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Archive for the ‘Gibson General’ Category

Didja Ever Notice…

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

Rooney obit

Those of you old enough to remember Andy Rooney on “60 Minutes” will recall that the opening line of many of his segments was the title of this post. So, “didja ever notice” how every guitar seems to be all original except for something somebody did to it along the way? All original except for the Grovers. All original except for the frets, the nut and the saddles. All original except for the plastic, the pickups and , oh yeah, the finish. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. It’s just marketing. But beyond the typical stuff people do, there are some other things they do beyond the usual disasters.

Not all mods are terrible but they all will take something away from the vintage value. I can think of a couple that are kind of break even like taking the stereo circuit out of a 345 (as long as you keep it with the guitar). Adding a stop tail to a trapeze equipped 60’s ES-335 won’t hurt the value much (as long as you put it in the right place) since everybody seems to want to do that anyway. But there are some pretty alarming things have have perpetrated on these (and other) guitars over the years. And even rock stars aren’t immune to the overwhelming desire to somehow make what is nearly a perfect guitar somehow better.

Alvin Lee put a single coil between the hum buckers on his 335. Larry Carlton stop tailed his 68 and missed by about a half inch. At least all EC did was to add a set of Grovers, a Hare Krishna sticker and a “custom” truss cover. Somehow that added around $800,000 to the value (oh, yeah and he played it). Neil Young swapped out some pickups in that old black Les Paul and Frank Zappa never met a guitar he couldn’t “improve.” But beyond rock stars, we mere mortals have done some monumentally stupid things (and some that were simply ill advised).

One of the most frustrating things about a 3×5 is the harness. It’s really hard to remove ad even harder to install especially if the center block isn’t cut. Then it has to go in and out through the f-holes. Well, that’s an easy fix. Just cut a big hole in the back and put a plastic plate over it. But wait, that will show. I know, cut a big wedge out of the top-it’ll be covered by the pick guard. Nobody will ever know (except that they will). Bad intonation? How about a 70’s “harmonica” bridge-that won’t look too bad. A lot of mods were supposed to be improvements (I’m sure Alvin Lee really liked the extra pickup) and they were simply the fads of the era. Coil taps were a big deal in the early to mid 70’s and a lot of mini switches sprouted on the tops of 335’s. Master volumes were also added during that dark decade. The 80’s brought DiMarzio pickups and, eventually, active electronics. Fortunately, plenty of players left their guitars alone and those are the ones getting the premium prices these days. Also, many of the mods over the years have been reversible. You can take the DiMarzios or the EMGs out but you can’t grow the wood back where that coil tap and phase switches went.

Yep, we’re idiots all right but we can take some comfort in the fact that we were young when we did all this dumb stuff and we know better now. After all, they were just old guitars back then. Vintage was for wine (which we didn’t drink-we were men-we drank Jack Daniels). So, when you send that Les Paul R9 out to Historic Makeovers for the full treatment, just remember that in 2060, somebody is going to moan that some idiot messed up a perfectly good 2000 Les Paul by refinishing it, changing the fingerboard and taking the all important “condom” off the truss rod. Everybody knows the tone for those comes from that truss rod condom.

This probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This is a 64 ES-335. Heartbreaking.

This probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This is a 64 ES-335. It’s all original except for this big ol’ hole in the back.

I guess this mod worked out OK for Mr. Young. I'm guessing you wouldn't touch this guitar with a ten foot pole if I had done this.

I guess this mod worked out OK for Mr. Young. I’m guessing you wouldn’t touch this guitar with a ten foot pole if I had done this. It’s all original except for a couple of changed pickups.

 

 

Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016
Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.

Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.

When you talk to vintage players and collectors, many will sing the praises of old wood. Many will sing the praises of classic old electronics. And old wood. Many will wax rhapsodic about great craftsmanship. And old wood. And you can count me in on all of the above but I’m having some second thoughts. About the old wood part. Perhaps we should be talking about good wood rather than old wood.

Is it possible that wood is good just because it’s old? There are plenty of theories out there regarding old wood and most seem to make a lot of sense. The trees weren’t farmed or fertilized or even planted by humans. They were simply there. They grew at the speed at which nature intended and they grew under conditions that generally weren’t under the control of humans. Old growth predates the guitar business by eons. Then there’s the processing part. Some  of the tonal qualities of wood come from moisture content or the lack thereof. Generally, wood was dried before it was turned into a guitar. In the ways of old school guitar building, the wood was dried over a long period of time-years even until someone who knew about these things said it was ready to use. I’m no expert and would welcome any details as to how this worked. Today, the process is speeded up by managed growth and enhanced methods. The time to season the wood has been replaced by heat and dehumidifiers and I would expect that might make a difference. Again, not an expert, just using some logic.

