RSS

Archive for the ‘Gibson General’ Category

Parts Timeline #1: Pickups

Monday, May 25th, 2020

Nice clean set of unmolested PAFs. Note how clean the solder is and how perfectly straight the edges of the cover are. Unmolested pickups will usually have no flux around the solder and the solder will be duller than new solder would be

It can be hard to tell the orange poly windings from the purple enamel coated ones in a flash photo but these are the purple ones-more brown really. The red ones are very coppery looking. This would be a PAF or an early patent number. A short magnet PAF and an early patent are identical except for the sticker.

I’m constantly searching for parts on the internet and I’m generally appalled at the descriptions some sellers write. It’s not that they describe the parts incorrectly, it’s that so many folks use the “wishful thinking” approach to dating them. My knowledge of ES guitars and their parts comes from only one source and that source is simple observation. I read everything I could find but most of what I found was full of errors. In fact the thing that started me on my ES-335 web site was a glaring error on what was (and to an extent still is) the best place to go to learn about vintage guitars. That site states: 1968 Gibson ES-335 guitar specs: Neck size increases back to 1 11/16″ with a decently size back shape. It didn’t. If the premiere vintage guitar site has that wrong, what other misinformation is out there? Plenty.

Printed information is very useful but if your observations don’t back it up, it usefulness becomes suspect. OK, enough explanation. What do folks get wrong? Let’s start with pickups. I’ve owned somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 1964 ES-335’s and probably at least 25 ’65’s. I don’t open pickups if they are factory sealed but I do open them if they have been opened in the past-if only to clean up the solder. I have never seen a T-top in a 65, let alone a 63. I’ve also never seen a poly wound pre T pickup earlier than 65. And yet, I read in ads for poly wound pre T-tops that they were in use from 63 until 65. They were not. I have a 69 in stock right now that has pre T-tops. I’ve never seen a poly winding patent number with a nickel cover unless it’s been messed with.

My experience tells me that nickel PAFs ended in 64 and they are rare in 64. Most 64’s have early enamel wound patents and none (that I’ve found) have poly windings or the black and white leads. I hear of gold PAFs showing up as late as 67. I suppose that’s possible-my experience with 67’s is limited. I’ve never seen one after 65. The earliest T-top I’ve ever found was in a 66. The latest pre t-top was in a 69 although they could have even shown up in 70. So, there is clearly quite a lot of overlap. The non gold pickup timeline as I see it is: Long magnet PAF 58-early 61. Short magnet PAF 60 (overlap with long magnet)-64 (rare). Enamel patent: 62 (overlap with PAF)-65 (overlap with poly). Poly patent: 65 (overlap with enamel)-70 (overlap with T). T-top: 66-79. The gold timeline is the nearly the same but has longer overlap. PAFs after 63 are rare. Where gold differs most is the enamel wound patents. They extend well into 65 and I’ve seen a few in 66.

Part of the problem with dating parts is the fact that they can be changed without much evidence. Pickups require re-soldering when changed, so it isn’t hard to tell if a pickup has been out of a guitar. The problem is that nobody wants to pull the harness of a 335 to check. It can be a lot of work. I almost always pull the harness when I get a “new” guitar. I check the solder at the pots, I check the solder on the covers. It isn’t hard to re-solder a pickup cover and make it look original, so look at the sides of the covers…if they are bent or dented at all, they’ve been opened. Changed pickups are really common. Les Paul guys have been scavenging double whites for decades, largely out of 335’s and 175 but also out of 345’s and 355’s. They pull the covers anyway and it’s really easy to swap out a set of gold pole screws for a set of nickel ones.

  • ES 335 Pickup Timeline
  • 1958-1961 Long magnet PAF. Rare in 61
  • 1961(overlap)-1964 Short magnet PAF. Rare in 64
  • 1962-1965 (rare)-Patent number enamel (purple windings) black leads always nickel covers. Identical to short magnet PAF except for sticker
  • 1965-1969 Pre T-top poly (orange windings) black and white leads always chrome covers.
  • 1966 (overlap)-1976 T-top with sticker. Later has embossed pat no.
  • ES-345/355 Pickup Timeline
  • 1958 (355 only)-1961 Long magnet PAF.
  • 1961 (overlap)-1965 or later (rare, overlap) Short magnet PAF
  • 1962-1965 Patent number enamel (purple) windings. Identical to short magnet PAF except for sticker
  • 1965-1969 (overlap) Pre T-top poly windings
  • 1966-1976 T-top with sticker. Later has embossed pat no.

It’s called T-top because of the “T” embossed into the bobbin (duh). Supposedly, it was there to tell the winders which end was up. You can also see that the little window (square in the circle) isn’t there on a T-top.

Stradivari v Les Paul

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

This is the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius. Built in 1727 and formerly owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, it sold at auction for just under $16 million. Nice fiddle but out of my price range.

