GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Case in Point

January 10th, 2018 • Gibson General8 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nickel or Chrome. Metallurgy 101

December 27th, 2017 • ES 33510 Comments »

Well this is nice and shiny, must be chrome right? Nope. This near mint 62 has nickel parts but they spent the last 50 years or so in the case so they never tarnished. Without a chrome item in the same photo, it’s hard to tell the difference.

OK, I’m a fraud. I know nothing about metallurgy but if you look at enough pickup covers and bridges, you get pretty good at telling nickel from chrome. I’ve covered this in an earlier post but I keep getting emails asking about this, so I’ll do another. And it lets me show a photo of this incredible 62 I just got with shiny nickel hardware.

Nothing gives away a changed part like being the wrong metal. Any time somebody wants to sell you a 64 with chrome pickup covers, walk away. There weren’t any. But, how the heck do you tell the difference, especially from a photo?

First, there’s nothing wrong with chrome. It’s a very nice looking metal and it doesn’t tarnish or discolor over time. It’s a great choice for bathroom fixtures and the kitchen faucet. It isn’t bad looking on guitars either but it’s a little boring (I could have said a little dull but chrome never gets dull). Gibson switched from nickel plated parts on 335’s to chrome plated parts in 1965, phasing it in slowly over the course of the year. They weren’t being subtle, they were simply using up the parts they had in stock. Gibson didn’t think anybody could tell the difference between nickel and chrome because they mixed the parts in 65 with no regard whatever for how they would age. They generally made both pickup covers out of the same metal, so at least they had an inkling that it might be noticed by some astute metallurgist, like me. But they mixed bridges, tailpieces, pickguard brackets-everything metal except the tuners which stayed nickel through the 60’s. I’m told by guys who worked at Gibson that there were complaints from customers about the metal tarnishing and that’s why they made the change. I wonder if one was cheaper than the other?

So, how does one tell the difference. Well, there’s the easy way and the hard way and it has nothing to do with how good you are at telling the difference. The easy way is if it’s dull and tarnished, it’s nickel. Chrome can get pretty crapped up with dirt and sweat but a wipe with a damp cloth will bring it back to its factory shine. You can bring back nickel too but it will take some elbow grease and metal polish which, by the way, I don’t recommend. Results are pretty variable and it ends up looking like somebody tried to clean the nickel. Ever try to clean an old coin? It never looks right. Don’t clean the nickel. Then there’s the hard way. supposing the nickel is brand new and as shiny as a new dime? Then you need to call on a bit of very old technology-your brain. Your brain can determine the difference between the reflected color of chrome and the reflected color of nickel. It takes a little practice and it’s not so easy without having both metals in the same photo. A photograph is as variable color wise as the two metals. I should know, my job for about a million years was a a film and video colorist. That’s the guy who makes sure all the shots in a film match. It’s really annoying when Scarlett Johannssen’s sweater is red in the wide shot and maroon in the close up. Yes, somebody actually has to fix that. It’s a real job.

It’s hard but it’s simple. Huh? Chrome reflects blue and shiny nickel reflects green. If you see them next to each other, it should be sort of clear unless you are even the slightest bit color blind in which case, ask somebody. It’s not a true blue or a true green-it’s a bluish cast on the chrome and a greenish cast on the nickel. See if you can get your hands on a nickel pickup cover and a chrome one. Then stare at them side by side. You’ll get it. It doesn’t take an expert in metallurgy, just a working brain.

One of these is nickel. The other is chrome. They look totally different to me and should to you. If they don’t, they have handy labels to help you.

Christmas at OK Guitars, Redux

December 22nd, 2017 • Uncategorized4 Comments »

No visions of sugarplums dancing in this head. Just waiting for Old St. Nick at OK Guitars.

