GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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The Evasive Gibson Shipping Ledgers

August 29th, 2016 • Gibson General5 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.

Didja Ever Notice…

August 9th, 2016 • ES 335, Gibson General16 Comments »

Rooney obit

Those of you old enough to remember Andy Rooney on “60 Minutes” will recall that the opening line of many of his segments was the title of this post. So, “didja ever notice” how every guitar seems to be all original except for something somebody did to it along the way? All original except for the Grovers. All original except for the frets, the nut and the saddles. All original except for the plastic, the pickups and , oh yeah, the finish. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. It’s just marketing. But beyond the typical stuff people do, there are some other things they do beyond the usual disasters.

Not all mods are terrible but they all will take something away from the vintage value. I can think of a couple that are kind of break even like taking the stereo circuit out of a 345 (as long as you keep it with the guitar). Adding a stop tail to a trapeze equipped 60’s ES-335 won’t hurt the value much (as long as you put it in the right place) since everybody seems to want to do that anyway. But there are some pretty alarming things have have perpetrated on these (and other) guitars over the years. And even rock stars aren’t immune to the overwhelming desire to somehow make what is nearly a perfect guitar somehow better.

Alvin Lee put a single coil between the hum buckers on his 335. Larry Carlton stop tailed his 68 and missed by about a half inch. At least all EC did was to add a set of Grovers, a Hare Krishna sticker and a “custom” truss cover. Somehow that added around $800,000 to the value (oh, yeah and he played it). Neil Young swapped out some pickups in that old black Les Paul and Frank Zappa never met a guitar he couldn’t “improve.” But beyond rock stars, we mere mortals have done some monumentally stupid things (and some that were simply ill advised).

One of the most frustrating things about a 3×5 is the harness. It’s really hard to remove ad even harder to install especially if the center block isn’t cut. Then it has to go in and out through the f-holes. Well, that’s an easy fix. Just cut a big hole in the back and put a plastic plate over it. But wait, that will show. I know, cut a big wedge out of the top-it’ll be covered by the pick guard. Nobody will ever know (except that they will). Bad intonation? How about a 70’s “harmonica” bridge-that won’t look too bad. A lot of mods were supposed to be improvements (I’m sure Alvin Lee really liked the extra pickup) and they were simply the fads of the era. Coil taps were a big deal in the early to mid 70’s and a lot of mini switches sprouted on the tops of 335’s. Master volumes were also added during that dark decade. The 80’s brought DiMarzio pickups and, eventually, active electronics. Fortunately, plenty of players left their guitars alone and those are the ones getting the premium prices these days. Also, many of the mods over the years have been reversible. You can take the DiMarzios or the EMGs out but you can’t grow the wood back where that coil tap and phase switches went.

Yep, we’re idiots all right but we can take some comfort in the fact that we were young when we did all this dumb stuff and we know better now. After all, they were just old guitars back then. Vintage was for wine (which we didn’t drink-we were men-we drank Jack Daniels). So, when you send that Les Paul R9 out to Historic Makeovers for the full treatment, just remember that in 2060, somebody is going to moan that some idiot messed up a perfectly good 2000 Les Paul by refinishing it, changing the fingerboard and taking the all important “condom” off the truss rod. Everybody knows the tone for those comes from that truss rod condom.

This probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This is a 64 ES-335. Heartbreaking.

This probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This is a 64 ES-335. It’s all original except for this big ol’ hole in the back.

I guess this mod worked out OK for Mr. Young. I'm guessing you wouldn't touch this guitar with a ten foot pole if I had done this.

I guess this mod worked out OK for Mr. Young. I’m guessing you wouldn’t touch this guitar with a ten foot pole if I had done this. It’s all original except for a couple of changed pickups.

 

 

58 ES-355. Cool. Rare. Evasive.

August 3rd, 2016 • ES 35511 Comments »
This extreme fade is typical of very early red 355's. You can seethe original color peaking out from behind the guard. Stop tail isn't factory-this would have had a Bigsby.

This extreme fade is typical of very early red 355’s. You can see the original color peaking out from behind the guard. Stop tail isn’t factory-this would have had a Bigsby.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know that I never keep any of the guitars I get. I do tend to jump up and down when I get something really rare like the 63 blonde 335 or any of the three black 59 ES-345’s I’ve had. Or maybe the “nonexistent” red 59 335’s and 345’s or the three stop tail ES-355’s I’ve had. All great guitars and all so impossibly rare that it’s a wonder I ever found them at all. There is one ultra rare ES that I’ve never had-until today that is.

In 1958, they made 10 ES-355’s. Now, we know that model years don’t mean very much and the first 59’s were the same as the 58’s but not for long. The 58’s have some very distinctive characteristics that make them interesting and very cool. All of them were mono and every one I’ve seen has gold bonnet knobs. That would change almost immediately in 59 along with a few other features. In 59, the ES-355 would be offered in both stereo and mono  and would be fitted with black knobs. The 58 has the 3 ply thin top which lasted into 59 but was gone by the Spring. That’s not what is so interesting, though.

