Archive for June, 2013

My Favorite Year

Sunday, June 30th, 2013


My favorite would have to be a big neck MM ear, red, PAF 63. I haven't seen one since I had this one back in January of 2012.

I’m not sentimental. Just ask my wife. Big number birthdays and anniversaries? All the same to me. Did I shed a tear when the McDonald’s where I proposed was torn down? Uh, no (and that’s a really long story). Things like “birth year” guitars don’t really appeal to me, although it’s a pretty big deal with a lot of folks-especially those born during “good” guitar years. I predate the 335 by six years, so my birth year guitar would have to be something else. But, as I said, not sentimental. Apropos of nothing, the question I get asked all the time is “what is the best year for a 335?” My answer is usually in the form of another question. The best year for what? Playability? Tone? Investment? Looks? It’s all so subjective that I can only offer up an opinion. There are folks who believe that the ultra shallow neck angle of the 58-early 60’s has the best tone. There are folks who believe the long magnet PAF of 58-61 is the pinnacle of tone. The fat neck of the 58 and 59 are currently in vogue but that could change. I remember when thin necks were all the rage. Most agree that the big neck 64’s are pretty desirable even if they don’t have PAFs. If Mr. Clapton could make it sound like he did, then maybe you can too. There are folks who find the 65-67 narrow fingerboard very playable and get themselves some great guitars for a few bucks more than a reissue. I played a 64 ES-335 (red) for many years but as I got into the dealer thing, I ended up selling it because I had a customer who wanted a 64 badly enough to pry my player from my hands. My recent favorite has been a 58 unbound neck that is just spectacular. The neck is a little fat for me but the tone is superlative. The 58 is different. The top is 25% thinner than a 59 and 58’s tend to sound somewhat different than later ones. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “woody” applied to tone (and other stuff). The 58 top seems to vibrate a good bit more and all that woody goodness comes through. It’s not really “better” tone-it’s just a bit different and I like it a lot. Most will agree that the best year to invest in is a 59. These held their value fairly well through the crash and continue to be the most sought after 335s (and especially 345s and 355s) of them all. And with good reason. All around, the 59 is everything everybody seems to want. Great (often white) pickups, neck angle and size, spectacular sunburst and natural finishes and wonderful tone. For us red lovers, there are only about a half dozen red ’59 335s, perhaps the same number of red 345s but plenty of red 355s. A lot of dealers throw huge prices on 59’s and sometimes get them. It makes 59 a tough market to play in for most. They have become a bit scarce and while an early 60 can have all the features of a 59, it doesn’t command anywhere near the same price. Much as I love 58’s and 59’s, if I were to make a chart comparing the features and relative value of 58-64 ES-335’s, the unsung hero might be the mid 63. These have a unique set of features that make them special. Mid 63 is the moment that Gibson changed from Mickey Mouse ear cutaways to the pointier ones. It is also the moment that the necks got big again but not too big. They are the last gasp of the PAF equipped 335 as well. And they come in red. A Mickey Mouse ear, double PAF, big neck 63 is pretty rare but is worth looking for. I’ve had one this year and one last year. We all know that the early patent number pickup is the same as a PAF but value-wise and investment wise, they aren’t the same. A pointy ear 63-64 is great looking but the MM ears are preferred by most folks (including me). The neck profile is near perfect for me as are most 64’s. So, much as I love a dot neck 58 and much as I appreciate a 59, I have to say that my favorite of all is the mid 63. If you’re lucky enough to find one, hold onto it. I should have.

A 58 unbound 335 is neck and neck (get it?) with the 63. If I could play that huge neck better, it might be my fave.

Varitonectomy. Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr.Howard….

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Don't let just anybody do the Varitonectomy. Get a competent tech. These guys did a great job on this rare blondie.

