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Upside Down Market

August 16th, 2017 • ES 330, ES 335, ES 3452 Comments »
Best value there is in 335 land. This is an early 65 with the big neck and wide nut. It's been converted to a stop tail (Yes, it's placed a little too low) but for $8000 or so, it's $10,000 less than a 64 which is almost the same guitar. Read on and be amazed.

Best value there is in 335 land. This is an early 65 with the big neck and wide nut. It’s been converted to a stop tail (Yes, it’s placed a little too low) but for $8000 or so, it’s $10,000 less than a 64 which is almost the same guitar. Read on and be amazed.

It’s not unusual for the vintage market to fall into familiar patterns. The most common is simple: Folks asking for more money than the guitar they are selling is worth. That’s just human nature doing what it does. Dealers do it, individual owners do it, widows and orphans selling Grandpa’s pride and joy do it. I will cover this phenomenon (which is particularly prevalent lately in dot necks) in a later post. This post is about the opposite phenomenon.

There have always been guitars that seem like they are undervalued. They are desirable but, strangely, do not sell easily or for a price that is in line with similar guitars. They are often rare but command little or no premium for their rarity. There are also über rare guitars out there that are not particularly desirable that also command little or no premium (blonde Byrdlands are a good example). Then there are relatively common guitars that are quite desirable but just don’t get the respect (and high prices) they deserve.

So what are these bargain basement guitars and where do you find one? The common one that comes to mind is the early 65 big neck 335’s and 345’s. The early ones with nickel hardware are virtually identical to a 64 except for the tuners and the tailpiece and yet they are priced at less than half the going rate for a 64. Even more surprising is the fact that they aren’t much more than the top of the line brand new Gibson 335’s. The tuner difference is negligible-double line Klusons instead of single lines. In fact, some late 64’s have double lines and that doesn’t diminish their value at all. So, it must be the trapeze tailpiece. So, having a trapeze tailpiece rather than a stop tail accounts for an approximately $10000 difference in price. Granted, only the earliest ones that have nickel parts definitely have the early patent number pickups but even some of those with chrome pickup covers have them (same as a PAF).  Conventional wisdom seems to think that 65’s have t-tops. They don’t. I’ve never, ever, seen a t-top in a 65. Hey, for a $10000 savings, you can afford to have the trapeze removed and have a stop tail installed. You can even put in a set of PAFs and still come out ahead. Big neck early ’65 345’s are even less than 335’s and are one of the great bargains in vintage guitars. I’ve seen plenty of them for $6000 or so. They almost always have the early patents and even, on rare occasions, PAFs.

The best example of a very rare guitar that is desirable but is vastly underpriced is a blonde 59 or 60 ES-330. Dot neck 330’s (two pickup) are great guitars that are well priced to begin with. Consider a brand new 330 Historic is pushing $6000. A vintage block neck from 64 or even earlier can be found for less. Even a dot neck 60 or 61 can be bought for $6000. A 59 might go a little higher but $7000 is a typical selling (not necessarily asking) price. But the blondes are the real head scratcher. Consider this, they only made 294 blonde 330’s-most of them in 1960. A blonde 335 has pushed past $75K and can ask over $100K. A blonde 345 has long since passed $40,000 and at least two have sold for over $60,000. That’s way more than double the more common sunburst. So, why is it you can get a blonde ES-330 for $10,000-$12000? Seems kind of low, doesn’t it? I do a lot of research and I look pretty hard (and in a lot of places) for the guitars I buy and yet I’ve only had 3 blonde 2 pickup 330’s in the last 10 years.

Well, I don’t make the rules nor do I set the prices, so keep an eye out for big neck 65’s and blonde 330’s. They are the best deals out there and they are great guitars. If I see them before you do, I’ll be buying them. And you don’t need to take out a second mortgage. And you’ll get your money back when it’s time to sell.

Great guitar and a great deal. I can't believe that these guitars aren't way more than the $10K-$12K they sell for. As rare as a blonde 335 and about one eighth the price. I'll buy yours if you have one.

Great guitar and a great deal. I can’t believe that these guitars aren’t way more than the $10K-$12K they sell for. As rare as a blonde 335 and about one eighth the price. I’ll buy yours if you have one.

 

You Set ‘em Up-Part 2

July 25th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3559 Comments »
This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched.

This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched. Pole screws are pretty low but they don’t do that much anyway.

OK, so you’ve set the truss rod for the way you like the neck and the action and intonation are good. You raised or lowered the stop tail into the sweet spot or maybe you came to the conclusion that there really isn’t a sweet spot and that’s fine. There’s no buzzing, so the frets and the nut are good, so you’re done right? You might be but maybe the sustain isn’t quite right or the balance between the pickups seems off or maybe the A string is too loud compared to the others. The truth is that, for some guitars,  there’s a lot more to do. On others, there isn’t. A lot of it is personal preference but some of it isn’t.

One of the biggest problems with 335’s is lack of sustain and the culprit is almost always the saddles. For a guitar to sustain, the string has to vibrate freely for as long a possible. Since nearly all the vibration takes place between the nut and the saddles, you can bet the nut and the saddles are at issue when the guitar sounds dull or muffled. The wood could contribute to the problem as well but there’s no adjustment for that. Well, what could be restricting the strings? It could be that the nut slots are cut too deep or it could be that the saddles are notched too deep. Most 335’s I come across still have the original nut and while they are not without problems, deeply cut slots are usually not an issue. Slots that are too narrow are common which is why a lot of 335’s seem to go out of tune when you do a lot of note bending. That isn’t the tuners slipping. Slipping tuners will make your string go flat. A binding nut slot (which is really common) will make the string go sharp. I usually fix that wth a little graphite (from a pencil). If that doesn’t work, talk to your luthier unless you are comfortable widening the nut slots.