This post is meant to get you thinking, not to educate you as to the astonishing value of an iconic musical instrument. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to assess how much any violin is worth but I have done some research into what makes violins made by Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and a few others worth as much as $20 million. Can you compare a 300 year old handmade violin to what is essentially a mass produced guitar? I think you can and the conclusions might surprise (or at least entertain) you.

There have been a fair number of blind comparison tests between these iconic violins and the violins of the best of contemporary builders. The results are mixed but, not infrequently, the modern violins come out on top, even when judged by the worlds top players. So, the idea that a Stradivarius or Guarneri is simply the best sounding violin ever made is put to rest. Fast forward 259 years or so. Is the Les Paul standard the best sounding guitar ever made? It could be but the value can’t be due to that factor because a 58 gold top can be had for less than half the cost of a sunburst 58. I’m pretty sure you won’t argue that a sunburst and a gold top will sound any different. So, what other factors can we look at?

Well, if a 58 gold top is a $125,000 guitar and a 58 sunburst is a $250,000 guitar (I’m using averages here), and the only difference is the top, then can we conclude that the top is the reason a sunburst is worth so much more? Possibly but the we have to consider the huge differences between tops on Les Pauls. Clearly, the figuring is a huge factor. The fancier the top, the more valuable they are. Originality is also a big factor. I currently have two mostly original Les Pauls in my shop with beautiful tops. The refinish probably takes $100,000 off the value of each. One is renecked as well. Knock off another, what, $50K? So, the top alone can’t be the biggest factor. It is worth noting that nobody really cares about what the top of a Stradivari built violin looks like. They also don’t care nearly as much about originality.

Nearly every 300 year old violin has been re-necked. The necks made before around 1715 are rather different than modern necks and few players play the “baroque” neck. Stradivari was the builder who modernized the baroque violin by making the neck angle steeper and made structural changes that made the violin louder and more aggressive. Beyond the change in neck design, it is common to re-neck a concert violin periodically. Many multimillion dollar violins have been refinished and repaired as well. While there has been a lot of speculation about the varnish used on these violins, it has been generally accepted that the original varnish is not the the main factor in their tone. It is, by many accounts, the wood harvested during what is called the “Little Ice Age” lasting from 1300 to 1870 that makes these violins so special. That makes sense but tens of thousands of other violins were made during that period and, I’m sure, many others from the wood grown during that period and they aren’t worth many millions of dollars.

So, when you are out to buy a multimillion dollar Italian violin from the 1700’s, you don’t have to worry so much about re-necks, refinishes or repairs. You do worry about provenance, authenticity (there are thousands of copies) and tone. When you are about to buy a six figure electric guitar from 1958-1960, you look for great tone but it simply isn’t the main factor. I’ve heard equally great tone from more than one 1959 ES 345 which is a $20,000 guitar. What so many focus on is the appearance, mainly the figured top. Next, you pay attention to the finish-it must be original. With the violin, the finish is likely to have been redone or at least repaired. With the LP, you make sure the neck is original. With the violin, it is almost a certainty that it is not. Clearly, they are judged by only one common factor but do I therefore conclude that tone rules in both cases? Nope. It’s a big factor but while a refinish knocks $100K (40-50%) off the value of a Les Paul, a good but not great sounding all original Les Paul might be priced less than a great one. But, if the top of the just OK sounding Les Paul is heavily figured, and the one with the superior tone is plain, the ok sounding one will cost you more.

The violin’s provenance is a big factor in determining whether the tone is good. If it has been played on the concert stage by a big name player, you can be reasonably assured that it is a great sounding violin. The same can certainly be true of that Les Paul you have your eye on. In fact, if a big name player has previously owned your burst, you can bet the price will go up by a lot. But, and it’s a big but, most of the 1500 or so Les Pauls built weren’t played or owned by anybody famous and yet they will still set you back six figures worth of your hard earned money.

This is a lot to process. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. There are so many logical reasons for these instruments NOT to be priced this high. Rarity (they aren’t all that rare), tone (I’ve played plenty of non Les Pauls that sound as good as any Les Paul), provenance (most weren’t played by anybody famous) and appearance (lots of R9’s look as good as any 58-60 burst). I’ve never bought a burst but I’ve spent six figures on more than a few guitars and I can safely conclude that there is one big factor that will keep bursts selling at high prices for years to come. Bragging rights. Guys love bragging rights. Just ask any Ferrari driver. Or Stradivarius player.

What’s this one worth? This is Pearly gates, one of the most famous bursts out there. A million bucks? With the sale of the Gilmour Strat at close to $4M, I would guess that some billionaire would spend that much and more. Does that make provenance the most important factor? Maybe but it’s got a nice top too, so maybe add on an extra million.

Halloween 2019

Thursday, October 31st, 2019
Zoubi rocks out for Halloween. She doesn't always remember the lyrics and not having opposable thumbs makes it hard for a dog to be a lead player but she manages to hold up her end. The set list includes "Walkin' the Dog", "Hound Dog", "The Boxer" and "Nashville Cats".

