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Archive for the ‘Gibson General’ Category

Epiphany

Thursday, August 4th, 2022

These are crazy rare (only about a dozen made in 59 and 60). It’s an Epiphone Sheraton in blonde with NY single coils. One of my favorite guitars ever. Too bad I sold the two that I’ve had.

Didja ever notice how every time you write the word “Epiphone”, the spell check changes it to Epiphany? It’s really annoying and I wish it would stop. That said, this post is about Epiphones. Sheratons to be more precise. With prices of Golden Era 335’s (58-64) out of reach for so many and 345’s and 355’s getting there as well, it’s time to reassess what you are spending your money on. The same folks who made those wonderful Gibsons made Epiphones as well from 1958 until 1969 or so. Not just the same company but the same craftspeople on the same line in the same plant with the same wood.

The Sheraton is, essentially, a mono ES-355 with a few changes. Sheratons went through a lot of changes from the debut year of 1959 until the end of the American era in 1969. The first iteration had single coil “NY” pickups left over from Epiphone from when it was a different corporation. They are excellent pickups but not particularly loud or powerful. I really like them but they aren’t for everybody. Fidelity is excellent but they won’t drive your amp into saturated distortion heaven. They lasted until early 60 when they were replaced by Gibsons own mini humbuckers. The minis are a bit like a full size humbucker with manners. The DCR is usually in the lower 7K range and the tone is somewhat more balanced. They are rarely muddy at the neck and rarely overly bright at the bridge. There are PAF minis as well as patent number minis on 59 to 69 Sheratons. Nice pickups.

Up until 62, Sheratons had 5 piece necks with Grover tuners. The 59-early 61’s had a wonderful V profile. Mid 61 and later had a slim C profile. This is the short headstock. The long headstock started in 64. You know what that looks like. They still use it today.

The neck profile went through some changes as well. The first Sheratons (59 through early 61) used the five piece V profile short headstock neck left over from pre Gibson times and they are wonderful. My favorite neck of all time. A V profile can be very deep but there is virtually no shoulder making it a joy for players with smaller hands (like me). It feels slim and fat at the same time. The next neck iteration still had the short headstock and some were five piece (some were one piece) but the V profile was gone. These necks were wide (1 11/16″) at the nut but fairly slim front to back. Not as slim as a 61 335 but more like a 62 or 63. The long Epi headstock that is still there today showed up in 64. 64’s and most 65’s still had the wide nut (and even a few 66’s) but they were quite slim (.80″ or so at the first fret). From 66 until the end of the USA run, the nut went to 1 9/16″ and the profile was generally the same as 66-69 335’s. Fingerboard is Brazilian until 66 or so. Inlays are very attractive MOP with abalone triangle inserts.

Finally, the one thing I don’t like about Sheratons…the tailpiece choices. The Frequensator is a two piece trapeze that is OK but I would prefer a stop tail. Bigsbys are not common but they are a huge upgrade from the absolutely awful “Trem-O-Tone”. The Trem-O-Tone is perhaps the worst vibrato tailpiece ever designed. They simply don’t work well and they don’t stay in tune. I’ve had sideways Vibrolas that work way better than one of these. Avoid it if you can. Change it if you can’t and keep your hands off it if you have to have it.

This is the Trem-O-Tone vibrato tailpiece. The best use of this is on somebody else’s guitar.

You can still get an early Sheraton for under $20K. I sold a V neck 59 with mini hums last month for $16K. With mono 355’s pushing over $30K, that’s a steal. You want to go to town for cheap? Buy a Sheraton with issues. Rout for full size humbuckers (Throbaks are my favorites) and add a stop tail. Instant 335 at less than half the price. I’d put that up against any new Gibson 335 in a heartbeat.

61 and 62 Sheratons. Both with mini hums and Frequensator tailpieces. Most players would be happient with this iteration of the Sheraton.

The Gibson Custom Shop ca. 1959

Monday, December 6th, 2021

OK, so there wasn’t a Gibson Custom Shop in 1959, not officially anyway. But there were custom guitars. Gibson, in 1959, would make just about anything you wanted as long as you were prepared to pony up a premium. You’ve all sen the personalized guitars with the player’s name inlaid (usually in really big, bold letters) on the fingerboard. That was fairly common both at Gibson and aftermarket. I don’t know how much it cost to have that done but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap. Unfortunately someone else’s name on your prized vintage ES-355 isn’t going to enhance the value. It’s easier to change your name than it is to change a fingerboard.