In the late 50’s, there was a burgeoning trend toward smaller neck profiles and, while we are all familiar with the big 58 and 59 335 necks, the ES-355 followed a different timeline.  As the top of the line, Gibson saw fit to equip it with a slimmer “faster” neck fairly early in 1959. I can’t tell you exactly when but I can say that big neck ES-355’s are very hard to come by. Out of the perhaps 50 ’59 355’s that I’ve owned or played, only four have had a big fat neck. Of those four, all have had a 58 factory order number. There are other interesting features that seem to be limited to 58. They were all red but of the 5 ’58’s I’ve seen, all but one has faded to a pale orange. The 59’s and the early 60’s tend to fade to that wonderful “watermelon” red but the 58’s must have been a slightly different paint/dye formulation. Maybe more like the red element of a burst. Plenty of 59 Les Pauls lose their red element completely. The 58 ES-355 I just got is nearly blonde, it has faded so extensively. It’s not a particularly pretty color but it sure is distinctive. It’s very red under the guard and under the bridge but mostly it’s blonde with an orange tinge.

I have seen the first 58 shipped and it also has that orange fade-not as extensively but definitely not watermelon. I was offered another 58 (which I passed on because the seller wanted nearly $25K for it) a few years ago and it too had the orange fade. I know of another that hasn’t faded extensively and I can only assume it spent much of its life in the case.  I like this guitar a lot. There’s a list of features that I really like on 3×5’s and very few ES’s have all of them. The neck should be .88″ at the first fret and around 1″ at the 12th. Check. The center block should be uncut. Check. The top should be thin. Check. The guitar should be red. Check (sort of).  It should be a stop tail (it’s had one added) and it should be a great player. Check and check. Red ES guitars with a big neck are pretty much limited to late 63 and 64 but even those have more of a medium neck. No 64 is as large as .88″ at the first fret.

There are a half dozen red 59 ES-345’s and perhaps five or six red 59 335’s. Add those to the ten 58 355’s and maybe another fifty (could be more-could be less) early 59’s and you have perhaps 75 big neck red ES’s. So, your chances of getting a big fat neck red 335, 345 or 355 is pretty slim. That’s why I jump on them when I see them. And then I sell them. What a dope.

This is the very first 58. Similar fade and, of course, the gold knobs. Thanks to LP Forum member/owner "MacDaddy" for the photo.

This is the very first 58. Similar fade and, of course, the gold knobs. Thanks to LP Forum member/owner “MacDaddy” for the photo.

 

More Amp Musings

July 16th, 2016 • Amps12 Comments »
Amps with 15" speakers used to be a big deal. Now, nobody seems to want them. Whyizzit that Stevie Ray liked these (64 Vibroverb)  so much?

Amps with 15″ speakers used to be a big deal. Now, nobody seems to want them. Whyizzit that Stevie Ray liked these (64 Vibroverb) so much?

As of June 27th of this year, I have had a brick and mortar store (OK, it’s a wooden train car) for two years. In that time, perhaps a dozen cool guitars have walked in the door that I’ve bought. It’s one of the best reasons to have an actual store. Nobody has walked in with a ‘burst that’s been under a bed since Grandpa died in 1978 but there have been some very nice guitars. But not as many as I would have expected. That might be because guitars are pretty easy to sell and pretty easy to ship. But amps? Not so much.  In that same time frame, I’ve had at least 35 amps walk in the door and I’ve bought (or taken as consignments) nearly all of them. It’s very hard to resist great old amps.

Interestingly and not surprisingly, most have been Fenders and all of them have been tube amps. After all, that’s what most of us used back in the day. Yeah, we had our little flings with solid state. I had a Vox Royal Guardsman for a while when I was a teenager and later, when I was gigging regularly, I had an Acoustic Control amp (solid state) which was a pretty great amp but I think the speakers had something to do with that. My Acoustic amp had 2-15″ JBL’s and a horn the size of a Buick. It weighed about 1000 lbs. That brings me to the point of this post.

I remember seeing The Doors in late late 60's and decided I had to have one of these amps. Pretty good for solid state but I think the speakers may have had something to do with it.

I remember seeing The Doors in the late 60’s and decided I had to have one of these amps. Pretty good for solid state but I think the speakers may have had something to do with it.

Recently I wrote about how well multiple 10″ speakers seem to pair with 335’s. Cases in point being a 3-10 tweed Bandmaster, a couple of 4-10 Bassmans, a BF Tremolux and a silver face Vibrolux all of which I had in my shop at the time. At the same time, I had no amps with 15″ speakers. 15’s just seem to be out of fashion and that seems odd considering just how popular they have been in the past. I had a 64 Showman with a 15″ JBL that I used all through high school and the aforementioned Acoustic with the 15’s that I used through college and after. There was a period in the late 90’s when I had a pretty wonderful 63 BF Pro with a single 15. Then years went by without any 15″ speaker amps at all. Decades really. Then, in the past couple of weeks, a bunch of amps with 15’s came in and I gave them another listen.

Once you get used to a bit of mud in your neck pickup at high volume, you barely notice it. That is, until you play the same guitar through a 15. The bottom seems to clean right up to the point where the bottom strings take on a truly musical tone instead of a dullish thud. I have three 15″ amps right now, each with it’s own signature tone. The blackface Vibroverb is a long time favorite with massive clean tones in all pickup positions right up to “8” on the dial. The wide panel tweed Pro breaks up like a tweed  at fairly low volume but the bass notes don’t get totally lost in the dirt like they can on a tweed Deluxe or even a Super or Bandmaster. Finally, there’s a Gibson GA-80 “Varitone” with its five preset tones, 25 watts and a 15″ speaker. Interesting amp. Probably be great for country as it shows a lot of highs and honk. The presets depend on various value capacitors which act as notch filters and give the guitar a range of tones from scooped mids to out of phase Strat honk straight up twang. Cool amp that is as rare as it is unusual.

