Archive for the ‘ES 335’ Category

ES Artist in Captivity

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

1980 ES Artist. Good points and bad points abound. Good points? It’s black and the neck is pretty nice. Bad? Read on.


I don’t do re-runs (OK, I posted the Christmas poem twice but I warned you) but this one is different. I wrote about the much maligned ES Artist a while back but I had never owned one and had never played one plugged in. So, in that post, I could only wax theoretical about active electronics and on board gimmickry. But now I own one and I’ve had my electronics tech go through it and make sure everything was working right. It needed a few capacitors changed and some general maintenance but I’m pretty sure it sounds like it was meant to back in the day.

In order to not bury the lede, I have to say right off the bat that this thing sounds pretty god awful with the active electronics engaged. I don’t recall ever hearing sounds like the Artist puts out-even in the 80’s which, in my memory, were a bit of a cultural wasteland. C’mon, the biggest hit of the Summer of 82 was “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by the (where are they now) Human League. Synth pop. Wasteland indeed. And they were nominated for best new artist at the ’83 Grammys fortunately losing to the much more talented Men at Work whom I kind of liked. Anyway, it’s the late 70’s and Gibson/Norlin is trying to be innovative by hiring on Robert Moog (Dr. Bob) to design a circuit for their new “Artist” series. Actually, Norlin owned Moog at the time and it was probably more like they drafted him. The RD Artist was first and flopped pretty badly. Then came the Les Paul and ES Artists which did much better but can’t exactly be called a rousing success. The line died a quiet death in 1985. So lets listen to this thing.

So, with no on board effects engaged, the guitar sounds like a slightly strident 335. The active tone controls which have a center detente and are boost and cut controls work pretty well. The one I have doesn’t have the detents going up or down-just in the flat or middle position. Apparently some had 5 detents in both directions. Different concept from the usual tone controls but perfectly functional once you get used to them.

Then we get to the three on board effects. There is a compressor, an expander-whatever that is and a treble boost. In general, they are way too strident and artificial sounding. The compressor is the best of the effects but you have to dial it back using the little pot inside the control cavity. Dimed, it’s a horror. Sounds like cats being tortured. The expander has a level control and a delay control inside there and that too needs to be tamed a bit to have any use at all. I couldn’t figure out exactly what the delay pot did. The level pot turned up made a kind of swirly, trebly slightly atonal mess that was worse than cats being tortured. Turn it down and you have the cats being tortured with a blanket thrown over them. The treble boost did just that but the guitar is plenty bright without it and it just gets overly glassy. Sorry, Dr. Bob, this is not your best work. The guitar in normal mode is pretty much like a normal 70’s 335 with active tone controls. The neck profile is OK. The nut is 1 11/16″ and the neck has some meat to it. The pickups are, I believe, Shaws which sometimes need a little treble boost (but not these). Output seems a little low but tone wise, you can get some decent music out of it. Just don’t touch the miniswitches.

ES-Artists are relatively cheap and you can ignore the effects and have a decent guitar. Or you can use the effects and scare small animals and children. My Artist is a 1980 and it’s factory black. And yes, you can buy it from me for cheap.

This is the heart of the Artist. A couple of stacked circuit boards with three little mini pots to control the amount of animal torture you want to add to your 335 tone. Takes a 9V battery and a lot of getting used to.

That Little “2” on the Headstock

Monday, April 16th, 2018

The little “2” is lightly stamped into the headstock right in the middle of the “open book” shape at the top.

Back in 2012, I wrote a post about the “factory seconds” that turn up every once in a while identified by the little numeral “2” stamped on the back of the headstock. Since I wrote that post, I’ve learned a little more about how things were done at Gibson back in the Kalamazoo days. I had the good fortune, a while back, to speak with a gentleman who worked in the paint department there in the mid 60’s. In the course of our not very long discussion, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions and get a little bit of an education into how things worked back then.

I think that everyone assumes that the “2” means factory second but apparently it doesn’t-or at least it doesn’t only mean that. Like most companies who turn out a product for consumption by the general public, there is a quality control department whose job it is to make sure the product is up to a defined minimum acceptable standard. I don’t know if there were two QC people or 20 but it is clear that they didn’t have to work too terribly hard based on the relatively small number of guitars I’ve come across with that little “2” on them. I don’t keep close track of it but out of perhaps 600 ES guitars that have passed through me and my shop, I would guess that no more than 12 to perhaps 16 have had the “2”. That’s a little more than 1 out of 50. Well, if it doesn’t quite mean factory second, what does it mean? Well, according to the gentleman I spoke to, it means it went back to the paint booth a second time to fix a finish issue. That could mean covering a flaw in the wood by expanding the opaque area of the sunburst, it could mean buffing out or re-spraying a drip or flaw in the clear coat, or it could mean that the finish wasn’t up to standards and had to be completely redone. Unfortunately, they don’t include an explanation.

