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Archive for the ‘Gibson General’ Category

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.

Double Your Pleasure-EDS-1275

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

How cool is this. 4 PAFs, no waiting. This was owned by Steve Howe for the past 45 years or so and now I have it. It’s from 1960 and is a very cool piece.

I’ve owned most Gibsons that have the letter ES (Electric Spanish) in their model name. Up until now there was one I had never even seen in person, let alone actually owned. It’s a rare one and it’s certainly not for everybody but, being a 12 string player, it appeals to me. It’s the EDS-1275. But wait, isn’t that a double neck SG? It is but there’s an earlier full hollow version with the same model name. The first version, built from 1958-1961 is unique among Gibsons. This iteration has a spruce top but is not an arch top. It appears to be a flat top with a German carve.  Well, now I have one in the house and it’s makes a rather striking impression. It’s big. It’s heavy but not as heavy as I thought it would be. It doesn’t help that this one has 18 Grover tuners on it which add at least an extra pound. I will probably remove them and put Klusons back on in the near future. This black 1960 has some interesting history.

I really didn’t know much about these when this one came on the market in the UK. It was last sold in 1974 by Gruhn’s and was owned from 1974 until a couple weeks ago by the great Steve Howe (Yes, Asia). I’m no expert in these guitars so I reached out to the dealer who is. Eric Ernest (Abalone Vintage) knows more about these than anyone and I got him on the phone before making this considerable purchase to find out what he knew about the guitar. He knew about it and warned me that he believed it was refinished black over factory white by builder Roger Giffin. That seemed likely since I could see white showing through wherever the guitar was chipped.  But wait a second, there are photos of at least one other black one all over the interwebs that show the same thing. So, I asked a few people about it. George Gruhn couldn’t remember, telling me he had sold over 100 guitars to Steve. I had the UK dealer ask Steve about it and Steve, who knows Roger, said no, Roger wasn’t doing refinishes at the time this one would have been done (before Steve bought it in 1974).

I’m pretty good at spotting a refinished ES guitar. I believe the guitar, like many of this model, was painted white when first made but was ordered as a black guitar and resprayed at the factory. Why do I think that? Well, the serial number, for one thing. I sent a photo of the yellow ink stamped number to my inside guy at Gibson and he agreed that the serial number looked dead on. I’ve owned a fair number of black ES guitars from the 50’s and 60’s and the black paint has a distinctive look to it. This appears to be Gibson paint and I believe that it is a factory black guitar. Feel free to argue the point.

How’s it play? I was a little nervous about the playability when I bought it because 12 string necks take so much strain that they often end up impossibly bowed with the truss rod tightened all the way. Steve clearly hadn’t been playing it much since the strings were years old. But the neck looked pretty flat-in fact I loosened the truss a half a turn on the 12 string neck and restrung it with light gauge strings. Steve had the 12 string neck strung like a Rickenbacker (low string, then octave rather than the other way ’round) so I strung it the same. I put 11’s on the 6 string neck and plugged it into a 60 Bassman. I figured the guitar is a 60, the amp might as well be. It’s not light. I didn’t weigh it but its probably 11 pounds. The Grover tuners don’t help the balance any either. I played the six string neck first. Nice 59ish profile and lots of PAF snarl. No feedback even though it’s full hollow. The lack of f-holes helps. Sounds rather like a good 175 or Byrdland that doesn’t feed back. I think a 6 string using this design would be a great player. The spruce top is probably a factor as is the fairly thin body. The 12 string was very articulate with every note punching through. Some electric 12 strings get a bit lost in their own world of many stringed chaos but this one was more like an acoustic. I could make it do jangly but it wasn’t the default tone like a Ricky.

Double necks are not for everybody. They make a big statement onstage and they are a lot of fun. There are plenty of double neck choices-I’ve owned a Mosrite and was recently offered a Carvin. This one is different. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth (fewer than 40 1275’s made) and wonderfully playable. For the collector, it represents Gibson at it’s pre Custom Shop custom best. And I’ll bet you don’t have one.

Steve with the EDS-1275. He also has a black double with an octave neck and also a white solid body 1275.

Case in Point

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

That’s wrong with this picture? No, it’s not the price of the guitar, it’s the price of the case. Read on.

