GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Good News, Bad News or Don’t Try this at Home

November 30th, 2022 • UncategorizedNo 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 first 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.

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 to 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 • Uncategorized3 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.

Epiphany II

August 24th, 2022 • Gibson General7 Comments »

Here’s an early Riviera that belongs to my friend Roger in California. This is the Royal Tan finish. I believe this is a 62.

Next up would have to be the Riviera. Rivieras, like the Sheratons, were made in Kalamazoo by the same craftspeople on the same line and with the same materials as ES-335’s. Introduced in 1962 (three years after the Sheraton), the Riviera was, essentially a 335 with mini humbuckers, a “Frequensator” tailpiece or, optionally, the dreaded “Trem-O-Tone” vibrato tailpiece. A Riviera is very close to a 335 tonewise but nowhere near a 335 in terms of separating you from your money. A 62 ES-335, in the current market, is a $30,000 guitar. A 62 Riviera, while somewhat hard to find, will cost you a third to half of that. A collector grade 66 ES-335 might cost you $10,000. The same year Riviera might cost you a little more than half that. So, why would I spend the extra money for a 335?

Mini humbuckers and full size humbuckers are not the same. Minis tend to be a little more focussed but they also tend to have a little lower output and a bit less lower mids and bottom. Don’t confuse the standard mini hums with Firebird mini hums. Both are excellent pickups but they aren’t identical. But that’s another post. I think the more relevant discussion is whether a Gibson built 60’s Epiphone is going to appreciate or hold its value as well as a 335. After all, you are just the caretaker of your guitar. You will eventually sell it and if one is a better investment than the other, then that should be a factor. Because I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know if American Epiphones will ever become as collectible as Fenders and Gibsons. To muddy the waters even more, look at the Epiphone Casino vs the Gibson 330. The Casino, because of the Beatle connection, is the better investment. I don’t think a Riviera will ever surpass the 335 as an investment piece.

That said, it’s still a remarkable value. I’ll make another comparison…a 68 Les Paul goldtop is a wonderful guitar. Many were converted to humbuckers and, in that configuration, they are very popular and the value is barely reduced unless it’s a serious collector grade example. That’s because so many people want one configured that way but nobody wants to do the conversion for fear it will hurt the value. Do it to refin or one with some issues and you’ll be safe. I think the same goes for a Riviera. I’m not a huge fan of mini hums but given that the Riviera is essentially a dirt cheap 335, maybe converting one to full size humbuckers (again don’t do it to a collector grade example) isn’t a terrible idea. One point worth making is that nearly all Rivieras have a 1 9/16″ nut. That’s pretty narrow for a lot of players (including me). Not impossible to get comfortable with but I find it a bit cramped for my stubby little fingers.

Look for one with a Frequensator tailpiece or a Bigsby. The “Trem-o-Tone” vibrato is trouble. It simply won’t stay in tune. It looks sort of cool but if you get one, keeps your mitts off it if you want to finish the song in tune. Rivieras were mostly sunburst or red. There was a color called Royal Tan which is a very light sunburst and another called Royal Olive which is a greenburst and not terribly attractive if you ask me. I’ve only seen one in Royal Olive. I had a factory blonde on last year that was pretty nice as well. Remember the American made Rivieras only go to 1969. Prices for most are under $10K. Early ones (short headstock) will be more as will unusual colors. Look for the grey with blue lining case. That’s the one most of them came in.

Here’s a 66 Riviera in factory blonde with a Bigsby. A blonde 335 will require a mortgage. This was under $15K. Nice fat neck too, just a little narrow at the nut for me. This is the usual 60’s Epiphone case.

Epiphany

August 4th, 2022 • Gibson General16 Comments »

These are crazy rare (only about a dozen made in 59 and 60). It’s an Epiphone Sheraton in blonde with NY single coils. One of my favorite guitars ever. Too bad I sold the two that I’ve had.

