I Learn Something New

A guy walks into my shop with a guitar and would like an appraisal. It belonged to his late brother and, while it has sentimental value, he wonders whether it has vintage value. I open the case and it’s a thin body, single cutaway, double humbucker Gibson. The neck volute tells me 70’s but there is no label and no serial number-only the letters BGN on the headstock. Well, for those who don’t know, BGN stands for “bargain”. BGN guitars were, essentially, factory rejects-too substandard to be called a “second” and too good to toss in the trash bin. But that’s another post all by itself (which I think I already did). It looked like an ES-125 with hum buckers and parallelogram inlays. Or an ES-175 with a thin body.

I’m not an expert in 70’s Gibsons but, in general, the model names didn’t change all that much during the much maligned “Norlin” period (1969-1985). I don’t think I can remember a Gibson guitar coming in my shop that required my having to research the model. I thought ES-135? No, that came later and had stacked hum buckers that look like a P90. ES-137? No, that was later and had different inlays. It also had a very strange finish. Almost blonde but maybe more like a cherry sunburst that had been left in a shop window for year or two. It was, essentially, dark reddish blonde around the edges and blond everywhere else. I recall that Ibanez made a lawsuit thin body that looked like a 175 in the 70’s that had a finish that looked like that but this guitar had a Gibson neck and logo. Nobody is dumb enough to counterfeit a Gibson and put the BGN designation on the headstock. So, I conclude (yes, Dr. Watson, its definitely a Gibson, says so right here on the headstock) that it’s a Gibson.

To the Googler…I search ES-135 and 137 and they are, as I thought, later and a bit different. But wait, there’s a photo that looks right in with the 135’s and 137’s. If I was Homer Simpson, I’d smack my head and go d’oh. It’s an ES-175T. Never heard of it? Neither had I. The ES-175T is exactly how I described the guitar in the first paragraph…a thin body ES-175. How did I miss this? It was introduced in 1976 and sold poorly. According to the information available online, it was gone by 1980. Except it wasn’t. This one has pot codes from 1981 and pickups from November of 80. So, it’s likely an 81.

It is my opinion that the very bottom of Gibson/Norlin’s quality troubles occurred during this very period. Sales were down and the company had squandered 80 years of customer good will by making some pretty awful guitars and ruining some really good ones. In 1980 (I think), somebody decided it was time for Gibson to make decent guitars again and by 1981, they actually started doing so. Tim Shaw (yes, that Tim Shaw) was an engineer at Gibson at the time and was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting Gibson back on track. Again, that’s another post for later.

But back to the mystery guitar. It hadn’t been played in decades but seemed to have weathered its years in the case without major damage. The label was gone and I dunno about that finish. The truss rod needed some adjustment and the strings were 30 years old but those are easy fixes. The pickups are dated embossed t-tops which makes sense for the era and the bridge is a Nashville type-also makes sense. It isn’t pretty but it does play reasonably well and there’s nothing wrong with t-tops. So, I took the guitar as a consignment. Let’s see where it goes.

12 Responses to “I Learn Something New”

  1. EC says:

    In the book ´The Gibson 175´ )2007’by Adrian Ingram there is a very small section about this ES 175T.

  2. RAB says:

    Hmmm…interesting research but this Norlin fiddle ain’t my cuppa tea…

  3. Rod says:

    Once again norlin’s market research sent them down a blind alley. I remember wondering at the time just who this model was aimed at. The 175 is pretty much exclusively a jazzer’s instrument and jazzers would be unlikely to appreciate the thinline. And a full hollow body would not appeal to the rockier end of the marked which in any event would not find the styling appealing. Hardly surprising then that the model had such a short lifespan.

  4. RAB says:

    Good points Rod! There were some pretty hideous offerings coming out of Kalamazoo back then including the Corvus, etc. Yuck!

  5. chuckNC says:

    Ted Nugent was pretty poplar ca. 1976. Wonder if Gibson had thoughts of appealing to Teddy fans. A Byrdland, with that short scale and spruce top, isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Don’t have the slightest idea if there’s anything to that idea, just putting it out there.

  6. Peter N Lupi says:

    Hi, your your expert opinion.. This is a 63 re-issue anniversary bought in 2013. Is it the right body shape to you?

  7. okguitars says:

    No. Too narrow and vertical in the horns. The only time Gibson got the body shape right (in modern times) is the Clapton Crossroads 335. And why did they get it right that time? Because the bodies were (allegedly) made in Japan by Matsumoku. Leave it to the Japanese to get a copy right. I don’t believe that Gibson has actually admitted this.

  8. pvt. joker says:

    The biggest discovery here is that ‘BGN’ stamped Norlin guitars being not worth the factory 2nd stamp but too good to throw away would have to imply Norlin era Gibson had some sort of QC. A remarkable discovery when everybody knows Gibson had none back in those days.

    I kid, of course. Plenty of playable Norlins out there, some even almost valuable, like 68 LP goldtops.

  9. okguitars says:

    68 Goldtops aren’t Norlins. Deal wasn’t completed until 1969.

  10. Chris says:

    About a decade ago, I was looking for a good deal on an early Norlin era es-175, and came across the 175-t. Having basically grown up with a 335, the idea of a thin line 175 sounded interesting. After some searching and bargaining, I managed to pick one up for $1,300…not cheap, but half the asking price of all the other ones I came across. It seemed worth the risk.

    In pure musical terms, it was one of the better deals I have ever made. It had been “Grovered.” And the original pickups had been switched out for a hotter pair (suggesting that ChuckNC might have a point about the Nugent appeal). But that was an easy fix. It has no problem hanging in there with its fatter cousins.

    Every now and then I have a look to see if I can find a 175-t for sale online. They do show up every now and again…with the seller usually asking $2,500+. That strikes me as too much, but for someone seeking a versatile, comfortable and great sounding jazz guitar, the 175-t is worth considering. It’s anything but “yuck.”

    I can imagine that I might have lost many readers of this (outstanding!) blog with my first sentence: “Why early Norlin era?”, I hear you ask, before dismissing me totally ;-).

    Well, as Charlie has pointed out in many of his posts dealing with changes and transitions, things don’t change radically from one day to the next. I can’t help but think that the master craftsmen working in the Kalamazoo plant anno 1968 were, for the most part, still there in the early 1970s. And while Ii don’t doubt that production changes were made that impacted upon overall consistency (together with needless penny pinching on hardware), my sense is that the higher end Gibsons from the early 1970s tend to be every bit as good as those from the 1965-1969 generation (I simply haven’t played enough higher end pre-1965 Gibsons to make comparisons any further back).

    Actually, I have a 1978 ES-335 (which, interestingly, has a six digit 1968 serial number) that plays beautifully and sustains for days (it is a bit darker sounding than most of the 1960s 335s I have played, but still a winner). Perhaps I just got lucky? I do understand the aesthetic preference for the classic Mickey body shape, and for a wider nut…and what 335 freak would not want a pre-65!! But not everything went south in the 1970s.

    Thanks, Charlie, for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us! It’s much appreciated!!

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