So, let’s say a builder sources some high quality (but not old) wood and lets it season the old school way and even makes his own plywood, again the old school way. We are talking about ES’s here and they are, of course,  plywood. The maple center block contributes to the tone as well, so the builder seasons that the old school way as well. Then he builds the guitar using the same methods that the folks at Gibson used in 1959. He shapes the plywood using a form and methodology that is the same. He hand carves a neck from a piece of seasoned Honduran mahogany and attaches the components together with hide glue. He scavenges some Brazilian rosewood from a secret source and builds a 335. Next, it gets finished using nitrocellulose lacquer-the old kind that you can’t get in the US anymore-maybe he goes to Canada-maybe he has squirreled away a few cans.

Of course, the question will be “does this guitar sound as good as the real thing?’ Does the fact that the old fashioned way of building and the use of old wood when possible and new wood treated the old way make a difference in tone in an ES style plywood bodied guitar. One way to find out. Let’s drop in a set of old pickups and use some other older parts (although I don’t think we have to). I had a double white re-wound  PAF on hand that measured well into the 8K range, so that went into the bridge position. For the neck, I used a Tim Shaw husk that had been re-wound using enamel .042 wire like a PAF and was wound to the low 8K range. I used a newer harness because it simply was easier and I’m a big believer in the concept that proper electronic values will sound the same no matter what age the components are. I defy anyone to actually hear a difference between same value tone caps. You might sense a difference in how the tone changes when you crank the tone knob and you might like having a bumblebee better than a 25 cent disc cap but the tone will be largely the same. Feel free to disagree.

So, this guitar actually exists and I’ve been playing it a lot lately. It’s my Ken McKay “tribute”. I can feel the “newness” for sure. The neck bindings need to roll off a bit but that will come from years of playing not a number 12 bastard file (whatever that is). I can still smell the lacquer and that’s most un-vintage like but that will go away soon, I think. The frets are a little high and angular  but an hour or two a day of playing ought to fix that. I really like the feel of the guitar probably because the neck was made with me in the room. Play a little, sand a little, play little, sand a little more until it feels exactly right. That’s a real luxury. The neck on the guitar is kind of 64ish at the first fret-maybe .85 with a little more shoulder than the usual 64. Then, by the twelfth fret, it’s a full tilt 59 at 1″. The fingerboard was made very slightly wider than usual as well at 1 23/32″. You don’t think you can feel an extra 1/32″? I promise, you can.

Last, we plug it in. I’ve got a 59 Bassman here that wants to be played loud. Old wood? We don’t need no stinkin’ old wood. This is mostly new wood treated like old wood. The only old wood here was the Brazilian and that wasn’t more than 25 years old. I’d been saving  a few pieces for projects since 1990 or so. This is mostly new wood with old pickups with new windings. It took four years to complete.  And this thing plays and sounds as good as any 335 on the “A” rack here at OK Guitars and that currently includes 2 59’s, 2 60’s, a 62 and a 64. Another sacred cow, shot dead? I think so.

Heart of Darkness

Monday, April 4th, 2016

 

Most sunbursts have a dark heel but the rest of the neck is lighter. But there are exceptions.

Most sunbursts have a dark heel but the rest of the neck is lighter. But there are exceptions.

Lots of aspects of any guitar made by Gibson in the 50’s and 60’s are going to be inconsistent but nothing raises suspicion like a dark finished neck. There are a few variations of this but all of them tend to bring up more questions than they answer. I’d like to try to dispel some of the fear.

Some have dark paint at the headstock as well. That's less usual but still fairly common.

Some have dark paint at the headstock as well. That’s less usual but still fairly common.

It would appear that the QC folks at Gibson had a problem with wood. Specifically, things like knots or weird grain. They didn’t like to see these things and would take evasive action when a piece of less than perfect wood was used on one of their guitars. The guys in the paint department were, I would guess, told to minimize things like this by covering them up with paint. We’ve all seen Gibsons with dark heels, dark headstock backs and even completely dark necks. There were also stingers-heel and headstock to cover blemishes and marginal wood. The question is usually “…what are they hiding? Is there damage under there? Is it factory or an aftermarket repair?

All good questions. Most 58-68 ES’s have a consistent finish on the backs of the necks and headstocks. Sunburst got a medium brown stain, usually darker at the heel than at the headstock but not always. Plenty of sunbursts got a shot of dark lacquer at the headstock as well. I don’t think they were always trying to hide something but sometimes, I’m sure they were.  The dar finish at the heel was generally cosmetic. The heel was up against the dark edge of the sunburst and they probably felt it was a more natural color transition to spray the heel dark and feather it up the neck. Makes sense. The dark spray at the back of the headstock? Maybe not so natural but still very common. I’ve seen a pretty significant number of ES’s with a dark finish from heel to head. I’m sure some are simply the painter not getting the fade right and just spraying the whole thing to cover his error but I also think that it might be covering bad looking wood. However, unless I start taking the dark

Most reds are completely consistent color-wise. This one has a dark heel, however. Less common than a consistent red. Dark heel and dark headstock is a rare thing on a red 335 but they do exist.

