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Sweet Spot

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Right in the sweet spot for great tone (and cool pickups). A30183 has a thin top, reverse zebras, killer tone. Reverse zebras are crazy rare. I’ve seen 5 of them in twenty years.

I’ve been collecting a database of ES serial numbers and factory order numbers for a few years now, hoping for some new insight to leap out at me. Data is great stuff but without interpretation, it’s just a bunch of numbers. The database covers only 1958 up until early 1961 when they discontinued the use of factory order numbers (inked into the wood inside the treble side f-hole). What I’ve been looking for are patterns and transition points based on approximate dates of manufacture. For example, when are double white and zebra PAFs most prevalent? When do the thin tops end (and start again and end again)? When do the “first rack” 345’s start and end? Stuff like that. I’ve been able to answer a lot of those questions from the 200 or so guitars I’ve catalogued and many of which I’ve owned and played. But there is another question that has been much harder to answer. When were the best 335’s made?

I keep an informal mental list of the top ES guitars that have passed through my hands. It’s mostly about tone but playability is considered nearly equally. A great sounding guitar that doesn’t play well is not a great guitar (until you fix the problems). From that (mental) list of around 20 guitars, a general pattern has emerged and I’ve written about that. Most are 59’s. Not all are 335’s but most of them are. There are also 58’s, a couple from 60, a 62 and a 64. There’s a 355 and a few of 345’s but out of the twenty or so best ones, almost half of them are 59 ES-335’s. This is not a surprise.

58’s are great but there were some issues that keep them from being consistently excellent. The small frets are the obvious issue-easy to fix but nobody wants to do a fret job before it’s necessary. The shallow neck angle is not a bad thing. When the bridge sits right on the top, it can improve the tone. More mass in contact with the body means more sound being transmitted to the wood. Some 58’s have such a shallow neck angle-especially the earliest ones-that a low profile bridge was necessary. That bridge always collapses after a while and is usually replaced with a shaved full size ABR-1. The neck angle was fixed in 59. The little frets were fixed in 59. But one of the elements of the 58 that was a problem for Gibson was a factor in the great tone of so many 58’s. That was the thin top. Three plies instead of four. More resonance. More fragile. The tops were cracking around the output jack and folks were not happy about that. The four ply top fixed that but, in my opinion, affected the tone in a negative way. That doesn’t mean that thicker top 335’s sound bad. Many of the best 335’s in the database have the thicker top. It’s a small factor. So, by 59, all the problems appeared to have been addressed and many Gibson owners feel that 59 is THE year and I agree.

Early 59’s have a very large neck profile-.88″ to .93″ at the first fret and a full inch or more at the 12th. The profile gets progressively thinner (front to back-not the nut) as the year goes on. By the Summer, the neck has slimmed down on many 59’s but not by much. First fret down to .85 to .87″ and the 12th down to around .97″ By the Fall, the neck slimmed down a bit more to what we call a “transitional” neck. This is a wonderful profile- not too fat and not too thin for most folks. This profile continues well into 1960 and is very popular among players. First fret is usually around .83″ and the 12th around .94″.

So, where is this “sweet spot”. OK, it’s my opinion but seeing as I’ve played more 335’s than you have, it’s based on real experience. Beginning in late May of 1959, for reasons that are unclear to me, a fair number of thin top 59’s were shipped. Somewhere around serial number A30100, these thin top 335’s begin to appear. Many have a 58 FON (T prefix) but some have a 59 FON. They seem to continue until around serial number A30360. Not all the 335’s in this range have thin tops-probably less than half of them, so it’s not a lot of guitars. Wait. It gets better. Many of these have double white or zebra PAFs. These are often slightly overwound with readings from 8K to 9K (you can find my theory about this in an earlier post). These thin top 335’s line up almost perfectly with the period when double white and zebra PAFs were most prevalent on 335’s (gold hardware double whites last well into 1960).

There are lots of amazing 59’s that don’t fall into this period (from early late May to mid June). In fact, the best 335 I’ve ever played is a very late 58 but in this small cluster of 59’s, there are two of my top ten and four of my top twenty. If that ain’t a sweet spot, I don’t know what is. As always, tone is really subjective so your impressions may not line up with mine. To be honest, I’ve never played a bad 59 and the difference between a good vintage 335 and a great one is pretty small. Hair splitting, really. And to make a further point, there are a few 60 335’s that have thin tops (I’ve had two and I know of two more). One of them in in my top ten as well.

The takeaway here should be twofold. First, 59 335’s are consistently excellent but so are most 58’s and many 60’s. There are killer 61-64’s too. Second, if you have the opportunity to buy a 59 in the A30100 to A30360 range, ask the seller to look at the top. If it’s three plies rather than four, it just might be the best guitar you ever played. The double whites are just a bonus if you’re lucky.

A30248. Double whites, thin top. The FON for this 1959 ES-335 is from 1958. No idea what the guitar was doing from late 58 when construction began until mid 59 when it finally shipped. The parts are from 59, so it must have sat somewhere as an uncompleted husk. This is in the top ten.

