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(Anti) Social Distancing

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

The fun part was that you never knew who (or what) was going to walk in the door next. We had some very interesting folks, some real cool guitars and lots of very cute doggies. Unfortunately, all of that is gone for now and the old train car is no longer mine, so when I come back, it will be in a new location (in the same town)

When you run a small brick and mortar business, it is kind of important to be sociable. Buying a guitar, especially an expensive vintage guitar, is a very often a process that requires a lot of interaction. It’s easy if you know exactly what model, year, finish and configuration you want. You walk in, you play it and you buy it, assuming you like it. But if there are 6 or 8 or a dozen 335’s in the shop, it becomes a process that requires a lot of discussion and a lot of handing guitars back and forth and in the current era of social distancing, that is a problem.

Corona virus is able to live on hard surfaces for a very long time. Nobody is quite sure now long but from what I’ve heard and read, it can live for days on a metal surface. That means the guitar strings are a Corona virus’s paradise. Good for the virus, not so good for you and me. For OK Guitars (meaning me-I’m a one man band), the timing of this crisis is notable. If you have checked my Facebook page lately, you will know that I lost my lease on my store at about the same time the virus hit. I was there for five and a half years and OK Guitars had become a destination shop for tourists. Kent CT’s economy is nearly 100% tourism driven. It’s a big hiking destination with the Appalachian Trail running along the ridge just west of town. And, being only an hour and a half (if you’re lucky with traffic) from New York City, making a day of hiking and a visit to OK Guitars to play a bunch of 335’s was a common Saturday or Sunday endeavor. Sadly, that’s over. At least for now.

I spent this weekend taking down the guitars from the hangers and taking down the hangers for the guitars. Fortunately, I mark all the cases but somehow I still ended up with 12 extra cases. I boxed up all the tools and the strings and the capos and the picks. I unplugged all the amps and covered the ones that have covers. I took down the little Beatles display that was on your right as you walked in (’66 Hofner, 64 Country Gent, Ricky 325, Ringo drum head and photos). Frankly, it was kind of depressing-I worked hard to make my little train car into a place that was equally friendly to well heeled collectors and to AT through hikers who just wanted to play a guitar-any guitar- after three months on the trail (and occasionally three months away from a shower). It was my pleasure to swap stories about the one that got away even though I have heard that story 1000 times. And the best part was that you never knew who was going to walk in and what guitar was going to walk in with them.

Neil Young and Daryl Hannah stopped by out of the blue on a Wednesday afternoon last October. Steve Katz from Blood Sweat and Tears was the very first customer I had-even before I had officially opened. Former Yankee Bernie Williams came in and bought a 59 Bassman. Old friends I haven’t seen in 50 years from my home town of Scotia, NY came by and Michael J. Fox and his entire family were here last Thanksgiving. He wasn’t up to playing that day but seemed happy to just talk about guitars. And it wasn’t just the people that made it so interesting and so much fun, it was the guitars. Litchfield County, CT is a place full of old hippie types a lot of acoustics walked in the door. A couple of Brazilian D-28’s from the 60’s, lots of Ovations and Guilds and probably the best J45 I ever played. A 1917 Martin 00 and a near mint 1939 Gibson L-0. The former president of RCA Records came in one day carrying two guitars and a mandolin and told me he was moving to Arizona and he didn’t want to take these instruments with him. A mint late 60’s Strat, a mint ’64 Gibson J50 and an absolutely stunning 1913 one owner (his wife’s grandfather) Gibson F4 mandolin changed hands that day. This is what I will miss.

So, even without the current pandemic, it would have been the end of an era at OK Guitars but I simply would have found other space and continued as before although in a somewhat less charming and distinctive space. Now, I don’t know. If everything gets back to normal or close to it, then I’ll open another shop. Buying online is fine if it works for you but for those of you who want to come in and hang out and play and talk guitars, I’ll be back eventually and we’ll tell all the same old stories and play all those great old guitars. We’ll crank it up to eleven and drive the neighbors nuts just like old times. See you then.

Jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli came in a few Summers ago and went right for the ’52 Super 400. At age 90, he was playing chords I couldn’t even name (let alone play). He was a little disappointed that he only had 6 strings to play on (he’s usually a 7 string player). That’s me in the background trying to figure out how he does that.

