Archive for September, 2012

Plastic Explosives

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Here's a Trini Lopez Deluxe that spent way too much time in its case. I'm guessing that guard will fall apart if you touch it.

The plastic that was used on some older Gibsons is downright dangerous. It is essentially a solid explosive that’s been stabilized. The trouble is that it doesn’t always stay that way. It’s a process called off gassing. Also called out gassing and gassing off. And it’s as bad as it sounds. As it turns out, the plastics that were used for certain components back in the 50s and 60s were not terribly stable from a chemical standpoint. Disclaimer: Don’t know much about chemistry. That said, it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve written about shrunken tuner tips and most of you have seen them but that isn’t all. Have you ever seen a 355 with the pickguard completely disintegrated and all the gold parts corroded and green? It’s not a pretty sight and it’s not something that you can simply wipe away like tarnish. This stuff actually eats the metal and plastic parts. This comes from a site called “The Museum of Jurassic Technology”

In 1868 John Wesley Hyatt formed a substance from a homogeneous colloidal dispersion of nitric acid, sulphuric acid, cotton fibers, and camphor. It was a substance of great tensile strength capable of resisting the effects of water, oils, and even diluted acids. Hyatt’s brother called it celluloid, and it became the first commercially successful synthetic plastic. It was cost-effective to manufacture and could be produced in a variety of attractive colors. Heated until soft and molded into shapes, it became a substitute for products fashioned out of ivory, tortoiseshell, and horn. Perhaps it is best known for its use in motion-picture film, where its volatility has resulted in the destruction of a vast percentage of early footage. But it was also used to fashion removable collars, collar stays, knife handles, guitar picks, piano keys, billiard balls, and, of course, dice.
Also pickguards and other plastic guitar components. The problem actually has a couple of components. The first problem is the disintegration of the plastic itself. But the real destruction comes from the gasses that the process of disintegration emits. If the guitar is stored on a guitar stand or a wall hanger, the gasses pretty much dissipate harmlessly into the air. The problem is that most guitars are stored in the case with the lid shut tight. Sometimes for decades without being opened. So what is this stuff? Well, apparently, it’s nitric acid. If you remember high school chemistry, nitric acid was one of the things the teacher didn’t let you use in the lab without a bunch of protective gear like heavy rubber gloves, goggles and stainless steel tools. They probably don’t let students anywhere near it anymore in these politically correct times. Nitric acid will eat the hardware-including the frets-of a guitar that’s in the case with an off gassing pickguard. It will also damage the nitrocellulose lacquer (which is chemically similar) finish. The cautionary tale here is that if you’re a collector who stores his guitars and rarely plays them, you might want to open the case once in a while and let the gasses out. I’ve read that celluloid can be completely stable for decades and, suddenly, completely come apart chemically over a very short period (like weeks). It doesn’t warn you either. It’s more like a time bomb that doesn’t have a countdown. Yikes.

These tuners are also an example of off gassing. These were on my red 59 ES-345 and for some quirky reason, only 5 of them shrunk. I don't think the tuner tips are celluloid but gassing off isn't limited to celluloid. Almost any plastic can gas off. Some do serious damage and others don't. Want more info? Call a chemist.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Monday, September 24th, 2012

I recently bought this totally excellent very early 65 ES-335 from a very nice guy. He bought it years ago and truly believed it to be all original, except the tuners and saddles. It turned out to have a repro bridge. So, I go into the parts bin and I get a correct bridge out and install it. I can't charge the buyer for my bad luck, however.

