First Class/Third Class

For $500 and change, this looks pretty good. OK, the sunburst is way off but whaddya want for $500?

For $500 and change, this looks pretty good. OK, the sunburst is way off but whaddya want for $500?

Noel Coward (yes, that Noel Coward) once said: “I’ll go through life either first class to third but never in second.” There’s a certain wisdom to that and I have adhered to the notion for a very long time. when I travel, I either stay in the best hotel in town or I stay somewhere really cheap. Dinner? Four stars or the local diner. There is a logic that is inherent to the concept. If you get the best and pay the price for it, you know you are getting the best. You are also, generally getting what you pay for. Whether it’s the best service, the best food, the best guitar or the best car. By going third class, you also know that you are getting what you pay for. Bottom dollar equals bottom quality but at least you know what you are paying for and hopefully it isn’t much. Second class is trouble because it’s trying to be first class but it fails. It costs more than third class and often turns out to be just as bad. Second class is never first class. That’s why they call it second class.

Of course, I’m going to apply this logic to ES-335s and the like ‘cuz that’s what I do. A first class 335 is pretty easy to quantify. It’s not just a 59 dot neck either. A 65 is a first class guitar too, especially an early one. So’s a good 68. So, what’s a second class 335? There are plenty of them and, unless I want to make a ton of enemies, I’m not going to list the ones I think are second class. There are a lot of them. But third class…third class gets real interesting. There are plenty of players who really want a 335 and I can’t blame them. One of the reasons I’m so fond of them is because when I was a kid, I couldn’t afford one. All through high school, I wanted one but they were way out of reach (they cost almost double what a Strat cost back then). In the 70’s, I was in college and played mostly acoustic and didn’t like the new ones anyway. By the 80’s, I could afford to buy one but wasn’t playing much so I didn’t. There were no cheaper alternatives back then. As far as I know, nobody made a cheaper version of a 335 until the Japanese manufacturers started to copy the American makers. Now, there are some first class Japanese guitars out there-I’ve played Japanese Strats and Teles and Orvilles and even the Clapton 335 supposedly had the bodies shipped here from Japan (no wonder they got it right). So, where’s my third class 335?

Not the neatest joinery I've ever seen but there is a neck tenon in there and everything is pretty solid.

Not the neatest joinery I’ve ever seen but there is a neck tenon in there and everything is pretty solid.

Recently, I picked up a Chinese made Epiphone Sheraton. Cost around $500 brand new without the case. Don’t get me started on selling guitars without the case included-it gets ugly. Let’s take a closer look. Fit and finish looks pretty good, overall. The sunburst is a little funky but it’s well executed. No runs, drips or errors. The bindings are tight and properly scraped. taking a look inside, you start to see where the corners are cut, however. There’s no kerfing between the top and sides or the back and sides. There’s also no glue showing anywhere. I’m not sure how strong a bond there is without the kerfing but it seems pretty solid. Let’s look in the neck pickup rout and see if there’s a tenon in there. Good news. There is what most would call a “transitional” tenon. That’s not quite as long as a long tenon like you would see from 58-early 69 but not as small as a 69-81. It’s pretty solid though and while the work in there is a little sloppy, the work in the mid to late 60’s can be pretty sloppy too. The fingerboard wood looks kind of cheap but the functionality is there. The fret work is pretty good too. I don’t like the fret ends over the binding but that’s mostly a matter of taste. The ends are well finished. I’m pretty impressed with the inlays. Maybe the Chinese have a special skill in that area because it’s really clean looking and a Sheraton has some pretty fancy inlay in the headstock. It’s probably plastic but there appears to be some abalone in there too-just like my 59 Sheraton. Well, sort of like. Let’s plug this bad boy in and see what it sounds like.

OK, through my little ’54 Supro which is about as clean as Pigpen, it sounds pretty decent. I put it up nest to a 2003 LP R9 I have here and it holds up pretty well. The Epi isn’t as fat sounding as the LP but a couple hundred bucks for a set of Seymour Duncan’s or similar will take care of that. Intonation was as good as most modern Gibsons. Sustain was just OK. Where I think the Epi falls down is that it isn’t terribly articulate or complex. Again, the electronics may have something to do with that but also, the guitar sounds more like a solid body than a semi. Unplugged, it is really quiet with almost no acoustic resonance at all. That could be a function of the construction or the wood or even the newness but the guitar doesn’t sound as much like a 335 as it does a solid like a LP. Not a bad thing unless you really want that kind of woody, airy 335 thing. Then maybe its time for an upgrade to first class.

This inlay is so neat I think it might be done by a computer or a laser or something. Is that real MOP and abalone? Beats me.

This inlay is so neat I think it might be done by a computer or a laser or something. Is that real MOP and abalone? Beats me.