But wait, there’s more. Apparently, if an employee wanted to buy a Gibson guitar, he was able to do so at a discount but he (or she) was only allowed to buy one that had a flaw-a factory second. It was, according to my source, quite common for an employee to go to the paint guy and ask the paint guy to tell the QC guy that there was a problem and to stamp a particular guitar with a “2” so the employee could take it home at a discount. I’m told that a few dollars may have changed hands or maybe not. So, assuming this is true (and I have no reason to believe otherwise) we have some “2” designated guitars with no issues of any kind.  That might explain why you generally can’t find the flaw when you get one of these into your hands. In fact, out of the 12 or so I can recall, only 3 had obviously been redone. All three had very deep sunbursts with an unusually large  band of opaque brown/black in the burst. These are very distinctive and quite wonderful. They have a look similar to the old pre-war sunburst you see on some early J-45’s and LG’s and Nick Lucas’s.

In general, the “2” designation doesn’t affect the value much, if at all. A finish that was done twice at the factory is still a factory original finish. In fact Fenders that have a custom color over sunburst are quite desirable-at least enough that Fender is doing on purpose on their relic guitars. To further the point, I had a 59 with a very distinctive deep sunburst that had the “2” that was one of the top ten 335’s I’ve ever had. So, I don’t avoid the 335’s with the little “2” on the headstock. Mostly, I ignore it but sometimes, it gets me a very distinctive sunburst that will set the guitar apart from the hundreds of others made that year.

This “2” 335 is an early 59 and had a flaw in the grain on the top down below the tailpiece about an inch from the rim. A normal sunburst would not have covered it, so it went back to the paint booth for another go around. The flaw is still visible under black light but not with the naked eye.

Upside Down Guitars

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Mint 58 lefty that I authenticated a few years ago. A stunningly beautiful guitar. How did it play? Beats me, I couldn’t play it.

Recently I was asked by a reader if I had ever written a post about left handed ES guitars and I don’t recall if I have or not but it’s a good subject. There have been plenty of greats who were/are lefties. Some played right handed, some played a right handed guitar turned upside down (either strung lefty or righty) and some played left handed guitars. Jimi played a righty guitar strung lefty and turned upside down but Dick Dale learned to play with a righty guitar turned upside down and still strung righty so the high strings were on top. Albert King apparently played that way as well. Wanna feel like a total spaz? Pick up a left handed guitar and try to play. Strung either way, it’s incredibly difficult-more so for a crappy player like me, although a lefty strung as a lefty is a lot easier. Take your righty guitar and turn it over and try to play. Total spaz, right?

It’s not hard to source a left handed 335 these days but back in the day, they were only available by special order and they are incredibly rare. They also command a pretty serious premium. I don’t recall exactly how many 335’s, 345’s and 355’s were made from 58 to 69 but they number in the thousands. I figure I’ve owned around 600 or so since I started doing this and I’ve had no lefties. In fact I’ve seen less than a dozen. I know of a couple of ’58’s. Left handed dealer Alex Pavchinski sent me a mint 335 lefty a few years back to authenticate and I know he had at least one more ’58. I know of maybe five lefty 345’s from ’59 to ’64. I know of at least one red ’64 335.  Of the two known block neck blonde 335’s, one is a righty ’63 (which I owned) and the other is a lefty ’64 owned by a gentleman who lives 40 minutes from my shop. I wish we’d gotten a photo of the two of them together while I had the ’63. There was a ’68 on Ebay a while back but I can’t think of any others off hand. So, that’s ten I can recall. I’m sure there are lots more but I’d be surprised if they numbered as many as 100 during that period. In fact, if you told me there were less than 50, I wouldn’t be surprised.

ES-335’s have been relatively popular among lefty players over the years probably because they are symmetrical-you don’t give up any fret access when you flip over a righty 335. And they don’t look funny upside down like a Telecaster or Les Paul does. But if you’re a left handed player and you want a left handed vintage 335, 345 or 355, be prepared to pay a serious upcharge. “Find another” pricing is in effect here. You can ask whatever you want and leave it up to the buyer to decide if a 50% or 100% or 300% markup is appropriate. Typically, the prices seem to be in the 50% to 100% (double) range for pre 65’s. There’s a ’60 345 on the market now for $47,000. I sold a very early right handed ’60 345 last week for $16,500, so you can do the math. Fair? Ambitious? Outrageous? You’ll have to decide because supply and demand is a fickle law when both the supply and the demand are so low. The 68 on Ebay was around $8000, if I recall, which didn’t seem out of line. I have no idea if it sold or what it sold for but it was listed for quite a long time. I’m told the $47000 60 345 has been listed for over a year-I just noticed it recently but I don’t actively seek out lefty guitars.