So don’t just dismiss amps with a single 15 as archaic or out of vogue. I think the big Marshall cabinets of the 60’s and 70’s probably killed the 15″ speaker as much as anything but nowadays folks want to carry less and still get big tone. maybe it’s time to take a look backward and see just why these were all the rage back in 67.

This is a Gibson GA-80 "Varitone". Lots of buttons to play with and a big fat 15" Jensen.

This is a Gibson GA-80 “Varitone”. Lots of buttons to play with and a big fat 15″ Jensen.

Mid Sixties 335s.

July 10th, 2016 • ES 3355 Comments »

 

I bought this late 65 (narrow nut) for $5000. Great guitar, great pickups, Braz board and less than some off the new ones. No brainer

I bought this late 65 (narrow nut) for $5000. Great guitar, great pickups, Braz board and less than some of  the new ones. No brainer

Not everyone can afford a 58-64 ES-335. $15000-$45000 is an awful lot of money for a guitar (even if you’ll probably get it back when you sell it). When I get asked for advice from buyers with $5000-$7000 to spend, I usually steer them toward 345’s and 355’s with issues from the same era. But if a 335 is the only choice for you, then 65 to 69 models are worth considering. Most of you already know why the values drop precipitously from 64 to 65 but I’ll give you the short version in case you missed that day.

In 65, the stop tailpiece was discontinued and replaced with a trapeze. But that isn’t the big reason. By mid ’65 the nut width has shrunk from 1 11/16″ to 1 5/8″ to 1 9/16″. It doesn’t seem like much but wrap your hand around that narrow neck and you will definitely notice the difference. There were other changes, like nickel hardware being switched for chrome and changes to the pickups (from enamel coat windings to poly coat) that took place in 65. But the neck size is the main reason you can pay $15000 or more for a 64 and $5000 for a late 65. We’ll toss out the big neck 65’s from the discussion because they generally are priced at around $8000-$9000. Less than a 64 but beyond that $5000-$7000 range that is such a popular range.

So, we have late 65, 66, 67, 68 and 69 to look at. I would toss out late 69 because the “Norlin” changes (neck volute, short neck tenon) should cost even less. They aren’t terrible guitars but 65-early 69 are generally better. Nobody likes the volute and the shorter tenon can have stability issues (although most don’t). One of the common assumptions is that all of these guitars have t-tops except maybe a few early 65’s. That’s simply not true. I’ve seen pre T-tops as late as 69 and I’ve never, repeat, never, seen a t-top in 65 and rarely in 66. In fact most 67’s don’t have t-tops either. 68 is a toss up but plenty of them have pre t-tops. T-tops can be great pickups as well, so, stop worrying about the pickups.

There are vast differences in the neck profiles during this period and that might help you decide. The problem is that they are kind of all over the place. I find most 65’s to have fairly large necks but 66’s generally have really, really thin necks. They go from a bit larger to way larger in 67 but some are still pretty thin. By 68 and into 69, they can get very large. I have a 69 (OK, it’s a 340) that has a huge (but narrow) neck profile. It rivals many 59’s. It’s not just the profile that merits a look-65’s and some 66’s  get you a Brazilian board while 67 and later gets you Indian rosewood. One the point to make-a very popular vintage guitar information site states that 68’s have a wide nut. They don’t. Period.

Don’t ignore the small stuff either. 65 and 66 have the wide bevel pick guard which I think is a lot more attractive. 68 and 69 have big f-holes which look a bit cartoonish to my eye. 65 and most 66’s have reflector knobs while late 66 to 69 have witch hat knobs which I really don’t like but knobs are easy to change. They certainly don’t affect tone or playability nor do other little details like the position of the headstock “Crown” inlay. It’s higher in 65-66 and lower in 67-69. They also changed the inlay material at some point in 67 (I think). The inlays are whiter and don’t have the same tendency to dry out and curl up at the edges.

For my $5000-$7000, I’d go with a 65. Narrow but medium chunky neck profile, Brazilian rosewood for sure, big bevel guard and maybe some nickel hardware. A big problem is that so many sellers describe their 66-69 335’s as 65’s. The reason for this is because the serial numbers were re-used as many as four times over these years. It never surprises me that these sellers simply look at the serial number charts and pick the earliest possible year. Do your homework. Look at the features. It’s pretty easy to tell a wide bevel guard from a narrow bevel. It’s easy to tell a low “crown” inlay from a high one. It’s not that hard to tell the big f-holes from the small ones. Read my old posts-I’ve covered all of this before and then go out there and find the “one”.

Wanna blonde without paying huge bucks? Buy a 69 ES-340 and rewire it as a 335. You can find these in the $4000 range. 70 and later are less busy they'll have the neck volute.

Wanna blonde without paying huge bucks? Buy a 69 ES-340 and rewire it as a 335. You can find these in the under $5000 range. 70 and later are less money but they’ll have the neck volute which everybody hates. You might even get pre T-tops. This one has them.

 

Top Ten List

June 25th, 2016 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35516 Comments »
58's are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58's.

58’s are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58’s.

I keep a mental top ten list of the best ES guitars to pass through my hands and, while the list is pretty diverse, there are some factors that are becoming meaningful. As I get to play more and more of them, I re-evaluate the things that make some of them simply good, others great and a few simply extraordinary.

