GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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1959

March 11th, 2023 • Uncategorized1 Comment »

It’s 1959 and my Dad (The Doc) and five of the seven Gelber brothers are at the beach in Cape May. That’s me on the left at the age of seven. Nice haircut (thanks, Dad).

I remember a lot about 1959. I was six, then seven in May. My Mom and Dad and the seven Gelber brothers piled into our ’58 DeSoto wagon and drove the (interminable) five hours from upstate NY to Cape May, NJ on vacation for two weeks. In ’59, Castro took over Cuba and the USA added a couple of new stars to the flag. We went to the movies and saw North by Northwest, Ben Hur (the lepers scared the crap out of me) and Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Yankees lost the pennant for the first time in my short memory and Gibson built the best guitars ever made on planet Earth.

We could talk about which ones were the best but you have your own opinion about that. I’ll just write about the 335. It was only the second year of its very long run but they had already made a few improvements and maybe took a small step backward as well. The first ’58’s were less than perfect. The unbound board was a little déclassé, the neck angle was too shallow, the frets were too small (for modern players anyway) and the bridge was prone to collapsing. But they sounded magnificent. The thin top had nearly all the resonance of an archtop but the center block kept it all under control. There has never been a more brilliant design; so what did Gibson do in 59? Apparently there were a number of customer complaints about that thin top. Most players used a straight plug and the leverage of that plug, when pulled hard would nearly rip the jack right out of the top. A 90 degree plug would have kept that from happening. Moving the jack to the rim would have kept that from happening. But Gibson chose to make the top thicker and while it didn’t ruin the design by any means, didn’t help the tone.

There were so many changes to the 59 ES-335 that it’s almost like there were five or six different models. A very early 59 will still have the little frets and very often the thin top and the shallow neck angle. The unbound neck was gone after a few months in 58. In 59 the little frets were the first thing to go, followed by the shallow neck angle. By making the neck angle steeper, Gibson was able to utilize a full height ABR-1 which took care of the collapsing bridge problem. They distributed shaved full height bridges to customers who complained about sagging bridges.

Gibson still had a lot of 58 thin top bodies in stock and the complaints really hadn’t had an effect on the top brass in early 59. In fact, the thicker four ply tops really didn’t arrive until around May. After that, they still show up with some frequency probably when the orders outpaced the ability to build the thicker topped bodies. they must have figured that most folks wouldn’t notice. After all, how many players were actual performers who would have the opportunity to strut to the end of their lead and yank the jack out of the guitar? The thin tops show up as late as July 1960 (SN A33765 has a 58 FON and a thin top). I’ve owned three thin top 60’s.

So, you can have a 59 with a shallow neck angle, shaved ABR-1, small frets and a thin top. You can find them with a good neck angle, full ABR-1, small frets and a thin top. Good angle, big frets and a thin top. Good angle, big frets and a thicker top. Then there’s the 59 neck profile. Early 59’s had the same profile as a 58. The depth at the first fret was usually around .88″ but could be as large as .95″ (the necks were carved by hand and could vary a lot). The 12th fret depth was typically a full inch or slightly more. That’s a big honkin’ neck. By sometime around September, the neck starts to get a slimmer profile. Still has the wide nut but the depth at the first fret now seems to fall between .83″ and .86″ while the twelfth fret is usually around .96″ to .98″. It’s a very comfortable neck and while the big neck aficionados still brag about theirs, the “transitional” neck has become very popular.

Oh, and the pickups. All were PAFs but there were four varieties of those too. Most of the early 59’s had double black PAFs. The zebra PAF showed up sometime in February but wasn’t common in 335’s until April. Double whites and zebras are fairly common in 335’s from April until perhaps late July. They continued intermittently in 345’s and 355’s through 1960 and occasionally into 61 on 355’s. The fourth iteration, the reverse zebra rarely shows up in 335’s. They are less rare in 345’s but I’ve only seen two 335’s with them. You want are rare 59? Find a thin top with a pair of reverse zebra PAFs. There is at least one…it’s A30183 and I currently own it.

So, when you tell me you have a 59 for sale, which one is it? Fortunately, they are consistently good guitars. I’ve never had a bad 59. I’ve had some average ones but seven out of ten of the best ES guitars I’ve owned (over 600) are 59’s. Four are 335’s, two are first rack 345’s, one is a stop tail 355. All are thin tops. The others in my top ten are two late 58’s and a refinished 62 dot neck. In case you were wondering. The price of a 59 ES-335 has risen sharply in the past few years but still pales when compared to the same year Les Paul. That tells me that even at $85,000 (The current record for a sunburst 59, I believe), a 1959 ES-335 is still worth every last nickel.

1959 ES-335 SN A30183 with a pair of reverse zebras, thin top, big neck and probably the rarest iteration of the many, many different varieties of 59 ES 335’s. The pickup covers are back on but those backwards zebras are still in there.

