Archive for June, 2012

FON Home

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

The serial number on this ES-355 is 1981 indicating that it was shipped in 1961 but the factory order number is R5401 21 which means they built the body in 1960.

Everybody knows about serial numbers and how unreliable they became by the mid 60’s. There is, however,  another number in many older Gibsons that will be a big help in dating your guitar. The bad news is that it won’t help you during the period when Gibson was reusing serial numbers with reckless abandon-three, four or more times over the course of a few years.  The Factory Order Number (FON) was used by Gibson from 1952 until 1961 as a sort of in house inventory system. At the very beginning of the construction process, a number was stamped in the body of the guitar that began with a letter prefix. They are usually visible through the treble side f-hole. They seem to be some kind of batch number but I don’t know of anyone who has truly deciphered the system. I can’t even tell you if the numbers are unique or whether they followed some “batch” numbering system. Where they are very useful is for guitars that seem to be at the end of one year or the beginning of another. During the period of 1959 to 1960 and, 1960 to 1961 there were a number of transitions going on in the ES series. You might have a guitar with a 61 serial number that still has a long guard, or a 60 with a big 59 neck or 59 type knobs (no reflectors) or even a combination of features that seems to contradict the year indicated by the serial number. This is especially true of 345s and 355s. Because they were relatively low volume sellers (especially 355s), they may have been

Not easy to see but thats a FON.

stored at the factory in partially finished form for a number of months. For example, I have an ES-355 with a short guard and a white switch tip-both associated with 1961. The factory order number is from 1960, however. The likelihood is that this guitar was built in 1960 but not fully assembled until there was an order for it which apparently came in sometime in 1961-hence the later serial number and later features. I had a wonderful blonde 1960 ES-345 that had a most un 1960 like big neck (although not as big as an early 59) and bonnet (non reflector knobs). It was an early January build and had a 59 FON. So, why didn’t it get the later knobs? Probably because the transition to the reflector knobs was still going on. When the guitars were assembled, I’m sure all the workers cared about was whether the knobs all matched. It was probably easier to grab the older type because you didn’t have to pay attention to whether they went on a tone pot or a volume pot -so my assumption is that was what they did until they ran out of older knobs. You will see amber switch tips into 61 but you will also see white ones at the end of 1960. I’ve seen 61’s with long guards and 60’s with short guards. These kinds of “anomalies” can call the originality of a guitar into question. Enter the FON to save the day. All most folks need is a reasonable explanation as to why a guitar  doesn’t strictly conform to the accepted norm and an earlier build date (FON) with a later serial number can explain a lot. Here are the prefixes (they go in reverse) 1952=Z, 1953=Y, 1954=X, 1955=W, 1956=V, 1957=U, 1958=T, 1959=S, 1960=R and 1961=Q.

It's a crappy picture, I know but its a very unusual serial number. This 60 ES-345 (that had a short guard) has the FON stamped on the orange label. Never seen another like it. I thought it might have been relabeled at some point and the only number available was the FON but that looks like the work of the Gibson folks to me. Also it says "Stereo Varitone" across the label and extending onto the wood. Let's see you fake that convincingly. In case you can't see it, it read R8022-8

$2000 a Pound.

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

This is a stoptail 61 weighing in at 7.5 but the scale is only accurate to a half pound so it could weigh as much as 8 or as little as 7 lbs. This is not the best way to weigh a guitar. Fortunately, I don't sell them by the pound.