Best Defense…

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

This is what the virus looks like. It’s too small to see so just assume it’s there lurking on the guitar box that just arrived or maybe on the neck, strings and fingerboard. Either leave it for a few days or disinfect it before you play it.

Corona virus is causing all kinds of trouble and it is really important for us to take it seriously. I have closed OK Guitars, my little guitar shop in Kent, CT for the month of March as a precaution. I may close it for the month of April as well if this doesn’t get demonstrably better. The likelihood is that it will get worse. The virus can, as has been reported, live for a very long time on hard surfaces and therein lies the biggest problem in a guitar shop. And what hard surface gets touched in guitar shop, you ask? Guitars. Fortunately, I closed my shop almost two weeks ago, before any cases were active in the state of Connecticut so I’m fairly certain that the guitars are virus free. The good news is that the virus doesn’t live forever on a hard surface and even if a guitar has been played by someone with the virus, it won’t live there forever. The CDC says three days is the likely lifespan (of the virus, not the host).

There are a couple of points to be made here. First of all, if you buy a guitar from me during this time, you can rest assured that it hasn’t been played by anyone for way more than three days. I re-string and set all my guitars up before they hit the showroom floor, so they are ready to be shipped without having to be touched again. The simple precaution of wearing rubber gloves when I pack the guitar will assure you further that the guitar is virus free. I could wipe them down with disinfectant wipes but I don’t think alcohol is particularly good for the finish. I will do so if the buyer requests it. I don’t have any control over how many folks touch the box during shipping but you can take precautions on your own when the guitar arrives. Wear rubber gloves (or any gloves if you don’t have any) or let it sit boxed for a few days or simply wash your hands after you open it (and wipe down the case since you touched it when you unpacked it). Sound like I’m being an alarmist? Go read about the flu epidemic of 1918-19. This virus is up to ten times more deadly, especially to folks my age. I had a guitar delivered yesterday. I unpacked it and looked it over and played a few chords and then washed my hands. Now it will have a three day quarantine before it goes up for sale. Necessary? With cases doubling every few days and test kits still not being distributed widely, I would say yes. Necessary.

Wait, didn’t you say there were a couple of points to be made? What’s the other one? The other one applies if you have been exposed or test positive and you aren’t feeling very sick. Stay home. Quarantine yourself. Play your guitar. Think about how much better you will play after two solid weeks of “woodshedding”. There isn’t much to do if you have to hang around the house for 14 days. The “honey-do” list is out the window since you’re confined to quarters (probably the spare bedroom). It’s you and your guitar and a big box of tissues. What better way is there to run out the clock on this thing?

Gone Viral

Friday, March 6th, 2020

If the economy tanks because of the economic impact of a viral pandemic, I believe that the best of the investment grade guitars will be just fine. This 58 is guaranteed not to harbor any viruses. As a precaution OK Guitars will be open by appointment only for the month of March. Call for an appointment.

If you are an investor, the past week has been discouraging. The stock market is down 15% or so and the threat of a pandemic is the engine driving this. An economy that is chugging ahead nicely, along with a stock market that seemed unsustainably high (and going unsustainably higher) is bound to react to global bad news-especially bad news that has long term consequences. Me? I’m just a guitar guy. I don’t know much about economics (making the previous statements totally suspect) nor do I know much about investing in stocks other than a personal history of investing in a totally safe stock that promptly tanks the moment I buy it. I learned long ago that the stock market doesn’t like me and I don’t particularly like it. But I know about “investment grade” guitars and that’s what we’re going to talk about here.

What does “investment grade” even mean? Isn’t any guitar that has a value that can go up “investment grade”? After all, that’s the point of investing. Buy low, sell high, right? That’s true but history shows us that some guitars are simply better investments than others. I’m not going to be your investment advisor. You’d be nuts to listen to me about any guitar that isn’t a 335, 345 or 355. So, that’s what we’ll talk about. In my year ender posts, I looked at the past year from an investment perspective. But it was a pretty general discussion…block necks, dot necks, blondes, mono 355’s and so on. But now, with your stock portfolio, which did so well over the last…what, ten or twelve years?, heading into losing territory, what does that do to the guitar market? I don’t know-if I did, I’d be rich and retired-but I have a pretty good idea.

