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Archive for August, 2019

Gibson Custom Shop ca. 1959

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Custom Shop logo on an 84 ES-335. Nothing “custom” about it.

Custom Shop. Sounds great, right? The idea of the factory custom shop is not new. Gibson first started using the term in 1984. Fender in 1987. But the idea was more of a marketing ploy than an actual shop that made custom instruments. How custom can it be if they make 100 or more of each model and none are made to actual customers specifications?  I think guitar players are particularly susceptible to marketing gambits that use the word “custom”. A Les Paul Custom is no more “custom” than a Les Paul Standard. Let’s take a quick look at Webster’s dictionary.

cus·​tom | \ ˈkə-stəm adjective. 1: made or performed according to personal order. Well, that’s pretty clear. And it also isn’t really what the Custom Shop actually does. The “Custom Made” plate used to cover the stud bushings on an early 60’s ES-335 (and others) is a good example. There are probably more than 1000 of them out there. They certainly could have continued to use the more attractive pearl dots that they used in 59 or the black plastic dots or the cut down studs. Or even a blank plate. They all would have served their purpose. But putting the words “Custom Made” on the plate somehow made your guitar (and you) special. It was so successful that folks were sending their guitars back to Gibson for the plate even if there were no stud holes to cover. In early 65, the Bigsby models still had the plate even though there were no stop tail studs under it. Eventually, they stopped doing that probably because it cost more to put a plate over nothing than it did to put nothing over nothing. I’m sure it saved them less than a quarter per guitar.

Long before there was something called the Custom Shop, you could order a true custom made guitar from Gibson. For a price, they were happy to do just about anything you wanted. Inlays that spelled your name were popular with artists big name and not so big name. Custom fingerboards, added switches, custom colors, custom neck profiles, non standard hardware and a host of other personal preferences were all available if you had the money and the time. Some custom orders might be as simple as putting nickel hardware on a guitar that usually has gold. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you could order a double neck with any two necks you wanted and your name on one fingerboard and your wife’s (or your dog’s) name on the other.

If you were a big name artist, you might ask Gibson to make a special guitar for you and if they liked your idea enough, they might make a limited run of them. The Everly Brothers model comes to mind. It was a black J-185 acoustic with two big tortoise guards and star inlays. Of course, the Les Paul model is perhaps the best example although Les himself was an incurable tinker and modded his own guitars pretty regularly making the Les Paul model more of an artist endorsed model than a true custom.

As a player and collector, I love the custom orders. My idea of a great find isn’t a mint 335 from under the bed but a one off that makes you scratch your head and say “what were they thinking?” It would never occur to me to order an ES-355 with a Super 400 fingerboard and a Byrdland tailpiece. I’m not sure a green burst 335 would be on my radar either. On the other hand, something as basic as a blonde 335 in 1963 was a custom order. As a dealer, the one of a kind custom orders pose all kinds of challenges. Pricing a unique guitar is difficult-it can be worth many times what a non custom is worth or it can be worth considerably less. For example, a guitar with someone else’s name inlaid in the fingerboard doesn’t compel many buyers to come running with their credit cards waving unless the name is something like “Elvis Presley” in which case, the guitar’s price goes from 5 figures to 7. But a black 59 ES-335 would sell in a minute or less

Some customs are pretty simple-an engraved guard and truss cover and an extra guard. Hey, Del…You’re not using that old double guard 64 anymore, are you? So, it’s got a coupla extra holes-I’ll still take it off your hands. Hey, I’m a walkin’ in the rain…just to get your 335.
How’s this for rare? The 1964 Greenburst from Rumble Seat Music’s collection. I’m guessing there isn’t another like it.
Rare as they come. Certainly a custom order. The fact that it has the “custom” trc acctually helps authenticate it and the fact that its a lefty helps too. Who would fake a lefty? It’s a stunning and important find. Too bad I’m not the one who found it.