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ES-335 Neck Woes

This was kind of a beater to begin with but you can see what happens when the board is planed and the binding is planed with it. The dots wind up at the top of the binding.

This ’64 was kind of a beater to begin with but you can see what happens when the board is planed and the binding is planed with it. The dots wind up at the top of the binding.

Don’t freak out.  The neck on your vintage Gibson may change shape on its own. I think the thing vintage buyers worry about most is the neck-especially on set neck guitars like 335s. Wood is not a particularly stable material. It expands and contracts with the weather, it is certainly subject to the forces of gravity and it breaks when stressed. The lack of stability can also be a good thing, I suppose.  But, as I’ve mentioned about a zillion times in the past, 50 or 60 years is a very long time and bad stuff can happen. The heat goes out while you’re off skiing in Kitzbühel and your guitars are at home. Or maybe somebody forgets to take the guitar out of the back of the car after an overly arduous gig in July and remembers the next afternoon when he’s finally over that hangover. And it’s 200 degrees in there because it’s Phoenix in July. Fifty years is 19,150 days. It only takes one day of bad luck to mess up the neck on a vintage guitar.  That good thing about wood being unstable? You can fix almost anything that happens to a guitar neck. Sometimes it’s just a truss rod adjustment. Sometimes a fret level will do it. More severe issues require more severe (and invasive) procedures but there is almost always a way to fix it. As a dealer, I try to avoid guitars with neck issues. I’ve written about some of the troubles I’ve had with 61’s and truss rod cracks and back bows. The less wood there is in the neck, the less stable it’s going to be. But what happens to the value of the guitar when neck work is required? Well, an unplayable guitar isn’t going to make anyone happy, so from the get go, any improvement will be, uh, an improvement. A wise man once told me that you play the frets and not the fretboard so that if the frets are level, a bit of unevenness in the fingerboard won’t be a problem. The “off ramp” problem where the fingerboard rises a bit where it meets the body is usually taken care of with a simple fret level. A rise in the middle of the fingerboard can sometimes be adjusted out using the truss but it depends largely on where the hump is. The truss seems to do the most toward the middle of the neck-simple physics tells me that. A hump in the lower frets can be tricky. Sometimes a fret level will fix that too. Some luthiers (and I stress, I’m not a luthier) have had success with steaming the neck and, essentially, bending it back into straightness. Seems kind of scary to me but I know of folks who swear by the process. Another approach that is used frequently and is very effective is reshaping the neck by sanding or planing. The problem with this procedure is that most luthiers sand or plane the fingerboard and the bindings until the hump or dip is gone. It works but it can be very obvious-worst case, I suppose, is when the bindings get so thin that the side markers end up at the top of the binding instead of in the middle where they belong. I suppose, from a non luthier’s point of view, it would make more sense to remove both the binding and the fingerboard and plane the neck itself. I’m guessing that doing that would have its own set of consequences. The piece of mahogany that is the neck doesn’t know that its warped or bent or twisted. Its simply taking on a shape that is dictated by the conditions to which it is subjected. Once returned to its straight and true shape, it should be fine for another fifty years. What I really need to stress is that most vintage Gibsons don’t have perfect necks. In fact, based on my experience, about 20% of them have perfect necks. Perhaps another 75% have necks that function perfectly but have some small issue that won’t affect playability for most players. A buzz at the 21st fret won’t bother someone who never plays up there. These issues simply come with the territory. While I try to disclose each and every quirk or hump or dip or high fret or low fret in every guitar I sell, sometimes I simply don’t notice it. I rely more on my ears than my eyes. If the guitar plays well and doesn’t buzz or fret out, then I don’t worry too much about whether its dead straight because the likelihood is that it isn’t. I might mention that it will play better with a bit of relief-so it shouldn’t be dead straight to begin with. I also might reiterate that it’s fixable.

This 61 dot neck had terrible neck issues including a break so drastic action was taken and the result was brilliant. The luthier made a new neck using the original board, dot markers and truss rod. Only the neck itself was changed. It was a $4000 repair but a big 59 sized neck was installed and the guitar was pretty amazing. There are no lost causes.

This 61 dot neck had terrible neck issues including a break so drastic action was taken and the result was brilliant. The luthier made a new neck using the original board, dot markers and truss rod. Only the neck itself was changed. It was a $4000 repair but a big 59 sized neck was installed and the guitar was pretty amazing. There are no lost causes.

