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And Now for Something Completely Different

November 17th, 2017 • Uncategorized1 Comment »

I was supposed to do part 2 of my “Secret Sauce” post next but I was blasting around Ebay-which I don’t do so much any more and found a few things that made me question the sanity of some of the folks who buy and sell vintage gear. I know collectors are pretty nutty. A white pickup ring is worth 20 times what a black one is worth. An obsolete plastic switch tip (catalin) is $200 (and I buy them all the time). The top of the ES line is worth half what the bottom of the line is worth (355 vs 335). So much of the vintage guitar business is counter intuitive and we’ve all come to accept most of it’s silliness. But not all of it. There is no shortage of misguided sales and misguided sellers. Today, I found some real beauties.

How much is this worthless pile of plastic worth? Did I say worthless? This is VINTAGE, baby. Read on.

Broken parts generally aren’t worth much but that didn’t stop the seller of a completely off gassed 355 pick guard from putting it up on Ebay starting at $99 and noting it is “for repair”. Well, you can’t repair an off gassed guard that’s in dozens of pieces. It’s a worthless pile of celluloid. Maybe if the binding was intact, you could use that to repair an intact guard that had a compromised binding but c’mon, 99 bucks for a pile of plastic shards? I suppose if you had a 355 with a repro guard and you wanted to put the off gassed one in the case to prove you still have the original might appeal to someone but putting an off gassing piece of celluloid in a case is a really bad idea. They give off nitric acid which will trash your hardware. Hey, I put original tuners with shrunken tips in the case pocket of 59’s all the time but at least the new owner gets the option of retipping them. If I get a 58 325 with a collapsed low profile ABR-1, I always put it in the case but I don’t think I would go out of my way to buy a broken one to put in there.

Duane Allman played through this speaker. Well, not this cone but he did own this speaker frame. Easily worth 6 times it’s usual retail price, right?

I never thought I would see something more dodgy than the $100,000 64 “Clapton” 335 that the seller felt commanded a 500% premium over a run of the mill 64 (because it was 90 serial numbers away from Clapton’s) but now I think I have. A typical re-coned JBL D-120F is a $175 speaker and they are really excellent speakers if you play clean. But this one is $1035-a 600% premium. Why the big markup? Because Duane Allman played through it except it’s been re-coned so he really didn’t. OK, he owned it and that’s a bit of a conversation starter but 6 times the usual price? I have a set of stereo speakers that I played an Allman Brothers record through, so isn’t that kind of like Duane playing through my speakers? It’s not like any of Duane’s DNA comes through the amp or anything. Artist guitars and gear are not something I deal in for this very reason. The way I see it, unless the artist is closely associated with the guitar (or is a huge star, like a Beatle), I think it’s a fool’s game. I’ve had a few famous players come into my shop and play a bunch of guitars but I wouldn’t dream of asking a premium because that player played it. I can see this on Ebay …”1960 ES-335 dot neck played (with photo) by [insert famous guitar players name here]…$125,000 complete with DNA and sweat (it was a hot day). I will sell the DNA separately if requested.

Finally, here’s a piece of masking tape from inside a Fender guitar or amp with the name of the worker on it. Remarkably, somebody actually paid $30 for it. Nutty? I rest my case.

Old masking tape with the name Rene on it. Put this in the control cavity of your Telecaster and increase it’s value by a buck. How do you authenticate this? I could probably sell “Lupe” reproduction old masking tape for your old tweed amp for $20 a pop.

Secret Sauce, Part 1

November 16th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3553 Comments »

Number 9 on the top ten list is this 59 ES-345 in red-possibly the first red 345 ever made. The pickups are white/zebra, the neck is fat, the top is thick and the neck angle is normal.

I try to keep a record of which ES-335’s sound best (“top ten”) which is not an easy task. First off, I sell all the guitars I get so that I have to remember what a guitar sounded like years after I last heard or played it. I keep notes on each guitar but tone is so subjective that I don’t trust my own notes sometimes. In fact, I’ve had guitars that sound absolutely great one day and not so great the next. I’m guessing that if I lined up the ten best 335’s I’ve ever had and played them one after the other, they would sound really similar if not identical. But my ears aren’t your ears and my taste isn’t your taste. And my amp isn’t your amp. Beyond that, if I took the next ten that I’ve liked, I don’t think the difference would be all that great either. In fact, I no longer rate them in order-just top ten best and top twenty.