“Are you absolutely certain every single part on this guitar is exactly how it left the factory?” The answer is usually, “uh, I think so but I can’t be 100% certain.” No, you can’t. I do understand why so many vintage buyers get so fixated on the small stuff-after all you’re paying a crapload of money for these things. But, truth be told, most of the parts on a vintage guitar are removable and there is no way to know for absolutely certain whether a part is original. I don’t care if you bought it from the original owner-you still don’t know for 100% certain. People forget they changed the bridge in 1976. Perhaps one of the tuners got bent by the dealer and was changed before he got it. The cases got switched by the dealers all the time.  A lot of stuff happens in 50 years or so. So, my suggestion here is to look at the larger picture. What is it you are looking for in this particular guitar? If a museum piece is your goal, buy a mint guitar. Parts get changed because they wear out or a better part exists (like Grovers for Klusons). A mint guitar is much more likely to be original-just look for wear that doesn’t make sense-like one knob missing the lettering while all the rest a perfect. Stuff like that. You still can’t know for absolute certain but you’ll feel better if everything looks like it matches from a wear standpoint. If you’re looking for a guitar to play, stop worrying so much and listen to what you’re playing. In general, the price you pay will reflect certain changes-most of which will have nothing to do with how the guitar sounds. Pickups that have been unsoldered are a good example of this. Everybody took off their pickup covers in the 70’s. Everybody I knew anyway. It doesn’t mean they were rewound. They could have been but it isn’t that hard to tell if they were (that’s another post). With PAFs priced where they are, I get it. If I’m paying $2000 for a pickup, I want it to be sealed so there is little or no question about its originality. Patent numbers? Really, who cares. Besides, it’s the only way you’ll ever know whether its a T-top or not. Which would bother you more? A broken solder joint on the cover or thinking you may have the less desirable T-top. It goes beyond that-maybe you are curious as to whether its enamel wire (like a PAF) or the later and less desirable poly coated wire. The only way to know for certain is to look under the cover. So, lighten up people. Same goes for vintage correct parts that are identical to the original parts. If I have the choice between an original sagging ABR-1 or a straight one from a same period guitar, I’ll take the one that works correctly, thank you. Here’s the bottom line on all of this-the price of the guitar should be representative of the guitar itself. If you’re looking for museum piece, the guitar will likely be priced like one and you should expect it to be 100% original. But when you get a guitar that’s been described as a player and the solder joints aren’t all original or a couple saddles have been replaced or the tuner tips were changed or the switch tip looks too clean or the binding has a crack in it, make sure the price is what you want to pay for that guitar. Finally, consider this–95% (that’s right) of all the guitars I get are not 100% as described to me. Not because people are dishonest but because they just don’t know. How many people can tell a vintage correct saddle from an original one with the same wear? I promise to do my best to describe everything accurately but, c’mon, saddles are like frozen peas. They all look alike. Also, a skilled repair guy can make any solder joint look original. I can’t but there are those who can. Finally, the repro stuff has gotten really scary good and I’ll do my best to keep you all informed as to how to tell the real stuff from the fakes. That’s what I’m here for.

One of these saddles ins't original. I know because I changed it out myself. Can you tell which one it is? Would it matter to you if I didn't disclose it?


Ebay Gem

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

You gotta admit, this is pretty cool. It's a 65 ES-355 in blonde. It was almost certainly a special order and I'd be surprised if there are more than one or two others. Maybe no others. This is the first one I've seen.

There are two things I love about Ebay. I love when a really unusual ES comes up for sale and, make no mistake about it, this one is unusual. The second thing I love is when they come up for a reasonable price. This one, maybe not so reasonable. I’ve written a lot about the impact of extreme rarity on price. Long story short, it doesn’t matter all that much in most cases. Rare colors are a bit of an exception and that’s why this one is so interesting. I had one of only five red 59 ES-345s and it commanded a premium of about 30-35% over the equivalent sunburst. I had one of only three or four red 59 335s. Again, around a 35% premium. I had one of somewhere around 16 Pelham Blue Trinis and the premium was nearly 200% over a red one (thanks, David Grohl). Typically, blonde 335s from 58-60 get a 100% premium over sunburst. So, from this, I take away nothing. There is no real consistency-it’s still about the demand given the low supply. A red 59 345 is a bit esoteric because you can simply find an early 60 for a lot less and it will be pretty much the same. If you really want a red dot neck, there are plenty of 61s out there. So, how many people will pay a big premium because they want a red 59? A few but not many. That brings us to our Ebay “gem”. I like it a lot and it could be the only one or there could be one or two others. Gibson didn’t always include special orders in their shipping logs nor did they include small runs of non standard colors. It is a 65 stereo ES-355 in blonde. From the photos, it looks original and I’ll assume that it is. The last 65 stereo 355 I sold went for around $6000 about 10 months ago. Like the blonde on Ebay, it had a Maestro and was in similar condition. It was a nice guitar and it played OK despite the Maestro (which most of you know I don’t like). At $17,500, the seller is asking for a nearly 200% premium or triple the price of a red one.  Here’s a good comparison. Recently, a blonde, left handed 1964 ES-335 block neck surfaced. I wrote about it and saw it in person. I know what the buyer paid but I don’t think I should disclose it. It’s a little tricky because there is a premium for lefties and a premium for unusual colors. So is the premium scale additive or geometric? The blonde lefty is almost certainly one of one. Unique. The premium, if I’m remembering correctly, was around 80% over a right handed red or sunburst same year 335. Considering lefties get 25% or more, that leaves us at 55% or so assuming the premium is additive. You can do the math yourself. There is not much demand for a lefty 335 either but that’s because there aren’t that many lefties (so the demand can be pent up). A 335 is always more desirable than a 355 stereo.  A blonde is usually more desirable than a red. My guess is that there isn’t any pent up demand for a blonde 65 ES-355. There is also no good way to accurately price something with no precedent. I’ve never seen a blonde 65 ES-355 before. What would really be interesting would be a no reserve auction. That’ll bring ’em out of the woodwork. Then we’ll really know what it’s worth. How about it?

