GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Things I Don’t Care About, Part 2

March 11th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3552 Comments »
Mint but how do I know that none of the parts have been changed? Do I have to take someone's word for it or is there a way to tell? I mean don't all vintage parts look pretty much the same?  No, the photo isn't backwards, it's a mint 58 lefty thanks to Alex P.

Mint but how do I know that none of the parts have been changed? Do I have to take someone’s word for it or is there a way to tell? I mean don’t all vintage parts look pretty much the same?
No, the photo isn’t backwards, it’s a mint 58 lefty thanks to Alex P.

In the last post, I discussed three elements-uh, let’s see, there was tone, there was playability and there was one more. Oh, yeah, the Department of Energy. No, that was Rick Perry. It was great looks. The fourth element worthy of some discussion is originality. For the collector, it’s really important-to some more so than playability or tone. But there are some paradoxes when it comes to originality that probably drive collectors nuts.

First, there is a limit. I did have a 66 Stratocaster come into my shop from the original owner who tried to play it for a month when he was a kid (now in his 60’s) that still had five of its original strings. Apparently, he got discouraged when he broke the E string and never played it again. But, as the title of the post implies, I don’t care about the strings. And, to be fair, collectors don’t care either. It’s kind of cool that 50 year old guitars exist that still have their original strings but seriously, nobody cares. It’s like buying a classic automobile that still has it’s first tank of gas in it. The gas will be about as good as those strings. Beyond the original strings, there is room for debate. Some stuff, I care about. Some stuff I don’t.

Here’s the tricky part. You can’t know for absolutely certain that any removable part is original. Oh yeah?, you say-what if it’s the original owner and he knows he never changed any parts? Well, that will give you a fair level of assurance except when he brought it to his local luthier for a setup and the unscrupulous luthier scavenged the PAFs and replaced them with fakes. It happened to a 60 ES-345 I bought from its original owner in North Carolina a few years back. When I buy a guitar that is supposedly all original, I look at a few things. First, I check to see if all the parts are from the correct era. That’s easy. It won’t tell me if the part is original but if it’s vintage correct, I don’t really care because you simply can’t know for sure. But then I look at the wear pattern on the guitar. If the body is beat to hell but the gold is still on the tailpiece, an alarm goes off in my head. If the hardware is perfect and the neck has heavy player wear, there’s that alarm again. This type of forensics is really useful and generally follows simple logic. The guitar and all it parts should make sense as a used guitar. The less wear the guitar has, the easier it is to make the assumption of originality. That’s simply because there’s less evidence that tells you something is wrong. Counter intuitive, right? Sort of. But it’s harder to find a mint part than a worn part, so it makes sense.

Frets are a great indicator of a few things . If they are original and not worn much, the guitar probably either didn’t get played much or had flat wounds on it. It doesn’t tell me much about the rest of the guitar though. I do not care if a guitar is re-fretted as long as it’s done well. A serious collector will care and I understand that. If I’m looking for my holy grail guitar (59 stop tail 355 mono in black?), I won’t care about the frets (or much else). And that’s an important element. The real serious collectible and valuable ES models are often rare. Even the “common” ones are pretty rare in the over all scheme of things with hundreds, not thousands made. I had a buyer looking for a 59 mono big neck 355 the other day. I had a good one but it had been re-fretted and he decided to wait for one that wasn’t. Any big neck 355 is rare, monos more so. I hope he’s a patient man. There are probably less than 50 of them.

So, what else don’t I care about? Tuner tips on a 59-most are shrunken and if they are replaced, it isn’t a big deal to me. Saddles. Again, if they are correct, I don’t care (they should have the mill marks on the flat side). Saddles got lost all the time with a no wire bridge. Any part that is removable without evidence of it having been removed has to be vintage correct and have a wear pattern that makes sense. Otherwise I care. Use common sense and logic. If a part looks wrong for the guitar its on, it probably is wrong. Even if you know its vintage correct.

So, if you’re a collector looking for the most original guitar you can find, learn what’s correct and apply some simple forensics. You’ll be more comfortable with your choice and you’ll probably be right. Buying from a reputable dealer who knows his stuff will probably reassure you as well. As the old Russian proverb goes, Doveryai, no proveryai (trust but verify). And you thought President Reagan came up with that.

Maybe I'm better off paying way less for a great playing, great sounding player grade guitar. Then I won't care so much about originality. I'll spend less and know I'm getting a guitar that I can use day in and day out. Originality? Who cares as long as I love it.

Maybe I’m better off paying way less for a great playing, great sounding player grade guitar. Then I won’t care so much about originality. I’ll spend less and know I’m getting a guitar that I can use day in and day out. Originality? Who cares as long as I love it.