Zoubi rocks out for Halloween. She doesn’t always remember the lyrics and not having opposable thumbs makes it hard for a dog to be a lead player but she manages to hold up her end. The set list includes “Walkin’ the Dog”, “Hound Dog”, “The Boxer”, “Nashville Cats” and “Stay”.

Guitar players are tinkerers. I’m always surprised when I get a 60 year old guitar that hasn’t been messed with in any way. I’m pretty sure I modded every guitar I owned from the time I was 12 until I started appreciating vintage in the early 90’s. Some mods are pretty benign-especially when they are reversible but some are simply scary (you getting a theme here?)

Changing the tone knob on a 345 is simply sacrilege. OK, just kidding, it’s the Varitone switch that is so scary. No, it isn’t, it’s the Kahler (is that a Kahler?). Now that’s scary.

There are a lot of mods that I can deal with but I think the absolute worst one is the rear access panel. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. Maybe because it is born of laziness. “Oh, it’s just too hard to install a harness in a 335. I’ll just cut a big fat hole on the back and put it in that way. Nobody will ever notice.” That mod is the dealbreaker of all dealbreakers for me. In fact, any hole cut into a 335 put there to make harness installation easier simply drives me over the edge.

There are plenty of mods you can do that aren’t scary. If you have to make your guitar “better”, do something that doesn’t require drilling any holes or cutting any wood. That way, when it gets sold to me, I can put it back to the way it was when it left the factory. Go, ahead, put on knobs that look like dice or a truss rod cover with your name on it or even swap out the pickups. Just don’t cut a big access hole in the back of the guitar because you can’t get the harness back in. Call your luthier and have him do it. Call me and have me do it. Consider this-and this will scare you plenty-every extra little hole will knock up to $1000 off the value of your vintage guitar. And, while I’ve never bought a 335 with an access panel cut into it, I did buy a ’60 335 with a big notch cut out of the f-hole (under the guard) because they couldn’t get the harness back in. It was competently repaired and it wasn’t visible with the guard on but it also knocked around $7000 off the value. What was a $29000 guitar became a $22,000 guitar. You could have had your local luthier reinstall that harness for $100. Let’s see…that’s a savings of $6,900.

This is actually an ES-333 which has a factory access panel but you get the idea. Don’t do this to your 335. Or 345. Or 355.

I Learn Something New

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

A guy walks into my shop with a guitar and would like an appraisal. It belonged to his late brother and, while it has sentimental value, he wonders whether it has vintage value. I open the case and it’s a thin body, single cutaway, double humbucker Gibson. The neck volute tells me 70’s but there is no label and no serial number-only the letters BGN on the headstock. Well, for those who don’t know, BGN stands for “bargain”. BGN guitars were, essentially, factory rejects-too substandard to be called a “second” and too good to toss in the trash bin. But that’s another post all by itself (which I think I already did). It looked like an ES-125 with hum buckers and parallelogram inlays. Or an ES-175 with a thin body.

I’m not an expert in 70’s Gibsons but, in general, the model names didn’t change all that much during the much maligned “Norlin” period (1969-1985). I don’t think I can remember a Gibson guitar coming in my shop that required my having to research the model. I thought ES-135? No, that came later and had stacked hum buckers that look like a P90. ES-137? No, that was later and had different inlays. It also had a very strange finish. Almost blonde but maybe more like a cherry sunburst that had been left in a shop window for year or two. It was, essentially, dark reddish blonde around the edges and blond everywhere else. I recall that Ibanez made a lawsuit thin body that looked like a 175 in the 70’s that had a finish that looked like that but this guitar had a Gibson neck and logo. Nobody is dumb enough to counterfeit a Gibson and put the BGN designation on the headstock. So, I conclude (yes, Dr. Watson, its definitely a Gibson, says so right here on the headstock) that it’s a Gibson.

To the Googler…I search ES-135 and 137 and they are, as I thought, later and a bit different. But wait, there’s a photo that looks right in with the 135’s and 137’s. If I was Homer Simpson, I’d smack my head and go d’oh. It’s an ES-175T. Never heard of it? Neither had I. The ES-175T is exactly how I described the guitar in the first paragraph…a thin body ES-175. How did I miss this? It was introduced in 1976 and sold poorly. According to the information available online, it was gone by 1980. Except it wasn’t. This one has pot codes from 1981 and pickups from November of 80. So, it’s likely an 81.

It is my opinion that the very bottom of Gibson/Norlin’s quality troubles occurred during this very period. Sales were down and the company had squandered 80 years of customer good will by making some pretty awful guitars and ruining some really good ones. In 1980 (I think), somebody decided it was time for Gibson to make decent guitars again and by 1981, they actually started doing so. Tim Shaw (yes, that Tim Shaw) was an engineer at Gibson at the time and was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting Gibson back on track. Again, that’s another post for later.

