“First Rack” ES-345

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.







6 Responses to ““First Rack” ES-345”

  1. RAB says:

    I love these early 345 models. I owned and then foolishly sold an early sunburst one, serial number A2966X. Unfortunately I can’t recall the FON (maybe S8539?) It had the biggest neck profile of any Gibson electric I’ve ever encountered, double white in the neck position and looked and sounded fabulous! But I just had to have a dot neck 335 so I cut it loose…

  2. Steve Newman says:

    Gorgeous 345, Charlie, just beautiful. I’ve never seen or heard of the short leg PAFs before. Perhaps you can elaborate in a continuation of this post about the mysterious chokes that Gibson used in conjunction with the Varitone circuit and why Gibson chose to use them instead of a simpler passive “stepped” tone control. There are several modern varitone-type circuits available (Tonestyler, etc.) that could be used in a 345/355 that had already been modified and had the factory harness removed. BTW, I am a big fan of the varitone and using the stereo function of the 345/355 the way the factory intended.

  3. Erwin says:

    Hello Charlie, I read in you article of June 15th 2013 that Gibson stopped in 1961 with the FON.
    I have a 1969 ES355 (mono, no SV), with in the treble f-hole: L1099- or 11099-
    I always thought it was 1109-, but if you countdown the first one (1) must be an I corresponding with 1969?
    Did they introduce another numbering system in the late ’60? And do you know what the figures mean?
    Greetings Erwin

  4. OK Guitars says:

    Sure looks like a FON but I’ve never seen one after “Q” in 1961. Yours shows the letter “I” which, if the system were still in use, would indicate 1969. Anybody else got a later guitar with a FON or what looks like one?

  5. J Robert says:

    Just a question about dating a guitar. What year would you call a 335 with a 1960 FON, but also has a four digit stamped headstock? Other features: slim neck, short guard, double black coils. 60 or 61? Thanks!

  6. cgelber says:

    Serial numbers generally indicate the date/year a guitar was shipped. FON indicated when construction was started. I’d call it a 61 but the year is actually less relevant than the features. I would value a 60 with 59 features and FON the same as a 59 but I would call it a 60. There really aren’t “model years” with changes that occurred January 1 of a given year. Most changes transitioned in. Get the guitar with the features you want and don’t worry about serial numbers. I had a 62 with a 60 FON and I called it a 62 because it was a block neck with a 62 serial number. I mentioned to the buyers that the FON was a 60 but I couldn’t really call it a 60.

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