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Archive for the ‘ES 355’ Category

1967. More changes. More Guitars

Monday, August 13th, 2018

Most 67’s look pretty much like a 66 except for the knobs and the pickguard. This is a 335 12 string in the very unpopular sparkling burgundy. But some have different ears. See below

The great guitar boom started slowly in 64 but, arguably, peaked in 67. You can thank the British Invasion (and all that followed) for that. By 67, it seemed that most teenage boys wanted to be a guitar player (me included, I was 15 in 67). That meant a lot of guitar sales. And 335’s were only the tip of the iceberg as they were generally too expensive for teenaged players. 335/345/355’s went from sales of around 2000 in 1964 to 3300 in 1966 to 8300 in 1967. But when you add in the number of Melody Makers, SG’s, Firebirds and acoustics (folk rock was huge by then), keeping up with the demand must have been more than daunting for the folks at Gibson. I don’t have accurate totals for all of the models but if 335’s are any indication, the increases were massive. Gibson probably added workers and shifts but they also had to work faster and more efficiently and that usually means a few things…like diminished quality, higher prices and changes.

The good news is that the quality, while perhaps diminished somewhat is still very good. I don’t see nearly as many 67’s as I do early 335’s but those I have seen show overall good work. The glue is a little sloppier on the inside, the fit and finish can be inconsistent but the guitars still play well and sound good. I can’t speak for the lower line models like the Melody Maker because I rarely see them. I can tell you the high end stuff (L-5 CES, Johnny Smith et al) was still built to a very high standard judging from the few I’ve played. So, what changed in 67 on the 335?

The nut width was still the very slim 1 9/16″ but the depth seems to have increased again after having gotten extremely thin in 66. Most 67’s I’ve played are pretty deep at the first fret and show a fair amount of increase to the 12th. More like a 64 with a narrow nut. While the conventional wisdom says 67’s had t-top pickups, I find that to be misleading. There are certainly 67’s with t-tops but most of the ones I’ve inspected have pre T top patents with the poly coated windings. Fingerboards were all Indian rosewood by 67 although I’m sure a few pieces of Brazilian are out there. The knobs went from reflectors to “witch hats” in late 66 and the pickguard bevel went from wide to narrow at around the same time. The hardware was chrome by 67 except for the occasional pickguard bracket (they must have had a lot of nickel ones on hand). The tuners never went to chrome. The cutaway shape was changed a bit as well and I have a theory about that. Some of the 67’s look exactly like a 64-66…pointy ears as you would expect. But some of them (especially Trinis) have these short stubby ears some call “fox ears”. I’ll wager a guess that they needed additional forms to keep up with the demand and made some new ones at some point in 67. It’s subtle but not that subtle. It’s interesting that the shape would change again in 68. The important point here is that most of the changes were cosmetic and perhaps reflected decreased costs-Indian rosewood was cheaper and the narrow bevel guard probably saved some pennies.

How does a 67 sound in relation to, say, a 64? Not so far off,  in my opinion. The poly wound pre T tops can be a little bright compared to the enamel coat wound 64 patents. The trapeze tailpiece can affect sustain a bit (but not as much as you think). They are also very consistent probably because the winders (so I’m told) had a stop function when they hit 5000 turns or so. That doesn’t eliminate all variation but it would eliminate some of it. In 64 and earlier, the workers doing the winding just filled the bobbins by eye. You can argue with me that a Brazilian board sounds better than an Indian board but I’ll tell you that you are delusional. A Brazilian might look better but I’m not buying the tone argument.

If I put a 67 up against a brand new high end Memphis built 335, I’ll still take the 67 for tone. Call it old wood, call it mojo or call it snobbery. The new one will probably be a little easier to play with the wider nut and maybe look a little better in the fit and finish but I think the 67 is going to smoke it when it comes to your ears. Finally, a 67 can be had for as little as $3500 if you’re lucky. I see them priced as high as $8000 or even a little more but I think the sellers are dreaming as they so often do. Check the neck for twists or back bow before you buy. 67’s are no more likely to have neck problems than any other year but it’s something you should check on any guitar new or vintage.