Sue me, I’m a purist. I’ve never pulled the Varitone from a 345 for my own use. I’ve done the work when asked by a client and only after giving them the standard lecture. That lecture says, essentially, pull the entire harness and put in a 335 harness. It doesn’t matter (to me anyway) if it’s a new harness or a vintage harness. My point is to keep the original stereo Varitone harness intact (except for the pickups, of course). That way, when you decide it’s time to buy a real 335, the next owner has the option of returning the guitar to its original state without too much fuss. It isn’t that hard either until it’s time to get the stereo VT harness back into the guitar but even then, it’s not as much of a pain as it is to take the original harness apart and reconfigure it to a 335 harness. Here’s why.  To make the conversion to a 335, you would have to pull the harness, disconnect the chokes and the Varitone switch and change the jack to mono but wait, you aren’t done yet. What you probably don’t know is that the pickups in a stereo guitar aren’t soldered to the pots like in a 335 or LP. They go directly to the three way. So, you have to disconnect the pickups from the three way (and the ground wire) and solder them to the pots. But wait, there’s more. The 345 harness has 3 shielding cans covering all but the bridge pickup tone control. The reason for that is that the shielding can for the bridge pickup tone control won’t fit. So, you would have to open the two shielding cans over the volume pots in order to attach the pickups to the pots. And you still aren’t done. You need to properly configure the three way switch for mono as well (and don’t forget the ground wires). Oh, and the caps in a 345 are those crappy disc type-not the bumblebees or black beauties that most folks want in their 335’s. They used the disc type because they fit in the shielding cans. OK, so disconnect the caps-oh, wait, you have to open the other shielding can to get to it. OK, now solder a set of bumblebees where the ceramic discs were. Don’t bother with the shielding cans because they are tough to get back on with the big capacitors. Now, what are you going to do with the hole that the Varitone switch was in? You can put a dummy pot there or even leave the disconnected switch there. Still not done. You need to flip the magnet in one of the pickups since a 345 is made with the pickups out of phase. If you leave them alone, the middle position of the three way will sound thin and reedy. It should be pretty clear by now that this isn’t meant to be a “how to” post. It’s really meant to dissuade you from converting your stereo VT harness to a 335 harness. Go buy a Mojotone or a Dr. Vintage or an RS and use that. leave the original harness intact. You will thank me, the next owner will thank you and your tech, who didn’t really want to mess with it either even though he could have charged you more than the cost of the new harness, will thank both of us.

The Mystery of the Too White Binding

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Look how white that neck binding compared to the body binding. That's typical of a 355. You can see how much whiter it is as you look toward the 12th fret where it gets more wear. This is a '65.

I recently sold a vintage ’60’s ES-355 and got an unusual inquiry from the buyer a few days after he bought it. “Hey, you didn’t disclose that the neck binding had been changed…” My response was “I didn’t mention it because it wasn’t changed.” He replied, “It’s too white…shouldn’t it be more cream color or yellowed?”  I’d never really paid that much attention to the neck bindings on 355’s. They always seemed a bit whiter than the bindings on 335s and 345s but I kind of chalked that up to the greater color contrast of the binding next to the black ebony board. But, the truth is, they ARE whiter. Pure white, in fact whereas the 335 and 345 bindings are off white. Now, all bindings yellow because they are lacquered over when the guitar is finished. The lacquer turns yellow and the bindings don’t look very white any more. But the lacquer wears off the neck binding after a while and the true color of the binding becomes obvious. In the case of a 355, it becomes really obvious-like the after photo in a tooth whitening ad. The body bindings seem to yellow (and stay that way) on a 355 the same as they do on a 335 or a 345 but you don’t generally get the same level of wear on the body bindings as you do on the neck. I have had at least one 355 that had all the lacquer worn off the binding where the right arm rests on the body and, sure enough, it was pure white. Again, no so on a 335 or 345. So, what’s the conclusion? It appears to me that the bindings on a 355 are a few shades whiter than those on a 335 or 345 but unless the lacquer is worn off, you won’t be able to see much difference because the yellowed lacquer makes them look pretty much the same. It’s simply because the neck binding get so much player contact that the lacquer usually wear off revealing that glaring white that seems a little jarring on an instrument that otherwise shows that subtle yellowing we all love in a vintage guitar. So don’t jump to the conclusion that the binding has been replaced on your very costly 355 just because it looks brand new.

