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Gone Viral

March 6th, 2020 • Uncategorized1 Comment »

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.

Scavengers II

February 18th, 2020 • ES 335, ES 3456 Comments »

The stop tail on the right is correct for 1958 to 1964. The one on the left is from the late 60’s. Look at the seam. The one on the right has a seam that is thicker in the middle and thinner everywhere else. The one on the left has a thick seam from end to end. Some repros have gotten this seam correct so you have to look for other features. The stud on the left is correct for the same years. Note the length.

In 2015, I wrote a post called “Scavengers” which is why this post is called “Scavengers II”. In 2015, the market was rising, as it is now and the cost of vintage parts came along for the ride. Changed parts have always been an issue on vintage items. Cars, furniture, virtually anything collectible that is made of components, is subject to changed parts both by unscrupulous sellers and by folks who simply can’t tell the difference between authentic parts and reproductions. What is different now, five short years later, is that the quality of the reproduction parts has gotten so good that it has become hard, even for experts, to tell the real from the fake.

Consider this: A vintage stop tailpiece for a 1958 to 1964 ES-335 will cost you around $1800. A really good reproduction will cost you about $100. You might spend $40,000 on your collector grade ’59 and never know that someone along the way has swapped out the vintage tailpiece for a good repro (or a bad repro for that matter). The likelihood is that you either won’t check to see if it’s real or you won’t know even if you do check. You’ll likely find out at the worst possible time-when you bring it to me or another knowledgable dealer to sell or trade. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news of this kind. If the owner isn’t right there when I go through the guitar, it calls my honesty into question, especially if the guitar was bought from another reputable dealer. Fortunately, I make a point of checking the parts before the owner leaves the shop. If you’re buying or trading online, then it can be a real dilemma.

It’s not just the tailpiece either. Amber switch tips don’t cost $1800 but they get swapped out a lot. But even a $250 part can be a deal breaker. Certain parts have gotten really good. Stop tails, ABR-1 bridges, catalin switch tips, knobs, truss rod covers, pick guards, pickup surrounds even PAF stickers. I have mentioned in many previous posts that early 95% of the guitars I buy from individual sellers have an undisclosed issue. Fortunately, it’s usually something minor that I can address from my parts stash but sometimes I have to return a guitar due to something expensive like a repro stop tail and that’s going to be trouble in almost every case because somebody got cheated. “It was right when I sent it” is a pretty common response and I look like the bad guy. The hard part is figuring out who the criminal is if there is one. Usually, I’ll simply return the guitar to the seller if I can. The seller will obviously know if he is the culprit but if he isn’t, he has to consider the person he bought it from or he has to consider me. This is why reputation in this business is everything.

How do we, as dealers, minimize the problem? The best way is to ask for extensive photos. That means pulling the pickups, removing the tailpiece and bridge to show the underside and finding out where the seller acquired the guitar. I know which dealers are meticulous when they check out the guitars they sell and which ones don’t dig too deeply. Those who buy and sell without going through every part aren’t necessarily dishonest, they are simply lazy and that can have the consequences that are being discussed here. “I was too busy…” is a poor excuse. As a dealer, you should be busy authenticating the guitars you’re going to sell. But extensive photos won’t do you any good unless you know what to look for. I can tell a repro part from a real one from a clear photo with very few exceptions. Truss rod covers are tough as are switch tips. Knobs and pick guards can be tricky in a photo but are easy to tell in person.

My advice to sellers is to document every part with the same good photos you are supplying to your buyer. That way if a guitar comes back because of wrong parts you can compare what came back with what you sent out. Easy with metal parts, not so easy with plastic but the photos give you a fighting chance. Wear patterns are like fingerprints. Better yet, when you buy a “new” vintage guitar (and you aren’t an expert) use the approval period to take it to someone who knows what they are looking at to get a second opinion. At current market prices, you deserve to get exactly what you are paying for. Don’t immediately assume someone is trying to cheat you if a part is wrong. Everybody, even the experts, can get it wrong. But a dealer should go out of his way to make it right if that occurs. An individual seller should do that as well but if you aren’t buying from a dealer, go back and read the line about what percentage of guitars I get from individual sellers have an undisclosed issue.

Note the size of the “ears” on these two tailpieces. Both are correct but you’ll only see the shallow one on the left in very early 335’s. I’ve never seen one after 58. I see them on 50’s Les Pauls. But they are real-none of the repros are doing the shallow ears. Another feature that gives away a repro is hard to photograph but easy to feel. The top of the tailpiece should have a very slight hump or ridge. You can’t see it but you can feel it. It’s the first thing I check for when I get a guitar. No hump, no deal.