It’s Old. It’s Tired. It’s Vintage.

March 2nd, 2023 • Uncategorized4 Comments »
A 335 harness consists of four pots, a three way switch, two caps and a jack. And, of course, some wire. None of these parts (except maybe the wire) can be expected to last forever. The pots in a cheapo Sears Roebuck guitar and the pots in a vintage 335 are exactly the same. They wear out.

First off, I apologize for not posting anything in February. I don’t much like the Winter and February is generally the worst of it. That, along with a new (first) grandchild kept me away from the computer and it’s probably time to make up for that. I’ll start with something of a rant, if that’s ok.

With prices where they are (now higher than 2007), it isn’t at all surprising that folks have become more particular about the guitars they are paying good, hard earned money for. Maybe a $35000 dot neck 59 was a bargain but now with big neck early 59’s almost impossible to find, that $35,000 guitar is now $75,000 or more. Five years ago, when I sold a 59 (or a 58 or a 60) and something was wrong, I would do my best to make it right and buyers would understand that some things simply aren’t fixable without compromising the vintage “integrity”. I think it’s time to think about what is an “expendable” and what isn’t. Nobody cares if the strings are changed. Nobody expects that mint guitar to have its original strings and if it did, it would probably sound like crap anyway after 65 years or so. I understand wanting original frets and when I’m lucky enough to get a guitar that still has them, I can charge a premium. But a good fret job is every bit as good (and sometimes better) than the one done at the factory. But I’m not talking about frets either.

I’m talking about pots. Pots don’t last forever and they are prone to a host of problems-some fixable, some not. Corrosion is going to cause flat spots and noise and you can spray a ton of De-ox-it in there and it may improve but it may not be possible to make the problem go away without replacing it. Pots are date coded, so if I’m going to replace a worn out pot, I will always disclose it (and include the removed pot). I always try to get a vintage correct one that matches the others but it’s not always possible. I can’t tell you how many times I get a phone call or an email weeks or months after a sale and the owner is upset that a pot has developed a flat spot or some noise. Often those owners will say to me something along the lines of “hey, a $50,000 guitar shouldn’t have noisy pots”. My answer is “but a 65 year old guitar certainly could”. I believe that replacing the harness should be a common thing but it isn’t (except in 345’s and stereo 355’s). I’ve never, ever had a guitar sound worse after a vintage harness is replaced with a high end modern harness. Put the original in the case (intact if possible) and enjoy your guitar for another 30 or 40 or 50 years. Pots don’t last forever if the guitar gets played. They don’t last forever if it doesn’t either. An unplayed, mint 65 year old guitar is probably more likely to have problems with the pots. I have a near mint 59 that is extraordinary right now and the pots are totally quiet. When I sell it and 6 months later, they start getting noisy, it’s a lot like have to do a re-fret after you’ve played them down to nothing. Or replacing the tires on your vintage Jaguar. It doesn’t work properly if you leave it alone.

It’s funny how vintage Martin owners seem to understand that a Martin may require a neck reset to play properly. While we would all prefer one that hasn’t been touched, a pre-war Martin with a reset will still command serious money and most serious collectors are happy to pay it because, above all else, you are buying a musical instrument and if it can’t make serious music, as it should, then you are obligated, as a musician, to make sure it does.

Most 345 buyers don’t seem to have a problem when I remove the stereo harness and Varitone and replace it with a modern 335 harness with the same specs. But swap out a pot in a 335 with another vintage one and you hear about how the solder is no longer original or, worse, how the vintage “integrity” of the guitar has been compromised. Just so you know, I try to price everything in.

Year Ender 2022, Part 2

January 28th, 2023 • Uncategorized2 Comments »

It had to happen eventually. Folks have caught on. The 345 is a bargain. Still a lot less expensive than a same year 335 and still every bit as good. Prices are up three years in a row. Sellers still ask more than they are worth and will continue to do so forever.

Typically, part 2 of my year ender posts deals with a look back at ES-345’s and ES-355’s. Well, this is year is no different. 345’s and 355’s don’t simply follow the 335 from behind, they have their own economy and market. The markets are related for sure but they are not in lock step (and haven’t been for decades). After the extraordinary gains of 2021, we all thought that maybe 2022 was going to be the year of the correction. But no. It didn’t happen.

