Magical Thinking

Les Paul aficionados will often pay a huge premium for a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. They are beautiful but the fingerboard doesn’t have much effect on the tone of your guitar. This is a 2003 R9.

Vintage guitar aficionados love magic. Magical wood (like Brazilian rosewood), magical cloth (original Fender tweed), magical plastic (white pickup bobbins, bumblebee caps) and magical metal (A2 magnets and short seam aluminum tailpieces). Nobody really wants anyone to say that most of this magical stuff is nonsense because it’s bad for business. Those of us who are seriously involved in the selling of vintage guitar do well to perpetuate these myths because it’s great for business.

Even though this is a 335 blog, I’m going to use a Les Paul as my first example. An all original Les Paul burst will cost you $300,000 or more and has, over the years, been a good investment. A used R9 reissue will cost you from around $4000 to maybe $12000 for a Brazilian board model. The fact that you’re considering paying an $8000 premium for a $200 piece of wood is loony enough. The fact that a Brazilian board adds no tonal advantage isn’t really relevant but I thought I’d mention it for those who believe they can hear the difference between an Indian rosewood fingerboard and a Brazilian board. So, you can’t justify paying $300,000 for a guitar (or you can’t afford it) and you want to get as close as possible. Well, you’re already pretty close, the current Les Pauls are quite good but, for many of you, maybe you can get closer and that’s where the crazy starts.

I’m making an assumption here. I assume you are after the best possible tone from your guitar and that cosmetics are secondary. Repro parts have gotten so good that unless you are standing 6 inches from the guitar, you won’t be able to tell a repro from the real thing, so we can eliminate the cosmetic angle. That said, a really good upgrade would be a pair of really excellent pickups. You will hear a difference and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. A set of Throbaks (and some others) sounds a whole lot like a set of PAFs (although one PAF can sound very different from another) and will cost you $550 or so. Or you can buy a set of real double white PAFs for $10,000-$12,000. Crazy? You bet, but at least they will hold their value even if the value of your guitar drops like a stone and you will hear a difference. But what about the premium for double whites? Contrary to some opinions, they don’t sound better than blacks and will cost you twice as much. But whites look so much cooler, right? Right but are they $5000 cooler when I can get a set of double white Throbaks for 1/20th the price? Your call.

How about magic metal? An authentic short seam 50’s (or later up to 64) tailpiece is around $1800 and it will look and sound pretty much the same as the very decent repro that came on your Les Paul. Same goes for an authentic no wire ABR-1. It will look about the same and it will sound about the same but you’ll be out $800 or so. How crazy do Les Paul owners get? Well, there seems to be a limit. I don’t know of anyone who has spent $10,000 on a set of authentic 50’s pickup rings. But is that any crazier than spending $250 on a catalin switch tip? Answer: Yes, it is… by about $9750. I figure that if you want to make your $4000 R9 as close to a real 59 as possible, it will cost you about $30,000 and that changes everything but the wood and the truss rod. But you know what they say about old growth wood. It’s magical.

You can do the same upgrades to your 335 but they will cost you a bit less but still will top $20,000. Considering a player grade 59 335 can be had for less than 1/10th the price of a 59 Les Paul, we don’t see as many folks doing those types of upgrades. But I’ve had plenty of inquiries about putting PAFs into a new Memphis 335 or maybe changing out the tailpiece for a 50’s. My advice? Save your money. Buy a set of good boutique PAF type pickups and you will probably like what you hear. That tailpiece? Again, save your money. An old one won’t sound any better than a new one.

Finally, there is magical cloth as in Fender tweed. I love Fender tweed amps. I have three of them and I enjoy each one. You can buy a decent original Bassman for around $10,000. It’ll have some changed caps most likely but we’re after tone and the smart amp tech doesn’t replace the caps that affect the tone. Or, you can buy a re-tweeded Bassman for $5000 (or less) and get the exact same tone (and sometimes) even the same look for half the price. The idea that a retweed knocks off half the price of a Fender amp is one of the nuttier concepts in amp collecting. I get that originality is a big deal to collectors. But if you want a Bassman because it sounds great, why are you spending an extra $5000 for cheap, beat up old luggage cloth? Full disclosure-all three of my personal tweeds are original tweed and I spent a lot of money for them and I will eventually list them and sell them. So, why did I opt for the collector grade original spend an extra $5000 tweed? Because it will magically run up in price as the market for original tweeds runs up. A retweed will not. My personal rule for “investment” pieces is to buy the best, most original example you can find.