It’s interesting that the current top ten (or maybe top 12) includes guitars from 58, 59, 60, 62 and 64. I try to keep personal preference out of the equation-like the fact that I like guitars with necks that start medium and get really big by the 12th fret. I’m really talking about tone. And that’s personal preference too,  I suppose,  but we all like a guitar that has great sustain and that singing almost vocal quality that some 3×5’s have and some don’t. Some of that is setup but some of it is simply the wood, the strings and the electronics and the relationship between them. I can’t totally explain why this 335 sounds so much better than that one but there are some common denominators that I can quantify and only because I’ve played (and set up) so many.

Common denominators: All are 58-64 which doesn’t tell you much. All are stop tails. All have PAFs or early patents. Nearly all were re-fretted at some point. But there have been dozens and dozens that fit that description so there must be something more to these standouts. Four of the top ten have thin tops. If you aren’t a regular reader, you should be aware that all 58’s and some 59’s have a three ply top that is 25% thinner than the four ply tops that were used from 59 on. Of course, that means that 6 of the top ten had the thicker tops. But wait. There’s more. If we go to the top five, three of the top five have the thinner tops which tells us something. The top five are as follows–#1 late 58 335, #2 thin top 59 335, #3 refinished 62 dot neck, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 unbound 58 335. So, I’m going out on a limb and saying the thin top early 335’s seem to have an edge when it comes to great tone. Looking at the next five on the hit list #6 is a first rack 59 345, #7 is a 59 355 stop tail, #8 is a 64 335, #9 is a 59 335 and #10 is an early 60 335. This is out of perhaps 500-600 that I’ve owned. There are perhaps another 75 that I would call contenders-an extraordinary one isn’t that much better than a great one. Most 58-64 3×5’s are simply excellent guitars. We’re talking microns here.

This list is rather fluid and I’m always replacing one with another as I play more of them. It is tricky to compare a guitar I have today to one I had five years ago (or more) but I consider the top ten to be kind of interchangeable. I’m sure that if I had all of them in a room, I would put them in a different order but they would all still be great. What would be really useful is if I could predict which ones would be the standouts before I even picked them up and played them. It would be nice to be able to tell folks to look for a particular factory order number or group of features that make for great tone but, alas, no such information exists. I’ve had 59 dot necks that are uninspiring. I’ve had trap tail 65’s that would give any of the top ten a good run for their money. There are a lot of variables and too many aren’t easily quantified.

There are a few consistencies that have occurred to me, however. First rack ES-345’s are generally excellent. What’s a first rack? Read this. It’s actually three racks but they all share certain characteristics and these characteristics seem to translate to great tone. Late 58’s and early 59’s are also fertile ground for great tone-again, the thin top is a possible factor. The shallow but not too shallow neck angle could also be in play here. The big neck? Maybe but there’s a 62 in the top 5 that had a skinny neck (and a refinish). Here’s another factor that throws a monkey wrench into the mix: On a given day, a particular guitar can sound great and on another day, it doesn’t sound so great. Humidity is a big factor and probably the state of my playing ability is another.

So, what can you take away from this? Well, mostly that you should play a guitar before you buy it. Just buying a 59 dot neck that you like the looks of will probably get you a great guitar but it may not be an extraordinary one. Buying a beat up refinished 62 could get you one of the best players you ever had. But you can’t know for sure until it’s properly set up and you sit down and play it.

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.

 

Fathers Day 2016

June 18th, 2016 • Uncategorized12 Comments »
Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt. I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.

Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt.  I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.

A number of years ago, I wrote a memoir about my unusual family. It was very well received by a number of publishers who then unanimously rejected it. It seems a book about a family where no one was locked in a closet and starved or chained in the basement with rats won’t sell and that was the end of that. The book was called Centerboard (my father loved to sail) and followed the nine Gelber brothers (and Mom and Dad) through the fifties and into the 60’s.  In honor of my Dad and Dads everywhere, Chapter One is today’s post.  Enjoy (and call your Dad).

CHAPTER ONE

The Pram

 My father was of the opinion that the laws of physics didn’t apply to him. For that matter, I don’t think he subscribed to the laws of nature either. He did, after all, father nine sons in a row. It was 1957 or maybe 1958 and my father, a surgeon who took great pride in the accomplishments of his very gifted hands, decided to build a sailboat. Well, actually, it started out as just a boat. It was later that he decided that it should sail.

We all lived in a big house overlooking a small lake in a quiet village in upstate New York. The house was pink. It was pink the day we moved there in 1956 and was pink until we sold it in 2011.

One evening late in the fall, right after dinner, I went down to the basement – not to the playroom where the TV was, but to the workbench. The workbench was the personal domain of my father. You messed with his tools at your peril; bending dimes in the metal vise attached to the side of the workbench was attempted only during the working hours of a surgeon. If he caught you or even suspected you were messing with the vise, you were in trouble. Big trouble. He had an odd sixth sense about his tools. He could tell if someone had so much as touched a chisel or taken a shot at the wall with his staple gun. He didn’t know who, but he knew.

That evening, I went down to watch my very talented father yell and curse at a sheaf of papers that I can only assume were the directions. There was a large pile of wood, mostly cut into odd, vaguely boat-shaped pieces. There was also a lot of sawdust and the smell of glue – not Elmer’s glue like today, but glue factory glue probably made from the hides of old race horses that couldn’t even muster a show in a claimer at Saratoga.

Laid out in a boat-like pattern were the big pieces of wood and alongside, some smaller deck-looking things. He was trying to figure out just how to attach the sides of the boat to the bottom without whacking holes in it. The directions must have said to nail the sides to the bottom but he was having none of it. Put nails in the bottom of a boat, he must have thought? How dumb is that if you want the thing to float?

