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Archive for April, 2019

The Weight (Take a Load Off, Fanny)

Monday, April 29th, 2019

You can’t tell until you pick it up. This 335 (it’s a 60) could weigh 8 and a half pounds or it could weigh 7 lbs or so. The components are consistent but the weight of the wood is not. Old wood generally weighs less than new wood. Weight and tone are not tied together in a predictable way.

A reader wrote to me and said I have never done a post about the weight of 335’s. I’m not sure how I missed that considering how many people seem to ask what guitars weigh when they are considering a purchase. It was never much of an issue to me until I got older and my back started acting up. Then again, I don’t play standing up that often so even now, it isn’t that much of an issue. But the weight of a guitar is sometimes more than just a question of comfort.

ES-335’s are relatively consistent weight wise. The range is a good bit less than, say, a Les Paul. I’ve had 7.5 lb Les Pauls and I owned a 1972 Les Paul Custom that weighed nearly 13 lbs. The lightest 335 I’ve had weighed just a hair over 7 lbs and was a 62. The high end for a 60’s 335 is around 9 lbs but there are things to consider. A stop tail will weigh less than a Bigsby given that the Bigsby B7 unit itself weighs 12.5 ounces whereas a stop tail and studs weighs around 3 ounces. Another consideration is the somewhat inconsistent depth of the bodies-anywhere from around 1.6″ to 1.8″ and when the body is deeper, the center block is larger (and heavier). I’m going to assume all the maple blocks were the same size and the extra space was taken up by the spruce “filler” element that sits on top of the block. Spruce is pretty light but we’re talking ounces here. The variation in the neck sizes will also affect the weight-there’s a lot more wood in a big neck 59 than there is in a blade neck 61. Again, ounces. The 58’s and some 59 335’s had a three ply thin top and later 335’s all have four plies. That will make a small difference as well.

I’m not a wood expert but I find a great deal of the variation comes from the composition of the wood itself. Much of that weight has to do with the density of the wood and the moisture content. One of the things I don’t like about 70’s Gibsons (besides the subpar build quality) is the weight. 70’s 335’s are generally heavier than their 60’s and 50’s counterparts. I’m going to blame the quality of the wood for that or perhaps the treatment of the wood. The 70’s were about profits and I would bet that Gibson was buying the cheapest grade they could get away with. Folks talk lovingly about “old wood” and I tend to agree that the age of the wood is a factor in the tone (and the weight) of a 335. Wood dries out over time. Moisture has weight. Dry wood weighs less than wet wood. I’m not sure whether the wood used back in the 50’s and 60’s was better dried than wood today but it seems to weigh less.

So, what’s an “average” 335 weigh? Just under 8 lbs. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say 7 lbs 12 ounces. That’s a pretty comfortable weight for most players. I get asked whether weight has any bearing on tone. I would say that it can but it would be impossible to quantify. I’ve played great 335’s that weighed 7 lbs 2 ounces and great ones that weighed 8 lbs 10 ounces. I find the light ones to generally sound sweeter and, for the lack of a better term, “airier”. Or maybe that’s all in my head (or my back). Like I said, I’ve played some killer 335’s that are close to 9 lbs.

What about 345’s and 355’s? That’s a different story. They can weigh up to 10 lbs due to the weight of the stereo components. A Bigsby 345 has an extra 1.5 lbs hanging off it when compared to a 335 stop tail. The choke, Varitone switch and the shielding cans (no cans on a 335 or mono 355) weigh around 12 ounces. Add in the Bigsby and you’re right at 24 ounces (1.5 lbs). Stop tail and studs only weigh a few ounces. That is lessened a little by the cutout in the center block (which 335’s eventually got as well) but you can depend on a stereo ES being noticeably heavier than a 335. Add in the extra weight of the factory Grovers on a 355 and you’ve got a heavy guitar. Even with all that extra weight, it still weighs a lot less than a Les Paul Custom.

A 345 has a little less wood than an early 335 because the center block has a big piece cut out to accommodate the harness and choke. But it has about 3/4 of ┬ápound of extra electronics that a 335 doesn’t have. Add in 12 ounces of Bigsby and you can easily hit 9 lbs. .

 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes 1961

Monday, April 15th, 2019

An early 61 looks a lot like a late 60 because an early 61 is the same as a late 60.Most of the changes straddled late 60 and early 61.

