GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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More One Off Fun

December 1st, 2016 • ES 3551 Comment »
Not your run of the mill 355. This is a late 1960 special order.

Not your run of the mill 355. This is a late 1960 special order.

Call them customs, call them one offs, call them special orders, call them late for dinner-it makes no difference to me-I just love them. Whether it’s somebody’s name inlaid into the fretboard (whom you’ve never heard of), a custom order color, short scales, tenors, weird cutaways-it doesn’t matter. They are still the coolest guitars out there. They represent, to me, a more accurate and detailed snapshot of the era. Instead of buying what Gibson was selling, the folks who ordered these specials wanted what they wanted and were willing to pay extra and wait a long time (usually months) to get them .

We see more custom orders at the higher end of the market-ES-5’s, L-5’s, Super 400’s and the like probably because these were the guitars played buy the pro players with a steady (and sometimes considerable) income. Considerable egos too, sometimes. This custom is a 1960 ES-355 that was just offered to me (and I bought it) and it’s a beauty. So what’s special here. Well, lots. There are no less than 4 custom elements here. See if you can spot them before I spill the beans. Look at the close ups at the bottom of the post for better detail.

Well, it’s a 355, so there ought to be a Bigsby. Stop tails are crazy rare but how about a trapeze? And it says Byrdland on it. I don’t know if that’s the one Gibson put on the guitar but there are no extra holes so if there was a different one the day it was built, the holes lined up perfectly. No telltale “snakebite” Bigsby holes in the top. This baby came with a trapeze for sure. And what about those Super 400 inlays. The big pearl block inlays on a 355 are pretty nice but these really pop. Beautiful. Let’s see, what else is there…look at those f-holes. Not only are they bound but they are bound with multi ply binding. My Super 400 didn’t even have that. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that on a Gibson-correct me if you have. And then there’s the fingerboard binding-multiply again-this time like a Super 400. So, it’s kind of a 355 mono with S400 elements but not quite. The original buyer must have been very specific about what he wanted and probably paid a huge premium for it.

What is great about this one-beyond the unusual and wonderful custom elements is that it’s very clear that these weren’t aftermarket mods. It’s not too hard to put bindings on the f-holes or change out a fingerboard with different inlays and binding. I’ve got a guy in my area who can do that with one hand tied behind his back. But the trapeze? Can’t fake that. The holes are always the giveaway. No stop tail holes, no Bigsby holes, no sign of anything but that big ol’ trapeze. The other cool thing is that the label says “Custom” written in ink right next to the 355. My inside guy at Gibson took a peek at the shipping log page for me and confirmed that it says “custom” next to the entry but no details.

So, do these one offs have a different value than the standard issue 355? That’s a tough question because some do and some don’t. I don’t mind an owner’s name in the fingerboard, although most collectors find it off putting and the price reflects that. I kind of like it, in fact. You sometimes see a 58-60 335 that should have dot markers with a 345 fingerboard. That one is actually worth a bit less, in my opinion because you buy a dot neck for what…the dot neck. Now, if you bought a 355 for the block markers, then S400 markers would be a negative but you buy a 355 because it’s a bit of a pimpmobile and the fancier, the better is kind of the whole idea. While not quite the pimpmobile that a Gretsch White Falcon is, the 355 is still pretty tarted up. So, to take the most appealing element of a 355 Mono-(the fancy stuff-otherwise, you’d just buy a 335) and make it even more appealing is, well, pretty appealing.

And the old rule–“don’t fall in love” still applies. Like I always say, I’d own 200 of these if I didn’t abide by the rule.

 

OK, this is too obvious.

OK, this is too obvious.

Must be a custom - it says so right on the label.

Must be a custom – it says so right on the label.

First 345’s-Before the “First Rack”

November 27th, 2016 • ES 3454 Comments »
This is the earliest ES-345 to surface. there is one earlier one but it hasn't shown up on my radar.

This is the earliest ES-345 to surface. there is one earlier one but it hasn’t shown up on my radar.