I never re-run posts and I was going to write another Christmas post and try to be clever and make you all smile. Just for laughs, I pulled up the poem my wife and I wrote while on vacation in Mexico back in 2015. Well, no trip to Mexico this year and maybe I’m less creative in the cold and the snow, so I’m not going to write another Christmas post because this one says what needs to be said (and my very creative wife helped me-or maybe I helped her). So, here’s my first ever re-run. I promise, I’ll write a new Christmas poem next year.

‘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

In case you can’t decide what to get yourself this Christmas, here’s the “A” rack at OK Guitars. Why is it called the “A” rack? Because all guitars whose serial numbers start with “A” a hung here (and a few that don’t)

The Least Popular ES Model

December 14th, 2017 • Uncategorized10 Comments »

Gibson basses never exactly set the world on fire. Here’s an EB, couple of EB-2’s and an EB-0 courtesy of Tom H. who runs the es-335.net site.

While the 335 is not the most popular guitar in the history of the Gibson line, it has been in production the longest. They’ve been in production since they were first introduced in 1958. 1958 saw the introduction of another innovative model that hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. Call it the 335 bass if you like. It is the never popular Gibson EB-2. EB stands for electric bass in case you’re wondering. Perhaps it would have done better if they had called it a 335 bass. In any case, it was not a rousing success.

It is, in most ways, a 335 bass. Like the 58 335, it had an unbound fingerboard, a full length center block, the same body and finish options but it had some differences as well. It had a single pickup mounted at the neck and, in 58, it was a single coil. There was a volume control and a tone control. The tuners were Kluson banjo style with plastic buttons. It was a pretty basic instrument but then, so was the leader of the pack- Fender Precision.

Like most Gibsons, changes were made along the way and, while they largely improved the model, it still wasn’t exactly selling very well. In fairness, Fender had a virtual lock on the bass market all through the 60’s and with only slight competition from Rickenbacker, into the 70’s. Hofner sold a lot of basses in the 60’s but not so much among the pro players. That was McCartney’s trademark bass and few others played them on stage. Alembic made big inroads in the late 70’s and was popular into the 80’s. Gibson was still largely absent. Quick, name one bass player who played a Gibson bass? OK, Jack Bruce played an EB-3 and Chas Chandler (Animals) played an EB-2 (and an Epiphone Rivoli which was nearly identical). I can’t think of any others off the top of my head. In 59, they changed the pickup to a humbucker, known by it’s nickname, The Mudbucker, for obvious reasons. They added a notch filter that they called a “Baritone Switch” which cut some of the low end from that huge pickup. And then it was gone. By mid 1961 or so, Gibson had enough and discontinued the EB-2.

But fast forward to 1964 and it was back just in time for the “guitar boom” caused by the Beatles and others in the mid 60’s. The 64 had the pointy cutaways like a 335 and the banjo tuners were gone, replaced by the usual elephant ear tuners that you see on Fender basses. Unlike the 335, the dot markers stayed.  A chrome pickup cover replaced the black plastic one and you could get an EB-2 in red but no longer in blonde. Still no binding on the neck but a string mute was added. By 66, a second pickup was optional (EB-2D) with a second volume and tone and a three way switch. The “Baritone” switch remained. By 66, in my opinion, it was a pretty good bass. The second pickup made up for the narrow tonal possibilities of the Mud bucker and, with the popularity of the 335 by the mid 60’s, I would have expected it to have been more successful. That’s not to say to was a flop. It wasn’t. In 1959, they sold 263 EB-2s. By 67, the number was 2746. That’s a ten fold increase. The 335 between 59 and 67 saw a similar increase, so you really can’t call it a flop unless you consider Fenders numbers which don’t appear to exist but I’m willing to bet they were at least 10 times the number of Gibson basses sold.