Summer of Love

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

OK, I'm being a little provocative but it is a 67. They made some blue ones and some Sparkling Burgundies. Looks like somebody else doesn't like witch hats.

It was 1967. The soundtrack was, without a doubt, Sgt. Pepper. Everybody seemed to own a guitar and everybody played. There was, perhaps, more music per square foot in this country than ever before. Gibson was selling more guitars than they could build. Fender was scratching its head wondering why Stratocasters weren’t selling but everything else was (go ahead, look it up). It was the peak of the guitar boom and the peak of the 335 market in terms of sales. There were 3122 reds shipped and 2596 sunbursts.  More than any other year in Gibson history. Compare that to 64 when 892 reds went and just 349 sunbursts. That’s a 450% jump in just 3 years.  1967 ES-335/345 and 355 don’t command big prices, but they can be excellent guitars. There were a lot of changes to the 335 that occurred incrementally from the end of the “Golden Era” (end of 64/early65) until 67. Two big changes make the 67 worth about a third the price of a 64. The smaller necks are somewhat out of favor. In the mid 60’s, fast guitar playing was all the rage and it was suggested (by the guitar makers, I suppose) that a thin neck was a fast neck. The folks at Mosrite made the skinniest neck out there with little teeny frets that they even called “speed frets”. Gibson slimmed down the nut in 65 to 1 9/16″ and slimmed down the profile as well. By 67, they added a bit more girth again, so many 67 necks, while narrow at the nut, have a pretty substantial feel to them. I’ve played some really good 67’s and I’ve played a few dogs as well. The other big change was the switch from a stop tailpiece to the trapeze-also in 65. While there is no question that the stop looks a whole lot cooler, the trapeze works just fine and, IMO, doesn’t appreciably affect tone or sustain. You would intuitively think it would-being anchored only to the side of the body by three little screws rather than those big ol’ studs going an inch into the center block. I’ve listened to more than a few. Not much difference-more sound is transmitted through the bridge posts than the stoptail studs.  The pickups on many 67’s are still pre T-tops with the red poly wire-good pickups overall and very consistent. T-tops show up on others and they can be a little reedy to my ears but can also sound very good. I find that moving them a little closer to the strings seems to help fatten them up. There were cosmetic changes that mostly make no difference but everyone has an opinion about them. While nobody cares that they lowered the headstock “flowerpot” inlay, just about everyone hates the new knobs-including me. We call them witch hats because they look like, uh, a witch’s hat. They actually look more like Fender amp knobs and they look ugly, I think. Easy to change. Fingerboards were all Indian by 67-I’ve never seen a Brazilian board past 66 but its generally pretty good looking Indian rosewood and if you can hear the difference, then you have some serious set of ears (or you’re lying). I like the wide bevel pickguard of the 66 and earlier ones better but that’s a pretty small feature and I prefer nickel to chrome even though chrome is way more practical. All hardware was chrome by 67-the last thing to go was the pickguard bracket-you might even find a nickel one on a 67. Should you buy a 67? Well, even with the streamlined manufacturing and multiple shifts, the quality is still generally very good and if you can handle the narrow nut, they can be very reasonably priced. I see them under $5000 pretty frequently and under $4000 on occasion. That’s getting down into Historic territory and, given the choice between a 67 and a Historic, frankly, I’d go for the 67 as long as the neck was OK.  Then I’d change the knobs.

OK. This more like it? This sunburst 67 shows the usual 67 features-all chrome hardware, narrow bevel guard and, of course, witch hat knobs.