I just checked Reverb-no vintage lefty ES’s. I checked Gbase-one ’85 335. I checked Ebay-none. Considering the number of right handed vintage ES’s on the market at any given time, the number of lefties is miniscule. I’m very happy to have been born right handed. Things would be pretty dull sitting around my shop being unable to play all the great guitars I get. I’d have to learn how to play upside down.

This 63 355 was brought to me a few years ago for authentication. It turned out to have been a converted righty. A new nut and a new top are all you need to turn a righty to a lefty. Or you could just turn it upside down.


Sleeper but not a Snooze

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

Here’s a pair of gorgeous near mint 62’s. The red they used in 62 isn’t the one that fades to watermelon. If the guitar has been  kept out of the sun, the red is stunning. Leave it in the sun and it will go brown. PAFs all around. The nickel looks like chrome it’s so shiny.

Every year 335 seems to have its followers. Some (like me) love the 58 with its thin top and shallow neck angle. The 59 has the big neck aficionados (even though at least half the 59’s don’t have big necks). The 60 has that great medium neck for at least half the year and still has long magnet PAFs. The 61 is the bargain dot neck for those who can spend big but can’t spend huge. Late 63 and 64 have tons of followers due, in part to the Clapton connection and, in larger part, to that great neck profile. That leaves the 62 which sometimes gets treated like the red headed stepchild. Look it up.

I think the 62 simply gets lost in the shuffle. The neck is generally not chunky nor is it as thin as a 61. Sometimes it has PAFs and sometimes not. Or one of each. Mostly,  it’s a block neck but sometimes it’s a dot. No wonder it has something of an identity crisis. There’s a lot to like about a 62. First, the later PAFs seem to be remarkably consistent. There’s hardly a bad one to be had. While early PAFs can be magical or marginal, a late PAF is almost always excellent. Early patents are the same pickup with a different sticker. The build quality is a good as any other year and better than any year that followed. The neck profile is fairly consistent-usually around 82″-.83″ at the first fret and around .90″ at the 12th. That’s bigger than a 61 but smaller than a 64. But it’s a sweet spot for a lot of player-particularly the who have always played Fenders or those with relatively small hands. The baseball bat is not for everyone despite how it gets talked up on all the guitar forums.

What really strikes me about a 62 is that it costs about the same as a 63 or 64. Yes, PAFs and patents are the same through 64 but you really would rather have the PAFs wouldn’t you? I would. They are a big part of the vintage mystique. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 64 neck-I played one for years before I could afford a 58. But I keep getting 62’s and they keep impressing me. I think that maybe they got better mahogany during 62 than they got previously. 61’s are very prone to neck problems due certainly to the very thin neck profile but maybe, just maybe, the mahogany wasn’t so good either and Gibson decided that too many guitars were coming back with problems. I’ve had at least a half dozen 61’s with neck issues (I don’t buy a lot of 61’s for that reason). I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad neck on a 62.

The 335 was still a relatively low volume seller for Gibson in 1962. It wasn’t until 64 that the numbers started get to the point where the workers were playing catchup to the demand and quality sometimes suffered. In 61 they made 886 335’s. In 62 they made 876. By 65, that number doubled and by 67, it was up more than fourfold. Given that all the other models ramped up production during this “guitar boom”, it’s no surprise that quality began to diminish. That’s not to denigrate a 67 335-it’s still an excellent guitar but there are qc issues that occur with more frequency during these “boom” years than they did from 58-64. It’s not for nothing that these are called “the golden years” at Gibson.

One final point-I keep an informal “ten best” list of the 3×5’s I’ve owned. It changes a lot but for the past five years, there has been a 62 on that list.  It was a refinished dot neck 62 but still, a 62. The “average” 62 is a great guitar. I don’t know why it keeps surprising me that 62’s are so consistently good. Everything was going right for these guitars and Gibson had finally ironed out the few bugs that existed (shaved bridges (58), output jacks ripping out of thin top (58), deteriorating tuner tips (59/60), warping, twisting necks and truss rod issues (61). I think, as long as they remain well priced, the 62 will be a guitar that I seek out. I love 58’s and 59’s but sellers have gotten totally out of control with asking prices. Right now, 62’s are a sweet spot.

Here’s a 62 dot neck that’s been played hard and has taken on a bit of a brown cast. Not as pretty as the bright red but still a great player. And it’s a dot neck.

Repro Parts

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

The Gibson Historic ABR-1 is pretty accurate but there are two ways to tell for absolute certain if its a real one or a repro. Can you spot the difference? One of these is a repro, the other is a 61.