If you’re in the market for a vintage bass, you probably aren’t looking at Gibsons but maybe you should. I find the EB-2 easy to play (30.5″ scale as opposed to Fender’s 34″ scale which I can’t play at all with my small hands). If you can tame that pickup with an amp that has some good headroom, you can get some great tone out of it or look for the two pickup version. EB-2s  are not terribly expensive with prices topping out at around $8000 for a blonde 59. EB-2D’s from the mid to late 60’s can be found in the $1500-$2500 range and are readily available. You can get a 58-60 EB-2 for under $5000 although many have had their tuners changed from the banjo tuners to elephant ears.

Bum bum, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum…remember the opening notes to “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” by the Animals? That’s Chas Chandler playing an EB-2.

Secret Sauce Part 2

November 28th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3556 Comments »

This unusual Mickey Mouse ear 66 ES-345 throws a monkey wrench into a lot of my theories. This guitar, if not a top twenty, was very close. Best post 64 I ever had. It wasn’t played much (one theory gone), it’s not a stop tail (another theory gone), it’s not from the “Golden Era” (and another), it has a Varitone (ditto).

I’ve given this post a fair amount of thought and have concluded that logic doesn’t serve us very well here. Logic says the larger the sample, the more valid the results. Let’s see. OK, let’s start with the largest possible sample-all the 335, 345 and 355’s that I’ve owned. My top ten list or top twenty list is compiled from approximately 500 guitars that I’ve owned and sold over the past 10 years or so since I started doing this seriously. Looking at the “also rans” might be illustrative.

Where do all the later ones fall? Well, there aren’t that many later ones because I don’t generally buy them. There could be spectacularly good 66 and later 335’s but I don’t get to play very many of them. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s more that I wanted to keep my “niche” fairly small. I’ve owned a few dozen 66-69’s, so I have a pretty good handle on those but I’ve owned less than 5 from the 70’s. So, my opinion on 70’s guitars is no more informed than yours. The ones I’ve had have been playable, decent sounding guitars but none has impressed me and all were kind of heavy and perhaps less “335” sounding than earlier ones. Could be the changes in construction that occurred in the 70’s. Not much to be learned there. The 66-69’s have generally been pretty good. I don’t like the narrow nut but that aspect doesn’t affect tone. Nor does the Indian rosewood board on these. I’ve had folks tell me they can tell the difference in tone between the rosewoods but I can’t. The pickup changes that occurred during this period may be a factor-66’s generally have poly winding pre T-tops but by 69, most have T-tops. Later pre T-tops seem to lack some of the complexity of the early ones and T-tops, while very consistent, sound kind of thin to me. My conclusion? PAFs and early patents are a factor for sure. Short magnet or long magnet? Well, I’ve swapped out magnets more than a few times and I don’t hear that much difference between a long A2 or A4 and a short A5. I find short magnet PAFs to be more consistent but a great long magnet PAF seems to be best of all. I’ll take a good short magnet over a not so great long magnet though (yes, they exist).

I’d also like to point out how much difference a proper setup makes. I recently had a Bigsby 61 brought to me as a trade. It had a Bigsby bridge installed rather than an ABR-1, a worn out set of strings (10’s) but other wise it was a pretty typical 61. Thin wide neck, PAFs, “normal” neck angle. But it sounded dull and lifeless. No sparkle in the bridge pickup, not much in the way of overtones or harmonics and crappy sustain. New strings made a difference but a few other tweaks made a marginal 335 into a really excellent one. I added a vintage ABR-1 with metal saddles (which I prefer over nylon). I raised the pickups setting them very close to the strings which seems to be the ideal setting on 335’s. I made certain that the saddles weren’t slotted too deeply-this is really important for sustain-and did the same for the nut. Finally, the neck was dead flat-it played fine that way but I dialed in a bit of relief. This allows the strings a little more room to vibrate freely and I find it makes a difference-especially for folks who like really low action. So much of the tone seems to flow from how freely the strings vibrate. Consider the things that affect this-saddles, nut, pickups (magnets can affect this), relief and the strings themselves. Getting these things right made quite a big difference in the 61 in question.