But back to the mystery guitar. It hadn’t been played in decades but seemed to have weathered its years in the case without major damage. The label was gone and I dunno about that finish. The truss rod needed some adjustment and the strings were 30 years old but those are easy fixes. The pickups are dated embossed t-tops which makes sense for the era and the bridge is a Nashville type-also makes sense. It isn’t pretty but it does play reasonably well and there’s nothing wrong with t-tops. So, I took the guitar as a consignment. Let’s see where it goes.

His Royal Harness

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

This is 1959 harness. The bumblebees are the Mylar type. The black tubing was added except by the jack. Some harnesses have no insulation some do. It’s a crapshoot. These are Centralab pots-the date code is on the side on three of them. The fourth is also a Centralab but the code is on the top. Go figure.

OK, bad pun. Best I could do with the word harness. Electricity doesn’t know how old the parts are that it’s flowing through. If the values are the same, then the signal is the same. If the old parts have drifted, then the signal will change. I don’t usually measure the components in the harness when I get a guitar. If it sounds good and the pots work properly, I leave it alone. I have dropped new harnesses into a lot of guitars and I can’t say that a good new harness sounds any different than a good old one. Oddly (or, given the mindset of most of us vintage idiots, not so oddly) we will pay $1000 or more for a 58 or 59 date coded harness. I know, I’ve paid it. If you’re going to spend all that money to make your guitar right (or make your reissue closer to the real thing) you should know what’s in there.

There are four pots (you  knew that), two capacitors, a three way switch, a jack and a bunch of wire in a 335 or mono 355 harness. The pots in a 335/345/355 are 500K. There is a shielding can around three of them in a 345 and a stereo 355. The bridge pickup tone pot doesn’t get a can because it won’t fit (the pot is too close to the rim). So, don’t get your BVD’s in a bunch if your expensive 59 ES345 has only three cans. The capacitors have a value of .022uF. A 345 has the Varitone circuit-a two sided inductor (choke) and a 6 way switch with a load of resistors and capacitors (or two big multivalue chips). I’ve covered the Varitone in earlier posts so we’ll leave it alone.

Gibson used pots made by a few vendors and all the pots I’ve ever seen have a date code which is pretty useful if you don’t know what year your guitar was made. But keep in mind, a date code only shows you the oldest your guitar can be. You might find a 58 date code in a 60 guitar. You won’t find a 60 date code in a 58, however. Pot codes have 6 or 7 digits. Gibson generally used pots made by Centralab from 58 to 62. The three digit manufacturer code on a Centralab is 134. The next 3 or 4 digits are the week and the year. So a pot with the code 134832 would be the 32nd week of 1958. From 63 until 69 Gibson usually used pots made by CTS which have a 137 code. Same deal a pot with 137409 would be 9th week of 1964. Note that they added a second digit to the year in the 70’s to differentiate 60’s pots from 70’s and later. There were a few other manufacturers pots-mostly early on-that made their way into Gibsons. That’s another post.

The capacitors exert control over the tone pots. A higher number will be darker, a lower number will be brighter. The .022uF cap found in all ES non Varitone models is made by Sprague. The well known bumblebee (it has stripes, thus the name) cap was used from 1958 until around mid 1960. The Sprague “black beauty” (it’s, uh, black) was used from 1960 onward. I don’t know what they used in the 70’s. The very early ones (58 and early 59) are paper in oil type and the later ones are mylar. I don’t think it matters much except the paper in oil caps are supposedly more prone to drift. Any ES model with a shielding can used the same value cap but it was the disc type so it would fit inside the can. I’ve experimented with caps but since I usually have the tone control dimed, it doesn’t make any difference-the cap only affects the tone if the pot is backed off.

The three way switch was made by Switchcraft and is the long body type with a steel frame in a 335 and a brass frame in a 345 or 355. Brass is closer in color to gold, so that’s why they used the brass on guitars with gold hardware. The 1/4″ jack is also made by Switchcraft and is essentially the same today as it was in 1958. The wire is coaxial with a two strand braid on the outside and a cloth covered stranded wire on the inside. That about covers the “what”. The “why” is a longer story. Why 500K pots? I dunno. Why .022uF caps? Ask an electrical engineer.

Paper in oil bumblebees on the left. You can tell PIO from Mylar by the little filler at the top. The Sprague Black Beauties on the right are Mylar and don’t have the fillers.

PAF Theory

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

The $1000 sticker. make sure it looks like this or you’re getting ripped off. There is something unusual about the bottom PAF. Anybody see it?

PAF. P-A-F. Call it what you like but it conjures up visions (or the audio equivalent of a vision whatever that is) of legendary rock and blues tones. I don’t think there is anything that shares the legendary status of this pretty simple piece of electronics. Folks have taken to calling anything with a sticker a PAF and, of course, that’s not really accurate. A PAF says “Patent Applied For” on the back. Otherwise-even if everything else is exactly the same, it ain’t a PAF unless it’s got a stainless steel cover and is from 1957. It’s understandable. After all, an early patent number pickup is identical but for the sticker. I’ve written about the “thousand dollar sticker” before, so that’s not what this is about. I want to put out a theory about some early PAFs.

