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Is This Good News?

November 21st, 2020 • Uncategorized1 Comment »

A 1958 Stratocaster is a wonderful guitar but it is by no means a rare guitar. There are a ton of them on the market right now and many seem to be priced in the Stratosphere (get it?). Supply and demand is like karma. Look out.

Prices are up. Sales are up. To a guitar dealer, you would expect this to be a good thing but I have my doubts. Here’s why. Asking prices are up. Way up. Usually, it’s the individual sellers who are out of touch with the market but even the dealers, big and small, have jacked up their prices with the kind of wishful thinking I usually reserve for widows and orphans (you know Grandad’s beloved, beat to hell ES-330 for $40K). Listen, I should be thrilled that asking prices are up as it allows me to get more for my guitars but I’m not because it makes it very hard for me to buy guitars at a price that will allow me to make a profit. I know boo-hoo, but it’s not just me. It’s you. I’d rather make a few thousand dollars selling you a fairly priced $30,000 guitar than make the same money selling you an overpriced $30,000 guitar.

OK, then what constitutes fairly priced? Hard question. If we use 2006-2008 as the theoretical top of the market, then we are in for trouble because we’ve gone past those numbers for certain 335’s. I acknowledge that collector grade guitars have gotten very hard to find and those prices will likely soar but most of the 335’s on the market right now are player grade to not quite collector grade. Bigsby’s, tuner changes, extra holes and incorrect parts don’t seem to make much difference lately. Everybody just asks what everybody else is asking with the attitude that “well, if dealer x is asking $35,000 for that piece of crap, I should be able to get at least that much for mine which is so much nicer.” Problem is that dealer x hasn’t necessarily sold that guitar for that inflated price but you don’t know that. You just know it’s gone and the selling sites don’t tell you final sale price in most cases. A fair price is what the guitar sells for (and yes, there are outliers).

I’ve written about this before. I call it a standoff. You’ve priced your guitar too high and I won’t buy it for that price. I will wait you out until you come back to earth (if you come back to earth) and ask a fair price. But, again, it’s not good for the market. These overpriced guitars will sit (and sit and sit) and more guitars will come on the market and they will sit and sit and then there will be a lot of guitars just sitting. While these overpriced guitars are sitting and sitting, somebody (like me) is selling guitars left and right by pricing them fairly. The problem is, of course, I can only price them fairly if I can buy them fairly and that has gotten to be difficult.

Now comes the hard part. How does this correct itself?-I say correct itself because there’s no way any individual can get the entire guitar selling public to do anything. In 2008, the entire vinatge market crashed to earth and, with very few exceptions, everybody got hurt. It did, however, fix the problem. We got close to this point in 2017-2018 and certain markets fell significantly due, mostly, to a glut of good vintage guitars for sale, especially 50’s and 60’s Stratocasters. This is probably how it will go this time, pandemic or not. So, who does this hurt? Market gluts are not democratic. Guitars with low production figures like 335’s and Les Paul standards and Customs tend to hold up pretty well. Higher volume guitars like Strats and Teles and Jr’s and Specials get hit pretty hard. Supply and demand is a cruel master. Even with the really high demand we’re all seeing during the current public health crisis, the supply is growing rapidly. Here’s a good example…there are 20 1958 Stratocasters on the market right now. They are priced from $20,000 to $35,000. I just sold one for $26,000 with no issues in 9/10 condition. That means a lot of them are overpriced-mine didn’t sell overnight-it took a few weeks. So who is paying $30K plus for them? Nobody. That’s who. Now let’s look at a lower volume but no less popular guitar-a 59 ES-335. There is one on the market. One. The demand is up but the guitars aren’t there. The law of supply and demand will straighten this out and he result will be good for some folks but not so good for others.

I’ve often made the point that rarity doesn’t count for that much in vintage guitars but even with that easily made point, the law of supply and demand still applies. A blonde 61 Byrdland is a really rare guitar but nobody is clamoring for one and the value remains stable. A 58 Stratocaster is not rare but lots of folks want them but with 20 to choose from, the smart buyer buys the one that is priced well. A 59 ES-335 is a lot rarer than a 58 Stratocaster and nearly as popular but with so few out there, you can guess which guitar will hold its value best when the market comes back to earth. Buy smart, people.

