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Investment Grade 335

August 24th, 2015 • Uncategorized4 Comments »
Here's a good investment. A 59 dot neck with an issue or two. Same price as 335 shares of Apple stock at today's price of $104 a share as of 3 o'clock today.

Here’s a good investment. A 59 dot neck with an issue or two. About the same price as 335 shares of Apple stock at today’s price of $104 a share as of 3 o’clock today.

With the Dow down 1100 points this morning, it might be time to take a closer look at your investment strategy. Today, you can buy a pretty nice dot neck 335 for the same price as 335 shares of Apple stock. That would be around $35000. That won’t get you a mint 59 but it will get you a near mint 58, 60 or 61 or a really nice (but not mint) 59. So, which would you rather have?

Note that I didn’t say “which is the better investment?” If I knew that, I’d be rich and I wouldn’t be selling vintage guitars I’d be collecting them. Certainly, Apple and a lot of other stocks have been really good investments for the past 7 years or so-pretty much since the market last tanked in 2008 thanks to a bunch of out of control and greedy banks and investors. These same investors took down your home and your vintage guitar collection too. The end of the vintage guitar bubble coincided with that unfortunate market turn. But what about now?

I’m going to use the dot neck market as my reference point. 59 dot necks hit $50,000 in 2008 and blondes were flirting with (and probably exceeded) $100,000. The 335 dot market got hit by 30-35% while the Dow took a 50% nosedive from it’s October 2007 high of 14,164 down to 6594 in March of 2009. If you hung in there with your stocks, you were rewarded with a 6 year bull market and your portfolio probably added another 30% from its 2007 high. If you stayed with your 59 335, you probably got back close to where you were in 2008 but if you bought before that, you are probably, once again, way ahead. The 335 market is still not at the level it was at the peak of the bubble but it is pretty close. Right now, it’s too early to know what the Dow is going to do next and it’s too soon to see if the current downturn is going to affect the vintage guitar market. But I have some thoughts on the matter.

The pundits are saying that the Chinese economy has taken a serious downturn and that has affected the US markets. When stocks go down, money leaves the market and goes elsewhere. It goes to cash, it goes to bonds, it used to go to real estate and maybe some of it goes to collectibles. It has to go somewhere. The downturn of the Chinese economy in and of itself, isn’t going to affect the vintage guitar market because the Chinese don’t buy American vintage guitars. They copy them but they don’t buy them. I haven’t sold a single guitar to anyone in China. Of course, the effects of the Chinese downturn as it applies to American investors may affect the vintage market to a degree.  After all, most buyers of vintage guitars are using disposable wealth-money that isn’t currently needed to live on. The same money that goes into stocks often goes into vintage guitars. I heard time and again that a buyer “needs a day for two to sell some stock” to fund a guitar purchase.

With the market tanking, you might be inclined to liquidate some holdings. You might be inclined to simply hang on. I’m not going to tell you that a 59 ES-335 is a better investment today than buying 335 shares of Apple. But it might be a safer one. People want Apple stock because they feel they can make some money from it. People want 59 dot necks because they really want to own a 59 dot neck. That doesn’t go away when the value dips. A 59 335 is going to be someone’s dream guitar until my generation is dead and buried. Whether subsequent generations will continue the love affair is yet to be seen. But I just don’t hear folks talking about how they can’t wait until their Apple stock arrives so they can – what, look at the stock certificate? Nobody even gets stock certificates any more. You can’t touch Apple stock. You can’t play Apple stock. You can make money and you can lose money. Apple could, conceivably, go to $12 a share. I know-I once owned it at that price. On that day 335 shares of Apple would be worth $4020. Your 59 ES-335 will never be worth $4020. And if it is, let me know. I’ll buy it from you. Oh, and you can’t play the blues on a stock certificate but you can certainly sing the blues if that’s where your money is today.

For the price of 335 of these, you can have the guitar at thetop. What's it gonna be--play the blues or sing them?

For the price of 335 of these, you can have the guitar at the top of this post. What’s it gonna be–play the blues or sing them?

Bigsby and Only Bigsby

August 11th, 2015 • ES 3351 Comment »
You gotta admit...this is great looking guitar. Uncluttered and organic. I just bought it so if you want it, call me.

You gotta admit…this is great looking guitar. Uncluttered and organic. I just bought it so if you want it, call me. It’s a very early 60 with a big neck.