Most reds are completely consistent color-wise. This one has a dark heel, however. Dark heel and dark headstock is a rare thing on a red 335 but they do exist.

finish off these guitars, I’ll probably never know for sure what’s under there. Here, the black light is your friend. If the finish is original, then don’t worry about what’s under there. Bad grain doesn’t make for a bad neck. If an opaque finish doesn’t black light correctly, then you want to do some further investigating.

The red ones are more consistent. The dark heel and headstock are rare, at least in the early ones. You see a few more by the late 60’s. The neck is usually somewhat different looking color-wise than the body but that’s due to the difference in the wood. Mahogany is darker than maple and the red dye reacts differently resulting in a bit more brown color in the neck. The dark heel and headstock seems more common on SG’s although I can’t tell you why. I went through my archives of red ES’s (there are about 100 of them in there) and probably 85% were consistent color-wise. A few had stingers (mostly 355’s) and really just a handful had the dark red finish at the heel and/or headstock.

I think the best approach to a darker neck is to get out the black light. If any funny business shows up, question it and decide whether it’s a big enough issue to make you walk away. And use a little logic. If it looks wrong, it probably is. You can’t get burned if you walk away.

The stinger may or may not be hiding something but they look pretty cool so nobody complains. Usually on a 355 or blondes.

The stinger may or may not be hiding something but they look pretty cool so nobody complains. Usually on a 355 or blondes.

Another Rare One

Sunday, February 7th, 2016
At first glance it's just an ES-140 with a PAF instead of a P90. But look closer and you'll see about a dozen upgrades.

At first glance it’s just an ES-140 with a PAF instead of a P90. But look closer and you’ll see about a dozen upgrades.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the diminutive ES-140. You can find that here. They are fun little guitars, great for travel and far from being some toy. They were, however, fairly low priced “student” grade guitars. They were also popular with women who didn’t want to wrestle a huge ES-175 or other big guitar. None of the manufacturers were making a high end short scale or “3/4” guitar. Gibson made the ES-140 and 3/4 size Les Paul Jrs, ES-125’s and the occasional Les Paul Special (I’ve seen one). Fender had the Duo Sonic and Musicmaster (and later, the short scale Mustang). The other big makers had similar choices but nobody made anything that approached a pro players guitar. Enter this little unit.

Clearly, a custom order, this 1961 ES-140 looks like somebody shrunk  a blonde single pickup ES-350 or 175. While the stock ES-140 had a P90, this one has a PAF. The neck on a stock 140 was unbound mahogany. This one has a three piece flame maple neck with fancy multi ply binding like a Byrdland. The body on a stock 140 has single ply binding. This one has multi ply binding on the body like a 345 (front and back unlike a 345) and the same fancy parallelogram fret markers except that these are real mother of pearl as opposed to celluloid. But wait. There’s more. Check out the star inlays on the bridge base. Pretty cool and definitely custom. Factory Grovers, upgrade headstock overlay and a multi-ply guard as opposed to the single layer tortoise guard on the stock version. Did I mention the bound f-holes? Somebody really wanted a very special little guitar.

pope

Is that the Pope? Sure looks like his hat.

Back in the 60’s, the Gibson folks were very accommodating to professional musicians and well heeled players. They would make you just about anything you could think of. There are, as you’ve probably seen, ES-355’s with the players name inlaid on the fingerboard, snazzy headstock inlays including one that looks suspiciously like the Pope. While Gibson maintains a “custom shop”, they don’t really do true customs there as far as I know. I looked at the Gibson web site and saw no mention of the kind of custom work they did back in the day. They do the “artist” models and a lot of the reissues but it really seems like an excuse to charge more for what is simply a slightly upmarket guitar. Maybe it’s more a factor of the artists not wanting to be quite so ostentatious these days, although I rather doubt it. I’m a huge fan of custom guitars-it speaks to the history of the instrument and of the artist. There are a pretty fair number of custom inlaid guitars out there with the names of some pretty obscure (mostly country) artists. You just don’t see that very much these days.

And more’s the pity. I like personalized guitars. They carry their provenance with them forever and, in a small way, immortalize the original owner. Elvis had one but he didn’t need an inlaid fingerboard to become immortal. I don’t know who JS Peterson was but he thought enough of himself to have his guitar do the job of immortalizing him (on an admittedly small scale). That’s the Pope headstock inlay. Sorry it;’s a fuzzy picture.