I bought an unbound 58 yesterday that is pretty close to mint and possible top ten contender. The conventional wisdom says the good ones get played. That’s often true but the converse is not. Just because a guitar is mint and barely played doesn’t mean it can’t sound great. If the original owner kept it under the bed and was a lousy player who gave up after 6 months in 1959, then the condition has nothing to do with the tone. This 58 is a monster. The dealer from whom I bought it thought it was the best 335 he had ever heard (and this was after I had agreed to buy it). I wasn’t playing it through a $12000 tweed Bandmaster either. I was playing it through a $1500 Gibson GA-80-a great amp but certainly not a legendary one. When I go back and look at my current list of the best 335’s I’ve owned, there are more 58 335’s than any other year and model. There are a bunch of 59’s (335’s, 345’s and a 355) some with a 58 factory order number (FON). There’s a 60 and a 62 on that list but 8 out of ten are 58’s and 59’s. Here is a list of the current top ten-ignore the order: #1 bound 58 335, #2  59 (58 FON) 335, #3 unbound 58 335, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 bound 58 335  #6 is an early 60 335, #7 is a 59 355 mono stop tail, #8 is a refinished 62 335, #9 is a 59 345 and #10 is a 59 335.

So, what’s the “secret sauce”? Is there any shared aspect of these guitars that tells us something about what makes them so good? All are stop tails. They all have long magnet PAFs except the 62 335. Many have the thin top-6 for sure, perhaps as many as 8-I don’t have notes on numbers 9 and 10-they could be either thin or regular tops. Numbers 1,3 and 5 have the shallow neck angle. How about the body depth? Body depth? Yes, the body depth kept getting deeper and deeper over the years. The typical 58 and many 59’s are 1.5-1.6″ deep. By 60, most were around 1.65″ deep. By 64, the average was around 1.72″ and by ’65, 1.8″ was not unusual. All have shallow bodies except the 60, the 62 and maybe one of the 59 335’s. What about neck profile? All but two have a chunky neck. The question is which aspects make the difference or is it a combination of all of them. Or is it the wood? Or how they were kept? Or how much they were played?

So, we’ve got the raw data but its interpretation is the sticking point. Maybe I need to look at a larger sampling or maybe it’s impossible to know without having all of them side by side. Doing things like swapping out pickups won’t tell us much since 9 out of 10 have PAFs. But wait. We all know that PAFs are not very consistent. We’ve all had experiences where a pickup swap has made a guitar better. Most of us believe that if a guitar sounds great unplugged, it will sound great plugged in. I don’t buy that as a rule. It’s a decent starting point but it’s not gospel. So, I think we know a great pickup is a big part of it. I believe the thin top makes a difference. The data tells me that. Or does it? None of the top ten are blondes. Three are red. One is refinished. So, six are sunbursts. That’s data but logic tells us that the color can’t possibly make a difference. Well, that same logic might tell us what does make the difference. We will look deeper in my next post.

Number 7 on the list is a 1959 mono factory stop tail ES-355. Big neck, white PAFs (which we all know sound better than black ones), thin top.

 

After the Goldrush

October 31st, 2017 • ES 33511 Comments »

The end of the Golden Era-the Gibson executives decide on what changes will make the 335 (or in this case, the 345) more competitive with the rival Fender line. Fortunately the company was in good hands.

Most of us will acknowledge that the most desirable 335’s are 58 and 59 dot necks. 64’s are pretty desirable too and all of these fall into what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Era”. Judging by the characteristics of these three years, the conclusion is pretty clear. People like guitars with big necks. But there has to be more to it than that or Gibson would have simply kept on with what they were doing. Since this era is largely our own perception of what’s desirable and what isn’t, you have to assume that something changed. Was it simply that Gibson and later Norlin, made inferior guitars? Well, that’s part of it.

So, what happened following the so-called “Golden Era”? I don’t like to make a blanket statement that all 70’s Gibson’s are crap. They aren’t, but here’s the distinction I draw between the Golden Era and it’s fringe (the late 60’s)…a bad 335 from 58 to mid 69 is the exception, not the rule. The bad 335 from mid 69 to 81 is more the rule. You have to look pretty hard to find a really bad 68. You have to look pretty hard to find a really good 78. If you own one and you love it, good for you-you found a good one. The intent of the Norlin Corp. who owned Gibson from 1969 to 1986 was to print money. Corners were cut, compromises were made, quality suffered and prices rose. The wood was often inferior, the center block nearly disappeared, pickups were simplified and suffered for it, necks were no longer a single piece of mahogany, the non too popular neck volute appeared and on and on. This might help explain the price differential between a 68 and a 78 but it doesn’t do much to explain the differential between a 59 and a 68.

