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Archive for March, 2019

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Part 1

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

The guitar at the top is a very early (April) 1958 ES-335 and the bottom one is a later 58 but still no neck binding. Pointier ears are the obvious difference between these two. There are others.

This is going to be a pretty exhaustive set of posts and they will cover a lot of ground, most of which has been covered in the past but in a more piecemeal way. What I want to do here is create a kind of 335 time line that becomes a handy reference when you need to figure what year the guitar is you are looking at (or playing) or what parts are right and wrong or simply get a better sense of what happened when and why it matters or doesn’t matter.

Just about everybody who likes 335’s will acknowledge that the early ones are better than the new ones and plenty of smart folks have put in their two cents worth as to why that is. The most frequently heard comments are “better wood” and “better pickups”. And that makes a fair amount of sense but there were a lot of changes over the years and some seem to have made a big difference while others just seemed like change for the sake of change. They also didn’t happen at predictable times of the year like on January 1. There really weren’t “model years” like cars have. A 59 is a 59 because it was shipped in 59 or, you could argue, it was built in 59. A December 31, 1958 build is 100% identical to one built right after January 1 1959.

1958

58’s are great but there were a lot of changes that occurred from 58 into 59. Remember, changes rarely happened overnight; they were phased in over time.  So, right off the bat, I have to say that early (April 58 was the release date) 58’s can be excellent guitars but, like with any new product, there were problems and they were addressed going forward. The neck angle on the new model was very shallow and required a lower profile bridge than the standard ABR-1 that had been in use for a few years. These bridges were prone to sagging and collapsing. Fix seems to have occurred around the 3rd quarter of 58. The thin bridges were replaced first with shaved full size ABR-1’s and later in 58, the neck angle was increased slightly to accommodate a full height ABR-1, although it would be increased again later. Whether these changes enhanced tone is questionable. They did improve playability by allowing more adjustment to the string height.

You can clearly ee the difference between a 1958 ABR-1 for a 335 and a later one. They tended to sag, then break and Gibson apparently got more than a few complaints about that.

In 1958, the tops were 3 ply maple plywood with a piece of poplar (usually) in the middle. These thin tops were quite resonant but also rather fragile. A good hard tug on the output cable (especially of you were using a straight plug, could cause serious cracks around the jack over time and, in extreme cases, pull the jack right out of the top sometimes taking a chunk of the top with it. Cracks elsewhere in the top were also common especially in the top layer of the plywood. Fix occurred in early 59. The problem was addressed  by adding a fourth layer to the plywood (another poplar, usually) which increased the thickness appreciably. There were a fair number of completed but unassembled bodies with thin tops that were put aside and were used later in 1959 probably because they got behind in their orders as popularity rose.

Three ply thin top 58. You can sort of see the plies here. A 59 and later 335’s will have four plies in the top.

The thing most folks notice about a 58 is a lack of binding on the neck. I’m not sure why some time in September of 1958, they started turning out 335’s with bound necks. The transition occurred over a period of around two months-I have documented bound necks as early as mid September but I’ve seen unbound necks shipped as late as late November or early December 58. I would assume it was a decision based on someone’s idea of where the 335 should fall in the Gibson guitar line. The downscale Gibsons had unbound necks while the upscale ones had binding. It may be that the brass at Gibson starting seeing the 335 as a bit more upscale than they had earlier perceived it.

There were some smaller changes that occurred in 1958 that were not really addressing an obvious shortcoming. The “ears” went from slightly pointy on the earliest 58’s to the well known “Mickey Mouse” ears that have become iconic. I’m guessing that was a matter of finalizing the tooling once they knew they had a success on their hands. The heel and tenon of the neck was actually two pieces early on and it eventually became one piece. That happened probably in June or July and was again a likely tooling or construction issue that was simplified. It had no effect on playability or tone. Finally, the Kluson tuners went from being designated “patent applied for” to displaying a patent number on the back. That happened over a period of weeks or even months in very late 58 into 59 and, at the same time, the formulation of the plastic changed and that caused some problems years later.

Patent Applied Kluson on the left, patent number on the right. The earlier ones used a different plastic formulation that is less prone to off gassing and shrinking and crumbling to dust. The transition from Patent Applied and patent number occurred in late 1958. You can see the shrinkage in the tip on the right, the patent number one. 

That’s a lot of changes to occur in a fairly short production year lasting only 9 months. Next, we’ll see what happens in 1959-the year that is generally regarded as the pinnacle year of the model.

PAF Theory

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

The $1000 sticker. make sure it looks like this or you’re getting ripped off. There is something unusual about the bottom PAF. Anybody see it?