Most everybody who cares about ES guitars has accepted the assumption that the earliest one (serial number wise) is A29656 shipped on April 20th 1959. The rest of that “rack” was shipped the next day on April 21st. While I have been told that FON’s are chronological, it seems that the first three racks S8537, S8538 and S8539 could have been done in reverse order since the guitars in S8539 have the bulk of the early serial numbers. A more likely scenario is that they could have made all three racks at more or less the same time and the most accessible was the last one and they got shipped first. But wait, there’s more.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a reader who said he had a very early 345 with the serial number A29133-a full 500 plus numbers earlier than the presumed first one shipped. Not just 500 numbers but two months earlier. On top of that the FON is 1958. Imagine my surprise. So, 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?

Anyway, we’ve got four 345’s that I’ll have to call “pre first rack”. They have all of the same features as the typical first rack 345’s-short leg PAF, small rout for the Varitone choke, thin top and huge neck. 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 two 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 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 likely 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.

This is supposed to be the first 345 but I kind of doubt it is. It's Hank Garland's (the sideways was added later) but it has a mid May 59 serial number so go figure.

This is supposed to be the first 345 but I kind of doubt it is. It’s Hank Garland’s (the sideways was added later) but it has a mid May 59 serial number so go figure.

 

Politics Anyone?

November 15th, 2016 • Uncategorized3 Comments »

 

If I had won the election (and I probably could have), this would be the new seal.

Well, the 2016 election which pretty much consumed most of the attention of the news media for, oh, the last two years or so is over. We are all surprised. Some are elated and some dismayed. I’ll keep my own politics out of it because this isn’t a political blog but politics can affect our interest.

The last time the economy tanked (thanks Wall Street), the vintage market tanked with it. Granted, we were in a bubble (thanks in part to more Wall Street types who decided guitars were a great investment even if they didn’t play them) and the bubble burst and a lot of folks got hurt financially. Those who love their vintage guitars and had no intention of ever selling them weren’t hurt at all. The lesson? Buy what you love and forget about the price the day after you buy it. But some of us buy to play and to invest. Certainly any vintage dealer will follow the same rule that guides nearly all investments—buy low and sell high. If you bought a 335 in 2010 after the bottom fell out of the market and those who were clinging to the slim hope that guitars weren’t affected had thrown in the towel, you did great if you held on. The market for good vintage guitars has been rising slowly and steadily-the way you want a market to rise. A gentle climb makes it somewhat less likely that a steep decline will follow barring some worldwide catastrophe. And speaking of worldwide catastrophes (or not), we circle back to the 2016 election.

There is some concern among the economic mucky mucks that the Trump presidency will tank the economy. It was my concern that if that happens, it will take the guitar market with it but then I gave it some serious thought. What tanks a collectible market is too many folks dumping inventory on the market in a desperate attempt to recover their investment before it loses value. Just like last time. But it isn’t just like last time this time. The Wall Street “investors” never came back in significant numbers-at least not to me. 99% of my clients are players, not investors and of that 99%, nearly all love their 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. And they love their Strats and Teles too.  Of course, circumstances arise and you have to sell stuff but that happens no matter what the economy is like. My point is that the current vintage market seems pretty stable and if our new president does something that adversely affects the economic picture, I think the guitar market will be affected less rather than more. That’s not to say that the market will stay where it is. High end guitars are a luxury item and luxury items don’t follow the same rules as necessities. You could certainly argue that if the Trump tax cuts-which are wildly skewed toward the rich-go into effect, then wealthy folks will have more money to spend on things like high end vintage guitars. Not so true of the middle class who will get something like a $300 break. That will buy you a t-top. So much for saving the middle class.

So, bottom line? Keep your guitars and enjoy them. You already spent the money, so stop worrying about your investment and play your guitar(s). There’s nothing better for taking your mind off of politics.

Bargain Basement

November 7th, 2016 • ES 3353 Comments »
My Refinished 1961 Dot Neck. I bought it in 2005 for around $9K. I sold it for around $10K a year later and bought it back a few months ago for $9K. Great player, great tone.

My Refinished 1960 Dot Neck. I bought it in 2005 for around $9K. I sold it for around $10K a year later and bought it back a few months ago for around $10K. Great player, great tone.

