Archive for November, 2022

Good News, Bad News or Don’t Try this at Home

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

This is what a typical 59 ES-345 stereo Varitone harness looks like. Lots of plastic tubing and three shielding cans (never four on a 345). The pickups would be soldered directly to the three way.

This is the harness from the pre “first rack” 345. No tubing and a lot of wires coming from and going to the Varitone switch. The stock harness has four wires soldered to the VT switch. The early one has eight including the pickup leads.

There was lots of goods news here at OK Guitars last week. I finally landed the “pre first rack” ES-345 I have been chasing for over a year. Being an early 59 (with a 58 FON) and a thin top, I had high hopes for this guitar cracking the top twenty. The only 345’s ever to do this are first racks. I think there are three that get that distinction. Maybe four. So, you would think that the first thing I would do when I unpack the box would be to plug it in and see just what it sounds like but the strings look like they are 40 years old so I restring it first. Of course most of the tuners tips have turned to dust so I better replace those as well. And a couple of the saddles have too deep of a notch so I file them down slightly and clean that up. As long as I have the strings off, I might as well do my photos of the back of the pickups and the routs.

Two hours later, I’m ready to plug it in. I use the 59 Tweed Pro because that one is closest to my chair. Being a stock 345, it is a stereo circuit so I need a stereo cord and I dig one out and plug it in. The bridge pickup sounds great if a little noisy but the neck pickup is dead. Sometimes it’s just the wires touching the three way shorting it out so I jam my fingers into the f-hole and start moving wires around. Nothing. One thing you don’t want to be doing if you can possibly avoid it is pulling the harness on a 345. The only thing harder than taking a harness out of a 345 is putting it back in. So, the next thing I do is remove the nut from the three way and pull it out through the f-hole. The pickups on a 345 are attached to the lugs of the three way rather than to the volume pots like on a 335 (or just about any other electric guitar). Both lugs have intact wires running to them so I figure it has to be the pickup itself. Bummer. So I desolder the pickup lead from the three way to remove the pickup but the wire to the three way isn’t the pickup lead. I’ve worked on dozens of 345’s and that wire is supposed to be the pickup lead. It’s time to (shudder) pull the harness. There must be some kind of mod that was done.

The first thing that comes out is the choke-usually one and sometimes two screws. This one has none. It is held in by wax potting. I’ve seen that before in some first rack 345’s. Making a long story shorter, I get the harness out and it’s very different than the other 345 harnesses I’ve pulled. The signal path is usually as follows: Pickups to the three way. Three way to the Varitone. Varitone to the volume pots, then to the tone pots and finally to the jack. Simple, right? On inspection, the harness for this 345 is different. The pickups go directly to the Varitone. Then to the three way, the volume and tone pots and the jack. The ground setup is different as well. The earlier harness has quite a lot more wire and is much more fragile than the 1960 I compared it to. As it turns out the pickup lead had pulled away from the Varitone as had the wire from the Varitone back to the three way. I repaired both solder joints and endeavored to re-install the harness. First try, I broke another solder joint (this time from the neck pickup). So, I pulled it again and repaired. Then, I broke the very fragile wire from the choke to the Varitone switch-this is the one that usually causes problems in early 345’s because it’s plastic shielded rather than cloth and the plastic cracks and falls off. I fixed that and tried again. I got the harness installed and it still didn’t work. I pulled it again and the other wire from the choke had broken loose (remember there are two of everything because the circuit is stereo). I’m now four hours into the job. I give up and put in a vintage 335 harness which takes me perhaps twenty minutes. Dropping a 335 harness into a 345 is a relative piece of cake.

I’m guessing the difficulty I encountered is the reason they simplified the 345 harness (and probably to save a dime’s worth of wire). A stock 59 harness is pretty durable compared to the one in this 345. It’s still no fun to install one but I can usually get it on the first try.

Oh, and the good news? This guitar is a monster. I don’t know what it sounded like as a stereo Varitone guitar but as a 335, it cracks the top twenty with ease and just sneaks into the top ten. I could have modded the harness so it is identical to the other first rack 59’s but, as a piece of Gibson history, I left it alone. If the next owner wants to put it back to stereo, have at it. I might suggest taking a Xanax before you do.