ES-345’s in past years tended to sit at about 50% of the same year ES-335. Again, not in lock step but you could make a general rule considering 1959 to 1964 ES-345’s. As the 59 ES-335’s moved up in value in a head spinning manner, the 59 ES-345 lost some ground but only when compared to the 335. The runup in 59 345’s that began in earnest in 2020 continued unabated in 2022. An good 59 sunburst 335 sits at around $70,000. A good sunburst 345 (stoptail) sits at around $30K. But, looking at the very desirable “first rack” 59 ES-345 market, it’s a different story. I recently sold a first rack in 9/10 condition for $37,000. That’s a big jump from the average of $32K they brought in 2021 (I sold three in that year). Here’s what is a little odd…60-64 ES-345’s haven’t really moved much at all. The asking prices are climbing almost daily but I’m not seeing big jumps in the actual selling prices. I’ve seen a 60 listed for well over $40K. 61’s in the 30K range (which is nearly equal to the current 61 335 price). 62 to 64’s in the pre pandemic days were in the mid to upper teens. I see them daily in the mid $20’s. Consider that an average PAF 62 ES-335 is now perhaps a $30K-$32K, a same year 345 at 75% of the price of the same year 335 is unprecedented in modern times. I’ve always believed that 345’s have been wildly undervalued. It’s a good thing that they are having a good year and getting the respect they deserve. They are wonderful guitars whether still in theoir stereo configuration or converted to 335 spec.

The ES-355 market is different. because there are both stereo and mono versions, there are two distinct markets. The fact that nearly all 355’s have a Bigsby or other vibrato tailpiece keeps the prices down a bit. The other factor that drives the 355 market is the fact that there simply aren’t that many of them. They are the lowest volume of the three ES semi hollows (by a lot). I sold perhaps six 355’s over the past year and the prices were about where they were in 2021 for stereo models but up considerably for monos. And that doesn’t surprise me. Mono 355’s are wonderful guitars. Like the rest of the line, the asking prices have gotten a little “ambitious” but the selling prices are relatively stable. All years other than 58 and 59 are (or should be) still in the $20K to $25K range. You might snag one in the teens if you’re patient. Stereo 62-64’s for under $20K are still out there. Look for Bigsby rather than sideways or Maestro-Bigsby’s simply work better. Here’s a little known fact…there are 65’s and even 66’s with a 1 11/16″ nut. I’ve had a couple 65’s and at least one 66. That’s due simply to the low sales volume. They had leftover wide necks and they used them until they were gone.

2022 was a good year for vintage ES guitars. It wasn’t the feeding frenzy of 2020 and 2021 but the fact that the gains from those years held up after life got back to (almost) normal is comforting. I expect the market to flatten out over the next year but I don’t think it’s going to drop appreciably. Sellers, if they want to sell, need to keep their expectations in check. If you price your vintage ES guitar properly, it should sell…not as quickly as it did back in 2021, but the demand is there.

My highest dollar sale this year was actually a 355. A one of a kind sunburst 59 stop tail, thin top, big neck mono 355. The only 355 to break into to my ten best list and an extraordinary example. I doubt I’ll see another

Year Ender 2022, Part 1

January 5th, 2023 • Uncategorized5 Comments »

60 and 61 dot necks had a great year mostly because 58’s and 59’s have become so hard to find and have soared in value. An early 60 is the sleeper value right now.

With Covid 19 almost in the rear view mirror (for now anyway), the guitar market is slowly returning from the insanity that marked the Covid Era. It was almost a foregone conclusion that the huge runup we saw in 2021 couldn’t possibly sustain through another year. And it didn’t. But 2022 was far from a bust. Inflation reared its ugly head for the first time in decades and that showed up in the new guitar market more than the vintage market. The vintage market had run up so steeply from 2019 until early 2022 that nobody would have even noticed inflation. 9% inflation in the midst of a 20% market rise doesn’t raise many eyebrows. But now it has calmed down a bit but the big price increases have withstood nearly a full year of economic uncertainty. That tells me that vintage guitars are a smart investment (but I already knew that and so did you).

What struck me in the period from Spring of 2020 until early 2022 was the huge increase in the number of first time vintage buyers. We can easily chalk that up to the “stay at home” advice that almost everyone took to heart during the worst of the pandemic. Guitars that have sat in my inventory for years were suddenly out the door. These weren’t bad guitars, they were generally really good guitars that had a limited market. Guitars like Guild Thunderbirds and Aristocrats, Gretsch Duo Jets and Country Clubs, Gibson ES-175’s and even Fender Duo Sonics. The runup in price for a late 50’s or early 60’s ES-175 was truly remarkable. The reason for this? PAFs. The increase in value for a PAF in 2022 was nothing short of mind blowing. I could buy a pair of double whites in 2020 for $9000. Today, if you can even find a pair, you’re going to spend $16,000 to $18,000. While all of the ES models had a good year (although much of that price increase occurred in 2021), it was the PAF equipped ones that led the charge.