Dots and Blocks and Parallelograms (Oh my)

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Block inlays on a 335 will curl up, turn brown and fall out eventually. Most replacement pre cut inlays are very white and won’t match the ones that aren’t damaged. You can still get real celluloid but I’ve only seen it pre cut for Les Pauls.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that I’ve written very little about the inlays in the ES line. I’m not sure how interesting a little piece of plastic (or other material) is to most of you but if it’s stuck into the fingerboard of an old Gibson, it’s pretty interesting to me. I find it noteworthy that this teeny little detail is the primary descriptor for 335’s. Most folks, if you ask about their vintage 335 will tell you what they have by describing the inlays. “I have 59 dot neck…” “I have a 62 block neck…” I can’t think of another guitar that is described in that manner. On the other hand, nobody says “I have a parallelogram 345…” perhaps because all of them are that way.

Typically, dot markers were used for the least expensive guitars by most manufacturers. Fender was notorious for taking the cheap way out and used dot markers in all of their guitars in the 50’s and well into the 60’s. Lower line builders like Harmony and Hagström used dots on nearly their entire lines as well. When Gibson introduced the 335 in 1958, it was considered (by Gibson) to be the bottom of a new line of semi hollow guitars. True to form, the 1958 335 got dots. The 1958 355 was next and got large block markers and when the 345 was launched in the Spring of 1959, it got something in between-the twin parallelograms that it still features. But, the 335 was not an inexpensive guitar by anyone’s calculations at the time. It was actually a rather expensive guitar when compared to its closest competitors. A 58 Stratocaster was around $200. A 58 335 was more than half again higher at $335. Apparently, there were complaints by consumers. I have no hard evidence of this; it’s one of those things that everyone seems to know. By the Spring of 62, the dots were gone, replaced by the small block markers we are all familiar with.

Another interesting aspect of the inlays in the ES line is the material. The dots, small blocks and parallelograms were all made out of the same celluloid material that was imported from Italy. The 355 markers were real mother of pearl (nacre) usually made from oyster shells. If you research other Gibsons from the era, you will find that the celluloid (plastic) inlays were ubiquitous from the Melody Makers to the Les Paul Standard. Mother of pearl was found only in the really high line stuff like Les Paul Customs and the pricey arch tops. Abalone shows up in Gibson/Epiphone Sheratons.

The problem with celluloid is that it deteriorates, especially in an oxygen starved environment (like a closed case). Shrinkage is the usual issue with inlays. The dots don’t really shrink much but the blocks (on a 335, not a 355) can curl up and fall out. They will also turn a pretty ugly brown color. The only solution to shrunken, curled inlays is to replace them. You can glue them back down if they aren’t too bad but they will eventually come back up. Celluloid doesn’t stick very well to modern glues. Gibson changed the formula for the plastic blocks in the mid 60’s and the problem, to a large extent, went away. The later blocks are brighter, smoother and more “toilet seat” looking. The 345 parallelograms will also shrink and fall out but they seem a bit more stable than the small blocks. The 355 inlays, being natural mother of pearl, don’t shrink, curl or come undone. I’ve never seen a 355 with a damaged inlay.

If you have a 335 with damaged, discolored or shrunken inlays, you can still get the proper material from Historic Makeovers (Retrospec) but they only sell Les Paul inlays, so you may need to do a little surgery. I suggest only replacing the inlays that are damaged or curled. You can get 335 inlays that are pre-cut but they won’t be the same plastic as the ones that are there now. Even if you get the real celluloid plastic, there is a pretty good chance that it won’t match the vintage ones due to decades of wear, oxidation and sweat. If your inlays are your biggest issue, then you don’t have big issues.

355 inlays stay the same and will do so over the course of the next few thousand years. Mother of Pearl is about as stable as anything on earth. 345 inlays are the same material as 335 blocks and they will shrink and turn brown but they don’t generally fall out. No idea why.

When is a Gibson not a Gibson?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Not a Gibson but still, a Gibson. This is a 59 Sheraton-one of only 3 made. NY pickups, big vee neck, Frequensator tailpiece and the coolest guitar I’ve ever owned.

There are two answers to this question. The obvious one is “when it’s a Chinese fake.” The other one, if you know your guitar history isn’t that hard either-when it’s an 59-69 Epiphone. OK, go ahead and argue that the post ’69 Epiphone are still Gibsons but we all know they really aren’t. Gibson owns Epiphone but the folks who make modern Gibsons don’t make Epiphones. They are made all over Asia. They can be very nice guitars but that’s a different post. From 59-69 (more or less), Epiphone were made in Kalamazoo by the same folks, on the same assembly line, from mostly the same materials as your favorite Gibson models of the day. And they are wonderful guitars.