A 1959 Gibson ES-335 is one of the most collectible guitars there is. They aren’t rare but compared to that Strat up top, they are really rare. There is only one on the market as of today as opposed to 20 58 Strats. which one is going to sell and which one is going to sit (and sit and sit). Again, supply and demand is a cruel master. Just like karma.

Magical Thinking

October 30th, 2020 • Uncategorized11 Comments »

Les Paul aficionados will often pay a huge premium for a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. They are beautiful but the fingerboard doesn’t have much effect on the tone of your guitar. This is a 2003 R9.

Vintage guitar aficionados love magic. Magical wood (like Brazilian rosewood), magical cloth (original Fender tweed), magical plastic (white pickup bobbins, bumblebee caps) and magical metal (A2 magnets and short seam aluminum tailpieces). Nobody really wants anyone to say that most of this magical stuff is nonsense because it’s bad for business. Those of us who are seriously involved in the selling of vintage guitar do well to perpetuate these myths because it’s great for business.

Even though this is a 335 blog, I’m going to use a Les Paul as my first example. An all original Les Paul burst will cost you $300,000 or more and has, over the years, been a good investment. A used R9 reissue will cost you from around $4000 to maybe $12000 for a Brazilian board model. The fact that you’re considering paying an $8000 premium for a $200 piece of wood is loony enough. The fact that a Brazilian board adds no tonal advantage isn’t really relevant but I thought I’d mention it for those who believe they can hear the difference between an Indian rosewood fingerboard and a Brazilian board. So, you can’t justify paying $300,000 for a guitar (or you can’t afford it) and you want to get as close as possible. Well, you’re already pretty close, the current Les Pauls are quite good but, for many of you, maybe you can get closer and that’s where the crazy starts.

I’m making an assumption here. I assume you are after the best possible tone from your guitar and that cosmetics are secondary. Repro parts have gotten so good that unless you are standing 6 inches from the guitar, you won’t be able to tell a repro from the real thing, so we can eliminate the cosmetic angle. That said, a really good upgrade would be a pair of really excellent pickups. You will hear a difference and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. A set of Throbaks (and some others) sounds a whole lot like a set of PAFs (although one PAF can sound very different from another) and will cost you $550 or so. Or you can buy a set of real double white PAFs for $10,000-$12,000. Crazy? You bet, but at least they will hold their value even if the value of your guitar drops like a stone and you will hear a difference. But what about the premium for double whites? Contrary to some opinions, they don’t sound better than blacks and will cost you twice as much. But whites look so much cooler, right? Right but are they $5000 cooler when I can get a set of double white Throbaks for 1/20th the price? Your call.

How about magic metal? An authentic short seam 50’s (or later up to 64) tailpiece is around $1800 and it will look and sound pretty much the same as the very decent repro that came on your Les Paul. Same goes for an authentic no wire ABR-1. It will look about the same and it will sound about the same but you’ll be out $800 or so. How crazy do Les Paul owners get? Well, there seems to be a limit. I don’t know of anyone who has spent $10,000 on a set of authentic 50’s pickup rings. But is that any crazier than spending $250 on a catalin switch tip? Answer: Yes, it is… by about $9750. I figure that if you want to make your $4000 R9 as close to a real 59 as possible, it will cost you about $30,000 and that changes everything but the wood and the truss rod. But you know what they say about old growth wood. It’s magical.

You can do the same upgrades to your 335 but they will cost you a bit less but still will top $20,000. Considering a player grade 59 335 can be had for less than 1/10th the price of a 59 Les Paul, we don’t see as many folks doing those types of upgrades. But I’ve had plenty of inquiries about putting PAFs into a new Memphis 335 or maybe changing out the tailpiece for a 50’s. My advice? Save your money. Buy a set of good boutique PAF type pickups and you will probably like what you hear. That tailpiece? Again, save your money. An old one won’t sound any better than a new one.