I’ve written about cases before and I actually find them pretty interesting but this isn’t about the arcane, geeky finer points of vintage cases. This is something that occurred to me when I recently bought a 62 ES-335 that had the price tag in the case. A red stop tail ES-335, in 1962, cost $327.50. Cheap, right? Well, in 2018 dollars, that 327.50 is $2654 which is a lot for a guitar but doesn’t compare at all to the $5800 Gibson wants today for it’s (almost) equivalent. So, on top of the 710% inflation, Gibson has more than doubled the price of a 335 over 1962-up a whopping, uh, I dunno, 1400%? Seems like a lot but that hides the real issue, to me.

A good quality guitar case today is around $240 for a high end TKL. You can spend $600 on a Cedar Creek or other high end case. You can also spend around $100 for a decent molded plastic case that will protect your guitar relatively well. Or you can buy that $5800 59 reissue and get the case for free. Good deal right? Well, it’s a good deal when you consider that in 1962, the cost of the case was more than 15% of the cost of the guitar. Yikes. The inflation calculator says that 1962 case would cost $425.54 today. And the cases weren’t all that great. It’s a little like the drinks at a McDonalds. They probably make a nickel on that Big Mac but they make it up big time on the drinks at whatever drinks at McDonalds cost these days. But let’s take it a step farther. If your local Gibson dealer was marking everything up equally to how it was marked up in 1962, that case would cost you  close to $1000 (figuring 16% or so of the purchase price of the guitar).

So, somebody was making some pretty serious money. In fact, if you consider inflation, that $400 vintage black case you just bought for your 335 has actually gone down in value since it was new. How does this work? The guitar is up by 900% or so but the case is down by 25 bucks. Just thought I would bring this up while I wrote my “year ender”.

This Lifton case cost the 2018 equivalent of $425 in 1962.
Today, it’s worth about the same but the guitar has gone up by 900%. Go figure.

 

 

Black is the New Black

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017
This page from mid 59 shows a black 345 which, to my knowledge, hasn't surfaced, and a black EB-2.

This page from mid 59 shows a black 345 which, to my knowledge, hasn’t surfaced, and a black EB-2.

Joe Bonamassa noted not too long ago on the Les Paul Forum that black is the new blonde and, for a minute, I thought he was right. But now I don’t. Black Gibsons are in a class by themselves. While blonde 335’s and 345’s (and the über rare 355) command a huge premium-generally double the price of a sunburst or more if collector grade, black ones are so rare that there aren’t any rules. Let me add a quick disclaimer-Les Paul Customs don’t count because they are a standard color and are plentiful. We’re talking about black 335’s, 345’s 355’s from before 1969 and maybe a few others if I have the space.

Black is a tricky color. It generally doesn’t age well and it is prone to excessive wear-especially the back of the neck. Being opaque, its an obvious choice for refinishers looking to hide plugged holes, broken headstocks and any number of other indignities. So, if you are lucky enough to find a black ES 335, 345 or 355, make sure it hasn’t been refinished because the likelihood is, it has. Gibson didn’t keep a record of how many black guitars were shipped, although they sometimes show up in the shipping ledgers as special orders. Unfortunately, they weren’t terribly consistent about noting special orders in the ledgers and if you happen to have a copy of the page, it may or may not mention the color. And, there is always that possibility that a factory black guitar was refinished in black either for cosmetic reasons or to hide a repair.

Considering that you’re going to be spending some really serious bucks on a factory black guitar, it is in your best interests to do what you can to authenticate it. A black light is a good place to start but be aware that a black light won’t do you any good on a guitar that has been totally refinished. It will show you touchup and show newer lacquer vs. older but a 30 year old refinish is going to look like original lacquer under a black light.

Try to get the ledger page. Call or email Gibson customer service. They can be pretty close to the vest with these pages but it’s worth asking. Also, do a search on the internet for ledger pages-there are perhaps 20 of them out there from various years. If the page shows your guitar as black, then it’s a factory black example-that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been refinished at some point but at least you know it started as a black guitar. Here’s the tricky part-if the ledger doesn’t show it as black, it doesn’t mean it’s a refinish. It may simply mean they didn’t note the special finish. Out of the five black 335’s and 345’s I’ve had, three are noted in the log-all 59’s.