OK, its a Trini but lots of 335’s have the same shape “ears”. Compare these to the 67 at the top of this post. These are shorter, pointier and at a wider angle from the neck. Some call them “fox” ears. These are only found in 67-maybe very late 66 and very early 68 but, for the most part, it’s a 67 thing.

 

 

Mid Sixties. Good Guitars. Small Necks.

Monday, July 30th, 2018

If you can live with the narrow nut and the trap tailpiece, a 66 is a pretty good choice. Vintage pedigree without the sticker shock.

I must come off as a little bit of a vintage snob. I pay a lot of attention to the ES line from 58 to 65 but I pretty much ignore the rest of the sixties and that really isn’t fair. Most vintage aficionados draw a line somewhere and I drew mine at the moment they switched from wide nuts to narrow nuts (insert joke here). The guitar boom that occurred during the mid 60’s caused some major changes in the guitar industry. In 1959, they sold around 1500 guitars from the ES thin line series. That would include 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. By 1967, that number was closer to 10,000. That huge increase must have caused all kinds of headaches with the corporate suits. You can thank John, Paul, George and Ringo for a lot of that. I was 11 when I first heard The Beatles and I wanted to be a rock star (along with a zillion other kids my age). I couldn’t afford a 335 but that didn’t stop me. I never got there but had a lot of fun trying for about ten years. So, let’s take a look at the mid 60’s in the next few posts and see where the changes occurred and why these years don’t command the big bucks and maybe why they should. And we’ll blow away a myth or two along the way.

I’ve owned a bunch of 66’s, so that’s the year we’ll start with. If I had to point out the shortcomings of 66’s, it would be a pretty short list. Narrow nut. End of list. The nut went from 1 11/16″ in early 65 to 1 5/8″ to 1 9/16″ by the early Summer of 65. That’s pretty narrow even for a guy with small hands like me. I find that I’m clumsy and get in my own way on the limited real estate of the lower frets. I simply can’t play them very well. But beyond that, 66’s are not all that different from the well regarded 64’s. They went to the trapeze but (myth buster #1) I don’t find that it makes all that much difference in tone and sustain. You’d think it would but I’ve played lots of 66’s with great sustain and tone. Well, what about the pickups? You can’t really compare a t-top to a PAF can you? Here’s myth buster #2-they didn’t use t-tops in 66-at least not in any of the 66’s I’ve had or inspected. The pickups are pre t-tops which are, essentially, PAFs with poly coated windings. They are different than PAFs and early patents but they are very good pickups. I find them a little brighter and a little more tame than a PAF but still a really good sounding pickup. However, if you’re buying a 345 or 355, you still have a shot at a set of early patents which are the same as a late PAF. Early patents are not common on gold hardware guitars by 66 but they are out there.

The quality of mid 60’s ES models suffered during the mid 60’s almost certainly because of the wildly increased sales volume. I’m sure the pressure to crank out more guitars in less time was intense and when that happens, quality is the loser. But 66’s are generally good as far as fit and finish are concerned. To me, a 66 is very close to a “Golden Era” 335 for less than half the price. I had a 66 ES-345 a few years ago that I would put up against any year except maybe an early 59. It was a monster guitar. The 66 still has a lot of the same components of the earlier ones. The nickel had changed to chrome on 335’s by late 65 but the 66 was the last year for the wide bevel guard, the reflector knobs and Brazilian rosewood fingerboards. I think that if Gibson had kept the wider nut and the beefier neck (66’s are pretty thin front to back-like a 61), the prices would be a lot higher. Just look at early 65’s. A big neck 65 is pretty close to a 66 except for the neck profile. And yet, the price of the 65 is 50% more on average. So, I consider the 66’s a bargain. You can pick up a ’66 345 for about the same price as a new high end 335. You can always take off the trapeze and do a stop tail conversion. I find that if its done right, it doesn’t diminish the value significantly, if at all. There are always buyers for stop tails (done right by somebody else). And, much as I like some of the newer 335’s, I’d still rather have a 66 even with that narrow nut.