Finally, there is magical cloth as in Fender tweed. I love Fender tweed amps. I have three of them and I enjoy each one. You can buy a decent original Bassman for around $10,000. It’ll have some changed caps most likely but we’re after tone and the smart amp tech doesn’t replace the caps that affect the tone. Or, you can buy a re-tweeded Bassman for $5000 (or less) and get the exact same tone (and sometimes) even the same look for half the price. The idea that a retweed knocks off half the price of a Fender amp is one of the nuttier concepts in amp collecting. I get that originality is a big deal to collectors. But if you want a Bassman because it sounds great, why are you spending an extra $5000 for cheap, beat up old luggage cloth? Full disclosure-all three of my personal tweeds are original tweed and I spent a lot of money for them and I will eventually list them and sell them. So, why did I opt for the collector grade original spend an extra $5000 tweed? Because it will magically run up in price as the market for original tweeds runs up. A retweed will not. My personal rule for “investment” pieces is to buy the best, most original example you can find.

You can add $30,000 worth of parts to your R9 but it’s still an R9. Those expensive parts you bought will hold their value just fine in most cases, so they aren’t a bad investment. But a guitar isn’t like a house. Put in a $20,000 bathroom and the value of your house goes up by $25,000. Buy a $12,000 set of PAFs and the value of your guitar goes up by…wait for it…$12,000. Originality doesn’t count in a house. It counts in collectibles though. Unfortunately, no matter how good the re-tweed is, it’s still a re-tweed and no matter how good the refinish is, it’s still a refinish. Keep these things in mind when there’s magic in the air. Not all magic is created equal.

I could argue that double whites sound better than double blacks but I would be lying. They are often wound a bit hotter than blacks (I have a theory about this) but the white bobbins have no effect on tone. They sure look cool though. This is a 1960. Double white PAFs were mostly gone by then unless they are gold. The nickel ones largely disappeared during 59. Zebras hung in for a while though. My 60 335 has them.

The Myth of Fingerprints

October 16th, 2020 • Uncategorized14 Comments »

I’ve got this crazy clean 59 ES-335 and it plays and sounds as good as at least 95% of the 335’s I’ve had. Just because it was well cared for OR simply not played much doesn’t mean it’s a dog. That’s a myth. Well played beat up guitars are often excellent players but very clean guitars aren’t always unplayed. Sometimes they are simply well cared for. Sometimes they are unplayed for reasons other than they suck.

With apologies to Paul Simon because I’m sure this isn’t what he meant when he wrote about the “myth of fingerprints”, there are certain myths and legends that seem to creep into the vintage guitar consciousness. Like early 60’s Les Pauls were made from leftover bodies (they weren’t) or Brazilian rosewood fingerboards sound better than Indian rosewood. Both persist and you can argue the latter all you want but until somebody can prove the point, I’m sticking to my guns. But the myth I’m going to try to blow a hole in today is the idea that if an old guitar is mint or close to it, it must be a dog because nobody wanted to play it. I’m writing from experience here as I get to play a lot more guitars than you do and probably a lot more mint ones.

First off, the reverse has some truth to it. A guitar that HAS been played a lot is probably a good one because bad ones actually don’t get played as much. But just because a guitar didn’t get played doesn’t mean it sucks. It CAN mean that but I think the more likely scenarios follow. Little Johnny gets a spectacular red 335 for his 12th birthday in 1964 from his Aunt Mildred who played ukulele in a USO band in 1944. Johnny has no talent and even less patience, so after a half dozen lessons from Mr. Orsini (who will only teach jazz and Johnny wants to be a rock star so the girls will like him), he gives it up and it sits under the bed at his Mom’s house in Schenectady. Johnny goes on to greatness as a prosecutor and has a wonderful life until he gets caught taking bribes from the mayor. Johnny goes to jail for white collar crimes and has to put his mint 64 335 on Reverb in order to make bail.

OR Billy saves up the money from his paper route that gets him out of bed a 4 AM every morning for a lousy $4.49 a week (plus tips from Mrs. Van Dyck up the street who thinks Billy is cute). He scrimps and saves and finally after 2 years is able to buy that Stratocaster that’s in the window of Hermies Music Store in Schenectady. Billy plays in a band and he wipes down his Strat after every song and puts it in the case between sets rather than leaning it up against the Super Reverb that took him another year to get (Dad helped out but Mom doesn’t know about it). 55 years later, Billy still has his prized Strat (and plays it every day and still wipes it down) until he passes away in 2020 of Covid 19 and his no talent son puts it on Reverb to get money to buy weed.