PAF. P-A-F. Call it what you like but it conjures up visions (or the audio equivalent of a vision whatever that is) of legendary rock and blues tones. I don’t think there is anything that shares the legendary status of this pretty simple piece of electronics. Folks have taken to calling anything with a sticker a PAF and, of course, that’s not really accurate. A PAF says “Patent Applied For” on the back. Otherwise-even if everything else is exactly the same, it ain’t a PAF unless it’s got a stainless steel cover and is from 1957. It’s understandable. After all, an early patent number pickup is identical but for the sticker. I’ve written about the “thousand dollar sticker” before, so that’s not what this is about. I want to put out a theory about some early PAFs.

There are, essentially, four versions of the PAF pickup. The early PAF was made in 1956 and fitted in some steel guitars. It had a stainless steel cover and no sticker. By 57, it was being used in a few “spanish” models-the Les Paul, the ES-175 and various other arch tops. By the end of 57, it had acquired the usual nickel plated cover and the very coveted PAF sticker. The next version showed up around the middle of 59 and was identical except that one or two of the bobbins were white instead of black. The reason for this has generally been acknowledged to be a temporary shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins. It wouldn’t matter, thought the brass at Gibson-nobody will ever see the bobbins anyway and even if they did, nobody would care whether they were white or black. A less true statement has never been made. Before I get into the white bobbin theory, I’ll mention the last version of the PAF. Versions one (no sticker), two (black bobbin with sticker) and three (white bobbin(s)) all had what we refer to as a “long magnet” which was usually an Alnico 2 (or 4) that measured roughly 2.5″. The last version was an Alnico 5 and measure 2.25″. Alnico 5’s are stronger, so the shorter magnet was, essentially, the equivalent of the weaker long magnet. This final version showed up in 1961 and lasted until around 64 in the nickel version and was generally gone around the same time in the gold version but the gold ones pop up occasionally in 65 and, so I’m told, as late as 67. I’ve never seen one after 65 but I’m sure someone has.

So, there are 4 versions of the PAF. The sound of a PAF is not consistent. The winding was done by machine but there was no stop or counter on the machine. They simply wound them until they appeared full. This was around 5000 turns and got you a pickup with a DC resistance in the range of 7K to 8K. There were a few with higher DCR’s and some with lower DCRs. Doing stuff by hand will always give you some variation.

Everyone agrees that white bobbin (and zebra bobbin) PAFs are more desirable and folks always say, with a chuckle, that the white ones sound better. Rational folks know that the color of the bobbin can’t possibly make a difference in the tone, right? Well, yes, except that, in a somewhat indirect way, it actually does. Really. I’m not nuts. Here’s the theory. First off, I happen to think pickups with a somewhat higher DCR sound better to my ear. In my player 345, I have a 8.75K double white in the neck and a 8.4K reverse zebra in the bridge. That’s backwards from what folks do-most folks want the higher DCR in the bridge. But that’s not the point. I’ve tested perhaps 80-90 double white PAFs over the years and nearly all of them have higher than average DCR’s. Why is this? Well, clearly, it isn’t caused by the white bobbins-the bobbins are electronically inert. But it is caused by the white bobbins. Need an explanation? I thought so.

The windings in a PAF are enamel coated copper wire and are a very dark brown or purplish brown. Against a black bobbin, the wire is very hard to see. So, if you are winding a pickup using a black bobbin and you don’t want to put on too many windings because if you do, they will fall off the sides and you’ll have to either start over or trim some wire off. That will slow you down and I’m guessing the winders had a daily quota to fill. So, I’m certain that they erred on the side of caution and left a pretty fair amount of room on the bobbins resulting in the 7K to 8K DCRs. DCR is directly related to the number of winds. But if they are winding the pickup on a white bobbin, the dark colored wire is very easy to see and you can add hundreds of additional windings to the white bobbin and still clearly see that the wire isn’t going to “overflow” the bobbin. That results in the higher DCR’s that are very common on white PAFs.

So, do white PAFs sound better than black ones? They often do if you like “hotter” pickups. Is it worth an extra $4000 per pickup? That’s your call. A black bobbin PAF will cost you from $2000-$2800 in today’s somewhat inflated market. A double white will cost you at least $5000 and as much as $6000. I’ve seen them listed as high as $7000 but I don’t think they sell at that price. Zebras and reverse zebras are somewhere in between, although reverse zebras are crazy rare (I’ve seen 6 ever).

I love it when somebody lists a vintage guitar and says that the pickups COULD be double white or zebra. Right. Like they didn’t check. Ask them and they’ll say, “the covers have never been off so I can’t tell”. Ever hear of a screwdriver? If you want to know, you can also tun the pickup over and take out the bobbin screws-that way you can see each bobbin. It’s a small hole and it’s dark in there but shine a bright light and you’ll see the white.