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Small Parts. Big Bucks.

An original long tortoise guard for a 58-60 ES-355 is not only hard to find but, not surprisingly, is ridiculously expensive. This is mostly because not only are they rare but they can deteriorate badly just by sitting in the case. Buy a $250 boutique reproduction. The real ones are at least $1200. And yes, that’s a factory stop tail 355. talk about rare…

If you had to build a car from original parts, you’d spend more than the value of the entire car. That’s been a common thought for as long as I’ve owned a car and had to pay for stupid little parts that seem to cost way more than they’re worth. But there are a lot of parts in a car and relatively few in a guitar, so why are vintage parts so freaking expensive for vintage guitars?

It’s stunning to see the vast difference between the average price of a really accurate repro stop tailpiece versus a real one from the 50’s or 60’s. But the difference in the look and quality of said parts is minimal. In some cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. I can buy a fairly convincing repro stop tail for around $55. I can buy a really convincing one for $125. I can tell the repro from the real ones but only if I take it off the guitar and examine it carefully. From a foot away, you can fool anyone. A real vintage stop tail averages $1000 or nearly ten times the price of a good reproduction and 20 times the price of a Gibson Historic. And it’s not just stop tails, it’s just about every part on the guitar.

Catalin switch tips have been reproduced pretty well. A real one is $175-$250. A good repro is $25 (and probably cost a quarter to make). Boutique PAFs like Throbaks (which I really like) are $550 a pair. Real PAFs? Ten times that unless they are white or zebras. Throbaks look right and sound as good as many PAFs. Vintage Kluson tuners? Eighty bucks for repro and $800 or more for the real ones. See a pattern here?

As a vintage dealer, I’m totally comfortable with the prices I charge for guitars. I shoot for a particular margin and price the  guitars I sell (and buy for that matter) to reach that goal. My prices are often lower than other dealers which means either I’m making better deals on the buy side or making less profit on the sell side (or both). The other dealers don’t tell me what their margins are and I don’t ask.  I also don’t look at their prices in order to judge the market-not on 335’s, 345’s and 355’s anyway. I also don’t consult with the various price guides except for guitars I know little or nothing about. I don’t generally buy guitars I don’t know anything about but sometimes I’ll take a trade of a guitar I know little about. But that’s another post.

But when it comes to parts, I just follow the market. And I’m sometimes embarrassed to ask the ridiculous prices commanded by certain parts. My response to sticker shocked buyers is usually “I don’t make the market, I just follow it. Do yourself a favor and buy a good repro.”

And that’s my point. How important is it that every part on your vintage guitar is original or vintage correct? If you’re a collector, it’s pretty important. If you’re a player, it needn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t be. There are very few cases where, in my opinion, the vintage part might improve the tone and playability of your guitar. You could argue that vintage PAFs can’t be replicated but I would argue that point with my ears. I generally can’t hear the difference between a really good boutique PAF and a real one. I can hear a difference between any two pickups but if you lined up ten guitars and nine had PAFs and one had Throbaks, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the Throbak equipped guitar from the others. There’s a pretty big range to PAF tone. I could probably tell a really great one from a Throbak but an average one? I think not.

The only clear exception I can think of-and feel free to challenge me on this-are nylon saddles as found on most 63 and later ABR-1’s. Reproduction nylon saddles are too soft and don’t sound anything like the original milled nylon saddles you find on 62 and later guitars. Part of that could be the age factor but I think it’s mostly because it’s probably too expensive to mill the saddles rather than molding them. The molded ones are simply too soft and seem to dampen the vibration of the string. The metal repro saddles are pretty good if they are the nickel over brass ones. The tusq ones are a lot like the milled nylon ones and a good substitute.

So, if you have a collector grade 335 and it needs a part, go ahead and buy the real one. You’ll get it back when you sell. A no excuse guitar is always easier to sell than one that is all original except for…whatever. On a player grade guitar, you might get your investment back but you probably won’t. I’d be happy to sell you that $1200 long tortoise guard for your 59 355 but you can get a nearly identical one for $250 from one of a few boutique makers. I promise, your guitar will sound the same.

New nylon saddles are too soft and will cause your guitar to sound muddy. If you need to replace the nylon saddles on your post 62 ES-335, either find real vintage ones or get Tusq ones. Newer nylon saddles are too soft.

10 Responses to “Small Parts. Big Bucks.”

  1. James says:

    Anyone figure out how to make a pickup cover like the originals yet?

  2. Steve Newman says:

    Throbak pickups have covers so accurate, that they even use the original plating company, for the most authentic cover possible.

  3. RAB says:

    A factor here is that intangible satisfaction in knowing all the parts on your old fiddle are original or vintage correct…some people (including me) care, others not so much!

  4. okguitars says:

    Easy to know if they’re correct but, unless you got the guitar from the original owner (and he or she isn’t a liar), it’s impossible to be 100% certain if any removable part is original. Lots of ways to lower the odds though-wear pattern, condition of screw heads, date codes and the like. A don’t get me started on cases.

  5. Rod says:

    I totally get the ‘period correct’ thing to a degree but cannot understand how people will pay vast sums for original PAFs as there is no one PAF sound. Because of the nature of their construction methods they are nearly all different. Since no one can see the label under normal circumstances, if you wish to play the guitar, at ANY time, surely good sounding pickups are more important than merely ‘period correct’ ones? But I suppose that is the essential difference between the ‘player’ and ‘collector’ ethos.

  6. okguitars says:

    I’m reminded of the scene in the Broadway show “Kiss of the Spider Woman” where the window dresser insists that the handbag on the mannequin has to have a Balenciaga scarf in it because the woman who would buy the outfit would have that scarf in her bag even though the shopper can’t see it. Too obscure? OK, how about this…covered double white PAFs- It doesn’t matter if nobody else knows they’re under there. YOU know they are.

  7. RAB says:

    Charlie, you nailed it! Part of the reason we love our vintage guitars is playing something that has history and soul! Full white ‘buckers gots lots of mojo!

  8. Joe Campagna says:

    Philadelphia Luthier Supply offers ABS saddles for ABR-1’s that are very much like the original nylon saddles.

  9. Olleandro says:

    My ’66 355 is so good and original that I’ve actually taken some parts off and put repros on as I use it so much. Replaced the original switch tip with a £5 Gibson orange one, which looks great, and somehow more vintage than the white one and swapped the gold varitone knob for a black one that cost me peanuts. Original bits stay in the case and avoid the wear and tear. I do not replacement saddles as the bottom E is a bit worn and jumps out sometimes so a great little nugget of info about getting tusq ones! Charlie saves the day again!

  10. chuckNC says:

    I needed saddles for my 355 and went with tusq. I was happy enough with the sound but had no experience with other types. I’m glad to know they’re well-thought-of by guys who have ears I respect!

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