The guitar boom that followed the Beatles to America was a cultural tidal wave. Sales of 335’s went from a few hundred a year (592 in 1959) to thousands ( close 6000 by 1967). That’s a tenfold increase and that must have put some strain on the work force. It is no secret that the quality in 67 is not as consistent as it was in 59. But, the quality was still quite good and apparently Gibson was able to handle the huge increase without ruining the product. There were, however, decisions made that make them less collectible or desirable than a 59 or a 64. The change from stop tail to trapeze in 65 was simple economics. It took longer to install a stop tail than it did to install a trapeze. Time is money. More important was the decrease in the nut width, dictated largely by competition from Fender where thinner meant faster (and we all wanted to be faster).  Imagine the vintage 335 market if 67’s had the wide nut and the big profile of a 59. The 335 market would be vastly different with thousands of additional, desirable wide nut 335’s available to satisfy the demand (the total for 65-68 is over 13000). OK, granted a 67 isn’t a 59 with a narrow nut-there’s the Indian rosewood board, the poly wound pre T (cheaper than enamel wire) and then t-top pickups and the chrome hardware (more durable than nickel) but still, they are more similar to a 59 than they are to a 78. I believe I could take a 67, put on a set of early patents, a stop tail and re-neck it with a wider mahogany neck and present you with a guitar you would swear was a 64 and you’d like it a lot.

The big dollars that 58-64’s command is not arbitrary. There are quantifiable reasons for their market values. I never took an economics course but the simple rules of supply and demand are at work here along with other, less tangible market forces. A dot neck plays and sounds no better than a block but commands a premium. An early patent is the same as a late PAF (but for the sticker) but it looks and sounds the same but commands a premium. Mickey Mouse ear cutaways are no better than the pointy ones from late 63 on but they command a premium. Starting to see a pattern here?

Fads and trends made a big difference here. The Golden Era didn’t end abruptly on Dec 31 1964. It didn’t end because the quality went down the tubes. The Golden Era is our perception of whats good and desirable- right now. It ended, in part, because the current demand is for wide nut guitars and Gibson, in it’s wisdom, blinked and followed Fenders lead for a “faster” neck. And further, in the quest for a less labor intensive tailpiece, Gibson went to the trapeze.  If, for whatever reason, narrow nut, trapeze tailpiece guitars become the rage among players and collectors, the 65-68’s are going to be king. And the Norlin era? Well, that’s a much more involved tale that we’ll get to soon.

The end of the Golden Era. This is a very early 65-all nickel, stop tail big neck. A few weeks after this was made, the stop tails were used up and the trapeze took its place. The big neck was gone by around June. Chrome was phased in throughout the year and even into 66 with the pick guard bracket the last piece of nickel hardware to fall.

 

 

When is a 58 not a 58?

October 15th, 2017 • ES 3357 Comments »

This 59 has a T7280 FON from 58 and the serial number A30518 which is June of 59.

When it’s a 59, of course. Guitars that fall on the cusp of a new year are often tricky to describe. We are all obsessed with what year our guitar is from. In fact I get more emails about dating these guitars than for any other reason. they can be hard enough to date without the year end confusion that Gibson’s seem to cause. During those years, there wasn’t really a “model year”. Gibson didn’t tout the “new 1959” lineup but we are conditioned to expect exactly that thanks to the automobile industry. They touted new models but not the new model year probably because guitars, especially higher priced guitars, often didn’t sell during the year they were built. I’ve found lots of guitars with a sales receipt dated a year or even two years later than the serial number indicates.

From 1958 to 1961, Gibson used two numbering systems. The factory order number (FON) which was generally stamped in black ink on the inside of the guitar (often twice-once on the back of the top and once on the inside of the back. And there was the serial number stamped or written (usually stamped during this period) on the orange label. No serial on the back of the headstock until 61. There is little confusion when the two indicate the same year but when they don’t, it can give you a headache. When I date a guitar, I consider a few factors: The serial number carries the most weight-that indicates the year the guitar was shipped. The factory order number indicates the year the build was started but not necessarily completed. And finally, the features of the guitar (dot markers, long guard, bonnet knobs, etc.). It’s not surprising that year end builds would get a following year serial number. I usually mention that in my listings-I would describe a 60 with a 59 FON as exactly that. I’ve covered this situation in earlier posts but there is an anomaly that occurred in the late Spring to early Summer of 1959.

The changes that were made in early 59 are quantifiable. The neck angle increased and the thickness of the top increased. These changes addressed some problems the 58’s were having. An early 59 with a 58 FON is common. I usually just call them 59’s. But what about a mid year 59 that has a 58 FON? How did that happen? Was there a rack of leftover builds that got put aside due to complaints about top cracks in the thin tops? So far, I’ve had seven ES-335’s with mid year serial numbers that have 58 FONs. The earliest is A30247 (probably late May) and the latest is A30659 (mid July). Most are from one of two racks-T7303 and T7304 both late 58 racks. Two, including the one pictured, are from earlier racks. The rack number is not really of interest here but the year designated by the letter “T” is. That’s a 58 build.