One of the things I never entirely understood is why a lot of Les Paul guys put vintage parts on their reissue LP’s. You can’t convince me that it makes the guitar sound any better when you put a $1200 ’59 stop tail or an $800 bridge on your 2004 R9. You could convince me that a PAF might improve the tone but I’ve heard plenty of boutique pickups that are the equal of a typical PAF that cost 80% less. Of course, if you want your R9 to have a pair of real double whites, you’re going to spend more on the pickups than you did on the guitar. A real 59 harness with bumblebees? $1200 or more. Yikes. Before you get on my case for selling parts for stupid money, keep in mind that I don’t set the prices. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a broken 335 from the early 60’s and scavenge some parts that way. Also, did you ever notice that every time somebody has a vintage Gibson part to sell, it magically comes out of a 59? Every stop tail? 59. Every long magnet PAF? 59. Every no wire ABR-1 and single line Kluson? 59. When’s the last time you saw a listing for a 1960 stop tail? probably never. Not that it matters since a 60 and a 59 are the same. But you get the point.

OK, but how about the repro stuff? Most of it is pretty good and pretty accurate. The Gibson Historic parts are close to the real thing. There are ways to tell them apart and I often (really often) see repro parts being passed off as the real thing. That said, there are lots of repro parts that don’t try to be exact duplicates. The part in question has to do its job, has to look like the original (from a foot away, anyway) and it helps if it isn’t all shiny and new looking unless you have the skills to do convincing aging (which I don’t).

I’ll deal with metal parts in this post. The plastic parts have gotten really convincing as well and I see way too many of those too. The only bridge out there that will fool anybody is the Gibson Historic-the one that says “ABR-1” on the back and has that tooling mark next to it. You simply can’t tell them apart except that there are three separate “tells” that will tip you off. The saddles are the easy one-old saddles aren’t knife edged on the top and they have mill marks on the back side. But, it isn’t too hard to put vintage saddles on a repro bridge and it isn’t unusual at all to see modern saddles on a real vintage ABR-1. But take off one of the “E” saddles-high or low-it doesn’t matter. If there’s a round tooling mark under there, you’ve got a repro. Sorry. You can also look at the sharpness of the lettering on the underside but if you don’t have a real one for comparison, you’re not going to be able to tell. Use the tool mark under the  saddle. It’s 100% accurate.

Lightweight stop tails have become ridiculously expensive if you want the real thing. $1000 is actually a fair price these days. There simply aren’t very many out there. I saw one listed for $2000 on Ebay. Most of the repros are not very accurate but look pretty good and do their job perfectly well. The Gibson historic is shaped wrong-too square at the “ears”. The Creamtone is pretty good but the seam on the back is wrong. The real deal has a slightly hard edged hump on the top and that’s the first thing I check when I get a “new” vintage guitar. I eventually pull the tailpiece and check the seam but if its totally rounded on top, I know it’s wrong without any further action. The stop tail made by DMC, which has gotten tough to find,(usually sold by Crazy Parts in Germany) is really accurate as far as the hump and the seam goes. They were  pretty expensive but were the most accurate by a lot. The only element they got wrong are the little round tooling marks on the front side of the tailpiece. Real Gibsons from very early have the same tooling marks but most don’t. So, it’s accurate to a point but if I see those tooling marks, I can be pretty sure it’s a DMC. The best thing to do is to look for the “short seam” on the back. Most repro stop tails don’t have it. Then if it’s there, check for the hump and the tooling marks. If the hump is there and the tooling marks aren’t, you’ve probably got the real thing. Lucky you. It’s the most frequently found “wrong” part on guitars that I buy and it’s almost never disclosed. Not because folks are dishonest but mostly because they don’t know what to look for. Now you do.

That’s enough. We’ll look at other repro parts later this month.

A real lightweight stop tail will have a very distinctive seam on the back. Most call it a “short seam”. The bottom one has it and is a real 59. The top one is a repro-not sure of the brand.


Both of these stop tails have an accurate short seam. One is a real 61, the other is a DMC which is super accurate (and expensive) but has those little round tooling marks. Some real Gibson tailpieces have the tooling marks-usually really early ones-but not many. So, if you see these marks, don’t freak out but it could be a repro.



Red Dot Necks and FONs

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Very early 60 red dot neck. Nice, right? It’s got all the 59 features including the transitional neck but the factory order number is a little odd. Factory Order Number? What’s a factory order number?

Red dot necks are not rare. They made 448 of them. OK, that’s rare when you compare it to Stratocasters and other Fenders but for 335’s it’s not that rare. 1958 red dot necks are super rare. There’s one or at least one that is known. 1959’s are stupid rare, there are perhaps 6 (I’ve had two). 1960’s are less rare with 21 shipped but 60’s have to be looked at a little differently because changes were afoot during 1960 and they didn’t all happen on January 1. In fact, none of them did. They mostly happened around mid year. We’ll get to those after I totally confuse you with the concept of Factory Order Numbers (which I keep a database of).