There is a technique that I use to determine a refinish that is quite nearly foolproof. When doing a total refinish, the guitar is generally sanded to remove the old finish. Even if it’s done with great care, there will usually be a tell tale sign left behind. If you run your fingernail between the body binding and the rim of the guitar-not the top-there will be a ridge that you can catch your fingernail on. If the transition from rim to binding is smooth and even, it’s been sanded. Period. Every original finish ES model that I’ve owned has that ridge. Every refinish hasn’t. I say nearly foolproof because if the body was chemically stripped or the new finish was added over the original, the ridge will still be there. Chemical strippers usually damage (melt) the bindings so pay attention to that as well. Look inside the f-holes for any sign of black overspray. Unless the guitar was touched up-like one of the 59’s I had, there shouldn’t be any.

So, how many black guitars are we talking about here? The 59 ledger pages that I have show five 345’s, one 335 and no 355’s. I know of three of the five 345’s, the 335 and at least two 355’s (Keith Richards has one of them). There is a black early 60 345 that surfaced last year that has a 59 FON. I had a black 66 335 a while back (and a black 66 330). I know of a black 65 or 66 345 as well. I’ve owned three black 59 345’s. There are at least two black 59 EB-2’s. Let me know if you find one, I have a client looking for one. There are photos of a few artists playing black ES’s-Bill Haley’s guitar player (345)  and Dave Edmunds (335). There is no way to know if they are factory, although the Haley guitar is likely original since the photo is from the late 50’s or early 60’s. Roy Orbison played one but it was much later-from the 80’s. Black was a catalog color in the early 80’s and there are a lot of them out there.

Black ES guitars are valuable enough that they are worth the effort to fake by unscrupulous scam artists. If you have any doubts, you should probably pass. It’s too much money to take chances with.

Two of the three black 59 ES-345's that have passed through my hands. Both were great. Both were "first rack".

Two of the three black 59 ES-345’s that have passed through my hands. Both were great. Both were “first rack”.

CITES in the Real World

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017
If any of these guitars are going out of the USA, they need to be certified by US Fish and Wildlife as "pre-convention" rosewood. That means built before 1992 for Brazilian and pre 2017 for Indian or other rosewood.

If any of these guitars is going out of the USA, it needs to be certified by US Fish and Wildlife as “pre-convention” rosewood. That means built before 1992 for Brazilian and pre 2017 for Indian or other rosewood. It’s time consuming, costs $75  and I’m complying.

CITES or The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has changed the rules. As a vintage dealer, I’ve had to jump through hoops for the US Government for quite some time. Up until January 1 of this year, only guitars with Brazilian rosewood needed to be certified by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and the Dept. of Agriculture. If your guitar was built before 1992, it was legal to ship (with certification). Nobody seemed to pay that much attention to the regulations mostly because everybody knew that the Customs agents had better things to do and they couldn’t tell Brazilian from East Indian from Honduran anyway. So, some dealers and most individuals ignored the regulations and guitars flowed across borders pretty much unscathed. In fact the only time I encountered any trouble was with a guitar coming into the US from Italy. They questioned me about the wood and the year and I explained that it was Indian rosewood and that was the end of it. I did have a guitar come from Mexico a number of years ago that was stopped for having mahogany and I had to explain to the agent that mahogany was legal-he had misunderstood the regulations that applied to raw wood but not finished products. It’s a sad state of affairs when the general public has to explain the rules to the government.

But all that has changed, at least for now. For all the Trump White House talk of deregulation and improved conditions for international trade, it has become a lot more of a pain to ship guitars out of the country and many governments are actively looking for proper documentation. They solved the problem of agents not knowing Indian from Brazilian by making all rosewood fall under CITES regulations. Lucky us. I’m all for conserving the world’s supply of rosewood but it isn’t the musical instrument companies that are responsible for the demise of the trees. The amount of rosewood used in guitar making is only a small fraction of the rosewood being used for furniture. Furniture? Who buys rosewood furniture? The Chinese, that’s who. There is a traditional furniture called “hongmu” after the wood itself.  Here is what I gathered from the independent environmental website, Mongabay:

China is the largest global consumer of rosewood and skyrocketing demand over the past decade and a half is having serious repercussions for some of the world’s most endangered old-growth forests and local forest communities. Rosewood imports into China increased some 1,250 percent since 2000 and were worth an estimated $2.6 billion between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to a new report from Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Forest Trends. Several species of rosewood, collectively known as hongmu, are prized by Chinese furniture manufacturers who use them to make products that are highly coveted status symbols. The majority of rosewood imports into China traditionally come from Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. But in 2014, when imports were at an all-time high, nearly half came from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries, whereas those countries supplied just 10 percent of Chinese rosewood imports a decade ago, per the report.

