After the Goldrush

The end of the Golden Era-the Gibson executives decide on what changes will make the 335 (or in this case, the 345) more competitive with the rival Fender line. Fortunately the company was in good hands.

Most of us will acknowledge that the most desirable 335’s are 58 and 59 dot necks. 64’s are pretty desirable too and all of these fall into what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Era”. Judging by the characteristics of these three years, the conclusion is pretty clear. People like guitars with big necks. But there has to be more to it than that or Gibson would have simply kept on with what they were doing. Since this era is largely our own perception of what’s desirable and what isn’t, you have to assume that something changed. Was it simply that Gibson and later Norlin, made inferior guitars? Well, that’s part of it.

So, what happened following the so-called “Golden Era”? I don’t like to make a blanket statement that all 70’s Gibson’s are crap. They aren’t, but here’s the distinction I draw between the Golden Era and it’s fringe (the late 60’s)…a bad 335 from 58 to mid 69 is the exception, not the rule. The bad 335 from mid 69 to 81 is more the rule. You have to look pretty hard to find a really bad 68. You have to look pretty hard to find a really good 78. If you own one and you love it, good for you-you found a good one. The intent of the Norlin Corp. who owned Gibson from 1969 to 1986 was to print money. Corners were cut, compromises were made, quality suffered and prices rose. The wood was often inferior, the center block nearly disappeared, pickups were simplified and suffered for it, necks were no longer a single piece of mahogany, the non too popular neck volute appeared and on and on. This might help explain the price differential between a 68 and a 78 but it doesn’t do much to explain the differential between a 59 and a 68.

The guitar boom that followed the Beatles to America was a cultural tidal wave. Sales of 335’s went from a few hundred a year (592 in 1959) to thousands ( close 6000 by 1967). That’s a tenfold increase and that must have put some strain on the work force. It is no secret that the quality in 67 is not as consistent as it was in 59. But, the quality was still quite good and apparently Gibson was able to handle the huge increase without ruining the product. There were, however, decisions made that make them less collectible or desirable than a 59 or a 64. The change from stop tail to trapeze in 65 was simple economics. It took longer to install a stop tail than it did to install a trapeze. Time is money. More important was the decrease in the nut width, dictated largely by competition from Fender where thinner meant faster (and we all wanted to be faster).  Imagine the vintage 335 market if 67’s had the wide nut and the big profile of a 59. The 335 market would be vastly different with thousands of additional, desirable wide nut 335’s available to satisfy the demand (the total for 65-68 is over 13000). OK, granted a 67 isn’t a 59 with a narrow nut-there’s the Indian rosewood board, the poly wound pre T (cheaper than enamel wire) and then t-top pickups and the chrome hardware (more durable than nickel) but still, they are more similar to a 59 than they are to a 78. I believe I could take a 67, put on a set of early patents, a stop tail and re-neck it with a wider mahogany neck and present you with a guitar you would swear was a 64 and you’d like it a lot.

The big dollars that 58-64’s command is not arbitrary. There are quantifiable reasons for their market values. I never took an economics course but the simple rules of supply and demand are at work here along with other, less tangible market forces. A dot neck plays and sounds no better than a block but commands a premium. An early patent is the same as a late PAF (but for the sticker) but it looks and sounds the same but commands a premium. Mickey Mouse ear cutaways are no better than the pointy ones from late 63 on but they command a premium. Starting to see a pattern here?

Fads and trends made a big difference here. The Golden Era didn’t end abruptly on Dec 31 1964. It didn’t end because the quality went down the tubes. The Golden Era is our perception of whats good and desirable- right now. It ended, in part, because the current demand is for wide nut guitars and Gibson, in it’s wisdom, blinked and followed Fenders lead for a “faster” neck. And further, in the quest for a less labor intensive tailpiece, Gibson went to the trapeze.  If, for whatever reason, narrow nut, trapeze tailpiece guitars become the rage among players and collectors, the 65-68’s are going to be king. And the Norlin era? Well, that’s a much more involved tale that we’ll get to soon.

The end of the Golden Era. This is a very early 65-all nickel, stop tail big neck. A few weeks after this was made, the stop tails were used up and the trapeze took its place. The big neck was gone by around June. Chrome was phased in throughout the year and even into 66 with the pick guard bracket the last piece of nickel hardware to fall.