For most of us, the quest is for tone. Then it’s playability. Or is it the other way around? What good is extraordinary tone if you can’t play the thing? And what good is a guitar that plays like butter but sounds like crap? So let’s call it both. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Originality? Condition? Rarity? Looks? Provenance? Well, from my experience, it all depends on who is buying. I don’t have a degree in psychology (but I took a psych course in college once-does that count?) but I’ve learned a thing or two about folks who buy vintage guitars. Some play and listen and are sold (or not) on that basis alone. No questions, no worries about its history or provenance and no worries about whether one of the saddles got changed in 1963. Some ask 1000 questions and still can’t decide which guitar is right for them. And I don’t blame them-a vintage guitar can be a huge investment as well as your tool of your trade. But the one thing that all of you can do is take advantage of my experience.

I’ve owned 600 ES-335, 345 and 355’s and played every one of them. Tweaked and set up most of them as well. If I can make it play and sound better before I sell it, then it’s my obligation to do so. Likewise, if it has some changed parts, it behooves me to change what I can to make it as right as possible (and disclose it). But lets go back to the original premise here. I called the post “Bargain Basement” and the reason it’s called that is because you can get the playability and tone of a great 58-64 for half the cost or less. There are some kind of dumb rules that apply (that I didn’t make) to vintage guitars. We all know that originality trumps everything. Neck repair? Half the value. Refinish? Half the value. Bigsby? Knock off 15-25%. Grovers? Knock off $1000-$4000. Refret? I dunno-depends how good the fret job is. Buckle rash? Missing some binding? replaced nut? There are lots of things that affect the value but don’t necessarily change the two big factors of tone and playability.

Let’s take a stop tail refinished block neck-say it’s a 64. If original, that’s a $20,000 guitar more or less depending on condition. The refin drops it to $10000 or maybe a little more if it’s a really good job. $10K for a killer player 64 with all of its original parts that can sound 100% as good as any with an original finish is a bargain. Especially with new ones getting up over $6000. Make it a Bigsby/Custom made version and set it up as a stop tail and you could be at $8000. In 5 years, that brand new reissue you paid $6K for will be worth $4K or less. That $8000 64? I’ll bet you a dot neck and raise you a tweed Bassman that its worth the same or more in 5 years. Headstock break? If properly repaired, it cuts the value in half but most of the time it will have no effect on playability or tone. Add in some other benign changes like Grovers or some good repro parts and you could drop the cost below that of the high end reissue.

Want to save even more? Buy a mid 60’s 335. I’ve seen plenty of 65’s with early patent number pickups (same as a PAF) and I’ve seen plenty of pre T-tops right up to mid 69. If you can manage the narrow nut, you can get a killer player for under $4000 if its refinished or repaired. Don’t like the trap tail? Have your luthier or tech convert it to a stop. You aren’t going to hurt the value any further-just make sure he puts it in the right location. Want to save even more? Make it a 345 or a 355. I’ve picked up some junkers that have played great and sounded great. In fact one of the best sounding 335’s I’ve ever played cost me around $8K less than 5 years ago. It was a refinished early 62 (dot neck). I wish I had it back. I’ve had $40,000 59’s that didn’t sound as good as that one.  I also had a killer 65 with a neck repair that cost me $2500. Not in the top ten but still a great player.

So, ask all the questions, play as many as you need to and, above all else, be happy with the guitar you buy. No, be ecstatic. It should make you play more, play better and play happy. Ultimately, when it comes to the important stuff, buy what you can afford. If the one you can afford doesn’t do all of the above, wait for one that does. They are out there for sure.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

Somebody Famous was Here

October 25th, 2016 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3556 Comments »
I once had a white '65 ES-355 with BB Kings autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I once had a white ’65 ES-355 with BB King’s autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I get a lot of emails from folks buying and selling ES models and one of the most frequently encountered subjects is guitars that have been autographed. While this is not my market, I feel it’s worth writing a post about. The assumption by most sellers is that an autographed guitar is worth more than one that isn’t. I don’t entirely agree.