Assuming the nut isn’t the problem (and it probably isn’t), take a look at the saddles. I see saddles with multiple slots, slots that are way too wide and, most often, slots that are way too deep. To get the best performance out of your strings-meaning maximum vibration and sustain-the saddles should be as shallow as possible. The slots are there to keep the strings in place and it doesn’t take much of a slot to do that. On the wound strings, at least half of the string should be above the saddle, so the slot is no more than half the depth of the string. If they are deeper than that but you aren’t experiencing any problems, then leave them. If it ain’t broke… But if the guitar seems a bit lifeless, more often than not, it’s the saddle notches. It’s less of a problem on the wound strings but on the high E, B and especially the G, the difference between a really shallow notch and a deep one is huge. On the plain strings start with the shallowest notch you can cut. If the string pops out when you bend a note, then make it a little deeper and try again. If you have to get a new set of saddles, put the originals in a zip lock and put them in the case  pocket. Somebody down the line is going to want the original saddles. Try to find nickel plated brass saddles. Vintage nylon are great, too but the newer nylon ones are too soft. The vintage ones with the flatter top surface seem better to me but the knife edge ones work OK too. Vintage ones are hard to find but they are out there.

Lastly, let’s look at the pickup height. I start with them as high as they will go without interfering with the strings. That’s my personal taste-there’s no right or wrong-use your ears. If the balance between them is off, lower the louder pickup until they are closer to being equal. If the balance from bass strings to treble strings is off, raise one side of the pickup or the other until it sounds right. If a particular string is too loud or too soft, you can try adjusting the pole screws but I have to say that it really doesn’t seem to do much. I think the proximity of the magnet to the strings has a lot more to do with volume than the pole screws which are hardly magnetized.

That should get you set up properly. I’m not a luthier, so I leave any major fret issues and the nut issues to them. You might want to experiment with different string makers or different gauges. I find 335’s sound best with 11’s or 10’s. 9’s generally don’t intonate well on older guitars-they simply weren’t made for lighter gauges. I have no favorite strings. I do like Pyramids but they are expensive and they don’t last very long. D’Addarios have always worked for me as have DR and a few others. It mostly depends on what you play and how you play. I like brighter strings.

The larger point is to experiment and trust your ears. There is no magic formula.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you. This is a 59 345.

 

Made in America Week

July 20th, 2017 • Uncategorized10 Comments »

 

It's Made in America" week and Mr. Trump is talking about how great it is that all these great products are made here. Except, of course, his and Ivanka's.

It’s Made in America” week and Mr. Trump is talking about how great it is that all these great products are made here.

I know you’re all waiting for the second installment of my set up post but I’m afraid it will have to take a back seat to President Trump’s “Made in America” week. With our country being run by a reality TV show host and his made for TV (Dynasty?) family, it’s no surprise that PR stunts are part of the program. I can’t wait for “Income Equality” week or maybe “Give Me your… Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free” week. Mr Trump’s personal approach is, of course, “do as I say and not as I do” so we’ll probably see these “theme weeks” in the weeks to come. Emma Lazarus would not be proud. But President Trump would probably say that “she is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Just like Frederick Douglass. But, it’s “Made in America” week and I couldn’t be more proud.

Each state offered up it’s very best. Tennessee, of course, dropped a bunch of Gibson guitars off at the White House showing the world that we Americans still make the best guitars on the planet. New York offered up Steinway Pianos-a great product even if it’s not quite as American as Apple Pie. But there’s good old Vermont maple syrup and California wine. There are helicopters from Sikorsky (also an immigrant like Mr Steinway) in my home state of Connecticut and Stetsons from Texas.  It’s pretty clear that some great stuff is made here in America.

It’s largely about pride. Even if your product is New Hampshire’s Cider Belly Doughnuts-not exactly a household name-they should be proud that the doughnuts they sell here in America were made in an American factory with jobs for American workers. The money they make here in America is spent here in America. When you buy American, you aren’t just supporting the American companies who make this stuff, you’re supporting the businesses big and small that make the American economy work. Florida sent along Tervis tumblers-you know those insulated plastic cups that keep your cold drink cold and your hot drink hot? They’re a big deal in Florida but most of us have never heard of them. You can go to Amazon and buy a set of Chinese knockoffs for $18 for four of them or you can pay $38 for the real thing, made in America. Why spend the extra $20? Because you are supporting all of us here in America. Because it’s almost certainly a better product. Because who knows what the Chinese are putting in their plastic-especially plastic you are drinking from?

I sell American guitars and American amps. They were made by folks who are probably dead now but they are a great source of pride for an America that often doesn’t seem to exist except in the memories of old guys like me. When I was a kid, every appliance in every kitchen was American. No Miele dishwashers, no LaCornue or Aga ranges, no Gaggenau ovens. When I was a kid, the only non American cars you would see on the road (and not very often) were sports cars. An MG, a Triumph, maybe a Porsche 356 like my friend, Gil’s father owned. No Toyotas, no Lexus’s (Lexi?), no Fiats or Alfas either. As a teenager, the only guitar you ever wanted was a Fender or a Gibson or maybe a Guild or a Gretsch or a Rickenbacker. All American. There were plenty of Japanese guitars but the only time anybody bought one was if they couldn’t afford “a good one” meaning an American one. Nobody and I mean nobody dreamt of owning a Teisco del Rey.