Things I Don’t Care About: Part 1

February 26th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3557 Comments »
This guitar had, if I'm remembering correctly, 29 filled holes in it. There was a removed arm rest, the bridge was repositioned, there was a removed back pad and a host of other insults. Played great. Sounded great and was a bargain to boot.

This 64 had, if I’m remembering correctly, 29 filled holes in it. There was a removed arm rest, the bridge was repositioned, there was a removed back pad, tuner change holes and a few other insults. Played great. Sounded great and was a bargain to boot. Looks pretty good from the front because nearly all the holes are on the back.

Odd name for a post. If I don’t care about it, why should I write about it? Because you do. And maybe you shouldn’t (or at least not so much). It’s in the nature of both guitarists and collectors to be detail oriented and more than a little picky. Guitar collectors who play their guitars and not lock them in a humidified cabinet are the most picky of all. Ideally, it has to be three things: great tone, great playability and great looking. It’s the fourth element-originality-that gets so many of us nuts. Here, we’ll talk about the first three. Or I’ll talk and you’ll (hopefully) listen.

Good news first. Great tone is achievable on the huge majority of pre Norlin (1969) ES 3×5’s. Yes, t-tops in a 68 are going to sound different than PAFs in a 58 but I’ve heard 68’s that are stunning. To get your great tone, you may have to fix a sagging bridge or raise or lower the pickups, do a re-fret or put in a new nut but these are the kind of changes I don’t care about. Put the old nut and bridge in the case and stop worrying. What about bad wood? There is nothing wrong with the wood through the 60’s. It’s maple and poplar plywood (usually) and its properly dried and it has had 50 years to settle in. Just play the average 70’s 335 and you’ll notice a difference-the wood changed-it’s heavier and less resonant. There’s also less of it as they started shortening the center bock and got rid of the mahogany end pieces. Yes, there are great sounding 70’s 335’s. Just not a lot of them. There are good and not so good PAFs, patent numbers and t-tops. Changing a pickup you don’t like for another correct one is not a big deal to most of us. It is, in fact, something I don’t care about. Do I prefer the originals? I do but not if they don’t sound good.

Appearance issues can kill a deal pretty quickly with a lot of players but great tone often trumps it. Most players will take an ugly guitar that plays great over a beautiful guitar that plays like crap. On the other hand, why shouldn’t you have both. Answer? You should but it’s gonna cost you. But there are, once again, things I don’t care about. Wear in the usual places-arm, back and back of the neck certainly affect the appearance and that should be reflected in the price. If you care about it, then I get it and I agree. It’s just that the price can be a compelling force even if you don’t like the appearance.  The back of the neck is the exception. It doesn’t particularly bother me visually or feel wise but I get that it bothers some players. But that’s a point to be made under “playability”. Plugged holes are really an appearance issue too and also something I don’t really care about as long as it’s reflected in the price. Yes, it kills the “investment” angle but a 335 with a couple of Bigsby holes and a removed coil tap switch will sound the same as a collector grade one. If you cut a big access panel in the back of a 335, it won’t affect the tone or playability either. But I’ll never buy one that has had that done unless it’s something so rare that I’ll never see another. No logical reason I just hate it.  Full disclosure? Yes, I bought a stop tail 355 with an access panel.

Playability can be the tricky part. There’s a lot that can be done by a competent luthier to make a marginal player into a good one. But can we make it into a great one? It depends on what’s wrong. It’s hard to separate playability from tone sometimes but if you play a 335 unplugged, you’ll have a better understanding of where they overlap and where they don’t. Resonance is a tone component and if it’s not good unplugged, it doesn’t mean it won’t sound good plugged in. The reverse is true as well. Unplugged resonance is, in fact, something I don’t care about because I will be playing plugged in. But playability goes way beyond that.

If  the guitar doesn’t feel good to you, you need to consider why that is. Action? Generally fixable. Bad intonation? Generally fixable. Dead frets? Inconsistent sustain? Poor balance between strings? There are so many factors involved in playability that I often take the easy way out when confronted with a 335 that doesn’t play well. I walk away. It’s rare for a 335 to be a dog (at least from 58-68). But I’ve had 335’s (and 345’s and 355’s) with a perfectly straight neck, level frets, a properly cut nut a no sign of a structural issue that fret out, don’t sustain, have “wolf” notes (notes that are louder or more resonant than others), buzzes, rattles and on and on. My advice? If you don’t like the way it plays, don’t buy it.  The luthiers will disagree and probably rightly so but there are limits. Money limits. I had a 61 335 that looked just great but could not be made playable. It was dull sounding and the sustain was really inconsistent all over the fretboard. It went to three separate and very competent luthiers. It had two fret jobs with different sized fret wire and a fingerboard planing. After spending close to $1000 on it, I gave up. To paraphrase Bob Fosse “I can’t make you a good player but I can make you a better player”. But I don’t want a better player. I want a good one.