Vintage 335 on a Budget

February 12th, 2020 • ES 3357 Comments »

335’s from 1981 (not the block necks) to 1985 are generally really good players. Yes, it’s the dreaded Norlin Era but they mostly got these right. The blondes have gotten a bit pricey ($4,000 or so) but non blondes, including, if you’re lucky enough to find one, black ones, are hovering in the $2500-$3000 range. This is a 1984.

A typical email to me contains the following: “I have around $3000-$4000 to spend and I want a 335 but I’d rather have a vintage one than a new one. What should I buy?” It always puts me on the spot a bit to answer that inquiry because there are a lot of good choices vintage and not vintage. Now I guess I have to define vintage. Not new. Not recent. Not crap. I was resistant to calling 70’s 335’s vintage for a long time because so many of them were not any good. But, in recognition of the good ones, 70’s counts as vintage. 80’s as well. Don’t think so? C’mon, 1985 was 35 years ago. If you had bought a 59 dot neck in 1994, you would have considered it vintage back then, so don’t give me a hard time about that. I would go so far as to say we’re getting to where the 90’s are worth consideration as vintage but I’m not quite there yet. So, what are you gonna do with that $3000 you can’t wait to spend?

Unless you’re OK with some big issues, you can skip the 60’s. If you’re OK with a decently repaired headstock crack, you can get yourself into an otherwise original late 65 to 68 in the $3K-$4K range. They are wonderful guitars as long as you can comfortably play a guitar with a very narrow fingerboard (1 9/16″). You might grab an early 65 with a big neck for around $4K but expect issues beyond that busted headstock. The pre T-top pickups are around for a lot longer than most of you think. I see them as late as 68 pretty frequently. T-tops are not a bad pickup either, so don’t fret over the pickups. And if you don’t like them, buy a set of Throbaks. Brazilian rosewood is gone by late 66 or 67 but Indian sounds the same no matter what folks say. A stop tail conversion is a good mod if the luthier or tech puts it in the right position. Too low and it will work fine, it will just look wrong. There are some small differences between 65 and 68 but none of them are all that significant when it comes to tone and playability.

Most of you who read my posts know that I draw a line at 1969. The necks lost the long tenon, the necks became maple or three piece, the quality of the wood and the build started to decline and, while you could still get a good one, you’ll have to play more than a few to find it. Don’t agree? Then go ahead and buy one from the 70’s. Just don’t ask to trade it to me when you’re ready to upgrade. The pickups are still pretty good (T-tops) and the design hasn’t changed much until around 72 when they start shortening the center block and in 75 when they do the seemingly impossible…they make the prettiest body in the guitar world ugly by nipping in the waist and narrowing the cutaways. You can get 70’s 335’s in that price range although they have risen significantly in the past year or so. Most are still under $3K but they have been creeping up along with almost everything else. Don’t confuse the asking price with the selling price. I would look for a 69-71.

That brings us to what I think is the best vintage choice in the range…a 335 “dot reissue” from 1981 to 1985. The earlier ones have a three piece neck so if that bothers you, look for an 83-85. I don’t really mind it. You can still find sunbursts and reds in the $2500 range or even lower if you’re patient and quick on the trigger. Blacks are rare but are very cool and don’t seem to command much of a premium. Blondes, however, do. You can still find them in the low threes or even less but you also see them in the $4K range. They haven’t run up much in price so I think they are still a pretty good deal. The neck tenon is a little wimpy but they seem to be perfectly stable and the nut is as wide as a 59. Profile can be fat or slim. The pickups are Tim Shaws which can be a little dark but tend to come alive if you get rid of the 300K pots and put in 500K pots like 335’s always had before that. I’d just buy a new harness and toss the old one in the case. Creamtone makes a really good one. The tailpiece is usually the heavy zinc one. Buy an aluminum repro for 75 bucks and save a couple of ounces in weight. A repro long guard looks great on them too. Then there’s the Nashville bridge. Perfectly functional design but it looks wrong on a 335. Faber makes an ABR-1 copy that fits the Nashville post spread. Do all that and you’ll have a pretty nice guitar that looks a lot like a real dot neck from 58-62. I can tell but from 20 feet away on a dimly lit stage, it will look pretty authentic and will sound pretty good too.

Next, I’ll take a look at the more recent (1986-2010) 335’s that fall into this same price range and see what you can get for your hard earned buck.

The late 70’s ES-335’s had an extra switch (coiltap), a narrower waist, giant f-holes, Nashville bridge (or harmonica bridge in the mid 70’s) and pointy horns. I think it looks misshapen and out of proportion next to a Mickey Mouse ear 58-63. Not too crazy about some of the colors either. Wine red and walnut finishes will be harder to sell down the road. 335 folks are pretty traditional. Look for a sunburst or a red one. Blondes and Blacks are cool too but not common.