18 Responses to “First Class/Third Class”

  1. chuckNC says:

    I agree with you — and Noel Coward as well, I guess. 😉 I can cover a lot of ground with my ES-355 and a Squier strat. The second-class stuff I’ve bought over the years has moved along.

  2. Rod says:

    The only thing I really dislike about these guitars is the horrible thick gloopy polyester finish which probably affects the sound more than anything else. If only they would use a thin finish. Even polyurethane would be better than this stuff both for feel and sound.

  3. RAB says:

    Yes, some of the imported guitars aren’t too bad playing or sounding and, as you note, you can upgrade components. My brother and I recently put together a Jazz Bass from parts (the only Fender parts are the pickups) and it gives his original ’61 Jazz Bass a run for the money. Still, why settle for 3rd class when, possibly with a financial stretch you can work to acquire a nice ES from an era when Gibson quality was still decent (E.G., 1968). And the current reissues are pretty nice…find a used one being sold at a “sacrifice price!”

  4. Rod says:

    I’m now going to chuck a real spaniard in the works as someone once said. You talk about upgrading components, particularly pickups. Why? Why not accept, as we used to in the days before our relative affluence and the large after-market for spares just accept that this is the way this guitar sounds and work with that? Are we being conned into buying (very) expensive replacement pickups etc just BECAUSE they are expensive? By implication they are better? The best sounding pickups I have, to my ears, are a pair of OLP humbuckers I was given that I fitted to my Musicman Silhouette, I vastly prefer the sound of them to the custom Dimarzios it came with. But is this an UPgrade? So to a degree I am arguing against myself here but we all know that no two 335s, for example, sound exactly the same. But is one better than the other? I had, for example, a 62 cherry dotmarker with PAFs. I never really liked the sound of it so sold it and kept my 62 blockmarker with patent number pickups, which to me sounded nicer. Yet the early patent number pickups are pretty much the same as the PAFS but for the stickers. But my ears told me differently. I am NOT saying don’t buy vintage guitars, I love most of them. But shouldn’t we judge utility instruments on their own merits? The Epiphone you have written about is NOT the same as a vintage 335, it doesn’t pretend to be. It isn’t built the same way, it doesn’t sound the same, many will argue that it doesn’t play the same. It certainly won’t feel the same. But it should be judged for what it is, not what we would like it to be.

  5. RAB says:

    Rod, good points. Still it is hard to be satisfied with a budget instrument after you’ve spent a bunch of quality time with a Golden Era ES model! Life’s too short to play a crummy guitar…

  6. Rob says:

    I have had some decent Asian Epiphones in the past ten years inclduing a natural finish Dot that was made by the Samick factory in 1999. The wood was nothing special but the neck was very close to that on my ’62 ES 355. Minus the ebony, of course. The factory pickups were several cuts above what you typically find in the later Korean models. Every Chinese and Indonesian made Epiphone semi or full hollow I played in stores was inferior to the older KIorean made ones. I must have swapped out pickups five times in that Dot with ones I had lying around. In the end, I got tired of it and sold it. For the months I had it, it was a substitute for my 355 which I have grown timid about taking it out of the case since I sometimes have fits of the “dropsies”. The beauty of the Epi’s is that you can leave them out on stands all four seasons, knock them over, and pick them back up and play them. Maybe a ding or two but no big deal if a headstock breaks off. Reminds me of the bumperstickers on the back of rusted out beaters that read “My Other Car is a (Feffari, Porsche, Lambo, Bently–take your choice). Maybe a sticker for an Asian Epi like “My Other Guitar is a Golden Age Gibson”.

  7. Rod says:

    I think the point I’m trying to make is that back in the day (mid/late 60s) we just accepted what our guitar, we only had one at a time then, sounded like and weren’t forever on the never-ending quest for ‘the perfect guitar tone.’ I think maybe we were happier then. Life certainly seemed more simple.

  8. stefan says:

    Rod, I get your point but replacing PUs on an Epi is hardly about a ‘never-ending quest for the perfect guitar-tone’ but much more a necessity to get a half-decent tone.

    My Epi 335 (a blue ‘Supernova’) would start to squeal as soon you plugged into an amp at band practice.

    I put in a pair of SD ’59s and that fixed it. It was a very practical decision and at the time I did the mod, I couldn’t care less about perfect/vintage guitar tone.

  9. Rod says:

    Stefan, I take your point totally, this is about rectifying a definite fault. That is only sensible. But replacing pickups because they don’t sound EXACTLY like a certain norm does not seem reasonable. Why not just accept the way the guitar sounds and use that, provided there are no faults that make it unusable?

    On top of this, most players nowadays seem to play with so much overdrive, effects etc. that you don’t actually hear the sound of the guitar itself. But that’s another matter….

  10. cgelber says:

    I’m staying out of this one.