Next, we’ll look at the final element-originality. This is the one that makes so many player/collectors nuts. It’s also the one that makes me nuts.

You really wanted to se the holes, didn't you. OK, here's the back. No one will ever see it.

You really wanted to se the holes, didn’t you. OK, here’s the back. No one will ever see it.

Renecks Revisited

February 6th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 3452 Comments »

 

This was re-necked at Gibson back in 2007 or so. They did a great job using the neck from a Clapton reissue and charging me $4000. Sure played great though.

This was re-necked at Gibson back in 2010 or so. They did a great job using the neck from a Clapton reissue and charging me $4000. I wish I still had the detail shots. Sure played great though.

About 6 and a half years ago, back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a post called “Renecks, not Rednecks”. You can find it here. The post dealt with how to spot a renecked ES model (and how to tell a redneck from a reneck which, by the way is the default spelling the stupid spellchecker decides I really want to write when I write the term reneck without a dash). Well, since I wrote that post in October of 2010, I’ve come to look at renecked 3x5s a little differently. They still aren’t collector grade stuff but there is a lot to be said for bringing a great sounding guitar back into the realm of real playability and personal preference.

I’ve had a few done since that post and will talk about my experiences. The first was a red 335 that I bought off Ebay with all of its parts but no neck. I was told it was a 65 but in 20/20 hindsight, I think it was a 68-no headstock inlay to tip me off and I didn’t notice whether the f-holes were big or small. I wrote to the repair folks at Gibson and they told me that there weren’t any necks that would fit a 65/68 except for the recently released necks from the Eric Clapton “Crossroads” reissue. I was thrilled (until they told me how much it would cost). The estimate was $4000 (and six months). I had paid around $1500 for the body and hardware so I thought it might make a nice player for me. The market was pretty weak in 2011 but I went ahead and they did a truly excellent job except that the G string wouldn’t intonate-they must have mis-measured the scale by a fraction of an inch. I was able to to find a luthier who worked some magic on the nut and the problem was solved. It turned out to be a great player with a great neck and I eventually sold it and didn’t make a dime on it. Why? Probably because it had been re-necked. I swore off projects for a while.

A number of years later I bought a 61 dot neck that sounded absolutely glorious but had a badly broken and badly repaired headstock. I also didn’t like the flat neck profile much. I sold the guitar to a dealer in Toronto who had it renecked by Gord Barry who, I believe, works (or worked) at the well known 12th Fret guitar shop there. He used an old growth piece of mahogany, the original fingerboard, binding and truss rod and carved a very 59ish profile. I can’t remember if he used the headstock inlay or not on this one. The work cost around $3500 which, when you’re talking about a dot neck isn’t so much, really. especially when it goes from being a great sounding busted 61 with a so-so neck to being a great sounding intact 61 with a custom neck profile. Not long after the work was done, the guitar was offered back to me and I remembered what a great sounding guitar it was. The work was spectacular. If the seller hadn’t disclosed the reneck, I don’t think anyone would have known-not even me. It was not an easy guitar to sell. The purists scoffed at it but the logic was pretty sound. You were basically getting a player grade 61 with a 59 neck. The only way to get a big 59 neck is to buy a 59 (or a 58) and that would set you back $30K or so even for a player grade. So, I sold it for around $15K and didn’t exactly get rich off of it.  Upside? The buyer still has it and tells me how much he loves it every time I speak to him. Lucky guy.

That's what the re-neck looks like on that 61. Looks pretty original to me

That’s what the re-neck looks like on that 61. Looks pretty original to me

Not long ago, I bought a 60 335 with a 66 block neck on it. I called Gord Barry and asked if he could do the same work on this one. We couldn’t use the fingerboard (it had block markers) but I had a piece of beautiful Brazilian I’d been saving for decades. He used the original truss rod and the headstock overlay in all its checked and yellowed glory. The result was stunning. Another ruined dot neck brought back to life. Again, I didn’t make a dime on it but sold it to a regular client who has owned no less than a dozen dot necks (4 of which he bought from me). The reneck is his favorite. Same deal-a great sounding guitar turned from an uncollectible marginal player to an uncollectible great player. That’s a good return but not particularly good business. It is good PR though. There are some very happy players out there who bought themselves killer dot neck players with the neck profile they really wanted and saved $10000 or more.