Well, let me clarify. Right now there are no less than four Gibson “Lucille” models for sale of Reverb.com. One is $60,000, another is $15K, one $14K and one at $8000. The guitars, without the autographs, are nice guitars but they aren’t particularly old nor are they particularly collectible. I can pick up a 90’s or 2000’s Lucille for $2500 or so. So, do the sellers believe that the autograph is worth $5500 to over $50K?  OK, the really expensive one comes with some tour swag but $60K seems like a really big number. So do all the rest of them. Let me tell you a fairly short story. A few years ago, I was contacted by the widow of the owner of a pretty nice 1958 ES-335. I flew to Nashville to meet with her and discuss the value of her late husband’s guitar. We hadn’t finalized a price but we had established a range pending my inspection of the guitar. I ended up offering around $25000 for it and her reaction was “…but it’s autographed by BB King.” My clever rejoinder? “OK, $24000.”  I explained to her that the first thing I would do when I got back home was to remove the autograph.

My point is that a collectible guitar is not made more collectible just because its autographed by someone famous. In addition to the great BB King, I have removed Eric Clapton’s autograph, Les Paul’s, various members of Kiss and quite a few others. If you must get your vintage guitar autographed, have them sign the pick guard-preferably on the back. Or bring along a new (cheap) guitar and have them autograph that. A lot of these guys sign thousands of guitars and the value of the autograph is very small. If you’ve got a Beatle or Elvis, then leave it alone. A Rolling Stone? I’d probably remove it from a vintage Gibson unless it was a Firebird VII autographed by Brian Jones. That would be worth something.

OK, well how about if the guitar was owned by somebody famous? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame if you’ve got good documentation. And he (or she) can’t just have played it once. It has to have really good provenance. An album cover photo is good provenance. A signed letter by the artist with a photo will probably do. A letter from a friend of the friend who got it from the famous player’s ex-wife’s cousin isn’t good enough. A photo of the famous player holding the guitar isn’t good enough either. I’ve had plenty of famous players in my shop and if a photo of them with one of my guitars was worth something, I’d be snapping photos all day.  Be careful though. Provenance is pretty easy to fake. That’s why the album cover photo is great provenance. And make sure the guitar that’s in the provenance is the same guitar as you’re considering buying. Wood grain is pretty much like a fingerprint. If the grain doesn’t match, walk, no, run in the opposite direction. We all know what the Clapton guitars have sold for and the Dylan Strat and the Lennon J160. It’s some serious dough which is why I generally stay away from that market. The price of admission is high and the rate of fraud is up there as well.

EC's autograph on an '84. I think I left this one on too. It didn't affect the value at all.

EC’s autograph on an ’84. I think I left this one on too. It didn’t affect the value at all.

FON Follow up.

October 17th, 2016 • ES 3352 Comments »
Huge neck, pat applied tuners, thin top, "T" FON...58, right? well maybe not. The serial number is 1960 in the A331xx range. What do I call it?

Huge neck, pat applied tuners, thin top, “T” FON…58, right? well maybe not. The serial number is 1960 in the A331xx range. What do I call it?

Just when I make my big point about FON’s and serial numbers, a guitar comes along that makes me feel like I just shot myself in the foot. Generally, conflicting FON’s and serial numbers are on the cusp of the years they straddle. So, you might have a late 59 FON and an early 60 serial. I’d call that a 60. There are 58 FONs that show up in mid 59 which is strange. There’s a whole lot of them, in fact.

My database shows that 1959 serial numbers A30247, A30248, A30251, A30268 and A30659 have “T” FON’s which means they were at least started in 1958. All show certain 58 only features like the thinner top. Some, but not all,  have the shallow neck angle. Another 58 feature is patent applied Klusons rather than patent number. Interestingly, none of the 59’sn with 58 FON’s had them. That leads me to believe the bodies and necks were made in 58 but the guitars were assembled in 59 with 59 parts. None had shaved bridges or the low profile bridge (most of which have collapsed by now. These are June 59 (and later) 335’s. Were these bodies somehow left over after Gibson made the changes? There were complaints about cracks in the tops and collapsing bridges, so maybe they put the unfinished 58 bodies aside until the complaints died down (or they got too busy) and decided to sell them anyway.