Year Ender 2019, Part 2

January 19th, 2020 • ES 345, ES 35514 Comments »

The 59 ES-355 mono was the big winner in 2019. They were under $20K in 2018 and have jumped to the mid $20’s or even higher if equipped with double white PAFs (and lots of them are). Want a bargain? Buy a 60. It’s the same guitar. Most 59’s have a transitional neck, not the big one. If you find one with a stop tail, sell it to me, please.

So, 2019 was, in general, another pretty good year for some 335’s and a great year for others but what about the rest of the line? 2018 wasn’t so great for 345’s unless it had the number 1959 in front of it. 2019 was pretty much the same. If you are looking for a 59 ES-345 sunburst (reds are rare in 59) or a 59 ES-355 mono, you paid more in 2019 than you did in 2018. I expect that trend to continue into 2020. We can dig a little deeper into the 59 cachet in another post. Truth be told, I don’t know why a collector grade 59 335 sells for around $45,000 and a collector grade 59 345 sells for around half that. 355’s follow the same rules, although the mono version commands a bit more and that’s where we’ll begin.

The mono 355 market was really strong in 2019 and I believe will continue to be that way. One factor that keeps 355’s mono well below the same year 335 is the Bigsby, so keeping apples to apples, we’ll look at the mono 355 compared to a Bigsby 335. A collector grade Bigsby 59 335 will cost you around $32,000. The same year 355 mono will be in the mid $20’s. If you’re OK with a Bigsby, that’s a bargain. A year ago, mono 59’s were still under $20K, so that’s a pretty good uptick. Stop tail 355’s are so rare, they live in a world of their own (all were special order). But anything from 59 seems to live in that rarefied place. Mono 355’s from 60 to 64 also were strong in 2019 although I sold very few of them. I think folks who use a Bigsby are getting the message that a mono 355 is a great alternative to the much higher priced 335’s.

The market for 60-64 345’s and stereo 355’s was not strong in 2019 and it surprised me. It was so weak in 2018 that I thought it had to come up in 2019. It didn’t. Asking prices have outpaced sale prices by 20% or more and folks just aren’t buying. It isn’t the dealers leading the charge here, it’s the individual sellers. I know, dealers ask stupid prices too but when you make your living moving guitars, you have to move guitars. 59’s are strong. First rack 345’s are incredibly strong-I can’t keep them for even a week and with good reason. They are great guitars. But once you get to 1960, it all goes a bit south. Of course, the thin necks are a factor although most players I speak to don’t mind the smaller profiles. I sold a 61 PAF equipped stop tail 345 last year (after months on the market) for $11500. Out of the ten or so 345’s I sold last year that weren’t 59’s, all went below $15K except for a double white PAF 60 ES-355 and a double white equipped 60 345. Again, these were mostly collector grade or, at the very least, no issue or very minor issue guitars. I used to be a purist about converting stereo guitars to mono but not any more. It’s reversible and it’s your guitar. Do what you want to make it a guitar you will play. A new harness will cost you $150-$200 and the labor should be under $200. Don’t forget to flip one of the magnets-stereo Gibsons have out of phase pickups.

I think, going forward, the sellers asking stupid prices for post 59 345’s and stereo 355’s will keep the market flat and even cause it to drop. Simply asking too high a price will affect the market negatively as the inventory soars and the demand stays the same or even falls. With 62-64 block neck 335’s so high, buyers might turn to same year 345’s which could strengthen that market. As I mentioned in Part 1, block necks are pushing through the mid $20K range and 345’s are just sitting there waiting for the smart buyer to jump in at $12K-$15K. Once you’ve converted your 345 or stereo 355 to mono, you are playing the same guitar that your friend with the 335 plays. The difference is that you have an extra $10,000 in your pocket that you can spend on that big tweed Bassman you have your eye on. Or, you can buy something nice for your wife who lets you indulge your childhood fantasy of being a rock star.

A 64 ES-345 is everything a 64 335 is. Don’t like the stereo circuit or the Varitone? Take it out (and flip one of the magnets). With 64 335’s pushing $25K, a 64 345 at $10K less looks like a bargain to me. All years from 60-64, if priced correctly for the market, are a great deal if original and well cared for.

Band of Brothers

January 13th, 2020 • Uncategorized1 Comment »

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.