That’s about how much a good stoptail block neck 335 will cost you.  Your car, even a pricey one like a new Porsche, is relatively cheap and might cost you $20 a pound-about the same as a good filet mignon. My old ’97 Volvo wagon cost me around $1.50 a pound-half the cost of the cheapest hamburger. Gold will cost you about $24000 a pound which is pretty close to what a burst will cost you. Imagine, a solid 24k gold burst. Eight pounds of gold at 1500 an ounce or so. That’s $192,000 which won’t get you the cream of the crop but should get you a nice one. Now $2000 a pound  doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Most people ask the weight of a guitar they are interested in buying and rightly so. After all, a gigging musician is going to spend a few hours with the thing slung over his or her shoulder and a few ounces could make a considerable difference. The weight range of ES-335s from 58 to 68 runs from around 7.25 lbs to just over 9 lbs. That’s a pretty big range. A 345 or a stereo 355 will weigh as little as 8 lbs and as much as 9.75 lbs-perhaps even 10 lbs. My problem is that I don’t have a really accurate scale, so I generally get on the bathroom scale with and without the guitar in question (which is only accurate to a half pound) and at least get in the ballpark. An average stoptail 335 (or trapeze) weighs just over 8 lbs. There is a chart on Tom H’s 335 page that you can check out here. I believe the variation comes largely from the varying densities of the wood involved-specifically, the maple block and the mahogany neck. I’m sure there’s variation in the plywood as well but probably not that much. There have been discussions-arguments, fights, shouting matches, even pissing matches-over what role the weight and density plays in the tone of the guitar. Frankly,  I don’t know. I’ve played absolutely killer 335s that weigh 9 lbs and killer 335s that weigh 7.5 lbs. Weight doesn’t seem to correlate to resonance in any direct way either. The only reason I can see for looking for a lighter guitar is to make it easier on your shoulder. I’m not saying that the physical characteristics of the wood don’t affect tone, I’m simply saying that there is no apparent direct correlation between weight and tone. It isn’t just the wood either. For a Bigsby, you can add about 6 ounces (it weighs more than that but presumably, you’re subtracting the weight of the stop and studs). A Varitone switch is only a couple of ounces but that choke weighs at least 8 ounces. That’s a lot of weight to add to an 8 lb guitar. If you’ve got a stereo 355 or a Bigsby equipped 345, you could be looking at a close to 10 lb guitar. Yikes. I generally don’t advocate removing the Varitone but if my favorite guitar weighed 10 lbs, I’d have to consider it. If you have Grovers or Schallers replacing your lightweight Klusons, you’ve probably added another 3 ounces. If you’ve converted your trap tail to a stop, check to see that the stop is one of the lightweight aluminum ones. You’ll save 2 ounces if you switch from the heavy zinc one to the aluminum.  It adds up. I could probably make the argument that light gauge strings weigh less than medium gauge but that would be nitpicking. Again, I’ll emphasize that the weight of the guitar seems to have no direct correlation to tone. It does, however have a direct correlation to pain. Especially at my advanced age.

The “Mint” Dilemma

Monday, June 18th, 2012

This '60 345 had one teeny ding in the headstock and a little pitting in the gold on the trem. Other than that, it looked unplayed. The case was even better. Even the pull ribbon on the case pocket was not only intact but still looked ironed.

I’ve already done my rant about calling guitars mint or near mint or mint for their age and all the other silliness that the “m” word engenders. But there is another aspect to it that can be more than a bit vexing. You pay a serious premium for a mint guitar. It can be 50% or more over the cost of a “merely” excellent example. Collectors seem to gravitate toward the museum pieces and I can’t blame them. If I were a serious collector, I’d want one of everything in the best possible condition. One dot neck in each color, one block neck in each, one 345 and one 355. True mint is truly rare. Out of approximately 200 ES-335s, 345’s and 355’s I’ve had come through the OK corral, only 2 have been truly mint and perhaps another 5 or 6 approaching that status. Here’s the dilemma-and I’ve had to discuss it with every buyer who has asked for a mint piece: Are you going to play it? Gig it? Owning a museum quality guitar comes with another price. It won’t stay museum quality if you play it too much. The occasional hour here and there probably won’t make a difference over the course of a few years but, rest assured, no matter how careful you are, the condition won’t get any better. Donn’t get me wrong, I love buying mint examples. I’m always awed at the fact that something can be as old as I am and still look new. Mint cases even more so. But I don’t think I could own one. I play every guitar I own (I don’t actually own that many) and I play every guitar I sell. The mint and almost mint ones scare the crap out of me because so much value is tied up in the condition. All I need to do is forget to close the closet door and turn to my left and WHAM, it isn’t mint any more. Mint carries a responsibility, I suppose. Unless you have more money than you know what to do with, the reason you paid the premium for a mint guitar is to have the best example there is. If you don’t take very, very good care of it, it will cease to be that. So, not only do you have a responsibility to the guitar but perhaps a responsibility to your wallet and the next buyer. “It was mint when I got it” doesn’t mean much to the next guy once you’ve worn the frets down. On the other hand, it’s your guitar and you owe it nothing. So, play away and enjoy it. It was mint the day it was bought by the original owner 50 years ago and he probably rarely played it (which is why it’s still mint). Just don’t smack it into the closet door.


Body Depth

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

The 59 on the right is 1.642 and the 64 on the left is 1.776. that's a difference of close to 10%. Seems like a lot to me. The early ones 58-59 tend to be thinner than the later ones.

