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Up, Up and Away: ES-345

Time was when you could pick up a 59 ES-345 for about half what you would pay for the same year 335. Goodbye to that. Early 59’s (“first rack”) like this one are headed toward $30K.

I figured this would happen eventually. They were just too reasonably priced compared to same year 335’s. Lots of us knew it all along and kept buying them and selling them and enjoying them. But now, with apologies to John Gillespie MaGee Jr, the 345 has “slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. They are not the incredible bargain they once were. They have become objects of great desire. They are not cheap. They are still, however, absolutely great guitars.

The very first PAF equipped guitar I ever bought was a Bigsby equipped ES-345 from 1960. At $6000 (with the GA-79 stereo amp), it was the cheapest PAF guitar I could find and was a wonderful instrument. Now, about 600 ES guitars later, I still keep a 345 in my personal stash and probably always will. The rule of thumb for pricing had been, loosely, that a 345 was worth about half of what a comparable year 335 was worth. So, with 59 dot necks ranging from $30,000 to $40,000, you could score a good 59 345 for $15,000-$20,000. A good stop tail 64 ES-335 can still be found for around $20K (although folks are getting greedy and the asking prices have gone off the rails a bit). Good luck finding a stop tail 64 ES-345 for $10,000. You won’t.

Once you get past 64, the dynamics change a bit-345’s after 65 seem to bring prices even closer to the same year 335. But the 50% rule for 345’s from 59 to 69 is over. At least for now. If I could predict where prices will go after this pandemic ends, I could probably retire, not that I want to. So, why would a guitar that is in the middle of the semi hollow lineup cost so much less than the one at the bottom? You can learn all about that from an earlier post you can find here.

So now what? Has the market value simply caught up with reality or is this a 345 bubble? It’s the former. ES-345’s have been a true bargain for a very long time. The stereo circuit and not very popular Varitone has kept the 345 in its place as a second string 335 for years, maybe decades. There has always been a lot of internet chatter about the “tone sucking Varitone” often from folks who have never owned one. I’m not going to get deeply into this issue. I will only say that Varitone capacitors can drift and cause the bypass mode to sound honky. It is, in that case, a tone sucker. But early Varitones (up to 62) don’t tend to drift and I’ve had plenty of them that sound every bit as good as a great 335 with the Varitone. That said, it’s a pretty easy operation to convert a 345 to a 335 circuit. I suggest you do that by putting in a 335 harness and leaving the original stereo harness intact for the next owner.

The days of buying a 59 345 for $15,000 are over. The vaunted “first rack” 59’s are now selling for $25K and up. If you want to learn about just what a first rack 345 is, you can find that here. Later 59’s are generally in the low to middle $20K range and, as always, condition and originality dictates where in that range it falls. Bigsby versions will still be 15% less. Big neck 345’s will always be more expensive than small necked ones and most of the 59’s you see will have the smaller “transitional” neck. That’s part of what makes the first racks more expensive. Early 60’s have the same neck as late 59’s so looking for those will save you a few dollars. They are every bit as good as a 59-they are, in fact, identical. 61’s still have the really slim neck and the short guard but are every bit as good as their 335 counterparts. That goes for 62-68 as well. Sometimes even better. How can that be? Certain changes that occurred in 335’s-particularly changing the pickups to poly wire-didn’t happen as early in 345’s. It is possible to find an early patent as late as 68 in a 345. They were gone from 335’s by 65. PAFs have been found in 345’s as late as 67.

There are a lot of small details about 345’s that can make them even more desirable-red 59’s are crazy rare, “watermelon” 60’s are worth a premium, long guard 61’s grab an extra few bucks and so on. Do your homework before you buy and give the Varitone a try before you yank it out. It can be useful especially to Fender guys who are used to single coils and honky tones. I recently sold my blonde 59 player. It was my main guitar for four years which, for me, is an eternity. I go through guitars like most folks go through socks.

This was my number one guitar for the past four years or so. It was a 59 ES-345 converted to 335 spec and had a few filled holes and a new neck but was a wonderful player. Now I’m playing a project 59 ES-335 but I will buy another 345 for myself when the right one comes along.

8 Responses to “Up, Up and Away: ES-345”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, let me be the first (avid!) blog reader to say hear, hear! You know I’m a BIG fan of the 345. Your best value in a Golden Era ES! The best Gibson Electric I ever owned was 1959 ES-345T S/N A29663. Yes, an early First Rack shipped on 4/20/59. Ginormous neck, full white neck pup. I foolishly traded it for a 1961 335 because of fear of the “tone sucking” Varitone. The 335 was inferior in all respects. Years later you were my salvation in selling me my current First Rack ‘59 345, S/N A29822. Shipped 4/30/59. Not quite as nice as my first First, but still a wonderful PAF axe! It will never leave me…best, RAB

  2. RAB says:

    Correction! A29663 shipped 4/21/59!

  3. RAB says:

    More trivia FR (First Rack) trivia on my previous and current fiddles. A29663 FON was S8539. On A29822 is S8538! Oh yes, A29822 has a pair of unopened zebra PAFs, with the bridge pup being an uber rare reverse zebra! In my recollection the neck profile on A29663 was a tad larger than on A29822. But rest assured both are manly handfuls of Honduras Mahogany! Yee HAW!

  4. RAB says:

    Kinda purty from the back too, eh?

  5. RAB says:

    Charlie rewired it like a 335 using a new Creamtone harness. Original harness safely ensconced in the original brown hardshell case!

  6. RAB says:

    Sorry for hogging the postings here folks but I really love these early 345’s! Let’s hear from other early 345 owners and players!

  7. RAB says:

    Gulp! No other early 345 fans? We KNOW that ain’t true! Let’s hear about yours!

  8. steve craw says:

    I checked out a 1962 lefty ES345 for a potential buyer about ten years ago. When I plugged it in I heard the voice of God! I finally bought one for myself last year and couldn’t be happier! These are the best value in the ES-335 family, and the most beautiful electric guitar ever made, IMO. Nice to see them getting some love (finally) in the vintage market, it’s long overdue.

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