Strange Magic


Just another mid 60's 345? Not quite. This one has something special going on.

Just another early 60’s 345? Not quite. This one has something special going on.

Almost all 1958-1964 ES-335/345/355’s sound good. Great even. Those that fall a little short can usually be tweaked and be made to fall within a fairly narrow range and that range is really good to really great. The ones that fall short are almost always the ones that have neck, nut, saddle or fret issues. Sometimes that can be fixed, sometimes not. I get asked frequently about the best sounding ones I’ve had and after more than 500 ES’s made between 58 and early 65, I have a few favorites. Up until today, they were all PAF guitars. The top five were (until now) a 59 335, a 58 335, a 62 (dot) 335, a 59 345 and a 59 355 mono. Now, keep in mind that there were dozens more that were extraordinary instruments and of that 500 or so I’ve had, there were maybe 10 true dogs-all with neck problems. And also keep in mind that tone is very subjective stuff and just ‘cuz I think a guitar sounds extraordinary doesn’t mean you will. I play some blues, 60’s rock and tons of Beatles tunes. I play a lot on the neck pickup, emulating as best I can, Mr. Clapton. When I play on the bridge I want Mike Bloomfield for blues and George Harrison in the “Hey Bulldog”, Taxman” and “Paperback Writer” vein. So, you know what I like. So, where’s this magic I’ve teased you with? Well, it’s a beat up 1963 ES-345 with a heavily worn fretboard, passable fret job, new nut, changed tuners and tailpiece and early patent number pickups.

This guitar that doesn’t fit the mold at all. To keep the commerciality out of it, this guitar is already on hold but I spent most of today playing it. I literally could not put it down. I sold this guitar in 2012 and was very impressed with it then but it sold so quickly, I didn’t get much of a chance to play it. What is it about this guitar that makes it so special? I honestly can’t tell you. It’s got it’s original stereo Varitone circuit. It has early patent number pickups in the 7.7-7.9K range, a neck that starts fairly thin but gets quite large by the 12th fret. It is a stop tail and has always been one. The tuners are modern Gibson Klusons although it had Grovers at some point. The bridge is the original ABR-1 with milled nylon saddles. So, what the heck is it about this guitar that makes it sing like a violin? It is among the best 345’s I’ve played. The bridge pickup is good but not quite great. But the neck pickup on this guitar rivals any 335 from any year. If there has ever been a guitar that, for me, at least, puts the “tone sucker” Varitone theory to bed, it’s this guitar. It may even be the later Varitone which actually is a tone sucker. I haven’t looked. So, what’s my theory?

I think one of the factors is a properly cut and installed nut. The original nuts on Gibson from the era are almost always too tight (which is why everybody changed out the tuners in the 60’s). In many cases, when you bend the strings, the nut pinches and they go sharp. And you thought it was the tuners slipping but they can’t slip sharp. Obviously, there is a wonderful randomly great pickup in the neck. I really should take it out and install it in another guitar just to see if the magic is in there. But it could be the wood. It’s a relatively light 345 considering all that electrical stuff in there, weighing in at 8 lbs 5 ounces. The stereo VT circuit is almost 12 ounces heavier than a 335 harness. It’s also kind of a mess-heavily checked and worn-it’s been played long and hard. The red has faded to a brownish tone and it certainly isn’t a pretty thing. But holy crap…shut your eyes and play if you don’t want to look at it.

I’d love to be able to quantify what it is that makes this one so special But tone is a combination of a lot of factors(including the player and the amp).  It’s clear that some changes just don’t matter with regard to tone. Tuners don’t seem to matter. Re-frets done right don’t matter and can even improve tone. Nylon saddles, if they’re the milled ones and cut properly don’t matter (compared to metal) but properly notched saddles are a huge factor for sustain which affects tone. I’d like to say a stereo Varitone circuit doesn’t matter but I’ll just stir up a storm. I’ll just say it doesn’t matter in this guitar. And one more thing-I’m playing it in stereo using a stereo Y cable. And, where you set  your pickup height does matter. Many ES’s have a sweet spot and it’s a trial and error thing. The height of the stop makes a small difference but more in playability than tone. So, without doing a lot of part swapping and experimentation, I’m not going to know all the answers but that’s OK. I’m happy to just call it magic. Strange and wonderful magic.

10 Responses to “Strange Magic”

  1. Rod Allcock says:

    Makes a nonsense of the vintage Les Paul guys- ‘Must have flame’. There are just some guitars from a player’s viewpoint that are special. It’s pointless trying to explain it, you either get it or you don’t!

  2. Larry N. says:

    Elvin Bishop sittin’ on a bail of hay. He ain’t good lookin’, but he sure can play!! I don’t doubt that is one fine vintage red ES-345.