Now, of course, the Asians (and others) make some great guitars and some great cars and great TV sets and maybe even great doughnuts. OK, maybe not the doughnuts. But, if you really want to make America great again, you don’t have to be a Trump supporter. You just need to take some pride in what you make or what you sell and take a little pride in what you buy. I’m going out to my local Sikorsky store right now to buy a helicopter. Made in America.

My state of Connecticut sent along another great American product. The Sikorsky company was, of course, founded by a Russian immigrant. Does the president need any further proof that this country was made great by immigrants?

My state of Connecticut sent along another great American product. The Sikorsky company was, of course, founded by a Russian immigrant. Does the president need any further proof that this country was made great by immigrants?

You Set ‘em Up Part 1

July 8th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35516 Comments »
This is how I usually configure the saddles but there is no "right" way. Turning the G saddles is often necessary to get it far enough back to intonate properly.

This is how I usually configure the saddles but there is no “right” way. Turning the G saddles is often necessary to get it far enough back to intonate properly.

 

I always appreciate readers suggestions for posts. There’s only so much to be written about any given subject and when your subject is as narrow as mine and you’ve been writing about it for seven years, you will run out of subject matter. You will note that I’m posting less frequently than I used to. It’s not simply laziness or being too busy with other things, it’s just that I’ve covered almost everything. Going forward, going into greater detail on subjects already covered is a logical next step, so instead of writing about a PAF, I could do a post about magnets. Or tuner bushings. But this week a writer made a suggestion for a post that somehow slipped through the cracks. It should have been done years ago. How do you set up a 335? Or, more to the point, how do I set up a 335?

I set up a lot of 335’s (345’s/355’s) and the good news is that they are pretty easy to get right and relatively consistent. I’m going to assume that you don’t need to recut or replace the nut or level the frets. These are really important elements for a good setup and it may be necessary to do one, the other, or both. But we will save that for later.

First, play the guitar and decide what you don’t like or what is wrong with the setup. Consider the action, the intonation and the sustain. The action pretty easy. Raise or lower the bridge until you like the action. Then the real work can begin. If any of the open strings are buzzing, then you have a problem which we will address later. It can be the nut, it can be a fret or frets or it can be the relief (truss adjustment). Or maybe you simply have the action too low. Factory spec. is 5/64″ for the low E at the 15th fret and 3/64″ at the high E. I like mine slightly higher at the high E.

After getting the action where I like it, I look at the relief (the amount of bow in the neck). Sight down the neck. If it’s dead flat and there is no buzz, you can leave it alone. I like a little bit off relief-a small amount of bowing away from the strings- so I would loosen the truss rod a quarter turn to a half turn until I see a slight bow. You may have to leave it for a while. Truss adjustments aren’t instantaneous. If there is buzzing and you see the neck is bowed toward the strings, do the same-loosen the truss a quarter to  a half turn. Leave it for a bit and go back and look. If the neck has flattened out or bowed slightly away from the strings and the buzz is gone, then you’re done with the truss rod. If it is still back bowed or buzzing, loosen the truss some more. If you run out of adjustment-the truss nut is all the way loose-then you will have to see your luthier. Back bows are rare in 335’s with big necks but not uncommon in thin 60-63 necks.

Once I have the truss adjusted, I adjust the stop tail. This is more art than science. Raising or lowering the stop (skip this step if you have a Bigsby or trapeze) can make a small difference in sustain or no difference at all. Some 335’s have a sweet spot usually a few turns up from being screwed all the way down. It’s trial and error and the likelihood is that it won’t much, if any, difference. You’re changing the string break angle which affects the downward pressure on the bridge. Some argue that the break angle changes the ease of bending notes. I’ve never perceived it. The theory is that  less break angle means easier bending. You decide.

Once I have the truss adjusted, I set the intonation. Using a good clip on tuner is the easiest way to do it, although I use harmonics  as well. I assume you know how to intonate a guitar with an ABR-1. Be aware that 335’s were made to be played with a wrapped G string, so intonating a plain G can be tricky. Usually, you have to turn the saddle around so the flat side faces back rather than forward. That allows more adjustment back toward the tailpiece. Most vintage 335s with 10’s require the G saddle to be as far back as it will go. Otherwise it will be sharp at the upper frets. 9’s generally won’t intonate well. I usually turn the top three strings flat side back but it’s usually only necessary to do the G that way. Once you’ve done the intonation and there is no buzzing and you are happy with the action, it’s time to plug it in.

Next post will cover pickup height adjustments and what to do if you have buzzing or bad sustain.

 

Adjusting the stop tail height changes the break angle of the strings. It may make a difference, it may not. There is not correct break angle, so try a few settings until you like it. If you don't perceive a difference, a couple turns up from all the way down looks good to me.

Adjusting the stop tail height changes the break angle of the strings. It may make a difference, it may not. There is no correct break angle, so try a few settings until you like it. If you don’t perceive a difference, a couple turns up from all the way down looks good to me.

 

It Hurts When I do This

June 25th, 2017 • ES 330, ES 335, ES 345, ES 3558 Comments »
Lemme just pull these knobs off so I can re-solder the loose wire...huh? Some idiot glued the knobs onto the shafts. Now what do I do?

Lemme just pull these knobs off so I can re-solder the loose wire…huh? Some idiot glued the knobs onto the shafts. Now what do I do?

