What Makes the Great Ones Great?

This is 1959 ES-335 SN A30248. It is the best sounding ES-335 I’ve ever played. It has a 58 FON, thin top, double white PAFs. Neck depth is around .88″ at the first fret and 1″ at the 12th.

I have a post ready to talk about what to do now that I’ve pretty much exhausted the ES guitars but a reader suggested that I write about the best of the ES guitars that I’ve had. I’ve covered the topic in dribs and drabs but never really drew a solid conclusion about what makes the best ones any better than the not quite the best ones (or the worst for that matter).

Let’s look at the top ten. It’s a fluid list…if you follow it through the years (if you can find the posts where mention it) you’ll see that it changes every time I talk about it. That’s simply because I get “new” guitars all the time and one of those new ones might step up and take the place of one of the others. It’s a pretty loose compilation because it’s hard to remember how good a guitar sounded that I owned twelve years ago compared to one I just got yesterday. I suppose I could have recorded them all but I don’t have good recording equipment and everything sounds like crap on an iphone. That said, there is a very clear common denominator among the top ten (and most of the top twenty). Let’s look at number one, two and three. All are 59 335’s. All have thin tops. Two of the three have double white PAFs (I’ll get into that later) and two of three have 58 FON’s. All have big necks (at least .87″ at the first fret and .98″ at the 12th. Two of the three come from the same rack T5792 and all three have serial numbers in the A30xxx range. They are A30248, A30173 and A30957…so they aren’t particularly close together by serial number.

Now, all of those things could be factors or none of those things could be factors. If we look at the rest of the top ten, all but one are thin tops so I think I can safely say that the thin 58 three ply top is a big factor. The top ten as I currently have it is as follows:

1.59 ES-335 58 FON. 2. 59 ES-335 59 FON. 3. 59 ES-335 58 FON. 4. 59 ES-355 mono 59 FON 5. 59 ES-345 59 FON. 6. 58 ES-335 58 FON. 7. 59 ES-345 59 FON. 8. 60 ES-335 58 FON. 9. 58 ES-335 58 FON. 10. 62 ES-335 (dot neck) no FON.

Five have double whites or zebras which means five have double blacks. We all know that the color of the bobbin doesn’t affect tone but the windings certainly do. Because there was no automatic stop on the old winders, the folks who did the winding (mostly women, by the way) stopped when the bobbin looked to be full. Because the color of the wire and the black bobbin are both quite dark, the winders probably were al little more cautious about overwinding. If the windings came off the bobbin, it would slow down the assembly and cost the bean counters time and money. With a white bobbin it was easier to see how close to the edge of the bobbin the windings were and because of that, double whites and zebras got a lot more turns and higher DCRs. Do higher DCR’s sound better? Some say yes. Some say no. It’s pretty subjective. Everyone has an opinion. I like a neck pickup to be in the mid 8’s and the bridge in the low 8’s. Most like a “hotter” bridge. I might add that DCR doesn’t equal output. It’s a common myth and everybody has to stop thinking that a higher DCR is better.

All are stop tails (including the 355). If we go to the top twenty, there is only one Bigsby in the group. So, I THINK I can safely say that a stop tail is a factor. All but one has a big neck (as do most of the top twenty) so that’s a likely factor as well. Neck angles are all over the place among the top ten. At least three have very shallow angles. Maybe a factor, maybe not. There are probably characteristics that are unmeasurable or impossible to know. I don’t know the composition of the plywood for any of these (and it varied). Body thickness also varied a good bit but I don’t usually measure that. For all I know, The amount of glue used to attach the neck could be a factor-I don’t look at that either.

One thing worth noting…the difference between an “average” 58 to 64 ES guitar and a top twenty ES guitar isn’t much. I don’t know that I can say that there is a measurable percentage difference. I could guess 5% maybe? Out of around 600 ES guitars that have passed through my hands, only one was a total irredeemable dog and perhaps a dozen were playable but not terribly good. So 2% of them aren’t worth playing (or paying big bucks for). Those are pretty good odds. Consider that by the 70’s, the odds of getting a bad guitar were more like 75% or 1 good one out of four (my opinion only. YMMV). Keep in mind, the best 335/345/355 for you is the one that sounds best to your ears, not mine.

This is number four. Look closely. It’s not a 335. It’s a sunburst mono ES-355. This sat in the number two position for a year or so and still resides in the top five. It is certainly the best 355 ever and is so close to the number one 335 that on a given day, I might like it better than number one. At that point it depends on the amp and my ears.

3 Responses to “What Makes the Great Ones Great?”

  1. Collin says:

    The last line in this is the most important, everything about old guitars is subjective. On more than one occasion I’ve sold a vintage guitar that I felt was rather unremarkable (and maybe even a “dog”) only for the buyer to enthusiastically write me saying how great the guitar is. That’s a valuable lesson on how subjective this subject really is. Or you often hear how some famous player’s guitar (be it SRV or Page’s #1 or Clapton’s Blackie) is kind of a dud when other people have played it, but it seemed to work for that artist.

    Personally I think resonance is the most important factor in any old guitar, so the thin top on early ’59s is appealing….. but my favorite is an early ’65 Bigsby model, go figure. Best sounding guitar I’ve ever had.

  2. okguitars says:

    I’ve had the same experience on numerous occasions. There are a lot of factors at play when you get a new guitar-especially an expensive one that you bought without playing it first. We’ve all convinced ourselves that something really expensive is better than it really is to prove to ourselves that we didn’t make a stupid deal. As far as your 65 goes, there are great guitars from every era (even the 70’s). Just look at number ten on my list. What it doesn’t tell you is that it was refinished in Candy Apple Red and was worth around 60% of what the typical 62 would sell for. It sounded better than around 590 other ES guitars I’ve sold at less than half the price of the others in the top ten. Sometimes the outliers tell us more than the norm.

  3. moxie50 says:

    Again, you said much in the last line, “my ears”. Yes, we all have preferences so complicated we may not even be able to describe them as you do, but “tone” is a complex mix of the primary frequency, harmonics, overtones, and, particularly in this case, high partials (this coming from a decidedly saxophone primary). You’ve mentioned about the age bias of our group, and most know that after your twenties, your ability to even hear those high frequencies goes down markedly after 10k hertz, even though we may notice no hearing problem in everyday living.

    I would bet that if you had the ability to review each and every one now, in the same room, with the same amp, and, hugely, the same strings, just this fact might have you re-ordering this list some. At least you don’t have the complication of a fantastic new mouthpiece sounding great because sound conduction through your teeth and skull into your inner ear make you joyful when NO one else hears a bit difference!!

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