Here’s my opinion from a guy who believes in the vintage guitar market and a guy who knows that you can’t play the blues on a stock certificate (although you can sing the blues over a stock certificate-especially recently). The stock market downturn has to do with worldwide economic concerns. The supply chain for new products largely flows through China. A pandemic will keep people from going to work and things won’t get made. The travel and tourism business drops to near zero in a pandemic. The entertainment business, including professional sports, suffers because folks won’t congregate in large numbers. You can trade your stock portfolio in your pajamas from your home office but that doesn’t help the companies whose stock you are buying and selling from tanking in the wake of a worldwide economic standstill. But vintage guitars don’t follow these economic realities. They simply are.

There is no supply chain to speak of except, perhaps, reproduction parts. There are no crowded public spaces required. You can, indeed, buy a vintage guitar in your pajamas. With an approval period, your risk is minimal. Your risk of getting an illness from a guitar is pretty slim. Does a significant economic downturn hurt the guitar market? It could, by diminishing the wealth of prospective buyers. But it doesn’t hurt the demand for the product. Truthfully, if I’m stuck at home because it’s too dangerous to go out in public or I’m self quarantining , I’m going to really happy having my guitars to keep me company and the thrill of getting a “new” one-if I can trust the Fedex man not to have a communicable virus-will likely be enhanced. If I have to wear gloves and a mask to unpack my purchase, I’m OK with that.

My general advice, from an investment standpoint, is to buy no issue guitars. Mint guitars are great investment pieces because the serious collectors will always want the best example available. Player grade guitars are not the place to go in an uncertain market. Buy them and enjoy them but they will not keep pace with what is still a vibrant and rising market. The values will likely hold up in the short term, but the liquidity (ease of selling) may not and that will drive the values down. If the global repercussions of a pandemic affect all aspects of the economy, including collectibles, then the best of the collectibles will likely become more desirable while the lower grade stuff will likely stagnate or back down. The reality is that the folks who can afford the best of the best will still be able to afford them after the potential pandemic has either fizzled (like SARS) or blown up (like Spanish Flu). It could take a few months or it could change our lives for years.

You can’t go wrong with a Fender narrow panel tweed. These will never die. I’ve heard they are loud enough to drive any virus out of your house.

Band of Brothers

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for Rush died on Tuesday at the age of 66.

Every once in a while there is an event that compels me to write about something other than guitars. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, I pick up a pen (OK, a laptop) and start pecking away. The event that motivates me is the death of Rush drummer Neil Peart. The subject is neither music nor drummers (what do I know about drummers?). It’s brothers, a subject I can call myself an expert in.

The bond between brothers is different than any other. It’s not the same as your bond with your spouse or partner but it can be no less deeply felt. It can be diluted (or intensified) if you have multiple brothers. I have 8 of them, which is what makes me an expert. With brothers, there is love, affection and respect. Brothers, however, don’t usually express their mutual love with words. They just don’t. Action speaks instead. That action can be almost anything-In my family, a nine way text on the phone, a weekend visit, even a loan or a punch in the arm. Brothers express affection in some unusual ways. But here’s the thing…the shared experience of growing up in the same house, under the same circumstances with the same parents forges an almost unbreakable (whether you like it or not) bond that endures. Until death do you part, indeed. You cannot divorce your brothers. They are yours forever and you are theirs. In the best case, they will do anything for you and you will do anything for them with no second thoughts. It’s been easy for me-we all get along and we’re all still healthy. It will break my heart to lose one.

Military guys will tell you about the brotherhood bond between members of their unit. Enduring life threatening danger will make you very close, as I understand it. I have never been in combat but I have spent time in a war zone (and I’ve been shot at) during my years in the TV news business. The bond must be similar but highly compressed-the bond that takes years for siblings to form likely forms in a fraction of the time. Losing your military brother in combat is one of the most gut wrenching stories any veteran will tell. Even without a genetic component, your brother is a part of you and to lose that can be devastating.

