Archive for May, 2021

Mine’s Bigger than Yours

Monday, May 31st, 2021
An early 59 on the bottom and a fairly late 59 on top. It’s hard to see a .06″ difference but you can sure feel it. Most players can feel a difference of .03″ or even less. That’s 3 hundredths of an inch. That’s the usual difference between a 62 and a 64. The difference between an early 59 and a typical 60 is three times that.

I’m talking about guitar necks, of course. Neck profiles have always been variable and everyone has their preference. When I was a kid back in the 60’s, the word was “fast”. A slim neck profile (both width and depth) was touted by manufacturers as “fast”. All of us rockers wanted to play fast (thanks Alvin Lee) and anything that made us faster (or seemed to do so) was coveted. Gibson necks, way back in the 50’s, were deep and wide. The standard nut width was around 1.65-1.68″ which is approximately 1 11/16″. The depth at the first fret was anywhere from .85 to .95. Fender, at the same time was much slimmer. The nut was generally 1.62″ or 1 5/8″. Neck depths really were all over the place. In the early 50’s they were as deep a any Gibson but by 59, they were moving to as slim as .79″. The buying experience, back then was simple. You go to a music store (it was rare for a music store to sell both Fender and Gibson) and you try out a few guitars and you buy the one that is comfortable…the one you could play best. Tone wasn’t a huge factor like it is now. If the three way got you three different tones on a two pickup, then you were good. Sustain? Nobody even knew the term. Nobody measured he neck. If it felt right, then it was the one.

By the early 60’s, Fender was eating Gibson’s lunch. Their “faster” necks were what everyone wanted. In ’60, Gibson first saw the writing on the wall and slimmed down the depth to as small as .77″ (the “blade” neck) by the end of the year but the nut width remained the same. The result was largely that Gibsons started having breakage and other neck issues so they slowly beefed them back up until ’65. Early 50’s Fender necks were large but by 58, they had slimmed considerably. Fender necks kept that slim profile, with some variation, throughout the 60’s. There are some pretty big 63’s and some pretty big 66-69’s but, in general, they stayed under .82″ and mostly kept the 1 5/8″ nut width. I would note that Fender had optional narrower and wider necks designated by A, B, C and D. I’ve never seen a D neck. The 1 5/8″ B neck was stock. In 65, Gibson made a radical change. The nut width was lowered to 1 5/8″ to equal Fender and soon after was dropped to 1 9/16″ (1.56″). It’s no coincidence that Gibson 335 prices in the vintage market drop like a stone from 64 to 65. Few players want a nut that narrow these days.

So, that’s the history in a very small nutshell. The trends through the 70’s (narrow nut and medium depth) and 80’s (wider and often flat) are interesting as well. The one constant is that the neck profiles were always changing. The vintage market that I deal in covers mostly 1958 to 1964 and encompasses nearly every neck profile you could want. It should come as no surprise that the fat necks of the 58’s and 59’s are the most sought after. The big 64’s are right up there as well. The shallower depth 60-63’s (early) are considered excellent guitars but their popularity has been a fraction of the earlier ones and the prices reflect that. As 58’s and 59’s get more expensive, players are considering the later ones and their popularity and prices have risen. And a funny thing happened in the process. Players started to appreciate the slimmer necks. Faster? Definitely for some players. More comfortable? I have to say yes if you’re an older player with arthritis coming on (which includes me). I play a 59 but I’ve come to understand the attraction of the 62-63 profiles. The blade neck is still a bit slim for me and the narrow nut of the 65-69’s is still a struggle for my short stubby fingers. But the trend has become clear. Fat is no longer where it’s at.

That’s a little bit of an overstatement but the days when folks bragged about the size of the neck on their guitar have all but ended. There are still plenty of folks who prefer that baseball bat but it’s not the big deal it once was. It never made that much sense anyway. Gibson went way overboard with it in 76 (Explorer) and again in the 2000’s with the 335 “fat neck”. Both, to me, are nearly unplayable. Neither lasted that long and Gibson, wisely, has slimmed down the shoulders (a whole other measurement worth a post of its own) on most of the high end electric guitars making them more true to the originals and, more importantly, more playable for more players. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before folks start bragging about how slim theirs is.

The 66 Epiphone Riviera on the left measures 1 and 9/16″ at the nut while the 64 335 on the right is 1 and 11/16. That’s a 1/8″ difference. Seems like a little? It’s not. It’s a huge difference in feel and playability for many.