But the folks at Gibson went much farther than that. Want a special color? An extra cutaway? Different tuners? A custom neck profile? I could go on. If they could do it, they would do it. My favorite aspect of the vintage guitar business is the oddball stuff. The one offs that make me (and most of you) stand up and take notice. Rather than tell you about these unicorns, I will show you some photos. I’m sure you get tired of hearing me talk.

What better way to get your name out there than having it inlaid into your J-200 fingerboard? This guy didn’t really need much help but Gibson was happy to accommodate his wishes. Custom guard too. I don’t actually know if this was done at Gibson but I’d bet it was.

What’s so custom about this? It looks like a normal sunburst 335. Except it’s not. Look closely. It’s a 355. Sunburst was not and option nor was a stop tail. All production 355’s were red and all of them had a Bigsby in 1959 unless you special ordered. This is the only original mono sunburst stop tail 355 known.

Here’s a whole bunch of 59 335’s in red. Big deal, you say? They only made seven of them, all special orders. I’ve owned five of the seven. Still have two. Want one?

Want a special color that will match your car? Gibson would be happy to do that. Just tell them what color your car is (Cadillac green)

This ES-355 has lots of custom features. Some factory, some aftermarket. Extra jack, switch, harmonica bridge and stop tail are aftermarket. Pointy double cut body and bound f-holes are factory.

There are lots more out there. White ones, blue ones, 335’s with Varitones, custom fingerboards and many more. Collect ’em all.

Worth 1000 Pictures

Monday, April 5th, 2021

Can you see the Schaller holes in this photo? OK, now you can because I mentioned it but if this was simply one of 20 or 30 photos and no mention was made of the filled holes, would you have seen them? Maybe. Maybe not.

“Didn’t you see the Schaller holes in the photo? It was clear as day…” Call me old school or maybe just old but I believe that the buyer deserves an accurate description of what he is buying. The customer may not always be right but the customer always has rights and that right is being stepped all over by an awful lot of sellers. Is it that folks have simply forgotten how to write? I don’t know, with texting and tweeting more prevalent than talking, I would have expected the art of writing to have had something of a resurgence. Nope. So, what’s the problem?

I bought a guitar recently and before I committed to it, I received more than thirty high res photographs but no detailed description of what the issues might have been. The dealer (yes, it was a dealer) shall remain nameless-it’s irrelevant-I have a good relationship with the dealer and I’m simply using what happened as a cautionary tale. So, don’t ask. It turns out the photos showed the guitar in a very good light. But they didn’t show me all the issues. The best example is a small repaired hole by the end of the neck where it appears a second pick guard had once lived. The seller knew it was there but in the photo, unless you already knew it was there, you would may not have seen it. And why would that be? Mostly because I wasn’t expecting it. The seller could have written in the description…”there’s a properly filled holed from a second pickguard…” Simple. Fair. Reasonable. That alone would not have kept me from buying the guitar-especially since it wasn’t very noticeable. But it was other stuff as well.

I have a real personal bug up my ass about reproduction parts not being disclosed. In a world where a correct short seam stop tailpiece can cost you close to $2000, I’m not real happy when I spend top dollar on a guitar only to get it and find out the tailpiece is a repro. It’s usually a good repro but still a repro. When I brought it up, the seller said…”the tailpiece was clearly in the photos…” Yes, it was but nobody can tell a good repro from a real one without seeing the bottom. The repros have gotten very accurate but not so good that I can’t tell if I have it in front of me. It’s even worse when I make a deal and get into my car and drive 150 miles to pick a guitar up and find out, when I get there, that the tailpiece was replaced. Generally, I get back in my car and drive home without the guitar. It’s partially a matter of scale. I get plenty of guitars with the wrong (repro again) switch tip. Catalin switch tips are pretty easy to fake and a lot of the real ones get scavenged, usually by Les Paul owners who want to upgrade their R9 with real 50’s parts. But a catalin switch tip is a $200 part, not a $2000 part.

So, here’s what I’d like to see happen…When you are selling your guitar, write a description and mention every possible issue that a buyer might find upon inspection. If I hear …”it was in the photos…” again as an excuse for not disclosing an issue, I will simply return the guitar. By all means, put good clear photos in your ad-there’s nothing like a good photo to describe the condition but take 5 minutes and do a write up. It’s not going to take any more time than the last tweet you sent out about your dog.

Quick. Is that a legit stop tail or a repro? I can’t tell and neither can you. If I saw the under side of it, I’d probably be pretty sure it was real. Better still, write a description and tell me if it’s real or not. Don’t know? Then say you don’t know and we’ll deal with it.

