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Gone, Baby. Gone

Where have all the 59 ES-335’s gone? There’s at least one in every major collection in the world. It is considered one of the five most collectible guitars ever made. Too bad there were only 592 built. Take away the broken ones and the ones with extra holes for coil taps and phase switches and god knows what other atrocities and there are probably a lot less than you think.

The major guitar makers of the “Golden Era” made a whole lot of guitars. Let’s take a broad view of that era and call it from 1950 until 1964 for electrics. There were plenty of really good guitars made before that and after that but the really desirable collector electrics fall into this Era starting with the Broadcaster in 1950 and ending with CBS’s purchase of Fender in January of 1965. We all love the guitars that fall into this era, especially those from Fender and Gibson. In fact every collector-serious or armchair-wants a Fender or Gibson from this era. They can’t all afford one but most will give up a lot to get one. It makes sense then that eventually most of them will end up in collections and not trade on the open market in significant numbers. That eventuality is here right now for some of them.

Fender made tens of thousands of Stratocasters from 54 until 64. Add in another few thousand Telecasters and Esquires and Jazzmasters and it looks like it will take a while for them to be bought up by collectors. Many of them aren’t “collector” grade anyway and those players tend to make up a good part of the vintage market turnover. Players (who aren’t collectors) buy and sell a lot more often than collectors (and players who are collectors). During that same era, Gibson also made thousands of guitars but they didn’t make anywhere near as many as Fender. I like to make the comparison between Stratocasters and 335’s since they are “must have” models for most collectors. Fender doesn’t release their shipping numbers but I believe that for every 335 shipped, there must have been at least 10 Strats hitting the market. You can argue that. But it is simple logic that there will be fewer 335’s on the market than Strats. Nobody will argue that. Let’s look closer.

My point about diminishing inventory for collectors is made crystal clear by the stunning lack of 1959 ES-335’s available for purchase today. There is one currently listed and it’s priced way over market value. It’s an interesting test of the market though. A 59 is, by miles, the most desirable 335 there is. How many were made, you ask? They made 592 (including blondes). If I choose a desirable year for Strats (say, 57), I would speculate that they must have shipped a few thousand of them. Therein lies the current dilemma.

Where are all the 59 335’s? They are in collections and they won’t be for sale until their owners decide to cash their babies out or they die and their families figure out what to do with all those guitars. I’ll go out on a limb and say that most collectors who are slimming down their collection will keep a 335, a Strat, a Les Paul, a Telecaster and a good acoustic. If I’m keeping a 335, it’ll be a 59. So even with diminishing collections, the 59’s are very likely to stay in the herd. I’m sure there will be a few hitting the market with the current price rise but the days when there were ten or more to choose from at any time might be over. If supply and demand means anything at all in the vintage market, you can expect 59’s to get even more pricey. The last three 59’s I’ve sold never even made it to market and I still have a waiting list that you can’t count on two hands for 59’s.

So, I will do two things. One, I will ask any of my readers who have a 59 335 that are considering selling (or simply don’t play much) to get in touch with me and I’ll find you top dollar for it. Two, I’ll buy it outright for more than you paid for it. I’m not going to speculate where the 59 335 market will end up. $50K has been out of reach since 2008 but, for a clean 59, it isn’t any more, IMO. I hate to give in to a bubble that may or may not be sustainable but without inventory, there are no sales.

What happens next, assuming the 59 supply is temporarily dried up? 58’s and early 60’s start to move up. Late 58’s are already up and early 60’s are as well. A 58 isn’t a 59 and a 60 isn’t a 59 either but they are wonderful guitars and simply may have to take the place of a 59 on your wish list. It’s not a bad thing. The good news is there are more than 500 60’s and 300 58’s. And while all three years together barely equal a couple of months worth of Strats in terms of production, you can take some comfort in the knowledge that there are even more 61-64’s to consider when the 58’s and 60’s are gone.

Blonde 59’s are already well into 6 figures but if you want one today, you are out of luck. I haven’t seen a stop tail 59 blonde on the market in over a year. the last two I’ve seen were mine.