We all know them as “thinlines” -so named because the body was thinner than the normal archtop. If you aren’t already aware the ES-335TD stands for ElectricSpanish-335-Thinline Double (pickup). If there’s a C on the end, then its a cherry finish. A N means blonde (or natural). You guys all knew that or if you didn’t, you’d never admit it. Gibson is notorious for being wildly inconsistent with regard to the specifications of its guitars during this period and body depth is perhaps the most inconsistent of all. The factory spec for body depth is 1.75″ but a quick check of my current inventory shows a range from 1.642 to 1.776. That’s a difference you can see (and probably feel after standing with the guitar over your shoulder for a few hours). A quick check of Tom H.’s site shows a chart that indicates different depths even within the same year. I don’t measure every aspect of every 335 I get (although perhaps I should start doing so) so I donn’t really have a database that’s any better than Tom’s. I’m going to guess that when they cut the strips for the sides, they weren’t really all that concerned about getting the width of the strip dead on to the factory specc. If there was an end that was a little wide or a little narrow, so what. It was barely noticeable and probably had no effect on the build. Or did it? Wouldn’t it make sense that the center blocks would be precut to size? So, if the body was deep enough, there might be an air space between the top of the block and the top of the guitar? There is normally a piece of spruce between the flat top of the block and the arched top of the guitar but was that custom fitted or precut? Without tearing a bunch of guitars apart, I have no way to know, so we’ll just have to forget that aspect for now. There is certainly some kind of relationship between the depth of the guitar and the weight. But it isn’t consistent, so I don’t think there is any judgement to be made as to whether a “deep” 335 is better than a “shallow” one.  It appears to have become more consistent by 64 settling down at the deeper 1.7716″. I don’t have any later 335s to measure at the moment but I’m guessing that it stayed pretty consistent as they streamlined the process to accommodate the huge increase in orders that occurred during the guitar boom of the mid 60’s. It wasn’t just body depth that was all over the place either. Weights are always a crapshoot since individual pieces of wood have different weight characteristics like moisture content and density. But so are nut widths as you can see on the same chart on Tom’s site. We’ll get into that in some depth down the road.

Social Media

Friday, June 8th, 2012

OK, this post is pretty self serving, so feel free to ignore it if you aren’t in the market for a 335, 345 or 355. Clearly, I love these guitars but I need to keep the guitar business flourishing, so every once in a while I have to be a little self serving and overtly commercial. On the right side of the main page is a “follow me” button. Feel free to hit it (they like me, they really really like me”).  Here’s a not so well publicized secret–if you’ve ever wanted one of my guitars only to find it was sold in about a nanosecond, you can get a leg up. Just follow me on Twitter. I don’t tweet about what I’m doing (…going out to buy drugs now (yeah, Lipitor)…). I only tweet when I’ve made a deal on a guitar. That means you know its coming before I get it and you can even put a hold on it before I even see it. I can’t guarantee a price until I go through it but if you know it’s something you want, you might as well join the queue before somebody else beats you to it. I also post them on the OK Guitars Facebook page. I’m a bit of a social media Neanderthal but I’m learning as I go.  I’m not the world’s most sociable guy but the idea of being sociable without having to leave the house (or get dressed) is pretty attractive.

Case by Case Basis

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

The case on the left is a Gibson badged 61 that is 5" deep. The one next to it is a Lifton badged 61 that is 4.25" deep. Both are cases that came with "original" 355s. Both brown cases are 4.5" deep and are both from 59 335s. The one on the right is a Stone and the one next to it is a Gibson badged. What guitar is supposed to go in the 5" (outside measurement) case? An ES-350? A 175?

I’ve written about cases a few times and covered the various manufacturers and changes. Recently, I’ve begun to notice some discrepancies in the presumably original cases that have been arriving at the OK corral. Here’s what keeps happening. I’ve been getting a lot of 1959 through 1963 335s and 345s in brown and black cases-nothing unusual about that-but here’s the weird thing-more than half of them are the wrong size. The correct Gibson badged ES-335 case is just under 4.5 inches deep. Lifton badged cases tend to be around 4.25″. Stone cases come in around 4.5. I don’t have an Ess and Ess on hand but they showed up later, anyway. Strangely, I’ve gotten a number of 5″ deep cases and I wondered what was going on? What guitar was this case supposed to fit? Even in the correct vintage case, a 335 tends to move around a good bit in its case but when the case has an extra half inch or so in there, it’s even worse. I have a 2″ piece of foam that I set on the strings that keeps the guitar from moving when the case lid compresses it.  The easiest part to change on a guitar is the case and lots of guitars end up with cases that are from a different era. But why would a vintage piece, from its original owner have the wrong case? The answer is deceptively simple. The new guitars would show up at your local music store-usually in a case-and would be unpacked and taken out of the case for display. No music store is going to sell many guitars if they don’t take them out of the case and put them up on the wall. The cases would be stacked up or leaned against a wall in the “back room”. I remember going into Manny’s on 48th Street when I was a kid to buy my first serious guitar. I wanted an Epiphone Crestwood and they brought one out for me to play (it was Inverness Green and horrible looking). I didn’t like it and asked to play a Fender instead. They pulled one off the wall and I ended up with a brand new 64 Jaguar and they put it in a brown case. All my friends played Fenders and they all had black cases which looked so much cooler. I was only 12 but I spoke up. The sales guy yells to a guy in the back room “hey Lou, bring me a black Fender case.” The guitar fit and I was off. The point is that they didn’t care whether they gave you the right case. They cared about whether the guitar actually fit into the case. They didn’t care much about how well it fit-just that you could get it in there and shut the lid. They didn’t carefully label each case as the guitar was removed in order to keep the guitar with the case it showed up in. It just wasn’t that important. At least until you tried to fit an ES-350 into an ES-335 case which was all you had left because you kept putting 335s into 350 cases.  So, my theory is that even if the case is wrong for the really expensive vintage guitar you just bought, it doesn’t mean that the seller is lying. In fact, the chances seem pretty good that the case you have for your guitar isn’t the case it showed up in. If there are a dozen semi hollow and hollow Gibsons in stock at the time yours was bought, the sales guy had an 8% chance of getting the right one. It may have been the correct one (a 335 in a 335 case) but it may not have been the one that it showed up in. Here’s another wrinkle. Most dealers offered a cheap cardboard case and a hard case (and you paid extra for the case-it wasn’t included). So, if a bunch of buyers cheaped out, there could be a glut of hard cases in the back room. I’m not certain if Gibson always shipped in a case-I’m assuming they generally did but the dealers also probably bought cases in separately so they could offer a range of them. In 1968, when I was 16, I was back at Manny’s buying an SG Standard. I had called to ask them how much it would be and brought the exact amount of cash. The case wasn’t included. Somewhere, there is a 68 SG in a vintage correct case (I bought one later) but the “original” case is a cardboard box.