The ES-335 market was fairly level in 2022 and that was no surprise after the stunning runup in 2021. Asking prices can (and often are) still crazy high but the overpriced ones are sitting unsold. That didn’t happen last year. You can ask $65,995 for your 60 dot neck with the Bigsby holes but I don’t think you’ll get it. That said, 60 and 61 ES-335’s picked up the slack in the dot neck market caused by the lack of inventory of 58 and 59’s. Decent block necks, especially those with PAFs had a strong year and have held on to the 2021 increases. I think mid 30K’s for a Bigsby or Vibrola version is wishful thinking but they are out there. But so are the ones for $25K. Do your homework. That’s a big disparity. As always, ask about the parts. 95% of the guitars I buy (including those from dealers) have an undisclosed parts issue. It can be as small as a wrong screw or as big as a changed tailpiece (the most common changed part). Wide nut 65’s have been a bargain for years but they took off and held their price through 2022. Still excellent guitars but no longer the sleeper bargain they once were. ES-335’s from 66 to 69 have climbed steadily but have fallen back a little recently. It’s not surprising either when you consider that the number of 335’s made in 67 is something like 10 times the number made in 59.

What should you buy in 2023? Depends on how much you want to spend and whether you want an investment, a player or both. I think 58’s and 59’s are still worth the money. The burst market tells me that there is still plenty of room for 58’s and 59’s to move even higher, especially blondes. If you can find an early 60 (transitional neck), that may be the one to buy right now as it is exactly the same as a late 59. Failing that, a later 60 is still a great choice as a player or an investment. 61’s are tricky with that very slim neck so be careful. 62-64 block necks are high right now but find one with PAFs if you are looking for an investment. I know, the late PAF is the same as the early patent number but the perception in the marketplace will favor a PAF equipped block neck every time. They have been underpriced for a long time and have finally gotten their due after having been left in the dust by the dots. 65 through 68 335’s have gotten kind of pricey as well but there are so many of them that competition often allows you to find a real bargain. After 68, you need to do your homework. Quality and specs are all over the place from 69 onward.

Later (65 to 68) 335’s can still be found at very reasonable prices. Lots of them are overpriced but there are so many out there that a bargain shouldn’t be too hard to find. Do your homework. This rare black 68 wasn’t cheap but it was still affordable for a black 335. A black 59 will cost you $150K or more if you can find one. This 68 was well under $25K.

“‘Twas…”

December 20th, 2022 • Uncategorized1 Comment »
OK Guitars’ former home (not at Christmas) This is the place where it all happened. It is, of course, the “caboose” mentioned in the post. It has now been turned into a condo/AirBnB and has been painted blue. Who has a blue caboose?

This is the only post I ever re-run. I could try to write another Christmas poem but I know my limitations. My wife and I wrote this one while on vacation (remember vacations?) in Mexico in 2015 and have run it every year since at Christmas. Read on.

‘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 yell, “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 is a link to your youth.

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

Way deep down inside, you’ll 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 now 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

This is the actual guitar I was referring to when the post was written. I didn’t own it then but I finally acquired it in 2021. It sold in half an hour. It’s a near mint red 59 stop tail.

Buying a 61 Dot Neck

December 6th, 2022 • Uncategorized2 Comments »

If you’ve got your heart set on a red dot neck, a 61 (or early 62) is your only choice unless you’re prepared to spend some very serious money. There is one 58. There are six 59’s. There are 21 60’s. There are over 400 61’s. Still pretty rare but not any more expensive than a same year sunburst. Beware of neck issues on any 61. 61 is also the year when the sideways trem became common. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

With the prices of dot neck 335’s soaring out of reach of a lot of players and collectors, it’s a good time to take a look at the ones that are still relatively affordable. That will take 58 and 59 completely out of the equation unless there are major issues like a neck break or a refinish. I should make the point that for a player, these issues shouldn’t be deal breakers. A refinished 59 is still a 59. Just 40% off. A 59 with a neck break and repair is a much bigger risk and could be every bit as good as the expensive one with no issues. But maybe not. With inflation and the general rise in collectibles since Covid, a 60 335 has become a $40,000+ guitar and breaking past $50K for one approaching mint condition. You can kiss a red one good bye though. They only made 21 in 1960 and I’ve seen upwards of $60K change hands for one. That leaves the buyer on a budget with two choices. A 61 or a 62.

62 dot necks are rare. They don’t carry any price premium over other years but you simply don’t see that many. They only made them for a month or so…that’s a guess. There is no record of how many dots were shipped before they changed to block inlays. That leaves the 61. I have mentioned many times that I generally avoid 61 335’s due to neck issues. The trend among players at that time was slim equals fast. Mosrite took this to an extreme and many guitars from that era forward had impossibly slim necks. Slim meaning very little depth and very narrow nuts. The depth of a 61 at the first fret can be as little as .76″. A 58 or early 59 is .90″. That’s a huge difference. The average Stratocaster from the era is around .79″ which is pretty slim as well. The nut width on a 61 ES-335 was wide at 1 11/16″ or slightly more making it (in my opinion) easy to get around on. Fenders at the time were narrower at 1 5/8″.