For those of you who aren’t complete geeks like I am, there is a number inside the body of a 58-61 ES-335 that isn’t the serial number. It goes on (supposedly), the day the assembly of the guitar begins. Assembly-not manufacture. The tops, necks and backs would have been made earlier than the FON indicates but when the folks at Gibson gathered the components together for a “rack” of guitars to be assembled, they stamped a number in there with a letter prefix to indicate what year they were built and what number the guitar is in the rack (usually 35 guitars, usually but not always of the same model). I’m only going to include 335 FON’s because the others make even less sense. The numbers are sequential-they start at 100 (although I’ve never seen one lower than 600) and they go to 9999 and then start over. “T” means 58, “S” means 59 and “R”means 60 and “Q” means 61 until they stopped using them at some point in 61.

So, pay attention. This gets kind of convoluted. At the end of the years, there is some weird overlap. Theoretically, say the last FON of 58 was T7303 (which is the latest I’ve seen). So, the first rack of 59 should have been S7304 (which it isn’t). I had a 335 with the FON S7303 which is odd since 7303 is a T rack. Maybe someone forgot to change the year like they did on some Fender amps in 66. To make matters worse, there is a rack designated S6525 which shouldn’t exist as an S rack unless they went all the way through 9999 and back to 6525 which they didn’t. Unfortunately, it gets worse, not better.

At the end of 59, the last 335 rack looks like S1765. It’s lower than the first S rack of the year because the numbers went through 9999 and started over in 59. But hold on, rack number 1762 is an R-the first R I’ve found. So is rack 1765 earlier or later than rack 1762? It should be earlier since the numbers are supposed to be sequential but it’s not an S (59) rack. Who cares, you ask? Well, me for one and here’s why. I recently bought one of those 21 red 335 dot necks from 1960 with all of the 59 features. Lucky me. I was ready to bet that it was a 59 FON and a 60 serial-it’s a very early 60 and I’ve had another 60 like this one with a fairly close serial number to this one with a much earlier 59 FON. 60 335’s with 59 FONs are essentially 59’s that got shipped in 60-that’s why I care. This one isn’t quite that even though the guitar is totally identical. As I mentioned, the changes didn’t start on January 1, 1960. I’ve had a few other 60 red dots with later 60 FONs well into 1960, all with at least some 60 features like double ring tuners, smaller neck, reflector knobs and at least one with a short guard in late 60.

So, I’m going to ignore the features and odd FON and call the guitar a 60 rather than what I usually designate as a 59/60. But make no mistake, if I put this guitar next to any 59 made after September or so, it’s identical. The last serial of 1959 is supposedly A32285. This 60 is A329xx. The last 60 red I had was A328xx and had a 3rd quarter 1959 FON. No wonder I’m confused.

Here’s a later 60 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the “rack”-usually 35 guitars. The last number is the “rank” or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Year Ender 2017

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Red dot necks are one of my favorites. Rare but not impossibly so, unless you want a 59. This mid 60 went to a well known rock star in 2017

Contrary to popular belief, guitar dealers actually talk to one another once in a while. And, to have heard them talk last Summer and Fall,  you would have thought the bottom had fallen out of the market. There was all kinds of moaning and complaining going on. “Nothing is selling.” “Seller are asking stupid prices.” “The are too many Strats on the market…” and so on. I don’t generally speak to the broader market-I simply don’t sell enough of anything other than ES models to have any real street cred. OK, maybe big tweed amps but that’s a different market from guitars in so many ways.

First, what the heck gives me the credentials to analyze this market? Well, look at the market itself for ES models. I would say that the average big dealer might sell ten 58- 64 ES models a year and perhaps out of that one two or maybe three dot necks. The smaller dealers with 5o guitars or less in inventory, might sell half or a third as many. I sold 47 1958 to 1965 ES semi hollow guitars last year. Seventeen were dot necks. Right now, there are 29 1958-1964 ES-335s on the market. One third are mine. So, I know the market based not on research but on my own real world numbers.