In the dot neck universe, the 1961 ES-335 is kind of the red headed stepchild. The reputation is not deserved. There really isn’t all that much difference between a 1959 and a 1961 ES-335 but the 59 will cost nearly twice what the 61 will cost you. What is it that makes the 61 so very inexpensive compared to the other years? Well, mostly, it’s a change that actually occurred in 1960.

As noted in the last post, there were some significant changes that were put in place in late 1960 and these changes are more associated with 1961 than 1960. Because most 60 335’s have the long guard, the general perception is that the short guard is a 61 thing. Same goes for the very thin neck profile and the white switch tip. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of changes that actually were implemented in 1961. Like the transition from 59 to 60, the transition from 60 to 61 was marked by…nothing. A late 60 is the same as an early 61.

There are long guard 61’s (not many) and there are 61’s with the amber catalin switch tip. As with most changes, they are phased in over time and the timeline in this case happens to straddle the end of the year and the beginning of the next. So, what changed during the year? The most significant change, I think, was in the pickups. They are still PAFs but 1961 marked the change from the long magnet version (A2 or A4) to the short (A5) magnet. You can probably find a 60 with a short magnet and I don’t make a habit of opening sealed PAFs but it is my best guess that the change occurred in early 61. There really isn’t that big a difference between long and short magnet PAFs-the shorter magnet is to keep the strength the same-an A5 is stronger than an A2 or A4. I find short magnet PAFs to be more consistent than long magnet but that may be due more to changes in the winding machine technology.

I think the biggest reason for the 1961 335’s relatively low price is the neck profile. In 1961, the guitar playing public was showing a preference for thinner “faster” necks and Fender, as far as sales were concerned, was eating Gibson’s lunch. Player preference has been for larger necks for a number of years now but some of that is simply “mines bigger than yours” macho BS from online forum posters who probably have never owned a 61 (or a 59) ES-335. When folks come into my shop to play multiple 335’s, the response to the big neck 59’s is “you got anything a little smaller?” It seems that when the money is on the table, the slimmer neck seems to suddenly become more palatable (and it saves you some serious money). ┬áThe 61 neck is really slim front to back-the fingerboard is still 1 11/16″ wide. There is so little wood between the truss rod and the back of the neck that even a slight over tightening of the truss rod can cause a hairline crack-usually right down the middle of the back of the neck extending from the third fret to the seventh fret. It’s an easy repair and it doesn’t cause long term problems but it’s something you should look for and be aware of. For the record, the 61 neck is pretty easy to play on. For anyone switching from a 60’s Fender, the 61 should feel pretty good. It’s not that far off from a mid 60’s Strat profile.

The 335 was intended to be a relatively low line instrument and it was considerably less expensive than the big Gibson arch tops and just over half the price of the ES-355 which is really a 335 with fancy appointments and an ebony board. That explains the cheap dot markers (which their lowest priced guitars all had) and the plastic strap buttons. In 1961, I guess they decided they could spend an extra 5 cents per guitar and upgrade the strap buttons to metal. Not a big change and, like most, it seems to have been phased in over time. It’s hard to know exactly when this occurred because a lot of the plastic ones broke and were replaced by metal over the years. It seems to have been implemented in early 61 or very late 60.

Another 1961 change doesn’t affect the guitars at all-it’s the case. Early 61’s still have the brown with pink lined case. The black with yellow case was phased in at some point probably during the first quarter. Most 61’s I’ve had have the black case. Most have the leather covered metal handle and have the Gibson badge. There are Liftons (label inside) with a heavy leather handle and the heavier textured covering but they are also black with yellow.

The only other change to occur in 1961 is not terribly significant. In 1961, the serial numbers beginning with the letter “A” were abandoned and after serial number A36147. Supposedly, the next serial number was 100 but I don’t think that’s right. I think they started at 1000. I’ve owned a lot of 61’s and I’ve never seen a three digit serial number. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. Also, at this time, Gibson started stamping the serial number into the back of the headstock as they do now. There were some odd transitional serials where an “A” serial is shown on the label but a different all digit serial shows up on the headstock. Go figure. Lastly, 61 marked the end of the factory order number. At some point in early 61 they simply stopped. The letter “Q” is the prefix for 61 but I’ve seen very few of them.