He barely acknowledged my presence and kept on working and cursing and working a little more. There were many evenings that fall and winter that I watched and sometimes even helped. He’d let me hold a piece of wood after he’d glued it or used me for a third hand if he needed it. I even felt that maybe there was some camaraderie going on here, although at the age of six I didn’t exactly know what camaraderie was. He was, however smiling more and cursing less.

By the spring, all the wood had been used up. The directions, once neatly packaged, were stained and wrinkled and in a state of disarray. The floor was covered in sawdust, bent nails and wood chips. And there, by the stairway, next to the workbench, sat, wonder of wonders, a boat. A pram they called them. Squat and squared at both ends, it looked more like a bathtub than a thing of seaworthiness. It wasn’t painted yet and the caulk and glue oozed from every join and miter. My father stood over it – proud, defiant, larger than life. He had built a boat.

“Charlie, my boy, what color shall we paint it?” he said to me.

“Blue”, I said, knowing that he had already bought the paint and sparing him the explanation of why red is a lousy color for a boat.

“Blue it is.” And he opened the can of blue gloss marine paint. No primer, of course. Primer was for losers, he must have thought. Real men use paint. Only pantywaists and sissies bother with primer. It must have occurred to him four or five coats of blue gloss marine paint later that he should have primed it first. Cover the wood a little better, maybe.

At some point between screwing in the oarlocks and that little brass eye that goes through the bow, my father had an idea. A really good idea. There were a few pages left in the directions that were labeled “optional sail package instructions.” All he had to do was order the pre-made spars and sails, put in a mounting bracket for the mast and rudder and …cut a hole in the bottom of the boat for the centerboard.

“What the hell is a centerboard?” he said to no one in particular even though I was standing two feet away from him. I didn’t know and didn’t hazard a guess.

“I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to cut a hole in the bottom of my new boat”, he said, again to no one in particular. So my father added the optional sail package, leaving out what he interpreted to be the optional centerboard.

The sails arrived as did the day we were to take our maiden voyage. Maybe it was because my three older brothers took less interest in his big boat project or maybe they were scared or smarter than I was, but my father asked me to go out in the new sailboat with him.

Next order of business, bring the boat up the stairs. My father asked my oldest brother Ben, who was eleven, to help him hump the ungainly boat up the basement steps and out into the backyard. The lake was in back, down a steep embankment with a winding trail to the bottom. The trail was part of a network of trails around Collins Lake worn into the hillside by generations of kids off on adventures. Everyone called it “The Monkey Trail.”

“How do you know it’ll fit through the door?” my brother asked. My father ignored the question.

“Don’t scratch it on the banister. Look out for the wall. Watch what you’re doing.” He rattled off a series of commands that met with no response. This was not an invitation to have a conversation.

The boat was at the top of the stairs on its side. The door was clearly high enough to accommodate it but the opening was too narrow.

“Gotta take the door off. Take it back down. Watch out for the wall,” my father said. Again, no response was required.

Back down the stairs they went with the boat, setting it back into its place among the sawdust. My father, hammer and screwdriver in hand, went up to dismantle the door. The door came off pretty easily and was now leaning up against the pink stucco of the house. There was no screen door so the basement was now open to any and all bugs lurking in the yard. I don’t know where my mother was at the time, but I’m sure she would have complained about the open door had she seen it. Once again Benjy – he wasn’t to become Ben for another few years – headed up the basement stairs with my father, the blue boat and a newfound respect for measuring tapes.

“Godammit”, my father rarely used any other profanity in the presence of his children but godammit was perfectly acceptable. The boat still didn’t fit.

“Where’s the goddamn crowbar?” he roared. I swear I didn’t know whether he was going to whack Ben in the head with it or take off the door frame. The boat went back down the stairs again and my father went back up the stairs wielding the crowbar. I can’t imagine why my father even had a crowbar. Maybe it was for times like this. It didn’t take long for him to pry the door frame away from the plaster walls. The wooden frame pieces made a kind of shrieking sound as they were ripped away.

“That ought to do it”, he said.

I watched from my usual spot next to the workbench as my father for a third time ascended the staircase with his eldest son and a slightly scraped blue boat. With considerable body english and an expletive deleted, the boat popped out of the doorway and into the back yard.

“Charlie, go get the sails and carry them down to the lake.” So, with a combination of fear and delight, I headed for the garage. The sails had already been attached to the wooden spars and the whole rig was rolled into an unwieldy package of dangling ropes, canvas, all manner of unusual brass hooks, fasteners and wooden poles. It was also three times my six-year-old size.

By the time I wrestled the “sails” out of the garage and onto the back lawn, my father and Ben were halfway down the trail to the lake. I needed some help. It’s an odd thing. At the time, there were seven children and, on that day, only two were accounted for. Bob was probably in the basement watching TV because that’s where he always was, but what about Frank and Brian? Frank was seven and Brian was four, certainly old enough to help me haul the sails down to the lake. They were nowhere to be found.

“What’s the problem with those sails?” my father yelled. “Don’t you want to go sailing?”

Now here’s what must have happened. Based on prior knowledge, I knew that my brother Ben, being the oldest, was by orders of magnitude, my father’s favorite. I also knew that Ben understood, even at the age of eleven, that getting into a boat that my father had built, centerboard or no centerboard, was potentially life threatening and he would have no part of it. Ben was also the only one with any sailing experience since he had tried it the preceding summer on Lake George at Camp Chingachgook.

“It won’t sail straight without a centerboard, Dad.” Ben said.

