Archive for November, 2017

Secret Sauce Part 2

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

This unusual Mickey Mouse ear 66 ES-345 throws a monkey wrench into a lot of my theories. This guitar, if not a top twenty, was very close. Best post 64 I ever had. It wasn’t played much (one theory gone), it’s not a stop tail (another theory gone), it’s not from the “Golden Era” (and another), it has a Varitone (ditto).

I’ve given this post a fair amount of thought and have concluded that logic doesn’t serve us very well here. Logic says the larger the sample, the more valid the results. Let’s see. OK, let’s start with the largest possible sample-all the 335, 345 and 355’s that I’ve owned. My top ten list or top twenty list is compiled from approximately 500 guitars that I’ve owned and sold over the past 10 years or so since I started doing this seriously. Looking at the “also rans” might be illustrative.

Where do all the later ones fall? Well, there aren’t that many later ones because I don’t generally buy them. There could be spectacularly good 66 and later 335’s but I don’t get to play very many of them. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s more that I wanted to keep my “niche” fairly small. I’ve owned a few dozen 66-69’s, so I have a pretty good handle on those but I’ve owned less than 5 from the 70’s. So, my opinion on 70’s guitars is no more informed than yours. The ones I’ve had have been playable, decent sounding guitars but none has impressed me and all were kind of heavy and perhaps less “335” sounding than earlier ones. Could be the changes in construction that occurred in the 70’s. Not much to be learned there. The 66-69’s have generally been pretty good. I don’t like the narrow nut but that aspect doesn’t affect tone. Nor does the Indian rosewood board on these. I’ve had folks tell me they can tell the difference in tone between the rosewoods but I can’t. The pickup changes that occurred during this period may be a factor-66’s generally have poly winding pre T-tops but by 69, most have T-tops. Later pre T-tops seem to lack some of the complexity of the early ones and T-tops, while very consistent, sound kind of thin to me. My conclusion? PAFs and early patents are a factor for sure. Short magnet or long magnet? Well, I’ve swapped out magnets more than a few times and I don’t hear that much difference between a long A2 or A4 and a short A5. I find short magnet PAFs to be more consistent but a great long magnet PAF seems to be best of all. I’ll take a good short magnet over a not so great long magnet though (yes, they exist).

I’d also like to point out how much difference a proper setup makes. I recently had a Bigsby 61 brought to me as a trade. It had a Bigsby bridge installed rather than an ABR-1, a worn out set of strings (10’s) but other wise it was a pretty typical 61. Thin wide neck, PAFs, “normal” neck angle. But it sounded dull and lifeless. No sparkle in the bridge pickup, not much in the way of overtones or harmonics and crappy sustain. New strings made a difference but a few other tweaks made a marginal 335 into a really excellent one. I added a vintage ABR-1 with metal saddles (which I prefer over nylon). I raised the pickups setting them very close to the strings which seems to be the ideal setting on 335’s. I made certain that the saddles weren’t slotted too deeply-this is really important for sustain-and did the same for the nut. Finally, the neck was dead flat-it played fine that way but I dialed in a bit of relief. This allows the strings a little more room to vibrate freely and I find it makes a difference-especially for folks who like really low action. So much of the tone seems to flow from how freely the strings vibrate. Consider the things that affect this-saddles, nut, pickups (magnets can affect this), relief and the strings themselves. Getting these things right made quite a big difference in the 61 in question.

What about the build quality? I believe that the guitars built after the “guitar boom” of the mid 60’s are marginally inferior to earlier ones. Instead of cranking out hundreds a year, Gibson was building thousands. In 1958, there were 327 semi hollow ES guitars built. By 1967, there were around 7300 built. Not only did ES shipping numbers grow exponentially but all the other models did as well. That had to affect the build quality and, if you take a look at the amount of glue slopped around in a typical 67, you’ll get the idea.

Finally, what about the quality of the wood used in the early days? I’m no expert here but I would guess that the quality of the wood in 1958 was not significantly different than the quality of the wood in 1966.

What’s it all mean. It means that a great guitar is the sum of its many parts. You need 5 things. A great design, great wood, great build, great electronics and a great setup. Add a few decades of “seasoning” and a good amp and I think you’re there.

Don’t let the shallow neck angle scare you. Unbound 58’s are always up there in tone and usually in playability as well once you get the setup right.


Thanksgiving 2017

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

I’m thankful for my dog, Zoubi who doesn’t really appreciate my playing that much.

As usual, I have plenty to be thankful for this year. There’s the usual things-my wonderful wife (who takes very good care of me), my son who has not “borrowed” a guitar from me for years now and his fiancee and my dog (Zoubi) and my eight brothers who have always been there for me and my health (OK, I’ve got back surgery coming up but after that, I should be lifting Twin Reverbs again). Then there’s the other stuff.