This late 60 also shows a very white neck binding but look at the body binding below the bass side f-hole at the very edge of the photo where the arm wear occurs. That's pretty white too.

Here's a 335 neck (treble side-no dots) with a fair amount of player wear. Not so white, is it. Hmmm.

“First Rack” ES-345

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

A29958. FON S8537. Is that the “first rack”? It has all the early features but I’ve seen lower serial numbers but they have later FONs.

The ES-345 went into production in April of 1959. The earliest serial number I know of is A29656. That said, the serial numbers aren’t always the best way to figure out exactly when a Gibson guitar was built. You see, the serial number goes on the guitar before it is shipped which can be months after construction was started (or even years for low volume models). Starting in 1952, Gibson instituted a “new” Factory Order Number system or FON as it’s usually referred to. It consisted of a letter “Z” in 1952 and moving backwards through the alphabet back to letter “Q” in 1961 when they stopped doing it. Following the letter prefix was a  four digit number known as the “rack” number. They started at 100 and went through 9999 and started over again. That number is followed by a space and a one or two digit number which is called the “rank”. So you

This ledger page shows that A29656 is the only 345 in the “neighborhood”. According to the owner, the FON is S8539 which is two racks later than A29958-the one at the top of the post. Nobody said this was going to be easy.

have a “rack” number and a “rank” number. A “rack” was normally 30-40 guitars. The number within a given rack is the rank. So, if we have FON S8537 36, we know that construction began in 1959 in rack number 8537 and was the 36th guitar in that rack. Whew. Back to the subject at hand. Early on, in my love of ES 345s, I heard the term “first rack” and quickly figured out what it should mean-any 345 made in the first rack of 345s. Simple, right? Wrong. First of all, a rack wasn’t all the same guitar. The “first rack” containing a 345 might have had a few of them. It could have had 20 or more of them. The serial numbers don’t help because they are added later but the factory order goes on at the beginning so if we’re trying to figure out which are the earliest, the FON seems to be the best the way to do that. But conventional wisdom among collectors and dealers is that a “first rack” 345 has more to do with features than it has to do with which actual rack the guitar was part of. It seems there are at least three and possibly four (I’ve only seen three)  racks of 345s that show the earliest characteristics. It’s kind of a chicken and the egg kind of thing but here’s what I know. The very first 345s had some unusual characteristics that didn’t last long and were soon changed. The center block had a deeper bridge pickup rout (than a 335) to accommodate the Varitone chokes but it didn’t have the big notch cut all the way to the bottom of the block that later 345s have. In fact, the choke was so close to the top of the guitar that a special “short leg” PAF was developed so it would fit without hitting the choke. It also appears that the earliest 345s had the chokes wax potted, although I’m not totally certain that the first ones weren’t,then they were, then they weren’t again. Jury is still out on that. Here’s how confusing it is. I recently sold serial number A29719 which had the shallow rout but no wax potting and no short leg PAF. I recently sold A29958 which had both features even though it is a later serial. But A29958 has an FON one rack earlier than A29719. So, I’m going to assume it has the earlier features. The other fairly consistent element of these early 345’s is a huge neck-one of the largest ever produced according to folks who look for that sort of thing. It’s not 100% but it seems most have that big ol’ baseball bat of a neck. The one I mention earlier with the earliest serial number is a blonde with a ship date of April 20, 1959. the ledger page from Gibson shows its the only one in the immediate serial number vicinity. But, the FON is later than the two that I mention. Although the documentation at Gibson is pretty much chaos during the era, the FONs seem less arbitrary because they were done at the beginning of the process and were (supposedly) used in order. Serial numbers were assigned based on when the guitars shipped and they used unused numbers “filling in the blanks” in the ledger. You can see ship dates of adjacent serial numbers that are months (or more) apart. It appears that the earliest rack numbers are S8537, S8538 and S8539. It is generally understood among most 345 aficionados that “first rack” is a set of features more than an actual rack number. In case it isn’t confusing enough, I’ve had first racks with serial numbers as late as A31xxx (a black 345). There will be more on this once I’m done doing the research and I hear back from more owners.