Didja ever notice how every time you write the word “Epiphone”, the spell check changes it to Epiphany? It’s really annoying and I wish it would stop. That said, this post is about Epiphones. Sheratons to be more precise. With prices of Golden Era 335’s (58-64) out of reach for so many and 345’s and 355’s getting there as well, it’s time to reassess what you are spending your money on. The same folks who made those wonderful Gibsons made Epiphones as well from 1958 until 1969 or so. Not just the same company but the same craftspeople on the same line in the same plant with the same wood.

The Sheraton is, essentially, a mono ES-355 with a few changes. Sheratons went through a lot of changes from the debut year of 1959 until the end of the American era in 1969. The first iteration had single coil “NY” pickups left over from Epiphone from when it was a different corporation. They are excellent pickups but not particularly loud or powerful. I really like them but they aren’t for everybody. Fidelity is excellent but they won’t drive your amp into saturated distortion heaven. They lasted until early 60 when they were replaced by Gibsons own mini humbuckers. The minis are a bit like a full size humbucker with manners. The DCR is usually in the lower 7K range and the tone is somewhat more balanced. They are rarely muddy at the neck and rarely overly bright at the bridge. There are PAF minis as well as patent number minis on 59 to 69 Sheratons. Nice pickups.

Up until 62, Sheratons had 5 piece necks with Grover tuners. The 59-early 61’s had a wonderful V profile. Mid 61 and later had a slim C profile. This is the short headstock. The long headstock started in 64. You know what that looks like. They still use it today.

The neck profile went through some changes as well. The first Sheratons (59 through early 61) used the five piece V profile short headstock neck left over from pre Gibson times and they are wonderful. My favorite neck of all time. A V profile can be very deep but there is virtually no shoulder making it a joy for players with smaller hands (like me). It feels slim and fat at the same time. The next neck iteration still had the short headstock and some were five piece (some were one piece) but the V profile was gone. These necks were wide (1 11/16″) at the nut but fairly slim front to back. Not as slim as a 61 335 but more like a 62 or 63. The long Epi headstock that is still there today showed up in 64. 64’s and most 65’s still had the wide nut (and even a few 66’s) but they were quite slim (.80″ or so at the first fret). From 66 until the end of the USA run, the nut went to 1 9/16″ and the profile was generally the same as 66-69 335’s. Fingerboard is Brazilian until 66 or so. Inlays are very attractive MOP with abalone triangle inserts.

Finally, the one thing I don’t like about Sheratons…the tailpiece choices. The Frequensator is a two piece trapeze that is OK but I would prefer a stop tail. Bigsbys are not common but they are a huge upgrade from the absolutely awful “Trem-O-Tone”. The Trem-O-Tone is perhaps the worst vibrato tailpiece ever designed. They simply don’t work well and they don’t stay in tune. I’ve had sideways Vibrolas that work way better than one of these. Avoid it if you can. Change it if you can’t and keep your hands off it if you have to have it.

This is the Trem-O-Tone vibrato tailpiece. The best use of this is on somebody else’s guitar.

You can still get an early Sheraton for under $20K. I sold a V neck 59 with mini hums last month for $16K. With mono 355’s pushing over $30K, that’s a steal. You want to go to town for cheap? Buy a Sheraton with issues. Rout for full size humbuckers (Throbaks are my favorites) and add a stop tail. Instant 335 at less than half the price. I’d put that up against any new Gibson 335 in a heartbeat.

61 and 62 Sheratons. Both with mini hums and Frequensator tailpieces. Most players would be happient with this iteration of the Sheraton.