I really should write about the solid bodies at some point but since this blog is really about semi hollows, I’ll stick to them for now. Today, since I just got another one, I’ll talk about the Sheraton. The top of the Epiphone semi hollow line and the equivalent of the ES-355 (again, more or less). The Sheraton model didn’t exist before the sale of the Epiphone company to Gibson in, I believe, late 1957. In fact, nearly every “Gibson Epiphone” was a new model derived from an existing Gibson model. Epiphone was meant to be a lower line of guitars from the Gibsons but you would barely know that-the prices were pretty close and the specs were, other than the pickups, nearly identical. 

The Sheraton is a very fancy guitar. The inlay are much more intricate than the big blocks of a 355. The headstock inlay is pretty fancy as well. While nearly all 355’s were shipped with a Bigsby, the Sheraton was shipped with either a “Frequensator” trapeze or a “Trem-o-tone” vibrato tailpiece. The former is quite good, although the concept is a little weird. The Trem-o-tone looks pretty cool but it really doesn’t work very well. So, look for the frequensator if you are buying.

The Sheraton went through, essentially, three iterations before Epiphone was moved to Japan. The first is my favorite but all three are really great guitars if you can find them. The production numbers were really low. The first version had the best neck I’ve ever played on any guitar, ever. It’s a 5 piece with a fairly hard vee with good depth and a width close to 1 3/4″. These necks were leftovers from the old Epiphone NY factory and Gibson used them until they were gone (by 1961 or so). The fancy abalone and MOP inlays stayed for the duration however. The 59’s and most of the 60’s had what are known as NY pickups which were also a leftover part from Epiphone. They are, contrary to what you might read elsewhere, single coils, not mini hums. Great pickups but not real screamers. They are relatively low output and very sweet and musical.

1962 was a year of considerable change for the Sheraton. While the “short” headstock was yet to be extended, the neck lost 5 piece construction (the vee profile was gone by 61) and was contoured, more or less, like the Gibsons of the era-fairly wide (1 11/16″) and fairly slim (.82 or so). The NY pickup was gone and replaced by PAF mini hum buckers. These are excellent pickups but are more aggressive than the old ones and the guitar is rather a different animal. There are a few out there that were routed for the NY pickups but were fitted with mini hums and goof rings. Always plan ahead.

By 64, the Sheraton had acquired the long headstock that is still associated with the brand. The necks became slimmer still and the nut width was slimmed down to 1 9/16″. There are 64’s and 65’s and maybe even some 66’s with wider nuts-the Sheraton was such a low volume guitar that a 64 build could have been shipped as late as 66. Still fancy though right up to the end of the line in late 68. You might find one shipped as a 69 but that’s the year the brand was shipped off to Asia to become what it is today.

Vintage Sheratons are priced much lower than Gibson and are a real bargain in a market where bargains are rare. There aren’t a lot of them, so it might take some time for one to pop up for sale. I prefer the early ones but I’ve never played one I didn’t like. Blondes are stupid rare-you can count the 59’s and 60’s on one hand. You can count the 61-63’s on two hands and a foot. But even the rarest of the blondes can be had for under $30K. Compare that to a blonde 335 for as much as 4 times that. Or compare it to a blonde 355 which is early nonexistent. I’ve owned one. I know of just three more. The price of a blonde 355 can break into 6 figures with ease. Can’t find a blonde? A sunburst Sheraton is more common and usually priced around 30% lower than a blonde. Red ones are rare. 

61 and 62 Sheratons.

Something Completely Different

Saturday, November 16th, 2019
My favorite single would be something like this. An early Gibson made Epiphone Coronet with a P90. The earlier ones with the slab body and the NY single coils are really good too,

I’ve been writing about Gibson’s ES guitars for more than ten years now. That’s a long time to write about one pretty narrow topic, so it’s often a struggle to come up with new and interesting material. Usually, I get my inspiration from a particular guitar that I’ve bought or taken in trade that has something unusual about it. For this post, I will stay with that and write about something completely different.

I recently bought a bunch of gear from the estate of Walter Becker. While I’m not in the business of selling celebrity guitars, I was a big Steely Dan fan and I’m happy to own some of his gear. I was bidding on one of his Epiphone Coronets and was outbid, so I bid on something very similar. It is a guitar called a Frye and it’s, essentially, a copy of a late 50’s Epiphone Coronet with a single hum bucker at the bridge. And that brings me to my topic. One pickup guitars.

When I was just getting started as a player (age 11 in 1964), one pickup guitars were low priced beginner guitars. Real guitars had at least two and, better still, three pickups. I had a number of friends growing up that were a bit less well off than I was and couldn’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a guitar. My first electric was a Duo Sonic costing my father $159 with the amp (64 Princeton-no reverb). My friends were playing one pickup Supros, Teiscos, Musicmasters and hoping to make enough money for a Stratocaster. A Stratocaster was $200 (at Manny’s in NYC) at the time and a gig paid $50 (for 4 or 5 guys). So that Strat took awhile to acquire.