Nine Eleven

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Let me digress from the usual guitar stuff for a day. It’s 9/11 and most of us have reflected on the events of that day every year for the past eleven. Some of you have reflected a lot more than that. What strikes me today is that here in the Northeast, it’s the exact same kind of day. Impossibly blue sky and the early snap of Fall in the air. This is the first year I can recall that 9/11 dawned, at least from a weather standpoint, the same as 9/11/2001. And, for some reason, this brings it back in a different way. It just feels the same. I’ve had this same feeling on other days that have this kind of weather but it’s never fallen on 9/11 before. Trite? Maybe, but it brings it all back just the same. Everyone has their 9/11 story and mine is pretty mundane. I lost no friends or loved ones in the attack but I was in Manhattan and I saw the second plane strike the tower. I was commuting into Manhattan every day in 2001 to my video business and I arrived at Grand Central oblivious to the events that were just beginning to unfold. I exited the station and saw a crowd standing watching a TV monitor in the window of a bank on Madison and 47th. The North Tower was smoking heavily and the newscasters were still trying to get a handle on whether it was an accident or an attack or something else. I turned to the friend I was walking with and said, “look at the weather…that’s no accident.” Then I turned from the TV and pointed downtown…”you can see it from here”. At that moment a burst of flame shot through the South Tower. It was 9:03 and we all suddenly knew that this was no accident. I then walked to my office across town. I called my wife on my cell phone (it took a number of tries-everybody was on their cell phone doing the same thing) and she was already watching the coverage and was trying to call me. I arrived at my office around 9:30 and my employees and clients were already there, glued to the TV. I went into my office to check my phone messages and starting returning calls-mostly from people asking about my safety (I had clients on the 98th floor of the North Tower but was rarely there..but still). I was on the phone reassuring my Aunt Mildred in Florida that i was OK when I heard a gasp from the lounge area. The South Tower had collapsed. And everything changed. We all felt we were in some kind of danger and we should probably leave (the building was a very high profile one). I live 50 miles away and the trains weren’t running. One of my employees, who was off that day, had a bicycle that he left in his office and I decided to take it. As I got out onto the street on that gloriously beautiful late Summer day, it was beyond surreal. It was like something out of a zombie movie-dazed folks walking uptown. Everyone moving away from the Trade center walking North. Just lines and lines of people walking-not talking. I crossed the Henry Hudson Bridge (which was closed to traffic-the city had been locked down) but no one stopped me. I rode up through The Bronx and into Yonkers and when I looked back toward the city, I could see the smoke plume. A passerby asked me if I had been in Manhattan and I told him what I had seen. He asked where I was headed and I told him I was going back to my wife and young son in Connecticut. “Let me drive you. It’s the least I can do.” So, we loaded the bike into the back of his hatchback and he drove me the 40 miles to the Westport exit. My Mom taught me 55 years ago not to take rides from strangers but on that day, there were no strangers. We were all Americans and we were all in this together. That night my wife, son and I walked to the beach and we could see the smoke from there and it was immeasurably sad. We had started hearing about people from our town who were in the towers and hoped it wasn’t someone we knew. They weren’t but they were. They were workers just like me who made their way to Manhattan every day to do a job to support themselves and their families. People I rode the train with. People who worried about their families, not about dying in a terror attack. People just like me. They just worked in a different building.

Bound for Glory

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Here's a 59 ES-355 I had a while back which illustrates the fancy ES-355 7 ply (count 'em) binding around the top. You can also see the tortoise guard with its added binding. Finally, you can see how yellow the bindings get with age from the yellowing of the lacquer. Compare that to the binding on the 2007 Historic down at the bottom.

Most players don’t give a whole lot of thought to the bindings on a guitar. Usually, they’re white and they turn yellow with age. End of story. But, whether you care or not, the bindings are one of the things that set the ES models apart from each other. The ES-335 at the bottom of the ES semi hollow line have a single ply binding top and back. The earliest 335s didn’t even have a bound fingerboard but that was remedied fairly early on during the early part of 1958. All ES models have the same binding on their fingerboards-single ply with little nibs at each fret and tortoise dot markers in the usual locations. As you move up the scale, the bindings get fancier and the price gets higher (and the hardware and circuits change, etc.).

Oooh, mint 60 ES-345. I particularly like the three ply top binding. Classes it up without looking like a ten dollar hooker.