The typical Varitone switch is on the left. The early one on the right. The wiring leads me to believe that this pre “first rack” is a prototype. Gibson obviously needed to fix a problem and clearly was able to do so.

In case you forgot what the guitar looks like.

Pre “First Rack” 345 Arrives

Sunday, November 20th, 2022

This is a 1959 ES-345 SN A29133. By serial number it is the third ES-345 ever made-nearly three months before the “first rack” 345’s were released. The FON is T7303-3 which is the last rack of 1958. The last three in the FON is it’s rank within the rack so it is probably also the third one made by that measure as well. It has some interesting features that set it apart from the other early 345’s.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the four ES-345’s that were built on 58 bodies and given serial numbers dating to February 1959. The vaunted “first rack” 345’s were shipped in April and all have 59 FON’s. I’ve been chasing one the four that are shown in the shipping ledger for a couple of years now. The owner (it was his father’s guitar) has finally let it go and I have it. His father played in local bands around Wisconsin along with his wife, the bass player (I bought her Lake Placid Blue P Bass as well).

I got in touch with my inside guy at Gibson who checked the records to try to find the earliest 345 in the book and, sure enough, four ES-345’s were shipped on February 11th. They are, serial numbers A29131-A29134. The FON is very late 58-T7303-xx. Strangely, there is also a rack designated as S7303 and that’s not supposed to happen. Did they forget to change the letter on the stamp (like the Fender amp charts from ’66) and then noticed it part way through the rack? Consider this (this is really geeky): serial number A 29132 and 29133-both 345’s both have the FON T7303. Serial number A 29548 (6 weeks later, more or less) is S7303. The FONs are supposed to be sequential and chronological with the letter changing at the first of the year and the numbers simply continuing. So, 7304 could have been an “S” but 7303 could not since it was already a “T”. Clear as mud. Right?

So, there are four 345’s that I’ll have to call “pre first rack”. They have nearly all of the same features as the typical first rack 345’s-small rout for the Varitone choke, thin top and huge neck. But where is the short leg PAF? It isn’t there. The bridge PAF has the treble side leg carefully folded up so it doesn’t hit the choke. Apparently Gibson hadn’t quite figured that part out yet. A29133, like most (if not all) early 345’s is a killer player. It has been heavily played and shows some battle scars and the residue of more than a few smoky dance halls. It still has its original SVT harness but I am considering converting it to 335 spec. It seems that around 95% of buyers really don’t want to deal with the stereo aspect and most aren’t that wild about the Varitone either. It’s fun for a week but it’s usefulness for most folks is pretty limited. My personal 59 345 (my main player) is converted.

There are also two others that shipped in the period between Feb 11 and April 20th. One is A29623 which would be the 5th one shipped. There is one other and then the blonde A29656 mentioned in the first paragraph that has been the earliest known for some time. I’ve been compiling a FON database for nearly four years now and the more entries I make, the more confusing it gets. The overlaps at year end is just the beginning but that’s another post. So, were the first four ES-345 prototypes? Probably not since they shipped to dealers and they had no unusual notes on the ledger page. Were there prototypes before these first four shipped? Hard to know. It’s possible there were but none have surfaced.

Just in case you aren’t confused enough, the first 345 was supposed to have gone to Hank Garland in 1958 but his is serial number A29915 which is a lot later — mid May 59. But, to add fuel to the controversy, I have A29914 in my database (the one right before Hank’s supposed prototype) and it was from the earliest numerical “first rack” (S8537) if you don’t include the recently discovered ones I’m writing about. So, how is that possible? The Garland family’s recollection and “paperwork” is a little slippery, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in their “certificate of authenticity”, signed, not by anyone at Gibson, but by Hank Garland and a Robert B. Garland.  No way to know anything for sure about this, so, let’s put that aside.

In any case, conventional wisdom is once again blown to bits. We have an earlier and probably the earliest run of 345’s there is. Two have surfaced-A29132 is a Bigsby with pearl dots and A29133 is a stop tail. Keep your eyes open for A29131-that’s supposed to be the first. Thanks to the nice folks at Gibson for their help.