Fast forward 55 years and I’ve come to really appreciate single pickup guitars. There are a few reasons to consider a single pickup guitar as part of your arsenal. Simplicity is certainly a factor. I tend to stay on the bridge pickup most of the time anyway, so it was easy for me to pick up a Coronet and do most of what I do on a two pickup guitar. Granted, the rhythm playing tones are a bit limited-there’s only so much you can do with the tone control and the amp but on certain one pickup guitars, I can manage quite well. But wait, there’s more. A big part of what guitar players look for in a guitar is sustain. The longer your strings vibrate, the better the sustain, right? So, what makes the string stop vibrating? Well part of it is the pull of the magnets on the strings. With two pickups, you have two magnets affecting string vibration. With one pickup, that force is cut in half. And it makes a difference.

If you can, play an Esquire side by side with a Telecaster with the bridge pickup engaged. They are not the same. Close but not the same. It’s subtle but it’s there. I’ve done the same thing with an Epiphone Coronet and an early Epiphone Wilshire (both P90 guitars). You get just a little more sustain. With an Esquire, you get an added bonus-the lead position on an Esquire bypasses the tone control and goes straight to the jack, bypassing a pots worth of resistance which, again, is subtle but it’s there. I’m not an engineer so I can’t tell why this gets you a little extra oomph but it does.

There are lots of really great single pickup guitars out there both vintage and contemporary. I think an important factor is the position of the pickup. The single pickup 330 has it in the middle which is strange. A Musicmaster has it at the neck which is, I think, a negative. Go for one with a single bridge pickup. Firebird I, Esquire, Coronet, LP Jr are my favorites. The Walter Becker guitar has a single hum bucker at the bridge and is a monster guitar. I couldn’t put it down. If there was ever two pickup snobbery afoot, it is gone now. I’d happily bring a Coronet or an Esquire on a gig (and I never gigged with more than one 6 string on stage).

The Walter Becker Frye Coronet with another great single-a ’55 Esquire.

Wait. Weight (Don’t Tell Me)

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Early block neck 335’s (62-63) with the cut center block seem to be the lightest of the ES models (unless you count the full hollow 330). The lightest of them are just over 7 lbs. Thin top 58’s and 59’s can get pretty close to 7 lbs as well. By 64 and later, the body got thicker by a fraction of an inch and these guitars tend to hover around 8 to 8.5 pounds. There are always exceptions because the moisture content of the wood is a big factor and it varies wildly.

What’s the most frequent question I get about a guitar that I’m selling? Not just ES guitars but just about every guitar. Is it “How does it sound?” How does it play?” “Is the neck straight and does the truss rod work?” Nope. These are all very important questions but they aren’t the questions I get first. Maybe it’s because so many of my buyers are over 50. Maybe it’s because the Les Paul guys are so obsessed with it. It’s “How much does it weigh?” Seem odd to you? It sure seems odd to me. Yes, if your playing 4 hour gigs and you have a bad back or shoulder, a lighter guitar is going to make a difference. The question is one of balance. Not just the balance of the guitar (“does it dive?”) but of the qualities that make a guitar the right guitar for you.

I would argue that the weight of the guitar has very little to do with the tone with most guitars. After all, most electrics are a solid slab of wood with a neck attached. Some wood is more resonant than other wood but it isn’t directly tied to weight. I could argue that moisture content and weight are related and that moisture content and resonance are related but we’re talking ounces here. Most folks don’t care off the guitar is 8 lbs 2 ounces or 8 lbs 12 ounces. They care if it’s over 8 lbs or under 8 lbs. Or over 9 lbs or under 9 lbs. The round numbers seem to be the important ones with most buyers (especially the Les Paul guys). But, seeing as I’m not a Les Paul blog, I’m going to leave the Les Paul guys alone.

ES-335’s fall into a fairly narrow range as far as weight goes. We’ll leave the stereo guitars (345’s and some 355’s) out of the mix-the Varitone circuit weighs about 10 ounces. We’ll leave out Bigsby’s for the moment as well-they weigh around 13 ounces. A stop tail 335 will average around 7 lbs 12 ounces. Early ones tend to be a bit lighter and later ones bit heavier. There are variations in the specs that have an effect on this and those variations actually do affect the tone but it’s the design elements that make the difference and not the actual weight. Let me explain.

At some point in 1961, they started cutting a section out of the center block to make the installation of the harness easier. They did it on some guitars but not all of them. I’ve never figured out why. Most 61’s don’t have the cutout. Most 64’s do. Nearly all 65’s do. Maybe a third of the 62’s have the cut block. All 345’s have it to accommodate the VT choke. It knocks a few ounces off the weight but it also makes the guitar slightly more resonant. Whether that translates to better tone is questionable. The body depth is another factor. A 64 335 averages about 1.78″ deep. A 58 averages 1.6″ or so. A .2 difference will again be ounces but it does add up. The top on a 58 and some 59’s is thinner by 25% or so. That is a few ounces more. The body depth has very little effect on tone, if any. The thin top has quite a lot. My favorite 335’s have the thin top (and they also have the uncut center block).

