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61 Revisited

1961 ES-335’s have been the red headed step child of dot necks for a long time. The very slim neck is mostly why but they are still really excellent guitars but be careful. Read on

No, not Highway 61. The 61 ES-335. With the price of a 58-60 dot neck reaching nosebleed heights, it might be time to look at the 61 ES-335 if you are among those who absolutely must have a dot neck. The 61 has always been the least expensive of the dots (along with the short lived 62) mostly because of the neck profile. It has to be that because almost everything else about it is the same as the earlier ones. Yes, the 61 has a short pick guard and a white, rather than amber, switch tip but if not for the very slim neck, the price of a 61 would be up there, at least, with a 60. I could mention the short magnet PAF as a difference but the truth is a short magnet PAF is often superior to a long magnet. They are much more consistent and while you could get a dog of a long magnet as easily as you could get a magical one, the short magnet almost always gets you an excellent pickup. But the neck is the issue that needs to be revisited. Why, you ask? Because there are a lot of 61’s for sale and they’ve become pretty pricey in this overheated market. At $30K or more, it’s important to know about the problem with 61’s. The truss rod crack.

I’ve written about this before but I’m compelled to do so again because I’ve started looking seriously at 61’s as a good option. The guitar buying public is finally moving away from the “must have” huge neck and going with the medium and slimmer profiles. I think my generation was obsessed with huge neck profiles but the generations behind us boomers desires comfort over all. Big necks have often been said to bring on better tone but I think that’s only partially true. One of the best 335’s I ever owned was slim necked (and refinished) 62 dot neck. In any case, it’s time for the cautionary tale about the 61 dot neck to be looked at again.

The thicker the neck, the more wood there is between the truss rod and the back of the neck. The more wood there is, the less likely it is to crack under stress. A truss rod works by pushing against the wood to keep it from deforming due to the heavy load placed upon it by string tension. It’s a very simple lever and it generally works quite well, although it has its limits (which is why the two way truss rod was invented later). The difference in depth between a typical big 59 (.90″ at the first fret and a full inch at the 12th) and a typical “blade neck” 61 (.78″ at the first and .87″ at the 12th) is nearly 1/8″. That’s quite a lot of wood and since the truss rod sits in about the same place on all 335’s, all of that goes behind the truss rod. Try to break a 1/8″ thick piece of mahogany some time. It isn’t easy. So, how much wood is there between the truss rod and the back of a 61 neck? I’m not sure but I would guess that there’s maybe 1/16″ or a little less. So, you tighten the truss rod and that very slim area of wood can’t take the stress and it cracks, usually in a straight vertical line from around the third fret to the ninth fret. That varies a good bit but it’s usually centered on the neck and somewhere between those two points.

See the jagged edge along the crack? A check won’t do that. A scratch might show a jagged edge but it’s unlikely that a scratch will be consistent over more than a very short length. The jagged edge is a pretty good indicator that what you have is a crack. Thanks to Stephen at Street Legal Guitars in Austin, TX for the photo.

There’s good news, however. It doesn’t appear to be a structural issue. I’ve never seen a 61 where the crack has worsened into something that will cause the guitar to play poorly but it’s there and it should be disclosed when it occurs. Sellers will call it a check or, more often a scratch but look closely. If the finish has a jagged edge under high magnification, then it ain’t a check and unlikely to be a scratch. It’s a crack and it’s a lot more common than you think. I’ve seen it so many times now that I’ve generally avoided 61’s for years if not decades. If you’re considering a 61, ask for a close up of the back of the neck. If you see a vertical line, it’s probably a crack. If that doesn’t bother you (or it’s disclosed and priced in) then have at it. 61’s are wonderful guitars but know what you’re getting.

Not he best photo but there is a truss rod crack in this neck. It extends vertically from around the fourth fret to perhaps the sixth or seventh. It is very common in 61’s.

6 Responses to “61 Revisited”

  1. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Very important caveat emptor, Charlie. What do you recommend for 61’s that are NOT cracked (yet) so you don’t create one? Avoid touching the truss rod altogether? Adjusting relief by other means – string gauge, bridge height, etc.?? And what is the neck bow/profile to avoid on an uncracked neck so you’re not looking for trouble down the road?

  2. okguitars says:

    I would say that if you buy an uncracked 61 to make sure the neck is relatively straight and doesn’t require much adjustment. If it needs to be adjusted I would recommend no more
    than 1/8 turn at a time. Let it sit for a day and then another 1/8 turn. The neck should respond to very small adjustments.
    If the neck is back bowed, you can loosen the truss as much as you need to. I wouldn’t buy a 61 with even the
    slightest back bow. I don’t generally buy 61’s at all unless I see them in person. Most 61’s are around .77″-.79″ at the first fret. I would be wary of any 61.

  3. RAB says:

    Good observations Charlie and Nelson! While I do prefer humongous neck profiles such as the one on my FR (First Rack) ‘59 345, I can and do function well with the considerably slimmer neck on my ‘62 Epi Riviera…

  4. RAB says:

    P.S. interestingly other types of neck profiles can similarly be tolerated. For example while my ‘64 Epi Wilshire has the infamous narrow nut the neck is quite deep at the first fret, about 0.86”. That combined with fairy beefy “shoulders” makes the neck a pretty good handful! Lesson? It’s helpful to be open minded when considering yer “new” fiddle!

  5. Len Kovalsky says:

    Charlie – As you mention ’62 necks are also very slim. Are they also vulnerable to the cracking problem?

  6. okguitars says:

    They don’t seem to be. My experience is that they are slightly deeper than the “blade” 61’s. A 61 is usually from .78″ to .80″ at the first fret. I’ve seen one as slim as .76″
    A usual; 62 seems to be .80″ – .83″. Those few hundredths of an inch make a difference. I’ve only seen one 62 with the issue (and one 60). I’ve seen no less than 30 61’s with the crack.

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