And the doctor says…”Don’t do that.”

There are a lot of things that guitar players do to their guitars that guitar players shouldn’t do to their guitars. Many of these things (on vintage guitars) date back to when they were simply old guitars and not worth very much. They were practical solutions to everyday problems. If a pot became scratchy, you replaced it. Who cares about the date code anyway? The tuners aren’t working so well, so lets get a set of those fancy new Schallers. The bridge PAF is little weak and a new DiMarzio will sound great. None of these things really mattered when the guitar was simply an old guitar. Few of us (me included) could have guessed that a ’59 335 that cost $600 in 1982 would be worth 60 times as much 35 years later.

None of these things destroy the value, they simply lower it and most of these things are reversible with little damage to the guitar’s vintage value. And some are not. Refinishing always seemed like a good idea if your guitar got so beat up that it was an embarrassment on stage. Adding a Bigsby made sense if the music you played called for one. You know all this stuff and you know to look for these mods when you buy a vintage guitar. You can generally see them in the photos and many, if not most, sellers will disclose them. Then there are the insidious changes that you can’t see that simply cannot be reversed without destroying some expensive vintage parts.

The volume knob is slipping on the pot shaft because the plastic has worn out. You can put a little tape around the shaft and that sometimes works. You can bend the posts of the shaft outward if you’re careful not to break them and that usually works. Or you can super glue the knob to the shaft and that always works. Until you need to get the knob off. And while you’re at it, lets do all four of the knobs since they could all use a little help. And the switch tip cracks and tends to get itself unscrewed after a few gigs. You could take it off and glue it back together, let it dry and screw it back on. Or you could put dab of super glue inside and screw it back down and that will keep that tip on there forever. I can’t tell you how many guitars have arrived at my shop with glued on plastic parts. Dozens for sure. Glued on knobs make it impossible to repair a harness without destroying $400 worth of knobs. Glued on switch tips cause fewer problems unless you need to replace a three way, in which case you will be replacing a $200 catalin switch tip if the guitar is a 60 or earlier.

But wait, doesn’t acetone dissolve super glue?. It does but it can also dissolve the plastic but that isn’t the big problem (and I’ve tried this). The problem is that you can’t get at the acetone to where the glue is. What are you going to do turn the guitar upside down and carefully flow some acetone into the underside of the knob and hope it somehow penetrates only to where the glue is. Oh, and don’t get it on that nice finish. It will dissolve it. So, if someone has glued on the knobs or the switch tip, here’s what you can do: Leave it and hope the pots don’t go south on you. You cannot get them off and you shouldn’t try. You’ll only make it worse. And don’t ever use super glue to solve a problem like that. Get a new set of knobs and put the originals in the case. Or try the tape trick. And if the knobs have already been glued down and you’re selling the guitar, disclose it. And if you’ve never checked, please do before you sell it to me. I don’t think anything annoys me more.

That should be the end of the discussion but I would like to reach out to everyone who reads my blog and ask for solutions to the problem. If you’ve got a way to get a glued on knob or switch tip off, I want to know it. And I want everybody else to know it as well. I thank you in advance. Just don’t experiment on a $35000 guitar with $600 worth of plastic. And if the knobs are slipping on your 335, take the doctor’s advice. Don’t do that.

 

Black is the New Black

June 14th, 2017 • Gibson General12 Comments »
This page from mid 59 shows a black 345 which, to my knowledge, hasn't surfaced, and a black EB-2.

This page from mid 59 shows a black 345 which, to my knowledge, hasn’t surfaced, and a black EB-2.

Joe Bonamassa noted not too long ago on the Les Paul Forum that black is the new blonde and, for a minute, I thought he was right. But now I don’t. Black Gibsons are in a class by themselves. While blonde 335’s and 345’s (and the über rare 355) command a huge premium-generally double the price of a sunburst or more if collector grade, black ones are so rare that there aren’t any rules. Let me add a quick disclaimer-Les Paul Customs don’t count because they are a standard color and are plentiful. We’re talking about black 335’s, 345’s 355’s from before 1969 and maybe a few others if I have the space.

Black is a tricky color. It generally doesn’t age well and it is prone to excessive wear-especially the back of the neck. Being opaque, its an obvious choice for refinishers looking to hide plugged holes, broken headstocks and any number of other indignities. So, if you are lucky enough to find a black ES 335, 345 or 355, make sure it hasn’t been refinished because the likelihood is, it has. Gibson didn’t keep a record of how many black guitars were shipped, although they sometimes show up in the shipping ledgers as special orders. Unfortunately, they weren’t terribly consistent about noting special orders in the ledgers and if you happen to have a copy of the page, it may or may not mention the color. And, there is always that possibility that a factory black guitar was refinished in black either for cosmetic reasons or to hide a repair.

Considering that you’re going to be spending some really serious bucks on a factory black guitar, it is in your best interests to do what you can to authenticate it. A black light is a good place to start but be aware that a black light won’t do you any good on a guitar that has been totally refinished. It will show you touchup and show newer lacquer vs. older but a 30 year old refinish is going to look like original lacquer under a black light.

Try to get the ledger page. Call or email Gibson customer service. They can be pretty close to the vest with these pages but it’s worth asking. Also, do a search on the internet for ledger pages-there are perhaps 20 of them out there from various years. If the page shows your guitar as black, then it’s a factory black example-that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been refinished at some point but at least you know it started as a black guitar. Here’s the tricky part-if the ledger doesn’t show it as black, it doesn’t mean it’s a refinish. It may simply mean they didn’t note the special finish. Out of the five black 335’s and 345’s I’ve had, three are noted in the log-all 59’s.