Not long ago a collector asked me to find him a dot neck with a Bigsby. OK, no big deal, there are plenty of them-I see them all the time. I sent him some photos of the ones that were available-some had the pearl dots in the stud holes and another had the “Custom Made” plaque over the holes and another was currently set up as a stop tail with the Bigsby in the case. He rejected all of them because he wanted one that came from the factory as a “Bigsby Only”. No stud holes.

OK, I’ve seen a fair number of those over the years and I went to my archives to see how many Bigsby only dot necks I’ve had. Not many-I found only two out of dozens of 58-61 dots that have passed through here. There were a few block necks as well but most were 65 or later when no guitars got stud holes. Finding a 62-64 block with just a Bigsby isn’t all that easy either. I just did a search on Gbase and the only one I found is a 64 which is mine. Reverb had one-a 60 dot neck. Because these guitars are not the most sought after 335’s, I tend to ignore them but they are, in fact, rare birds. Now, I get it…rarity doesn’t matter that much in the world of vintage guitars. I had one of only three blonde Epiphone Sheratons made in 1959 and nobody really cared. I had one of only 11 blonde Byrdlands from 1961. Again, nobody really cared. They both sold for very reasonable prices. The difference here is that 335’s are very sought after, popular guitars. So, why so little love for the Bigsby only version?

I’ve always found it incomprehensible that a tremolo equipped (OK vibrato, if you want to be technically correct) Stratocaster is worth more and is more desirable than a hard tail. Similarly, SG’s have considerable value and virtually all of them have some sort of tremolo tailpiece. But a Bigsby (or worse, a Maestro or sideways) on a 335 knocks 15 to 25% off the value. Does this make sense? It would if nobody wanted anything but a stop tail but I get plenty of folks wanting to put a Bigsby on their vintage 335’s. I advise against it if the guitar has never had one because, uh, the value will drop like a stone. And it will drop by a percentage, not by a fixed number. Theoretically, if you really want a 59 with a Bigsby, you best find one that already has one because the value could drop by as much as $10,000.

Fortunately, there are plenty with both studs and a Bigsby that will cost you less than a stop tail. That one gives you set up options that are attractive. But if you use a Bigsby and you have no plans of converting to a stop tail at some point, you will do well to seek out a Bigsby only 335. There is a simplicity and clean look of a 335 with a Bigsby and no plaque or other cover for the stud holes.  I’ve always liked the looks of the mono 355 with a Bigsby-all that clean space between the Bigsby and the bridge is attractive. And a Bigsby is a good unit. It’s no surprise that the design has been virtually the same for 60 years or more. They hold tune well if you don’t go nuts on them and they only add about 5 or 6 ounces to the overall weight (if you subtract the weight of a stop tail and studs-you gotta have something to hold the strings). So, if you want something rare and unusual, look for one these beauties. The price won’t ruin your marriage and playability will surprise you.

Here's a 64. Somebody stuck a Custom Made plate on it but there are no stud holes-just two little pinholes from the little nails that held it in place. I have this one too,

Here’s a 64. Somebody stuck a Custom Made plate on it but there are no stud holes-just two little pinholes from the little nails that held it in place. I have this one too.

Guitar Royalty

August 9th, 2015 • Uncategorized2 Comments »
Bucky Pizzarelli stops by OK Guitars for a little talking' and picking'. Yes, that's me in the background trying to figure out what chords he's playing.

Bucky Pizzarelli stops by OK Guitars for a little talkin’ and pickin’. Yes, that’s me in the background trying to figure out what chords he’s playing.

There are a lot of perks to actually running a brick and mortar guitar shop. Yeah, there’s rent and insurance and security and all kinds of headaches that go hand in hand with retail shops. Not so fun stuff like the drunks from the local bar who show up to be entertained, marauding bands of 5 to 10 year olds who have somehow gotten away from their parents and dogs with giant wagging tails that put every guitar on a floor stand in great danger. Then there is the fun stuff. There are the instruments that walk in the door-a 63 335, a mint 70 Strat, a 1913 F-4 mandolin and quite a few others. And then, there are the guitarists who walk in the door.

Today I had a visit from the venerable Bucky Pizzarelli, a jazz legend at the age of 89. He played with everybody-Benny Goodman, Les Paul, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show Band, Tal Farlow and tons of others in his 70 plus years of performing. He played for the Nixons, the Reagans and the Clintons. His children are well known musicians as well and he had his daughter, also a guitarist, with him. While generally associated with a seven string guitar, I asked him to make do with a couple of six strings.