OR little Jimmy’s father was a semi-pro player and he “inherits” Dad’s nearly new ’73 Les Paul Custom when Dad suddenly disappears with his administrative assistant and is never heard from again. Little Jimmy has a ton of talent but the guitar weighs 13 pounds and sounds like crap. Jimmy has his beat up Telecaster and leaves Dad’s guitar at Mom’s house when he finally moves out at the age of 25. Now Jimmy isn’t little Jimmy any more but Dad’s old LP is still under the bed at his Mom’s. Jimmy bought himself 20 or 30 guitars over the years but that old LP is just a dog of a player. Then 2020 happens and the economy tanks and Jimmy has to sell some things to make rent and he remembers the old LP at Mom’s house in Schenectady and puts it on Reverb.

Both Johnny’s and Billy’s guitars are tone monsters but neither got beat up-one because the owner had no talent and the other because the owner was careful. Both scenarios are made up but they illustrate the disconnect between the idea that a mint guitar is a bad player and a beater is a great one. Only the third scenario gives any credence to the myth. The guitar that has no fingerprints (and dings and dents and scrapes) CAN be a dog but it isn’t necessarily a dog. A beater is less likely to be a dog-I will grant that but I’ve played enough great mint guitars to know that the myth is false. There is something known as “The Curse of the Mint Guitar” which I’ve written about if you can find it. Or I’ll just write another post about it later. Now, I think I’ll go play the mint 59 335 I’ve got in my shop.

The stories are made up but based in truth. I am, in fact, from Schenectady, NY but this is not biographical (mostly). Hermie’s Music is a real place in Schenectady and Mr. Orsini was my guitar teacher in 1964 who hated rock and roll. I am neither Johnny, Billy or Jimmy. They all exist but the names are changed.

Greed is Not Good

September 26th, 2020 • Gibson General, Uncategorized15 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

Up, Up and Away: ES-345

September 20th, 2020 • ES 3458 Comments »

Time was when you could pick up a 59 ES-345 for about half what you would pay for the same year 335. Goodbye to that. Early 59’s (“first rack”) like this one are headed toward $30K.

I figured this would happen eventually. They were just too reasonably priced compared to same year 335’s. Lots of us knew it all along and kept buying them and selling them and enjoying them. But now, with apologies to John Gillespie MaGee Jr, the 345 has “slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. They are not the incredible bargain they once were. They have become objects of great desire. They are not cheap. They are still, however, absolutely great guitars.

The very first PAF equipped guitar I ever bought was a Bigsby equipped ES-345 from 1960. At $6000 (with the GA-79 stereo amp), it was the cheapest PAF guitar I could find and was a wonderful instrument. Now, about 600 ES guitars later, I still keep a 345 in my personal stash and probably always will. The rule of thumb for pricing had been, loosely, that a 345 was worth about half of what a comparable year 335 was worth. So, with 59 dot necks ranging from $30,000 to $40,000, you could score a good 59 345 for $15,000-$20,000. A good stop tail 64 ES-335 can still be found for around $20K (although folks are getting greedy and the asking prices have gone off the rails a bit). Good luck finding a stop tail 64 ES-345 for $10,000. You won’t.

Once you get past 64, the dynamics change a bit-345’s after 65 seem to bring prices even closer to the same year 335. But the 50% rule for 345’s from 59 to 69 is over. At least for now. If I could predict where prices will go after this pandemic ends, I could probably retire, not that I want to. So, why would a guitar that is in the middle of the semi hollow lineup cost so much less than the one at the bottom? You can learn all about that from an earlier post you can find here.

So now what? Has the market value simply caught up with reality or is this a 345 bubble? It’s the former. ES-345’s have been a true bargain for a very long time. The stereo circuit and not very popular Varitone has kept the 345 in its place as a second string 335 for years, maybe decades. There has always been a lot of internet chatter about the “tone sucking Varitone” often from folks who have never owned one. I’m not going to get deeply into this issue. I will only say that Varitone capacitors can drift and cause the bypass mode to sound honky. It is, in that case, a tone sucker. But early Varitones (up to 62) don’t tend to drift and I’ve had plenty of them that sound every bit as good as a great 335 with the Varitone. That said, it’s a pretty easy operation to convert a 345 to a 335 circuit. I suggest you do that by putting in a 335 harness and leaving the original stereo harness intact for the next owner.