A few weeks ago I bought a fairly well trashed ES-345 TDN-yes, a blonde. It had two holes drilled in the top, all the wrong parts, a heavily shaved neck and two repaired headstock breaks. The finish was in very good shape though and the wood was quite stunning. The solution was obvious. It was, after all, an original finish blonde 345 and they only made 50 of them. So off it goes. We will use the original fingerboard, bindings and truss rod and hopefully the headstock overlay. It will get a proper 59 neck carve using a old growth piece of mahogany. We’ll fill the two holes and have a killer player. Add a couple of uncovered double white PAFs and we’ll have something so cool I won’t be able to let it go. What’s it worth? Beats me.

What makes me OK with doing this is that as long as the luthier can get the good old wood, I don’t really care if the neck was made by a skilled factory worker in 1959 or an accomplished luthier in 2017. If one is better at it than the other, I certainly can’t tell. It will take a long time to get that blondie done-guys like this are always booked well in advance, so I expect to have it completed by September. I’m totally stoked.

Add an old growth mahogany 59 profile new neck, the original board, bindings and frets, a correct long guard, the right knobs  and fill those nasty holes and I'll have a keeper. If not for me then for somebody.

Add an old growth mahogany 59 profile new neck, the original board, bindings and frets, a correct long guard, the right knobs and fill those nasty holes and I’ll have a keeper. If not for me then for somebody.

Rosewood Ban

January 30th, 2017 • Uncategorized3 Comments »
It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it's all rosewood.

It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it’s all rosewood.

I’m a big environmentalist and I understand fully the actions taken by governments to protect endangered species. Protecting elephants by making trafficking in ivory illegal is laudable and necessary. Prohibiting the cutting of dalbergia nigra trees is important as well. So is acknowledging and acting on climate change. The problem is not in the acknowledgement of the crises. The problem is in the methodology undertaken by governments to address these crises.

It doesn’t save any elephants to strip the ivory off an antique piano. I wrote a post about this a few years ago when a client told the story of her antique French Erard piano being refused entry into the USA. Find that post here. The government approach to preserving Brazilian rosewood has been flawed and unwieldy but made some sense. It took too long (up to 90 days) to get certification and was fairly expensive ($100 per guitar). But the exemption of pre ban guitars (1992 and earlier) was reasonable. All you had to do was prove the guitar was made before that date. All of this was a pain in the ass but conservation of endangered species is important. I don’t know what the countries where Dalbergia Nigra grows have been doing to keep poachers from illegally cutting the trees that remain. Once the wood is cut, all the regulations in the world won’t bring back that tree. You have to keep it from being cut. This is where the time, money and effort should be going. I hope the government is taking the money collected for certification is spending it to keep the remaining trees from being poached. But the game has changed.

CITES has banned ALL rosewood. You can thank the Chinese for this since the bulk of the rosewood being cut is going to China as furniture. Apparently, the supply of Indian rosewood and a few other species has been affected in a detrimental way  (Vietnam was cited as a prime example). There is still, apparently, plenty of Indian rosewood left but trying to fix the problem before it becomes a crisis is good management . There was, however, another reason for doing this as I understand it. The Customs officials couldn’t tell Brazilian rosewood from Indian rosewood, so the solution was to ban it all. It’s a little like saying that since your doctor doesn’t know your spleen from your appendix, he should just remove both of them. You didn’t need them anyway. That adds a ton of paperwork and a not insignificant amount of dollars to the cost of all guitars-not just vintage ones. I don’t know all the details yet but if the wheels of the bureaucracy turn as slowly as they have in the past, you aren’t going to get your guitar anytime soon. And you’ll end up paying an additional fee for the certification. Once the guitar is certified, it’s certified so when you go to sell it, you will have the correct documentation in hand.

Note that this only affects international shipments. All types of rosewood can still be shipped domestically. I’m taking a wait and see approach to the new rules. I don’t ship many pre ’92 guitars anyway, the changes probably won’t affect me much. Also, the fact that they weren’t all that diligent in seeking out rosewood made it pretty manageable. I only had two guitars stopped by Customs for “illegal” woods. In both cases, they were wrong but it did hold up my shipment. Mostly, it seemed that they didn’t pay much attention-certification or not. That is likely to change. Without the proper certification, Customs can take your 59 ES-335 and confiscate it. You have no recourse. So, if you’re a big exporter, get your “Master File” in order. If not, be ready to wait 60-90 days to get your guitar certified

 

A Day Late (and more than a dollar short)

January 17th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3556 Comments »
This near mint 61 sold for $25K. If it was a 60, it would have sold for at least $30, if not $32K. It's 100% identical to a late 60 and that's something worth knowing.