This shows two of the very early features. The wax potted chokes in a shallow rout and the “short leg” PAF on top.







I’m Fixing a Hole

Monday, June 10th, 2013

The "Custom Made" plaque is the most common method used by Gibson to cover stoptail holes from 61 until they stopped using the stop in early 65. Not my favorite look but there are other ways to accomplish this. Gibson had a few of their own which were much more elegant. Then some genius came up with this.

At some point or other, when Bigsbys began to gain popularity, Gibson decided to offer them as an extra cost option. A Bigsby was available on ES-335s as early as 58 and was standard on the ES-355 which began production that same year.  I’ve covered Bigsbys pretty thoroughly, I think but I haven’t covered Gibson’s sometimes less-than-clever ways of covering up the stoptail holes. Because there are plenty of 335s and 345s that are “Bigsby only” meaning there were never any stud holes for a stoptail, it is unclear what Gibson was thinking when they decided to make some of them with the stoptail studs and some without. One possibility is that if you ordered a Bigsby as a custom order, you would get no stud holes. Obviously, if you sent your guitar back to Gibson to have a Bigsby installed, the holes would be there. So, whose idea was it to cover them up and how did it evolve the way it did? It was probably cheaper to just drill all the bodies for stoptails and add Bigsbys as needed, using some material to fill the holes. It seems counterintuitive but Gibson, being Gibson, always had its eye on the bottom line. I think the idea of being able to convert from stop to Bigsby and back at will wasn’t the motivating factor here. I think it was economics. There were a number of ways that Gibson went about “fixing the holes.” The best known (and the last of the iterations) is the “Custom Made” plaque which not only looks kind of dumb but caused Gibson some problems as well. Gibson started using this method of covering the stud holes around 1961. You’ll see them on earlier guitars but they were often retrofitted when the guitar was sent back for a Bigsby. It’s also possible that Gibson supplied the plate to dealers for use when the Bigsby installation was done by the dealer. That might explain the three or four different ways that the plaque was attached–two brads, four brads, contact cement, two brads and contact cement and in at least one case I’ve seen, velcro. The problem that these caused was that the idea of a “custom made” guitar was just too cool for many players to pass up and Gibson was (apparently) swamped with requests to fit the plaque on guitars. It didn’t matter if there was a Bigsby or not-people seemed to like the status symbol of a “custom made” guitar even if it wasn’t custom made at all. The 50’s and early 60’s had a fairly status oriented mindset. I remember my father buying a color TV because our next door neighbors got one in 1962 or so. The next door neighbor (like my father, a doctor) drove  a Thunderbird, so my father had to drive a Lincoln. You get the idea. Gibson earlier solutions to fixing the holes were much more elegant, however. The most common is a pair of pearl dots which were simply glued over the holes. Sometimes they are under the finish (which makes it difficult to remove them cleanly) and sometimes they are on top. It’s a great look and a zillion times more elegant than that plaque. I’ve seen the dots most often in 58/59 although there are exceptions. There is a clever solution that you don’t see very often but I had one recently. They are threaded metal studs just like the stoptail studs but which have been milled flat so that they sit more or less flush with the top of the guitar. No glue, no fuss and they stay put forever. My guess is that this solution was too expensive-after all, a threaded steel stud probably cost ten cents back then whereas a couple of pearloid dots probably cost ten cents for a hundred.  So, you don’t see the metal stud option for very long. Most of the ones I’ve seen are from 59 and maybe early 60. That last “solution” before some genius came up with the “Custom Made” plaque are the black plastic dots. These, like the pearl dots, were cheap and easy to install with a dab of contact cement. The black dots are slightly raised so they are always on top of the finish and therefore easy to remove. They look just fine and are common during 1960 and 1961. By late 61, they too are history and Gibson standardizes the plaque as the norm. Too often, Gibson’s solution to a problem has more to do with economics than anything else. If by chance Gibson made their guitars more attractive to the buyers of the day by calling something “custom made” that pretty clearly was not, then the larger fault lies with the gullible buyer and not the marketing guys who saw this as a cheap and simple solution to what was quite possibly an economic issue. Maybe they really were geniuses.