The days of buying a 59 345 for $15,000 are over. The vaunted “first rack” 59’s are now selling for $25K and up. If you want to learn about just what a first rack 345 is, you can find that here. Later 59’s are generally in the low to middle $20K range and, as always, condition and originality dictates where in that range it falls. Bigsby versions will still be 15% less. Big neck 345’s will always be more expensive than small necked ones and most of the 59’s you see will have the smaller “transitional” neck. That’s part of what makes the first racks more expensive. Early 60’s have the same neck as late 59’s so looking for those will save you a few dollars. They are every bit as good as a 59-they are, in fact, identical. 61’s still have the really slim neck and the short guard but are every bit as good as their 335 counterparts. That goes for 62-68 as well. Sometimes even better. How can that be? Certain changes that occurred in 335’s-particularly changing the pickups to poly wire-didn’t happen as early in 345’s. It is possible to find an early patent as late as 68 in a 345. They were gone from 335’s by 65. PAFs have been found in 345’s as late as 67.

There are a lot of small details about 345’s that can make them even more desirable-red 59’s are crazy rare, “watermelon” 60’s are worth a premium, long guard 61’s grab an extra few bucks and so on. Do your homework before you buy and give the Varitone a try before you yank it out. It can be useful especially to Fender guys who are used to single coils and honky tones. I recently sold my blonde 59 player. It was my main guitar for four years which, for me, is an eternity. I go through guitars like most folks go through socks.

This was my number one guitar for the past four years or so. It was a 59 ES-345 converted to 335 spec and had a few filled holes and a new neck but was a wonderful player. Now I’m playing a project 59 ES-335 but I will buy another 345 for myself when the right one comes along.

Oddities and One Offs

August 31st, 2020 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35511 Comments »

I have to say that my favorite part of the vintage guitar business is finding rare or one of a kind ES guitars (or having them find me). I’ve done this post before showcasing the “greenburst” 335, a lefty block neck blonde 335 and a 355 with pointy cutaways. Gibson has always been accommodating to the needs and wishes of musicians and was happy to make something out of the ordinary for you (for a price, of course). It was often the owners name inlaid in the fingerboard or an alternative electronics setup (think Varitone in a 335). Interestingly, these things often diminish the value over a bone stock version. Who wants to play a guitar with somebody else’s name writ large across the fingerboard. Short of changing your name, there isn’t a good fix for this. But then there are one of a kinds that are simply colors or a configuration that isn’t offered in the catalogue. I’ve had a few of these recently and this is a good time to write another post about these wonderful oddities.

A cherryburst 335 is neither rare nor particularly exciting unless it’s a dot neck. This finish was common starting in 1965 but a cherryburst dot neck? Unheard of. This is the only one (as far as I know)

The cherryburst 1961 dot neck was offered to me recently (and I bought it). When I saw the photos, my first thought was “oh, another cherryburst 65…” I don’t particularly like this finish and I was ready to dismiss it until I noticed the dots. This finish was in the Gibson lineup as early as the 1940’s but not for a 335. That didn’t happen until 1965. This is the only cherryburst dot neck I’ve ever seen. Beyond that, it was also the cleanest dot neck I’ve ever seen. I rarely use the term “mint” but this one was all of that. There’s a very lucky, very happy collector out there who owns the only one of these known.

White ES guitars have never been common. Keith Richards has the one he calls “Dwight”. His is a 345. This is a 1965 wide nut ES-355.

I was really skeptical when I first saw this white 355 many years ago. But when I owned it years ago, I didn’t know much about these guitars and I sold it to the next owner as “ambiguous”. It was the paint on the neck binding that threw me off. Now I know that Gibson usually painted white guitars that way (look at any LP/SG Custom) and it’s definitely a factory white finish. They became a little more common by 1969 and into the 70’s but a mid 60’s white one is pretty rare. The white tends to turn yellow because the clear lacquer that goes over the paint tends to turn yellow over time. You don’t notice it so much on a sunburst or even a red guitar but on a white one, it really shows up.