Liars, Cheaters and Lowlifes

July 14th, 2022 • Uncategorized4 Comments »

I’ve been buying and selling vintage guitars and amps for around thirty years now. That doesn’t make me one of the “old guard” of vintage dealers who realized during the 70’s that old guitars were better than new ones (especially in the 70’s). But it means I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen my fair share of (read the title) liars, cheaters and lowlifes. I was brought up to believe that most folks are honest and fair minded unless there is money involved. Then, not so much. And since there is always money involved with vintage guitars and amps, you need to pay attention. I have mentioned often that between 90 and 95% of the guitars I buy have an undisclosed issue (or two or three). I’ve always chalked that up to a lack of knowledge rather than rampant dishonesty. There are a lot of parts to a guitar and I don’t expect individual sellers to know every one of them for every year of every model of guitar. The problem is that, with the rise of sites like Reverb.com, everybody is a dealer, it seems. So, caveat emptor and let’s look at a few examples of how I’ve been the victim in the past.

The usually reliable “hostage” photo. This will show that the seller actually has the guitar in his possession rather than a stolen photo off the internet. It doesn’t always work.

One of my favorites is the purchase of a 1964 ES-335 back in the early 2000’s. I knew my stuff when it comes to 335’s, so I never worried too much about changed parts and other issues that can be seen in photos since I can usually tell from the photos unless it’s a harness. My big concern when buying from an individual seller was whether they actually owned the instrument in question. My brilliant solution? The hostage photo. That is simply a photo of the guitar with a piece of paper with my name written on it stuck under the strings. I suppose somebody with some mad Photoshop skills could fake that but I didn’t think most folks would go that far. I was looking at a 64 ES-335 for sale in California. I asked for and got the photo and everything looked good so I sent the seller his money and waited for the guitar to arrive. But it didn’t. I emailed the seller. No response. I called the seller-nobody by that name at that number. Then I did a search for 1964 ES-335’s and I found one in the same California town as the one I thought I had just bought. I went to the dealer website and there was the exact guitar I had just paid for. I called the dealer and they explained that no one had paid them for it and that it had been there for a number of weeks but that a local guy asked if he could take some photos for a friend of his. I had been played. Cost me thousands.

I really, really wanted this amp but when it showed up with a broken chassis, I had to send it back. Many months later, the refund still hasn’t shown up. Maybe this post will get him off his ass.

Another rather common problem, although not nearly as common as changed parts, is undisclosed damage. Most dealers and most sites like Reverb have built in recourse if an item isn’t as described. I recently bought an amp from a dealer with whom I had done business before. It was a very early Marshall JTM 45 with most unusual light blue tolex. I figured it was re-covered but the owner said he didn’t know. It was wildly expensive (over $20,000) but re-covered or not, it was the coolest amp I’d ever seen (and I really like JTM 45’s). When I got it, it was clear in 20 seconds that the blue Tolex was not original but the seller never said definitively that it was. So, I sent it off to an expert to assess the circuit to make sure everything inside was straight. It was mostly original with just a few caps changed but the aluminum chassis was so badly cracked that it would likely fall apart at some point. It could be fixed but it would be very expensive and I decided to return the amp to the seller. So, I did. He promised to mail me a check but I never got the refund. It’s now over a year later and despite numerous emails, still no check. Lots of excuses and apologies but no check. And this is a fairly well know online dealer who shall remain nameless (for now).

The most common changed part is the stop tailpiece. Look for the ‘short seam” (bottom example). The top one is a repro but the late 60’s stops look like the one on top as well.

My final example is the most common. It has happened to me dozens of times. Changed parts. Originality is king with vintage guitars so any part that isn’t original (or, at least, vintage correct) is trouble. A stop tailpiece for a 58 to 64 ES-335 is currently a $2000-$2400 part. A PAF can go for $5000 (a double white for nearly twice that). Even a lowly pick guard can be $1500 or more. As a reputable dealer, I can’t (and won’t) simply pass on the sellers error (or dishonesty) to the next buyer. Some repro stuff is so good that even the most savvy dealers can’t tell an original from a fake. And that has become a very big problem. When I get a guitar and a part is not what it should be, I usually have two choices-return the guitar for a full refund (which is what I usually do) or ask to be compensated for the value of the changed parts. Seller: “Well, how do I know you didn’t change it yourself?” That usually tells me that the seller might be less than reputable if he’s immediately accusing me of dishonesty. Stop tails are the most commonly changed part. Pickups are next, then knobs. Les Paul reissue owners have been scavenging 58-60 vintage correct parts for years for their R9’s and they certainly have the right to do that as long as they disclose the changed parts when they sell the compromised guitar. Learn the difference between vintage and reissue parts. I have posts about all of them. And, as always caveat emptor (that’s “buyer beware” for those of you who don’t understand Latin).

