It’s Old. It’s Tired. It’s Vintage.

A 335 harness consists of four pots, a three way switch, two caps and a jack. And, of course, some wire. None of these parts (except maybe the wire) can be expected to last forever. The pots in a cheapo Sears Roebuck guitar and the pots in a vintage 335 are exactly the same. They wear out.

First off, I apologize for not posting anything in February. I don’t much like the Winter and February is generally the worst of it. That, along with a new (first) grandchild kept me away from the computer and it’s probably time to make up for that. I’ll start with something of a rant, if that’s ok.

With prices where they are (now higher than 2007), it isn’t at all surprising that folks have become more particular about the guitars they are paying good, hard earned money for. Maybe a $35000 dot neck 59 was a bargain but now with big neck early 59’s almost impossible to find, that $35,000 guitar is now $75,000 or more. Five years ago, when I sold a 59 (or a 58 or a 60) and something was wrong, I would do my best to make it right and buyers would understand that some things simply aren’t fixable without compromising the vintage “integrity”. I think it’s time to think about what is an “expendable” and what isn’t. Nobody cares if the strings are changed. Nobody expects that mint guitar to have its original strings and if it did, it would probably sound like crap anyway after 65 years or so. I understand wanting original frets and when I’m lucky enough to get a guitar that still has them, I can charge a premium. But a good fret job is every bit as good (and sometimes better) than the one done at the factory. But I’m not talking about frets either.

I’m talking about pots. Pots don’t last forever and they are prone to a host of problems-some fixable, some not. Corrosion is going to cause flat spots and noise and you can spray a ton of De-ox-it in there and it may improve but it may not be possible to make the problem go away without replacing it. Pots are date coded, so if I’m going to replace a worn out pot, I will always disclose it (and include the removed pot). I always try to get a vintage correct one that matches the others but it’s not always possible. I can’t tell you how many times I get a phone call or an email weeks or months after a sale and the owner is upset that a pot has developed a flat spot or some noise. Often those owners will say to me something along the lines of “hey, a $50,000 guitar shouldn’t have noisy pots”. My answer is “but a 65 year old guitar certainly could”. I believe that replacing the harness should be a common thing but it isn’t (except in 345’s and stereo 355’s). I’ve never, ever had a guitar sound worse after a vintage harness is replaced with a high end modern harness. Put the original in the case (intact if possible) and enjoy your guitar for another 30 or 40 or 50 years. Pots don’t last forever if the guitar gets played. They don’t last forever if it doesn’t either. An unplayed, mint 65 year old guitar is probably more likely to have problems with the pots. I have a near mint 59 that is extraordinary right now and the pots are totally quiet. When I sell it and 6 months later, they start getting noisy, it’s a lot like have to do a re-fret after you’ve played them down to nothing. Or replacing the tires on your vintage Jaguar. It doesn’t work properly if you leave it alone.

It’s funny how vintage Martin owners seem to understand that a Martin may require a neck reset to play properly. While we would all prefer one that hasn’t been touched, a pre-war Martin with a reset will still command serious money and most serious collectors are happy to pay it because, above all else, you are buying a musical instrument and if it can’t make serious music, as it should, then you are obligated, as a musician, to make sure it does.

Most 345 buyers don’t seem to have a problem when I remove the stereo harness and Varitone and replace it with a modern 335 harness with the same specs. But swap out a pot in a 335 with another vintage one and you hear about how the solder is no longer original or, worse, how the vintage “integrity” of the guitar has been compromised. Just so you know, I try to price everything in.

6 Responses to “It’s Old. It’s Tired. It’s Vintage.”

  1. Craig says:

    That’s interesting that people don’t seem to understand that old, used stuff has the potential to develop problems. Another of my interests is old film cameras, and the same kinds of issues can arise there. I might buy a 1960 camera that works perfectly, but for how long will that be true? Camera shutters don’t last forever. How long will this one last before dying? Well, part of the answer to that is, how many shots have been taken with it already? Nobody knows. So a vintage camera might last for several years, or it might die next week. If not the shutter, maybe it will be some tiny gear that wears out and suddenly the film won’t advance or something. Old, used stuff is unpredictable. You buy it based on the condition it’s in right now and you expect that it’s going to have more problems than brand new stuff.

  2. Ian says:

    Congratulations on your grand child.
    All the best

  3. TJ says:

    Replacing the harness in my ’59 355 was a huge improvement for the functionality, tone, & weight of the instrument. The original neck pot was noisy even after being cleaned. And if you used a fuzz or treble booster the noise was apparent even with the pot on full. Granted I did use vintage Centralab wafers in CTS pots along with old bumblebee caps. But I think it would have been just as good with new pots & new caps. I have a ’53 Goldtop that is completely original & cleaning the pots only fixes the problem for a few days. The solution would be to replace the pots or take them apart to clean but that would require tampering with the original solder so my hands are kind of tied…. Frustrating.

    I think in some ways the dogma in the vintage guitar market has lessened. There are a lot of people these days who would prefer their vintage guitar to have a refret. It seems to mainly be the museum grade collector’s instruments that are still required to have the original frets. As more & more original parts fail over the years it will likely become more of a rule to expect failed components to be replaced.

  4. Nelson Checkoway says:

    HI Charlie – I concur 100% with your assessment. Unless a guitar is (and is meant to continue to be) a museum piece and an investment with maximum collector value, it should be repaired minimally and carefully as necessary to be a good playing instrument with a sound that matches that of a fully original example.

    Martin players and collectors still eschew refinished guitars – especially tops – because of the impact that a new gloss coat can have on age-old dried wood. But they accept neck resets, reglued braces, and well-done crack repairs because virtually every golden era Martin is in need of at least one of these. Nearly all acoustic guitars with fixed bridges under string tension for decades experience “bellying” that distorts the top and raises the action to unplayable heights. Most (but not all) old acoustics develop cracks in solid wood tops, backs and rims. It’s a fact of (guitar) life. While most electric guitars don’t suffer from these issues, the analog would be worn out frets or corroded pots and switches.

    For collectors who seek “all original” I do get the “solder thing” however–not that original solder impacts the sound but that it helps establish some provenance that wired components weren’t swapped out or altered.

  5. Mel Presswood says:

    I’ve a 1965 ES335-TSD with Bigsby. It’s got the original case, hang tag, and Bigsby shims. Finish is cracked, but otherwise in great condition. What’s it worth?

  6. okguitars says:

    Depends if its an early 65 or a later one. Wide nut is much more valuable than the narrow one.

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