The range, as I said earlier, is pretty narrow. The lightest 335 I’ve had weighed 7 lbs 1 ounce. I believe it was a 62 with a cut center block. The heaviest was just a hair under 9 lbs but that’s a bit of an outlier. The vast majority weigh between 7.5 lbs and 8 lbs. Nobody complains about the weight of a 335 if it falls at 8 lbs or below.

At the other end of the scale would be a Bigsby equipped ES-345 with its stereo Varitone circuit intact. Those two items add well over a pound to the overall weight. They still generally come in under 9 lbs but by the mid 60’s, a 9 lb plus 345 is certainly possible. You can always lighten the load by removing the Bigsby – usually around 13 ounces and the Varitone -around 10 ounces. Add back the weight of the stop tail and studs and you’re still saving nearly a pound and a quarter.

Not My Market

Friday, October 18th, 2019
The David Gilmour black Strat was bought at auction for $3.975 Million by a very wealthy fan and NFL team owner named Jim Irsay. Why would anyone pay nearly $4M for a modified 69 Stratocaster? Because he can.

My shop (OK Guitars) is located in Kent, Connecticut; a little tourist centric town 85 miles from New York City. So, I get a lot of tourists who come in with no knowledge or interest in guitars. The most often asked question from this crowd? “Were any of these owned by somebody famous?” The answer is usually “no.” There has been a whole lot of interest in celebrity guitars lately. It must be the one percenters because the prices have been, frankly, insane. The Gilmour auction was a real good example. I get the allure of an instrument played by somebody famous, especially somebody you admire. Would I love to have one of George’s guitars (I’ll take the 345 if anybody knows where it is)? You bet I would but I’m pretty sure I won’t be paying a million (or $4 million) for it. It’s out of my league for sure and I think it’s a little excessive.

When Clapton’s ’64 335 sold for $800K and change, we were all a bit surprised that provenance alone could thrust a $14,000 guitar (at the time) to that lofty figure. I thought, “oh, it’s the Guitar Center guys-they’re going to replicate it and sell copies…” which they did (and they were great by the way). Then, I attended the next Clapton auction and saw crappy little $200 Fender practice amps-that he may or may not have actually used-sell for thousands of dollars. It became clear to me that this was a market that had some real potential. But it’s not my market.

My market is players and player/collectors. Most are amateur players, many are well heeled professional people-doctors and lawyers and Wall Street types and a few rock stars and more than a few lesser known pro players. One thing it isn’t is billionaire fans. My wealthier clients are not buying million dollar guitars. I don’t think a lot of rock stars are buying them either. That $3.975 million black Strat is probably not going to get played much (if at all). It’s simply a different crowd of buyers.

I would wager that someone who can easily afford to spend a million or four million bucks on a guitar probably doesn’t much care about the potential investment value. He simply wants to own it and its attached bragging rights. (I’d love to put Lennon’s J160-E in a big ol’ glass case in my shop but I didn’t have $1.2M on hand that day). I would also wager that it isn’t an investment at all. I’m going to take some heat for this but in 20 years, who, in the next generation of billionaires, is going to care that much about Pink Floyd (and I like Pink Floyd). Most kids don’t know who David Gilmour is. They know who the Beatles are and kids a dozen generations from now will know who the Beatles were but Pink Floyd? Maybe not so much.

So, what’s my point here? Go back and look at the title of the post. I deal in instruments, not memorabilia. I deal in nostalgia for sure but not in hero worship (unless you’re a Beatle). If you can afford the price of admission, knock yourself out. Buy cool stuff that was owned by famous people. I recently bid on Don Everly’s black ’63 Gibson J-180 “Everly Brothers” guitar. I bailed out at $25K because, much as I like Phil and Don, I don’t like them that much. I think it sold for around $26K, so it was me and one other bidder. I wish I had gotten it but it didn’t break my heart either. I’m bidding on a couple of Walter Becker’s guitars this week. I like Steely Dan a lot but I won’t be spending $4 million. I don’t have $4 million and I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to clone a rock star from the DNA left on the frets. But if I could, I’d trade you two David Gilmours for a Walter Becker.

Phil and Don with their signature guitars. I’m not sure why this one (or one like it) is worth $26K while the Gilmour black Strat is worth $4M. I’d rather have Don’s guitar.

In•to•na•tion (and the Little Holes You Can’t See)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

Looks like a near mint 62 that will fetch top dollar from the most discriminating collector, right? Nope. It seems there was a problem with the intonation and a small but unfortunate mod was done. Can’t see it, can you.

Intonation is one of those technical things that a lot of guitar players are aware of but don’t entirely understand. To be truthful, I don’t entirely understand the physics behind it but I do understand how to deal with it. Rather than explain the physics (after all, this isn’t a blog for guitar techs), I’ll try to explain how to deal with it on your ES guitar and warn you about some of the idiosyncrasies regarding intonation of early 335’s.