Color Wars

June 11th, 2022 • Uncategorized7 Comments »

Doesn’t seem to matter much what color your old sports car is. It might be easier to sell one color over another but guitars are different. And besides, you never see a sunburst Porsche

A red vintage sports car will cost the same as a black vintage sports car. A blue one, the same. And it doesn’t seem to make much difference if it’s refinished. A red one might be easier to sell than a blue one but color is rarely a big factor in the price. Not so when it comes to vintage guitars, Guitar players and guitar collectors don’t seem to follow conventional logic (or conventional wisdom, for that matter). I’ll give you an easy example to start us off. A black PAF, in today’s market, will cost you around $4000-$4500. A white PAF will cost you twice that. Yes, there is a range and some variation but essentially folks are willing to pay double for a white one over a black one. There is no difference other than the color of the bobbins. You can argue that whites tend to be slightly overwound but it’s pretty easy to find black ones that are in the mid 8K range. It’s the color that makes them more valuable. The difference in price between a custom color Strat and a sunburst Strat is another example with Custom colors (even ugly ones) doubling and tripling the value.

A 58 Les Paul gold top is, on a good day, a $150,000 guitar. An average 58 sunburst is twice that. Again, the only difference is the color. Rarity is not a factor because 58 gold tops are rarer than 58 bursts. Again, it’s the color. 3×5’s often follow a predictable pattern but with some very strange twists. A sunburst 335 is the most common among dot necks. A blonde dot neck is double the price of a sunburst. That is based, I think, on desirability and rarity. There are only 211 blonde dot necks. There are about 1700 sunbursts from 58 to early 62 when the dot neck era ended. A blonde 345 is also desirable and rare. There are only 50 blonde 345’s vs about 1300 sunbursts from 59 to 64. Again, the price is around double. Looking at 355’s, the landscape changes dramatically because the vast majority are red. Using red as the baseline, there were around 1650 ES-355’s made from 58 to 64. We’ll forget about mono vs stereo here. I know of perhaps 5 blonde 355’s made during that period. There is no record because all of them were special orders. Predictably, the price for a blonde is more than double because they are so rare. The last one I sold went for around $150,000 (it was a 62). That is more than 5 times as much as a red one. So, we all get it…blondes are desirable and will cost you a lot of money. But what about those bursts? I can’t think of another guitar that commands a premium for sunburst.

That brings me to sunburst ES-355’s. Nobody goes out looking for one because they are incredibly rare and, to be honest, if you want a sunburst ES, why not just buy a 335 or a 345? They are pretty much the same guitar, aren’t they? Well, yes and no. The design is pretty much the same as is the tone. The ebony board may add some “snap” to the highs (for the record, I think this is urban myth) and make for a somewhat smoother playing surface. Factory Grovers are a nice addition as they are a better, more reliable tuner. There are plenty of players who prefer the 355 over the 335 (BB King, for one, Chuck Berry is another, Keith Richards too). If you want a sunburst 355, you will have to look long and hard. I know of around ten from 59 to 64. All but one have a Bigsby or sideways or Maestro trem tailpiece. That’s a dealbreaker for many. A sunburst 355 is so rare that most folks don’t think they exist. It can’t be particularly desirable if no one knows they are out there. Only a very savvy collector will even be aware of them. It seems strange that folks will fall all over themselves for the opportunity to simply hold a sunburst Les Paul. Rock stars and rich collectors (and dealers) will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sunburst Les Paul but nobody pays a premium for a sunburst finish on any other guitar.