He was drawn to a beat up black Gibson L-47 from the forties and played that for a while and then I brought out a big Gibson arch top from 1952 and he immediately said “Super 400″ and he was right, of course. He enjoyed that one and commented on how big it is. “This thing is huge”, he said and proceeded to play chords that I, even after 50 years of playing, didn’t recognize. It was effortless. He talked about the guitars he had around the house. “I’ve got a six string Danelectro bass somewhere-I think it’s in the attic…I haven’t seen that one for a while.” He pointed to a 60 Tremolux and said “I had one of those too, way back. Single twelve inch, right?” Right again. Then he played an early 50’s J-45 commenting about how loud it was. “Don’t need an amp with this one”, he said with a big smile on his face.

Then he asked me to play something. Yikes. I’m kind of a hack player but I know what I know. Our mutual friend George Potts, who arranged for Bucky to come by, was at the shop and he and I sang and played a few Beatles tunes. My playing was adequate at best and George’s was better but Bucky commented (favorably) on our harmony and seemed to enjoy the impromptu (and totally unrehearsed) performance. All in all, he was a wonderful and gracious guest and I was thrilled to have him visit.

Yeah, there are a lot of little hassles that go along with having a shop but they are all overshadowed when someone like Bucky walks in the door. He reminds me that there is a lifetime joy in doing what you love. I hope to be playing when I hit 90. His pal and neighbor Les played until he died at 94. Maybe the guitar is the reason these guys live so long. and so well.

Hot Town (Summer in the City)

July 30th, 2015 • Gibson General4 Comments »
How hot is it? It ain't the heat, it's the humidity. OK, it's both. Your guitar doesn't like the weather. It can't jump in the pool and it doesn't like going to the beach.

How hot is it? It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity. OK, it’s both. Your guitar doesn’t like the weather. It can’t jump in the pool and it doesn’t like going to the beach.

Most guitar owners are aware of the havoc that low humidity can cause but when it comes to high humidity, most of us are relatively clueless. I live in New England where the Winters are ridiculously cold and the Summers are hot and humid. The relative humidity in my shop in the Winter with the heat blasting can go as low as 10% and that will wreak havoc on any guitar. I keep a humidifier going 24/7 during the Winter that keeps the RH at 40% which seems to be just fine. But what about the really high humidity that is pretty common around here in the Summer?

Right now, it’s 78 degrees and the RH is 85%. That’s pretty nasty but by 10 PM tonight, according to weather.com, it’s going to be 70 degrees and 100%. What does that do to the “A” rack at OK Guitars? You know, the one with all the old 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. This week, it’s got five 59’s, a 60, 2 61’s, a 62, a 64 and a 65. Well, frankly, it doesn’t do much because I keep the A/C on and set at 74 which keeps the relative humidity around 50% on a humid day and 40% on a warm but dry(ish) day. No such thing as dry heat around here. According to the nice folks at Taylor Guitars, the optimum humidity for an acoustic guitar is 40 to 50%. Electric hollow bodies would follow the same rule and, while they are less reactive to humidity, solid and semi hollow guitars do well in that same environment. But there is another interesting factor to consider.

Back in the day, the wood used for guitars was air dried whereas today it is kiln dried. We are an impatient species and air drying simply takes too long, so we use heat to dry the wood before it is made into a guitar. Apparently (and I’m not an expert in wood), kiln dried wood is less stable that air dried wood so it would react more to changes in humidity. As it turns out, I have old guitars and new guitars in my shop and I can compare some of the effects of changes in humidity. Even though I try to keep the humidity stable, it still fluctuates 10 or 15% over the course of days and I do perceive some changes in some of the guitars. The newer guitars seem to be going out of tune-often sharp. I know the tuning pegs can’t turn themselves, so what is happening and why is it only the new ones? What’s happening is the wood is expanding-the same reason your doors won’t close in the Summer but close easily in the Winter. As the wood expands, the strings are drawn tighter and go sharp. And since  kiln dried wood sucks up moisture more than old air dried wood, the newer guitars are more susceptible to expansion. It won’t turn your parlor guitar into a Dreadnought, but it will expand enough to affect the tone and the tuning. Wet wood doesn’t resonate as well as dry wood and some days, your guitar won’t sound as good as it does on others.