Whenever I encounter a rare variant, I try to get hold of the ledger page for that serial number to see if there’s a note about it being a special order. Sometimes, there’s nothing. Sometimes it’s noted and sometimes, the serial number is left blank in the book. I’d say it’s 50-50. Having the page is a real plus but not having it doesn’t necessarily diminish its authenticity. Of the 5 black 59 ES-345’s, only three of them are noted in the logs but the others are very clearly original. This 1963 black ES-345 is one that we got lucky on. I don’t own this one but it’s the only black 63 I know of. Black is rare but has always been a popular color so there are a fair number of them around each year. I know of perhaps twelve of them from 59 to 64. Interestingly, most are 345’s. I’m not sure why. A black 335 seems to be incredibly rare until the late 60’s and even then you can count them on one hand.

Sometimes you get lucky. I was sent a photo of a black 63 ES-345 by a friend of the original owner who special ordered it. And there it was, 115826 plain as day in the 63 log book.

And here it is. I don’t own it but i’ve been after it for at least four years now. You’ll know if I get it.

Refinishes

August 24th, 2020 • Gibson General5 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts Timeline #3: Bridges

July 23rd, 2020 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3555 Comments »

The top ABR-1 is a low profile version from a 58 ES-335. It’s bent as are most of them. They simply couldn’t handle the downward pressure from a set of 12’s with a wound G string. They were gone by the end of the year replaced with what you see at the bottom-the no wire full height ABR-1

If you take the time to learn all of the “parts timelines” that I am posting, you should be able to date any ES 335, 345 or 355 built between 1958 and 1969. After that, I’m not your guy. I get dozens of e-mails asking me to authenticate, date or appraise these guitars every week and I do my best to answer them all. The problem is that all of my knowledge is based on observation. Yes, I read everything on the internet…guitarhq site-excellent and informative with a few small errors and one glaring one about 335’s and I read Adrian Ingraham’s book-not so excellent. I took what I could from them but going through around 600 guitars over the past 15 years or so has taught me more than any book. And, by the way, I was flattered to have been asked by Tony Bacon to consult with him on the history section of his 335 book.

The ABR-1 bridge first showed up in 1953 when the first Les Paul Custom was released. It hasn’t changed much over the years although it was discontinued for a while and brought back. It was a good design from day one, allowing the player to intonate each string individually, although it was limited in that you couldn’t adjust the height of each string individually. Still works pretty well though. The ABR-1 is not without its issues and some of them were addressed by Gibson and some were not. Let’s start in 1958 since that’s when the first 335’s were issued. The neck angle on the 335 was, for reasons unknown, very shallow and required a lower profile ABR-1 to allow the action to be low enough. Good enough solution to a problem which shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It was a kind of “don’t raise the bridge, lower the river” solution. The ABR-1 was made of cheap metal that fatigued and bent easily. 90% of vintage ABR-1’s have some measure of sag in the middle. The low profile ABR-1 was much worse. Most of them simply broke in half. Remember, nobody was using light gauge strings back in the 50’s. 335’s shipped with 12’s and 13’s were common. All sets had wrapped G strings. So, the stress on the bridge was considerable and they sagged.

By late 58, enough owners complained and Gibson started issuing shaved full height bridges to replace the sagging low profile ones. At around the same time, they changed the neck angle to allow for a full height bridge. End of problem. But there were other problems. The early ABR-1 had nothing to hold the saddle in place but the string pressure. Imagine you’re playing a gig in a dark bar, on a dark stage. You break the E string and the saddle flies off. You probably don’t have to imagine too hard. It’s happened to most of us. It’s a little like losing a contact lens. You’re down on your knees in the middle of a gig trying to find the missing saddle. You can’t find it and you play the rest of the gig with 5 strings. The solution was simple, if a little inelegant. In early 1963 (could be late 62-it’s hard to pin down the date because so many have been changed) Gibson added a retaining wire to keep the saddles in place. It’s a pain to remove and a pain to reinstall if you need to, but it works. There have been ABR-1 copies that have saddles that stay in place without a wire and Gibson had one called the Nashville bridge but that’s a different post.

At some point during 1962, they switched from metal saddles to nylon. I think the reason for this was to make the strings slide more easily across the saddles when using the then popular Bigsby. They finally got around to beefing up the bridge to lessen the effect of the pressure exerted by the strings. This occurred in 1965 and, unless you have an older one and a newer one side by side, you probably won’t notice the slightly heavier design. At about the same time they added the patent number to the bottom of the unit and made the company name and the manufacturer’s mark much smaller. That maker’s mark would disappear by the late 60’s (useful for dating).