I point this out because I own a sunburst ES-355 that has sat on the market for a while. It is priced like a blonde but ES folks don’t look at a sunburst the way Les Paul players do. My sunburst 355 is a 59 and is a stop tail. It is mono as well. It is also the only one known. If for no other reason, I just want my readers to know that they exist and to let you know that logic doesn’t work with vintage guitars. If it was black, it would be $200,000 easily (thanks, Keith). The last black 59 ES-345 I sold was in the $155K range-way more than a blonde 345 would sell for (double, in fact). So, while Les Paul bursts continue to rise with the strong market (and inflation), the sunburst ES-355 waits to be discovered.

A sunburst ’59 335 or 345 is a desirable and wonderful guitar. A sunburst 355 is almost unheard of. There are less than a dozen. This is the only sunburst stop tail 355 ever made (as far as I know). It is also mono with double white PAFs and a big fat neck.

Mothers Day, Again

May 8th, 2022 • Uncategorized2 Comments »
Liz Gelber circa 1946. Thanks Mom. I miss you every day.

I don’t generally re-run a post (except for the Christmas poem) but when I tried to write a new Mothers Day post, I couldn’t do much better than the one I wrote 8 years ago. Here is a post about my Mom.

Did your Mom yell at you to turn that thing down? Did she tell you that there was no future in being a guitar player? That maybe you should be a doctor or a lawyer or maybe a nice accountant? Mine did not and that’s just the beginning.

My mother had nine children (all boys in case you think it was going to be easy). She’s been gone since 2011 but I think of her much more often than one day a year in May.  She always encouraged her sons to play a musical instrument. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was mandatory. We had a spinet piano in the living room which she played often and competently. She could sight read like you read the newspaper but she would never be mistaken for a musician. Still, there were show tunes coming from the living room. Each of my brothers played at least one instrument. None of us were good enough to make a living at it but most of us stuck with it. I took violin starting in the 4th grade. I wasn’t very good. My parents added an organ to the living room when I was around ten (not a chord organ either-a real dual manual, no fooling’ around full pedal board pro Allen) and I took lessons on that too. I wasn’t very good. My oldest brother, Ben-who also played violin, took to it and then there was Bach coming from the living room.

The Beatles showed up in 64 and I bugged my father endlessly to get me a guitar and he came home one day with a flattop Kay that cost $15. I started guitar lessons and quit the organ. I still had to play the violin in the school orchestra (I switched to upright bass that same year). Mom made sure I practiced like she did with every other brother and every other instrument. The big surprise was that I was pretty good at it. They agreed to get me an electric guitar (Fender DuoSonic and Princeton amp in 1964) and my younger brother, Brian, who already played the oboe, albeit not that well, took over the Kay. He would take over the DuoSonic when I got the Fender Jaguar in 65. I would often practice in the living room with the amp turned up to somewhere around 11. And then there were Beatles songs coming from the living room. My Dad would come home from work and yell at me to turn it down but Mom never did.

When she was in her 50’s, Mom decided it was time to learn another instrument. She asked me to help her find a cheap and playable guitar and we ended up with a German Framus flattop that had good action and she taught herself to play. I helped her with chord charts but she wouldn’t have it. She had to read music – not some chart. That was cheating. Just the notes please. She never got that far but she was never one to shrink from the task at hand. Mom had no fear. She learned to windsurf in her 60’s, built a path down to the lake behind our house, wallpapered the bathrooms, made a quilt out of my Dad’s old neckties and about a zillion other “projects”. She never excelled at any of them but showed a level of determination and ingenuity that has influenced me throughout my life. If someone says that something is so simple “…even your Mom could do it…”, they didn’t know my Mom.