  3. Steve Newman says:

    Agree that there probably exceptional individual instruments of every year of Gibson’s “Golden Era” of ES production, up until and including late ’60’s models (example: Larry Carlton’s famous original 335, which falls outside the “Golden Era” timeline, but is by all accounts a superlative playing and tone producing instrument). There are guitars produced when everything fell into perfect place in the construction and finishing process and by fate happened to be built of higher than average quality pieces of wood, creating superior instruments than the ordinary, typical example of a particular vintage. Because of lower yearly factory production, more highly skilled/experienced craftsmen, in general better grades/species of wood and the extra time to devote to each instrument, it is more common to find those exceptional guitars in the earlier years of the 3xx production timeline.
    PS. Out of 9 “Golden Era” ES 3xx instruments I have been fortunate to own during my lifetime, even though all were far above average, the truly
    exceptional example above all of them was a ’62 very early block marker with PAFs, which did not really conform to the typical neck specs of that era….most musical, well balanced and versatile pickup set I have ever heard in any other guitar. ’62’s are not usually regarded that highly in the pecking order of desirability in the 3xx hierarchy, but this one was really special.

  4. Rod Allcock says:

    With all guitars, for whatever reasons, there are good and bad. Simply saying ‘it’s 63’ or whatever does not guarantee anything. Whilst we all dream of finding a mint vintage guitar, there reason at least some of them ARE mint is because they weren’t particularly good and people didn’t want to play them. Of course there is always going to be the occasional ‘closet classic’, good luck to anyone who gets one, but if it was a dog when it was made, most likely it’s still a dog now with dings in it. If a guitar has been well played it USUALLY indicates that the owner thought it was well worth playing.

  5. RAB says:

    Good comments all…in a similar vein it is often touted around the vintage sites that a guitar that is in really beat condition (clearly not the case with the subject 345 here!) must “be a good one”…I disagree with that. There is a difference between a well played guitar with “honest wear” and one that has been abused. It seems it is fashionable with some guitarists (not this one) to mistreat their instrument. That is just plain asinine…a well-treated, well-maintained guitar (just like an automobile) will treat you right…conversely an abused guitar will almost certainly let you down at a gig or, at the very least, not perform up to its full potential!

  6. stefan says:

    As Charlie said, one man’s tone monster is tee next man’s dog. I never quite what qualifies as a dog though (twisted necks and back bows aside). Assuming you can find a sweet spot for a guitar that had nut/fret issues etc. How could that then possibly qualify as a “dog”? Not to open a can of worms but I simply don’t believe in the “A particular nice plank of wood that day”- theory.

  7. stefan says:

    ..or “bad plank of wood” – theory for that matter.

  8. Steve Newman says:

    Rod, you are completely correct that date of manufacture does not guarantee a great, good, or even bad guitar….they are all individual unto themselves. There are poor new guitars and poor vintage guitars as well. Generally a guitar with honest playing wear (not abuse as RAB points out…I really like the automobile analogy) is a sign of a good playing and sounding instrument because it achieved what the player expected from it, whether it was played professionally or just in someone’s home, for hundreds of gigs or just once a month. As I stated above, there seem to be a greater number, percentage wise, of really exceptional guitars from those early years of 3xx production for the reasons I outlined. Respectfully agree to disagree with Stefan on wood quality (not cosmetic attributes). We all know that no two pieces of wood, even from the same tree, are identical as far as weight, density, moisture content, etc. Which partly explains why two guitars built side by side sound different from each other, even though they were assembled by the same people with the same processes to the same standards. Especially in semi-hollows like the 335 style: one instrument will be perceived to sound “better” (superior sustain, more resonant, more woody or whatever nomenclature you choose to use) than another. Then when you add the random factor of pickup output, height adjustment, and tolerance of electronic components, the differences can be slight or sometimes quite dramatic. Just saying by accident, all those factors are sometimes “optimized” and seem to occur to a greater percentage in the earlier years of 3xx production.

  9. Cal Dysinger says:

    I’ve been lucky to have owned a number of golden era Gibson electrics over the years. To me the 63-64 block necks sound better, more “open” than the earlier dot necks, especially when the amp is cranked up. I’ve mostly kept this unpopular opinion to myself, but I did recently read a Robben Ford interview in which he expressed his preference for the 60’s 335s for the same reason.

    Why do the 63-64 block necks sound so good? Ask Eric, maybe he knows! In any event, the only two semi-hollow “keepers” for me are a 64 345 and a 63 epiphone. They send shivers down my spine.

  10. cgelber says:

    No argument from me. I love 63-64’s. I played a red 64 for years and years until someone talked me into selling it.

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