Secret Sauce Part 2

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.


6 Responses to “Secret Sauce Part 2”

  1. RAB says:

    Yes, good lesson. Try not to let preconceptions affect your choice when looking for a fiddle, especially on a budget! You might get a great guitar at a great price!

  2. RAB says:

    But if the budget is fat I’ll take an early ‘59 ES-335TN please! Oh yes, with never uncovered double whites! Ha, ha!

  3. RAB says:

    I’m as much of a vintage snob as just about anyone else and have owned and played multiple original PAF Gibsons including 1950’s Bursts, Goldtops, 335/345/355 models and an original Explorer over 5 decades…I certainly cherish and appreciate rich PAF tone. But, I gotta admit, the Throbak pickups in my reissue 2001 ‘59 Flying V can stand up to a good PAF, sound damn fine in their own right and are most definitely giggable! Lesson? Don’t look down your nose at a guitar that doesn’t feature the secret sauce. It might just play and sound luscious without it!

  4. okguitars says:

    I agree completely. Throbaks (and a few others) can be every bit as good as a PAF. You need to get lucky with the wood though. There is more good old wood than there is good new wood. I had a McKay 335 that had Wizz Clones in it that was awfully close to a real 59. Trust your ears and fingers, not your eyes and your wallet.

  5. RAB says:

    Fo sho!

  6. James says:

    I’m a big fat fan of big fat necks!

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)