What about the build quality? I believe that the guitars built after the “guitar boom” of the mid 60’s are marginally inferior to earlier ones. Instead of cranking out hundreds a year, Gibson was building thousands. In 1958, there were 327 semi hollow ES guitars built. By 1967, there were around 7300 built. Not only did ES shipping numbers grow exponentially but all the other models did as well. That had to affect the build quality and, if you take a look at the amount of glue slopped around in a typical 67, you’ll get the idea.

Finally, what about the quality of the wood used in the early days? I’m no expert here but I would guess that the quality of the wood in 1958 was not significantly different than the quality of the wood in 1966.

What’s it all mean. It means that a great guitar is the sum of its many parts. You need 5 things. A great design, great wood, great build, great electronics and a great setup. Add a few decades of “seasoning” and a good amp and I think you’re there.

Don’t let the shallow neck angle scare you. Unbound 58’s are always up there in tone and usually in playability as well once you get the setup right.

 

Thanksgiving 2017

November 23rd, 2017 • Uncategorized5 Comments »

I’m thankful for my dog, Zoubi who doesn’t really appreciate my playing that much.

As usual, I have plenty to be thankful for this year. There’s the usual things-my wonderful wife (who takes very good care of me), my son who has not “borrowed” a guitar from me for years now and his fiancee and my dog (Zoubi) and my eight brothers who have always been there for me and my health (OK, I’ve got back surgery coming up but after that, I should be lifting Twin Reverbs again). Then there’s the other stuff.

I am very fortunate to have the business that I have. I worked for 45 years in the film and TV business and, while I was a very well regarded editor and sometime director, I sometimes struggled to keep it fun and engaging. Some of my clients were, predictably, difficult and some were incredibly cheap. Because editing was the last step in the production process, I simply didn’t get paid sometimes. The producers simply ran out of money and didn’t bother telling me. Happily, that doesn’t happen in this business. I’ve been a guitar dealer full time for 6 years now and I have had very few bad days. This is my retirement but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s a lot of work but I love every day of it. Gotta be thankful for that.

My clients (and readers) are the nicest, most knowledgable and most appreciative people in the world. I have many here in the USA and all over the world. I just checked–I’ve sold guitars in 21 different countries and I have readers in every country in the world except for seven countries in Africa (c’mon Somalia, get with it). I’ve sold guitars in every state and every Canadian province. Player, collector, beginner, hack (like me)…it doesn’t matter. The love of guitars makes us all the same. The common ground brought to us through these instruments is priceless. Whether you spend $300,000 on a 59 Les Paul or $900 for an old ’61 Epiphone Olympic, the anticipation and the joy when you open that box that shows up at your door after way too long in transit is the same. Gotta be thankful for that. Even after many hundreds of “new” guitars, it’s still like Christmas morning every time one shows up at my house or my shop.

Please feel free to continue to email me to ask questions about 335’s and the like. I’ll try to help with other guitars but there are plenty of other dealers who know more than I do. Also, feel free to email me about a 335, 345 or 355 that you are considering buying and I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t make a mistake. Of course, it’s hard to know everything from a photo but I’ll make sure you know what questions to ask. There are no inside secrets here. If I know something, you know it too. And if I disparage your 1979 ES-345 and you love yours, please don’t take it to heart. There are good ones and there are not so good ones. Your guitar only needs to speak to one person. You. Gotta be thankful for that, too.

The “A” rack at OK Guitars today. It changes a lot and often. I’m thankful for the A rack.

And Now for Something Completely Different

November 17th, 2017 • Uncategorized3 Comments »

I was supposed to do part 2 of my “Secret Sauce” post next but I was blasting around Ebay-which I don’t do so much any more and found a few things that made me question the sanity of some of the folks who buy and sell vintage gear. I know collectors are pretty nutty. A white pickup ring is worth 20 times what a black one is worth. An obsolete plastic switch tip (catalin) is $200 (and I buy them all the time). The top of the ES line is worth half what the bottom of the line is worth (355 vs 335). So much of the vintage guitar business is counter intuitive and we’ve all come to accept most of it’s silliness. But not all of it. There is no shortage of misguided sales and misguided sellers. Today, I found some real beauties.