So, what do you do in the hot humid weather to keep your guitar in top form? Keeping it an an air conditioned space is a good start. I’m told that keeping it out of the case helps but there are some who disagree with this. If you have to take the guitar in the car, don’t put it in the trunk and don’t leave it in a hot car. That kind of heat can melt the glue joints. If you’re going a long way, keep the A/C humming and keep the direct sunlight off the case. Black Tolex will absorb a lot of heat. I drive a hatchback and it has one of those rollup shades, so I use that to keep the sun off. Or I put the guitar behind the front seat, so the A/C keeps it fairly cool. Finally, when you bring it indoors from a hot car and the case feels hot, don’t open it right away. Let it acclimate if you’re in a much cooler space. Your guitar will thank you.

Hollow bodies like this cool 59 Epi Broadway are more susceptible to the humidity than solids or semis. Keep it cool.

Hollow bodies like this cool 59 Epi Broadway are more susceptible to the humidity than solids or semis. The center block on your 335 actually stabilizes the structure and keeps it from reacting too much. 

Double Reverse

July 19th, 2015 • ES 3352 Comments »
Hey, get some pickup covers. Nobody wants to see naked zebras. But naked reverse zebras? That's another story.

Hey, get some pickup covers. Nobody wants to see naked zebras. But naked reverse zebras? That’s another story.

I like to think I don’t miss much but sometimes I do. Maybe there’s a wire bridge on a guitar that should have a no wire or maybe a repro tailpiece that looks real even when I look closely. Actually, I miss stuff all the time-especially when I’m trying to buy guitars from widows and orphans. I hate to ask them to pull the pickups or even remove the bridge. But when buying a guitar in person, I shouldn’t miss anything. But I did this time.

I always feel a little bad for the seller when I start pulling his (Grandpa’s) guitar apart in front of him. Often, they have never turned a screw or even done more than strum a chord or two. The seller had disclosed a few issues and had also recalled that the pickups were zebras. I’ve heard that before only to find a pair of double blacks (“I could have sworn they were zebras!”). In one case, the seller insisted the original double whites were in there only to find that his scumbag luthier had swapped them out for DiMarzios when the guitar was in for a setup in the 80’s. In the case of the 59 I picked up this week, the seller was right. They were zebras all right. The covers were chrome and wrong but I pulled the bobbin screws and saw the white showing and that was that. I found a few other undisclosed issues but no dealbreakers and negotiated a fair price. End of story, right?

I got back to my shop and pulled off the chrome covers-I certainly wasn’t going to sell it with those and started rummaging around for a set of nickel ones. I had only one and I really wanted to get this guitar up on my site and on Gbase, so I just left the covers off and put it up that way. I took the “look…zebras” approach and thought nothing more of it. I’d get another cover and reshoot it later with its covers and leave up a shot with those zebras showing just to prove they were in there. Then I get an email from a regular reader.

“Hey…cool…reverse zebras.” Somehow I completely missed it. The guy said they were zebras, I saw the white bobbin from the back and I pulled the covers. Yep, zebras. Reverse zebras never entered my mind because they are so freaking rare. How rare? I’ve had 500 ES models and at perhaps 100 were from the era when whites and zebras were more common. Know how many reverse zebras I’ve seen? Three. Two on a first rack 345 and one on a ’60 ES-355 . I saw one on Ebay once but it looked like a fake to me since the seller disclosed that it might have been rewound. Something that occurred occasionally was to take a trashed double white and a double black and make two zebras out of it. One would be the usual slug coil zebra and the other would be a reverse. I had learned to pay very close attention to reverse zebras because most are fake-made from parts. I don’t know why they are so rare but they are.

I do think the premium paid for double whites and zebra PAF’s is a little silly but plenty of things that vintage collectors do are silly. And I love getting a set of double whites or zebras in a guitar. It’s like Christmas in July. It’s a little like the window dresser in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”. He insisted that there should be a Balenciaga scarf in the mannequin’s purse even though no one would see it because he would know it was in there (and “she” would have one in there). Even under the pickups covers, I know they are there. And I like that.

Slug coil zebras are fairly common-I've had dozens of them.

Slug coil zebras are fairly common-I’ve had dozens of them.

Cool to find a single reverse zebra in a 335 but two? Anybody else got one like this?? There's a 345 on Clay H's vintage guitar site with two of them so I know they are out there.

Cool to find a single reverse zebra in a 335 but two? Anybody else got one like this?? There’s a 345 on Clay H’s vintage guitar site with two of them so I know they are out there.

Anatomy of a 72

July 12th, 2015 • ES 3356 Comments »

 

There a big fat section of the center block missing from 70's ES-335's. That's not such a good thing. There is nothing from the bridge to the lower edge of the neck pickup.