“Since when are you an expert?” said my father. That was his standard reply whenever anyone told him anything unless, of course, he was speaking to an actual expert. It’s worth noting that when speaking to an actual expert, my father would listen intently, taking detailed mental notes so that he could recycle the information with an air of “expertness” to any who would listen. Had he spoken to an actual sailing expert earlier that day, the conversation would have been more like, “You know, Ben, the centerboard’s function is to counteract the thermopassive force vectors of the prevailing hydromolecular pressure caused by the wind so that even if the wind is in your face, the boat goes forward.”

“I’m not going.” Ben said.

“Fine, I’ll just take Charlie,” my father said as I dragged the sails, spars and ropes onto the rickety wooden dock he had built a few summers before. In fact, substitute “dock” for “boat” in this story and knock a couple years off all the ages and there’ll be no need to tell that one.

My father and Ben carried the blue pram to the end of the dock and carefully slid it into Collins Lake. It did, indeed, float. My father attached the rudder without incident and then began to tackle the sails. Since they were already attached to the mast and the mast to the boom, it should have been simply a matter of stepping the mast and raising the sails. But it wasn’t. The mast didn’t fit in the hole that had been drilled in the plywood plank that was nailed over the front seat to hold the mast. The mast was supposed to fit through that hole and through a hole in the front seat and set into a wooden block in the bottom of the boat. It didn’t.

“Goddammit, the mast is too big,” he roared. And he stormed up the hill with what appeared to be steam coming out of his ears.

Since there was no electricity down at the lake, the reasonable approach to the problem would have been to take the boat out of the water and back up the hill, run an extension cord into the backyard and drill the holes a little larger. A really long extension cord from the house to the lake also might have worked, but he probably would have electrocuted himself in the process. The battery-operated drill hadn’t been invented yet. A hand drill might have worked but not very well because the hole was so big.

Minutes later, my father came down the hill, hammer and chisel in hand.

“Couple of whacks with this thing and it ought to fit just fine.” And he went at it with an air of determination I have always associated with warfare and disaster movies.

“Try it now”, he said, the sweat dripping from his bald head.

The holes, which were perfectly round before, looked a little like three leaf clovers or the club suit on a deck of cards. The mast slipped easily through the holes and actually set perfectly into the block in the bottom of the boat, which apparently had been the right size all along. The problem now was stability. The mast moved around in the now slightly oversized hole.

“The wind will keep it from moving too much”, he said with more hope than conviction.

“Let’s go, Charlie,” he said, turning to me as I sat watching from the shore.

The wind was blowing from directly behind us so the boat was pretty much sailing even before I got in. Ben was trying to hold it at the dock as we boarded, my father in the back seat and me in the middle seat. I could see little beads of water forming where the sides of the boat joined the bottom.

“Don’t worry, the wood expands when it gets wet and it seals the joints”, my father said.

“Yeah, right,” I thought, “since when are you an expert?”

With the wind behind us, the lack of a centerboard wasn’t much of an issue. As I learned later, you can sail a refrigerator straight downwind without a centerboard. I have to admit that, for the five or so minutes it took to get from our dock to the other side of the lake, it was fun. I’m not sure if I got more pleasure from the sailing or watching the look of sheer pride on my father’s face. Then, as they say in the news, something went horribly wrong. We had to turn. We had run out of lake.

“Ready about,” he said. I have no idea where he learned the jargon. “Hard alee!”

I had no clue what he was talking about so I just watched what he did. He threw the tiller hard to his right and slid over to the starboard side of the boat. He fully expected the boat to turn onto a port tack and head away from the shore. The boat turned and the sail filled but instead of heading back across the lake, the boat went sideways toward the shore. In the mild chaos that always seems to accompany coming about, it didn’t immediately occur to me that anything was amiss. Then the boat tipped over, depositing the two of us into the unexpectedly cold water of Collins Lake in May.

“Stay with the boat!” my father screamed with a panic in his voice that was anything but reassuring to a six-year-old. “Stay with the boat!”

He had prepped me for my first sailing experience by telling me how, if the boat capsized, to stay with the boat, holding on to it to stay afloat. My young mind interpreted that as, “if there’s a hurricane on Collins Lake while we’re sailing, the boat might turn over and that staying with the boat until the Coast Guard helicopter arrived would be a smart thing to do.”

I stood up. The water barely covered my knees. “What for?” I asked.

The optional centerboard kit arrived a few days later and with fear and trepidation, my father sliced an eighteen inch gash into the bottom of the boat to accommodate it. It still didn’t sail worth a good goddam but at least it didn’t go sideways. It also leaked worse than ever, the wood refusing to expand in compliance with the laws of nature.

More Great Amps for your 335

June 12th, 2016 • Uncategorized24 Comments »
Never should have sold this 59 bandmaster. This was a great amp for 335s (and for LPs). I just bought another one but i don't think I'll be selling it. 26 glorious (and dirty) watts.

Never should have sold this 59 bandmaster. This was a great amp for 335s (and for LPs). I just bought another one but i don’t think I’ll be selling it. 26 glorious (and dirty) watts.

Since opening my actual brick and mortar shop, I’ve acquired a ton of amplifiers and I’ve learned a few things along the way. There are some spectacularly good amps out there and I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with a nice range of them. Of course, they are all vintage and all tube (and mostly Fenders). When I opened my shop I had four amps in my shop. Now I have around 25 of them. So what amps really get along well with a 335? The answer? Not all of them.