There is a technique that I use to determine a refinish that is quite nearly foolproof. When doing a total refinish, the guitar is generally sanded to remove the old finish. Even if it’s done with great care, there will usually be a tell tale sign left behind. If you run your fingernail between the body binding and the rim of the guitar-not the top-there will be a ridge that you can catch your fingernail on. If the transition from rim to binding is smooth and even, it’s been sanded. Period. Every original finish ES model that I’ve owned has that ridge. Every refinish hasn’t. I say nearly foolproof because if the body was chemically stripped or the new finish was added over the original, the ridge will still be there. Chemical strippers usually damage (melt) the bindings so pay attention to that as well. Look inside the f-holes for any sign of black overspray. Unless the guitar was touched up-like one of the 59’s I had, there shouldn’t be any.

So, how many black guitars are we talking about here? The 59 ledger pages that I have show five 345’s, one 335 and no 355’s. I know of three of the five 345’s, the 335 and at least two 355’s (Keith Richards has one of them). There is a black early 60 345 that surfaced last year that has a 59 FON. I had a black 66 335 a while back (and a black 66 330). I know of a black 65 or 66 345 as well. I’ve owned three black 59 345’s. There are at least two black 59 EB-2’s. Let me know if you find one, I have a client looking for one. There are photos of a few artists playing black ES’s-Bill Haley’s guitar player (345)  and Dave Edmunds (335). There is no way to know if they are factory, although the Haley guitar is likely original since the photo is from the late 50’s or early 60’s. Roy Orbison played one but it was much later-from the 80’s. Black was a catalog color in the early 80’s and there are a lot of them out there.

Black ES guitars are valuable enough that they are worth the effort to fake by unscrupulous scam artists. If you have any doubts, you should probably pass. It’s too much money to take chances with.

Two of the three black 59 ES-345's that have passed through my hands. Both were great. Both were "first rack".

Two of the three black 59 ES-345’s that have passed through my hands. Both were great. Both were “first rack”.

Stinger Things

May 27th, 2017 • ES 35512 Comments »
Who doesn't love a stinger on their 355? It looks cool and, uh, it looks cool.

Who doesn’t love a stinger on their 355? It looks cool and, uh, it looks cool.

One of the cooler looking Gibson features is the headstock stinger. You know, that black pointy painted thing on the back of the headstock on many high end arch tops, the occasional 335, 345 and lots of early 355’s. In most cases, it’s a decorative thing. But not always. Now, why would you go looking under there to begin with? In general, there’s no rational reason for anything sinister to be going on, is there? I mean, c’mon it’s the Gibson factory in the Golden Age. What could they be hiding?

Gibson, like Fender, didn’t like to let things go to waste. It’s bad for your profit margins. So, maybe a little repurposing of damaged parts was normal. A bad sunburst paint job was often sprayed over with a custom color over at Fender. A piece of flawed maple plywood got a deeper sunburst at Gibson and a “2” stamp. I had a 65 335 with a graft in the wood of the rim that the seller insisted came from the factory that way. So, there’s no doubt that the company policy for both Fender and Gibson was “waste not”.

So, back to the original question-what’s under that stinger? Well most of the time, nothing at all. I think. I don’t go removing stingers to see what’s under them but I had occasion to do so a while back. I had a 60 ES-355 with a cracked headstock-or so I thought. I took it to my luthier to assess and he noted that there was a piece of veneer on the back of the headstock and it was cracked-not the neck. My first thought was that somebody veneered the back of the headstock to cover extra tuner holes but the guitar still had its original tuners. So, maybe they had been taken off, different ones put on, then taken off and the originals put back on and the holes covered by the veneer. OK, makes sense. I’ve seen it plenty on 335’s but most people don’t take the Grovers off a 355. In any case, the veneer was cracked and it had to come off. Better a cracked piece of veneer than a cracked neck. So, we decided to remove the offending veneer and see why it was there in the first place. The result was a surprise.

What's all this then? What they did here was to take a 335 neck-already drilled and ready to go and cut the smaller wings off the sides and put big 355 wings on it. Then the doweled the holes and re-rilled them located for a 355. Then they put a piece of mahogany veneer over it and painted on the stinger. The only tuner holes you see are the original Grover holes. Definitely factory.

What’s all this then? What they did here was to take a 335 neck-already drilled and ready to go and cut the smaller wings off the sides and put big 355 wings on it. Then the doweled the holes and re-drilled them located for a 355. Then they put a piece of mahogany veneer over it and painted on the stinger. The only tuner holes you see are the original Grover holes. You don’t see the dowels on the front because the headstock overlay was re-done as a 355 which would cover the dowel marks. Definitely factory.

