That Little “2” on the Headstock

The little “2” is lightly stamped into the headstock right in the middle of the “open book” shape at the top.

Back in 2012, I wrote a post about the “factory seconds” that turn up every once in a while identified by the little numeral “2” stamped on the back of the headstock. Since I wrote that post, I’ve learned a little more about how things were done at Gibson back in the Kalamazoo days. I had the good fortune, a while back, to speak with a gentleman who worked in the paint department there in the mid 60’s. In the course of our not very long discussion, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions and get a little bit of an education into how things worked back then.

I think that everyone assumes that the “2” means factory second but apparently it doesn’t-or at least it doesn’t only mean that. Like most companies who turn out a product for consumption by the general public, there is a quality control department whose job it is to make sure the product is up to a defined minimum acceptable standard. I don’t know if there were two QC people or 20 but it is clear that they didn’t have to work too terribly hard based on the relatively small number of guitars I’ve come across with that little “2” on them. I don’t keep close track of it but out of perhaps 600 ES guitars that have passed through me and my shop, I would guess that no more than 12 to perhaps 16 have had the “2”. That’s a little more than 1 out of 50. Well, if it doesn’t quite mean factory second, what does it mean? Well, according to the gentleman I spoke to, it means it went back to the paint booth a second time to fix a finish issue. That could mean covering a flaw in the wood by expanding the opaque area of the sunburst, it could mean buffing out or re-spraying a drip or flaw in the clear coat, or it could mean that the finish wasn’t up to standards and had to be completely redone. Unfortunately, they don’t include an explanation.

But wait, there’s more. Apparently, if an employee wanted to buy a Gibson guitar, he was able to do so at a discount but he (or she) was only allowed to buy one that had a flaw-a factory second. It was, according to my source, quite common for an employee to go to the paint guy and ask the paint guy to tell the QC guy that there was a problem and to stamp a particular guitar with a “2” so the employee could take it home at a discount. I’m told that a few dollars may have changed hands or maybe not. So, assuming this is true (and I have no reason to believe otherwise) we have some “2” designated guitars with no issues of any kind.  That might explain why you generally can’t find the flaw when you get one of these into your hands. In fact, out of the 12 or so I can recall, only 3 had obviously been redone. All three had very deep sunbursts with an unusually large  band of opaque brown/black in the burst. These are very distinctive and quite wonderful. They have a look similar to the old pre-war sunburst you see on some early J-45’s and LG’s and Nick Lucas’s.

In general, the “2” designation doesn’t affect the value much, if at all. A finish that was done twice at the factory is still a factory original finish. In fact Fenders that have a custom color over sunburst are quite desirable-at least enough that Fender is doing on purpose on their relic guitars. To further the point, I had a 59 with a very distinctive deep sunburst that had the “2” that was one of the top ten 335’s I’ve ever had. So, I don’t avoid the 335’s with the little “2” on the headstock. Mostly, I ignore it but sometimes, it gets me a very distinctive sunburst that will set the guitar apart from the hundreds of others made that year.

This “2” 335 is an early 59 and had a flaw in the grain on the top down below the tailpiece about an inch from the rim. A normal sunburst would not have covered it, so it went back to the paint booth for another go around. The flaw is still visible under black light but not with the naked eye.

3 Responses to “That Little “2” on the Headstock”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, very interesting including how the Gibson employees may have used this as a ruse to save a little coin when buying a factory guitar! The “2” has never bothered me. Interestingly I encountered an instance where a very well known vintage guitar dealer had tried to obscure the stamp by chipping off the finish at that location. He then used a magic marker to color the resulting bare wood. It just had the effect of making the back of the headstock worse and raising potential questions about the instrument! Silly!

  2. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Yes, I’ve heard this before–that some “2” designated guitars were marked to be able to sell to employees. Also, supposedly some of the more truly (or deeply) flawed guitars were stamped “BGN” for “bargain” – but this may have also been abused to allow for inventory selloffs, etc. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen a number of late 1970s guitars, especially the few 1977-1980 ES-335s with stop tailpieces, that have the word SECOND stamped down the back of the headstock. Not sure what or why – but possibly another inventory moving ploy. I do wonder if some of the guitars with features out of spec with official descriptions (like the late 70s stoptail guitars) were shipped out with a SECOND or 2 to preserve the integrity of listed features.

  3. Nelson Checkoway says:

    By the way, I saw in some online threads that another reason for the “2” or “SECOND” stamp was to give dealers flexibility to offer deeper discounts. Back in the day, big makers like Gibson and Fender had pretty strict rules on how much authorized dealers could discount off the list price and they gave lower wholesale prices and bigger authorized discount incentives (like 40% off list) to favored franchises that anchored sales territories (like Sam Ash or Manny’s in NY, EU Wurlitzer in Boston, etc.). The “2” strategy might have also been a work-around for this.

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