Pearl dots seem to be the earliest solution. although it may have been predated by the metal stud solution. They seem to overlap. This is my 59 red dot neck that I had for a while. The dots were under the finish on this one. Looks very "organic".


This is a great solution but you don't see it that often. Probably because it cost Gibson more than a couple of cheap pieces of plastic. I recently had a 59 with this configuration

Then there's the black plastic dot which is always over the finish since they are raised (and easy to remove. These are most common in 60 and 61. This is a mint 60 ES-345.



Introducing the Gibson ES-355WTF?

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Looks like a '63 blonde lefty ES-355 to me but wait....

The conventional wisdom is that anything was possible during the “Golden Era” in Kalamazoo. I recently wrote about a 62 block neck ES-335 with a 1960 factory order number and there have been quite a few other guiatrs with features that somehow defy the “rules” of the ES line. Recently, I was made aware of a blonde left handed ES-355 with black painted sides and back in the UK. The buyer, a lefty, was happy to have found it but was concerned about its authenticity. He picked it up in London and brought it straight to me. We spent some time taking it apart and there are some very strange things going on. Things that make me wonder whether anything actually is possible in Kalamazoo. The guitar is a 63 ES-355.

Why is that top binding so wide?

The top is natural, the sides and back are black. So, the possibilities are factory black with a refinished top, factory blonde with refinished back and sides or factory red and stripped and refinished in this odd configuration. Then there’s the neck. There are signs that the guitar was renecked. So, there’s a lot to look at. The thing that struck me right off the bat was the thickness of the top (OK, it being a lefty struck me first). Most 335/345/355 tops are around .19″ thick (except for 58’s). This one is close to .23 and it looks unusually thick to my eye. Can you retop a 355? I don’t know if you’d be able to unglue the factory top or not but I’m going to assume it’s possible. So, I’m thinking perhaps a righty being converted to a lefty by retopping it. That might explain the very clean and old looking blonde finish on the top. There isn’t a trace of red in the top and that’s not easy to do without a lot of sanding. There is still a bit of a ridge between the binding and the top so it wasn’t heavily sanded or it was re-bound. Strangely, the top binding is thicker than the lower binding. I’ve never seen this before. I don’t have another 355 in the house to compare it to right now but I’ve got plenty of photos and the top and bottom bindings look to be the same width. Wait. It gets weirder. I appears to be a factory stop tail. No Bigsby or Maestro holes in the top but there are three holes at the butt end, so it probably had a Bigsby B3 at some point. Gibson never used a B3 on 3×5’s so this must have been added later. Adding to my retop theory is the odd configuration in the neck rout. Stay with me here. At the top edge of the neck pickup rout, there is normally no top. The wood you see there is the neck tenon. On this guitar there is a lip of wood that is clearly the top. WTF? Never seen that before. Looking more closely at the neck rout, there are a few splotches of red which tells me that perhaps this guitar was originally red. There are a few flecks in the f-holes as well. Not much, though. Most red guitars have overspray all over the place and, as I mentioned earlier, it is really tough to get rid of red aniline dye once its soaked into the wood. Then there are the sides and back…they are black and the finish is old and checked. There is a teeny bit of red visible under the upper strap button and at the butt end. However, where the black is chipped off, the wood underneath shows no red. So was it well sanded with a few blotches in unaccessible places? Could be, except when a guitar is sanding the ridge between the wood and the binding gets smoothed over. This still has the ridge, so, again, I’m thinking re-bound. remember, the top binding seemed overly thick. Finally, the neck join is kind of funky. The tenon is a bit short but i’ve seen that before on factory guitars. There’s a lot of glue in there but I’ve seen a lot that too. There are a bunch of clamp marks too which, taken with the other stuff, says reneck or reset to me. Someone spent a lot of time and/or money doing this. I’ll say this: The guitar looks quite nice and it is an über rare lefty 355, so even if it is a retopped, renecked and refinished ’63 ES-355, it’s still a rare and very cool piece. Too bad I can’t play it.