There a big fat section of the center block missing from 70’s ES-335’s. That’s not such a good thing. There is nothing from the bridge to the lower edge of the neck pickup. Note the Phillips screws on the backs of the pickups. Most folks think that means pre T-tops. Nope. Those are T-tops. I checked.

I don’t get to see a lot of 70’s ES-335’s because I don’t generally buy them mostly because I don’t generally like them. But they are ES-335’s and they are made by some of the same folks who made the early ones, so maybe it’s time we looked under the hood and took some notes while we’re at it.

I had to ask myself…”what makes a 335 sound like a 335?” Certainly the electronics are part of that but it’s the construction of the guitar that is the big player. Otherwise, a 335 would sound just like a Les Paul which has the same electronics. The guitar I have in my hands is a 1972 ES-335 made by Gibson during the much maligned Norlin Era. Norlin was in the business of making a profit (as was Gibson) but there was a difference-or at least one that can be perceived from their respective products. Gibson-especially under ted McCarty, wanted to make money AND make great guitars. Gibson-under Norlin- wanted to make money. Period. There were no notable innovations during the Norlin years but there were some serious cost cutting measures that made the business profitable but hurt the guitars.

A 335 is not the easiest guitar to build. The center block alone of the original version had four separate components-the maple block-two mahogany end blocks and a kerfed spruce “spacer” on top of the block. Apparently, assembling all those components was too costly and time consuming for the Norlin (beer/cement) bean counters and they “simplified” the design. The 72 I have has no mahogany end blocks and the maple is missing about a 5 inch space from the bridge to the back edge of the neck pickup. You would think that this had the upside of decreased weight but this one weighs 8 lbs which is pretty average. It is more resonant unplugged but that makes it less like a 335.  And then there’s the neck. While it’s probably less work to make a one piece neck, it’s more expensive because you need bigger pieces of mahogany. So, in 1969, Norlin went to a three piece neck. More money for us, less quality for you. Actually, I don’t really have a problem with a three piece neck from a tone standpoint. I’ve play many multi piece neck guitars that sound great. But I’m sure they were saving a few bucks on every guitar.

Where I think the 70’s 335 falls even farther is in the neck join. The long tenon is gone and the loss of all that wood coupling the neck to the center block causes what I find to be a clear change in the tone and sustain of the guitar. I’m sure the missing 5 inch chunk of center block has something to do with that as well. I’m not getting the same richness of tone-the complexity and harmonics that I get from the early 335’s. Maybe it’s the pickups? I dunno, it’s got T-tops and I’ve heard some great T-tops that have made their way into early 335’s and some 67’s and 68’s with them that could give a dot neck a run for its money. T-tops are often a bit thinner sounding but they can still be an excellent pickup, so I don’t think the pickups are the problem. If I dropped a pair of 59 PAFs into this guitar, it might sound better, but it wouldn’t sound like a 59. And, by the way, just because you see Philips screws on the back doesn’t mean they aren’t T-tops. This 72 has them and I looked. T-tops.

There are plenty of other differences but they are largely cosmetic. The neck volute annoys most of us but it probably doesn’t change the tone of the guitar. The bigger headstock just looks funny as does the “pantograph” logo. The binding on the neck tends to crack at the fret ends but I don’t know what’s actually different about it. Different plastic formulation? Still, it doesn’t change the tone. The overall construction of the body is pretty similar outside of the changed block characteristics, so that isn’t the thing making it sound different. So, I can conclude that the real difference in tone comes from the center block and neck tenon changes. That’s not to say that a 70’s 335 can’t be an excellent guitar. It just won’t sound like a 59-68.

Where's the neck tenon? Not where it usually is on the 58-68's. It's missing a couple inches. Also not a good thing.

Where’s the neck tenon? Not where it usually is on the 58-68’s. It’s missing a couple inches. Also not a good thing.

Pick of the Pocket

June 29th, 2015 • ES 335, ES 3454 Comments »
The folks at Gibson loaded up the case with lots of fun stuff back in the day. This 59 has just about everything except the Varitone instructions and the polishing cloth. It even has the "pick of the stars" pick case and the original plastic bag for the stereo cable. It probably had two keys but c'mon, I lose stuff in a month let alone 56 years.

The folks at Gibson loaded up the case with lots of fun stuff back in the day. This 59 has just about everything except the Varitone instructions and the polishing cloth. It even has the “pick of the stars” pick case and the original plastic bag for the stereo cable. It probably had two keys but c’mon, I lose stuff in a month let alone 56 years.