This 66 345 was pretty unusual. Full Mickey Mouse ears and early patents made it look and sound like an earlier one. Keep your eyes open, there are some excellent mid 60’s guitars out there for less than you might pay for a new one.

Fix it or Disclose it

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

On of the most common parts that gets swapped out for a repro is the switch tip. It’s a $200 part these days and the repros have gotten pretty good. If it’s an amber one, look for a seam. If there is one, it ain’t the real deal. If there isn’t a seam, it could still be a repro. If it’s a white one, it should have a seam and usually a crack.

I have a pet peeve about the vintage guitar business and, frankly, it drives me a little nuts. Let me set the stage and give my peeve some context. Guitars get modified over decades. Parts get changed, finishes get touched up and redone, stuff wears out and so on. I get that. And I don’t expect individual sellers to know everything about the guitar they are selling. As a dealer, it’s my job to know what to look for and to make a fair assessment of the guitar I’m buying. Part of the reason my inventory is fairly narrow is because I don’t generally buy what I don’t know about. I learned that by getting burned on a few guitars that turned out to be something other than they were touted to be by the seller. Many sellers will make good on an undisclosed issue but many can’t be expected to do so (widows and children of the original owner, for example). But undisclosed issues from individual sellers isn’t the pet peeve. It’s the undisclosed issues from the dealers.

I should clarify. There are dealers and there are dealers. Most full time dealers are pretty good at accurately describing the guitars they sell and they have fair policies about returns-to a point. Many smaller dealers are just as good as the big boys. But there’s the scenario that drives me batshit. Player A buys an expensive vintage guitar from well regarded Dealer B. Player A gets 48 hours to accept or reject the guitar. He accepts the guitar because it’s a great player and everything looks right to his untrained eye and he is happy.  Unbeknownst to player A,  the neck PAF  was rewound and the back was oversprayed.  A year later, Player A trades the guitar (sight unseen) to me for a more expensive vintage guitar. “I know it’s correct because I bought it from Dealer B who has a great reputation.” That may be true but Dealer B never checked the pickups closely and didn’t notice the overspray-it sure looked right. And the 48 hour approval has long since run out.

Then I get the guitar in hand and I have to deliver the bad news that the guitar isn’t what it was touted to be. This has happened dozens of times now (and I’ve only been doing this full time for 8 years) and it’s pretty distressing to the seller and to me, especially when the dealer has been in business for decades. Sometimes, it’s a $200 switch tip (really common), sometimes it’s undisclosed touchups. More often, its rewound pickups and changed parts. It’s often really hard to tell a repro tailpiece or bridge from a photo. Overspray is common and also very hard to see in a photo-even a blacklight photo if the overspray is old enough. The worst case (and it came from a well established dealer) was a 56 Stratocaster that had a repro body and an very well disguised All Parts neck. The dealer refuses to make good on it even though we (me and the previous owner) can prove the body and neck are the same ones that the dealer sold. I’m not mentioning names…yet. That’s thousands of dollars down the toilet.

I’m not calling out specific dealers, I’m calling out all dealers including myself. It is your responsibility to know what you are selling and to go through it completely. A couple of years ago, I sold a mint 62 ES-335 to a gentleman in California who really knew his stuff. I went through it pretty thoroughly but I never removed the thumbwheels under the bridge. It turned out that the bridge had been moved back slightly leaving two small holes, not visible unless you remove the thumbwheels. The guitar came back and I learned an important lesson. Look at everything on every guitar you get. Fix it or disclose it. Is it too much of a pain to check the pots on a 335? Then don’t sell 335’s or disclose that you never checked them. If the pickups have been opened and re-sealed, then disclose it. That should tell the buyer that they may have been rewound. Want a better solution? Open them back up and check the windings. It’s time consuming and a lot of work but it’s your responsibility to know exactly what you’re selling.

Look at the solder. You can usually tell if the pickups have been opened. If they have been, and have been re-soldered, open them up again and check for a rewound pickup. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell. Mostly, it is. Look for bent edges, flux around the solder or sloppy work. I’m sure this one was opened.

 

 

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.