There are, essentially, four versions of the PAF pickup. The early PAF was made in 1956 and fitted in some steel guitars. It had a stainless steel cover and no sticker. By 57, it was being used in a few “spanish” models-the Les Paul, the ES-175 and various other arch tops. By the end of 57, it had acquired the usual nickel plated cover and the very coveted PAF sticker. The next version showed up around the middle of 59 and was identical except that one or two of the bobbins were white instead of black. The reason for this has generally been acknowledged to be a temporary shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins. It wouldn’t matter, thought the brass at Gibson-nobody will ever see the bobbins anyway and even if they did, nobody would care whether they were white or black. A less true statement has never been made. Before I get into the white bobbin theory, I’ll mention the last version of the PAF. Versions one (no sticker), two (black bobbin with sticker) and three (white bobbin(s)) all had what we refer to as a “long magnet” which was usually an Alnico 2 (or 4) that measured roughly 2.5″. The last version was an Alnico 5 and measure 2.25″. Alnico 5’s are stronger, so the shorter magnet was, essentially, the equivalent of the weaker long magnet. This final version showed up in 1961 and lasted until around 64 in the nickel version and was generally gone around the same time in the gold version but the gold ones pop up occasionally in 65 and, so I’m told, as late as 67. I’ve never seen one after 65 but I’m sure someone has.

So, there are 4 versions of the PAF. The sound of a PAF is not consistent. The winding was done by machine but there was no stop or counter on the machine. They simply wound them until they appeared full. This was around 5000 turns and got you a pickup with a DC resistance in the range of 7K to 8K. There were a few with higher DCR’s and some with lower DCRs. Doing stuff by hand will always give you some variation.

Everyone agrees that white bobbin (and zebra bobbin) PAFs are more desirable and folks always say, with a chuckle, that the white ones sound better. Rational folks know that the color of the bobbin can’t possibly make a difference in the tone, right? Well, yes, except that, in a somewhat indirect way, it actually does. Really. I’m not nuts. Here’s the theory. First off, I happen to think pickups with a somewhat higher DCR sound better to my ear. In my player 345, I have a 8.75K double white in the neck and a 8.4K reverse zebra in the bridge. That’s backwards from what folks do-most folks want the higher DCR in the bridge. But that’s not the point. I’ve tested perhaps 80-90 double white PAFs over the years and nearly all of them have higher than average DCR’s. Why is this? Well, clearly, it isn’t caused by the white bobbins-the bobbins are electronically inert. But it is caused by the white bobbins. Need an explanation? I thought so.

The windings in a PAF are enamel coated copper wire and are a very dark brown or purplish brown. Against a black bobbin, the wire is very hard to see. So, if you are winding a pickup using a black bobbin and you don’t want to put on too many windings because if you do, they will fall off the sides and you’ll have to either start over or trim some wire off. That will slow you down and I’m guessing the winders had a daily quota to fill. So, I’m certain that they erred on the side of caution and left a pretty fair amount of room on the bobbins resulting in the 7K to 8K DCRs. DCR is directly related to the number of winds. But if they are winding the pickup on a white bobbin, the dark colored wire is very easy to see and you can add hundreds of additional windings to the white bobbin and still clearly see that the wire isn’t going to “overflow” the bobbin. That results in the higher DCR’s that are very common on white PAFs.

So, do white PAFs sound better than black ones? They often do if you like “hotter” pickups. Is it worth an extra $4000 per pickup? That’s your call. A black bobbin PAF will cost you from $2000-$2800 in today’s somewhat inflated market. A double white will cost you at least $5000 and as much as $6000. I’ve seen them listed as high as $7000 but I don’t think they sell at that price. Zebras and reverse zebras are somewhere in between, although reverse zebras are crazy rare (I’ve seen 6 ever).

I love it when somebody lists a vintage guitar and says that the pickups COULD be double white or zebra. Right. Like they didn’t check. Ask them and they’ll say, “the covers have never been off so I can’t tell”. Ever hear of a screwdriver? If you want to know, you can also tun the pickup over and take out the bobbin screws-that way you can see each bobbin. It’s a small hole and it’s dark in there but shine a bright light and you’ll see the white. 

 

The Guitar Tax

Monday, December 10th, 2018

I used to pay, depending on gauge, $75 to $85 for a bulk pack of strings (25 sets). The trade war has bumped them up to $109. That’s nearly a 40% increase. If the tariff is 25%, why has the price gone up 40%?