Even after 500 or so ES-335, 345 and 355’s, I still find it exciting to open up a case and see what’s lurking in the pocket. There are two categories of case pocket stuff-the stuff that was in there when it was new and the stuff that ends up in there after 50 years or so. The latter category is more common: I’ve got a big assortment of straps, capos, polish cloths, strings, harmonicas, business cards from lawyers (these are surprisingly common), picks, set lists and union cards. It’s like finding a time capsule from the 50’s or 60’s. And there are other items that perhaps don’t belong there. Combs, roach clips, nail clippers and, in one case, a pair of extra clean socks. The strangest thing I ever found in the case was a semi-nude photo of  Margaret Trudeau (wife of the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who famously had a fling with Mick Jagger or was it Keith or maybe Ronnie). That kind of proved that most individual sellers don’t bother looking to see what’s in there before it goes out the door. I’ve never found any drugs in a guitar case which just proves that musicians will use their drugs up before they sell their guitars or that musicians don’t use drugs. Pick one. I’m always happy to find 60’s and 70’s straps. My non playing customers love to buy them for their guitar playing husbands, sons and daughters. Old strings aren’t terribly useful-they are usually not in good enough shape to use so I usually leave them with the guitar when I sell it. They’re still kind of cool. None of this really gets my motor running but the other stuff you can find in a case does.

The stuff that was in the case when the guitar was new that has somehow stayed in the case for 50 or 60 years is just astounding to me. I recently bought a one owner 59 ES-345 with very nearly a full complement of case candy. Original brown strap, ABR-1 instructions, PAF instructions in their original manila envelope, original case key in its envelope, the string hang tag, the care and feeding hang tag and the original warranty hang tag with the serial number. The tags still had their strings attached. And that little envelope with the instructions still had the little screwdriver that came with these guitars. Switchcraft stereo cable in its little polythene bag? Yep. The only thing that was missing were the Varitone instructions.

Me? I can’t keep paperwork for a month let alone 50 or 60 years. How does this stuff not get lost? I’m going to take an educated guess here. Obviously, having one owner increases the chances of finding this stuff. If the owner isn’t a gigging musician but someone who mostly played at home for his or her own enjoyment, then the chances of everything staying together in the case increase geometrically. A gigging musician just doesn’t have the space in there for all of that. He needs the case pocket for the everyday items that are required for the life of a musician on the road. Things like his lawyer’s business card in case the local police didn’t like dope smoking, hippie freak, long hair guitar player types.

String Theory

June 12th, 2015 • Gibson General8 Comments »
I don't know what gauge strings Jimi used but I'm guessing he had tuning problems with that SG Custom. Maybe that's why he ended up playing mostly Strats.

I don’t know what gauge strings Jimi used but I’m guessing he had tuning problems with that SG Custom. Maybe that’s why he ended up playing mostly Strats.

Back in 1958 when the 335 was first built, people were thinner and guitar strings were fatter. I was 6 years old but I was probably 14 by the time folks started playing with really light gauge strings. My first electric guitar (a 63/64 Fender Duo Sonic) came strung with a wound G-string and probably a .12 E string. Maybe even .13. I remember this because I wanted to bend strings and my guitar teacher-who was a jazz guy-said I needed lighter strings (and that he would be happy to sell me a set for $8 (that’s probably $50 in today’s dollars). He was always trying to sell me something. He probably didn’t make much of a living at $5 a lesson back in 64. Anyway, back to the string thing.  Back then 12’s were considered light gauge. Guitar bridges had a range of motion forward and back limited by the depth of the ABR-1. With a wound G string and a set of 12’s, there was plenty of room to get the string lengths right. That means the guitar will be in tune all over the fingerboard (well, more or less but that’s another post).

Now, it’s 1966 and the music is getting more inventive. The Brits have reinterpreted American blues and the Americans have gone psychedelic. Players are bending strings and making guitar noises that have never been heard before. Predictably, it’s easier to bend a light string than a heavy one, so early adopters started seeking out lighter strings for their guitars. I know guys who used banjo strings because they couldn’t get guitar strings light enough for their style of playing. Eventually, the string makers caught on and they started selling 11’s, 10’s, 9’s and eventually 8’s. My recollection is that Ernie Ball was early to the party. I remember buying a set of “slinkies” fairly early on in my gigging days (’67?) and wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Then the fun started. I never quite understood intonation until I understood a bit of physics. So, I was out of tune a lot when I played and it drove me nuts. I was playing a ’62 ES-330 at the time and I couldn’t get it to tune with a plain G string. Odd thing was that I always thought it was the B string that was so far out. Eventually, I figured out that I had to turn around the saddle on the G string and set it as far back as it would go. That got me pretty close but I was playing with 9’s back then. I still can’t get 9’s to work on a vintage ES. 10’s usually require the (.17) G string to be set all the way back with the saddle reversed, so that seems be the limit. Gibson’s change to the Nashville type bridge added enough range for lighter strings but it came kind of late. Very late, actually. Besides, Nashvilles look wrong on a 335 anyway. Not as bad as the “harmonica” bridge they put on SG’s but still…