This near mint 61 sold for $25K. If it was a 60, it would have sold for at least $30, if not $32K.
It’s 100% identical to a late 60 and that’s something worth knowing.

Guitars are not automobiles. Buyers seem to forget that sometimes and that can cost you. Let me elucidate. Cars have always had what we all call “model years”. I remember when I was a kid, my Dad would take us around-usually in the Fall around Halloween-to all the local car dealers to see the “new models”. Back in the late 50’s and through the 60’s and well into the 70’s, cars got a fairly extensive redesign every year or two. Go look. A 55 T-bird looks a lot like a 56 but a 57 is different and a 58 is even more different. A 59 looks a lot like a 58 as does a 60 but a 61 is totally different again. Cadillacs from the era are another good example. Look how the fins grow to humongous from 55 to 59 and shrink back through the 60’s. It was good marketing but it was expensive. Unlike the guitars of the era, cars are a big ticket item costing thousands. A few hundred dollars got you a 335, so complete retooling every couple of years didn’t make much sense. But, and I’m as guilty as you are, guitar players and collectors alike treat guitars as if they had “model years” as well and, at least during the period from the 50’s through the 60’s, they simply didn’t.

There were plenty of changes but nearly all of them occurred during a given year-not on some predetermined date that would designate these guitars as “59” or “60” or whatever. We can accurately (more or less) date the guitars we so desire but the fact that a particular guitar from a particular year is worth x dollars and a guitar from the following year is worth y dollars is a big flaw in our system of valuation. Year dating is very convenient but what I would call feature dating is more accurate. I recently sold a really clear example of this phenomenon.

A near mint, no issue mid to late 1960 ES-335 stop tail is a $30,000 guitar plus or minus a few grand depending on how close to mint it is and some squishy stuff like tone and playability. So, why is a 61 so much less? It isn’t like they changed anything on January 1. Gibson didn’t make changes that way. They made changes when changes were needed or wanted and they often phased them in over weeks or even months. It is actually extremely rare for a change to have been made at year end. So, back to the 61. I had a near mint 61 from early January. Nice neck-wide but sort of flat, just like a 60. It had a white switch tip-just like a late 60. It also had a long guard-I thought that added considerable value to this particular 61 because the short guard is one of the reasons folks don’t pay big bucks for a 61. Interestingly, there are late 60 335’s with short guards and early 61’s with long guards. That transition thing I mentioned. It isn’t all that logical, but there it is. The 61 sold for $25000 which, I think, was a $5000-$7000 savings over a guitar that was made a few weeks earlier with all the same features. The buyer was smart. He looked at a 60 that was priced much higher and chose the 61.

This phenomenon exists on a few other instances-more dramatically with 335’s than 345’s or 355’s. An interesting one is the difference between a late 59 and an early 60 dot neck. There is no difference. None. zip. They are absolutely identical except for the price. A mint late 59 will cost you close to $45K. A mint early 60? Maybe $38K on a good day. So, a day late for that 60 will be more than a dollar short. It will be more like $7000 short. But the guitar community reveres 59 Gibsons. Again, I don’t make the rules.

A late 58 will save you a few thousand over an early 59-not as much as the 60-61 or 59 to 60 but enough. Similarly,  a very early 65 is exactly the same as a late 64. It still has the stop tail at least through January and into February, so there are more than a few. A stop tail 64 is approaching $20,000 if a good clean, no issue example. The same with a 65 serial number will be at least $5000 less. 66 to 67 isn’t very dramatic, nor is 67 to 68. After that it starts getting tricky due to the major design changes that occurred when the nice folks at the Norlin Corp (beer, cement) took the wheel and drove Gibson into a sink hole. Just like an automobile.

This completely stunning early 60 sold for $32000. If this was a late 59, it would have been at least $40K. Maybe more. If you picked it up, it would feel and look just like a late 59 because it is the same in every way.

This completely stunning early 60 sold for $32000. If this was a late 59, it would have been at least $40K. Maybe more. If you picked it up, it would feel and look just like a late 59 because it is the same in every way.

Sometimes It’s Just Firewood

January 11th, 2017 • Gibson General6 Comments »
Is this going to be Fender necks? Maybe Les Paul tops? Or is it going to heat my house?

Is this going to be Fender necks? Maybe Les Paul tops? Or is it going to heat my house?