JS Peterson-a name that will live on for as long as somebody is playing this guitar. The Custom Shop really was a custom shop back then. That looks like a 64 ES-355.

JS Peterson-a name that will live on for as long as somebody is playing this guitar. The Custom Shop really was a custom shop back then. That looks like a 64 ES-355.

Market Wrap 2015 Part 2

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
Biggest surprise had to be the blonde block neck I found in March. One of only two known. That's rare.

Biggest surprise had to be the blonde block neck I found in March. One of only two known. That’s rare.

Call it the Year of the Blonde. This past year, the value of blonde 335’s started approaching the 2007-2008 level and I’m not surprised at all. A very few stellar examples turned up in 2015 including two stunning birdseye topped late 58’s, a killer flame top Bigsby 59, a 63 blonde block neck and a 59 blonde 355. In a time when great examples are getting really tough to find, it was both astonishing and gratifying to see these stunning guitars see the light of day. I didn’t have all of them (OK, I had two of the ones I mentioned). I wouldn’t be surprised to see top quality blondes passing the $100K mark in 2016.

In general, dot necks were very, very strong in 2015. Part of this is due to the fact that really clean ones are getting scarce. They really didn’t make all that many to begin with and so many are already in the hands of collectors that the few still with their original owners or owner’s families just don’t come up that often. That said, even the player grade 59’s are selling at very strong prices. You aren’t likely to find a 59 under $30K any more. Unbound 58’s continue to be fairly strong but bound 58’s are a standout. Early 60 dot necks are right on the tail of the 59’s. Neck size still counts and that’s what keeps the later 60 and 61 dot necks well below $30K unless they approach mint condition.

That same desire for a big neck has kept most of the block necks from moving very far upward in value in the past year. A red 64 used to be the easiest 335 to sell, especially right after the market corrected but now they seem to have slowed to a crawl. 62 and 63 blocks with PAFs sell better than those without although the asking prices are pretty close if not the same. The bigger neck 64’s still lead the pack in terms of sales but not by all that much. Maybe the era of the big neck is winding down.

Based on the folks who come into my shop and actually play multiple 3×5’s, the consensus is that the huge neck is a great talking point (mine’s bigger than yours) but when it comes down to actually playing the thing, the medium and smaller necks are getting the nod from the buyers. For many, they are simply easier to play. The narrow nut versions are still considered less desirable but “wide flat” and “wide slim” are not the dirty words they once were. This may signal a coming trend that will see late 60 and 61 dot necks bump up to closer to the levels of the 58-59’s. We’ll just have to wait and see. I think many players can adapt to almost anything but there is an odd paradox that still baffles me.

Strat and Tele player typically love the necks on their guitars and there aren’t many that measure any wider than 1 5/8″ at the nut and, with a few notable exceptions, much deeper than .83″ at the first fret. That’s barely 64 territory on a 335 and yet, Strats and Teles keep on selling. The baseball bat and boat necks of the early 50’s are the notable exceptions. Nobody seems to bat an eye at a Strat with a first fret depth of .79″ but put that on a 335 and let the negotiations begin. “Gee, that neck is awfully slim…”

2015 was great fun for me. I found (or lucked into) some very cool guitars. The aforementioned blondes, a black 345, a blonde mono 355, a 59 red dot neck with a Varitone, a killer red 60 and quite a few others. And they came from some surprising places. The blonde 63 block came from somewhere in the north of Scotland (beyond the wall to you Game of Thrones fans). Lots of 335’s made the trip back across the pond from Europe this past year probably because the Euro was so weak and the dollar was so strong. But some still go the other way. Thanks to all the readers who keep me doing this and to all the buyers and sellers who make this business so much fun.

Happy New Year.

66345

First guitar to arrive in 2016 was this absolutely baffling MM ear 66 ES-345 with a ginormous neck. The only rule at Gibson is “No Rules”

Take Off a Buck

Monday, October 26th, 2015

 

This near mint 59 335 had been re-fretted probably because it originally had small frets. It still was a top dollar guitar. And yes, the nickel is a little tarnished on the neck pickup cover. Take off a buck.

This near mint 59 335 had been re-fretted probably because it originally had small frets. It still was a top dollar guitar. And yes, the nickel is a little tarnished on the neck pickup cover. Take off a buck.

There are a lot of things that can be done to a vintage guitar that can trash the collector value. You could start by drilling holes. Holes are the value killer. Schaller holes can knock as much as $10,000 of the value of a guitar although $3000-$4000 is more typical. Bigsby holes are even worse. Coil tap holes are worth thousands each even if they are well filled. I don’t make the rules but, in general, anything that is permanent is big trouble. But there are some exceptions.