Dot necks can’t really be looked at as a single category any more because the 58’s and 59’s have diverged in a big way from the 60’s and 61’s (and the handful of 62’s). You can lump early 60 335’s in with 59’s but these two markets have not acted the same at all. The 58 to early 60 market was strong all year with prices climbing through the first two quarters, stabilizing through the Summer and Fall and starting on up again in Q4. The problem is folks asking too much for them has stagnated much of the market. A sunburst 58 or 59 335 is not, in my opinion, currently a $45-$50000 guitar and yet four out of seven on the market right now are in that range. The other three? They are in the $32K-$39K range and all three belong to me. So, either they are wrong or I’m wrong. The difference is that my guitars are selling and theirs appear not to be. I think the current range for no issue 58 and 59 stop tail ES-335’s is $35,000-$45,000 depending on condition and other factors (double white PAFs adds a few thousand, figured tops add a few as well). More than $45K? Not yet unless its a blonde.

The later dot necks have not been nearly as strong. It’s still the big neck vs skinny neck thing. By mid 60, the necks were very slim-still wide-but slim from front to back. A 61 dot only occasionally reaches $20K. A super clean one might hit $23K and asking prices can be much higher but the sale prices are in block neck territory. I don’t sell that many 61’s because I don’t buy that many. That market is relatively stable right now. The sleeper in the dot market is the early 60. It is 100% identical to a late 59. Everything…the knobs-still bonnets, the neck profile-still medium “transitional”, the pickups-still long magnets, the tuners-still single ring, the caps-still bumblebees. All that changed by June but the early 60 averages $5000-$10,000 less than a late 59. But the “magical year” of 59 has some kind of voodoo cachet that commands the big dough.

Block necks are the interesting group this year because the dealers and most individual sellers somehow have gotten the impression that a clean block neck is a $25,000 guitar and an average one is a $20,000 guitar. For what it’s worth, I’ve sold at least a hundred blocks in the past five years and I’ve never, ever gotten more than $20K for one and that one was mint. Somebody else surely has gotten more-there are folks who don’t pay much attention to price when they really want something but that’s the exception, not the rule. But the market is trending upward and I have acknowledged that. I have a 62 PAF block for sale right now for over $20K. I hope I get it. Bigsby/Custom Made blocks have crept into the $15K range this year and exceptional examples even higher. That’s way up from last year. 64’s are the most popular due to the bigger neck but I think PAF 62’s are the one to watch. I find them consistently excellent and many have neck profiles that are what I would call medium rather than slim (.83″ at the first and .90″ at the twelfth). Some of those late dots are .79″ and .87″ which is really slim.

I’m running out of space, so I’ll cover 345’s and 355’s separately. There were some pretty striking changes over the year in these guitars.

Figured tops are not the norm on a 335 but every once in a while, one pops up. They command a premium for sure but not a ridiculous one. This 59 sold for well under $40K early in the year. I think figured dot necks are a great investment guitar.


Nickel or Chrome. Metallurgy 101

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Well this is nice and shiny, must be chrome right? Nope. This near mint 62 has nickel parts but they spent the last 50 years or so in the case so they never tarnished. Without a chrome item in the same photo, it’s hard to tell the difference.

OK, I’m a fraud. I know nothing about metallurgy but if you look at enough pickup covers and bridges, you get pretty good at telling nickel from chrome. I’ve covered this in an earlier post but I keep getting emails asking about this, so I’ll do another. And it lets me show a photo of this incredible 62 I just got with shiny nickel hardware.

Nothing gives away a changed part like being the wrong metal. Any time somebody wants to sell you a 64 with chrome pickup covers, walk away. There weren’t any. But, how the heck do you tell the difference, especially from a photo?

First, there’s nothing wrong with chrome. It’s a very nice looking metal and it doesn’t tarnish or discolor over time. It’s a great choice for bathroom fixtures and the kitchen faucet. It isn’t bad looking on guitars either but it’s a little boring (I could have said a little dull but chrome never gets dull). Gibson switched from nickel plated parts on 335’s to chrome plated parts in 1965, phasing it in slowly over the course of the year. They weren’t being subtle, they were simply using up the parts they had in stock. Gibson didn’t think anybody could tell the difference between nickel and chrome because they mixed the parts in 65 with no regard whatever for how they would age. They generally made both pickup covers out of the same metal, so at least they had an inkling that it might be noticed by some astute metallurgist, like me. But they mixed bridges, tailpieces, pickguard brackets-everything metal except the tuners which stayed nickel through the 60’s. I’m told by guys who worked at Gibson that there were complaints from customers about the metal tarnishing and that’s why they made the change. I wonder if one was cheaper than the other?