Rarest Production 355

Friday, May 7th, 2021
This is one of the ten ES-355’s built and shipped in 1958. The red is unusual (for a 355). The tuners are different from all the others and, like the other 58’s it has some distinctive “58 only” features. It’s also a killer player with a huge neck profile.

Gibson appeared to have a hit with the new ES-335 guitar introduced in April of 1958. They only sold a few hundred of them in 1958 but it was apparently enough for them to expand the line and take advantage of the positive PR they were getting from the 335. So, they developed the ES-355 to be introduced in 1959. But ten of them left Kalamazoo in late 1958 and instantly doubled the number of models in the line. The 345 was, I’m sure, already in the pipeline but the stereo/Varitone feature wasn’t ready yet. All of the 1958 ES-355’s are mono as are all of the early 59’s. But the 58 355 is an interesting story in itself.

Gibson changes features all the time and they don’t do it in a structured way. They make changes when they think they are necessary or desirable. There are no “model years” wherein all changes are made late in the year for introduction as the next year’s model. So, a late 58 ES-355 should be the same as an early 59. But the 58’s are different from nearly all of the 59’s I’ve seen. Now, I’ve only seen four of the ten 58 ES-355’s including the one touted as the first since it has the earliest serial number. The build order is more accurately reflected by the FON (factory order number). So, what features distinguish a 58 from a 59?

As I mentioned, I’ve only seen four of the ten and three of those are very similar. The fourth is a bit of an outlier and that’s the one in the photo above. I’ll get to that in a minute. 58 ES-355’s are all mono, all, I believe, red, all have gold bonnet knobs and all originally had a low profile ABR-1 (most of which collapsed). Like a 58 ES-335, the 355’s have a thin 3 ply top and a very shallow neck angle. All have Bigsby’s and none were factory drilled for stop tail bushings unlike many of the 58 ES-335’s. A 58 355 that I owned a few years ago was drilled for a stop tail but I believe it was done aftermarket. 58 ES-355’s tend to fade due to the use of a dye that is reactive to UV light. 58’s tend to go toward orange while 59’s go more pink (watermelon). I don’t know if they changed the formulation of the dye in 59. They did change it in late 60 to minimize the fading.

So, what’s the story on the one in the photo at the top? It’s different in a few ways. First off, it’s still red. It has faded a bit but it’s a different fade and a different red. I noticed that where the finish is chipped, there is bare wood. That’s not normal. Gibson’s see through red is generally done by dying the wood red and finishing in clear lacquer. So, when you look at a chip or buckle rash, the wood under the lacquer is red or pinkish. Not this one. This one was finished in a tinted lacquer. I thought, “ok, refinish…” but there is no sign anywhere that it was ever sanded or oversprayed. Red Gibsons are nearly impossible to strip because the dye sinks into the wood. Chemical strippers won’t get rid of it and sanding is always obvious on a 3×5 (that’s another topic altogether). I have seen this red finish on other Gibsons-I had a L5/Gobel with it and I’ve seen at least one Byrdland with it. It is almost wine red. But wait, there’s more.

All of the other early ES-355’s I’ve seen have Grover tuners. Later they switched to Kluson wafflebacks but that wasn’t until 63. This 58 has wafflebacks but they are not the metal button ones you see on later 355’s, they are the plastic tipped ones you see on early Les Paul Customs from the 50’s. There is no sign of any other tuner having been installed. So, why the unusual finish and the oddball tuners? I doubt it’s a custom order this early in a run of a new model. I don’t think Gibson even announced the existence of the 355 until 1959, although the employees would certainly know about it. It certainly wasn’t in the catalog in 58. Two more oddities as long as we’re looking closely. The headstock has a three ply binding whereas 355’s usually have a 5 ply headstock binding. Early rosewood J-200’s had the same binding on the headstock. Also, the factory order number is hand written in red pencil. I’ve never seen that before and I don’t know why that was done. My guess? This is a prototype or employee guitar and it was singled out from its rack for special treatment. The Byrdland below (for sale by my friends at Southside Guitars in Brooklyn) looks like the same red.

This is a 60 Byrdland and probably a custom order. The red looks to be identical to the red in the 58 ES-355 at the top of this post. This guitar is at Southside Guitars in Brooklyn, NY