Bear in mind that these are my opinions-I don’t make the rules but I have to come up with values for all the guitars I buy and sell and I’m still in business so I must be doing something right. The title is my usual response when somebody complains that there is something wrong with a guitar that just doesn’t make much difference. Let’s say I have a near mint 335 from 59 that has had a saddle or two changed. Take off a buck. The sad reality is that any guitar with a no wire bridge is almost certain to lose a saddle or two over 50 plus years. And the fact that original saddles aren’t that hard to find makes it into a kind of non issue. I’m sure you don’t expect original strings after 50 years, so lower those expectations a little and be aware of the stuff that happens over multiple decades.

For example, tuner tips shrivel up and fall off. If I’m selling any 59 with Klusons, it’s bound to need a set of repro tips. It’s nice to get an original unshrunken set but it’s not likely and the value isn’t going to be affected very much because everybody expects it. And therein lies the key to the “take off a buck” issues.

If everybody expects certain aspects of an instrument to change over time, then it’s really not that much of an issue. Checking in the finish is like that. The likelihood that a 50 plus year old guitar is going to have no finish checking at all is pretty slim. An unchecked guitar might command a premium but a checked guitar doesn’t generally get it’s value lowered just because of checking. Again, everybody expects it. Re-frets are not quite in the same league but I think that any guitar that’s been played can be expected to have a re-fret and I don’t think it does much to the value as long as its done well. Again, a mint guitar with a re-fret might raise an eyebrow but the truth is that many of these guitars are incredibly well cared for even if they are played every day for 50 years. Especially one owner guitars owned by non professionals.

Original solder. This became a big deal when vintage guitars started getting really pricey. I think it was meant to be more of an indicator that your pickups hadn’t been messed with but it turned into a thing. I get asked it all the time-“are the solder joints all original?” The answer is usually yes on ES models because nobody likes to mess with the harnesses on the early ones but sometimes you just can’t tell. I’ve resoldered a bad joint using the original solder and if I’m careful, I don’t think you could tell. What I think is really going on is that buyers want some assurance that the pickups have never been out of the guitar and that they have never been re-wound. I get that and it’s important. But if the ground wire got knocked off and somebody resoldered it? Take off a buck.

Finally, worn hardware. Especially on gold hardware guitars like 345’s and 355’s. And tarnish on the nickel ones. There is so little gold on those tailpieces and pickup covers that most of them were worn by year two. Don’t expect to find perfect gold plating on a vintage guitar. I’ve seen some but it usually means that either the guitar wasn’t played which can present its own set of problems or it means they were replated. A little wear on the gold is pretty much inevitable and I don’t deduct much value although I might add some value in the rare instance that the gold is perfect. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never seen it.

This 60 is as close to mint as it gets and there is still some wear on the pickups covers. Not much but feel free to knock off a buck-aaah what the heck, take off a buck for each one.

This 60 345 is as close to mint as it gets and there is still some wear on the pickups covers. Not much but feel free to knock off a buck-aaah what the heck, take off a buck for each one.

Hot Town (Summer in the City)

Thursday, July 30th, 2015
How hot is it? It ain't the heat, it's the humidity. OK, it's both. Your guitar doesn't like the weather. It can't jump in the pool and it doesn't like going to the beach.

How hot is it? It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity. OK, it’s both. Your guitar doesn’t like the weather. It can’t jump in the pool and it doesn’t like going to the beach.

Most guitar owners are aware of the havoc that low humidity can cause but when it comes to high humidity, most of us are relatively clueless. I live in New England where the Winters are ridiculously cold and the Summers are hot and humid. The relative humidity in my shop in the Winter with the heat blasting can go as low as 10% and that will wreak havoc on any guitar. I keep a humidifier going 24/7 during the Winter that keeps the RH at 40% which seems to be just fine. But what about the really high humidity that is pretty common around here in the Summer?

Right now, it’s 78 degrees and the RH is 85%. That’s pretty nasty but by 10 PM tonight, according to weather.com, it’s going to be 70 degrees and 100%. What does that do to the “A” rack at OK Guitars? You know, the one with all the old 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. This week, it’s got five 59’s, a 60, 2 61’s, a 62, a 64 and a 65. Well, frankly, it doesn’t do much because I keep the A/C on and set at 74 which keeps the relative humidity around 50% on a humid day and 40% on a warm but dry(ish) day. No such thing as dry heat around here. According to the nice folks at Taylor Guitars, the optimum humidity for an acoustic guitar is 40 to 50%. Electric hollow bodies would follow the same rule and, while they are less reactive to humidity, solid and semi hollow guitars do well in that same environment. But there is another interesting factor to consider.