Year Ender Part One

Friday, January 1st, 2021

2020 is the year I had to say goodbye to my little shop. I was sad to leave and actually it was, in a way, good luck. It had nothing to do with Covid 19, I simply lost my lease at the exact “right” time. I hope to open again, possibly in the same railcar or possibly in a new location.

If there was ever a year that needed to end, it’s 2020. Lots of terrible stuff happened. People died. Lots of them. People lost their jobs. Lots of them. People are hungry. Lots of them. I had to close my shop. I had to stay home. There were some good things though. They were massively overshadowed by the bad things but there were some good things. We learned how to live with less. Less shopping, less socializing, less eating out, less toilet paper. Early in the pandemic, I made some predictions. I said that folks would spend more time playing their guitars but I also said that the market was going to suffer. All the logic in the world said that. Less money for discretionary spending. Better things to do than buy guitars (and amps). And fear. Fear that it was the end of the world as we know it. People don’t buy guitars at the end of the world. Except they did. Lots of them.

Yes, folks bought a lot of guitars. It’s counterintuitive until you really think about it. What makes a guitar player feel good? Playing. But gigs went to zero and even just playing with your friends went to zero. Social distancing and masks don’t make for a very productive jam. The other thing that makes us all feel good is buying a “new” guitar or amp. And did I mention that folks bought a lot of guitars (and amps). So what did folks buy? Guitars from $3000 to $10000 flew off the shelf. Guitars I’ve had for years that were not real mainstream…guitars I bought because they were fun, not because they were great investments or popular sellers. Guild Thunderbird, Mosrite Ventures, Rickenbacker Hoffs, Kalamazoo Epiphones and a number of others. Fun guitars…decent guitars but not the ones you make your living off of as a dealer. Fun. That’s a big part of what was missing in the lives of many of us. While we all worried about our health and the health of our friends and families and how to get food without getting sick and how to work from home, we felt too harried to have fun. We were also bored. Worried, scared and bored. But the Fedex man was still working and there’s nothing like a new guitar or amp to elevate your depressed mood.

Did I hear the word amp? I closed my shop in April and, at that time I had 28 amps in stock (that I had to haul into storage). I gave away a couple of silverface Twin Reverbs to local players because they were simply too heavy for me to carry but I hauled two big Marshall cabinets down the steps and into my little hybrid car. I pulled the speakers to lighten the load but it was still a struggle. Today, on January 1, I have 6 amps left. Most of the amps I sold in 2019 were sold out of my shop and folks loaded them into their cars and drove off. No shipping involved. In 2020, I learned how much I hate to ship amps but I shipped around 20 of them. I think the amp market heated up for the same reason as the guitars but there is a difference. You can buy a great toy for yourself (and often a great investment) for under $1000 and rarely more than $10000 (I don’t buy Dumbles). I even bought myself an old Vox solid state (Buckingham) for $400 simply for the nostalgia of having an amp similar to the one I had when I was 14. All I have to do is plug in a ’62 330 or a ’61 Epiphone Wilshire (two guitars I had in my teens) and, suddenly, I have hair again (and zits). In my mind, anyway.

In my next year end/New Years post, we’ll take a look at what 335’s did in 2020. It’s not what I expected.

This was the year of the “fun” guitar and a year for amps (that’s a piggy back AC-30 in the background). Here’s the best little P90 guitar ever made (’61 Epiphone Wilshire) and a little piece of OK Guitars nostalgia. I had one of these when I was 14 and you can still find them for around $5K-$6K for the 60-63’s and half that for the mini humbucker version of 64-68.

Greed is Not Good

Saturday, September 26th, 2020

When is a PAF not a PAF? When it doesn’t have a sticker. Stickers rarely fall off. In fact I’ve hardly ever seen it over my 20 years in this business. So why am I seeing so many in recent weeks? Yes, the one on the left has slotted screws and it shouldn’t.