The problem with a 61 dot neck is really just the neck. Everything else is pretty much the same as a 59 with a few notable exceptions…the PAFs are different but still really excellent as Gibson went to A5 “short” magnets by 61. The tuners are cosmetically different (double line, double ring) but other than these relatively minor changes, it’s a 59 with a very slim neck. The neck issues can be non existent or catastrophic. The trouble is, it’s often impossible to tell from a photo. So, if you are buying a 61, ask about neck issues. Ask for a return policy.

What are we looking for? 61’s are prone to back bow. That’s when the neck curves upward toward the strings rather than the correct curve slightly away from the strings. Why not just adjust the truss rod? Good idea. If there is evidence of a back bow, loosen the truss rod as far as it will go. Don’t loosen past where you can move the nut with your fingers-at that point it won’t do anything but fall off. Chances are somebody already did that. If that doesn’t work your options are limited and expensive. The best solution is to shave the fingerboard to remove the back bow. The neck is already really slim and that will make it slimmer (and less stable) so it’s not a great solution. Something called a “compression” re-fret is supposed to help. That’s refretting using a larger tang to open the slots slightly causing the neck to move away from the strings. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And a refret isn’t cheap. I would simply return a 335 with a back bow and an already loose truss rod.

The other big issue is the “truss rod crack”. The neck of a 61 is so thin that there is very little wood between the truss rod channel and the back of the neck. Over tighten the truss rod and the pressure against the neck will cause the wood to crack. It’s a hairline crack usually from the third or fourth fret extending to the sixth or seventh fret. Sometimes it goes much farther-as far as the twelfth. It’s not structurally significant as the stress from the strings is unlikely to make it worse under normal playing conditions. It’s easy to fix if the neck has no other problems. But it’s a crack and simply the word “crack” can send buyers running for the exit. Fixing it doesn’t make it go away. It will still be visible and should be disclosed by the seller. The trouble is that the seller will often call it a scratch. Or a check. Or a “grain separation”, whatever that means. I’ve seen it on a few 60’s and at least two 62’s. It seems to be in necks .80″ at the first fret or smaller. Look for it and decide if it’s worth the headache on the sell side when the time comes.

Bottom line…look for a 61 that doesn’t have neck issues. I’d avoid any guitar that is back bowed. If the truss rod crack is there, look for a 20% discount, at least and make sure the truss rod still works. Then be really careful when adjusting it. A 61 can be a wonderful guitar. It just requires a bit more due diligence on your part before you spend your hard earned dollars (or yen or pounds or shekels). The short magnet PAFs are remarkably consistent (and remarkably good) and the build quality is the equal of any 335 made during the 58-64 “Golden Era”. It’s also the only way to get a red dot neck without mortgaging your house.

This is a 62 dot. They made them for a short time in 1962 before switching to the small blocks. A dot 62 commands a small premium over a block but reds and sunbursts are pretty much the same as a 61 and are valued about the same.

Good News, Bad News or Don’t Try this at Home

November 30th, 2022 • Uncategorized6 Comments »

This is what a typical 59 ES-345 stereo Varitone harness looks like. Lots of plastic tubing and three shielding cans (never four on a 345). The pickups would be soldered directly to the three way.

This is the harness from the pre “first rack” 345. No tubing and a lot of wires coming from and going to the Varitone switch. The stock harness has four wires soldered to the VT switch. The early one has eight including the pickup leads.

There was lots of goods news here at OK Guitars last week. I finally landed the “pre first rack” ES-345 I have been chasing for over a year. Being an early 59 (with a 58 FON) and a thin top, I had high hopes for this guitar cracking the top twenty. The only 345’s ever to do this are first racks. I think there are three that get that distinction. Maybe four. So, you would think that the first thing I would do when I unpack the box would be to plug it in and see just what it sounds like but the strings look like they are 40 years old so I restring it first. Of course most of the tuners tips have turned to dust so I better replace those as well. And a couple of the saddles have too deep of a notch so I file them down slightly and clean that up. As long as I have the strings off, I might as well do my photos of the back of the pickups and the routs.

Two hours later, I’m ready to plug it in. I use the 59 Tweed Pro because that one is closest to my chair. Being a stock 345, it is a stereo circuit so I need a stereo cord and I dig one out and plug it in. The bridge pickup sounds great if a little noisy but the neck pickup is dead. Sometimes it’s just the wires touching the three way shorting it out so I jam my fingers into the f-hole and start moving wires around. Nothing. One thing you don’t want to be doing if you can possibly avoid it is pulling the harness on a 345. The only thing harder than taking a harness out of a 345 is putting it back in. So, the next thing I do is remove the nut from the three way and pull it out through the f-hole. The pickups on a 345 are attached to the lugs of the three way rather than to the volume pots like on a 335 (or just about any other electric guitar). Both lugs have intact wires running to them so I figure it has to be the pickup itself. Bummer. So I desolder the pickup lead from the three way to remove the pickup but the wire to the three way isn’t the pickup lead. I’ve worked on dozens of 345’s and that wire is supposed to be the pickup lead. It’s time to (shudder) pull the harness. There must be some kind of mod that was done.