8 Responses to “Gone, Baby. Gone”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, thought provoking as always! My theory is more fine guitars, including ‘59 335s will start making their way back into the open market when their owners, if players, can no longer use the instruments. This will be either due to arthritic hands or the nursing home staff impounding that beautiful dotneck after blasting too loud in the care home. In the meantime I’ll keep playing my next-to-best-thing ‘59 345 as long as I can! RAB

  2. Bernard says:

    The prices on all assets will continue to climb as long as the economy holds together, which will be as long as the money continues to be printed. Every asset category is in uncharted territory and yes, who wants to have just bought in when the air starts to leave the balloon? At least a person can play a guitar! I think choice 50’s 335’s will be the next sunburst Les Pauls and block inlay models will become like PAF Goldtops. You know a market is up against a wall when too many available samples have big problems affecting the desirability.

  3. Collin says:

    The production numbers always amuse me because in the bigger picture of vintage gear, both Fender and Gibson produced a LOT of guitars in the golden era. Yet, demand is so high that even with a fairly large production numbers, scarcity still exists and prices are high. Bursts are a great example – they’re really not that rare. 1,500 made over three years is pretty substantial by many other brands. Same with 58-64 ES-335s.

    Granted, my primary interest in vintage guitars is Gretsch and Rickenbacker – both of which look like boutique, niche brands compared to Gibson/Fender. There are some collectible Rickenbacker models that were only produced in quantities of less than 100. In some cases, less than 25! Yet demand and therefore prices are subsequently lower.

    Aside from celebrity association (such as the Clapton block 335), I think people will always gravitate back to the quintessential version of any one model. For an ES-335, it’s hard to get a more purebred version than a stoptail ’59 and prices will continue to climb as people realize that. Plus, these guitars are widely known as Burst killers. At less than 1/4 the price of a same year Burst, a 335 is attainable by a lot more people and can still deliver the goods tonally. Not exactly a Les Paul, but 95% is pretty good.

  4. DavidK says:

    I wonder how many of the 59s are thin tops, and of those how many didn’t end up with jack socket area repairs!

  5. RAB says:

    Collin, right on. Yup a ‘59 335 (or mono wired, Varitone-less) 345 has the same “tone chain” as a Burst. I.E. tuners, nut, Brazilian Rosewood fingerboard, frets, pickups, bridge and tailpiece. And of course the same scale length. I am not sure but guessing the pots and capacitors are the same too…

  6. okguitars says:

    I would expect that there are perhaps 75 to 100 with the thin top-Most of the January 59’s have it. There is period around mid year that covers a span of a few hundred serial numbers around A 30160 to around A30520 during which all of them seem to be thin tops. The question is how many of those 350 or so serials were 335’s. I have a dozen 335’s during that period and all of them are thin tops.
    There are few scattered around the rest of the year. A30765 has one. So does A32612, A33108 and A33765 which are 60 serials with a 58 FON. Clear as mud.

  7. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – Since you have such a commanding view of the ES-3*5 market–especially collector quality instruments–it would be interesting to hear from you the average or typical age of your sellers and, especially, your buyers. We’ve alll long heard of the cautionary concern that the vintage market may not be sustained by age groups behind the boomers, whose guitar heroes’ choices established the vintage guitar market. If you’re seeing a fair number of younger buyers going after collection-condition guitars, that suggests a generational shift and a long term sustainable market–at least for a generation’s time beyond that of the boomers. And that younger collector/buyers probably don’t have the same “guitar god” point of reference for their choices also bodes well for the future: setting a more instrinsic value for these instruments that would encourage a sustaining market to behave more like those that make other vintage collectibles sound investments. Your thoughts?

  8. RAB says:

    Nelson, I’ll jump in with my, albeit, limited exposure to this issue. My late 20’s nephew is a great guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. He has a small stable of guitars that he uses for his recording projects and live gigs. They include a recent Les Paul Standard and Strat and a couple of budget Ibanez electrics. His father gave him a sunburst, big neck ‘65 Gibson ES-335 a few years back for his birthday, then a $5K guitar. He definitely notices and can appreciate the tonal differences a vintage guitar can bring. Now close to a $10K guitar he also treats it with the respect it deserves using it for recording sessions and premium gigs…RAB

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