In the 8 years or so I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve largely steered clear of politics. My politics and your politics need not be aligned for you to read my posts and for me to write them. There are certainly political aspects to music-compare “Eve of Destruction” to “Ragged Old Flag” and about a zillion other songs from the left and right and more than a few in the center. But we don’t really discuss music here, we discuss guitars. The tool of the music trade. If I did a writers blog, I’d be talking about pencils. The topic simply isn’t that deep. But politics has entered our little world of guitars and I am not happy about it.

Guitars are expensive, especially vintage guitars but I think the level of enjoyment is remarkable and the cost is, in the long run, easy to justify. Vintage guitars have held their value over the long term. Even after the crash of 2008, most guitars have slowly made their way back to pre 2008 levels. New guitars still drop in value the day you walk out of the store but the used market is pretty robust. But there’s a new fly in the nut sauce. Tariffs.

The current occupier of the White House has started a trade war with China and those tariffs affect guitar players. Most of the steel comes from China and there is now a big tariff imposed by the president. I go through a lot of guitar strings which are, of course, made largely of steel. How bad is it? Well, I buy in bulk and a box of 25 loose sets of D’Addario XL’s used to cost me $75 to maybe $85. And this wasn’t some dealer wholesale price-I used to buy them off Ebay from one of the big retailers. Now, the price has risen by a few points more than the 25% tariff on steel. I now pay $109 for the same strings. That, to me, is a tax and it’s unfair and its unnecessary and it’s short sighted. I’m no economist but the economy was doing pretty well even with the big trade deficits we’ve had for as long as I can remember. It’s simple, Mr. President. We buy more stuff from them than they do from us. Their stuff is cheaper and Americans are likely to buy things that cost less. Making their stuff cost more isn’t helping us. It’s costing us money. I remember lots of times when “buy American” was a part of the political agenda. But nobody was forcing us to pay more-they were simply appealing to the possibility that folks were patriotic enough to buy American for the perceived good of the economy. Well, news flash. I am buying American. Its simply that the raw materials came from somewhere else because we don’t make a lot of steel here in the USA any more.

And it isn’t just strings. There’s a lot of steel in a guitar. And aluminum too. And wood which is now subject to a tariff as well. 20% for Canadian and 25% for certain Chinese wood including guitar standards like maple and ash. American companies make huge profits and the government just massively cut corporate taxes. So, as if the tariffs themselves aren’t bad enough, now many American companies use their increased costs an excuse to raise prices even further which hurts the consumer, not big business. They aren’t simply passing on the cost of the tariffs. Did you ever notice that when the cost of raw materials goes up 20%, the cost of the product goes up 25% (or more). Or why the gas tax goes up by three cents, the price goes up by five? There isn’t much to be done about it other than vote the current incumbents out (the midterms were a good start). I’m all for businesses doing great but I’m more for the American consumer (and musician) to get a fair shake. And we are not getting one. This administration is costing us, the consumers, while it should be protecting us and not big business. And how’s that big tax cut working out for you?

A 335 doesn’t have a whole lot of metal in it but there are now tariffs on wood as well and not just from China. Wood from Canada has been singled out as well. With the 25% tariff on steel, it’s a good thing I don’t buy and sell these.

 

A Tree Falls in the Woods

Friday, September 14th, 2018

No sign of a sticker here. If the pickup has never been out of the guitar and it’s a 61 or earlier, you can call it a PAF. If it’s a 62 or later, it’s the tree in the woods. It may have once had a PAF sticker but you can’t ask someone to pay a premium for a PAF if it doesn’t have a sticker. How do you know it isn’t a patent number with a missing sticker? They are identical. Otherwise, I could buy a 62 with patent number stickers, take them off and call them PAFs and charge more.

You all know that age old question about the tree in the woods. I think it applies to pickups in a parallel way. If a PAF has no sticker, is it a PAF? The difference between the tree and the PAF is that I know the answer. Let’s take a critical look at a PAF. A late PAF is exactly the same as an early patent number except for the sticker. We can all agree on that. So, the sticker has fallen off your 62’s pickups and you insist they are PAFs. It’s in your listing and you price the guitar accordingly. Except that you shouldn’t. If the only difference is the sticker and there is no sticker, it can’t be a PAF whether it once had the sticker or it never had a sticker. Well now that doesn’t seem fair because a 62 can certainly have PAFs and how can I possibly know whether the sticker less pickup was a PAF or a patent? I can’t-it’s the tree in the woods.  No sticker means no PAF and the reason for that is very simple. If I can price my stickerless PAF as a PAF, the I can simply remove the stickers from all my early patent number pickups and make the same claim. From where I sit, any unstickered pickup from 62 on is a patent number or at least priced like one. You can speculate all you want but no sticker, no premium.