Back in the day, the wood used for guitars was air dried whereas today it is kiln dried. We are an impatient species and air drying simply takes too long, so we use heat to dry the wood before it is made into a guitar. Apparently (and I’m not an expert in wood), kiln dried wood is less stable that air dried wood so it would react more to changes in humidity. As it turns out, I have old guitars and new guitars in my shop and I can compare some of the effects of changes in humidity. Even though I try to keep the humidity stable, it still fluctuates 10 or 15% over the course of days and I do perceive some changes in some of the guitars. The newer guitars seem to be going out of tune-often sharp. I know the tuning pegs can’t turn themselves, so what is happening and why is it only the new ones? What’s happening is the wood is expanding-the same reason your doors won’t close in the Summer but close easily in the Winter. As the wood expands, the strings are drawn tighter and go sharp. And since  kiln dried wood sucks up moisture more than old air dried wood, the newer guitars are more susceptible to expansion. It won’t turn your parlor guitar into a Dreadnought, but it will expand enough to affect the tone and the tuning. Wet wood doesn’t resonate as well as dry wood and some days, your guitar won’t sound as good as it does on others.

So, what do you do in the hot humid weather to keep your guitar in top form? Keeping it an an air conditioned space is a good start. I’m told that keeping it out of the case helps but there are some who disagree with this. If you have to take the guitar in the car, don’t put it in the trunk and don’t leave it in a hot car. That kind of heat can melt the glue joints. If you’re going a long way, keep the A/C humming and keep the direct sunlight off the case. Black Tolex will absorb a lot of heat. I drive a hatchback and it has one of those rollup shades, so I use that to keep the sun off. Or I put the guitar behind the front seat, so the A/C keeps it fairly cool. Finally, when you bring it indoors from a hot car and the case feels hot, don’t open it right away. Let it acclimate if you’re in a much cooler space. Your guitar will thank you.

Hollow bodies like this cool 59 Epi Broadway are more susceptible to the humidity than solids or semis. Keep it cool.

Hollow bodies like this cool 59 Epi Broadway are more susceptible to the humidity than solids or semis. The center block on your 335 actually stabilizes the structure and keeps it from reacting too much. 

String Theory

Friday, June 12th, 2015
I don't know what gauge strings Jimi used but I'm guessing he had tuning problems with that SG Custom. Maybe that's why he ended up playing mostly Strats.

I don’t know what gauge strings Jimi used but I’m guessing he had tuning problems with that SG Custom. Maybe that’s why he ended up playing mostly Strats.

Back in 1958 when the 335 was first built, people were thinner and guitar strings were fatter. I was 6 years old but I was probably 14 by the time folks started playing with really light gauge strings. My first electric guitar (a 63/64 Fender Duo Sonic) came strung with a wound G-string and probably a .12 E string. Maybe even .13. I remember this because I wanted to bend strings and my guitar teacher-who was a jazz guy-said I needed lighter strings (and that he would be happy to sell me a set for $8 (that’s probably $50 in today’s dollars). He was always trying to sell me something. He probably didn’t make much of a living at $5 a lesson back in 64. Anyway, back to the string thing.  Back then 12’s were considered light gauge. Guitar bridges had a range of motion forward and back limited by the depth of the ABR-1. With a wound G string and a set of 12’s, there was plenty of room to get the string lengths right. That means the guitar will be in tune all over the fingerboard (well, more or less but that’s another post).

Now, it’s 1966 and the music is getting more inventive. The Brits have reinterpreted American blues and the Americans have gone psychedelic. Players are bending strings and making guitar noises that have never been heard before. Predictably, it’s easier to bend a light string than a heavy one, so early adopters started seeking out lighter strings for their guitars. I know guys who used banjo strings because they couldn’t get guitar strings light enough for their style of playing. Eventually, the string makers caught on and they started selling 11’s, 10’s, 9’s and eventually 8’s. My recollection is that Ernie Ball was early to the party. I remember buying a set of “slinkies” fairly early on in my gigging days (’67?) and wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Then the fun started. I never quite understood intonation until I understood a bit of physics. So, I was out of tune a lot when I played and it drove me nuts. I was playing a ’62 ES-330 at the time and I couldn’t get it to tune with a plain G string. Odd thing was that I always thought it was the B string that was so far out. Eventually, I figured out that I had to turn around the saddle on the G string and set it as far back as it would go. That got me pretty close but I was playing with 9’s back then. I still can’t get 9’s to work on a vintage ES. 10’s usually require the (.17) G string to be set all the way back with the saddle reversed, so that seems be the limit. Gibson’s change to the Nashville type bridge added enough range for lighter strings but it came kind of late. Very late, actually. Besides, Nashvilles look wrong on a 335 anyway. Not as bad as the “harmonica” bridge they put on SG’s but still…

What I do now is if a buyer wants 9’s on his 335, I put on a set of 9’s but I use a .17 G string. Most 9 sets have a .16 G and that usually won’t intonate. It will be noticeably sharp at the 12th fret and above. You can compensate a bit by going slightly sharp on the B and E but if you have an ear for this kind of stuff, it will drive you up the wall eventually and you’ll spend more time tuning than playing. The best solution? Well, on a vintage ES, 10’s or 11’s are the way to go. I don’t gig any more so I use 11’s. Lead guitar pyrotechnics are for the youngsters anyway. Old guys like me look a little silly trying to be Jimi Hendrix. We looked silly back in 1968 too but we were too young to notice.

