Dots and Blocks and Parallelograms (Oh my)

Block inlays on a 335 will curl up, turn brown and fall out eventually. Most replacement pre cut inlays are very white and won’t match the ones that aren’t damaged. You can still get real celluloid but I’ve only seen it pre cut for Les Pauls.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that I’ve written very little about the inlays in the ES line. I’m not sure how interesting a little piece of plastic (or other material) is to most of you but if it’s stuck into the fingerboard of an old Gibson, it’s pretty interesting to me. I find it noteworthy that this teeny little detail is the primary descriptor for 335’s. Most folks, if you ask about their vintage 335 will tell you what they have by describing the inlays. “I have 59 dot neck…” “I have a 62 block neck…” I can’t think of another guitar that is described in that manner. On the other hand, nobody says “I have a parallelogram 345…” perhaps because all of them are that way.

Typically, dot markers were used for the least expensive guitars by most manufacturers. Fender was notorious for taking the cheap way out and used dot markers in all of their guitars in the 50’s and well into the 60’s. Lower line builders like Harmony and Hagström used dots on nearly their entire lines as well. When Gibson introduced the 335 in 1958, it was considered (by Gibson) to be the bottom of a new line of semi hollow guitars. True to form, the 1958 335 got dots. The 1958 355 was next and got large block markers and when the 345 was launched in the Spring of 1959, it got something in between-the twin parallelograms that it still features. But, the 335 was not an inexpensive guitar by anyone’s calculations at the time. It was actually a rather expensive guitar when compared to its closest competitors. A 58 Stratocaster was around $200. A 58 335 was more than half again higher at $335. Apparently, there were complaints by consumers. I have no hard evidence of this; it’s one of those things that everyone seems to know. By the Spring of 62, the dots were gone, replaced by the small block markers we are all familiar with.

Another interesting aspect of the inlays in the ES line is the material. The dots, small blocks and parallelograms were all made out of the same celluloid material that was imported from Italy. The 355 markers were real mother of pearl (nacre) usually made from oyster shells. If you research other Gibsons from the era, you will find that the celluloid (plastic) inlays were ubiquitous from the Melody Makers to the Les Paul Standard. Mother of pearl was found only in the really high line stuff like Les Paul Customs and the pricey arch tops. Abalone shows up in Gibson/Epiphone Sheratons.

The problem with celluloid is that it deteriorates, especially in an oxygen starved environment (like a closed case). Shrinkage is the usual issue with inlays. The dots don’t really shrink much but the blocks (on a 335, not a 355) can curl up and fall out. They will also turn a pretty ugly brown color. The only solution to shrunken, curled inlays is to replace them. You can glue them back down if they aren’t too bad but they will eventually come back up. Celluloid doesn’t stick very well to modern glues. Gibson changed the formula for the plastic blocks in the mid 60’s and the problem, to a large extent, went away. The later blocks are brighter, smoother and more “toilet seat” looking. The 345 parallelograms will also shrink and fall out but they seem a bit more stable than the small blocks. The 355 inlays, being natural mother of pearl, don’t shrink, curl or come undone. I’ve never seen a 355 with a damaged inlay.

If you have a 335 with damaged, discolored or shrunken inlays, you can still get the proper material from Historic Makeovers (Retrospec) but they only sell Les Paul inlays, so you may need to do a little surgery. I suggest only replacing the inlays that are damaged or curled. You can get 335 inlays that are pre-cut but they won’t be the same plastic as the ones that are there now. Even if you get the real celluloid plastic, there is a pretty good chance that it won’t match the vintage ones due to decades of wear, oxidation and sweat. If your inlays are your biggest issue, then you don’t have big issues.

355 inlays stay the same and will do so over the course of the next few thousand years. Mother of Pearl is about as stable as anything on earth. 345 inlays are the same material as 335 blocks and they will shrink and turn brown but they don’t generally fall out. No idea why.

4 Responses to “Dots and Blocks and Parallelograms (Oh my)”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, dots some really good information! Ha, ha. Happy Turkey Day everyone! RAB

  2. leeds says:

    Thanks for the recent flurry of posts, Charlie. Your erudition, writing and enthusiasm are much appreciated by Church of the Blessed 3XX True Believers. I prefer 355/LP Custom inlays. (Yes, I know they adorn other beautiful Gibsons, but I’ve not owned an L-5/Super 400, etc. Yet.) But 345 inlays, though plastic, really please this eye. I wouldn’t want to make a Golden Mean comparison, but perhaps the geometry of double parallelograms please the eye of math geeks and arithmophobes alike. I’ve been a 345 player since age 15. Yes, I’ve played many a happy hour on dot neck, Les Paul and Strat, etc. Inlays make no difference when I’m playing. But I like to look at a guitar when I’m not playing it. So a dot neck, even with lovely Brazilian rosewood, doesn’t please my eye like a 345 or 355. I love the fact that 345 (and dot) inlays are reluctant to abandon ship like fact that a dot neck is more expensive than a 345 or 355 is a bonus

  3. David says:

    Great read! I have been looking for a replacement set of Es-335 small block inlays. Above you write that the Les Paul inlays can be used with surgery and then say Es-335 replacement inlays are available. I’m a little confused. Where can I get them please? Do you know if they are available in real mother of pearl?

  4. okguitars says:

    There are suppliers of real MOP. Probably not cut to size for 335 blocks though. Stew Mac and Philadelphia Luthier Supply are the obvious choices.
    The celluloid inlays used on 60’s block necks are available from the original maker (Italian) but I don’t think they are making them in a size for block necks.

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