 

2017 Year Ender Part 2

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

This is a “first rack” ’59 ES-345-these are a little different than later ones and command a premium and sell for $20K or more if collector grade. Later ones with the black VT ring are up there too. Later 59’s with the gold ring are strong as well, in the high teens. 60’s are catching up too. Bigsbys are weak and can be a good deal right now.

This post will look back at 2017 with regard to ES-345’s and ES-355’s. 2017 started out with 345’s and stereo 355’s pretty much flat and pretty much not selling with the notable exception of 59’s. Owning a 59 of almost any model seems to continue to hold some voodoo cachet that no other year can quite match. Don’t get me wrong, 59’s are great but do they deserve the kind of reverence they seem to inspire? Maybe, but that’s a different post which I will get to.

At the beginning of the year, I swear, I couldn’t give away 345’s from 1960 on. I’d have been better off parting them out they had become so stagnant. I look back at my records for the year and I see the 59’s flew out the door at strong prices-hitting $20K (or more) for clean early 59’s and the high teens for later (transitional neck) 59’s. But the 60-64’s were just not going anywhere. I had a gorgeous red stop tail 60 with no issues other than a repro guard ($1000 part) for $13K and it took months to move. And Bigsby 345’s? Anything over maybe $11K was going nowhere and I simply stopped buying them. I don’t think I sold any in 2017. By year end, the stop tails had perked up and PAF 345’s are selling well again. Bigsby’s are still a tough sell but that makes them a relative bargain if you can find a seller who hasn’t dug in his heels. And therein lies the problem. Nobody wants to lose money on a vintage guitar so few owners are willing to sell at a loss. They simply sit there in standoff mode.

Stereo 355’s were no better than 345’s but monos were strong all year. Since 355’s, as a rule, always have a tremolo (Bigsby, sideways, Maestro), they can be a tough sell as well. Again, 59’s were the easy sell with prices pushing $20K for monos and stereos back in the mid to upper teens. Double white PAFs can tack on a few thousand. One 59 mono stop tail showed up this year and it sold at a serious premium (I only know of three) and a stop tail 60 sold recently as well from another dealer although I don’t know the price. In general mono 355’s sell very well and even those from 61-64 don’t hang around for long, although they  don’t show up very often either since they didn’t make that many. Again, mid teens for clean examples seems to be the norm right now. A 60 mono will be a few thousand higher. Stereo 355’s from 60 onward were pretty flat and seem to remain so. There aren’t ever that many on the market so a true assessment is difficult. I didn’t sell more than a few, mostly from 60. A footnote to 355 sales is that more of them have shipped overseas. With CITES regulations over rosewood getting tougher and more countries enforcing them, I’ve started shipping more ebony board 355’s to folks who want an ES but don’t want to deal with the paperwork (which, by the way, isn’t that complicated).

The OK crystal ball likes mono 355’s for 2018 and it also likes 59 and 60 ES-345’s. If you haven’t figured it out yet, late 59’s (gold Varitone ring) and early 60 345’s are virtually identical. The fat neck was largely gone by the early Fall and didn’t really get super thin until the late Spring of 60. So unless the 59 voodoo makes you woozy and opens your wallet, look for a fairly early 60. Any serial in the A33600 or lower range is bound to have the medium(ish) neck of a late 59. The blade thin neck is the rule after that right through most of 63. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to neck profiles, though. I’ve had fat 60’s and super thin 59’s.

There is nothing to stay away from. Vintage is still a good buy and ES-345’s and stereo 355’s can be real bargains. Do your research and don’t pay stupid prices. If you still aren’t sure, email me and ask. Even if it’s a guitar being sold by another dealer or individual. If I think it’s a good deal, I’ll tell you so. If it isn’t, I’ll tell you that to. It’s not always easy to tell everything from photos, so get an approval period of at least 24 hrs. 48 is better. And if you think I’m wrong, you don’t have to listen to me. It is, after all, your money.

This 59 mono stop tail ES-355 showed up in 2017 and sold to a rock star. But I don’t kiss and tell. 59 mono 355’s (Bigsby) ruled the 355 roost in 2017 and will continue to do so in 2018.

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.

