Secret Sauce, Part 1

Number 9 on the top ten list is this 59 ES-345 in red-possibly the first red 345 ever made. The pickups are white/zebra, the neck is fat, the top is thick and the neck angle is normal.

I try to keep a record of which ES-335’s sound best (“top ten”) which is not an easy task. First off, I sell all the guitars I get so that I have to remember what a guitar sounded like years after I last heard or played it. I keep notes on each guitar but tone is so subjective that I don’t trust my own notes sometimes. In fact, I’ve had guitars that sound absolutely great one day and not so great the next. I’m guessing that if I lined up the ten best 335’s I’ve ever had and played them one after the other, they would sound really similar if not identical. But my ears aren’t your ears and my taste isn’t your taste. And my amp isn’t your amp. Beyond that, if I took the next ten that I’ve liked, I don’t think the difference would be all that great either. In fact, I no longer rate them in order-just top ten best and top twenty.

I bought an unbound 58 yesterday that is pretty close to mint and possible top ten contender. The conventional wisdom says the good ones get played. That’s often true but the converse is not. Just because a guitar is mint and barely played doesn’t mean it can’t sound great. If the original owner kept it under the bed and was a lousy player who gave up after 6 months in 1959, then the condition has nothing to do with the tone. This 58 is a monster. The dealer from whom I bought it thought it was the best 335 he had ever heard (and this was after I had agreed to buy it). I wasn’t playing it through a $12000 tweed Bandmaster either. I was playing it through a $1500 Gibson GA-80-a great amp but certainly not a legendary one. When I go back and look at my current list of the best 335’s I’ve owned, there are more 58 335’s than any other year and model. There are a bunch of 59’s (335’s, 345’s and a 355) some with a 58 factory order number (FON). There’s a 60 and a 62 on that list but 8 out of ten are 58’s and 59’s. Here is a list of the current top ten-ignore the order: #1 bound 58 335, #2  59 (58 FON) 335, #3 unbound 58 335, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 bound 58 335  #6 is an early 60 335, #7 is a 59 355 mono stop tail, #8 is a refinished 62 335, #9 is a 59 345 and #10 is a 59 335.

So, what’s the “secret sauce”? Is there any shared aspect of these guitars that tells us something about what makes them so good? All are stop tails. They all have long magnet PAFs except the 62 335. Many have the thin top-6 for sure, perhaps as many as 8-I don’t have notes on numbers 9 and 10-they could be either thin or regular tops. Numbers 1,3 and 5 have the shallow neck angle. How about the body depth? Body depth? Yes, the body depth kept getting deeper and deeper over the years. The typical 58 and many 59’s are 1.5-1.6″ deep. By 60, most were around 1.65″ deep. By 64, the average was around 1.72″ and by ’65, 1.8″ was not unusual. All have shallow bodies except the 60, the 62 and maybe one of the 59 335’s. What about neck profile? All but two have a chunky neck. The question is which aspects make the difference or is it a combination of all of them. Or is it the wood? Or how they were kept? Or how much they were played?

So, we’ve got the raw data but its interpretation is the sticking point. Maybe I need to look at a larger sampling or maybe it’s impossible to know without having all of them side by side. Doing things like swapping out pickups won’t tell us much since 9 out of 10 have PAFs. But wait. We all know that PAFs are not very consistent. We’ve all had experiences where a pickup swap has made a guitar better. Most of us believe that if a guitar sounds great unplugged, it will sound great plugged in. I don’t buy that as a rule. It’s a decent starting point but it’s not gospel. So, I think we know a great pickup is a big part of it. I believe the thin top makes a difference. The data tells me that. Or does it? None of the top ten are blondes. Three are red. One is refinished. So, six are sunbursts. That’s data but logic tells us that the color can’t possibly make a difference. Well, that same logic might tell us what does make the difference. We will look deeper in my next post.

Number 7 on the list is a 1959 mono factory stop tail ES-355. Big neck, white PAFs (which we all know sound better than black ones), thin top.


3 Responses to “Secret Sauce, Part 1”

  1. Rob says:

    Maybe the pickups have some secret sauce. I’ve read that Gibson used different magnets in the PAF’s– A-III, A-IV and A-V. Is there any way to tell what magnet you have in your PAF without taking it out of the pickup and analyzing it?

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, cool post. With all the great guitars that pass through your hands I’ll bet the top 100 would be awesome! In ny experience a beefy neck profile is often an attribute of a fine sounding fiddle! All the ’59 ES models I’ve owned have been great. That said my ’63 335 and ’62 Riviera are no slouches in the tone department. Old wood is good as they say. However my 2001 ’59 V screams like a banshee and it is only 16 years old. A nice light chunk of Korina though and the Throbak pickups are great!

  3. Steve Newman says:

    Excellent post, Charlie. You are in the unique position to have played, examined and heard the very best examples of the golden era 3×5 family of guitars. One thing that you didn’t mention and I would like to point out, is that all the examples you mention in your top ten were built by craftsmen who had a lot of experience and skill putting together those instruments. Doubtless, each instrument received more individual care and time spent on it, because this era was before “guitar mania” hit popular culture and the demand wasn’t as great. When you are only producing a few guitars per week, instead of a hundred or more, quality control and TLC has to be higher, on a per instrument basis. Also, due to the old school training system, new employees didn’t go right to work on an upper tier instrument, until they had acquired and honed the skills necessary to accomplish the task. Likewise, wood quality overall was likely higher, because of lower demand. Having owned half a dozen examples from this era, my own personal all time favorite would be a super early ’62 block neck with short magnet PAFs. I think the overall playability of these earlier instruments was looked after to a much higher degree from the factory also (string height at the nut, truss rod adjustment, fret dressing, bridge height, etc.) than later on in the timeline. Then you can also add in the subjective part of tone……give 10 equally skilled players the same guitar/amp combo and they will all sound different. That is the nature of the individuality of each player.

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