, I have to say, a guitar that was just made doesn’t sound like an old one. I’ve put old parts on a Les Paul R9 including a set of PAFs, an original ABR-1, tuners, stop tail and harness. It sounded great but it didn’t sound that different from any other R9.  I made the same point in my last post…an old guitar with new parts beats a new guitar with old parts as long as the old guitar is in good playing condition. It’s one of two things-either the wood itself is better or the passage of time has made the guitar sound better. I was there when these guitars were new-I played brand new 60’s ES-335’s (as early as 64) and if fuzzy memory is worth anything, they sounded pretty good right in the store. Take that for what it’s worth considering I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.

So, let’s say you have $5000 to spend. You can buy any of the new Gibson ES-335s from your local music store for that much, I think. I hear the new Memphis 335’s are quite good. But supposing you take $3500- $5000 and buy a boogered up 63 ES-345 with a load of holes in the top, maybe holes from a set of aftermarket tuners and maybe a minor repair that was well executed. It might have all the wrong parts on it but you can change those out over time. Bigsby or Maestro holes don’t change the tone or playability.  Make absolutely certain that the neck is in good shape-no back bow, no twists. Make sure the truss works right. Good frets are important too unless you want to pay a few hundred bucks for a refret. Somebody stuck a set of tar backs or T-tops in there? Take em out if they sound bad and get a used set of SD’s or Fralins or Throbaks or Rolphs or any of a dozen other pickup winders. They don’t have to be the very expensive boutique pickups. Throw in a new harness from Mojotone or RS or Dr. Vintage if necessary. Get a  repro ABR-1 from Tone Pros or Gibson if you want it to look correct. If the tuners work and they don’t bother you, leave ’em. A vintage set of Klusons will look right but an old set of Grovers will work better. By the time you’re done you’ve probably spent $4500-$6000 and your guitar will probably sound just about as good as my favorite 64 or 59.

A great candidate is a big neck 65 335 or 345 that has had a Maestro or Bigsby removed. I’ve also seen a lot of 345’s from 60-64 that have all sorts of dreadful things done to them (59’s are always more money no matter what). I had one with no less than 29 filled holes in it-from a back pad, an arm rest, two or maybe three different trems, a moved bridge and two or three sets of tuners. It sounded great and didn’t really look all that bad from 3 feet away. And it had character.  That’s gotta be worth something.  And a refinish will cut the price in half and ,as long as it’s not covered with an eight of an inch of poly, it should sound pretty much the same. Stay away from bad repairs and bad necks and you will do fine.

I think I bought this '63 ES-345 for around $3000. It was refinished but still intact and it sounded pretty good even with a "dirty fingers" in the bridge and a T-top in the neck. It had a some original parts and a lot of changed ones. I'd take this over a new one any day.

I think I bought this ’63 ES-345 for around $3000. It was refinished but still intact and it sounded pretty good even with a “dirty fingers” in the bridge and a T-top in the neck. It had a some original parts and a lot of changed ones. I’d take this over a new one any day.

6 Responses to “Big Bang. Little Bucks”

  1. RAB says:

    Good advice as always! Yes, minor modifications or changed parts can drop a vintage fiddle’s price by thousands of clams! And those deficiencies can to a large extent be corrected as Charlie points out. I purchased a ’63 335 that’d had multiple tailpieces, lots of player wear for cheap but sounded outstanding! Some of us can get rather anal about originality but having 100% original parts down to the last pickup ring screw doesn’t mean much in terms of playability or tone! Happy Holidays y’all!

  2. Olleandro says:

    Charlie, I know the later stuff isn’t your favourite but value wise surely the later sixties stuff, 65 to 68-69, is worth a look if you can handle the skinny nut and find one you like. My ’66 355 may not have all the real desirable golden age features but it’s a hell of a guitar and for players (not collectors) they’ve gotta be worth a look.

    Also one point, not a criticism, is that, yourself aside, a lot of sellers don’t know/ don’t care about changed parts so it’s still hard to find decently price guitars. The amount of these guitars I see online that look great and fairly priced until you read the dreaded, “expertly repaired crack in back of headstock” line is staggering. Not so reasonably priced now….

  3. Rod says:

    With this series of posts you have actually touched on, perfectly, the dichotomy of ‘why do we buy vintage guitars?’ Initially (over 40 years ago) vintage guitars became popular because they were perceived as being better than the then current guitars, although those ‘then current’ guitars are now being toted as ‘vintage, therefore quality!’

    Have we lost sight of the fact that those vintage guitars were bought for their build quality and sound/playability? Those factors still exist, for the most part, in issue laden vintage pieces, so unless we are trying to turn the clock back with perfect pieces, it makes sense to buy the cheaper alternative. Very few of us nowadays have the cash available to buy the perfect pieces, even fewer can justify spending that sort of money.

  4. cgelber says:

    We’ll get to those next.

  5. chuckNC says:

    I understand that collectors are attracted to minty vintage pieces. And who better to protect and maintain them in the condition they have survived in up to now? I love to see a “time capsule” pice just as much as anyone!

    I take good care of my stuff but I’m not a collector. I want, yea PREFER, a player. One that invites me to get hands-on and go to town. A quirky mod or two? Might be cool, just depends… That’s how I roll. And I believe I’m not unusual in feeling that way.

  6. RAB says:

    Hear, hear, I prefer my guitars to have a bit if wear so I can feel comfortable gigging them. I’ve owned mint pieces and invariably wind up selling them. I don’t have the funds to keep an instrument I am not going to play and also feel guitars were meant to be played! I recall playing my near mint ’57 PAF Goldtop LP at a gig when the drummer lost grip of one of his sticks and it bounced off the top of the GT leaving a nice little divot in the previously pristine top…no fun! Better to gig a fiddle with a few dings, dents and scratches!

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