I am very fortunate to have the business that I have. I worked for 45 years in the film and TV business and, while I was a very well regarded editor and sometime director, I sometimes struggled to keep it fun and engaging. Some of my clients were, predictably, difficult and some were incredibly cheap. Because editing was the last step in the production process, I simply didn’t get paid sometimes. The producers simply ran out of money and didn’t bother telling me. Happily, that doesn’t happen in this business. I’ve been a guitar dealer full time for 6 years now and I have had very few bad days. This is my retirement but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s a lot of work but I love every day of it. Gotta be thankful for that.

My clients (and readers) are the nicest, most knowledgable and most appreciative people in the world. I have many here in the USA and all over the world. I just checked–I’ve sold guitars in 21 different countries and I have readers in every country in the world except for seven countries in Africa (c’mon Somalia, get with it). I’ve sold guitars in every state and every Canadian province. Player, collector, beginner, hack (like me)…it doesn’t matter. The love of guitars makes us all the same. The common ground brought to us through these instruments is priceless. Whether you spend $300,000 on a 59 Les Paul or $900 for an old ’61 Epiphone Olympic, the anticipation and the joy when you open that box that shows up at your door after way too long in transit is the same. Gotta be thankful for that. Even after many hundreds of “new” guitars, it’s still like Christmas morning every time one shows up at my house or my shop.

Please feel free to continue to email me to ask questions about 335’s and the like. I’ll try to help with other guitars but there are plenty of other dealers who know more than I do. Also, feel free to email me about a 335, 345 or 355 that you are considering buying and I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t make a mistake. Of course, it’s hard to know everything from a photo but I’ll make sure you know what questions to ask. There are no inside secrets here. If I know something, you know it too. And if I disparage your 1979 ES-345 and you love yours, please don’t take it to heart. There are good ones and there are not so good ones. Your guitar only needs to speak to one person. You. Gotta be thankful for that, too.

The “A” rack at OK Guitars today. It changes a lot and often. I’m thankful for the A rack.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Friday, November 17th, 2017

I was supposed to do part 2 of my “Secret Sauce” post next but I was blasting around Ebay-which I don’t do so much any more and found a few things that made me question the sanity of some of the folks who buy and sell vintage gear. I know collectors are pretty nutty. A white pickup ring is worth 20 times what a black one is worth. An obsolete plastic switch tip (catalin) is $200 (and I buy them all the time). The top of the ES line is worth half what the bottom of the line is worth (355 vs 335). So much of the vintage guitar business is counter intuitive and we’ve all come to accept most of it’s silliness. But not all of it. There is no shortage of misguided sales and misguided sellers. Today, I found some real beauties.

How much is this worthless pile of plastic worth? Did I say worthless? This is VINTAGE, baby. Read on.

Broken parts generally aren’t worth much but that didn’t stop the seller of a completely off gassed 355 pick guard from putting it up on Ebay starting at $99 and noting it is “for repair”. Well, you can’t repair an off gassed guard that’s in dozens of pieces. It’s a worthless pile of celluloid. Maybe if the binding was intact, you could use that to repair an intact guard that had a compromised binding but c’mon, 99 bucks for a pile of plastic shards? I suppose if you had a 355 with a repro guard and you wanted to put the off gassed one in the case to prove you still have the original might appeal to someone but putting an off gassing piece of celluloid in a case is a really bad idea. They give off nitric acid which will trash your hardware. Hey, I put original tuners with shrunken tips in the case pocket of 59’s all the time but at least the new owner gets the option of retipping them. If I get a 58 325 with a collapsed low profile ABR-1, I always put it in the case but I don’t think I would go out of my way to buy a broken one to put in there.

Duane Allman played through this speaker. Well, not this cone but he did own this speaker frame. Easily worth 6 times it’s usual retail price, right?

I never thought I would see something more dodgy than the $100,000 64 “Clapton” 335 that the seller felt commanded a 500% premium over a run of the mill 64 (because it was 90 serial numbers away from Clapton’s) but now I think I have. A typical re-coned JBL D-120F is a $175 speaker and they are really excellent speakers if you play clean. But this one is $1035-a 600% premium. Why the big markup? Because Duane Allman played through it except it’s been re-coned so he really didn’t. OK, he owned it and that’s a bit of a conversation starter but 6 times the usual price? I have a set of stereo speakers that I played an Allman Brothers record through, so isn’t that kind of like Duane playing through my speakers? It’s not like any of Duane’s DNA comes through the amp or anything. Artist guitars and gear are not something I deal in for this very reason. The way I see it, unless the artist is closely associated with the guitar (or is a huge star, like a Beatle), I think it’s a fool’s game. I’ve had a few famous players come into my shop and play a bunch of guitars but I wouldn’t dream of asking a premium because that player played it. I can see this on Ebay …”1960 ES-335 dot neck played (with photo) by [insert famous guitar players name here]…$125,000 complete with DNA and sweat (it was a hot day). I will sell the DNA separately if requested.