I’m seeing something that I really don’t like. I’ve been selling PAF equipped guitars for decades now and I’m seeing a trend that is, at best, annoying and at worst, criminal. I’ve owned about 700 Gibson guitars over the years and at least half of them have had PAFs. That’s somewhere around 700 PAFs, give or take a few since some guitars have only one of them (and some have three). I check every guitar I get very carefully and that includes taking out the pickups and looking at the backs. I look for the sticker, of course, and the tooling marks on the feet and I make sure the bobbin screws are correct and I inspect the solder to make sure the pickups haven’t been opened and if they have, I’ll open them again to make sure they haven’t been rewound or repaired. Out of those 700 or so PAFs I’ve seen, less than 10 of them were missing their sticker. I will note that early patent numbers have often been missing their sticker especially in 64 335’s possibly because they were transitioning from the PAF sticker to the patent number or maybe they just fell off. I suspect the former. In which case, the unstickered pickup in that 62 or 63 that’s being called a PAF by the seller probably isn’t one. PAFs in 64 335’s are not common at all so if someone tells you the pickup without the sticker in a 64 is a PAF, you can be pretty certain that it isn’t.

So, why am I suddenly seeing so many guitars with one PAF and one pickup that is missing its sticker? Did they recently start falling off the pickups in the last year or so? I see 10 PAFs with no sticker in 20 years and, oddly, I can find at least ten of them for sale in the past month or two. Of course, the missing sticker must be a PAF because the other pickup with a sticker is a PAF. The boldface italic denotes sarcasm in case you missed it. This should be considered in light of the fact that plenty of 62 and 63 Gibsons had one of each. I have written more than one post about the “$1000 sticker”. It says, essentially, that a PAF without a sticker is a patent number because they are the same pickup but for the sticker and if the only difference is the sticker and it isn’t there, then it must not be a PAF. You still with me? Good. PAFs have gotten really expensive. So have patent numbers but the differential is still around $1000. So, the unscrupulous seller has, say, a 63 ES-335 with one of each-a PAF and a patent number. Same pickups-different sticker. So, if I scrape off the patent sticker, then I can say that both of them are PAFs, right? After all, if the one with the sticker is a PAF, why wouldn’t the one without the sticker be a PAF as well? That’s the screwy logic behind this annoying trend. It gets worse. A really unscrupulous seller might take the stickered PAF out of a 58-61 and drop in a patent number with no sticker. Then it’s “oh, it must be a PAF because there weren’t any patent number pickups in 61”. I’m seeing this more and more as well.

I’m seeing this phenomenon among individual sellers and “hobby” dealers on Ebay and Reverb. I’m not seeing it among the big dealers so much. And, I will add, that there are PAFs with missing stickers out there but, as I said up top, it is really uncommon. Buyers, in general, aren’t stupid. The guitar buying public knows a lot about vintage guitars and they know what questions to ask. So, if you have removed a patent sticker in the hopes of making a couple of extra bucks on your sale, you are hurting someone down the line and you aren’t helping a business that already fights a bit of a shady reputation. So, if someone tells you the guitar is equipped with PAFs and, oh yeah, the sticker fell off one of them, you can expect the price to reflect that missing sticker to the tune of about $1000. If you’re going to sell me a PAF for $2500 or an early patent for $1500, then the sticker is worth $1000 and if it isn’t there, you don’t get the $1000. And, by the way, I know, it’s a decal and not a sticker.

No sign of a sticker on this pickup. The only time to accept a no sticker pickup as a PAF is if you can show that it has never been out of the guitar and the guitar is a 61 or earlier. And it still should get you a lower price than you would pay if the sticker was there.

Refinishes

Monday, August 24th, 2020

Sometimes a refinish is really obvious like when the guitar is finished in a non Gibson color. This Candy Apple Red 62 dot neck is one of the best sounding ones I’ve ever owned. Certainly in the top 20 if not the top 10. Looked pretty cool too.

It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why a professionally refinished guitar is worth so much less than a factory original. Vintage and antique cars get repainted all the time and the prices don’t drop like a stone. Antique furniture, however, follows the vintage guitar rule: Don’t mess with the finish. A refinish knocks anywhere from 40-50% off the value. That’s a lot considering the guitar with a pro refinish is usually every bit as playable and attractive as it’s original counterpart.

I could go on about how a factory refinish isn’t as much of a decrease in value as an aftermarket refinish even though the work can be superior. I could also talk about Fender’s penchant for putting custom color finishes over sunbursts (and still be considered original). Or the Selmer Fiesta reds being considered by many to be refinished even though they were never sold with any other finish. Or put differently-it’s OK if Fender paints Fiesta over sunburst but not OK if Selmer does it. There’s a clear lack of logic to the vintage guitar rule book and I’m not one to rock the boat. I simply accept the rules and grumble about them occasionally (like now).

