In•to•na•tion (and the Little Holes You Can’t See)

Looks like a near mint 62 that will fetch top dollar from the most discriminating collector, right? Nope. It seems there was a problem with the intonation and a small but unfortunate mod was done. Can’t see it, can you.

Intonation is one of those technical things that a lot of guitar players are aware of but don’t entirely understand. To be truthful, I don’t entirely understand the physics behind it but I do understand how to deal with it. Rather than explain the physics (after all, this isn’t a blog for guitar techs), I’ll try to explain how to deal with it on your ES guitar and warn you about some of the idiosyncrasies regarding intonation of early 335’s.

So, you tune your guitar perfectly with open strings using your handy little clip on tuner or your phone app. It’s dead on. But when you play a chord at the the 8th fret, something doesn’t sound right. Probably your intonation isn’t properly set up. Unlike a violin where you put your finger anywhere on the string to get the note you want to play, the guitar was frets which dictate where the note you’re trying play is located on the fingerboard. The trouble is that not all strings act the same way due to differences in thickness and other factors. The actual length of the vibrating string dictates what note (and whether its in tune or flat or sharp) will play at any given fret. So, if your string length isn’t exactly right, your guitar will be out of tune in some places but not in others. Yikes.

You’ll note that most electric guitars have bridges that have some degree of adjustment forward and back-some for each string, like an ABR-1 and some more generally like a wrap tail. Setting the intonation is really easy on an ABR-1, so I’ll give you the two sentence “how to” and then talk about the weird stuff that goes on with 335’s which is why you’re reading this in the first place. Play the open string. Tune it. Play the string at the 12th fret. If it’s flat turn the little screw that moves the saddles so that the saddle moves toward the nut, shortening the string. Move it until it’s in tune at the twelfth fret (and still in tune when played open). If it’s sharp, turn the screw so the saddle moves away from the nut, lengthening the string. Once its in tune at both the 12th fret and open, you’re done with that string. Do that for all six strings and you’re done.

But there’s sometimes a problem. What if you run out of room to move the saddle and the string is still sharp (or flat) at the 12th fret? This is a really common problem on 335’s and it’s almost always the G string. Why is that? Well, if you’re as old as I am and you were playing guitar back in the early to mid 60’s, you might remember that, back then, the G string was always wound. Now, on electrics, it’s nearly always plain. So, when these wonderful “Golden Era” guitars were made, they were designed to use a wound G string. Remember, I mentioned that the differences in string thickness affect intonation? A plain G is way thinner than a wound G and the bridge placement and saddle travel of a 50’s or 60’s 335 didn’t anticipate the plain G and often, that string simply won’t intonate. There are solutions. Look at the saddle itself. Usually the flat side of the saddle faces the fingerboard but that limits the rearward travel of the saddle (the issue is always that the G is sharp at the 12th fret). Take the saddle out and flip it around so the flat side faces away from the fingerboard. That will allow you to jam the saddle flat up against the back side of the bridge getting you that last bit of string length you need to intonate that G string. Probably 90% of the 335’s in my shop have the G saddle all the way back and turned around. It works. But this brings up an issue that comes up pretty frequently.

A reasonable solution to the intonation problem was to simply move the bridge posts back. By drilling a couple of new holes for the posts maybe an eighth of an inch back from where they are, you could fix the problem forever. In the era of multi thousand dollar vintage guitars, that’s a terrible idea even if the extra holes are hidden by the thumbwheels. Extra holes are worth as much $1000 each off the value of your vintage 335. But back when a 59 335 was just an old guitar, it made perfect sense and there are quite a few vintage 335’s with this mod. The thing is, you can’t see the holes unless you take the thumbwheel off or at least unscrew it part way. It’s the issue that almost never gets disclosed because nobody notices it until long after the approval period has ended. Like years after. After all, who takes off the thumbwheels? There’s no reason to for regular maintenance and adjustment. Well, I’ll tell you who takes off thumbwheels…I do and now you do. You don’t want to discover two holes in the top of your $40,000 vintage ’59 years after you bought it. Worse, you don’t want the guy who you just sold it to for $40,000 to discover it and send it back to you. This just happened to a client of mine who bought a 62 335 from a very reputable dealer. The client checked but the dealer didn’t. He, of course, returned the guitar and the dealer was embarrassed by the error of omission. If he had discovered it a year later, would the dealer have taken it back? If I missed it, I would but I can’t speak for other dealers. Bottom line. Look under the thumbwheels when you get the guitar. It takes a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did.

They don’t show when the bridge is in place and they don’t show when the bridge is off. You have to take off the thumbwheels to see them. No big deal? If you’re paying top dollar for a mint or near mint guitar, just knowing the holes are there will drive you batty. Still was a great guitar but a couple of grand came off the price. Intonated real well too.

8 Responses to “In•to•na•tion (and the Little Holes You Can’t See)”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, good advice as always. Decades ago I returned a ‘59 Burst to a very well-known West Coast dealer for the same problem; treble side bridge post was moved. Issue not disclosed. It was a faded, super plain top LP Standard. He did take the guitar back and sent me a very rare, factory original 2 PAF ‘59 LP Custom instead. A great, great LP that I played for many years…

  2. I had the same problem on my ’62 Professional. Moved the bridge myself and glad I did. I’ve noticed it’s very common on ES3x5s from that era. I even started collecting photos of maxed out saddles on old Gibsons. 🙂
    If mine was more expensive, I’d make an offset post thumbwheel like this one.

  3. Rod says:

    Not at all convinced that spot on intonation is either necessary or desirable within reason although of course it does have to be somewhere near. Some of my favourite guitars have wrapovers where intonation is always a compromise and they don’t sound, to me at least, as if they are playing out of tune. In any event I always intonate my guitars slightly sharp, it makes the playing sound brighter and stand out of the mix better without sounding out of tune.

  4. Joe S says:

    This is a GENIUS fix for the issue at hand, courtesy of Mr. Dan Erlewine:

  5. Rod says:

    Is there any evidence to suggest Gibson might have moved bridge posts themselves following Quality Control checks, in the days when they still HAD Quality Control?

  6. Ken K says:

    Technically, guitar intonation is “12th Fret Intonation.” That means your 12th fret E is exactly one octave up in tune with your open E, rinse, repeat. The chords up and down the neck are out of tune ever so slightly on all but wiggle fret guitars.

    If you study music, especially piano, to an academic degree you can hear this but the fact is tiny bits of temperament vary on many instruments which does create their character, to a degree. Yet if they stray too far from temperament they really sound bad, a guitar stays just good enough to be in reality.

    But, when your 12’th fret octave is out of tune it only gets worse behind and above the 12th fret on whatever string(s) are out of tune. So, it’s not a matter of taste, it discernably sounds worse than a normal guitar as you go up the fretboard.

    Problem is, yes, many vintage ABR Gibsons were drilled off or drifted enough from proper intonation. At that, an ABR bridge is about good for 3 consecutive gauges given it’s limited travel.

    Is this acceptable? Absolutely not. To a “collector” who thinks his licks are just as good when they get extra cat calls beyond the 12th fret maybe his untrained ear can think it an improvement, lol. But, reality is many old Gibsons should take the Erlewine or other methods of fixing the issue. Preferably no extra holes though.

    Yet, I’d rather extra holes than wanky cat calls up the neck, especially sharp, you can’t fix sharp with your fingers and you can always make cat calls, if needed, with your fingers.

  7. okguitars says:

    It’s not impossible but I’m guessing the guitars shipped with 12’s and a wound G string back then and they intonated just fine.

  8. hahaha i love dan erlewine’s fix to the intonation problem.

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