How much is this worthless pile of plastic worth? Did I say worthless? This is VINTAGE, baby. Read on.

Broken parts generally aren’t worth much but that didn’t stop the seller of a completely off gassed 355 pick guard from putting it up on Ebay starting at $99 and noting it is “for repair”. Well, you can’t repair an off gassed guard that’s in dozens of pieces. It’s a worthless pile of celluloid. Maybe if the binding was intact, you could use that to repair an intact guard that had a compromised binding but c’mon, 99 bucks for a pile of plastic shards? I suppose if you had a 355 with a repro guard and you wanted to put the off gassed one in the case to prove you still have the original might appeal to someone but putting an off gassing piece of celluloid in a case is a really bad idea. They give off nitric acid which will trash your hardware. Hey, I put original tuners with shrunken tips in the case pocket of 59’s all the time but at least the new owner gets the option of retipping them. If I get a 58 325 with a collapsed low profile ABR-1, I always put it in the case but I don’t think I would go out of my way to buy a broken one to put in there.

Duane Allman played through this speaker. Well, not this cone but he did own this speaker frame. Easily worth 6 times it’s usual retail price, right?

I never thought I would see something more dodgy than the $100,000 64 “Clapton” 335 that the seller felt commanded a 500% premium over a run of the mill 64 (because it was 90 serial numbers away from Clapton’s) but now I think I have. A typical re-coned JBL D-120F is a $175 speaker and they are really excellent speakers if you play clean. But this one is $1035-a 600% premium. Why the big markup? Because Duane Allman played through it except it’s been re-coned so he really didn’t. OK, he owned it and that’s a bit of a conversation starter but 6 times the usual price? I have a set of stereo speakers that I played an Allman Brothers record through, so isn’t that kind of like Duane playing through my speakers? It’s not like any of Duane’s DNA comes through the amp or anything. Artist guitars and gear are not something I deal in for this very reason. The way I see it, unless the artist is closely associated with the guitar (or is a huge star, like a Beatle), I think it’s a fool’s game. I’ve had a few famous players come into my shop and play a bunch of guitars but I wouldn’t dream of asking a premium because that player played it. I can see this on Ebay …”1960 ES-335 dot neck played (with photo) by [insert famous guitar players name here]…$125,000 complete with DNA and sweat (it was a hot day). I will sell the DNA separately if requested.

Finally, here’s a piece of masking tape from inside a Fender guitar or amp with the name of the worker on it. Remarkably, somebody actually paid $30 for it. Nutty? I rest my case.

Old masking tape with the name Rene on it. Put this in the control cavity of your Telecaster and increase it’s value by a buck. How do you authenticate this? I could probably sell “Lupe” reproduction old masking tape for your old tweed amp for $20 a pop.

Secret Sauce, Part 1

November 16th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3553 Comments »

Number 9 on the top ten list is this 59 ES-345 in red-possibly the first red 345 ever made. The pickups are white/zebra, the neck is fat, the top is thick and the neck angle is normal.

I try to keep a record of which ES-335’s sound best (“top ten”) which is not an easy task. First off, I sell all the guitars I get so that I have to remember what a guitar sounded like years after I last heard or played it. I keep notes on each guitar but tone is so subjective that I don’t trust my own notes sometimes. In fact, I’ve had guitars that sound absolutely great one day and not so great the next. I’m guessing that if I lined up the ten best 335’s I’ve ever had and played them one after the other, they would sound really similar if not identical. But my ears aren’t your ears and my taste isn’t your taste. And my amp isn’t your amp. Beyond that, if I took the next ten that I’ve liked, I don’t think the difference would be all that great either. In fact, I no longer rate them in order-just top ten best and top twenty.