11 Responses to “After the Goldrush”

  1. Frank says:

    Thank you for your wonderful posts, Charlie!

    I think the craze for ’64s started when Clapton had put his on auction. I remember some years ago it was all about Dots.

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, insightful comments as always. Interesting to ponder how things might be different in the vintage market if Clapton had played a ‘68 instead of ‘64 335? And then there’s Larry Carlton, “Mr. 335” who played a nice sunburst dotneck earlier in his career before settling on his fav ‘68 or ‘69 models including the added, misplaced stop tailpieces!

  3. Butch says:

    I consider myself to be very typical of the young new player swept up in the wave of the British invasion during the transition out of the golden era. Looking back I have always felt that the primary reason for Gibson’s switch to the readily available trapeze was to make the guitars more easily convertible to the ” must have ” vibrato. It could be easily installed by the dealer, or custom ordered from the factory, no large holes to deal with. Nobody wanted, or was even aware of stop tails. We were using those heavy, orange boxed Gibson flatwounds, knew nothing of string bending. The Jaguars and Jazzmasters that were competing with Gibson had plenty of string length between their tailpiece and bridge. We didn’t realize that disadvantage at the time. The Fenders that had much more of a hardtail terminus for the ball ends were the Tele and Strat, and nobody wanted one of those. Gibson responded to our large but unsophisticated demand in the easiest ways they could. As guitar playing progressed, well… we know the rest of the story.

  4. okguitars says:

    Very interesting take, Butch. And you’re right about the Tele and hardtail Strats. Most of us were out of flatwounds by 66 or so and string bending was close behind. Jeez, we’re old.

  5. Butch says:

    Yeah, that’s for sure… we had to have a trem, but nobody wanted even a trem Strat. We kind of considered that a “rhythm guitar” as used by of Al Jardine. Jimi showed us differently. By the end of 64 I think that Gibson made the changes they felt they needed to make in the least disruptive ways to their manufacturing process possible. Many 66 and up Gibsons I’ve played/owned seem to have brighter and thinner sounding pickups. I’ve wondered if that was intentionally done to try and match the Fender treble/chime.

  6. James says:

    I think the 1964 is popular/desirable because it has a stop tail and is known for having a wide nut width. If they screwed up and made a batch that also had dots, collectors would be all over that. Yes, Clapton has a lot to do with it also. It’s no accident that he picked a great guitar to keep in his stable for so long. If the 64’s were garbage, I’m sure he would have acquired an older one that played and sounded great.

  7. RAB says:

    True that. And then there were bands like the Grateful Dead who, as soon as they had more money ditched their used, old, vintage guitars for brand new, right outta da box SG Standards and hippie-dream Alembics and such. Like groovy man! Sheesh!

  8. RAB says:

    Ignorance, too much money and too many mind altering drugs contributed…

  9. RAB says:

    And the terrible “wolf” custom guitar played by Jerry Garcia. Of course he would make any guitar sound like crap, eh?

  10. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Great column … and great insights in all the replies. Clapton’s name comes up frequently here and I’d go a step further: most of the highly vaunted electric guitars and amps owe their fortunes to Eric Clapton.

    Consider the following list: ’64 ES-335, 1959 sunburst Les Paul Standard, 1957 “boat neck” Strat, reverse Firebird I, GIbson Explorer, mid-60s Marshall JTM 45 heads and combos, Fender high powered tweed Twin, SG standard, even the Pre-BS Tele Custom (like the one with the odd strat neck he used with Blind Faith). Every one is associated with Eric and all seemed to climb higher in vintage value because of it. (Why would a single pickup reverse ‘bird cost more than the two-pickup FB III? Clapton of course!)

    Sure there are other highly prized vintage guitars that don’t connect to him, but look at it the other way: nearly every vintage guitar or amp that was at some point pictured with or mentioned by Eric Clapton stand high among their peers in value. Ironically, the one guitar model associated with him that isn’t terribly desirable (and, turning 30 next year is flirting with ‘vintage’ status) … is the Eric Clapton signature Stratocaster.

  11. James says:

    Jerry and Bob also played an Ibanez musician, which was “inspired” by Alembic guitars.

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