10 Responses to “ES-335 Neck Woes”

  1. RAB says:

    Interesting as always! I am a bit of a fanatic when getting a guitar refretted and request the luthier not plane or touch the fingerboard unless it absolutely can’t be avoided. Something about losing even a minuscule bit of that old rosewood or ebony gets to me! Yes, you play on top of the frets and many action/neck issues can be addressed by expert adjustment of the individual fret heights. E.G. a partial fret mill, etc…

  2. Rob says:

    Charlie, I’ve heard some raves about the good jobs done by the PLEK machines. Would you trust one with a vintage ES?

  3. RAB says:

    Not sure about Charlie, but I’ve had all my vintage guitars (including my ’63 ES-355 mono/stop tailpiece and ’62 Epi Riviera) PLEK’d and the fret work turned out great. What a lot of folks don’t realize is a prudent luthier may do a bit of hand work as required to make the frets perfect after the guitar is off the computerized milling machine…in any case, all the fiddles I’ve had done in this manner play great! And, no damage whatsoever to the finish…

  4. Rob says:

    Thanks, RAB. There’s a guy several miles from me in South Baltimore who has one and I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.

  5. moxie50 says:

    Not exactly about this post, but a neck question: When my 335 came back to me after all those (35) years, I thought it could only be wall art because of a headstock break along the first and sixth string tuner holes. I found out that was a common injury and an often done repair, and as I told you long ago, I found a wonderful luthier who fixed it beautifully. I thought that that was possible because the headstock was glued on at a angle anyway upon manufacture. I was told by someone who should know that this is done with some (cheaper) guitars but that all American-made Gibsons necks were (and are) carved from a 3×3 (or some such) stock. Is this so, to your knowledge?

  6. RAB says:

    Golden Era (1958-64) Gibson-made ES necks were carved from a single piece of mahogany. The headstock was widened to the required width by the addition of mahogany “wings” glued to that neck “blank”…the headstock was not glued on “at an angle” as you describe…

  7. Goetz von Berlichingen says:

    Another question about necks: I am confused about ‘one-piece’ vs. ‘3-piece’ necks. As odd as it sounds, I don’t know what the definition is. My 84 ES-335TDN has a neck that appears to be one piece of mahogany with narrow ‘wings’ glued to it…as described by RAB’s comment above. Technically that is a three-piece neck…but my guitar books usually illustrate two and three-piece necks to mean having separate pieces of wood for the neck and for the headstock glued together, citing increased neck strength as the reason. As the tuners are all directly attached to the same neck blank and are not in contact with those narrow wings I believe that sonically-speaking my configuration is, for all intents, functionally a one-piece. Am I over-thinking this?
    Thanks. I love this site…very informative and well-written with lots o’ purty pictures.

  8. Rod says:

    Your neck is a ‘one piece’ neck, ignore the little ‘wings’ on the sides of the headstock. ‘Three piece’ necks from Gibson are laminated along the length of the neck, usually with the centre piece reversed for strength. Gibson also on the upmarket models used effectively a ‘five piece’ neck with narrow pieces of contrasting wood between the three laminations. As far as I am aware, Gibson have NEVER used a separate piece of wood for the head or heel of the neck. These are usually only found on cheaper off-shore guitars not bearing the Gibson name.

  9. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – I had a ’65 ES-335 — Bisgby with Stop Holes — that had double trouble – a back bow (even with full truss rod relief) AND a slight twist (pulling up on the bass side/down on the treble). Not severe in either case, but certainly impediments. A guitar guy came up with a non-invasive solution that made the guitar much more playable: following a slight fret leveling, he balanced out the neck tension with string selection – sort of a “skinny top/heavy bottom” approach, and a little trial and error with string gauges got the twist to settle down and the neck to behave.

    Have you ever used this approach? Thoughts about it?

  10. cgelber says:

    It makes some sense but I’ve never tried it. I have improved a fairly serious back bow with heavy strings (it took three months but it worked). I’m not a luthier or a repair guy but I do pay attention to this stuff and do a fair amount of work on my own guitars. I’ve only had one 335 with a twist and my luthier sorted it out with a bit of fretboard leveling. Worked great.

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