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Archive for February, 2020

Scavengers II

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

The stop tail on the right is correct for 1958 to 1964. The one on the left is from the late 60’s. Look at the seam. The one on the right has a seam that is thicker in the middle and thinner everywhere else. The one on the left has a thick seam from end to end. Some repros have gotten this seam correct so you have to look for other features. The stud on the left is correct for the same years. Note the length.

In 2015, I wrote a post called “Scavengers” which is why this post is called “Scavengers II”. In 2015, the market was rising, as it is now and the cost of vintage parts came along for the ride. Changed parts have always been an issue on vintage items. Cars, furniture, virtually anything collectible that is made of components, is subject to changed parts both by unscrupulous sellers and by folks who simply can’t tell the difference between authentic parts and reproductions. What is different now, five short years later, is that the quality of the reproduction parts has gotten so good that it has become hard, even for experts, to tell the real from the fake.

Consider this: A vintage stop tailpiece for a 1958 to 1964 ES-335 will cost you around $1800. A really good reproduction will cost you about $100. You might spend $40,000 on your collector grade ’59 and never know that someone along the way has swapped out the vintage tailpiece for a good repro (or a bad repro for that matter). The likelihood is that you either won’t check to see if it’s real or you won’t know even if you do check. You’ll likely find out at the worst possible time-when you bring it to me or another knowledgable dealer to sell or trade. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news of this kind. If the owner isn’t right there when I go through the guitar, it calls my honesty into question, especially off the guitar was bought from another reputable dealer. Fortunately, I make a point of checking the parts before the owner leaves the shop. If you’re buying or trading online, then it can be a real dilemma.

It’s not just the tailpiece either. Amber switch tips don’t cost $1800 but they get swapped out a lot. But even a $250 part can be a deal breaker. Certain parts have gotten really good. Stop tails, ABR-1 bridges, catalin switch tips, knobs, truss rod covers, pick guards, pickup surrounds even PAF stickers. I have mentioned in many previous posts that early 95% of the guitars I buy from individual sellers have an undisclosed issue. Fortunately, it’s usually something minor that I can address from my parts stash but sometimes I have to return a guitar due to something expensive like a repro stop tail and that’s going to be trouble in almost every case because somebody got cheated. The hard part is figuring out who the criminal is. I don’t care who it is because I’ll simply return the guitar to the seller if I can. The seller will obviously know if he is the culprit but if he isn’t, he has to consider the person he bought it from or he has to consider me. This is why reputation in this business is everything.

How do we, as dealers, minimize the problem? The best way is to ask for extensive photos. That means pulling the pickups, removing the tailpiece and bridge to show the underside and finding out where the seller acquired the guitar. I know which dealers are meticulous when they check out the guitars they sell and which ones don’t dig too deeply. Those who buy and sell without going through every part aren’t necessarily dishonest, they are simply lazy and that can have the consequences that are being discussed here. But extensive photos won’t do you any good unless you know what to look for. I can tell a repro part from a real one from a clear photo with very few exceptions. Truss rod covers are tough as are switch tips. Knobs and pick guards can be tricky in a photo but are easy to tell in person.

My advice to sellers is to document every part with the same good photos you are supplying to your buyer. That way if a guitar comes back because of wrong parts you can compare what came back with what you sent out. Easy with metal parts, not so easy with plastic but the photos give you a fighting chance. Wear patterns are like fingerprints. Better yet, when you buy a “new” vintage guitar (and you aren’t an expert) use the approval period to take it to someone who knows what they are looking at to get a second opinion. At current market prices, you deserve to get exactly what you are paying for. Don’t immediately assume someone is trying to cheat you if a part is wrong. Everybody, even the experts, can get it wrong. But a dealer should go out of his way to make it right if that occurs. An individual seller should do that as well but if you aren’t buying from a dealer, go back and read the line about what percentage of guitars I get from individual sellers have an undisclosed issue.

Note the size of the “ears” on these two tailpieces. Both are correct but you’ll only see the shallow one on the left in very early 335’s. I’ve never seen one after 58. I see them on 50’s Les Pauls. But they are real-none of the repros are doing the shallow ears. Another feature that gives away a repro is hard to photograph but easy to feel. The top of the tailpiece should have a very slight hump or ridge. You can’t see i but you can feel it. It’s the first thing I check for when I get a guitar. No hump, no deal.

Vintage 335 on a Budget

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020

335’s from 1981 (not the block necks) to 1985 are generally really good players. Yes, it’s the dreaded Norlin Era but they mostly got these right. The blondes have gotten a bit pricey ($4,000 or so) but non blondes, including, if you’re lucky enough to find one, black ones, are hovering in the $2500-$3000 range. This is a 1984.