I bought an unbound 58 yesterday that is pretty close to mint and possible top ten contender. The conventional wisdom says the good ones get played. That’s often true but the converse is not. Just because a guitar is mint and barely played doesn’t mean it can’t sound great. If the original owner kept it under the bed and was a lousy player who gave up after 6 months in 1959, then the condition has nothing to do with the tone. This 58 is a monster. The dealer from whom I bought it thought it was the best 335 he had ever heard (and this was after I had agreed to buy it). I wasn’t playing it through a $12000 tweed Bandmaster either. I was playing it through a $1500 Gibson GA-80-a great amp but certainly not a legendary one. When I go back and look at my current list of the best 335’s I’ve owned, there are more 58 335’s than any other year and model. There are a bunch of 59’s (335’s, 345’s and a 355) some with a 58 factory order number (FON). There’s a 60 and a 62 on that list but 8 out of ten are 58’s and 59’s. Here is a list of the current top ten-ignore the order: #1 bound 58 335, #2  59 (58 FON) 335, #3 unbound 58 335, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 bound 58 335  #6 is an early 60 335, #7 is a 59 355 mono stop tail, #8 is a refinished 62 335, #9 is a 59 345 and #10 is a 59 335.

So, what’s the “secret sauce”? Is there any shared aspect of these guitars that tells us something about what makes them so good? All are stop tails. They all have long magnet PAFs except the 62 335. Many have the thin top-6 for sure, perhaps as many as 8-I don’t have notes on numbers 9 and 10-they could be either thin or regular tops. Numbers 1,3 and 5 have the shallow neck angle. How about the body depth? Body depth? Yes, the body depth kept getting deeper and deeper over the years. The typical 58 and many 59’s are 1.5-1.6″ deep. By 60, most were around 1.65″ deep. By 64, the average was around 1.72″ and by ’65, 1.8″ was not unusual. All have shallow bodies except the 60, the 62 and maybe one of the 59 335’s. What about neck profile? All but two have a chunky neck. The question is which aspects make the difference or is it a combination of all of them. Or is it the wood? Or how they were kept? Or how much they were played?

So, we’ve got the raw data but its interpretation is the sticking point. Maybe I need to look at a larger sampling or maybe it’s impossible to know without having all of them side by side. Doing things like swapping out pickups won’t tell us much since 9 out of 10 have PAFs. But wait. We all know that PAFs are not very consistent. We’ve all had experiences where a pickup swap has made a guitar better. Most of us believe that if a guitar sounds great unplugged, it will sound great plugged in. I don’t buy that as a rule. It’s a decent starting point but it’s not gospel. So, I think we know a great pickup is a big part of it. I believe the thin top makes a difference. The data tells me that. Or does it? None of the top ten are blondes. Three are red. One is refinished. So, six are sunbursts. That’s data but logic tells us that the color can’t possibly make a difference. Well, that same logic might tell us what does make the difference. We will look deeper in my next post.

Number 7 on the list is a 1959 mono factory stop tail ES-355. Big neck, white PAFs (which we all know sound better than black ones), thin top.

 

After the Goldrush

October 31st, 2017 • ES 33511 Comments »

The end of the Golden Era-the Gibson executives decide on what changes will make the 335 (or in this case, the 345) more competitive with the rival Fender line. Fortunately the company was in good hands.

Most of us will acknowledge that the most desirable 335’s are 58 and 59 dot necks. 64’s are pretty desirable too and all of these fall into what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Era”. Judging by the characteristics of these three years, the conclusion is pretty clear. People like guitars with big necks. But there has to be more to it than that or Gibson would have simply kept on with what they were doing. Since this era is largely our own perception of what’s desirable and what isn’t, you have to assume that something changed. Was it simply that Gibson and later Norlin, made inferior guitars? Well, that’s part of it.