The first thing that comes out is the choke-usually one and sometimes two screws. This one has none. It is held in by wax potting. I’ve seen that before in some first rack 345’s. Making a long story shorter, I get the harness out and it’s very different than the other 345 harnesses I’ve pulled. The signal path is usually as follows: Pickups to the three way. Three way to the Varitone. Varitone to the volume pots, then to the tone pots and finally to the jack. Simple, right? On inspection, the harness for this 345 is different. The pickups go directly to the Varitone. Then to the three way, the volume and tone pots and the jack. The ground setup is different as well. The earlier harness has quite a lot more wire and is much more fragile than the 1960 I compared it to. As it turns out the pickup lead had pulled away from the Varitone as had the wire from the Varitone back to the three way. I repaired both solder joints and endeavored to re-install the harness. First try, I broke another solder joint (this time from the neck pickup). So, I pulled it again and repaired. Then, I broke the very fragile wire from the choke to the Varitone switch-this is the one that usually causes problems in early 345’s because it’s plastic shielded rather than cloth and the plastic cracks and falls off. I fixed that and tried again. I got the harness installed and it still didn’t work. I pulled it again and the other wire from the choke had broken loose (remember there are two of everything because the circuit is stereo). I’m now four hours into the job. I give up and put in a vintage 335 harness which takes me perhaps twenty minutes. Dropping a 335 harness into a 345 is a relative piece of cake.

I’m guessing the difficulty I encountered is the reason they simplified the 345 harness (and probably to save a dime’s worth of wire). A stock 59 harness is pretty durable compared to the one in this 345. It’s still no fun to install one but I can usually get it on the first try.

Oh, and the good news? This guitar is a monster. I don’t know what it sounded like as a stereo Varitone guitar but as a 335, it cracks the top twenty with ease and just sneaks into the top ten. I could have modded the harness so it is identical to the other first rack 59’s but, as a piece of Gibson history, I left it alone. If the next owner wants to put it back to stereo, have at it. I might suggest taking a Xanax before you do.

The typical Varitone switch is on the left. The early one on the right. The wiring leads me to believe that this pre “first rack” is a prototype. Gibson obviously needed to fix a problem and clearly was able to do so.

In case you forgot what the guitar looks like.

Pre “First Rack” 345 Arrives

November 20th, 2022 • Uncategorized8 Comments »

This is a 1959 ES-345 SN A29133. By serial number it is the third ES-345 ever made-nearly three months before the “first rack” 345’s were released. The FON is T7303-3 which is the last rack of 1958. The last three in the FON is it’s rank within the rack so it is probably also the third one made by that measure as well. It has some interesting features that set it apart from the other early 345’s.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the four ES-345’s that were built on 58 bodies and given serial numbers dating to February 1959. The vaunted “first rack” 345’s were shipped in April and all have 59 FON’s. I’ve been chasing one the four that are shown in the shipping ledger for a couple of years now. The owner (it was his father’s guitar) has finally let it go and I have it. His father played in local bands around Wisconsin along with his wife, the bass player (I bought her Lake Placid Blue P Bass as well).

I got in touch with my inside guy at Gibson who checked the records to try to find the earliest 345 in the book and, sure enough, four ES-345’s were shipped on February 11th. They are, serial numbers A29131-A29134. The FON is very late 58-T7303-xx. Strangely, there is also a rack designated as S7303 and that’s not supposed to happen. Did they forget to change the letter on the stamp (like the Fender amp charts from ’66) and then noticed it part way through the rack? Consider this (this is really geeky): serial number A 29132 and 29133-both 345’s both have the FON T7303. Serial number A 29548 (6 weeks later, more or less) is S7303. The FONs are supposed to be sequential and chronological with the letter changing at the first of the year and the numbers simply continuing. So, 7304 could have been an “S” but 7303 could not since it was already a “T”. Clear as mud. Right?

So, there are four 345’s that I’ll have to call “pre first rack”. They have nearly all of the same features as the typical first rack 345’s-small rout for the Varitone choke, thin top and huge neck. But where is the short leg PAF? It isn’t there. The bridge PAF has the treble side leg carefully folded up so it doesn’t hit the choke. Apparently Gibson hadn’t quite figured that part out yet. A29133, like most (if not all) early 345’s is a killer player. It has been heavily played and shows some battle scars and the residue of more than a few smoky dance halls. It still has its original SVT harness but I am considering converting it to 335 spec. It seems that around 95% of buyers really don’t want to deal with the stereo aspect and most aren’t that wild about the Varitone either. It’s fun for a week but it’s usefulness for most folks is pretty limited. My personal 59 345 (my main player) is converted.