The Les Paul guys all go nuts over their beautiful flame maple tops. “Mine’s AAAAA.” Oh, yeah? Mine’s AAAAAA. I don’t know what any of that means but sometimes you have to wonder about all the fuss about figured maple. It’s pretty wood-no doubt about that and it makes a real attractive top for a Les Paul. It’s not terribly common on ES models and those that have it get a lot of attention but really don’t command much of a premium, if any, on the open market. Figuring doesn’t improve tone but there’s more to wood than its tonal qualities. I like figured wood a lot but it’s really hard to split.

Yes, that’s firewood in the photo. I get my wood from a local landscaper and I always ask for maple (because it smells nice and burns well). And I always find a few logs of figured maple. It really isn’t that uncommon up here in New England. In fact, I can’t recall a year when I didn’t get any in my usual cord or two of firewood. There are a few points to be made here. One, wood is just wood. What talented folks can do with it separates a Les Paul top from that stack of firewood. I’m told that the figuring in maple is the result of some kind of stress on the tree-like a virus. I’ve also been told it has nothing to do with that. I read a good article about it written by collector Mike Slubowski who runs the Les Paul Forum. Here’s a link. Read it. You’ll learn something. The next point is that when used in a guitar, it is ornamental. How important that is has to do with how you see your guitar. Is it a work of art? A thing of beauty? A tool of your trade?

That’s one of the very cool things about guitars. They are all of those things. Or none. They can be monumentally ugly (reverse flying vee) or stunningly beautiful (too many to list). A beautiful guitar can play like crap. An ugly guitar can play brilliantly. There is no doubt that beautifully figured wood is a large part of what makes a guitar a work of art. Figured maple, koa, macassar ebony, bubinga, cocobolo and a zillion other species make for stunning guitars.

It also makes a pretty good fire. Stay warm.

Flamey ES's can be pretty stunning and the equal of any Les Paul. This 59 ES-345 was actually a refinished sunburst.

Flamey ES’s can be pretty stunning and the equal of any Les Paul. This 59 ES-345 was actually a refinished sunburst. I don’t think it will burn that well though.

Year Ender: 345’s and 355’s

December 27th, 2016 • ES 345, ES 3555 Comments »
Post 59 ES-345's are still cheap. A few years ago, I could have sold this very clean watermelon red 60 for $16K. Today, it's $13K. It's got a couple of changed parts but still, $13K? For this? I must be nuts.

Post 59 ES-345’s are still cheap. A few years ago, I could have sold this very clean watermelon red 60 for $17K. Today, it’s $13K. It’s got a couple of changed parts but still, $13K? For this? I must be nuts.

If you read last year’s year ender, you would have noted that 345’s were really in the dumper. Stereo 355’s were in the same leaky boat. But that was then and this is now. And, somewhat surprisingly, they are pretty much right where they were then only now… it’s now. Still a tough sell and still a smart buy. I get that they aren’t as good an investment as a 335. I get that they aren’t as desirable as a 335. But I also get that they are every bit as good (and often better) than a 335 and they cost about half as much. Leave the stereo VT circuit or pull it out. I don’t care (as long as you put the original harness in the case). I sold a stop tail 64 this month with no issues-just some wear-to a smart buyer in Italy for under $10K. That same guitar, had it been a 335, would have been at least $17K. Stereo 355’s are the same story only maybe a little worse since there aren’t more than a handful of stop tails and the Bigsby (or sideways or Maestro) only makes it harder to sell. As these guitars dip below $10K, they become a pretty amazing deal. Most gold hardware guitars made up through 63 have PAFs and some 64’s do as well.  At the current market value of over $2000 each for PAFs, these guitars are no brainers.  When you consider the cost of a brand new Gibson, these make even more sense. They are a steal. Truthfully, I don’t see much more downside and I’ll likely be buying well priced stop tail 345’s as they come up. Yeah, there are still plenty of buyers who think their 60 is worth $20K or more but they either must not want to sell them or they are delusional (or both).

The exception to the above are the 59’s and the mono 355’s. Especially the early ones. An early big neck mono 59 355 or a “first rack” stop tail 59 ES-345 is a hot, hot guitar. I can sell as many as I get. I just can’t get that many. Both have cracked the $20K mark and sell very quickly-often in a day or two. Later 59’s are also strong but not quite at the level of these rarefied fat boys. A transitional neck 59 345 stop tail will be in the mid teens for sure and a really collector clean one might hit the high teens. Knock off 15%-20% for a Bigsby version. Since virtually all 59 355’s are Bigsby’s, the discount is built in. A 59 355 stereo falls somewhere below a stop tail 345 and a Bigsby 345. I still can’t figure out why a late 59 is worth more than an early 60, which is identical in every way, but I don’t make the rules.