Timeline:

58: Low profile metal saddles. No wire, nickel

Late 58-early 63: Full height (some shaved in late 58), no wire, metal saddles, nickel

Late 62-early 63: Full height, no wire, nylon saddles (rare), nickel

63-early 65: Full height, wire retainer, nylon saddles, nickel

65-69: Full height, wire, nylon saddles, patent number w/makers mark. Chrome. Makers mark disappears around 69.

Gold bridges follow similar timeline with some small variation in dates.

One more odd characteristic to note. In ’65, there were 4 different versions of ABR-1 used on 335’s. There was the nickel one with Gibson in big letters on the back in nickel. The same one in chrome and the one with the patent number in both nickel (rare) and chrome. All had nylon saddles and wire retainers. The early nickel one was gone by the Spring and a few of the patent number nickel ones showed up during that period. By around May, Gibson had used up most of the nickel parts and was using chrome. There are plenty of guitars with some nickel and some chrome parts in 1965. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference once the nickel starts to tarnish but when brand new, they look pretty similar to most folks. Here’s a tip if you aren’t sure. Chrome looks blue. Nickel looks green. It’s subtle.

Covering a lot of ground with this photo. Top is patent number with the makers mark (off to the right). Below that is pat # without it in chrome. Early nickel below that -note the difference between chrome and nickel. Bottom shows the retaining wire.

There are no Rules

July 13th, 2020 • Uncategorized6 Comments »

This ES-355 has a 66 serial number but it has a wide-nearly 1 11/16″ nut. It could be that it was a leftover from 65 as 355’s were pretty low volume sellers. No rules.

I try very hard to find consistency when discussing Gibsons from the so-called “Golden Era”. Certain rules and features seem to apply most of the time…PAFs until 62, then mixed PAFs and patents from 62-64, wide nut until mid 65, stop tails until early 65 and a whole lot of other features that follow a fairly predictable timeline. Except when they don’t.

One of the most desirable features of 58- early 65 ES models is the wide nut. We call it 1 11/16″ but it varies from just over 1 5/8″ to just over 1 11/16″ but all of them are wider than the 1 9/16″ nut that was introduced in mid 65 and has rendered mid 65’s to 1981 models less desirable to many players and that’s a really big deal. Imagine if 68’s had the wide nut (it’s a common misconception that they do). They would be the most desirable year post 64 for sure. Yes, 68’s had the trapeze and often had t-tops but those things can be changed. But you can’t make a narrow neck into a wide one without some very expensive (and invasive) surgery. Then a rule breaker shows up.

It is pretty commonly known that models like Byrdlands, L-5’s, Kessels and 355’s sold in fairly low numbers. Even with the low volume, they would generally make a “rack” of the same model (usually 35 guitars) all at once and then sit on the unfinished guitars until they had an order to fill. That’s why you sometimes see patent number pickups in a 61 guitar or some other earlier feature in a guitar with a later serial number. The guitars were simply built in one year and sold in the next year (or later). That’s how we end up with 1960 guitars with 1958 factory order numbers for example. But there are no FON’s after 61, so we have only the features to go by when we are trying to figure out what year the guitar was built (or at least started).

I recently purchased a 1966 ES-355 with a wide nut-just under 1 11/16″. It is the second 66 ES-355 I’ve encountered with that feature. That probably means that the guitar was built in early 65 (or at least the neck was carved then) and sat somewhere until an order came in some time in 66. I’m sure that a bunch of narrow nut 355’s went out in 65 and early 66 because I’ve seen plenty of them. So why did this one sit? Maybe it had a small flaw or maybe it was at the back of the pile and more newly made ones were headed out the door first. Without a time machine, it’s hard to know. The larger point is that all the rules I write about get broken time and time again and it isn’t always possible to come up with a reason. You could easily ask “was it re-necked later with a custom ordered neck?” Or maybe it was simply a custom order that specified a particular nut width. I know it wasn’t re-necked (it’s pretty easy to tell) but I suppose it could have been a custom order. Again, where did I leave the keys to the time machine.

I’ve had a similar experience with another 66. This was a 345 with honest to god Mickey Mouse ears. Left over early 60’s body? Maybe. Probably. The rule is that MM ears were gone by late 63 when they redid the jigs for making ES 335, 345 and 355 bodies. But this 345 and at least two others I’ve seen made their way out the door in 1966. So, no rule is a hard and fast rule and no feature is 100% consistent over the era of 1958 to 1969. After 1969, you’re on your own-I just don’t see enough of them to know much. Let me know if you have an oddball like these. It gives me something to write about.