You can add $30,000 worth of parts to your R9 but it’s still an R9. Those expensive parts you bought will hold their value just fine in most cases, so they aren’t a bad investment. But a guitar isn’t like a house. Put in a $20,000 bathroom and the value of your house goes up by $25,000. Buy a $12,000 set of PAFs and the value of your guitar goes up by…wait for it…$12,000. Originality doesn’t count in a house. It counts in collectibles though. Unfortunately, no matter how good the re-tweed is, it’s still a re-tweed and no matter how good the refinish is, it’s still a refinish. Keep these things in mind when there’s magic in the air. Not all magic is created equal.

I could argue that double whites sound better than double blacks but I would be lying. They are often wound a bit hotter than blacks (I have a theory about this) but the white bobbins have no effect on tone. They sure look cool though. This is a 1960. Double white PAFs were mostly gone by then unless they are gold. The nickel ones largely disappeared during 59. Zebras hung in for a while though. My 60 335 has them.

11 Responses to “Magical Thinking”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, thanks for this focus on these well-publicized guitar myths! Yes, players were rabid back in the day for white coiled PAFs…especially after seeing their heroes like Rick Derringer and Jeff Beck with double “creams” and zebras on their Bursts. The feeling at the time was you could raise an uncovered pickup closer to the strings and eek out a little more output. I pulled the stock double blacks from my ‘59 Burst and installed a pair of zebras…in more recent times I’ve kept the covers on despite coil color. The cover does provide protection from moisture and the unlikely, but possible potential of catching the edge of your pick in the side of the exposed coil, damaging the winding. Not worth it!

  2. steve craw says:

    An interesting topic that doesn’t get talked about much. I WAS that guy chasing old parts to dress up new Les Pauls. At one time my R7 goldtop had PAFs, and everything was 1950s vintage except the pickup rings. I even used a ’50s Lifton case. All that’s gone now, Throbacks instead of PAFs, and repro plastic. Truthfully, the guitar is just as cool, and sounds just as good.

  3. steve craw says:

    In the previous pic, even the pickguard was a ’50s original lefty guard.

    Now, with repro parts:

  4. RAB says:

    Steve, congrats! Looks great and I’m sure sounds great! And you don’t need armed security at the gig! Enjoy! RAB

  5. leedsy says:

    What about the very expensive repro Marshall grill cloth that is alleged by some to make a huge tonal improvement? Any comments on that, Charlie?

  6. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Magical thinking indeed! More like wishful thinking. It’s about getting as close as possible to the equipment (and by extension, to the holy grail tone) of one’s idols—when you can’t afford a $300,000 guitar. It’s about bragging rights when everyone around you has an R9, but yours has real PAFs.

    You could also put some of the artist repro-bursts in this category. Does a Jimmy Page model or a Billy Gibbons signed “Pearly Gates” reproduction sound $40K better than a well crafted R9??? Or is it about, as the saying goes, having champagne taste on a (still expensive) beer budget?

  7. Joe Campagna says:

    Don’t forget about magical Hide glue myth.Even though you can see the foamy Rea Formaldehyde glue inside 33X’s and inside LP’s since the 50’s.They even used it in the fret slots.

  8. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Or how about the premium a seller will seek for a serial number close to the number of a famous artist’s guitar–as if that proximity will make it sound better. I’ve seen a listing for an ES-335 boasting a number a few digits away from Clapton’s. Oh well, if you can’t actually rub elbows with a star, maybe you can brag that your guitar and his guitar were roommates in Kalamazoo.

  9. RAB says:

    Me circa 1971. Covered zebra PAFs…

  10. RAB says:

    Circa 1975, uncovered zebras…

  11. Mike says:

    Best article ever! Congrats!

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