And speaking of early 60’s, what is keeping the prices so low on 60-64 ES-345’s and stereo 355’s? There has been a quiet trend toward slimmer necks. Not everyone can play the real fatties but everyone seems to like to talk them up. I recently switched from playing a huge neck 58 to playing a transitional 60. As my hands get older, my ability to move quickly with all that wood diminishes. So, maybe with so much of my clientele over 50, it’s just the arthritis talking. But it’s talking fairly loud. Even so,  the prices remain fairly depressed. I remember selling a Bigsby 60 back in 2010 for $12000. I’d be lucky to get anywhere near that much today and the overall market is well up from then. If, indeed, the slimmer necks are getting more love these days, then the 60-63 market is poised to move upward. And it should. Even the slim neck 345’s and 355’s can be spectacularly good. There is a school of thought that equates fat necks with great tone and while I agree to an extent, it is not a rule. I recently had a 62 that was stunningly good and there is another 62 in my all time top five.

So, get out there and find the bargains. They are out there for sure. A 60-64 ES-345 or 355 is calling your name. I think I can hear it now. Or maybe that’s just my ears ringing from diming that tweed Bandmaster I’m so fond of.

Of course all bets are off if the 345 in question happens to be factory black. These went for some pretty big bucks in 2016. I hope I find another pair.

Of course all bets are off if the 345 in question happens to be factory black. These went for some pretty big bucks in 2016. I hope I find another pair.

Year Ender-335’s

December 21st, 2016 • ES 3354 Comments »

 

Dot necks continued to be the leader of the group.  They were strong all year with the 1960 models showing considerable growth, especially the early ones with the 59 features.

Dot necks continued to be the leader of the group.
They were strong all year with the 1960 models showing considerable growth, especially the early ones with the 59 features. This is a 61.

Well, that just about wraps up another calendar year and that means it’s time to look back and assess what happened. Specifically, I want to look at the vintage guitars market. We will leave politics alone. I have some pretty strong opinions but they are largely irrelevant when talking about old guitars.

2016 was, to a great extent, an “up” year. Values for nearly all vintage guitars were up incrementally. Most have kicked up value wise in the single digits-10% or less. A few have dropped a bit (like 50’s and 60’s Strats) and a few have shot up significantly (like blonde 335’s). Even though I’m pretty active in vintage guitars that aren’t 3×5’s, I don’t think I sell enough of them to identify major trends in value based solely on my own experience. While it’s true that I sold around 10 vintage Strats this year and felt a clear and present downward pressure on price, I will leave it at that. No analysis, no insight beyond simple observation. But the 58-64 335 market is my market.

There are lots of dealers who are way bigger than I am-by orders of magnitude bigger. I keep, at most, 50 guitars in stock at all times-mostly ES335’s, 345’s and 355’s from 1958 to 1964. There’s an occasional mid or late 60’s example and maybe an 81-84 here and there but you can count those on two hands.  There are dealers with many hundreds of vintage guitars and a few with over a thousand. But, I don’t think you’ll find another who bought and sold nearly as many early vintage ES models as I did this past year: More than 70 on the buy side and 65 on the sell side. That puts me in a position to identify and quantify the trends in this very narrow market.

Most striking is the scarcity of really good original early 335’s. Collectors and players have been enthusiastically buying up the good ones for more than twenty years and there is a very finite number of them and it isn’t a big number. When you take away the ones that have been broken, refinished or heavily modified, the numbers are all the more striking. There were only around 600 335’s built in 1959. Given the number of guitar players out there, that’s not a big number. How many are left in the “wild”? Judging by my experience this year, not very many. The majority of the 59’s I saw this year came from collectors or players thinning their herds. That’s fine-it keeps the market moving but to find an uncirculated one owner 59 has become a once or twice a year experience. My experience this year with 58’s was largely the same. As you move into the 60’s, the numbers go up and by 64, Gibson had made more than 1200 335’s which is probably why I see so many more of them. So, which 335’s did what in 2016?

The big story this year is the incredible scarcity of blonde 335’s. I saw only 3 this year. A very nice bound 58, a near mint 60 (which I still have) and a Bigsby 59. I know of a sale of a 59 at $90K at the high end and a sale of a 60 Bigsby (by me) with a few issues at $40K. My stop tail 58 sold at $82K. That’s up nearly 20% over last year. Asking prices have reached $100,000 (and that’s a 60).