A 66 should not have Mickey Mouse ear cutaways. And yet, this one does and at least two others I’ve seen do as well. There is a fair amount of inconsistency in the shape of the cutaways from 66 to 67 (pointy ear, “fox ear”, etc) but Mickeys? No. Great player too, by the way, although I’m sure it had nothing to do with the ears. If I recall, this one had early patent numbers which might have had something to do with it.

Pandemic Buying

June 24th, 2020 • Uncategorized5 Comments »

Pandemic shmandemic. High end is selling. The low end is selling and in between is selling. This 60 burst went to Texas not too long ago. I’ve got another if you’re looking.

I thought that the pandemic was going to affect he vintage guitar market and I was right. But I thought the market would slow down and I was wrong. It hasn’t. I thought it might tank but I was afraid to say that (not that I have the clout to tank the guitar market-I don’t). What I didn’t think would happen was that folks would be buying guitars like there was no tomorrow (and maybe there is no tomorrow which would explain it). I am selling nearly twice as many guitars now as I was selling before the pandemic and social distancing began. I can’t say with any certainty why this is happening but I can certainly tell you what I see and what I think might be going on.

First, it’s everywhere, not just the USA. In the past two months I’ve sold guitars to folks in Taiwan, Ireland, England, Israel, Japan and Canada. So, what is selling? Well, everything. High end stuff is selling. Player grade stuff is selling, stuff I’ve had in my shop for two years or more is selling. Guitars that aren’t terribly popular are selling. I sold a Guild Thunderbird, an Epiphone Wilshire, an ES-175, a J-160E, a Gretsch 6120 along with the usual assortment of 335’s and 345’s ad 355’s. I even sold my personal Partscaster which I hardly ever played. But the usual high end stuff is selling too-a couple of 59 ES-345’s, a refinished 60 burst, a 58 335 and a 59 335. Tweed amps are going. Two Bassmans, a Super and a Deluxe since this thing began. I lowered some prices in anticipation of a weakened market but it hasn’t happened. Anybody know why?

I have theories. The most obvious is sheer boredom. Staying home, especially if you live in an apartment (which I don’t) must be suffocating. Nothing brightens up a dull existence like a “new” guitar. I get at least a hundred a year and it still feels like Christmas morning every time one arrives. Of course, you’re going to drive your family up the wall if you’re using all that spare time to practice your scales and learn some new licks and aren’t you all ready to kill each other as it is? No? OK. But there’s a limit to how much boredom can drive the market. You need money to feed the vintage habit and with so many folks out of work, you might think this is a bad time to be buying and selling guitars. Apparently not. That leads me to another theory. It’s the “I might die tomorrow, so I should get the things that will really make me happy now” theory. I like this theory because it transcends money and boredom. It also has no end. Just because a 59 335 makes you happy today doesn’t mean a 54 Telecaster won’t make you even happier tomorrow. And then there’s always the day after tomorrow to think about. Or maybe you just want to park your money somewhere other than the stock market. Let’s consider that.

The stock market has taken a hit and it is coming back strongly but with the long term economic effects of the pandemic still in the theoretical realm, who knows how long any perceived recovery is going to last. How long before the airline, entertainment, hospitality and restaurant industries will get back to something approaching normal? Opening states too early is showing some bad, bad results. See you in September? I think not. This thing is here until they can vaccinate about a zillion people. So, where do you put your money once you’ve lost faith in the stock market? Gold is way up so you’ve probably missed the boat on that one. Vintage automobiles? There’s no place to go (there’s a pandemic going on or haven’t you noticed?) and looking at your 54 MG in the garage has a limited appeal. Vintage guitars? At least you can sit and play your vintage guitar while it appreciates (or not) even if the wife and kids are ready to kill you for spending hours on end trying to be Jimmy Page in that little shoe box of an apartment you’re stuck in. How about real estate? Get a house with an outbuilding so you can play your guitar without raising the homicide rate in your town. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Amps are flying out the door as well. I started this pandemic with 7 tweed Bassmans. I’m down to 5 (woe is me).