Under the veneer there were filled holes but not the holes we expected. These were tuner shaft holes that were in a completely different location on the headstock. A quick measurement showed me that they were in the exact location of the tuner shaft holes of a 335 or 345. How do we explain that? Pretty obvious, actually. The headstock of a 335 or 345 is smaller than the headstock on a 355. So, if you have extra 335 or 345 necks that you aren’t using and you have a batch of 355’s that need to be built, what do you do? Well, the headstock of a 335 is made up of three parts. The middle is the same piece of wood as the neck blank. The edges of the headstock are two smaller pieces of mahogany usually called wings. The face of the headstock is covered by a veneer of holly wood so you can’t see the seam of the wings from the front but if you look carefully, you can see them on the back. The only difference between a 335 headstock and a 355 headstock as far as structure is concerned is the size of the wings. So, a 335 headstock can be converted to a 355 headstock by putting on bigger wings. The inlays in the front of the headstock are different but they are inlaid into the holly overlay and not the mahogany, so turning a 335 neck into a 355 neck should be pretty easy. New wings and new holly overlay and correct inlays. But what if its already been drilled for tuners? Therein lies the reason for that piece of veneer on the back that wasn’t supposed to be there under the stinger. Because the 355 headstock is wider, the tuners are in a different location. Using an already drilled 335 neck would require those holes to be doweled and the tuner shaft holes re-drilled closer to the edges of the headstock. No problem on the front-there’s the holly overlay. But on the back, you would be able to see them. The solution? You guessed it, a thin piece of mahogany veneer and a stinger to cover the whole thing up.

My initial thought was that it wasn’t a common thing until months later, I had another stinger 355 with a headstock break. We scraped a little of the finish away from the edge of the stinger and saw that this one had veneer over the back of the headstock as well. Since we were repairing the headstock anyway, we took a peek under the veneer. Same thing. I don’t know if every 355 with a stinger has a veneer covering doweled tuner holes but we found two of them.

Just in case you want to see the other one-here it is same deal but there are additional tuner holes in this one.

The filled holes line up EXACTLY with a 335 or 345 neck-remember the headstock is smaller. This one had changed tuners as well which accounts for the additional holes above the shaft holes

The filled holes line up EXACTLY with a 335 or 345 neck-remember the headstock is smaller. This one had changed tuners as well which accounts for the additional holes above the shaft holes

Once a Tree…

May 19th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35515 Comments »
This shows the spruce that is glued to the maple center block between the block and the top and back. It also shows the mahogany end piece.

This shows the spruce that is glued to the maple center block between the block and the top and back. It also shows the mahogany end piece.

There is plenty of debate about new wood versus old wood and I come down on the side of old wood sounding better than new wood. Even plywood. I would argue that the trees were better fifty years ago. They grew slower, they grew longer, they were dried the old school way and they’ve had an extra 40 or 50 years to “season”. I’m not going to talk about why old wood is better-I think I did that a few years ago. I am going to talk about the wood that went into 335’s and hope to clarify a few questions that have been asked of me recently.

The body is plywood. Yep. Plywood. It’s nice plywood but there it is. The early ones had three ply tops but by early 59, Gibson had switched to four ply presumably because they were getting complaints about cracking. Look at almost any 58 and you’ll usually find cracks around the output jack. The four ply tops were 25% thicker and the cracking problem went away. The composition was, generally, maple/poplar/poplar/maple. That’s information from the internet though. I know what maple looks like but the two hidden plies could be anything. I’ve never delaminated a top to look. And besides, I wouldn’t know poplar from ash from basswood. All were supposedly used. Plywood isn’t exactly a tonewood but it’s strong and cheap and you can form it into an arch without having to carve it. Does it matter if it’s new plywood or old plywood? Hard to know. Somehow I don’t think it’s a major element in the tone of a great 335. I would argue that the thinner top is more resonant and I’ve found some of the best 335’s to be 58’s and early 59’s.

Here's a nice flame maple center block showing the spruce insert between it and the top.

Here’s a nice flame maple center block showing the spruce insert between it and the top.

The center block is maple with mahogany at the butt end. I think there is tone in there-it acts a lot like the body of a solid body guitar.  I believe the quality of the tone has to do with how dry the wood is. New wood has more moisture in it than old wood. Wood with more moisture is less resonant than wood that has been dried. You can hear the difference. When I split firewood for the winter I can tell by the sound when I bang two logs together whether it’s dry on not. The dry ones are louder. You have probably heard of “roasted” or “torrefied” wood. Drying wood in a kiln or oven has been around for a long time and, essentially, it’s a way to lower the moisture and raise the resonance without waiting 50 years. And it works to a degree. I contend, however, that there are differences beyond moisture that give a wood its tonal qualities. I think looking at new growth vs. old is a worthwhile endeavor. I just don’t have the skills or knowledge to interpret the differences. I do know that there isn’t much old growth wood left. There is also spruce between the center block and the top and the block and the back of the guitar. Spruce is a tone wood and I’m guessing it makes a tonal difference. It’s a fairly complex design, that center block, and Gibson would have eliminated the spruce if it didn’t make a difference. In fact, I could do an entire post on center block construction.

The neck is mahogany, usually quarter sawn. Stability is the main factor here. I don’t think there is much tonal difference between a 335 with a mahogany neck and a 335 with a maple neck. Mahogany is considered a tone wood (my favorite acoustics are all mahogany) but so is maple. Maple is considered brighter, mahogany better balanced. I’ve had a few vintage 335’s re-necked and I don’t hear any difference at all. The wood was supposed to be old wood but I couldn’t tell you if it was old old growth or old new growth. There’s a difference. Big neck vs. small necks from a tone standpoint? That’s a whole ‘nother topic.

People get all a twitter about Brazilian rosewood. I have folks tell me they can tell the difference tonally between a Brazilian and an Indian fingerboard. Brazilian rosewood is not magical. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brazilian rosewood boards-they are just as pretty as a piece of wood can be but the idea that the fingerboard is a driver of great tone is just wrong. Old Telecasters and Stratocasters don’t even have a proper fingerboard. They sound pretty good. Ebony (on a 355) is also a nice piece of wood and the conventional wisdom says it adds “snap” to the tone. I’ve played hundreds. Some are snappy. Some not so snappy. I do like ebony but mostly because its harder and slicker. When Gibson switched to Indian rosewood boards in late 65 or 66 (there is overlap), the tone didn’t suffer. The change from a stop tail to a trapeze-which really didn’t affect tone all that much-did more to the tone than the switch to Indian.