That brings us to today’s subject guitar. The serial number is March 1960. That means the guitar sat for at least 15 months. The guitar has a relatively early (for a bound 335) 58  factory order number and shows all of the late 58 features including the pat. applied Kluson tuners, the shaved bridge and extremely shallow neck angle, thin top, “rolled” plastic truss cover (gone by mid 59). So, using the policy I laid out in my last post that says the serial number designates the year, it’s a 60. The problem is that everybody associates an early 60 dot neck with a smaller “transitional” neck profile. This one has the biggest neck I’ve ever measured on a 335-.94″ at the first fret and over 1″ at the 12th. Most 58’s are .88″ or so at the first fret. The biggest 59’s are usually .90-.93″. Calling it a 60 does the guitar an injustice but as a compromise, I’m calling it a 58/60 with a 58 FON and 58 features.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a big gap in FON/serial number but its the first one that so clearly shows it’s FON heritage. I had a 62 block neck that somehow got an “R” FON designating a 60 build. But in that case, the guitar wouldn’t have been completed in 1960 as it had a block neck (started in 62) and patent number pickups (a completed 60 would always have PAFs). That one had a darker overspray at the endpin but it didn’t cover anything up. I just assumed it was covering some amateur paint work. maybe that’s why it didn’t ship when it was built.

As I’ve said before, buying and selling vintage guitars requires a bit of amateur forensics and some imagination. You have to ask why something like that would occur and come up with a reasonable scenario beyond “uh, it must have been a special order…” Gibson seems to have been in a state of constant change throughout the period from 56-65 or so. That is perhaps why anomalies come up from time to time.

Looks like a 62 but there is hidden weirdness going on. It has a 1960 Factory Order Number and has the thinner body of a dot neck.

Looks like a 62 but there is hidden weirdness going on. It has a 1960 Factory Order Number and has the thinner body of a dot neck. No one has a good answer for why this occurs.

FON or Serial Number?

September 30th, 2016 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3553 Comments »

 

Here's aa 59 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the "rack"-usuall 30-40 guitars. The last number is the "rank" or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Here’s a 60 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the “rack”-usually 30-40 guitars. The last number is the “rank” or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Pet peeve warning…I’ve talked endlessly about how so many sellers will look up their guitar serial number and when they see multiple years come up will usually pick the earliest year. Understandable? Yes, I suppose but not particularly honest and pretty easy to debunk. Trying to get more money for your guitar by misrepresenting the year and making it look justified is wrong. Either disclose the possible years or learn how to tell the difference. Pretty straightforward, right? Good. Now try this:

From 58 to 61, there was both a serial number and a factory order number for all 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. FON’s existed way before 58 but since 335’s didn’t, we’ll look at only those 4 years. There is no debate that, in general,  a 59 335, 345 or 355 is worth more than any other year, assuming the condition and originality is equal. Usually, the FON and the serial are from the same year. But not always. So, how do we assess the value of those guitars that have a factory order number from one year and a serial number another? I recently bought a J200 for a client that was advertised as a 59. When I got it, I noted that the serial number was very early 60. I currently have a 59 ES-335 with a 58 FON and I recall a blonde 60 345 with a 59 FON. One thing you won’t see is a FON from a later year than the serial. This is simply because the FON goes on the guitar first.

So, I have this 59 ES-335 with a 58 FON. That means it was built (or at least started) in 1958. It could have been completed in 1958 as well but there is no absolutely foolproof way to know for sure. But there are clues. It has the thin top of a 58, so that tells us that it’s got some 58 aspects. It’s got a pretty good neck angle-no thin bridge or shaving required-so that’s kind of a 59 thing but there were very late 58’s with that feature. The tuners are patent numbers rather than the patent applied tuners that nearly all 58’s had which leads me to believe that it was built in late 58 and assembled in 59. Why the completed body sat around from sometime in late 58 until April of 59 is a mystery. I had another 335 with a 58 FON that didn’t ship until August of 59. Maybe they built a load of 58’s and put them aside because Gibson was getting complaints about the cracks around the jack (typical of 58’s). Then, perhaps they were selling more than they could built in mid 59 and raided this cache of 58’s. I’ve spoken to a couple of Gibson employees from the era but none could shed any light on this.  My point is-do I consider it a 58 or a 59? It is to my advantage to call it a 59. But what about that 60 with the 59 FON? Again, I’m probably going to get more for it if I call it a 59. So, it works both ways. But you can’t have it both ways, can you? My hard rule is that I go by the serial number, i.e a 60 serial means it’s a 60 regardless of the FON. I’ll mention the FON in all cases if it’s different so I’ll list the guitar for sale as, say, a 1959 ES-335 with a ’58 FON. That’s about as honest as I can be.