So thanks Mom. Thanks for the encouragement, your example and your unwavering support. And thanks to my wife, too, for carrying on the tradition of superb mothering. Our son is a pretty good guitar player and can play the piano better than my Mom thanks to the support of his Mom. In our house, there was Chopin and Gershwin and Lennon and McCartney coming from the living room.

Liz Gelber circa 2005 Thanks again, Mom.

Fedex Follies Part 2

May 7th, 2022 • Uncategorized3 Comments »
Nobody wants to lose a guitar or have it damaged in shipping. It happens and there isn’t much you can do about it unless you have an insurance policy that covers guitars in transit.

So, if you read the first installment of Fedex Follies, you know that Fedex somehow misplaced a 50″ box. Or maybe there was an airline strike that only affected large boxes or USA bound shipments or some other not too credible excuse. It was missing and unscanned for just about a month. It arrived a month and a day after it was shipped so all’s well that ends well, right? Not quite.

It is never easy to get a refund of any kind from Fedex. And, to be fair, it is hard to get a refund from any service company. Fedex does have a guarantee but they don’t make it easy to use it. If you call and say my package was late, they will immediately start making excuses-weather being the most common. Then, they will tell you that no refunds are processed until the invoice has been sent. Then, if it’s more than 14 days after the invoice has been sent, they will disallow the claim. Dem’s da rules according to Fedex’s “Terms and Conditions”. We’ll get to those terms later.

The guitar, a 60 ES-355 finally arrived on April 22nd which was a Friday. I went through the guitar over the weekend and put in for the refund online on Monday April 25th. My claim was denied because Fedex says the invoice was more than 14 days old. Wait a second. I just got the guitar on Friday, so how can the invoice be 14 days old. Well, as it happens, they processed the invoice on April 12th a full ten days before the guitar was delivered. I get and pay the invoices online so it wasn’t sitting in a pile of invoices on my desk. I was not happy. I called Fedex.

Them: “We’re sorry about the delay but we can’t issue a refund if the invoice is more than 14 days old”. Me: “But the package was just delivered a few days ago. How can the invoice predate the package by ten days?” Them: “We can’t issue a refund if the invoice is more than 14 days old”. Me: “Connect me with your supervisor”. Then they cut me off. I called back and asked for what they call the “customer advocate” who is supposed to be on your side. She started the same script and I stopped her. Me: “Would you look carefully at the dates?” Them: “Oh. I see the package was delivered on the 22nd”. End of conversation. They approved the refund. It took about a dozen phone calls to try to find the guitar and to get my refund. Time on hold was probably at least 90 minutes. I should send them a bill.

Terms and Conditions. Who reads the terms and conditions? Every time you buy something online a box pops up and you immediately scroll to the bottom and check the box that says “agree”. Nobody actually reads the text. But in the case of Fedex and vintage guitars, it’s going to cost you. When you enter the value of the guitar into the shipping form, you expect that you are buying insurance for that value. $25,000 guitar coming from EU? They’ll charge you $306 for “insurance”. But the terms and conditions state clearly that the limit for guitars more than 20 years old is $2000. If you pay the $306 and the guitar arrives safely, you think nothing of it. You paid for insurance and you didn’t need it. Always the best outcome. But what if they lose the guitar or break it? Fedex has a decent track record with guitars that I’ve shipped. They have lost one and broken four in twenty years. At the time of the first broken guitar, I hadn’t read the terms and conditions. When I put in the claim for half the value of a broken 64 SG, they told me they would cover up to $2000 but only the repair-not the diminished value. Them: Read the terms and conditions. So, they will take your money for so called insurance with no limit. But try to collect and the limit is $2000 no matter how much “insurance” you bought. I have asked Fedex to add a pop up box telling you about the limit if you enter more than $2000. They haven’t done so. Don’t give them your money for nothing.

This 64 SG didn’t look like this when it left the building. Thanks Fedex. They offered $340 for the repair.