Keys to the Kingdom

Friday, February 6th, 2015
Got a Lifton or a Gibson badged case with a lock that looks like this? The right key says 6K11 or H345. Note that the lock even says 6K11 on it. So much for security.

Got a Lifton or a Gibson badged case with a lock that looks like this? The right key says 6K11 or H345. Note that the lock even says 6K11 on it. So much for security.

I’ve written about case keys before but I’ve had some reader questions lately and I’ve got a bit more information than I had back when I first wrote about case keys. First off, let me point out that locking your guitar into its case and thinking it’s more secure that way is kind of dumb. If I’m playing a gig in some dive bar and someone in the bar is bent on stealing my guitar, they will not be deterred. You will never hear this statement: “Oh, crap. I was going to steal this guitar but the case is locked so even if I do, I won’t be able to open it.” You all know it takes about ten seconds to break the lock off a guitar case. I think the only function of a working lock on a vintage case is to keep your kids from messing with your prized instrument while you’re at work or out shoveling the driveway. Your kids are probably going to figure out where you keep the key anyway.

As collectors, having the original key in its little manila envelope is a nice thing, along with the little screwdriver and the other nice case candy items that came with the guitar when it was new in 1958. At least 90% of the original keys are long gone by the time these guitars get to me. Probably closer to 95%. But the good news is that all the locks from a given case maker are opened by the same key. Gibson badged cases and Lifton cases have the same lock and the same key will open them I have brown cases from 58-61 and black cases from 61-68 and all can be opened by an Excelsior key numbered either H345 or 6K11. They appear to be identical. They are pretty easy to find and will usually cost you around $15 or so. That key will open most 335/345/355 cases but not all of them.

Cases for 335’s were made by Stone during the 50’s and early 60’s and Ess and Ess in the mid 60’s and later. The Excelsior keys that fit the Gibson and Lifton cases don’t fit these. Stone cases were widely used in the 50’s and a lot of 58, 59  and 60 335’s have them. They are a really good case but, unlike the Gibson and Lifton, they have one spring type latch for the locking piece and usually the springs get broken. The latches usually still work and the key, if you can find one will still work. The key for some Stone cases will also be an Excelsior (which means “ever upward” in Latin in case you care-and it’s the state motto of New York). The key for the Stone case will have the number 301 on it but it is for the type of latch pictured. There are also brown Stone cases with a different spring latch. I don’t know what key opens these.

By the early 60’s Stone Case Co. (of Brooklyn) was either gone or Gibson stopped using their product. If your case is black, it isn’t a Stone. If it doesn’t have a Gibson badge on the outside or a Lifton badge on the inside, it’s most likely an Ess & Ess (also of Brooklyn). These usually have a label inside up by the headstock (but not always) and they also. like a Stone, have a spring type latch for the lock. The key that I have that works on an Ess & Ess has no writing of any kind and it looks like a generic luggage key. Good luck.

After 1969, the cases changed but some of the same keys still work. I have a black with purple interior 70’s case made by Lifton that uses the same H345 or 6K11 key. I have a grey Epiphone case from the early 60’s that uses it as well. Finally, I have seen 335’s from the 60’s in Victoria cases but I don’t believe that Gibson ever supplied them. They were used extensively by Fender for the Coronado series and they will fit a 335 pretty well. I have no idea what key they used, however. If I find out, I’ll revise this post.

Any early 335 may have a case made by Stone. They have a spring latch-usually broken-with a key that is numbered 301.

Any early 335 may have a case made by Stone. They have a spring latch-usually broken-with a key that is numbered 301. Not all Stone cases used the same lock, however. See the next photo.

Here's the lock on another Stone case from the late 50's or early 60's. I don't have a key that fits this type. If anyone has one, send me a photo and I'll update the post

Here’s the lock on another Stone case from the late 50’s or early 60’s. I don’t have a key that fits this type. If anyone has one, send me a photo and I’ll update the post

If your 335 is mid 60's or late 60's or even 70's, you might have an Ess & Ess case. They key is pretty generic looking with no number. It looks like this if that helps

If your 335 is mid 60’s or late 60’s or even 70’s, you might have an Ess & Ess case. They key is pretty generic looking with no number. It looks like this if that helps

Timeless

Friday, November 21st, 2014
Bad industrial design is notorious for going out of style. This 76 AMC Matador screams 70's. But does a 335 or a Strat scream 50's?