There’s one more piece of wood in a 335. It’s holly (hooray for holly wood). It’s the thin veneer that covers the face of the headstock. It’s dense and takes the black lacquer nicely. But Gibson (or Norlin) decided that some crappy fiber board would be cheaper and nobody would know the difference. That happened around 1970 or so. I’m not sure when they went back to holly but they use it now and, yes, it does take the lacquer very nicely.

So, in conclusion, where does the tone come from? I think its the sum of its parts. A 335 doesn’t sound exactly like a Les Paul but they aren’t that far apart. An SG is pretty close too which leads me to believe the pickups are the biggest factor. Just take out a PAF and replace it with an 80’s Shaw or tar back. You’ll hear plenty of difference. Now, change the fingerboard in your 66 from Brazilian to Indian. Hear that? No? I didn’t think so.

This is a mid to late 59 and has the four ply top and back. Not sure what the inside wood is-probably something cheap like poplar. This is an EB-2 but the 335/345 and 355 had the same construction.

This is a mid to late 59 and has the four ply top and back. Not sure what the inside wood is-probably something cheap like poplar. This is an EB-2 but the 335/345 and 355 had the same construction.

Humbucker Timeline

April 30th, 2017 • ES 3356 Comments »

 

Mid 65 ES-335 with chrome hardware. What pickups should be in this guitar. If you polled 100 players, I would bet that 60 would say T-tops. Not even close. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. How many 65's have you taken apart?

Mid 65 ES-335 with chrome hardware. What pickups should be in this guitar?  If you polled 100 players, I would bet that 60 would say T-tops. Not even close. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. How many 65’s have you taken apart?

Just when you think you know it all, it turns out that you don’t. I thought I had seen enough 335’s (345’s and 355’s) to have a good handle on when and how  the various parts evolved and when various changes were made. And, while the only real consistency at Gibson is inconsistency, sometimes I get a surprise. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant surprise.

We’re talking about pickups and the disconnect between the conventional wisdom and actual observation. I’ve been on about this before with regard to T-tops-the conventional wisdom says they started in 65 but that is wrong (and that’s another post).  Most of us know the PAF timeline. Started in late 56 with steels and into guitars in 57. Covers changed by 58 from stainless to nickel plated. Long magnets until some time in 61. Whites and zebras from mid 59 to around mid 60 in nickel PAFs but into 61 in gold versions. Short magnets from late 61 or so (there was overlap) up to 63 and rarely 64 in nickel PAFs. I’ve never seen a gold PAF later than 64 but others have. I’ve heard of PAFs as late as 67 in gold models but I’ve never seen it myself and I’m skeptical. But, mostly, everybody agrees about PAFs. Patent numbers are another story.

Patent numbers appeared in 62 and were often mixed with PAFs. Many 62’s and 63’s have one PAF and one patent number. Everybody knows the only difference is the sticker. Here’s where the conventional wisdom goes off the rails. Early patents have 2 black leads and enamel coated windings (and a short A5 magnet). The next version had one white and one black lead and poly coated windings. It is widely believed that the poly windings showed up in 64. They didn’t. Now, I don’t pull the covers on pickups that have never been opened but I usually do if the solder is not original. Taking the covers off was really common in the late 60’s, so I’ve pulled a lot of covers. I’ve never, ever-not once-seen a poly wound patent number under a nickel cover. If I’m correct, then poly windings began some time in 65. But wait–the conventional wisdom says T-tops started in 65. If poly windings just came in in 65, it doesn’t make sense that T-tops showed up at the same time. That’s because they didn’t.

The first 65’s had nickel covered pickups and they were enamel wound. I found, through looking at a lot of 65’s that if the cover was nickel, the windings were enamel coated and, if chrome, the windings were poly. Not so fast…I recently bought a beater 65 and I decided to part it out. It was a mid 65, SN 332xxx. Wide nut but all chrome parts. I pulled the harness and noted early 65 pot codes and completely undisturbed solder, so I knew the pickups had never been out of the guitar. One pickup had been opened but the other was sealed. I fully expected to see one white lead and one black lead and poly coated (orange) windings. Nope. Enamel (purple) windings and two black leads. That is, essentially,  a short magnet PAF with a different sticker in a 1965 chrome hardware 335. No wonder some 65’s sound so good. I’ve seen enough 65’s (probably 40 of them) to know that most of them have the later patent numbers but, as I now know, not all of them. The value of early patent numbers has crept up in recent days and many parts dealers are asking as much as $2000 for one. I think that’s optimistic (OK, it’s nuts) but I think everybody overprices their parts.

The problem is that it’s impossible to know what’s in there without pulling the covers. A 65 ES-335 can cost anywhere from $4500 (for a late narrow nut 65 with issues) to as high as $15000 for an early 65 with a stop tail. I don’t recommend you go out and buy the next 65 that comes up for sale thinking it’s going to have the equivalent of a PAF because it probably won’t. But it could.