I’ve been compiling a FON database for a couple of years now and I’m still filling in some of the blanks before I post it. There are lots of surprises and ambiguities. It seems that the more I learn, the more confusing it becomes. I’ve never run a large manufacturing business, so I have little insight into the day to day operations of a factory. Especially a factory operating more than 50 years ago. I’m convinced that they worried less about paperwork and more about filling orders. I’ll post the database when I have enough information for it to make some sense because now, with around  130 entries (all 335, 345 and 355’s) it’s about as clear as mud. Feel free to continue sending me data-serial, FON, model, finish and configuration (stop or Bigsby). No names will be entered.

This is an April 59 serial number 335 with the 58  factory order number T7281 24.  I call it a 59.

This is an April 59 serial number 335 with the 58 factory order number T7281 24. I call it a 59.

New 335 Book

September 18th, 2016 • ES 3355 Comments »
Tony Bacon's just released 335 book.  Fortunately, it won't replace me as the "335 guy" but it's a worthwhile addition to your guitar book collection. I would call it the best 335 book ever written.

Tony Bacon’s just released 335 book. Fortunately, it won’t replace me as the “335 guy” but it’s a worthwhile addition to your guitar book collection. I would call it the best 335 book ever written.

 

Tony Bacon writes a lot of guitar books and the very first guitar book I ever bought was one of Tony’s called “The Ultimate Guitar Book”.  I was happy to hear he was writing a 335 book. I received a copy of the book a few weeks ago and was asked to not write about it until its release and, since it’s now available, I can talk about it. Bear in mind, I’m not a book reviewer.

The beginning of the book is a history lesson-stuff that, if not for Tony’s vast knowledge of the development of the electric guitar, would likely be lost forever. He doesn’t dwell on the minutia that I lean towards but takes a more macro view of the 335 and it’s ancestry. I was flattered when he asked me to consult with him about the really fine details of the 58-65 era and the level of detail he goes into is satisfying without being too geeky. I’m happy that he left geekdom to me and my readers. But he doesn’t gloss over the fine details either. He presents the evolution of the 335 mentioning specific changes that made a real difference rather than every little detail. Big changes like neck angle and top thickness are discussed in detail but minor changes like who made the pots in what year and the other really geeky stuff I cover was, probably wisely, downplayed or left out entirely.  I was particularly impressed by his knowledge of the other guitar makers and their products that either competed or influenced Gibson in its development and manufacture of the ES series. Who knew that Gretsch patented its stereo system in ’56 and that Rickenbacker’s stereo guitars were launched in ’58 a full year before Gibson came out with the 345 and 355 stereos? I don’t think there is a better guitar historian than Tony.

Tony covers the evolution of the line admirably, hitting the high spots with regard to features, finish and early adopters. The fact that he even mentions the Argentine Gray finish gets kudos from me. Instead of completely separating the development of the guitar from the players of the day, he seamlessly moves from the evolution of the model to the back story of how ES players like Elvin Bishop, Justin Hayward, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Hicks and lots of others (and largely British) artists came to appreciate these American icons. Following the ES timeline through the changes of the late 60’s and into the 70’s, ES players like Alvin Lee, Steve Katz (who was the very first customer in my shop when I opened in 2014) and, of course, Eric Clapton come into focus, all drawn to the versatility and gig worthiness of the guitar. And he doesn’t stop there. Tony follows the format of evolution and artist through every decade right up to the highly regarded Memphis 335’s available today. And, unlike me, he isn’t judgmental about it. I have no problem saying that most of the ’76-79 335’s I’ve played are less than stellar. He sticks to the facts and the book is probably better for it. After all, it isn’t a buyer’s guide, it’s simply the most comprehensive history of the line ever compiled in one place.