This is the most revealing photo. It shows red in the rout which tells me this was a red guitar when it left the factory. But that piece of top around the neck tenon doesn't belong there. The neck tenon should extend right to the edge of the pickup rout and that little lip of the top should not be there. The clamp marks and general slop in there say that work was done.

The Pickup Line Gold Version

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

This 61 ES-355 (I think it was this one anyway) mono had a pair of zebras. Late for zebras and late for long magnets but gold pickups don't follow the same rules.

To continue where I left off, the timeline for Gibson pickups that come in the guitars with gold hardware is different than that of the nickel hardware guitars. It’s simple enough, they sold fewer guitars with gold hardware so they used up the gold pickups more slowly. Then again, you would think that they would have made a proportional number of gold pickups so that they would have followed a similar timeline but no. That would be too easy. So, the gold pickups follow a somewhat different trajectory from long magnet PAF to t-top. The earliest gold PAF I’ve seen was in a 57 ES-5. I’m not sure whether it had a sticker or not but by 58, they certainly did. It seems that the nickel pickups went from long magnet to short magnet in mid 61. The gold ones seem to stay long magnet into 62. The last 62 ES-355 I had that I was able to check had long magnet PAFs. I’ve also seen 62’s with short magnets, so I will assume that the transition occurred sometime in 1962. That doesn’t mean you won’t find a long magnet later than 62. No one cared-the workers at Gibson went to a bin full of pickups and grabbed a couple of pickups. They didn’t care about DC resistance or magnet length or type. All they needed was a gold pair or a nickel pair (or an out of phase pair if they were building a stereo guitar). It’s the transition from PAF to patent number that is kind of squishy. You’ll read of PAFs showing up in gold hardware guitars as late as 1967 and I have no reason to doubt that it is possible. I just don’t see that many 67’s, so my experience here isn’t so useful. The latest PAF I’ve seen in a gold hardware guitar was in a 65 ES-355. But gold PAFs later than 63 are not common at all. I’ve seen at least 50 ’63 or later ES-345s and 355s and the vast majority of the pickups in them are patent numbers with enamel wire windings. In fact, I rarely see gold patent numbers with poly coated wire windings before 1966. Again, I don’t open pickups that have never been opened, so I don’t have as big a sample as I’d like. I’ve opened a fair number of gold 65 patent numbers and every last one had enamel windings. By 66, the norm seems to be the poly wire patent number but no T-tops in sight. Here’s where I need a little help. I can’t really tell you when t-tops showed up on gold hardware 345s and 355s because I never see any. I’ve had perhaps a half dozen 67’s and  68’s and they had pre T-tops. But then, you’ll find pre t-tops in a 335 with some frequency. One other interesting thing is the frequency of white and zebra bobbin pickups in 60 and 61 ES-345s and 355s. It seems the “sweet spot” for double whites in ES-335s is mid 59 to early 60. With the gold pickups, it extends well into 61 with zebras being a possibility well into 61. I haven’t seen double whites that late but I’ve seen a lot of zebras (herd of zebras?). If any body feels like checking their 67 or later pickups, I could use the research. Don’t open them is they are sealed but check to see if the bobbin screws (not the pole screws) are phillips or slotted. If it has Phillips the pickup can be either pre T-top ot T-top but slotted almost guarantees a T-top.

Hard to know what this is. The PAF looks authentic but no sticker and slotted screws on the other pickup looks like trouble. Could be a PAF with changed screws. Could be a t-top. Could be an early patent with changed screws. Gibson could have run out of philips screws that day. There was a discussion on one of the forums that postulated that the slotted screws denoted out of phase. I don't think so. I've seen at least a hundred stereo ES guitars from 59-64 and not one had slotted screws.