For the record, there are plenty of 65’s with poly coated windings – most of them, in fact. This guitar with the early patents may be a bit of a fluke. Moving forward, I recently picked up a 69 ES-340, which is a 335 with a badly conceived circuit. I opened that one up and found not T-tops as you might expect but later patent numbers (poly). I’ve found them in many 68’s, many 67’s and most 66’s. The best I can estimate is that T-tops arrived some time in 66 but weren’t common until 67. I don’t see all that many post 65’s but I see enough to get a sense of what’s in there. If you buy a 67 or a 68, you still have a really good chance of getting pre T-top patent numbers. If you can’t (or won’t) pull the cover, then there is another not terribly reliable rule. The bobbin screws can tell you something. If they are Phillips, then the pickup is more likely a pre T but it could be a T-top. If they are slotted, it is almost certain that it is a T-top. You can also measure the DC resistance. Most t-tops are the same 7.47-7.52K. If you have slotted screws and both pickups are in that range, you likely have T-tops. Or just use your ears. If you like the sound, don’t worry about which version it is. If you don’t, then change them.

Enamel coated wire is purplish to brown and poly coated wire is orange to red. You would expect poly in 65 and that's what most 65's have. But, if you get lucky, you might find the enamel windings on your 65. That, but for the decal, is a PAF. There is no way to know for sure without pulling the cover.

Enamel coated wire is purplish to brown and poly coated wire is orange to red. You would expect poly in 65 and that’s what most 65’s have. But, if you get lucky, you might find the enamel windings on your 65. That, but for the decal, is a PAF. There is no way to know for sure without pulling the cover.

CITES in the Real World

April 26th, 2017 • Gibson General3 Comments »
If any of these guitars are going out of the USA, they need to be certified by US Fish and Wildlife as "pre-convention" rosewood. That means built before 1992 for Brazilian and pre 2017 for Indian or other rosewood.

If any of these guitars is going out of the USA, it needs to be certified by US Fish and Wildlife as “pre-convention” rosewood. That means built before 1992 for Brazilian and pre 2017 for Indian or other rosewood. It’s time consuming, costs $75  and I’m complying.

CITES or The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has changed the rules. As a vintage dealer, I’ve had to jump through hoops for the US Government for quite some time. Up until January 1 of this year, only guitars with Brazilian rosewood needed to be certified by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and the Dept. of Agriculture. If your guitar was built before 1992, it was legal to ship (with certification). Nobody seemed to pay that much attention to the regulations mostly because everybody knew that the Customs agents had better things to do and they couldn’t tell Brazilian from East Indian from Honduran anyway. So, some dealers and most individuals ignored the regulations and guitars flowed across borders pretty much unscathed. In fact the only time I encountered any trouble was with a guitar coming into the US from Italy. They questioned me about the wood and the year and I explained that it was Indian rosewood and that was the end of it. I did have a guitar come from Mexico a number of years ago that was stopped for having mahogany and I had to explain to the agent that mahogany was legal-he had misunderstood the regulations that applied to raw wood but not finished products. It’s a sad state of affairs when the general public has to explain the rules to the government.

But all that has changed, at least for now. For all the Trump White House talk of deregulation and improved conditions for international trade, it has become a lot more of a pain to ship guitars out of the country and many governments are actively looking for proper documentation. They solved the problem of agents not knowing Indian from Brazilian by making all rosewood fall under CITES regulations. Lucky us. I’m all for conserving the world’s supply of rosewood but it isn’t the musical instrument companies that are responsible for the demise of the trees. The amount of rosewood used in guitar making is only a small fraction of the rosewood being used for furniture. Furniture? Who buys rosewood furniture? The Chinese, that’s who. There is a traditional furniture called “hongmu” after the wood itself.  Here is what I gathered from the independent environmental website, Mongabay:

China is the largest global consumer of rosewood and skyrocketing demand over the past decade and a half is having serious repercussions for some of the world’s most endangered old-growth forests and local forest communities. Rosewood imports into China increased some 1,250 percent since 2000 and were worth an estimated $2.6 billion between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to a new report from Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Forest Trends. Several species of rosewood, collectively known as hongmu, are prized by Chinese furniture manufacturers who use them to make products that are highly coveted status symbols. The majority of rosewood imports into China traditionally come from Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. But in 2014, when imports were at an all-time high, nearly half came from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries, whereas those countries supplied just 10 percent of Chinese rosewood imports a decade ago, per the report.

So, the problem isn’t us, the guitar playing universe, it’s the Chinese consumers who are making it harder for the rest of us. To make matters worse, much of the rosewood is cut illegally and imported illegally. So, we are bound by laws that cover 183 countries (including China) to prove that our guitars were made from legally harvested wood. And I, for one, am happy to comply but we are a drop in the bucket in the fight to preserve the rosewood trees. Considering the sheer number of guitars shipped all over the world that contain small amounts of rosewood, the time spent certifying and inspecting guitars could be better utilized by going after the criminals who are causing the problem. Confiscating a ’59 335 does nothing at all to solve or even ameliorate the problem. I don’t know what they do with confiscated guitars or even if they have actually confiscated any but they are allowed to do so if the guitar isn’t properly certified. I don’t want to find out first hand so I’m crossing all the T’s and dotting the i’s and doing it by the book. So, if you are in Europe or Asia or even Canada and I ask you for an extra week or two to get  your guitar to you, please understand that if I don’t, your guitar could be tied up for a lot longer by Customs and may never get to you.

This is the real problem. It's Chinese "hongmu" rosewood furniture. The Chinese people love this stuff. I suppose it's like Americans and stainless steel appliances.

This is the real problem. It’s Chinese “hongmu” rosewood furniture. The Chinese people love this stuff. I suppose it’s like Americans and stainless steel appliances.