So, you tune your guitar perfectly with open strings using your handy little clip on tuner or your phone app. It’s dead on. But when you play a chord at the the 8th fret, something doesn’t sound right. Probably your intonation isn’t properly set up. Unlike a violin where you put your finger anywhere on the string to get the note you want to play, the guitar was frets which dictate where the note you’re trying play is located on the fingerboard. The trouble is that not all strings act the same way due to differences in thickness and other factors. The actual length of the vibrating string dictates what note (and whether its in tune or flat or sharp) will play at any given fret. So, if your string length isn’t exactly right, your guitar will be out of tune in some places but not in others. Yikes.

You’ll note that most electric guitars have bridges that have some degree of adjustment forward and back-some for each string, like an ABR-1 and some more generally like a wrap tail. Setting the intonation is really easy on an ABR-1, so I’ll give you the two sentence “how to” and then talk about the weird stuff that goes on with 335’s which is why you’re reading this in the first place. Play the open string. Tune it. Play the string at the 12th fret. If it’s flat turn the little screw that moves the saddles so that the saddle moves toward the nut, shortening the string. Move it until it’s in tune at the twelfth fret (and still in tune when played open). If it’s sharp, turn the screw so the saddle moves away from the nut, lengthening the string. Once its in tune at both the 12th fret and open, you’re done with that string. Do that for all six strings and you’re done.

But there’s sometimes a problem. What if you run out of room to move the saddle and the string is still sharp (or flat) at the 12th fret? This is a really common problem on 335’s and it’s almost always the G string. Why is that? Well, if you’re as old as I am and you were playing guitar back in the early to mid 60’s, you might remember that, back then, the G string was always wound. Now, on electrics, it’s nearly always plain. So, when these wonderful “Golden Era” guitars were made, they were designed to use a wound G string. Remember, I mentioned that the differences in string thickness affect intonation? A plain G is way thinner than a wound G and the bridge placement and saddle travel of a 50’s or 60’s 335 didn’t anticipate the plain G and often, that string simply won’t intonate. There are solutions. Look at the saddle itself. Usually the flat side of the saddle faces the fingerboard but that limits the rearward travel of the saddle (the issue is always that the G is sharp at the 12th fret). Take the saddle out and flip it around so the flat side faces away from the fingerboard. That will allow you to jam the saddle flat up against the back side of the bridge getting you that last bit of string length you need to intonate that G string. Probably 90% of the 335’s in my shop have the G saddle all the way back and turned around. It works. But this brings up an issue that comes up pretty frequently.

A reasonable solution to the intonation problem was to simply move the bridge posts back. By drilling a couple of new holes for the posts maybe an eighth of an inch back from where they are, you could fix the problem forever. In the era of multi thousand dollar vintage guitars, that’s a terrible idea even if the extra holes are hidden by the thumbwheels. Extra holes are worth as much $1000 each off the value of your vintage 335. But back when a 59 335 was just an old guitar, it made perfect sense and there are quite a few vintage 335’s with this mod. The thing is, you can’t see the holes unless you take the thumbwheel off or at least unscrew it part way. It’s the issue that almost never gets disclosed because nobody notices it until long after the approval period has ended. Like years after. After all, who takes off the thumbwheels? There’s no reason to for regular maintenance and adjustment. Well, I’ll tell you who takes off thumbwheels…I do and now you do. You don’t want to discover two holes in the top of your $40,000 vintage ’59 years after you bought it. Worse, you don’t want the guy who you just sold it to for $40,000 to discover it and send it back to you. This just happened to a client of mine who bought a 62 335 from a very reputable dealer. The client checked but the dealer didn’t. He, of course, returned the guitar and the dealer was embarrassed by the error of omission. If he had discovered it a year later, would the dealer have taken it back? If I missed it, I would but I can’t speak for other dealers. Bottom line. Look under the thumbwheels when you get the guitar. It takes a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did.

They don’t show when the bridge is in place and they don’t show when the bridge is off. You have to take off the thumbwheels to see them. No big deal? If you’re paying top dollar for a mint or near mint guitar, just knowing the holes are there will drive you batty. Still was a great guitar but a couple of grand came off the price. Intonated real well too.

Build Your Collection II

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The Nigel Tufnel collection goes to eleven (that’s one louder than ten). Note which guitar seems to have an elevated position among the others. Sure looks like a blonde dot neck.

OK, so the idea of a guitar collection appeals to you and you’d like to get started. So, let’s get started. There are lot of approaches to collecting and each has its charms. A good place to start is to look at what you already have. Got a nice old Stratocaster from, say, 1961? Well, you could start filling the years or filling in the finishes or filling in the types. A nice Strat collection would have to include a maple board and a slab board, maybe a later curve board with grey bottom pickups and maybe a custom color or two. If you really have a Strat obsession, maybe one from each year from 54 to 65. Build slowly and look for great examples. That’s a dozen good years and with a bit of patience, you could build a wonderful collection that is manageable and impressive. Not cheap but vintage collecting of any kind seldom is. Strats too expensive? Collect Jazzmasters or Jaguars.