You spend maybe 18 years at most living with your genetic brothers. Imagine this. Three guys have worked together almost daily and in very close proximity for more than 40 years doing something that requires trust and respect for each of the others. It also requires enormous concentration, integrity and talent. Do it live on a lighted stage 200 or more times some years and you become pretty close. Bands that don’t, usually don’t endure. Stories of animosity in a rock band are abundant. The death of Neil Peart this week must feel like the loss of a brother to Alex and Geddy. Both are clients of mine and I am saddened by their loss. Making music together and doing it as well as Rush is an incredible gift far beyond the fan adulation, the money and the excitement of live performance. My meager experience as a band member from 1964 to around 1974 is nothing compared to theirs. The band changed members like most of us change their underwear. But my band that stayed together the longest forged bonds of the brotherly type. Tom, the keyboardist and Dave, the drummer and I stayed in touch over all these years. Dave and I grew up on the same street in Scotia, NY. Every time we saw each other over the years, the conversation always went to our few years as a band. That was our bonding experience. I have often referred to live performing as the scariest, most exciting thing a guy can do. Dave passed away in 2019 and I felt the loss in a way that can only give me the slightest inkling of what Geddy and Alex must be feeling today.

Neil Peart was a drummer’s drummer in a monster band. And a lyricist. Drummers don’t write lyrics, do they? Neil did and while I never saw them perform live, I so appreciate their work and talent (and, as a suburban kid, I love “Subdivisions”). I spent much of today on You Tube listening to Rush concert performances and I’m awestruck by how much wonderful noise these three guys made. I’m privileged to know Geddy and to do business with Alex. I send them my deepest condolences for the loss of their brother.

Alex, Neil and Geddy after their final show. So long, Neil. Thanks for the joyful noise.

Stradivari v Les Paul

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TTNBC (at OK Guitars)

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019
OK Guitars (not at Christmas) but this is the place where it all happened

Eventually, re-running the same Christmas post year after year no longer looks like utter sloth and starts looking like a quaint tradition. My wife and I wrote this on vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in 2015 and, while it was a crappy vacation (except for the food), we did manage to knock this Christmas poem out. It would be cool to say we knocked off a bottle of tequila, too while we wrote it but that didn’t happen. I may have had a Dos Equis and she might have had a glass of Pinot Grigio but that’s not much of a story. So, for the fourth time (first time if you’re new to the site this year) here is “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas at OK Guitars”

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the pad

I was playing my Gibson- not great, but not bad.

I remembered a blues lick and played it with flair

Just like in the days when I had all my hair.

The block necks were hung not too tight or too loose,

As I waited for Santa inside my caboose.

I had them all tuned and I played every one.

The truss rods were perfect, the strings tightly strung.

All of a sudden on the roof of my shop,

I spied an old fat dude just reeking of pot.

He fell off the roof and into the snow.

I asked him right in. Why he came, I don’t know.

There was ice in his beard and mud on his boot,

And I thought only rock stars could wear such a suit.

He took down a red one, just like Eric C.

His fingers flew faster than old Alvin Lee.

It was wailing and screaming all over the town.

I could hear my Dad yelling, “Turn that damn thing down!”

Who knew this weird guy, such a flash with a pick

And a love of guitars, would be old Saint Nick?

I couldn’t believe all the sounds in my ear.

He said, “You get good working one day a year.”

Now Jimi, Now BB, Now John, George and Paul

Would bow to this master, the best of them all.

“You remember that Christmas back in ’63?

When you found a new six string left under your tree?

You started to doubt that I was the truth,

But my gift to you then was a link to your youth.

So for all of the years that would come in between,

Way deep down inside, you’d still feel like sixteen.”

He picked up some cases by Lifton and Stone,

Some old Kluson tuners and a worn out Fuzztone.

“Now, Charlie Gelber you must hear my pitch,

‘Cause this is my time and payback’s a bitch.

The 335 please, the red 59.

I gave you your first one, now this ax is mine”.

And quick as a flash it was stuffed in his sack,

And he waved a goodbye as he snuck out the back.

He jumped in his sled and sparked up a j,

Flew into the sky and was off on his way.

So if feeling sixteen is what sets you right,

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

By Charlie and Victoria Gelber

With apologies to Clement Clark Moore

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.