Finally, here’s a piece of masking tape from inside a Fender guitar or amp with the name of the worker on it. Remarkably, somebody actually paid $30 for it. Nutty? I rest my case.

Old masking tape with the name Rene on it. Put this in the control cavity of your Telecaster and increase it’s value by a buck. How do you authenticate this? I could probably sell “Lupe” reproduction old masking tape for your old tweed amp for $20 a pop.

Secret Sauce, Part 1

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Number 9 on the top ten list is this 59 ES-345 in red-possibly the first red 345 ever made. The pickups are white/zebra, the neck is fat, the top is thick and the neck angle is normal.

I try to keep a record of which ES-335’s sound best (“top ten”) which is not an easy task. First off, I sell all the guitars I get so that I have to remember what a guitar sounded like years after I last heard or played it. I keep notes on each guitar but tone is so subjective that I don’t trust my own notes sometimes. In fact, I’ve had guitars that sound absolutely great one day and not so great the next. I’m guessing that if I lined up the ten best 335’s I’ve ever had and played them one after the other, they would sound really similar if not identical. But my ears aren’t your ears and my taste isn’t your taste. And my amp isn’t your amp. Beyond that, if I took the next ten that I’ve liked, I don’t think the difference would be all that great either. In fact, I no longer rate them in order-just top ten best and top twenty.

I bought an unbound 58 yesterday that is pretty close to mint and possible top ten contender. The conventional wisdom says the good ones get played. That’s often true but the converse is not. Just because a guitar is mint and barely played doesn’t mean it can’t sound great. If the original owner kept it under the bed and was a lousy player who gave up after 6 months in 1959, then the condition has nothing to do with the tone. This 58 is a monster. The dealer from whom I bought it thought it was the best 335 he had ever heard (and this was after I had agreed to buy it). I wasn’t playing it through a $12000 tweed Bandmaster either. I was playing it through a $1500 Gibson GA-80-a great amp but certainly not a legendary one. When I go back and look at my current list of the best 335’s I’ve owned, there are more 58 335’s than any other year and model. There are a bunch of 59’s (335’s, 345’s and a 355) some with a 58 factory order number (FON). There’s a 60 and a 62 on that list but 8 out of ten are 58’s and 59’s. Here is a list of the current top ten-ignore the order: #1 bound 58 335, #2  59 (58 FON) 335, #3 unbound 58 335, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 bound 58 335  #6 is an early 60 335, #7 is a 59 355 mono stop tail, #8 is a refinished 62 335, #9 is a 59 345 and #10 is a 59 335.

So, what’s the “secret sauce”? Is there any shared aspect of these guitars that tells us something about what makes them so good? All are stop tails. They all have long magnet PAFs except the 62 335. Many have the thin top-6 for sure, perhaps as many as 8-I don’t have notes on numbers 9 and 10-they could be either thin or regular tops. Numbers 1,3 and 5 have the shallow neck angle. How about the body depth? Body depth? Yes, the body depth kept getting deeper and deeper over the years. The typical 58 and many 59’s are 1.5-1.6″ deep. By 60, most were around 1.65″ deep. By 64, the average was around 1.72″ and by ’65, 1.8″ was not unusual. All have shallow bodies except the 60, the 62 and maybe one of the 59 335’s. What about neck profile? All but two have a chunky neck. The question is which aspects make the difference or is it a combination of all of them. Or is it the wood? Or how they were kept? Or how much they were played?

So, we’ve got the raw data but its interpretation is the sticking point. Maybe I need to look at a larger sampling or maybe it’s impossible to know without having all of them side by side. Doing things like swapping out pickups won’t tell us much since 9 out of 10 have PAFs. But wait. We all know that PAFs are not very consistent. We’ve all had experiences where a pickup swap has made a guitar better. Most of us believe that if a guitar sounds great unplugged, it will sound great plugged in. I don’t buy that as a rule. It’s a decent starting point but it’s not gospel. So, I think we know a great pickup is a big part of it. I believe the thin top makes a difference. The data tells me that. Or does it? None of the top ten are blondes. Three are red. One is refinished. So, six are sunbursts. That’s data but logic tells us that the color can’t possibly make a difference. Well, that same logic might tell us what does make the difference. We will look deeper in my next post.

Number 7 on the list is a 1959 mono factory stop tail ES-355. Big neck, white PAFs (which we all know sound better than black ones), thin top.