Bad industrial design is notorious for going out of style. This 76 AMC Matador screams 70’s. But does a 335 or a Strat scream 50’s?

This 1958 Ford Edsel might be an even better example because it was designed at the same time as the ES-335. Hmm...which one has held up better all these years.

This 1958 Ford Edsel might be an even better example because it was designed at the same time as the ES-335. Hmm…which one has held up better all these years.

I know a little bit about design. I designed graphics for TV and, while it doesn’t make me an industrial designer, it does give me some insight. The old “form follows function” adage has its limitations especially when appearance is taken into consideration. It’s easy to see the difference when design takes beauty into consideration and goes beyond current trends and pure functionality. There will always be something called “modern” design. A Gibson Explorer from 1958 might have been considered radical, futuristic or just plain bizarre by some. But that same year Cadillac Eldorado (and the 59 which took it even farther) might have elicited the same response. With the Caddy, fins became the “modern” trend and they disappeared as fast as they arrived (and haven’t come back). The Explorer was a resounding flop in 1958 only to find its footing in the 70’s when it appeared that everyone had run out of good ideas. But when we look back at objects that were designed many years ago that remain unchanged, the beauty and the functionality still shine.

Certainly the ES-335 and the Fender Stratocaster are great examples. While both have faded and returned to popularity, they never went away (unlike the Les Paul). Both guitars look as modern today as they did when they were designed in 1958 and 1954 respectively. During the ensuing 60 years or so, guitars have gone through nearly as many trends as the automobile. Pointy Superstrats, oddball shaped Voxes, headless Steinbergers, BC Riches and plenty of others but the ones that endure seem to be the classics. All have had a similar level of functionality but design is what made them distinctive and, in many cases, led to their demise. Let’s go back to the automotive examples. These cars will never come back–From the 50’s–The Edsel, the 60’s The Rambler, the 70’s The AMC Matador, Pacer and Gremlin and the 80’s, the Yugo. Every one of them an industrial design punch line that started as someone’s “modern”  vision. So, when Ted McCarty designed the ES-335, was he going for beauty? Functionality? Modernity? Let’s take a critical look at all three.

There’s little to argue when it comes to beauty. The proportions and symmetry cannot really be improved upon. It is simply a beautiful instrument, the equal of any guitar design before or since. It doesn’t scream “futuristic” like his Flying Vee nor does it strive for stripped down functionality like Leo Fender’s Telecaster.  It is simply what an electric guitar should look like. It is no surprise that it has been in production since the day it was debuted. You can probably argue some functionality issues but not many. The knobs and buttons are where they should be from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint. The bridge and tailpiece are fully functional although you could argue that the ABR-1 needed more travel for intonation with the advent of lighter gauge strings. I will certainly make the point that the harness was way too hard to install and remove through the f-holes. This was addressed later by cutting a big notch out of the center block. So, functionality gets a good score but not perfect. The Stratocaster has its own minor functionality issues but, like the 335, looks as fresh and contemporary as it did in 1954.

OK, so what about modernity? And what is modernity anyway? Look at the automobile at the top of this post. Is there any question in your mind  that it wasn’t modern in 1976? Or look at an early cell phone or an 80’s laptop (especially a PC). I may not be able to describe modernity but I sure know it when I see it. You might argue that things like cell phones and laptops evolved to become modern and that this evolution is where we get our “modern” aesthetic from. Makes sense, I guess but not for guitars (or cars for that matter). Gibson has tried to evolve the electric guitar at least a dozen times in the past 60 years and yet they keep going back to the classic designs of the 50’s and 60’s. And, even when they try oh so hard to be cutting edge, they just seem to recycle those tried and true forms that are as old as I am. That self tuning, computer savvy Firebird X uses a 60’s design as its basis. Their largely ill conceived “Guitar of the Week” series showed some truly questionable aesthetics by doing dumb things like reversing the flying Vee and cutting holes in an Explorer. Truly, the Matador and Pacer of the era.

So, perhaps the guitar stands alone as the one bit of industrial design that cannot be improved on. Or maybe not. We won’t actually know until somebody actually improves on it.

Is this the Gibson equivalent of the AMC Matador? I think its worse because it takes a successful design and ruins it.

Is this the Gibson equivalent of the AMC Matador? I think its worse because it takes a successful design and ruins it.

 

Some people just get it. And he can play too.

Some people just get it. And he can play too.