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

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.

6 Responses to “Good News, Bad News or Don’t Try this at Home”

  1. TJ Smith says:

    Oh wow…that sounds like an absolute nightmare! Extracting that thing 3 times and installing it twice… And here I was complaining about removing my 355 harness.

    Interesting to see the protoype wiring. Mine was atypical as well. Pickups to switch. Switch to varitone. Varitone with two parallel wires, one to the tone pot, & one to the Volume & then jack.

    I think most would agree that you upgraded the guitar by switching the harness. Beautiful instrument.

  2. John Dahms says:

    Since last month’s article on first-rack 345s I have had a question that you may be the best candidate to answer. Since you have continued the conversation on the same guitar I am going to ask it.
    Do you have any idea how many guitars with “short-legged” PAFs were produced? You have probably seen more of these than anyone at this point.
    You might as well explain why these were made for the uninitiated as well.
    Thanks in advance and keep the fire burning.

  3. RAB says:

    Charlie, yikes! Whata wiring nightmare. Glad you found a solution!

  4. RAB says:

    P.S. congrats on surfacing this uber-rare pre-first rack 345!

  5. okguitars says:

    There are three racks of 345’s that have the “first rack” characteristics. That would be 105 guitars. There are some 355’s that have it as well but not very many. So, I would guess that around 125 have the short leg PAF. I explained why the short leg PAF was used in an earlier post about first rack 345’s a few years ago.

  6. okguitars says:

    There should be 105 of them. There are 35 guitars to the rack and most racks are all of the same model. There are three “first racks”, so there should be 105 guitars each with one short leg PAF.

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