So, what happened following the so-called “Golden Era”? I don’t like to make a blanket statement that all 70’s Gibson’s are crap. They aren’t, but here’s the distinction I draw between the Golden Era and it’s fringe (the late 60’s)…a bad 335 from 58 to mid 69 is the exception, not the rule. The bad 335 from mid 69 to 81 is more the rule. You have to look pretty hard to find a really bad 68. You have to look pretty hard to find a really good 78. If you own one and you love it, good for you-you found a good one. The intent of the Norlin Corp. who owned Gibson from 1969 to 1986 was to print money. Corners were cut, compromises were made, quality suffered and prices rose. The wood was often inferior, the center block nearly disappeared, pickups were simplified and suffered for it, necks were no longer a single piece of mahogany, the non too popular neck volute appeared and on and on. This might help explain the price differential between a 68 and a 78 but it doesn’t do much to explain the differential between a 59 and a 68.

The guitar boom that followed the Beatles to America was a cultural tidal wave. Sales of 335’s went from a few hundred a year (592 in 1959) to thousands ( close 6000 by 1967). That’s a tenfold increase and that must have put some strain on the work force. It is no secret that the quality in 67 is not as consistent as it was in 59. But, the quality was still quite good and apparently Gibson was able to handle the huge increase without ruining the product. There were, however, decisions made that make them less collectible or desirable than a 59 or a 64. The change from stop tail to trapeze in 65 was simple economics. It took longer to install a stop tail than it did to install a trapeze. Time is money. More important was the decrease in the nut width, dictated largely by competition from Fender where thinner meant faster (and we all wanted to be faster).  Imagine the vintage 335 market if 67’s had the wide nut and the big profile of a 59. The 335 market would be vastly different with thousands of additional, desirable wide nut 335’s available to satisfy the demand (the total for 65-68 is over 13000). OK, granted a 67 isn’t a 59 with a narrow nut-there’s the Indian rosewood board, the poly wound pre T (cheaper than enamel wire) and then t-top pickups and the chrome hardware (more durable than nickel) but still, they are more similar to a 59 than they are to a 78. I believe I could take a 67, put on a set of early patents, a stop tail and re-neck it with a wider mahogany neck and present you with a guitar you would swear was a 64 and you’d like it a lot.

The big dollars that 58-64’s command is not arbitrary. There are quantifiable reasons for their market values. I never took an economics course but the simple rules of supply and demand are at work here along with other, less tangible market forces. A dot neck plays and sounds no better than a block but commands a premium. An early patent is the same as a late PAF (but for the sticker) but it looks and sounds the same but commands a premium. Mickey Mouse ear cutaways are no better than the pointy ones from late 63 on but they command a premium. Starting to see a pattern here?

Fads and trends made a big difference here. The Golden Era didn’t end abruptly on Dec 31 1964. It didn’t end because the quality went down the tubes. The Golden Era is our perception of whats good and desirable- right now. It ended, in part, because the current demand is for wide nut guitars and Gibson, in it’s wisdom, blinked and followed Fenders lead for a “faster” neck. And further, in the quest for a less labor intensive tailpiece, Gibson went to the trapeze.  If, for whatever reason, narrow nut, trapeze tailpiece guitars become the rage among players and collectors, the 65-68’s are going to be king. And the Norlin era? Well, that’s a much more involved tale that we’ll get to soon.

The end of the Golden Era. This is a very early 65-all nickel, stop tail big neck. A few weeks after this was made, the stop tails were used up and the trapeze took its place. The big neck was gone by around June. Chrome was phased in throughout the year and even into 66 with the pick guard bracket the last piece of nickel hardware to fall.

 

 

When is a 58 not a 58?

October 15th, 2017 • ES 3357 Comments »

This 59 has a T7280 FON from 58 and the serial number A30518 which is June of 59.