If you want a red dot neck, a 61 is very nearly your only option. There are fewer than 30 from 58-60 but over 400 in 1961. It’s not the old red that fades so beautifully. In fact, the later red often fades toward brown which is not so attractive. On the other hand an unfaded 61 in red can be stunning.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes 1960

Monday, April 1st, 2019

This beauty is identical to a late 59 and will cost you 30% less. This one is probably from March of 60. It has all the 59 features-bonnet knobs, long guard, amber switch tip, single ring tuners and a pretty big neck. I’d buy this guitar in a heartbeat if it was for sale again. I sold it a couple of years ago and it was a great one.

It’s January 4th 1960. It’s Monday. Gibson gave the workers New Years Day off last Friday and you’re back in the factory in Kalamazoo. Your hangover has, mercifully, gone away and you are ready to start a new year at the Gibson factory. You roll over a rack of 335’s to your work area and start doing whatever it is you do. This rack of 335’s (there are usually 35 to a rack) were all built last week and stamped with a factory order number beginning with the letter “S” which stands for 1959. These guitars will get their serial number once they are completed and ready to ship and that serial number will tell us that these guitars are from 1960. OK, why should I care about that, especially nearly 60 years later. Well, I’ll tell you why.

A 1959 ES-335 is worth, in todays market, 30-40% more than a 1960. You could argue that the factory order number is more significant since it signifies the year the guitar was built which is more important than when it was shipped but your buyer is going to look up the serial number and argue that it’s a 60 and your buyer would be right. But they are the same, aren’t they? Yes. They are the same at least for a few months. There were no changes at all made in early 1960. The significant changes occurred in the Fall of 1959-the slimmer neck, the steeper neck angle. An early 60 is the same as a later 59. The 1960 changes really don’t get under way until the late Spring or early Summer and, as usual, the changes occur over a period of time

The most significant change is in the neck profile. By around May or June, the profile of the neck (front to back-the width stayed the same) started to slim down from an average of .83″ at the first fret down to a very slim .79″ or so. The 12th fret measurement goes from the .94″ range down to .87″ and even less. That’s pretty slim. I won’t get into the discussion about neck girth and tone. It’s a slippery slope. But other changes were soon to follow.

I’m not totally clear on the timeline for the tuners-they get changed by their owners so frequently that it’s hard to pin down the period of change. They were still Klusons but the tips went from single ring to double ring and the oil hole went from big to small. They still shrink and fall apart. The knobs go from bonnet (burst type) to reflectors around the same time-again mid year or so. The capacitors, up to the Spring of 1960 were bumblebee Spragues but changed to Black Beauty which are pretty much the same as a later bumblebee.

Very late in the year-probably in December, another round of changes occurred. The very desirable long guards ran out and the economics probably dictated that a shorter pick guard would save a few cents on every guitar. That change is perhaps more significant than most-not because it made much functional difference but because the long guard 335’s are revered nearly as much as the big neck ones. You can’t tell a big neck 335 from a foot away but you can tell a long guard from across the room. At around the same time, the switch tip went from catalin material which turned amber to white plastic which stayed white (and usually cracked). Finally and sadly, it was the end of the line for the blonde finish. They made 88 of them making 1960 the most common of the blondes. But it also marked the beginning of the long tradition of red 335’s. There are a few 59’s (perhaps a half dozen) but red was not offered as a catalog option until 1960. What surprises most folks is how a rare a red 60 is. They made only 21 of them. A long guard red 335, to me, is the most desirable 335 ever made. It’s also worth noting that the red finish itself changed in 1960-probably in the 3rd quarter. It seems the early red dye was very reactive to sunlight and faded to that watermelon color that everybody wants. Yes, it’s the same red that disappears from a Les Paul burst.

In many ways, an early 60 ES-335 is one of the great deals in vintage. It is the same as a late 59 but minus the nearly irrational desirability of that year. 59’s are wonderful guitars-I play one myself (OK, it’s a 345 but its still a 59) but a 60 will cost you a whole lot less do everything that 59 does.

Long guard red 60. Rare and then some. There are plenty of red 61’s but the red is different and the guard is the short version. This, I guess, explains why a red 61 will cost you $20K and a red 60 will cost you more than twice that.