  11. RAB says:

    Some good points…true about tone or the lack thereof if buried in a sea of electronic swill created by too many pedals. In that case your double-white PAF loaded ’59 dotneck will be for naught. Better to play a single pure note like B.B. or Jeff Beck…

  12. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – You’re in good company on your assessment. The folks at Tone Quest Report reviewed a Chinese Epiphone 335-DOT last September and, with a pick-up upgrade (Slider’s PAF style), they came to the following conclusion:

    “The Epiphone and the Sliders were utterly monolithic, the resonant character of the guitar massively stout, firing off incredibly complex harmonics, brilliant treble and midrange tones suspended by fat sustain that only a semi-hollow thinline can create. Damn it, man, this is good, and such a description isn’t nearly good enough. In terms of tone, this may well be the epic cheap guitar buy and makeover ever presented in these pages. Yes indeed.

    Certainly there is a level of heightened expectation attached to an expensive guitar, but we also suspect that the price paid can introduce an illusory perception of goodness that sometimes colors reality. With
    a $400 guitar your expectations may be considerably lower, but confronted by the realization that you just paid about what a guitar cost in 1965 and it sounds and plays as if it had been built in 1965, it may be time to
    reconsider your priorities. Our Epiphone 335 is fully equal to any 335 we have owned in the past, and we don’t feel as if any aspect of its construction and craftsmanship has compromised our usual high standards one bit.”

    Yes, a pair of expensive boutique pickups helped propel them to this conclusion, but this is pretty high praise from folks who view the most desirable vintage guitar gear as the gold standard. -Nelson

  13. Brian says:

    I have a Hagstrom Viking, a cheap Chinese made guitar that has some charm. I had it set up to play slide and changed the somewhat dull, muddy stock pickups with P90 knock-offs which definitely brought it to life. Who cares about the neck and the fake ebony fingerboard when playing slide, anyway? In any case, it’s great for the price and I totally enjoy it!

  14. Rob says:

    At the end of the day, that Chinese Dot will still be a $350 guitar on Ebay.

  15. RAB says:

    I wanted to reierate what has been expressed many times before on vintage guitar sites including the Les Paul Forum. The difference between a quality new and vintage, Golden Era instrument may be subtle. It may not be noticeable to many or even most players (and less noticeable still to most audiences) but, if the player can appreciate the difference they will be willing to pay more to get it…finally, if the hard-to-define mojo of a vintage guitar inspires the player to greater musical heights that is also a valued attribute that the new instrument lacks. Will a 2014 Korean-made ES model have that mojo 50 years hence? Not sure…won’t be able to find out!

  16. Rod says:

    Can I just stress that I was NOT comparing a budget Epiphone to a good vintage guitar in any way. I was merely saying, within reason, accept a guitar for how it sounds and use that. Afrian Belew used to say the same thing.

  17. Nelson Checkoway says:

    This is a really interesting and provocative discussion, getting to the heart of the purity of tone and guitar quality. Is there really an absolute “gold standard” for ES tone against which all other ES and ES-type guitars are to be compared, or is it all relative? A visible decline in quality among most brands occurred from the late 60s through early 80s, but the big companies have come full circle with a return to craftsmanship and even their offshore products adhere to reasonable quality control. Moreover, there are many players who would argue that there is far less tonal difference between an old ES and modern reissue than either guitar plugged into a newer vs. vintage amp and speaker. I agree that, at the end of the day, a Chinese Epiphone 335-DOT will still be a $350 guitar on EBay, and if that means that more players have economic access to decent playing and sounding instruments, it’s a good thing! Keep in mind that, back in the day, Jimi bought all of his big-headstock, CBS Strats right off the rack at Manny’s (for about $350 each!). It ain’t the flag, it’s how you wave it!

  18. Rod says:

    Nelson, you appear to have hit on two crucial points. I do not think there is a ‘gold standard’ tone for any guitar, this is far too subjective and though you might be able to get a broad consensus you would never get more than token agreement across the board.

    With regard to values, that is a very thorny problem and is based solely on what the market will pay which in it’s turn is based on how the buyers perceive the market. Take, for example, 70s Fenders. Those of us old enough to have been playing at that time have no illusions. They were almost universally crap, badly made, bad finishes, extremely heavy and we didn’t like them at all. Now, since all the 50s and 60s guitars have gone to ground the retail industry has tried to convince us these 70s guitars are good quality and therefore valuable. As a general rule they were crap then and they are still crap now but with dings in them. But the sellers persist telling an often gullible market ‘if it’s old it’s good’ and therefore expensive. We didn’t think at the time a 72 Les Paul Deluxe was particularly desirable, but look at their putative values now. IF and that’s a big one, people are still buying electric guitars in 40 years time, expect Korean Epiphones (and the like) to be highly over-valued and treasured accordingly.

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