OK, supposing my guitar is a 61 and the stickers are gone? If the pickups have never been out of the guitar, you can assume with relative certainty that those no sticker pickups are PAFs but the way I see it, you still don’t get the entire premium for the sticker. The sticker itself, while it has no effect whatever on the tone of the pickup still has intrinsic value simply because it is your verification that it is what the sticker says it is. Of course there are fake stickers but none of them are perfect-at least not yet. Truthfully, I think none of us should care whether a pickup is a late PAF or an early patent because they are the same. But we do care. Just like we care about white and zebra bobbins and will pay stupid money for them even though they sound the same as a double black.

Granted this sticker thing is a really small point but every time I see a 62 or 63 for sale with stickerless “PAFS”, my blood pressure goes up. It’s all I can do to not write a nasty little note to the seller asking how he (or she) can possibly know. OK, I actually have done that. The answers? “I just know…” “It’s a 62 and all 62’s have PAFs” (they don’t). How about “it had stickers when I got it and they fell off…” “the guy I bought to from said they were PAFs…”or my favorite “wait until you hear them-you’ll know they can’t be anything else…”

I’m not the PAF police and you can list your guitar any way you like. It’s up to the buyer to call BS when necessary. My concern is that not every buyer has the necessary knowledge to make an informed decision about a vintage 335, 345 or 355. That’s why I write this stuff. I can’t tell you how many times someone wants to trade their vintage 335 to me for something else or another one and I have the unfortunate task of telling them they were sold something other than what they thought they were getting. And it isn’t just stickerless PAFs. It’s 68’s that are sold as 65’s. It’s undisclosed changed parts. It’s repro bridges, tailpieces, switch tips, knobs and any other part that can be reproduced convincingly. It’s undisclosed overspray and repairs. It’s sometimes deception and sometimes just ignorance. it doesn’t matter why, it only matters that it happens.

I get dozens of emails asking me to look over the 335 you’re about to buy from somebody other than me. I always answer, I always tell you what I see and I never try to sell you one of mine unless there is something drastically wrong with the one you are looking at and I have a similar guitar in stock. My goal is for you to get the guitar you want and to make sure the guitar you want is the guitar you think you’re getting. That’s a free service I’m happy to provide. So, a PAF sticker falls off a pickup out in the woods…

 

 

Honey, I Shrunk the 335

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

The Gibson CS-356. Nice guitar and not just a shrunken 335. It was something new when it debuted. Or was it?

To me, a new 335 is one made after 1985. It’s hard enough to learn everything there is to know about 58-69’s and most of what there is to know about 1970-1985’s but after that, I’m a little fuzzy. My knowledge comes from observation and I simply don’t see very many more recent 335’s and the rest of the ES line. When I take in a consignment from the past 30 odd years, I go through it the same as I go through a 59. An ES guitar came in this week that I’ve never had in my hands before. It’s sort of like a 355 at first glance but on closer inspection, it’s not like a 355 at all. It’s a CS-356 from 2002.

The first thing you will notice is that its smaller. A lot smaller. One of the complaints I hear about 335’s is that they are too big. I don’t feel that way but, similarly,  a lot of Les Paul players don’t complain that they are too heavy (which they are). You like what you like. But is it a really a downsized 355 or something else entirely? It’s the latter. A 356 (and a 336) is more like a Rickenbacker than it is a 335 in the way that its built. You want a downsized 335? That would be the ES-339 which shares its construction with the 3335. But that didn’t come out until 2007, eleven years after the 336 debuted.

A 335 and its close brethren are, essentially, thin bodied arch tops with a block glued in the middle. End of story. Take out the block and it’s a 330, more or less-the neck set is different as a re the pickups. But the diminutive 356, 336 and 339 are a totally different species. Why compare it to a Rickenbacker? Because the construction is nearly the same and Rickenbacker has been using the design for a lot longer than Gibson. It dates to the late 50’s. Here’s how it’s done. Take a big old slab of wood that would be perfectly appropriate to use to make a solid body but instead of routing away only enough wood to accommodate the pickups, control cavity and the neck join, rout away all the wood that isn’t necessary to accommodate these things. Rickenbacker routs the top and glues on the back. Gibson did the opposite routing the back and gluing the top. Fender’s thin line Telecaster was similarly constructed and designed by the same guy as the Ricky (Roger Rossmeisl)

This is the top of a Rickenbacker seen from the back. The excess wood was carved away and the flat back was glued on. Not quite the same as the 356 but similar.

 

The larger point is that the 336 and 356 don’t sound any more like a 335 than a Les Paul does. In fact, it seems to lie somewhere between these two icons of electric guitardom. And it’s a perfectly nice guitar and it sounds quite good. It’s closer to a solid body in tone and feel to me and it isn’t particularly lightweight, so I would conclude that the only really new thing about it is that it gets you the 335 aesthetic while delivering solid body tone. So, I would further conclude that it’s an invention that nobody was clamoring for because it neither delivers a lighter weight Les Paul (the chambered version does that) nor does it deliver a smaller bodied 335 (the 339 does that). Gibson, after all, is the company that gives you the innovations you didn’t know you wanted or needed. Like robot tuners. And reverse flying vees.