There are also two others that shipped in the period between Feb 11 and April 20th. One is A29623 which would be the 5th one shipped. There is one other and then the blonde A29656 mentioned in the first paragraph that has been the earliest known for some time. I’ve been compiling a FON database for nearly four years now and the more entries I make, the more confusing it gets. The overlaps at year end is just the beginning but that’s another post. So, were the first four ES-345 prototypes? Probably not since they shipped to dealers and they had no unusual notes on the ledger page. Were there prototypes before these first four shipped? Hard to know. It’s possible there were but none have surfaced.

Just in case you aren’t confused enough, the first 345 was supposed to have gone to Hank Garland in 1958 but his is serial number A29915 which is a lot later — mid May 59. But, to add fuel to the controversy, I have A29914 in my database (the one right before Hank’s supposed prototype) and it was from the earliest numerical “first rack” (S8537) if you don’t include the recently discovered ones I’m writing about. So, how is that possible? The Garland family’s recollection and “paperwork” is a little slippery, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in their “certificate of authenticity”, signed, not by anyone at Gibson, but by Hank Garland and a Robert B. Garland.  No way to know anything for sure about this, so, let’s put that aside.

In any case, conventional wisdom is once again blown to bits. We have an earlier and probably the earliest run of 345’s there is. Two have surfaced-A29132 is a Bigsby with pearl dots and A29133 is a stop tail. Keep your eyes open for A29131-that’s supposed to be the first. Thanks to the nice folks at Gibson for their help.

English 101

October 30th, 2022 • Uncategorized11 Comments »

This ten cent piece of nylon (Delrin) is a big factor in how your guitar sounds. the nut has more to do with sustain than tone but sustain is a big factor in how your guitar sounds.

I started college as a physics major. I was baffled by calculus and switched my major to English. So, when it comes to our native language, I must know what I’m talking about. Or speaking about. Or something. The lesson today is comparative adjectives. Good, better, best. All 335’s are good guitars. 59 to 64 are better guitars. 59’s are the best guitars. Lesson over.

So, if I have a good 335, how do I make it into a better 335. There are lots of factors that make a guitar sound good and play well (good and well…another English lesson for another time). Some you can change and some you can’t. I believe that the wood is a big factor and since you can’t change that that short of buying another guitar, we’ll leave that one out. I am of the opinion that 99% of the tone of a guitar occurs between the nut and the saddles. The relationship between the components that reside in this part of the guitar are key.

What do we have control over that will affect the tone. Here’s a list: 1. The strings. 2. The nut. 3. The bridge and saddles. 4. The frets. 5. The truss rod. 6 The pickups. 7. The harness. All the parts that fall outside of the area from the nut to the bridge have a slight effect on tone with the exception of thr amp. And don’t tell me how much better your guitar sounds with a vintage stop tail over the one that was on it when you bought it. It’s in your head. I’ve had at least 6 different tailpieces on my player 345 and it never makes a significant difference to the tone. Same with tuners. Grovers might work better than Klusons but they don’t sound any better. They may add some mass but I’ve never heard a difference in tone.

It’s all trial and error so, starting with strings, find a gauge that is comfortable for you (335’s seem best with 10’s or 11’s) and a brand that sounds best to your ears. I love the sound of a new set of expensive Pyramids but they lose their tone so quickly that I don’t use them. DR’s or D’Addario 10’s are my go to strings. The nut is a lot more important than most folks think. The stock nylon nut on a 335 is perfectly good but the slots are often too small. If your guitar goes out of tune when you bend strings, it’s usually the nut, not the tuners especially if it goes sharp. Have your luthier widen the slots of the strings that go sharp and see if that helps. A bone or Tusq nut will change the tone slightly

The pickups and harness are a big factor. Simply swapping out the pickups may improve your guitars tone by a lot or not at all. It’s worth noting that a great set of pickups in one guitar may just sound average in another. I don’t know why that is but I’ve experienced it enough times to simply accept it. I learned a lot about harnesses when I had an early 80’s 335 that sounded terrible. Too dark with poor sustain. 80’s 335’s had 300K pots and for reasons I don’t entirely understand (English major, remember?) lower impedance pots make for darker tone. I swapped in 500K pots and it made a significant difference. I tried other caps as well. And, contrary to popular belief and conventional wisdom (neither of which are terribly reliable) it made no difference. A higher value cap seemed to change the way the tone control functioned (it bled off the treble faster) but the tone of the guitar didn’t change. PIO, ceramic, mylar all sounded the same. That’s because an electrical signal only sees values-it doesn’t know that bumblebees are supposed to sound better than crappy little disc caps.