Humbucker equipped guitars like 335’s (and Les Pauls and SGs) seem to really like certain amps and there is not much rhyme or reason to it but I’ll try to make some order out of chaos. For 335’s, I’ve always been partial to Fender tweeds but as I’ve acquired a number of 60’s black face and silver face amps, I’m expanding my list of great matchups. One thing I’ve noticed is that amps with more than one speaker seem to be more 335 friendly. I love my little tweed Champ but it is a true one trick pony. With virtually no headroom, it is pretty limited. On the other end of the scale, I had a 65 Twin Reverb with JBL’s that sounded magnificent but was so clean that I had to rattle the windows to get any kind of grit out of it. I guess that’s why they invented pedals. Continuing with the Fenders, I was disappointed in the BF Deluxe Reverb I had but I’m finding the early Silver face Vibrolux to be an excellent match. Same goes for the tweed Super, the BF Tremolux and the tweed Bassman.

What’s the common thread here? Ten inch speakers, specifically Jensens (and not the reissues) and more than one of them. My favorite amp of all is the 3-10″ Bandmaster followed by the 2-10″ tweed Super. The 4-10″ Bassman is right behind it but only because it’s so damn loud. BF Tremolux and Vibrolux are right there too. The Gibson GA-79 with P10Q’s is a very 335 friendly amp as well and is the ultimate amp of choice for stereo 345 owners. But, to leave the tens behind for the moment, the BF Pro and the ’63 Vox AC 30 are pretty awesome too. There is another common thread here as well-tube rectifiers. The “sag” associated with this type of circuit seems to play nicely with 335’s as well.

I can’t quantify any of this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an engineer and can barely read a schematic. Second, tone is so subjective and with my tired old ears, who knows if I hear just what you hear.  I like enough headroom to cut through the mix with clean tones but I also like the breakup to come on pretty early so I don’t need pedals. And it’s not  just the purist in me. It’s also the fact that I couldn’t afford a big amp when i was a kid, so when it was time to solo, I had to crank the old 64 Princeton to 10 just to be heard. Pure tube distortion was a big part of my tone back in the day. When I finally played enough gigs to afford a big amp, I ended up with a 64 single Showman JBL 15″ (about as clean an amp as there is). Then, the old reliable Fuzztone did the job. Of course, I didn’t play a 335 back then. I could only afford a 330.

Vintage ten inch Jensens (P10R and P10Q) , 6L6 or 5881 tubes and a tube rectifier seem to be a great combination for hum bucker guitars and especially 335's.

Vintage ten inch Jensens (P10R and P10Q) , 6L6 or 5881 tubes and a tube rectifier seem to be a great combination for hum bucker guitars and especially 335’s.

 

Six Figure 335’s?

May 30th, 2016 • ES 33511 Comments »
Where have all the blondes gone? To collectors who will probably be buried with them. They only made 209 of them, so it's not surprising that they have become so hard to come by. I haven't seen a no issue 59 stop tail hit the market in almost two years. There have been a few 58's, some Bigsby's and a couple of 60's. This killer 58 will be in my hands soon.

Where have all the blondes gone? To collectors who will probably be buried with them, that’s where. They only made 209 of them, so it’s not surprising that they have become so hard to come by. I haven’t seen a no issue 59 stop tail hit the market in almost two years. There have been a few 58’s, some Bigsby’s and a couple of 60’s. This killer 58 will be in my hands soon.

By any standard, the 335 is kind of a deal. Granted there is a pretty big range for the “Golden Era” guitars but when you put it up against the current giants of the collectors world, a 335 is downright cheap. Let’s look at the current market at the top end.

There were somewhere around 1400 Les Paul bursts built. LP guys will argue there are less because all of them can’t still be intact but that applies to any old guitar.  I’ve seen bursts with issues on the market for $80,000 (repaired headstock and a few minor issues) all the way up to $1,000,000. I don’t know what the highest price ever realized for a non celebrity owned burst is but it’s a lot higher than the highest price ever paid for a non celebrity owned 335. I know of at least one LP that sold for over $400K. There are a fair number in the $250K range. Most sales at this rarefied level are private and the prices paid aren’t public knowledge. Could one have sold for a million bucks? Maybe. Seems like a lot of money for a guitar.

I’ve written extensively about the fact that rarity isn’t the main factor in guitar values. Rarity only matters when the supply is wildly outstripped by demand. And that’s true of a few guitars in the Gibson lineup. Take the original Gibson Explorer. They allegedly made somewhere between 35 and 100 of them between 58 and 63 and they hardly ever come up for sale. Again, I don’t know how high they actually go-I know of at least one that reached $350,000. There is one on the market now for $750,000. Flying Vees are in the same ballpark even though there are perhaps twice as many of them as there are Explorers. Again, I know of a Vee that sold for around $300K. I don’t really keep track of these things so there certainly could be higher sales. The shipping totals are speculative. No one seems to know exactly how many left the factory.

There are no other Gibson guitars that even approach these numbers. If you ask me (and I know you will), the 335 is every bit as good a guitar as a Les Paul, an Explorer or a Flying Vee. The circuit is pretty much the same. The pickups are the same. The design is every bit as good and playability is arguably better on a 335 than any of them. Again, my opinion. Tone is subjective but plenty of folks have called 335’s (and 345’s) “burst killers” and some of these folks are burst owners. You know who you are. So why can you buy a sunburst 58, 59 or 60 ES-335 for $20,000 (for a 60 with minor issues) to $50,000 (for a mint 59)? It has to be the demand. There were about the same number of 58-60 335’s made as there were 58-60 Les Pauls. There were around 1700 58-60 Les Paul Standards (some 58’s were gold tops). There were around 1300 335’s made during the same period. Interestingly, a lot more 58-60 335’s come on the market for sale than do Les Pauls. But here’s where it gets strange. The blondes.