And the photos. When folks ask me why I don’t write a book myself, my stock answer is that I don’t have the skills to shoot the photos that such a book would require. Tony’s photos define the guitar book genre. The guitars themselves are impeccably photographed and the historic photo content is a real pleasure to see. In fact, my biggest complaint about the “other” 335 book was the horrible photos. Tony’s photos are always totally professional and his choice of what guitars to feature is dead on (there’s even a Fender Starcaster).  So, thanks, Tony, for all the great content. I don’t get the 335 reissue on the cover but at least it’s red. And that counts for something.

I Love Surprises (Sometimes)

September 8th, 2016 • ES 335, Gibson General5 Comments »
Very early Trini Lopez Standard. This guitar had a few aces up its sleeve.  Pickups are pre T-top with the purple windings like a PAF. It also had a zero fret which is just weird.

Very early Trini Lopez Standard. This guitar had a few aces up its sleeve. Pickups are pre T-top with the purple windings like a PAF. It also had a zero fret which is just weird.

Every time I buy a guitar, it comes with a surprise. It doesn’t matter if I get it from another dealer or from Craigslist, Ebay or The Gear Page. There is always a surprise. Usually, it’s an undisclosed issue and generally it’s a small one like changed saddles or the wrong bridge. Maybe changed tuner tips or spliced leads on the pickups or opened covers. Or missing PAF stickers or two repro knobs or a changed pot. There are a fair number of parts on a guitar and stuff gets swapped out over the course of decades. So, I generally accept stuff being wrong-or different than expected. It’s not generally because anyone is trying to cheat me. Its simply because most folks just don’t know the difference between a no wire ABR-1 and a wired one. And I don’t expect them to. I’m allowed to ask a lot of questions and look really carefully at the photos but somehow, something always gets by me. The good news is it cuts both ways. A really good example came to me recently off of Craigslist (the biggest crapshoot of all).

The seller had a Trini Lopez Standard for sale. Now, I like Trinis although I rarely find the early ones that I prefer. The very first ones had a wide 1 11/16″ nut, all nickel hardware and pre T-top pickups.  This one had some unusual issues but I bought it anyway – for a reasonable price. There was one issue I saw in the photos and that may have scared away some buyers. Someone had installed a zero fret which shouldn’t work properly without moving the nut which they didn’t. So, I figured, what the heck, I can simply remove it and fill the slot with some glue and rosewood dust. Well, oddly enough, the intonation seems fine, so I left it. When the guitar arrived, the pickups had chrome covers. But the photos showed nickel. “WTF”, I said to myself. But the nickel ones were in the case pocket which was a relief. So, I decided to removed the badly soldered chrome covers and put the nickel ones back on. I know, from experience that this guitar should NOT have had t-tops. Regardless of what you read elsewhere, 65’s don’t have t-tops. They usually have the later poly winding pre T’s. Not this one. Both pickups had the coveted purple enamel wire. They were identical to PAFs. The pickups alone were worth the price of the entire guitar (almost). And yes, it’s pretty unusual to see these pickups in 65 but if the covers are nickel, the windings are almost always purple.

Other good news, 64 date codes on the pots, nice wide neck, Brazilian board and the rest of the parts were nickel. Bad news? I had to buy a set of proper vintage strip tuners to replace the ill-fitting Schallers that had been added. And it plays great. I should point out that for every time I get lucky and get more than I expected, there’s another guitar with a rewound PAF or a repro stop tail or a back bow in the neck. You can always ask a lot of questions but when the 89 year old widow of the original owner is selling the guitar to pay for her nursing care, you really can’t ask her to pull the pickups to check the stickers or try the truss rod to see if it still turns. And I don’t (ask her, that is). It’s the crapshoot part of the business. It’s nice that it goes my way once in a while. Like the 61 ES-355 with the neck break, changed bridge, wrong tuners and a pair of double white PAFs. Christmas can come all year round.