So, how does one tell the difference. Well, there’s the easy way and the hard way and it has nothing to do with how good you are at telling the difference. The easy way is if it’s dull and tarnished, it’s nickel. Chrome can get pretty crapped up with dirt and sweat but a wipe with a damp cloth will bring it back to its factory shine. You can bring back nickel too but it will take some elbow grease and metal polish which, by the way, I don’t recommend. Results are pretty variable and it ends up looking like somebody tried to clean the nickel. Ever try to clean an old coin? It never looks right. Don’t clean the nickel. Then there’s the hard way. supposing the nickel is brand new and as shiny as a new dime? Then you need to call on a bit of very old technology-your brain. Your brain can determine the difference between the reflected color of chrome and the reflected color of nickel. It takes a little practice and it’s not so easy without having both metals in the same photo. A photograph is as variable color wise as the two metals. I should know, my job for about a million years was a a film and video colorist. That’s the guy who makes sure all the shots in a film match. It’s really annoying when Scarlett Johannssen’s sweater is red in the wide shot and maroon in the close up. Yes, somebody actually has to fix that. It’s a real job.

It’s hard but it’s simple. Huh? Chrome reflects blue and shiny nickel reflects green. If you see them next to each other, it should be sort of clear unless you are even the slightest bit color blind in which case, ask somebody. It’s not a true blue or a true green-it’s a bluish cast on the chrome and a greenish cast on the nickel. See if you can get your hands on a nickel pickup cover and a chrome one. Then stare at them side by side. You’ll get it. It doesn’t take an expert in metallurgy, just a working brain.

One of these is nickel. The other is chrome. They look totally different to me and should to you. If they don’t, they have handy labels to help you.

Secret Sauce Part 2

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

This unusual Mickey Mouse ear 66 ES-345 throws a monkey wrench into a lot of my theories. This guitar, if not a top twenty, was very close. Best post 64 I ever had. It wasn’t played much (one theory gone), it’s not a stop tail (another theory gone), it’s not from the “Golden Era” (and another), it has a Varitone (ditto).

I’ve given this post a fair amount of thought and have concluded that logic doesn’t serve us very well here. Logic says the larger the sample, the more valid the results. Let’s see. OK, let’s start with the largest possible sample-all the 335, 345 and 355’s that I’ve owned. My top ten list or top twenty list is compiled from approximately 500 guitars that I’ve owned and sold over the past 10 years or so since I started doing this seriously. Looking at the “also rans” might be illustrative.

Where do all the later ones fall? Well, there aren’t that many later ones because I don’t generally buy them. There could be spectacularly good 66 and later 335’s but I don’t get to play very many of them. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s more that I wanted to keep my “niche” fairly small. I’ve owned a few dozen 66-69’s, so I have a pretty good handle on those but I’ve owned less than 5 from the 70’s. So, my opinion on 70’s guitars is no more informed than yours. The ones I’ve had have been playable, decent sounding guitars but none has impressed me and all were kind of heavy and perhaps less “335” sounding than earlier ones. Could be the changes in construction that occurred in the 70’s. Not much to be learned there. The 66-69’s have generally been pretty good. I don’t like the narrow nut but that aspect doesn’t affect tone. Nor does the Indian rosewood board on these. I’ve had folks tell me they can tell the difference in tone between the rosewoods but I can’t. The pickup changes that occurred during this period may be a factor-66’s generally have poly winding pre T-tops but by 69, most have T-tops. Later pre T-tops seem to lack some of the complexity of the early ones and T-tops, while very consistent, sound kind of thin to me. My conclusion? PAFs and early patents are a factor for sure. Short magnet or long magnet? Well, I’ve swapped out magnets more than a few times and I don’t hear that much difference between a long A2 or A4 and a short A5. I find short magnet PAFs to be more consistent but a great long magnet PAF seems to be best of all. I’ll take a good short magnet over a not so great long magnet though (yes, they exist).

I’d also like to point out how much difference a proper setup makes. I recently had a Bigsby 61 brought to me as a trade. It had a Bigsby bridge installed rather than an ABR-1, a worn out set of strings (10’s) but other wise it was a pretty typical 61. Thin wide neck, PAFs, “normal” neck angle. But it sounded dull and lifeless. No sparkle in the bridge pickup, not much in the way of overtones or harmonics and crappy sustain. New strings made a difference but a few other tweaks made a marginal 335 into a really excellent one. I added a vintage ABR-1 with metal saddles (which I prefer over nylon). I raised the pickups setting them very close to the strings which seems to be the ideal setting on 335’s. I made certain that the saddles weren’t slotted too deeply-this is really important for sustain-and did the same for the nut. Finally, the neck was dead flat-it played fine that way but I dialed in a bit of relief. This allows the strings a little more room to vibrate freely and I find it makes a difference-especially for folks who like really low action. So much of the tone seems to flow from how freely the strings vibrate. Consider the things that affect this-saddles, nut, pickups (magnets can affect this), relief and the strings themselves. Getting these things right made quite a big difference in the 61 in question.