A typical email to me contains the following: “I have around $3000-$4000 to spend and I want a 335 but I’d rather have a vintage one than a new one. What should I buy?” It always puts me on the spot a bit to answer that inquiry because there are a lot of good choices vintage and not vintage. Now I guess I have to define vintage. Not new. Not recent. Not crap. I was resistant to calling 70’s 335’s vintage for a long time because so many of them were not any good. But, in recognition of the good ones, 70’s counts as vintage. 80’s as well. Don’t think so? C’mon, 1985 was 35 years ago. If you had bought a 59 dot neck in 1994, you would have considered it vintage back then, so don’t give me a hard time about that. I would go so far as to say we’re getting to where the 90’s are worth consideration as vintage but I’m not quite there yet. So, what are you gonna do with that $3000 you can’t wait to spend?

Unless you’re OK with some big issues, you can skip the 60’s. If you’re OK with a decently repaired headstock crack, you can get yourself into an otherwise original late 65 to 68 in the $3K-$4K range. They are wonderful guitars as long as you can comfortably play a guitar with a very narrow fingerboard (1 9/16″). You might grab an early 65 with a big neck for around $4K but expect issues beyond that busted headstock. The pre T-top pickups are around for a lot longer than most of you think. I see them as late as 68 pretty frequently. T-tops are not a bad pickup either, so don’t fret over the pickups. And if you don’t like them, buy a set of Throbaks. Brazilian rosewood is gone by late 66 or 67 but Indian sounds the same no matter what folks say. A stop tail conversion is a good mod if the luthier or tech puts it in the right position. Too low and it will work fine, it will just look wrong. There are some small differences between 65 and 68 but none of them are all that significant when it comes to tone and playability.

Most of you who read my posts know that I draw a line at 1969. The necks lost the long tenon, the necks became maple or three piece, the quality of the wood and the build started to decline and, while you could still get a good one, you’ll have to play more than a few to find it. Don’t agree? Then go ahead and buy one from the 70’s. Just don’t ask to trade it to me when you’re ready to upgrade. The pickups are still pretty good (T-tops) and the design hasn’t changed much until around 72 when they start shortening the center block and in 75 when they do the seemingly impossible…they make the prettiest body in the guitar world ugly by nipping in the waist and narrowing the cutaways. You can get 70’s 335’s in that price range although they have risen significantly in the past year or so. Most are still under $3K but they have been creeping up along with almost everything else. Don’t confuse the asking price with the selling price. I would look for a 69-71.

That brings us to what I think is the best vintage choice in the range…a 335 “dot reissue” from 1981 to 1985. The earlier ones have a three piece neck so if that bothers you, look for an 83-85. I don’t really mind it. You can still find sunbursts and reds in the $2500 range or even lower if you’re patient and quick on the trigger. Blacks are rare but are very cool and don’t seem to command much of a premium. Blondes, however, do. You can still find them in the low threes or even less but you also see them in the $4K range. They haven’t run up much in price so I think they are still a pretty good deal. The neck tenon is a little wimpy but they seem to be perfectly stable and the nut is as wide as a 59. Profile can be fat or slim. The pickups are Tim Shaws which can be a little dark but tend to come alive if you get rid of the 300K pots and put in 500K pots like 335’s always had before that. I’d just buy a new harness and toss the old one in the case. Creamtone makes a really good one. The tailpiece is usually the heavy zinc one. Buy an aluminum repro for 75 bucks and save a couple of ounces in weight. A repro long guard looks great on them too. Then there’s the Nashville bridge. Perfectly functional design but it looks wrong on a 335. Faber makes an ABR-1 copy that fits the Nashville post spread. Do all that and you’ll have a pretty nice guitar that looks a lot like a real dot neck from 58-62. I can tell but from 20 feet away on a dimly lit stage, it will look pretty authentic and will sound pretty good too.

Next, I’ll take a look at the more recent (1986-2010) 335’s that fall into this same price range and see what you can get for your hard earned buck.

The late 70’s ES-335’s had an extra switch (coiltap), a narrower waist, giant f-holes, Nashville bridge (or harmonica bridge in the mid 70’s) and pointy horns. I think it looks misshapen and out of proportion next to a Mickey Mouse ear 58-63. Not too crazy about some of the colors either. Wine red and walnut finishes will be harder to sell down the road. 335 folks are pretty traditional. Look for a sunburst or a red one. Blondes and Blacks are cool too but not common.