Always nice to find an undisclosed double white. It's like your birthday and Christmas rolled into one.

Always nice to find an undisclosed double white. It’s like your birthday and Christmas rolled into one.

The Evasive Gibson Shipping Ledgers

August 29th, 2016 • Gibson General7 Comments »
Here's a good page from May of 59 and it's chock full of special orders. A couple of stop tail 355's show up here which I'd really like to get my hands on.

Here’s a good page from April of 59 and it’s chock full of special orders. A couple of stop tail 355’s show up here which I’d really like to get my hands on.

So, you get a rare black ’59 ES-345 from a guy who says he got it from a guy who got it from his now deceased cousin who special ordered it from Gibson in 1959. Black was a custom order only color and there aren’t very many of them. You think it’s legit but how can you be sure? The short answer is to have an expert look at it and tell you what he thinks but a good refinish can be tough to spot. You can also call the folks at Gibson customer service (who, by the way are very nice) and try to get the shipping ledger page for your guitar and see if it shows any special order information.

They seem to have gotten a little tight fisted with this information lately but I guess it depends who you end up talking to. In any case, it’s always worth a try but it can be pretty frustrating because Gibson didn’t always note these things in their records. It seems that in 58-60, they noted a lot of custom order information but later, it all but disappears. If you look at a mid 60’s page, there are generally no special order designations at all. Here’s a good example–I had a pair of very clearly custom ordered black guitars two serial numbers apart made in 1966. One was a 330 and the other a 335. They were allegedly ordered by the same buyer at the same time. Both had gold hardware, fancy 355 type bindings and bound f-holes. I asked Gibson for any information they could find on these two guitars and they told me none existed. I was later told by another dealer (who was interested in the 335) that he was able to find the page and that no special order designation was noted. So much for accurate record keeping. I guess they were kind of busy at the time considering that yearly 335, 345 and 355 sales went from hundreds in the late 50’s to more than 6000 in 1966-the heart of the so called “guitar boom” (thank you John, Paul and George).

Even when you are able to find your guitar on a page that you find on the internet (there are quite a few out there), you may not be happy with the result. I have acquired three black ES-345’s in the past year. They are stupid rare and always subject to very close scrutiny by me and by my buyers. All three have been so-called “first rack” 345’s and two of them are only a few serial numbers apart. I asked the folks at Gibson for the ledger pages and they very kindly sent them to me. The first 345, a stop tail from rack S8539, was clearly noted on the page with a pair of initials and the word black. The Bigsby 345 was from the same rack S8539 but had a much later serial number. So does the other stop tail that is 13 numbers away and from late in the previous rack (S8538). The likelihood is that they painted a few of them black and put them aside to cover any special orders. But, these last two don’t show up as black in the ledger and that’s frustrating. They simply show up as ES-345’s.

The lesson here is that you can use the ledger pages to prove whether a guitar was custom ordered if it is so designated on an available ledger page. The other lesson is that you can’t use a ledger page to prove that a guitar wasn’t custom ordered because the pages are pretty inconsistent. It’s pretty interesting stuff and can be a fascinating snapshot into the goings on at the Parsons Street factory back in the day.

Looks like a busy day at Parsons Street. How can you get any work done around here with guys like Les Paul and Ted McCarty doing photo ops while you're trying to build a guitar.

Looks like a busy day at Parsons Street. How can you get any work done around here with guys like Les Paul and Ted McCarty doing photo ops while you’re trying to build a guitar?

Here's the adjacent page to the one at the top and there on the right side is the very first black 345 with the designation J.H. Black. I suppose it could have been another sunburst 345 sold to someone named JH Black but I had it in my hands and, sure enough, it's black.

Here’s the adjacent page to the one at the top and there on the right side is the very first black 345 with the designation J.H. Black. I suppose it could have been another sunburst 345 sold to someone named JH Black but I had it in my hands and, sure enough, it’s black. A special order Byrdland for Hank Garland is there too. Pretty cool stuff.