All that said, it’s a pretty nice guitar. I’ve always liked the Rickenbacker 360 from a design standpoint. There is no way you will confuse it with anything else. The rounded top edge and the squared back edge is unique and clever in its way. I remember thinking “how did they do that?” when I first encountered one back in the mid 60’s, thinking it was a conventional semi hollow. The 336 and 356 don’t have a distinctive look. They don’t have a particularly distinctive tone but that probably isn’t the point. It’s a good design. It has good tone. But Gibson already had all that in the LP and 335. I don’t know how successful the line has been but given the missteps of the nice folks who run Gibson, I’m not surprised they went back to the future to make yet another guitar you never knew you had to have. And here’s an afterthought, isn’t the Johnny A (debuted in 2003) basically the same guitar as the 336/356 with a slightly different shape? Correct me if I’m wrong.

This isn’t an actual 336/356 but it’s pretty much the same concept. I couldn’t find a photo of the real thing. Just add a neck, some electronics and a pretty top and your done.

Point of No Return

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

A dealer with a big inventory should still go through every guitar from the pot codes to the tuner tips to make sure it is as described and there are no hidden or undisclosed issues. An individual seller with one guitar to sell should do the same or consult a vintage dealer to help out. Most will be happy to. This is the famous “A” rack at OK Guitars.

You want a really good reason to buy a guitar from a dealer? Return policy. You probably already knew that but dealers tend to charge more than individual sellers but there’s more to this than meets the eye. I buy plenty of guitars from individual sellers and I buy a fair number from other dealers. I prefer to buy from other dealers even though I sometimes have to pay top dollar for them. But wait, why would someone like me who is supposed to know what to look for prefer buying from a dealer? Return policy. Here’s the problem:

I’ve been keeping close track of the accuracy of the descriptions of guitars I buy for at least 8 years now. When buying from an individual seller (usually without a return policy), I ask for a lot of specific photos but when you’re buying from the 90 year old widow of the original owner, you can’t really ask her to pull the pickups and photograph the PAF stickers. Sometimes, you can’t even get a single photo. You simply take your chances. But even when I get all the photos I need, there can still be issues that don’t show up in photos. Overspray for one, rewound pickups for another. Fortunately, the issues are mostly minor but sometimes an undisclosed or unknown big issue like a well repaired headstock crack can sneak by. After all, Grandpa (may he rest in peace) didn’t usually tell Grandma that he broke his $400 (in 1959 dollars) guitar and had to spend $50 to get it fixed. She would just get upset. So, a dealer has to walk a very fine line when buying a guitar from someone who knows nothing about guitars.

You might ask what percentage of guitars that I get are not accurately described? 20%? 25%? 30%? Nope. 90%. Seriously, nearly every guitar I buy from an individual seller has a hidden or undisclosed issue. It’s usually something pretty benign like a changed switch tip or pot that I can address from my parts stash. But, as I mentioned, sometimes it’s rewound pickups, undisclosed damage (usually a minor crack or delamination), repro parts, touchups and on and on. I have horror stories. And here’s the upsetting part-when I buy from dealers, the percentage isn’t all that much better. Since the rise of Reverb.com, everybody seems to be a dealer which is OK but it can be hard to differentiate between really knowledgeable dealers who offer up a healthy dose of expertise with their guitars (and a liberal return policy) from those who don’t. That said, many “hobby” dealers are as knowledgeable (or more so) than established dealers and, with their smaller inventories, can be more careful with inspecting and describing their inventory. After all, I was a hobby dealer for 10 years before I became a full time dealer with a brick and mortar shop. I still go through every guitar with the same attention to detail as I did in 1998 when I was cruising Ebay for bargains.

So, what’s the bottom line here? It is this: Expect issues. Build it into your offer. Inspect every guitar you buy and every guitar you sell as if it were your forever guitar. Fix what’s wrong or disclose it before you list it for sale. It might cost you a sale or two but it will save you from returns, a bad reputation and angry customers. If you aren’t sure what you have or what’s correct and what isn’t, consult a vintage dealer. Most are very generous with their advice. Or take it to a guitar show-everybody at a guitar show seems to be ready willing and able to tell you everything that’s wrong with your guitar-even if there’s nothing wrong with it. And if you buy a guitar and it isn’t as described, talk to the seller and explain the issue. If that gets you nowhere and there’s no return policy, talk to the folks who run the venue where you bought it. Ebay is good at this as is Reverb.com. I’ve had success with both when I’ve run into intransigent sellers who insist that the guitar was perfect when it was shipped and that the frets must have gotten worn or it somehow got oversprayed in transit or in the 24 hours I had the guitar in my possession.

Can you tell that this guitar was refinished from the photo? I sure can’t. Can you tell the guard is a repro (I can)? Photos help but they don’t always tell the whole story. Check your purchase out in person if you can. Get a guitar from someone who will accept returns (for any reason) if you can’t see it in person.