 

Small Parts. Big Bucks.

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

An original long tortoise guard for a 58-60 ES-355 is not only hard to find but, not surprisingly, is ridiculously expensive. This is mostly because not only are they rare but they can deteriorate badly just by sitting in the case. Buy a $250 boutique reproduction. The real ones are at least $1200. And yes, that’s a factory stop tail 355. talk about rare…

If you had to build a car from original parts, you’d spend more than the value of the entire car. That’s been a common thought for as long as I’ve owned a car and had to pay for stupid little parts that seem to cost way more than they’re worth. But there are a lot of parts in a car and relatively few in a guitar, so why are vintage parts so freaking expensive for vintage guitars?

It’s stunning to see the vast difference between the average price of a really accurate repro stop tailpiece versus a real one from the 50’s or 60’s. But the difference in the look and quality of said parts is minimal. In some cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. I can buy a fairly convincing repro stop tail for around $55. I can buy a really convincing one for $125. I can tell the repro from the real ones but only if I take it off the guitar and examine it carefully. From a foot away, you can fool anyone. A real vintage stop tail averages $1000 or nearly ten times the price of a good reproduction and 20 times the price of a Gibson Historic. And it’s not just stop tails, it’s just about every part on the guitar.

Catalin switch tips have been reproduced pretty well. A real one is $175-$250. A good repro is $25 (and probably cost a quarter to make). Boutique PAFs like Throbaks (which I really like) are $550 a pair. Real PAFs? Ten times that unless they are white or zebras. Throbaks look right and sound as good as many PAFs. Vintage Kluson tuners? Eighty bucks for repro and $800 or more for the real ones. See a pattern here?

As a vintage dealer, I’m totally comfortable with the prices I charge for guitars. I shoot for a particular margin and price the  guitars I sell (and buy for that matter) to reach that goal. My prices are often lower than other dealers which means either I’m making better deals on the buy side or making less profit on the sell side (or both). The other dealers don’t tell me what their margins are and I don’t ask.  I also don’t look at their prices in order to judge the market-not on 335’s, 345’s and 355’s anyway. I also don’t consult with the various price guides except for guitars I know little or nothing about. I don’t generally buy guitars I don’t know anything about but sometimes I’ll take a trade of a guitar I know little about. But that’s another post.

But when it comes to parts, I just follow the market. And I’m sometimes embarrassed to ask the ridiculous prices commanded by certain parts. My response to sticker shocked buyers is usually “I don’t make the market, I just follow it. Do yourself a favor and buy a good repro.”

And that’s my point. How important is it that every part on your vintage guitar is original or vintage correct? If you’re a collector, it’s pretty important. If you’re a player, it needn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t be. There are very few cases where, in my opinion, the vintage part might improve the tone and playability of your guitar. You could argue that vintage PAFs can’t be replicated but I would argue that point with my ears. I generally can’t hear the difference between a really good boutique PAF and a real one. I can hear a difference between any two pickups but if you lined up ten guitars and nine had PAFs and one had Throbaks, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the Throbak equipped guitar from the others. There’s a pretty big range to PAF tone. I could probably tell a really great one from a Throbak but an average one? I think not.

The only clear exception I can think of-and feel free to challenge me on this-are nylon saddles as found on most 63 and later ABR-1’s. Reproduction nylon saddles are too soft and don’t sound anything like the original milled nylon saddles you find on 62 and later guitars. Part of that could be the age factor but I think it’s mostly because it’s probably too expensive to mill the saddles rather than molding them. The molded ones are simply too soft and seem to dampen the vibration of the string. The metal repro saddles are pretty good if they are the nickel over brass ones. The tusq ones are a lot like the milled nylon ones and a good substitute.

So, if you have a collector grade 335 and it needs a part, go ahead and buy the real one. You’ll get it back when you sell. A no excuse guitar is always easier to sell than one that is all original except for…whatever. On a player grade guitar, you might get your investment back but you probably won’t. I’d be happy to sell you that $1200 long tortoise guard for your 59 355 but you can get a nearly identical one for $250 from one of a few boutique makers. I promise, your guitar will sound the same.