But maybe you feel like your collection only needs one Stratocaster. So, instead of collecting just one model, collect the classics. Most folks would want a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, a Telecaster or Esquire, a 335, a Martin acoustic and maybe a great 12 string like a Ricky and a Fender bass. Once you’ve done that, you can build on that adding perhaps variations of your chosen “classics”. A Les Paul Custom to go with your Standard. A slab board Strat to go with your maple board. A white guard Esquire to go with your black guard Tele. A 345 or 355 to match your 335 and so on. And you don’t have to stop there. A Junior and a Special. A hard tail and a custom color. There is no end to how you can expand your “classics” collection. It will, as long as you have space and can afford it (and your wife or husband doesn’t divorce you), take on a life of its own.

Or maybe a different approach. Folks born in the 50’s and 60’s love to do birth year guitars. It’s not terribly appealing to me since I pre-date most of the good stuff. My ’52 collection would be awfully dull. I’d have a nice Telecaster and maybe an L5. But if you were lucky enough to be born in a truly golden year like 59 or 60, you could do a spectacular collection. But I’m being a bit of a snob. I know of a collector who has a wonderful collection of 60’s Japanese imports. Teiscos, St. Georges, Kents and Guyatones make for an interesting and fun collection. Collecting a single brand can be rewarding as well especially if your favorite is something from Gretsch or Guild. These can be great guitars and there’s a great deal of diversity within the brand. Neither brand fetches prices at the Fender and Gibson levels and you can build a very comprehensive collection for relatively little money. Of course, if one of your goals is investment, you might want to reconsider your Guild collection. They have not shown much appreciation over the years.

How about oddball European guitars? Geddy Lee’s wonderful bass collection has a load of Italian Wandres which are as weird as they come. Or the British Burns’ or even the Czech Futuramas (Resonet). I think a collection of 60’s Vox guitars would be great-they made about a zillion models-some English, some Italian (Eko). Or maybe you’re a bit younger and have a thing for 80’s guitars. There are some seriously collectible 80’s guitars that haven’t quite reached vintage status. BC Rich, Hamer, all those “Superstrats” and even 80’s Gibson and Fenders are all still very affordable. They don’t have to be great guitars. They just have to be interesting and appealing (to you).

Bottom line: Buy what appeals to you. Don’t try to anticipate which guitar will be the next burst. There probably isn’t a “next burst”. And don’t get too caught up in the investment aspect. That’s not where the fun is. If you buy guitars that you love (and will play) then even if you break even after many years, you will have had all the positive feelings that go along with creating and owning a personal collection. Collecting is an active hobby and active hobbies keep you engaged and will make you a happier person. Even though I’m not a collector, I still feel like it’s Christmas morning every time a new guitar shows up for me to unpack. It simply never gets old.

Joe Bonamassa has a pretty serious collection and perhaps no one has been more vocal about the joys of collecting than Joe. You can see that he leans toward the classics and seems to like Les Pauls a lot. Collecting amps is almost as much fun as collecting guitars.

Build Your Collection I

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

Scott Chinery’s collection was broad, diverse and famous. Just goes to show you don’t have to be a rock star to curate a great collection. Having deep pockets helps, however and Mr. Chinery was not a poor man. His collection consisted of over 1000 guitars including a collection of blue guitars that he had built by well known luthiers. His death in 2000 broke up one of the finest collections in the world. I’ve owned three of them (so far). He also owned the Batmobile.

I’ve been asked to sell most of a very important guitar collection. I was struck by the breadth and depth of the collected guitars and I took the time to talk to the owner about how a major collection like this gets put together. As a dealer, I do something similar. I don’t simply buy guitars that will turn a profit. I buy guitars that fill the broad needs of my clientele. But buying a guitar that is to be your main player is not the same as starting (or building) a collection.

A collection of any kind whether it’s guitars, classic automobiles, watches, art or any of a thousand other things serves a few purposes. Some are practical or at least relatively so. You can get to the grocery store in your 1937 Bugatti Type 57 but thank god you don’t have to. You can tell time with your rose gold Patek Nautilus. You can play your 59 Les Paul burst. But the limiting factor is usually that you can only use one at a time. OK, you could wear a dozen watches at once and keep track of time in twelve different time zones but I think you might be better served to just do the math. You get the point. But a collection goes way beyond practicality.

A collection is, often, an investment. I have made the point that you can’t play a song on your stock certificates. Guitars have been a generally good performer over the past two decades with only one real correction in 2008 when Wall Street greed broke the economy. There are ups and downs for sure but the general trend has been up. A collection also is a leisure activity that can border on obsession. Call it that or call it passion-it’s the same thing and that makes us happier than we might be without it. And it doesn’t matter if your collection is worth $5000 or $5 million. You get a high level of enjoyment simply knowing you have it and by spending time looking for the next acquisition. That is where being a dealer intersects with being a collector. While I don’t have a permanent collection, I seek out guitars the same way a collector does. I want the best possible examples and I want the best years and models.