So, the problem isn’t us, the guitar playing universe, it’s the Chinese consumers who are making it harder for the rest of us. To make matters worse, much of the rosewood is cut illegally and imported illegally. So, we are bound by laws that cover 183 countries (including China) to prove that our guitars were made from legally harvested wood. And I, for one, am happy to comply but we are a drop in the bucket in the fight to preserve the rosewood trees. Considering the sheer number of guitars shipped all over the world that contain small amounts of rosewood, the time spent certifying and inspecting guitars could be better utilized by going after the criminals who are causing the problem. Confiscating a ’59 335 does nothing at all to solve or even ameliorate the problem. I don’t know what they do with confiscated guitars or even if they have actually confiscated any but they are allowed to do so if the guitar isn’t properly certified. I don’t want to find out first hand so I’m crossing all the T’s and dotting the i’s and doing it by the book. So, if you are in Europe or Asia or even Canada and I ask you for an extra week or two to get  your guitar to you, please understand that if I don’t, your guitar could be tied up for a lot longer by Customs and may never get to you.

This is the real problem. It's Chinese "hongmu" rosewood furniture. The Chinese people love this stuff. I suppose it's like Americans and stainless steel appliances.

This is the real problem. It’s Chinese “hongmu” rosewood furniture. The Chinese people love this stuff. I suppose it’s like Americans and stainless steel appliances.

 

Sometimes It’s Just Firewood

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017
Is this going to be Fender necks? Maybe Les Paul tops? Or is it going to heat my house?

Is this going to be Fender necks? Maybe Les Paul tops? Or is it going to heat my house?

The Les Paul guys all go nuts over their beautiful flame maple tops. “Mine’s AAAAA.” Oh, yeah? Mine’s AAAAAA. I don’t know what any of that means but sometimes you have to wonder about all the fuss about figured maple. It’s pretty wood-no doubt about that and it makes a real attractive top for a Les Paul. It’s not terribly common on ES models and those that have it get a lot of attention but really don’t command much of a premium, if any, on the open market. Figuring doesn’t improve tone but there’s more to wood than its tonal qualities. I like figured wood a lot but it’s really hard to split.

Yes, that’s firewood in the photo. I get my wood from a local landscaper and I always ask for maple (because it smells nice and burns well). And I always find a few logs of figured maple. It really isn’t that uncommon up here in New England. In fact, I can’t recall a year when I didn’t get any in my usual cord or two of firewood. There are a few points to be made here. One, wood is just wood. What talented folks can do with it separates a Les Paul top from that stack of firewood. I’m told that the figuring in maple is the result of some kind of stress on the tree-like a virus. I’ve also been told it has nothing to do with that. I read a good article about it written by collector Mike Slubowski who runs the Les Paul Forum. Here’s a link. Read it. You’ll learn something. The next point is that when used in a guitar, it is ornamental. How important that is has to do with how you see your guitar. Is it a work of art? A thing of beauty? A tool of your trade?

That’s one of the very cool things about guitars. They are all of those things. Or none. They can be monumentally ugly (reverse flying vee) or stunningly beautiful (too many to list). A beautiful guitar can play like crap. An ugly guitar can play brilliantly. There is no doubt that beautifully figured wood is a large part of what makes a guitar a work of art. Figured maple, koa, macassar ebony, bubinga, cocobolo and a zillion other species make for stunning guitars.

It also makes a pretty good fire. Stay warm.

Flamey ES's can be pretty stunning and the equal of any Les Paul. This 59 ES-345 was actually a refinished sunburst.

Flamey ES’s can be pretty stunning and the equal of any Les Paul. This 59 ES-345 was actually a refinished sunburst. I don’t think it will burn that well though.