What I do now is if a buyer wants 9’s on his 335, I put on a set of 9’s but I use a .17 G string. Most 9 sets have a .16 G and that usually won’t intonate. It will be noticeably sharp at the 12th fret and above. You can compensate a bit by going slightly sharp on the B and E but if you have an ear for this kind of stuff, it will drive you up the wall eventually and you’ll spend more time tuning than playing. The best solution? Well, on a vintage ES, 10’s or 11’s are the way to go. I don’t gig any more so I use 11’s. Lead guitar pyrotechnics are for the youngsters anyway. Old guys like me look a little silly trying to be Jimi Hendrix. We looked silly back in 1968 too but we were too young to notice.

Just Play it

June 3rd, 2015 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3552 Comments »

 

Being refinished didn't stop this early 62 from being an extraordinary player. One of the best ever. When in doubt, play it. You might be surprised.

Being refinished didn’t stop this early 62 from being an extraordinary player. One of the best ever. When in doubt, play it. You might be surprised.

I get a lot of emails from readers and I appreciate them. By all means keep them coming. The email I get most is “should I buy this guitar?”. Imagine how hard it is to answer that question considering I’m not you.

The concerns are myriad. Is it priced right? Is it all original? Is that a good year? Is the finish original? Are those PAFs? Will I like the way it sounds and plays? Is it a good investment? Will it appreciate in value? There are plenty of others but they are almost all very  subjective. I do my best but I just can’t always come up with a satisfactory answer.

I can help you with a general price range for a specific year and model but I can’t always tell if a guitar is original. I certainly can’t tell from a single photo of the front of the guitar. I can tell you if I see something that looks wrong but I couldn’t tell a PAF from a patent number from a T-top if its covered (although the cover itself will tell you something). If you can’t see it-as in the case of the harness -then I can’t see it. I would also note that repro parts are getting to be very accurate and you really have to look extremely closely to know in the case of the better bridges and tailpieces. I can tell more about a stop tailpiece by feeling it than by looking at it. If anyone other than the original owner of a 50 year old tells you that every part is 100% absolutely certainly original, I would suggest that you take that with a grain of salt. Any part that can be removed can be replaced with a vintage correct part. I don’t think that’s a big deal as long as the part is correct and the wear isn’t glaringly different. A mint tailpiece with a worn and tarnished bridge and pickups isn’t going to look right even if it is vintage correct.

I can be a great help if you aren’t sure of the year as long as it’s a vintage piece. I’m not that great with 90’s and later. I just don’t see enough of them and therein lies the key to my so called expertise. If you see enough of anything, you get a sense of what is typical and what isn’t. Judging by the number of repro switch tips I see on 58-60’s, I could conclude that they are factory. I’m guessing the Les Paul guys have appropriated them. I’ve had perhaps 500 58-65 ES-335/345/355’s and, seeing that many, I get a pretty good sense of what’s in the realm of the possible and what isn’t. Things like short guards in 1960 are possible as  are long guards in 1961. PAF’s in gold hardware guitars show up into 64 and maybe even 65 although I’ve never seen one. Double white PAF in a 62? I’ve seen one in a 355. White switch tips are the norm in 61 but show up on occasion in late 60. And on and on and on.

Bottom line here is there are 100 things that can be “wrong” with a used guitar especially a really old one. But, no matter what is wrong, there is always one irrefutable criterion that will never fail you. Play it. If you like it and the price seems reasonable for what it is, then buy it. I’m happy to help you zero in on a good price (and no, it doesn’t have to be one that I’m selling but it does have to be an ES model). The other thing you can do is to buy from someone who will allow you to return it. Nearly every dealer will give you at least 24 hour approval. I give 48. That should give you enough time to play it and go through it to see that everything looks right. If you buy it from the widow of the cousin of the original owner on Craigslist, expect that you are going to find something you don’t like. The older the guitar, the more likely it is that something has changed. The good news is that even with a dozen changed parts, a refinish, a headstock repair and 29 holes from a back pad, an arm rest and three different tailpieces, the guitar can still play and sound great.