New nylon saddles are too soft and will cause your guitar to sound muddy. If you need to replace the nylon saddles on your post 62 ES-335, either find real vintage ones or get Tusq ones. Newer nylon saddles are too soft.

You Set ’em Up-Part 2

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017
This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched.

This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched. Pole screws are pretty low but they don’t do that much anyway.

OK, so you’ve set the truss rod for the way you like the neck and the action and intonation are good. You raised or lowered the stop tail into the sweet spot or maybe you came to the conclusion that there really isn’t a sweet spot and that’s fine. There’s no buzzing, so the frets and the nut are good, so you’re done right? You might be but maybe the sustain isn’t quite right or the balance between the pickups seems off or maybe the A string is too loud compared to the others. The truth is that, for some guitars,  there’s a lot more to do. On others, there isn’t. A lot of it is personal preference but some of it isn’t.

One of the biggest problems with 335’s is lack of sustain and the culprit is almost always the saddles. For a guitar to sustain, the string has to vibrate freely for as long a possible. Since nearly all the vibration takes place between the nut and the saddles, you can bet the nut and the saddles are at issue when the guitar sounds dull or muffled. The wood could contribute to the problem as well but there’s no adjustment for that. Well, what could be restricting the strings? It could be that the nut slots are cut too deep or it could be that the saddles are notched too deep. Most 335’s I come across still have the original nut and while they are not without problems, deeply cut slots are usually not an issue. Slots that are too narrow are common which is why a lot of 335’s seem to go out of tune when you do a lot of note bending. That isn’t the tuners slipping. Slipping tuners will make your string go flat. A binding nut slot (which is really common) will make the string go sharp. I usually fix that wth a little graphite (from a pencil). If that doesn’t work, talk to your luthier unless you are comfortable widening the nut slots.

Assuming the nut isn’t the problem (and it probably isn’t), take a look at the saddles. I see saddles with multiple slots, slots that are way too wide and, most often, slots that are way too deep. To get the best performance out of your strings-meaning maximum vibration and sustain-the saddles should be as shallow as possible. The slots are there to keep the strings in place and it doesn’t take much of a slot to do that. On the wound strings, at least half of the string should be above the saddle, so the slot is no more than half the depth of the string. If they are deeper than that but you aren’t experiencing any problems, then leave them. If it ain’t broke… But if the guitar seems a bit lifeless, more often than not, it’s the saddle notches. It’s less of a problem on the wound strings but on the high E, B and especially the G, the difference between a really shallow notch and a deep one is huge. On the plain strings start with the shallowest notch you can cut. If the string pops out when you bend a note, then make it a little deeper and try again. If you have to get a new set of saddles, put the originals in a zip lock and put them in the case  pocket. Somebody down the line is going to want the original saddles. Try to find nickel plated brass saddles. Vintage nylon are great, too but the newer nylon ones are too soft. The vintage ones with the flatter top surface seem better to me but the knife edge ones work OK too. Vintage ones are hard to find but they are out there.

Lastly, let’s look at the pickup height. I start with them as high as they will go without interfering with the strings. That’s my personal taste-there’s no right or wrong-use your ears. If the balance between them is off, lower the louder pickup until they are closer to being equal. If the balance from bass strings to treble strings is off, raise one side of the pickup or the other until it sounds right. If a particular string is too loud or too soft, you can try adjusting the pole screws but I have to say that it really doesn’t seem to do much. I think the proximity of the magnet to the strings has a lot more to do with volume than the pole screws which are hardly magnetized.

That should get you set up properly. I’m not a luthier, so I leave any major fret issues and the nut issues to them. You might want to experiment with different string makers or different gauges. I find 335’s sound best with 11’s or 10’s. 9’s generally don’t intonate well on older guitars-they simply weren’t made for lighter gauges. I have no favorite strings. I do like Pyramids but they are expensive and they don’t last very long. D’Addarios have always worked for me as have DR and a few others. It mostly depends on what you play and how you play. I like brighter strings.

The larger point is to experiment and trust your ears. There is no magic formula.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you. This is a 59 345.