Early dot necks (58-early 60) were very strong this year but too many dealers are being overly “ambitious” in their pricing and the guitars are sitting for months (or years). This hurts the market because the individual sellers think their guitars are worth the asking price they see on Reverb.com or Ebay or Gbase. So, I get offered average sunburst 59 335’s at $40,000 or even more, which, of course, they aren’t worth. I don’t know what others get for their guitars, but I know what I get. Top dollar for a sunburst 59 is around $45K. And that’s for a no excuses, hundred percent original guitar in near mint condition.

Later 60 and 61 dot necks are, of course, less popular due to the thinner neck but that seems to be changing. The trend toward huge necks seems to be reversing. I think folks talked up the big necks and made them a big deal but practicality has overtaken the “mine’s bigger than yours” attitude that has prevailed for years. I’m seeing more players asking for slimmer necks and that recent trend is driving up not only those those years but 62’s and 63’s as well. 2015 was pretty flat for 60-63 but 2016 has seen a pretty good bump both in stop tails and Bigsbys. Stop tail 60 dot necks are well into the $30K plus range and 61’s are approaching $25K or more. As always, a mint example is going to command a premium.

Early blocks from 62-63 (small necks) were up as well. The real world price hasn’t cracked $20K despite what so many sellers are asking. I sold around 15 62 and 63’s this year and never once cracked $20K. Finally the venerable 64, still the easiest 335 to sell, has bumped up in value in 2016. The red stop tails are the leader but sunburst stops are just as valuable-they just don’t sell as fast. Even though the vast majority don’t have PAFs, they still command prices equal and sometimes greater than the 62-63s with them. Bigsby’s in top condition have passed $15K and are heading up and top condition stop tails are likely to push past $20K any day now.

Next we’ll look at 345’s and 355’s.

Block necks have broken out of their 2015 doldrums. This is a mint 64

Block necks have broken out of their 2015 doldrums. This is a mint 64

More One Off Fun

December 1st, 2016 • ES 35510 Comments »
Not your run of the mill 355. This is a late 1960 special order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

OK, this is too obvious.

OK, this is too obvious.

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

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

First 345’s-Before the “First Rack”

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

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

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

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a reader who said he had a very early 345 with the serial number A29133-a full 500 plus numbers earlier than the presumed first one shipped. Not just 500 numbers but two months earlier. On top of that the FON is 1958. Imagine my surprise. So, I got in touch with my inside guy at Gibson who checked the records to try to find the earliest 345 in the book and, sure enough, four ES-345’s were shipped on February 11th. They are serial numbers A29131-A29134. The FON is very late 58-T7303-xx. Strangely, there is also a rack designated as S7303 and that’s not supposed to happen. Did they forget to change the letter on the stamp (like the Fender amp charts from ’66) and then noticed it part way through the rack? Consider this (this is really geeky): serial number A 29132 and 29133-both 345’s both have the FON T7303. Serial number A 29548 (6 weeks later, more or less) is S7303. The FONs are supposed to be sequential and chronological with the letter changing at the first of the year and the numbers simply continuing. So, 7304 could have been an “S” but 7303 could not since it was already a “T”. Clear as mud. Right?

Anyway, we’ve got four 345’s that I’ll have to call “pre first rack”. They have all of the same features as the typical first rack 345’s-short leg PAF, small rout for the Varitone choke, thin top and huge neck. There are also two others that shipped in the period between Feb 11 and April 20th. One is A29623 which would be the 5th one shipped. There is one other and then the blonde A29656 mentioned in the first paragraph that has been the earliest known for some time. I’ve been compiling a FON database for nearly two years now and the more entries I make, the more confusing it gets. The overlaps at year end is just the beginning but that’s another post. So, were the first four prototypes? Probably not since they shipped to dealers and they had no unusual notes on the ledger page. Were there prototypes before these first four shipped? Hard to know. It’s likely there were but none have surfaced.

Just in case you aren’t confused enough, the first 345 was supposed to have gone to Hank Garland in 1958 but his is serial number A29915 which is a lot later — mid May 59. But, to add fuel to the controversy, I have A29914 in my database (the one right before Hank’s supposed prototype) and it was from the earliest numerical “first rack” (S8537) if you don’t include the recently discovered ones I’m writing about. So, how is that possible? The Garland family’s recollection and “paperwork” is a little slippery, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in their “certificate of authenticity”, signed, not by anyone at Gibson, but by Hank Garland and a Robert B. Garland.  No way to know anything for sure about this, so, let’s put that aside.

In any case, conventional wisdom is once again blown to bits. We have an earlier and probably the earliest run of 345’s there is. Two have surfaced-A29132 is a Bigsby with pearl dots and A29133 is a stop tail. Keep your eyes open for A29131-that’s supposed to be the first. Thanks to the nice folks at Gibson for their help.

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

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