There were 209 blonde 335’s built from 58-60. There are a few built later-I know of one 61, one 63 and one 64. Of the 209 dot neck blondes built, I’m sure a few didn’t survive the nearly 60 years since they left Kalamazoo. So, lets be generous and say that 20 were either refinished, broken or simply trashed in some way, leaving 189. There must be at least 100 already in the hands of collectors and probably more than that. I know a lot of the owners and a few with multiple blonde 335’s. They are very attached to them so many of these guitars are effectively off the market for the foreseeable future. So, how many are left with original or later owners or widows and families that will hit the market as “uncirculated” 335TDN’s? Well if the present slate of blonde 335’s is any indication, precious few. There was one 60 at a well known dealer in California listed at $100K. An unbound 58 in the Heartland for $86K which apparently sold recently, although I don’t know the sale price . There is a Bigsby 60 with a 345 fingerboard at $72K and a Bigsby 60 with an unusual “Custom Made” plate in a lower than normal position for $66K. The only other one I know of is a 58 that has a damaged top.  As I said, not much out there.

I know that stop tail blondes approached and, although I don’t have absolute proof, reached $100K in 2008. I predict they are on their way back to that number. There simply aren’t very many left.  The old rule of thumb for blondes was double the price of a sunburst. With near mint sunburst 59’s now approaching $50K, a near mint blonde 59 should be at $90K+. Call me biased, but that still seems like a much better deal than a $300,000 Vee or a $750,000 Explorer.

Unbound 58's are a little less desirable to many collectors. I think they are very cool. This one looks like the top came from the same piece of maple as the bound one at the top. I sold this one in 2015.

Unbound 58’s are a little less desirable to many collectors. I think they are very cool. This one looks like the top came from the same piece of maple as the bound one at the top. I sold this one in 2015.

Nothing Like Old Wood. An Expert Responds

May 11th, 2016 • ES 3357 Comments »

Before you read this post, please read the post entitled “Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.” This post was an email sent to me by luthier Ken McKay who built the guitar I’m writing about in the previous post. He fills in a lot of the blanks for me and explains his (and Gibson’s) methodology. Here it is in its entirety.

I enjoyed reading that and generally speaking I wholeheartedly agree.

In 1959 Kalamazoo factory was filled with newly ordered racks pattern grade mahogany, it was just dried the normal way.  They used drying kilns in those days. These billets of mahogany were pattern grade meaning they used the wood to make patterns for automobile parts. They had to be stable. So that is the neck. Just pattern grade mahogany. Still available if I look hard.

Let me get into the other parts a little bit. But first I have to tell you that the ES xx5 guitar design is evolutionary. Once they got it right with the center block they pretty much kept it that way. That is until circumstances made it different and it became an entirely different guitar.  Current 3xx guitars only replicate the essence of the original models. It’s too bad some players get confused and think they’re getting something that they are not. They are simply not the same. If a player wants that sound and feel that comes with a vintage guitar. Then only a vintage or McKay will get you there. If A player goes into a store and plays a new 335, and likes it, that’s a different story. There’s no confusion there and they’re getting what they want. I would encourage players to play a few vintage models though to see what’s really possible.

In my Benchmade guitars I use different quality contour brace material. I also have the veneer sliced to different dimensions using different materials than the current factory does. I use different glue. And like you,  I like to use Brazilian Rosewood for fingerboards.

It’s an engineered guitar. It’s ply construction. Not just the top and back plates but the entire body. If you take a cross-section of the guitar body cut in half there will be 11 layers from top to back. Four veneers for the plates, spruce followed by Maple followed by Spruce again and then four more layers of maple veneer. These are all glued up in different succession to make up a composite. This was the best they could do at that time. The materials at the time were simply wood and glue. Metal was too heavy and Carbon plastics and things did not exist. And some things  were happy circumstances, for example the glue they used dried hard and crisp. This of course could’ve been engineered into the plan but I think it was just circumstance. Because it helps retain the crisp high-end.

Another huge factor is the part of the guitar that is not there, the air. The pickups hear all the parts including the resonance of the air. Air is a cushion. It gives the guitar the acoustic attack and is mixed with the sustain of the center block maple. The amazing thing is they got the proportion correct pretty much from the start. Personally I think it’s a practical thing if they were to have made it thicker it would be too heavy. In the body, the size does seem to be perfect. So this is part of the engineered guitar… the double air chambers.

The center block is soft maple. It’s not too heavy. It’s not too anything for that matter,  it’s just correct. I have used different material and it did result in different sounds. So this, of course, can be part of the process. Generally speaking, though lightweight, soft maple works out best. If you wanted for example little more crisp high-end and spankiness then perhaps hard maple might work out for you.

The Spruce contour brace material is also important because it helps sound waves travel rapidly. I use very straight grain material and the speed of sound is rapid through this material. With this you get a quick attack. I think this would drive up the price of a factory guitar if they used only high-quality material like I do.

And then there’s the other things that add up. Long studs, proper metal for saddle, bridge,  proper nut material. The headstock angle and the neck angle also make a difference of course.

Here’s a picture of my innards.  Contour brace stock and maple centerblock stock. I weigh each for  comparison.

Ken1

Ken2

Ken3

Ken’s logo on one of his wonderful guitars.