What I really want to talk about are refinished and oversprayed ES models. The good news is that folks didn’t feel compelled to refinish these guitars as often as the Fender owners did back in the day. It could be because the Fender finishes tended to chip and wear more easily than the Gibson finishes. It could also be the relative ease of stripping an unbound solid block of wood over a laminated, arched and bound hollow or semi hollow box. So, 335’s and the like simply don’t get refinished all that often but I’ve certainly run across my share. Some done brilliantly, some, well, not so brilliantly. The amateur jobs are pretty obvious but a pro job often requires an experienced eye.

The black light is a useful tool but it has its limitations but it’s a great place to start. The entire guitar should glow evenly under blacklight. If any areas look different, you can bet they were touched up for one reason or another. If the entire guitar black lights consistently, then it’s not so easy. A brand new refinish won’t glow much but an older one will look identical to an original finish under black light if the entire instrument was done. So ends the usefulness of the black light. So, how do I know if the finish is original or not if the black light fails me? Lots of ways.

I start with looking in the nooks and crannies. It is really hard to remove the finish from the deep corners of a pickup rout-especially on a dyed finish like Gibson’s red. The other place to look for remnants of the original finish is in the holes for the pots-folks simply forget to remove it. More obvious is to look inside the f-holes. There is never color in there. I’ve seen clear lacquer from the factory in there on very rare occasions when the guitar has the “2” designation on the back of the headstock-which, by the way, doesn’t mean factory second. It means it went back to the spray booth a second time. In general, any paint or clear lacquer inside the body is a bad sign.

Because it is very difficult to chemically strip a 335, you have to sand. And no matter how carefully you sand, you are going to take some wood off with the finish. Chemical strippers will melt the bindings and they won’t get the red dye out of the wood as it sinks in too deeply. You might get away with a chemical strip of a sunburst but not a red. So, let’s assume the finish is black and it looks really good. They taped off the f-holes and sprayed over the pickup routs and painted over the original color from the all the holes. I usually take a scraper and remove a little finish from inside the pickup rout to see if there is another color underneath. Again, easier on a red one than on a sunburst. But there is an almost foolproof way to tell if a 335, 345 or 355 has been refinished.

The original finish is sprayed on over the bindings and the bindings are then scraped clean of any paint. The bindings end up “lower” than the rim of the guitar or put differently, the rim will be “proud” of the binding. Run your fingernail from the body binding to the rim of the guitar. If its perfectly smooth, the guitar has been sanded and refinished. Period. End of thought. There are no exceptions. Every ES guitar that’s passed through my hands has had the ridge unless it’s been refinished. Do that test first and you won’t get fooled again. Next, we’ll look at oversprays. That’s when the finish is still original but someone has gone and sprayed a new coat of clear over it.

This super rare white ’65 ES-355 had me concerned until I was able to inspect it in hand. The usual photos simply don’t show enough detail to see the ridge I talk about in the post. You can see it here. There wasn’t a trace of any other color anywhere, it black lighted perfectly but I wasn’t going to be convinced until I felt the ridge between binding and rim.

Parts Timeline #1: Pickups

Monday, May 25th, 2020

Nice clean set of unmolested PAFs. Note how clean the solder is and how perfectly straight the edges of the cover are. Unmolested pickups will usually have no flux around the solder and the solder will be duller than new solder would be

It can be hard to tell the orange poly windings from the purple enamel coated ones in a flash photo but these are the purple ones-more brown really. The red ones are very coppery looking. This would be a PAF or an early patent number. A short magnet PAF and an early patent are identical except for the sticker.

I’m constantly searching for parts on the internet and I’m generally appalled at the descriptions some sellers write. It’s not that they describe the parts incorrectly, it’s that so many folks use the “wishful thinking” approach to dating them. My knowledge of ES guitars and their parts comes from only one source and that source is simple observation. I read everything I could find but most of what I found was full of errors. In fact the thing that started me on my ES-335 web site was a glaring error on what was (and to an extent still is) the best place to go to learn about vintage guitars. That site states: 1968 Gibson ES-335 guitar specs: Neck size increases back to 1 11/16″ with a decently size back shape. It didn’t. If the premiere vintage guitar site has that wrong, what other misinformation is out there? Plenty.

Printed information is very useful but if your observations don’t back it up, it usefulness becomes suspect. OK, enough explanation. What do folks get wrong? Let’s start with pickups. I’ve owned somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 1964 ES-335’s and probably at least 25 ’65’s. I don’t open pickups if they are factory sealed but I do open them if they have been opened in the past-if only to clean up the solder. I have never seen a T-top in a 65, let alone a 63. I’ve also never seen a poly wound pre T pickup earlier than 65. And yet, I read in ads for poly wound pre T-tops that they were in use from 63 until 65. They were not. I have a 69 in stock right now that has pre T-tops. I’ve never seen a poly winding patent number with a nickel cover unless it’s been messed with.