This 64 ES-335 actually had something like 29 holes in it from a back pad, arm rest a few tailpieces, a moved bridge and a couple of sets of tuners. Still sounded excellent.

This 64 ES-335 actually had something like 29 holes in it from a back pad, arm rest a few tailpieces, a moved bridge and a couple of sets of tuners. Still sounded excellent.

Geekfest Circa 1965

May 18th, 2015 • ES 3355 Comments »
"The Mexican" An original stoptailed 65 in cherryburst. Ever seen another? Found this one in old Guadalajara

“The Mexican” An original stoptail 65 in cherryburst. Found this one in old Guadalajara. This had all the 64 features-even the wide bevel truss cover.

Gibson serial numbers are notoriously worthless once you hit 1965. It’s not just that they started using the same numbers over and over again for the next ten years. It’s that the features of the guitars don’t always seem to follow the serial number chronology. Granted, it’s tough enough to figure out if the 335 you have (or want to buy) is a real 65, but once you’ve established that it is, you’ve only scratched the surface. 65’s come in more configurations than any other year. Whaddya mean? It’s a 335, isn’t it? Well, yeah, but there were so many changes made during that year that it’s like having two or three model years in a 12 month period.

The very first 65’s had a stop tail and all nickel parts. They were virtually identical to a late 64. They are also rare and expensive and priced like a 64. That’s the easy part. Where it gets tricky is right after they went to the trapeze. The first trap tails were also (other than the trapeze itself) pretty much the same as a late 64. Double line Klusons, nickel ABR-1 with no patent number, nickel covered patent number pickups and that big ol’ neck profile and wide nut. The only change beyond the tailpiece was the truss cover. Virtually all 64’s have the wide bevel and nearly all 65’s have the narrow bevel. Then, sometime in the Spring, things started to transition-by fits and starts and with no consistency whatever. It’s like they dumped a load of chrome parts into the nickel parts bin and stirred it around. The mix of nickel and chrome that followed defies logic. Some had one chrome pickup cover and one nickel. Chrome tailpieces and nickel bridges are pretty common. The nickel pickguard bracket seems to have lingered right into 66-they must have had a lot if them around. Nickel and chrome look somewhat alike when new so folks probably didn’t notice until years later when the nickel tarnished and the chrome didn’t. To make matters even more complicated, they changed the neck profile from a chunky carve with a wide 1 11/16″ nut to a slimmer carve with a 1 5/8″ nut for about a minute and then to a 1 9/16″ nut and a fairly slim profile.

Not complicated enough for you? OK, how about the fact that there is no clear correlation between the changes and the serial numbers. My general rule for 65’s is that if the serial number is under 340xxx, then it’s bound to have some nickel parts and the bigger nut. I’ve had plenty of wide nut 65’s in the serial range of  250xxx to as late as 340xxx. I used to think around 329xxx was the start of the transition but I’m wrong. I have one in that range that is all chrome and the small nut. I would venture to guess that in the 329xxx range, it is possible to get a 1 11/16″ nut, a 1 5/8′ or a 1 9/16″ nut in any and all combinations of nickel and chrome. One other important note-no T-tops in 65. I know, everybody who is selling a t-top will tell you it’s a 65 but I’ve never seen one. The pre T is actually pretty consistent through 66 and into 67. I’ve seen them in 68 and even 69 when the t-top was well established.

The larger point is that when you’re looking into a 65, make sure you are getting what you think you are getting. Ask for a photo of the nut with a ruler next to it or better yet, calipers. Don’t just ask the seller to measure it. Most people can’t read a ruler. Look closely at the hardware. If nickel hardware is important to you, don’t ask the seller. Again, most folks can’t tell the difference between nickel and chrome. Ask if its tarnished. Look at the photos and see if its tarnished. And remember this-an early big neck wide nut trap tail 65 is worth up to $2000 more than a later narrow nut. The narrow nut 65 is going to sound just as good and can be a great bargain but you’ve got to be comfortable playing one.

This is the other end of the 65 spectrum. All chrome parts, small nut width and a narrow bevel truss cover. And yet the serial is 329xxx which is well within the mostly nickel and wide nut range. Go figure.

This is the other end of the 65 spectrum. All chrome parts, small nut width and a narrow bevel truss cover. And yet the serial is 329xxx which is well within the mostly nickel and wide nut range. Go figure.