That goes to the heart of collecting. I don’t know a single collector who seeks out the least expensive player grade guitars he can find. Players do that but serious collectors are much more discriminating. Playability and tone are everything to a player but just two elements of many to a collector. Originality, condition, rarity, provenance and beauty each play a significant role. The price does too but to a much lesser extent than those previously mentioned. Nobody wants to overpay but most collectors don’t want to have to explain the issues when it comes time to sell. And they don’t want to open the case and see those issues every time they do so. Put simply, most collectors want a great example of a great guitar. And once they have that, they want another great example perhaps in a different finish or a different year. That’s where the collection building process becomes important. Building a great collection isn’t randomly buying cool guitars that you like. An important collection is focussed, thematic and reflects the personality of its owner. The next post will address the various ways to curate a great collection that will make you happy (or at least happier), proud, wealthier (maybe) and probably drive your wife (or husband) nuts.

On the other hand, being a rock star doesn’t hurt either. Some of the largest collections belong to well known rockers. Keith Richards, Rick Nielson, Jimmy Page and, of course, Nigel Tufnel all have large important collections. Geddy Lee has perhaps the most important bass collection in the world. It is wildly diverse and yet focussed. Here is Geddy and me and 10 per cent of the red 60 ES-335’s ever made. Do yourself a favor and buy his bass book. It is beautifully done and worth the money.

Don’t Get No Respect. The ES-345

Sunday, August 25th, 2019
Here’s a photo you won’t find anywhere else. All 59 ES-345’s. In 59, they shipped 446 sunbursts, 32 blondes, 9 reds and 5 blacks. There could be more reds and blacks but they haven’t surfaced yet. There are at least two Argentine Gray ones (two tone sunburst).

It was 1959, arguably the pinnacle of Gibson’s guitar making empire. The ES (Electric Spanish) line had been well established and the thin bodied semi hollow entrants into the line had already established a respectable level of popularity. The ES-335 hit the scene in April of 1958 and, while not wildly successful out of the starting blocks, certainly merited note among the top brass at Gibson as a moderate success. The gilded ES-355, then only available in mono, showed signs of becoming a success as well as the calendar turned over and 1959 began.

It seems that when there are three models in a lineup, the middle one suffers. Automobile lines are a good indicator. The top of the line is great, the bottom of the line is you get what you pay for and the middle is neither. Same with middle children (I am one-4th out of 9). I remember an old aphorism that said “go first class or third class. Never go second class.” I think it was the author John Barth who came up with that and I actually took it to heart as a twenty something and have followed the wisdom of that statement ever since. I could get into why but it’s actually kind of irrelevant here. This is about the middle child in the ES semi hollow lineup, my old favorite, the ES-345.

If the 335 and the 355 didn’t exist, the 345 would be positively revered by guitarists. OK, the stereo wiring has become an anachronism and the technologically archaic Varitone circuit is beyond quaint but the rest of the package is everything I want in a guitar. My main player is a blonde 59 ES-345 with a couple of repaired holes and a new neck. Why a 345? I can have any 335 I want (one of the perks of being a dealer) or maybe a 59 mono 355. It’s pretty simple. I like the way the 345 looks. The parallelogram inlays are much more interesting than the dots or the blocks. The simple but not too simple body bindings are appropriate for a guitar of the caliber. The simple headstock of the 345 and 335 seems to show a little more class than the somewhat tarted up 355 headstock. The wood is often a little fancier than the 335 gets. I like a rosewood board over the ebony of a 355 and while I don’t care one way or the other about gold hardware, I really like the fact that you can buy a ’59 345 for about half the price of a same year 335.

Now why is that? Why is the bottom of the line twice as expensive as the middle and top of the line? Simplicity? Is a 335 a better guitar? No. Is it simply because a 335 isn’t stereo and it doesn’t have the Varitone? That’s part of it but not the whole story. If that was the reason then a mono 355 would be the equal of a 335 in value and desirability and it isn’t. I always thought the players were a big part of it. Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Alvin Lee and lots more. But wait. What about the 345 players? Freddie King, Elvin Bishop, Jorma Kaukonen and don’t forget Marty McFly who played one years before it was even invented. My conclusion? Guitar people are quirky. The LP Standard is way more desirable than a Custom. A Strat or Telecaster is more desirable than a Jaguar or Jazzmaster. A Firebird I is about equal in price to a V or a VII. I’m a pretty logical guy and logic doesn’t really come into play here. All that said, I still prefer a 345. Mine is now converted to 335 specs. The stereo and the weight were big considerations. Who wants to haul two amps to a gig on the second floor of a walkup building. And the Varitone? It’s an old school notch filter. It has some interesting tones that you might use for one song out of twenty. Or not. It weighs nearly a pound and you can find a pedal that does the same thing and doesn’t hang off your old, tired shoulder. But take the original circuit out or leave it in, the ES-345 is a wonderful guitar and perhaps among the best deals in vintage. You can take that to the bank.

This is my current main player. It’s an original finish blonde 1959 ES-345. It has had the neck replaced and a couple of holes filled. It has been converted to mono and the Varitone removed.