My experience tells me that nickel PAFs ended in 64 and they are rare in 64. Most 64’s have early enamel wound patents and none (that I’ve found) have poly windings or the black and white leads. I hear of gold PAFs showing up as late as 67. I suppose that’s possible-my experience with 67’s is limited. I’ve never seen one after 65. The earliest T-top I’ve ever found was in a 66. The latest pre t-top was in a 69 although they could have even shown up in 70. So, there is clearly quite a lot of overlap. The non gold pickup timeline as I see it is: Long magnet PAF 58-early 61. Short magnet PAF 60 (overlap with long magnet)-64 (rare). Enamel patent: 62 (overlap with PAF)-65 (overlap with poly). Poly patent: 65 (overlap with enamel)-70 (overlap with T). T-top: 66-79. The gold timeline is the nearly the same but has longer overlap. PAFs after 63 are rare. Where gold differs most is the enamel wound patents. They extend well into 65 and I’ve seen a few in 66.

Part of the problem with dating parts is the fact that they can be changed without much evidence. Pickups require re-soldering when changed, so it isn’t hard to tell if a pickup has been out of a guitar. The problem is that nobody wants to pull the harness of a 335 to check. It can be a lot of work. I almost always pull the harness when I get a “new” guitar. I check the solder at the pots, I check the solder on the covers. It isn’t hard to re-solder a pickup cover and make it look original, so look at the sides of the covers…if they are bent or dented at all, they’ve been opened. Changed pickups are really common. Les Paul guys have been scavenging double whites for decades, largely out of 335’s and 175 but also out of 345’s and 355’s. They pull the covers anyway and it’s really easy to swap out a set of gold pole screws for a set of nickel ones.

  • ES 335 Pickup Timeline
  • 1958-1961 Long magnet PAF. Rare in 61
  • 1961(overlap)-1964 Short magnet PAF. Rare in 64
  • 1962-1965 (rare)-Patent number enamel (purple windings) black leads always nickel covers. Identical to short magnet PAF except for sticker
  • 1965-1969 Pre T-top poly (orange windings) black and white leads always chrome covers.
  • 1966 (overlap)-1976 T-top with sticker. Later has embossed pat no.
  • ES-345/355 Pickup Timeline
  • 1958 (355 only)-1961 Long magnet PAF.
  • 1961 (overlap)-1965 or later (rare, overlap) Short magnet PAF
  • 1962-1965 Patent number enamel (purple) windings. Identical to short magnet PAF except for sticker
  • 1965-1969 (overlap) Pre T-top poly windings
  • 1966-1976 T-top with sticker. Later has embossed pat no.

It’s called T-top because of the “T” embossed into the bobbin (duh). Supposedly, it was there to tell the winders which end was up. You can also see that the little window (square in the circle) isn’t there on a T-top.

Stradivari v Les Paul

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

This is the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius. Built in 1727 and formerly owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, it sold at auction for just under $16 million. Nice fiddle but out of my price range.

This post is meant to get you thinking, not to educate you as to the astonishing value of an iconic musical instrument. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to assess how much any violin is worth but I have done some research into what makes violins made by Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and a few others worth as much as $20 million. Can you compare a 300 year old handmade violin to what is essentially a mass produced guitar? I think you can and the conclusions might surprise (or at least entertain) you.

There have been a fair number of blind comparison tests between these iconic violins and the violins of the best of contemporary builders. The results are mixed but, not infrequently, the modern violins come out on top, even when judged by the worlds top players. So, the idea that a Stradivarius or Guarneri is simply the best sounding violin ever made is put to rest. Fast forward 259 years or so. Is the Les Paul standard the best sounding guitar ever made? It could be but the value can’t be due to that factor because a 58 gold top can be had for less than half the cost of a sunburst 58. I’m pretty sure you won’t argue that a sunburst and a gold top will sound any different. So, what other factors can we look at?

Well, if a 58 gold top is a $125,000 guitar and a 58 sunburst is a $250,000 guitar (I’m using averages here), and the only difference is the top, then can we conclude that the top is the reason a sunburst is worth so much more? Possibly but the we have to consider the huge differences between tops on Les Pauls. Clearly, the figuring is a huge factor. The fancier the top, the more valuable they are. Originality is also a big factor. I currently have two mostly original Les Pauls in my shop with beautiful tops. The refinish probably takes $100,000 off the value of each. One is renecked as well. Knock off another, what, $50K? So, the top alone can’t be the biggest factor. It is worth noting that nobody really cares about what the top of a Stradivari built violin looks like. They also don’t care nearly as much about originality.