What about the build quality? I believe that the guitars built after the “guitar boom” of the mid 60’s are marginally inferior to earlier ones. Instead of cranking out hundreds a year, Gibson was building thousands. In 1958, there were 327 semi hollow ES guitars built. By 1967, there were around 7300 built. Not only did ES shipping numbers grow exponentially but all the other models did as well. That had to affect the build quality and, if you take a look at the amount of glue slopped around in a typical 67, you’ll get the idea.

Finally, what about the quality of the wood used in the early days? I’m no expert here but I would guess that the quality of the wood in 1958 was not significantly different than the quality of the wood in 1966.

What’s it all mean. It means that a great guitar is the sum of its many parts. You need 5 things. A great design, great wood, great build, great electronics and a great setup. Add a few decades of “seasoning” and a good amp and I think you’re there.

Don’t let the shallow neck angle scare you. Unbound 58’s are always up there in tone and usually in playability as well once you get the setup right.


Secret Sauce, Part 1

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Number 9 on the top ten list is this 59 ES-345 in red-possibly the first red 345 ever made. The pickups are white/zebra, the neck is fat, the top is thick and the neck angle is normal.

I try to keep a record of which ES-335’s sound best (“top ten”) which is not an easy task. First off, I sell all the guitars I get so that I have to remember what a guitar sounded like years after I last heard or played it. I keep notes on each guitar but tone is so subjective that I don’t trust my own notes sometimes. In fact, I’ve had guitars that sound absolutely great one day and not so great the next. I’m guessing that if I lined up the ten best 335’s I’ve ever had and played them one after the other, they would sound really similar if not identical. But my ears aren’t your ears and my taste isn’t your taste. And my amp isn’t your amp. Beyond that, if I took the next ten that I’ve liked, I don’t think the difference would be all that great either. In fact, I no longer rate them in order-just top ten best and top twenty.

I bought an unbound 58 yesterday that is pretty close to mint and possible top ten contender. The conventional wisdom says the good ones get played. That’s often true but the converse is not. Just because a guitar is mint and barely played doesn’t mean it can’t sound great. If the original owner kept it under the bed and was a lousy player who gave up after 6 months in 1959, then the condition has nothing to do with the tone. This 58 is a monster. The dealer from whom I bought it thought it was the best 335 he had ever heard (and this was after I had agreed to buy it). I wasn’t playing it through a $12000 tweed Bandmaster either. I was playing it through a $1500 Gibson GA-80-a great amp but certainly not a legendary one. When I go back and look at my current list of the best 335’s I’ve owned, there are more 58 335’s than any other year and model. There are a bunch of 59’s (335’s, 345’s and a 355) some with a 58 factory order number (FON). There’s a 60 and a 62 on that list but 8 out of ten are 58’s and 59’s. Here is a list of the current top ten-ignore the order: #1 bound 58 335, #2  59 (58 FON) 335, #3 unbound 58 335, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 bound 58 335  #6 is an early 60 335, #7 is a 59 355 mono stop tail, #8 is a refinished 62 335, #9 is a 59 345 and #10 is a 59 335.

So, what’s the “secret sauce”? Is there any shared aspect of these guitars that tells us something about what makes them so good? All are stop tails. They all have long magnet PAFs except the 62 335. Many have the thin top-6 for sure, perhaps as many as 8-I don’t have notes on numbers 9 and 10-they could be either thin or regular tops. Numbers 1,3 and 5 have the shallow neck angle. How about the body depth? Body depth? Yes, the body depth kept getting deeper and deeper over the years. The typical 58 and many 59’s are 1.5-1.6″ deep. By 60, most were around 1.65″ deep. By 64, the average was around 1.72″ and by ’65, 1.8″ was not unusual. All have shallow bodies except the 60, the 62 and maybe one of the 59 335’s. What about neck profile? All but two have a chunky neck. The question is which aspects make the difference or is it a combination of all of them. Or is it the wood? Or how they were kept? Or how much they were played?

So, we’ve got the raw data but its interpretation is the sticking point. Maybe I need to look at a larger sampling or maybe it’s impossible to know without having all of them side by side. Doing things like swapping out pickups won’t tell us much since 9 out of 10 have PAFs. But wait. We all know that PAFs are not very consistent. We’ve all had experiences where a pickup swap has made a guitar better. Most of us believe that if a guitar sounds great unplugged, it will sound great plugged in. I don’t buy that as a rule. It’s a decent starting point but it’s not gospel. So, I think we know a great pickup is a big part of it. I believe the thin top makes a difference. The data tells me that. Or does it? None of the top ten are blondes. Three are red. One is refinished. So, six are sunbursts. That’s data but logic tells us that the color can’t possibly make a difference. Well, that same logic might tell us what does make the difference. We will look deeper in my next post.

Number 7 on the list is a 1959 mono factory stop tail ES-355. Big neck, white PAFs (which we all know sound better than black ones), thin top.