When it’s a 59, of course. Guitars that fall on the cusp of a new year are often tricky to describe. We are all obsessed with what year our guitar is from. In fact I get more emails about dating these guitars than for any other reason. they can be hard enough to date without the year end confusion that Gibson’s seem to cause. During those years, there wasn’t really a “model year”. Gibson didn’t tout the “new 1959” lineup but we are conditioned to expect exactly that thanks to the automobile industry. They touted new models but not the new model year probably because guitars, especially higher priced guitars, often didn’t sell during the year they were built. I’ve found lots of guitars with a sales receipt dated a year or even two years later than the serial number indicates.

From 1958 to 1961, Gibson used two numbering systems. The factory order number (FON) which was generally stamped in black ink on the inside of the guitar (often twice-once on the back of the top and once on the inside of the back. And there was the serial number stamped or written (usually stamped during this period) on the orange label. No serial on the back of the headstock until 61. There is little confusion when the two indicate the same year but when they don’t, it can give you a headache. When I date a guitar, I consider a few factors: The serial number carries the most weight-that indicates the year the guitar was shipped. The factory order number indicates the year the build was started but not necessarily completed. And finally, the features of the guitar (dot markers, long guard, bonnet knobs, etc.). It’s not surprising that year end builds would get a following year serial number. I usually mention that in my listings-I would describe a 60 with a 59 FON as exactly that. I’ve covered this situation in earlier posts but there is an anomaly that occurred in the late Spring to early Summer of 1959.

The changes that were made in early 59 are quantifiable. The neck angle increased and the thickness of the top increased. These changes addressed some problems the 58’s were having. An early 59 with a 58 FON is common. I usually just call them 59’s. But what about a mid year 59 that has a 58 FON? How did that happen? Was there a rack of leftover builds that got put aside due to complaints about top cracks in the thin tops? So far, I’ve had seven ES-335’s with mid year serial numbers that have 58 FONs. The earliest in my database is A30247 (probably late May) and the latest is A30659 (mid July). Most are from one of two racks-T7303 and T7304 both late 58 racks. Two, including the one pictured, are from earlier racks. The rack number is not really of interest here but the year designated by the letter “T” is. That’s a 58 build.

So, are these “not-on-the-cusp” 59’s really 58’s? Well, yes and no. Here’s why. It’s pretty clear from the thin tops and the big round necks that the bodies and necks were fabricated in 58. The increased neck angle would have already been in place by late 58. But many of them have double white or zebra pickups which didn’t exist in 58-they were the result of a shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins in 59. They also have 59 pot codes. So, we can assume that the assembly of the finished guitar occurred in 1959. But, this is Gibson and nothing is totally logical. Another change occurred in 1958 to 59. The Kluson tuners went from patent applied to patent number (and they changed the formulation of the plastic). Some of these 58/59 ES-335’s got 58tuners and some got 59. Go figure.

I wasn’t there so all of this is speculation. They could have simply been leftover tops and backs that were already stamped but I doubt it. The neck and neck angle just shouts late 58. But I still call them 59’s probably in part because everybody wants 59’s anyway but also because of the 6 month discrepancy between the FON and the serial. The best I can do is describe it as a 59 with a 58 FON and call it a day. There is good news amid the confusion, however. These are some of the best of the best. The thin tops are more fragile and prone to cracking, to be sure. But they are also more resonant. The necks are big and rounded-the baseball bats we all know and love. The neck angle allows for plenty of height adjustment at the bridge unlike the earlier 58’s where the bridge sits on the top of the guitar. So, look for these and ask about the FON when you buy a 59, especially one in the above mentioned serial number range. It might be an exceptional one.

The “T” means 58. The rack numbers are sequential (supposedly) and the last digits are the rank-what number the guitar was in the 35 unit (more or less) rack. T7280-xx is pretty late in 1958 but the guitar didn’t ship until June of 59. No idea why.