Nearly every 300 year old violin has been re-necked. The necks made before around 1715 are rather different than modern necks and few players play the “baroque” neck. Stradivari was the builder who modernized the baroque violin by making the neck angle steeper and made structural changes that made the violin louder and more aggressive. Beyond the change in neck design, it is common to re-neck a concert violin periodically. Many multimillion dollar violins have been refinished and repaired as well. While there has been a lot of speculation about the varnish used on these violins, it has been generally accepted that the original varnish is not the the main factor in their tone. It is, by many accounts, the wood harvested during what is called the “Little Ice Age” lasting from 1300 to 1870 that makes these violins so special. That makes sense but tens of thousands of other violins were made during that period and, I’m sure, many others from the wood grown during that period and they aren’t worth many millions of dollars.

So, when you are out to buy a multimillion dollar Italian violin from the 1700’s, you don’t have to worry so much about re-necks, refinishes or repairs. You do worry about provenance, authenticity (there are thousands of copies) and tone. When you are about to buy a six figure electric guitar from 1958-1960, you look for great tone but it simply isn’t the main factor. I’ve heard equally great tone from more than one 1959 ES 345 which is a $20,000 guitar. What so many focus on is the appearance, mainly the figured top. Next, you pay attention to the finish-it must be original. With the violin, the finish is likely to have been redone or at least repaired. With the LP, you make sure the neck is original. With the violin, it is almost a certainty that it is not. Clearly, they are judged by only one common factor but do I therefore conclude that tone rules in both cases? Nope. It’s a big factor but while a refinish knocks $100K (40-50%) off the value of a Les Paul, a good but not great sounding all original Les Paul might be priced less than a great one. But, if the top of the just OK sounding Les Paul is heavily figured, and the one with the superior tone is plain, the ok sounding one will cost you more.

The violin’s provenance is a big factor in determining whether the tone is good. If it has been played on the concert stage by a big name player, you can be reasonably assured that it is a great sounding violin. The same can certainly be true of that Les Paul you have your eye on. In fact, if a big name player has previously owned your burst, you can bet the price will go up by a lot. But, and it’s a big but, most of the 1500 or so Les Pauls built weren’t played or owned by anybody famous and yet they will still set you back six figures worth of your hard earned money.

This is a lot to process. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. There are so many logical reasons for these instruments NOT to be priced this high. Rarity (they aren’t all that rare), tone (I’ve played plenty of non Les Pauls that sound as good as any Les Paul), provenance (most weren’t played by anybody famous) and appearance (lots of R9’s look as good as any 58-60 burst). I’ve never bought a burst but I’ve spent six figures on more than a few guitars and I can safely conclude that there is one big factor that will keep bursts selling at high prices for years to come. Bragging rights. Guys love bragging rights. Just ask any Ferrari driver. Or Stradivarius player.

What’s this one worth? This is Pearly gates, one of the most famous bursts out there. A million bucks? With the sale of the Gilmour Strat at close to $4M, I would guess that some billionaire would spend that much and more. Does that make provenance the most important factor? Maybe but it’s got a nice top too, so maybe add on an extra million.

Halloween 2019

Thursday, October 31st, 2019
Zoubi rocks out for Halloween. She doesn't always remember the lyrics and not having opposable thumbs makes it hard for a dog to be a lead player but she manages to hold up her end. The set list includes "Walkin' the Dog", "Hound Dog", "The Boxer" and "Nashville Cats".

Zoubi rocks out for Halloween. She doesn’t always remember the lyrics and not having opposable thumbs makes it hard for a dog to be a lead player but she manages to hold up her end. The set list includes “Walkin’ the Dog”, “Hound Dog”, “The Boxer”, “Nashville Cats” and “Stay”.

Guitar players are tinkerers. I’m always surprised when I get a 60 year old guitar that hasn’t been messed with in any way. I’m pretty sure I modded every guitar I owned from the time I was 12 until I started appreciating vintage in the early 90’s. Some mods are pretty benign-especially when they are reversible but some are simply scary (you getting a theme here?)

Changing the tone knob on a 345 is simply sacrilege. OK, just kidding, it’s the Varitone switch that is so scary. No, it isn’t, it’s the Kahler (is that a Kahler?). Now that’s scary.