Here's another photo. Why do Gibson badged brown cases handles turn blue? Another nice thing about early cases is that the handles are metal and they don't break like the plastic ones that show up in 63.

Big Neck=Big Tone?

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012


Tone Monster number one. Big neck? check. PAFs? check. Stoptail? nope.


Tone Monster number 2. Big neck? Check, PAFs? nope. Stoptail? check.

Yes, this is a refinished 62 and is Tone Monster number 3. Big neck? nope. PAFs? check. Stoptail? Check. Again 2 outta 3.

In the last post I discussed how the tone of your guitar can be adversely affected by something as mundane as saddles that are too deep and worn. This post will take on what has almost been elevated to urban myth status. It seems there are an awful lot of people who equate big tone with big necks. It makes sense, after all. It is pretty well established that the “legendary” tone monsters are mostly 59s and 59s have big necks. But is the tail wagging the dog or are the “experts” wagging their tongues. Well, to be sure, there are plenty of wannabes out there who will jump on any bandwagon in sight. It’s human nature to want to sound knowledgable and be part of an elite group-that group being 59 Les Paul owners, I suppose. Or maybe even 59 ES-335 owners. In any case, is there any truth to the big neck equals big tone legend? Much as I love to debunk urban myth, there may actually be something to this. The best four guitars I’ve ever owned are a 59, a 59, a 64 and a 62. Three of the four have  big necks. All four have been unusually resonant unplugged and all four have had that sweet singing tone and wonderful sustain that we all equate with Golden Era Gibsons. Without getting into physics and the properties of old wood that I know very little about, it’ll be hard to convince anyone of anything. Simple physics-sound travels better through solids than it does through air. More wood=more solids. Does that equal more tone? Beats me but it sure seems that way. Most of you know how much I like 64s. They don’t have PAFs but they do have big necks and they are consistently great. I’ve had loads of them and never had a dog in the bunch. But what about that great refinished 62 dot neck that sounded so great? The neck wasn’t particularly small but it wasn’t all that big either. That one was resonant too which leads me to believe there are other factors besides size in this fight (sound familiar?).  The two 59s had big but not huge necks and were extremely resonant but also had great long magnet PAFs and shallow neck angles. The neck angle on the 62 and 64 were much steeper. Then, to complicate matters, three of the four were stoptails and one is a Bigsby. It’s pretty well accepted that a stoptail is a big factor in great tone (and sustain).  So, what is it? Luck? The wood itself? I think it’s more likely the confluence of a number of factors where the “right” combination (and the right setup) brings them all together. Will a fat neck increase your chances of getting great tone? I think it will but it’s only one of a few factors. It is no accident that 1959 is considered the pinnacle of the Golden Era and the neck is a big part of that. Of course, the market says a 59 is worth twice what a 64 is worth and that means that either the 64s are underpriced or the 59s are overpriced.  And, yes, there are twice as many 64 335s out there than there are 59s but neither guitar is particularly rare.  Also, just to throw a monkey wrench into the conclusion, one the top four tone monsters in my ES hall of fame is a 59 345 with a Varitone. In red. In fact all four are red. Does that mean red ES’s sound better than sunbursts? Of course it does. We all know that.

This is Tone Monster number 4. It has all the elements. Big neck, PAFs and a stop. But it also has that well known tone sucker-the Varitone. This guitar has the best neck pickup ever and tone to die for. The only rule is that there aren't any rules.