The middle of the line ES-345 has a 3 ply white/black/white binding on the top and a single ply binding on the back. The additional black stripe in the body binding classes it up a bit without being ostentatious. Did somebody say ostentatious?  Well, the ES-355 at the top of the line has its detractors (tarted up like a cheap whore, pimpmobile guitar, etc) but I like the over the top 7 ply binding on the top of a 355. Five ply wasn’t enough for these somewhat overpriced instruments…it had to be seven. w/b/w/b/w/b/w is how it goes with the black layers being very thin. The back gets the 3 ply binding that the top of the 345 uses (waste not, want not, I guess). The 355 also gets the bound headstock which no other ES semi has as well as a bound pickguard. The neck binding is the same as the rest of the line which is kind of surprising considering how fancy some of the neck bindings are on the high end archtops. The 60 Byrdland I sold a while back has a 5 ply (it might even be 6) neck binding. Something worth pointing out is that these bindings really were white-not the beige off white that Gibson uses now. The binding were made of a plastic called Royalite which is still available both in white and off white. One of the things that makes “reissue” and “Historic” guitars look like reissue guitars is the bindings. The color is solid beige. When a vintage ES ages, the lacquer which started off clear on the white bindings, turns yellow, making the bindings look aged and yellow. The blonde Historics with their beige bindings just look wrong. It seems like it would make more sense to use an amber lacquer over white than to use a beige binding. Probably costs an extra $1.75 per guitar to do that. Take a look at a really well played vintage 335, 345 or 355. You’ll see that the areas of heavy wear on the bindings are often pure white. You could wear the binding right off a Historic and it would still be beige. Yeah, it’s one of those things that Gibson could easily get right but they just figure that nobody notices. Granted, you probably never paid all that much attention to the bindings on your ES either but aren’t glad somebody does?

You wanna see some fancy bindings? This is my old 60 Byrdland. Them's some real purty bindings. Makes your 335 look a little sad, doesn't it? Like the girl who shows up at the prom in pants.

Yuk. You call these "Historic"? They look even worse on the red ones.


More Stuff You Don’t See Every Day

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

This was almost mine but it got away. Now owned by a reader in California, it is a true rarity. I know of only four mono stoptail 355s. This is the only 63 I've ever seen.

Not long ago I wrote a post describing the elusive “wishlist” guitars and was pleasantly surprised when one of them was offered to me although not as a result of the post. Another of the wishlist guitars was just about in my hands when an unscrupulous seller took a higher offer after accepting my offer. That happens a lot among private sellers and, while it bugs me plenty, I don’t let it give me an ulcer. The guitar in question was an über rare stoptail ES-355. For those of you who may not be aware, the ES-355 came with a trem as standard equipment. A Bigsby was standard in 59 and 60 and remained an option through the 60’s. The stock trem from late 60 until 63 was the sideways and from 63 on, the Maestro type was standard. What was never standard was a stoptail and they are rare. Even rarer is a stoptail mono 355. I know of four. The one I had made the deal on was somewhere in New Jersey and was a mono 63-the only known stoptail from that year. Shortly after hearing that the owner had “sold the guitar to someone else” the day before I was set to pick it up, I received an email from a reader who told me about a 63 stoptail 355 he had just scored. “Did it come from New Jersey?,” I asked. “Yes, how did you know?,” the buyer replied. Really, what were the odds of two of them showing up in the same week. Anyway, I can’t fault the buyer for making a good deal on a very rare bird. It is a stunning example and I truly am jealous. It is worth noting that even though Bigsbys and the like actually diminish the value of a vintage guitar, they were a very desirable option back in the day which is why they were standard equipment at the top of the line.  It’s always struck me as odd that a hardtail Strat is worth less than a trem version but a trem 335 is worth less than a stoptail. Like I’ve often said, guitar collectors are nuts. So, that’s the stoptail mono 355 that got away. The good news is that I know where it is so if the owner ever sees fit to sell it, I have a shot at it. In my 48 or so years of guitar playing, I’ve seen most variations and permutations of ES-335/345/355’s but I did see something last week that I don’t think I’ve seen before. Also a 355, this one has an odd feature. Those of you who are SG aficionados will recognize this feature immediately. The ebony block trem. It’s essentially a short Maestro attached to an pearl inlaid block of ebony wood that is screwed into the top of the guitar. They are fairly common on SGs from the “sideways” era of 61-63 but you never see them on an ES. I found this one on Gbase and if it was priced a little better, I would think about buying it just for it’s rarity. And, as long as we’re on the subject of rarity, it doesn’t matter too much to collectors. I never quite understood why but something has to explain why a blonde 59 ES-335 (71 shipped) is worth close to twice what a red 59 ES-335 is worth (3 or 4 shipped). Or why really rare models (like Byrdlands or Farlows) aren’t valued higher? I guess it’s Economics 101–supply and demand. Even if there is close to zero supply, it doesn’t matter because there is close to zero demand. And this ebony block 355 may fall into that category. Unless you’re someone who specifically collects oddballs or 355s, I’m guessing the demand is not huge for one of these. Still, it’s pretty cool. Painfully cool, some might say.

This is the only ebony block trem ES I've ever seen. This appears to be a 61 and it even has the gold painted varitone knob seen only for a very short time. They are pretty common on SGs (Les Paul/SGs) but not on a 355. I can't imagine anyone special ordering one but I guess its possible. It looks out of place but still, you can rest assured that nobody else has one.