There are a lot of mods that I can deal with but I think the absolute worst one is the rear access panel. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. Maybe because it is born of laziness. “Oh, it’s just too hard to install a harness in a 335. I’ll just cut a big fat hole on the back and put it in that way. Nobody will ever notice.” That mod is the dealbreaker of all dealbreakers for me. In fact, any hole cut into a 335 put there to make harness installation easier simply drives me over the edge.

There are plenty of mods you can do that aren’t scary. If you have to make your guitar “better”, do something that doesn’t require drilling any holes or cutting any wood. That way, when it gets sold to me, I can put it back to the way it was when it left the factory. Go, ahead, put on knobs that look like dice or a truss rod cover with your name on it or even swap out the pickups. Just don’t cut a big access hole in the back of the guitar because you can’t get the harness back in. Call your luthier and have him do it. Call me and have me do it. Consider this-and this will scare you plenty-every extra little hole will knock up to $1000 off the value of your vintage guitar. And, while I’ve never bought a 335 with an access panel cut into it, I did buy a ’60 335 with a big notch cut out of the f-hole (under the guard) because they couldn’t get the harness back in. It was competently repaired and it wasn’t visible with the guard on but it also knocked around $7000 off the value. What was a $29000 guitar became a $22,000 guitar. You could have had your local luthier reinstall that harness for $100. Let’s see…that’s a savings of $6,900.

This is actually an ES-333 which has a factory access panel but you get the idea. Don’t do this to your 335. Or 345. Or 355.

I Learn Something New

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

A guy walks into my shop with a guitar and would like an appraisal. It belonged to his late brother and, while it has sentimental value, he wonders whether it has vintage value. I open the case and it’s a thin body, single cutaway, double humbucker Gibson. The neck volute tells me 70’s but there is no label and no serial number-only the letters BGN on the headstock. Well, for those who don’t know, BGN stands for “bargain”. BGN guitars were, essentially, factory rejects-too substandard to be called a “second” and too good to toss in the trash bin. But that’s another post all by itself (which I think I already did). It looked like an ES-125 with hum buckers and parallelogram inlays. Or an ES-175 with a thin body.

I’m not an expert in 70’s Gibsons but, in general, the model names didn’t change all that much during the much maligned “Norlin” period (1969-1985). I don’t think I can remember a Gibson guitar coming in my shop that required my having to research the model. I thought ES-135? No, that came later and had stacked hum buckers that look like a P90. ES-137? No, that was later and had different inlays. It also had a very strange finish. Almost blonde but maybe more like a cherry sunburst that had been left in a shop window for year or two. It was, essentially, dark reddish blonde around the edges and blond everywhere else. I recall that Ibanez made a lawsuit thin body that looked like a 175 in the 70’s that had a finish that looked like that but this guitar had a Gibson neck and logo. Nobody is dumb enough to counterfeit a Gibson and put the BGN designation on the headstock. So, I conclude (yes, Dr. Watson, its definitely a Gibson, says so right here on the headstock) that it’s a Gibson.

To the Googler…I search ES-135 and 137 and they are, as I thought, later and a bit different. But wait, there’s a photo that looks right in with the 135’s and 137’s. If I was Homer Simpson, I’d smack my head and go d’oh. It’s an ES-175T. Never heard of it? Neither had I. The ES-175T is exactly how I described the guitar in the first paragraph…a thin body ES-175. How did I miss this? It was introduced in 1976 and sold poorly. According to the information available online, it was gone by 1980. Except it wasn’t. This one has pot codes from 1981 and pickups from November of 80. So, it’s likely an 81.

It is my opinion that the very bottom of Gibson/Norlin’s quality troubles occurred during this very period. Sales were down and the company had squandered 80 years of customer good will by making some pretty awful guitars and ruining some really good ones. In 1980 (I think), somebody decided it was time for Gibson to make decent guitars again and by 1981, they actually started doing so. Tim Shaw (yes, that Tim Shaw) was an engineer at Gibson at the time and was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting Gibson back on track. Again, that’s another post for later.

But back to the mystery guitar. It hadn’t been played in decades but seemed to have weathered its years in the case without major damage. The label was gone and I dunno about that finish. The truss rod needed some adjustment and the strings were 30 years old but those are easy fixes. The pickups are dated embossed t-tops which makes sense for the era and the bridge is a Nashville type-also makes sense. It isn’t pretty but it does play reasonably well and there’s nothing wrong with t-tops. So, I took the guitar as a consignment. Let’s see where it goes.