Year Ender 2019, Part 1

January 2nd, 2020 • ES 3351 Comment »

Top Performer

Blondes went to the moon this past year as they did the year before and the year before that. With only 211 335’s and 50 345’s out there, it’s no wonder that these keep shooting up in value year after year. There are still a couple of these left if you’re looking for the best investment of all the ES guitars. Even the blonde 330’s have seen record prices with a two pickup 59 selling for nearly $20K.

Contrary to popular belief, guitar dealers actually talk to one another once in a while. And, to have heard them talk last Summer and Fall,  you would have thought the bottom had fallen out of the market. There was all kinds of moaning and complaining going on. “Nothing is selling.” “Seller are asking stupid prices.” “The are too many Strats on the market…” and so on.

That could be the opening sentence of this year’s market wrap up but I actually copied it from my 2017 post. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. There are still too many Stratocasters on the market and the dealers still complained about nothing selling over the Summer and sellers asking stupid prices. The big difference this year is the stupid prices. Last year it was dot necks trying to reach new highs with $50,000 asking prices for 59 sunbursts. This year it’s 62-64 block necks with asking prices in the high $20K’s to well over $30K. I don’t know of anyone actually getting that much for a 62-64 but the fact that the asks have gone nuts tells me the market is strong. The real world price for a collector grade 62-64 is up nicely into the mid $20K range but anything over $25K is wishful thinking, IMO. Still, that’s about 10% higher than last year and that’s a very nice rise with red PAF guitars leading the way.

If any ES-335 deserves a mention for 2019, it’s the blondes. It’s a pretty rarefied market and it’s up in a big way (again). You could buy a good stop tail blonde three years ago for $65-70,000. I sold 5 this year with prices ranging from $85K for a 60 in very good condition to $120K for a near mint 59. Even blondes with major issues (headstock repair and Bigsby holes) were strong at $30K. It’s a tough market to quantify with so few for sale and so few that have changed hands in the past year. I know of only two sales besides the 5 I sold. It’s my opinion that there is plenty of room for appreciation. They only made 211 of them and they don’t come on the market very often.

I can’t do a year ender without a look at sunburst dot necks. Last year, the market was tested by a lot of sellers and the market spoke and said “slow down”. As with block necks this year, you can ask any price you want but asking prices don’t mean anything. Selling price is the only thing that counts. Dot necks from late 58 and 59 have been strong over the past few years and continue that trend. The interesting development this year is the strength of the early 60 dots-those with the late 59 features. Unless you absolutely must have a 59, an early 60 is the same guitar and will often cost you 20% less. While the preference for big neck 59’s is still dominant, the more manageable “transitional” neck has become very popular and has driven up early 60 335’s over the past year. Expect to pay around $40K for a clean 59 with no issues and a few thousand more for a near mint one. You can still find clean stop tail 60’s for around $30K but don’t snooze. The early ones are going up. The wild card is the unbound 58. Big collectors have to have one to complete the set but players are often scared off by the shallow neck angle. Don’t be. They are wonderful guitars when set up correctly. Finally, the laggard is the 61. The thin neck profile is the issue. 61’s can be unstable, so check the neck for truss rod cracks and distortion. A good 61 is as good as any 335. A bad one is trouble. A good one should cost you around $25K. Note that a late 60 (around A34000 or later) generally has the same neck profile as a 61 and the 61 will cost you a fair bit less. The 60 gets you the long guard and sometimes long magnet PAFs whereas a 61 will almost always have a short guard and short magnet PAFs. Nothing wrong with either of those features. Just make sure the neck is straight and has no hairline crack down the middle.

OK, I’m running long but I do want to mention one other interesting trend. Red dot necks. Red 59’s are too rare to even discuss (there are 6 of them known). Red 60’s are almost in that category with only 21 built. A clean red 60 is approaching $50K (I sold two last year). A red 61 is half that. The reason is simple. Red 61’s are pretty common with over 400 built. So, why spend big bucks on a 60? Yes, the long guard is nice but not $25K nice. It’s the finish. Most red 60 335’s will have the faded watermelon finish. It’s rare, it’s beautiful and you can’t fake it. There aren’t many out there but if you are looking for one let me know and I’ll find it for you.

Block necks, especially red ones with PAFs were stronger this year than they have been in the past. There was considerable resistance at around $20K but that’s in the rearview now. Asking prices have gone nuts and selling prices aren’t too far behind. $25K is still a lot for all but the mint ones but until this year, $25K was in the fat chance category. Sunburst blocks are up as well but they take a bit of a back seat to the red ones.

Stradivari v Les Paul

December 28th, 2019 • Gibson General, Uncategorized7 Comments »

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)

December 18th, 2019 • Uncategorized4 Comments »
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

Sweet Spot

December 2nd, 2019 • ES 3357 Comments »

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)

November 25th, 2019 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3552 Comments »

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.