Color Wars

Doesn’t seem to matter much what color your old sports car is. It might be easier to sell one color over another but guitars are different. And besides, you never see a sunburst Porsche

A red vintage sports car will cost the same as a black vintage sports car. A blue one, the same. And it doesn’t seem to make much difference if it’s refinished. A red one might be easier to sell than a blue one but color is rarely a big factor in the price. Not so when it comes to vintage guitars, Guitar players and guitar collectors don’t seem to follow conventional logic (or conventional wisdom, for that matter). I’ll give you an easy example to start us off. A black PAF, in today’s market, will cost you around $4000-$4500. A white PAF will cost you twice that. Yes, there is a range and some variation but essentially folks are willing to pay double for a white one over a black one. There is no difference other than the color of the bobbins. You can argue that whites tend to be slightly overwound but it’s pretty easy to find black ones that are in the mid 8K range. It’s the color that makes them more valuable. The difference in price between a custom color Strat and a sunburst Strat is another example with Custom colors (even ugly ones) doubling and tripling the value.

A 58 Les Paul gold top is, on a good day, a $150,000 guitar. An average 58 sunburst is twice that. Again, the only difference is the color. Rarity is not a factor because 58 gold tops are rarer than 58 bursts. Again, it’s the color. 3×5’s often follow a predictable pattern but with some very strange twists. A sunburst 335 is the most common among dot necks. A blonde dot neck is double the price of a sunburst. That is based, I think, on desirability and rarity. There are only 211 blonde dot necks. There are about 1700 sunbursts from 58 to early 62 when the dot neck era ended. A blonde 345 is also desirable and rare. There are only 50 blonde 345’s vs about 1300 sunbursts from 59 to 64. Again, the price is around double. Looking at 355’s, the landscape changes dramatically because the vast majority are red. Using red as the baseline, there were around 1650 ES-355’s made from 58 to 64. We’ll forget about mono vs stereo here. I know of perhaps 5 blonde 355’s made during that period. There is no record because all of them were special orders. Predictably, the price for a blonde is more than double because they are so rare. The last one I sold went for around $150,000 (it was a 62). That is more than 5 times as much as a red one. So, we all get it…blondes are desirable and will cost you a lot of money. But what about those bursts? I can’t think of another guitar that commands a premium for sunburst.

That brings me to sunburst ES-355’s. Nobody goes out looking for one because they are incredibly rare and, to be honest, if you want a sunburst ES, why not just buy a 335 or a 345? They are pretty much the same guitar, aren’t they? Well, yes and no. The design is pretty much the same as is the tone. The ebony board may add some “snap” to the highs (for the record, I think this is urban myth) and make for a somewhat smoother playing surface. Factory Grovers are a nice addition as they are a better, more reliable tuner. There are plenty of players who prefer the 355 over the 335 (BB King, for one, Chuck Berry is another, Keith Richards too). If you want a sunburst 355, you will have to look long and hard. I know of around ten from 59 to 64. All but one have a Bigsby or sideways or Maestro trem tailpiece. That’s a dealbreaker for many. A sunburst 355 is so rare that most folks don’t think they exist. It can’t be particularly desirable if no one knows they are out there. Only a very savvy collector will even be aware of them. It seems strange that folks will fall all over themselves for the opportunity to simply hold a sunburst Les Paul. Rock stars and rich collectors (and dealers) will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sunburst Les Paul but nobody pays a premium for a sunburst finish on any other guitar.

I point this out because I own a sunburst ES-355 that has sat on the market for a while. It is priced like a blonde but ES folks don’t look at a sunburst the way Les Paul players do. My sunburst 355 is a 59 and is a stop tail. It is mono as well. It is also the only one known. If for no other reason, I just want my readers to know that they exist and to let you know that logic doesn’t work with vintage guitars. If it was black, it would be $200,000 easily (thanks, Keith). The last black 59 ES-345 I sold was in the $155K range-way more than a blonde 345 would sell for (double, in fact). So, while Les Paul bursts continue to rise with the strong market (and inflation), the sunburst ES-355 waits to be discovered.

A sunburst ’59 335 or 345 is a desirable and wonderful guitar. A sunburst 355 is almost unheard of. There are less than a dozen. This is the only sunburst stop tail 355 ever made (as far as I know). It is also mono with double white PAFs and a big fat neck.

7 Responses to “Color Wars”

  1. RAB says:

    Finish color, an interesting subject for sure! All good points; finish color is associated with rarity and rarity with price! Yes, the premiums placed on those rare colors by “the market” can be astronomical! But it’s cosmetic only…Case in point the best sounding original 1950’s PAF LP Standard I’ve owned (out of 5 Bursts and PAF Goldtops and numerous LP Customs) was a 1957 darkback Goldtop…it sounded way better than the super flame top ‘59 Burst I owned! The sunburst ‘59 355 you’ve highlighted in this blog posting ticks ALL the boxes for players and collectors alike. Gorgeous looks, unparalleled rarity, big neck, mono, stop tail, double whites! I’m frankly astonished it hasn’t been snapped up by an astute player or collector. It would have been part of my small, gigged guitar stable the day it was posted to this site if I had deeper pockets or with inheritance dollars when a wealthy relative kicked the bucket!

  2. Collin says:

    You missed the most recent (and most relevant) 355 players!

    Without a doubt, the biggest influence for ES-355 players now (and certainly into the future) are Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher and Bernard Butler. If any readers don’t know any of these names, they are most certainly over the age of 50.

    As for the color thing, ’58-60 Les Paul Standards have always been an anomaly in the vintage guitar market. The prices do not follow the logic of supply and demand (relative to other rarer models) and neither does the preference for sunburst. It’s pretty much exclusive to Bursts only, most other guitar models (of all brands) are worth more with a solid color rather than sunburst.

  3. okguitars says:

    I am most certainly over the age of 50.

  4. RAB says:

    And don’t forget Rick Derringer played (and still plays) a vintage 355! The big cherry red semi-hollow body looked huge on the diminutive Rick! He purchased it brand new with some of the proceeds from his band The McCoys’ big hit “Hang on Sloopy!”

  5. Joe Campagna says:


  6. RAB says:

    Thanks Joe! Fabulous pic! Best, Roger

  7. RAB says:

    Happy Father’s Day y’all! Headed out far too early (for FD!) to play a morning gig with my band at a local classic and hot rod car show! Keep on Bluesin’!

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