The big factor in sustain are the saddles. Cut them too deep and the vibration of the strings is choked and the sustain suffers. Cut them too shallow and they can be noisy and the strings will fall of the edge of the saddle on big bends. No more than half the depth of the string should be below the level of the saddle edge. The bridge itself doesn’t seem to make much difference though. Gibson thought it might in the 80’s when they switched to the Nashville bridge with bushings rather than the screwed into the wood posts from previous years. It didn’t make much difference. Changing the material of the saddles may make a difference. In the 80’s we all put brass saddles and brass nuts on our guitars thinking it would improve tone and sustain. It may have but not by much. I’ve gotten plenty of guitars that still had an 80’s brass nut and when I swapped in a stock nylon nut, it made very little, if any, difference. As far as saddles go, vintage Gibson saddles were already brass (plated with nickel or gold).

Properly maintained frets wont really change the tone but it will affect sustain especially when bending notes. Same with the truss rod. The key to sustain is the ability of the string to vibrate for longer. If the neck is dead flat or back bowed, the strings ability to vibrate can be affected by the next fret up the fingerboard. That’s why I dial in a little relief when I do a setup. As far as tone goes, changing frets won’t do anything.

Conclusions? By all means, try different strings and pickups. It can make a real difference. Make sure the nut slots aren’t too deep. Same with the saddle notches. Adjust your truss rod for slight relief (usually a quarter turn looser if it’s dead flat on a 335). If none of that works, change the harness or pots. Dress the frets. Paraphrasing Bob Fosse…”I can’t make you a good guitar but I can make you a better guitar.” If none of these things help, take some lessons. It could be you and not the guitar.

You can change the pickups and it will change the tone. They are perhaps the biggest factor in tone after the wood and you can’t change that unless you buy a different guitar.

Epiphany III

September 24th, 2022 • Uncategorized4 Comments »

Gibson bought Epiphone in the late 50’s (some say 57, some say 58) and started building Casinos in 1961. The first ones had dot necks and tortoise guards.

That brings us to the Gibson ES-330 and the Epiphone Casino. They are virtually the same guitar. Where the Sheraton and Riviera had different pickups from their Gibson counterparts, these two were identical except for the headstock, finishes and sometimes the inlays. The first 330’s were introduced in 1959 and had all the usual 59 features…big neck, dot markers, “burst” knobs. The 330 came in sunburst and blonde. That would change in 1960 when red was added. The 330 wasn’t much like a 335 though. It is fully hollow and comes with one or two P90’s. The first Casinos were built in 1961. The earliest ones had dot markers, a tortoise guard (330’shad a black guard like a 335) and a slightly different trapeze tailpiece. The headstock on the early Casino was nearly identical to the 330.

The evolution of the 330 followed fairly closely the evolution of the 335. Dot markers gave way to small blocks in 1962. No wire ABR-1 was replaced by wire type. The pickup covers changed from black plastic to nickel. By 65, the hardware was chrome. The Casino evolution followed its own path. The guard was changed to white later in 61. The dots were gone by 62 but rather than small blocks, they used small parallelograms. The pickup covers followed the same schedule as the 330 as did the bridge and hardware. The other big change was the now familiar long headstock introduced in 64.

This is all interesting geeky stuff but there is a factor that makes the relationship between 330’s and Casinos unique. An early 355 is worth more than twice what an early Sheraton is worth. An early 335 can be worth more than three times what a Riviera is worth. So why is a Casino worth more than a 330? Let’s leave out the 59 and 60 330’s since there is no Epiphone counterpart. But a 61-68 Casino will often cost you more than a same year 330. Why is that? Three words. John, Paul and George. In the mid 60’s, Gibsons were hard to come by in the UK, even if you were a Beatle. Epiphones were somewhat easier to obtain and Paul got his 62 first and the others liked it so much, they had to have one too. Well, not Ringo. It is strange that Gretsch Gents and Rickenbacker 325’s have never become big collector guitars.

Good enough for these guys, good enough for you. I believe they are both 65’s. Pauls Casino was the earlier and more desirable short headstock wide nut version from 62.

Beyond the Beatle related collectibility, the Casino is an excellent guitar, every bit the equal of the 330. It’s easy to argue that the reason a Sheraton or Riviera doesn’t reach the heights of a 335 or 355 because of the mini humbuckers. But both the 330 and Casino have P90’s and I have nothing negative to say about P90’s. In fact, my personal main guitar is a 59 345 but the next one I reach for is a 60 Epiphone Wilshire with P90’s. The Casino is also a great “couch guitar”. That’s when you’re at home with the family around and you can’t turn it up to 11 and wail. You’re sitting on the couch watching a ballgame and noodling. The full hollow build gives you enough resonance that you can hear it but not annoy anyone. Most semi hollows won’t compete as well with Phil Rizzuto or whoever replaced him coming out of the TV (that tell you how old I am?). I could have said Mel Allen but nobody would get it.

I’m a big fan of Gibson built Epiphones and the whole point of devoting three posts to them is to tell you that they are wonderful, often undervalued gems. Go play one and see for yourself.

The guy on the left here plays an early Casino probably a 62 or 63. Not sure who these guys are but they have excellent taste in guitars. But they need to quit smoking.