So, are these “not-on-the-cusp” 59’s really 58’s? Well, yes and no. Here’s why. It’s pretty clear from the thin tops and the big round necks that the bodies and necks were fabricated in 58. The increased neck angle would have already been in place by late 58. But many of them have double white or zebra pickups which didn’t exist in 58-they were the result of a shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins in 59. They also have 59 pot codes. So, we can assume that the assembly of the finished guitar occurred in 1959. But, this is Gibson and nothing is totally logical. Another change occurred in 1958 to 59. The Kluson tuners went from patent applied to patent number (and they changed the formulation of the plastic). Some of these 58/59 ES-335’s got 58tuners and some got 59. Go figure.

I wasn’t there so all of this is speculation. They could have simply been leftover tops and backs that were already stamped but I doubt it. The neck and neck angle just shouts late 58. But I still call them 59’s probably in part because everybody wants 59’s anyway but also because of the 6 month discrepancy between the FON and the serial. The best I can do is describe it as a 59 with a 58 FON and call it a day. There is good news amid the confusion, however. These are some of the best of the best. The thin tops are more fragile and prone to cracking, to be sure. But they are also more resonant. The necks are big and rounded-the baseball bats we all know and love. The neck angle allows for plenty of height adjustment at the bridge unlike the earlier 58’s where the bridge sits on the top of the guitar. So, look for these and ask about the FON when you buy a 59, especially one in the above mentioned serial number range. It might be an exceptional one.

The “T” means 58. The rack numbers are sequential (supposedly) and the last digits are the rank-what number the guitar was in the 35 unit (more or less) rack. T7280-xx is pretty late in 1958 but the guitar didn’t ship until June of 59. No idea why.

 

 

Burning Question

October 13th, 2017 • Uncategorized10 Comments »

Mid 60’s Kay Value Leader. Pretty cool looking and old enough but is it vintage or just old?

A guy came into my shop today and said he had a question. “OK, shoot”, I said. He said, “What is a vintage guitar?”

To be honest, no one has ever asked me that before and I answered without giving it any thought at all. “It’s old. It’s used.” That boils it down to its essence without a hint of explanation as to any difference between an old, used guitar and a “vintage” one. Is “vintage” a particular age? Is it a particular brand? Value? Is “collectible” the same as “vintage”? This is going to require some thought and more than a little finessing, I think.

Let’s look at three old guitars. A 1963 Gibson ES-335, a 1983 Zemaitis Custom and a 1963 Kay Value Leader. All three are old. All three are used. I would argue that all three are collectible. The differences? The Gibson is expensive at around $20,000 as is the Zemaitis at around $25000. The Kay is relatively cheap at around $600. But are they all “vintage” guitars? I would argue that “vintage guitar” is something of a contrivance cooked by the guitar community to differentiate old guitars that are highly sought after and highly regarded from those that are simply old. My basis for that is the word vintage itself. It refers, of course, to a bottle of wine. In general, it refers to a wine from a particular year. But there are good vintages and bad vintages. But when most folks refer to vintage anything, they are considering it a good thing. OK, that makes sense but in applying it to guitars, I suppose that quality is the deciding factor and that, as in wine, is pretty subjective stuff.

Most decent wine tastes pretty much the same to me. It tastes better than cheap wine which generally tastes pretty awful to me. The subtle distinctions are, however, lost on me. I couldn’t tell a rare  64 Chateau Petrus at $10,000 from an easily available high end 2009 Napa Cabernet at $200.   And I don’t like white wine at all, so I’m not much of a judge of quality for half of the wines out there. Guitars, however, are not all the same to me. Interestingly, age, desirability and quality are not necessarily  factors in the value of used guitars.

Let’s consider age first. I’ve heard arguments on the various guitar forums about the “cutoff” for vintage. Many consider guitars from the 80’s to be too new to be vintage. So, what is that 80’s Zemaitis? Simply a used guitar? I think not. Is an 80’s 335 vintage? How about an 80’s BC Rich? And that 1963 Kay Value Leader? It’s from the 60’s which is considered vintage by pretty much everybody but maybe the quality of the Kay isn’t up to snuff. Maybe it’s the vinegar or rotgut in the mix here. Is a Kay Value Leader a vintage guitar and if it isn’t what is it? Just an old guitar? Nobody will argue that the 335 from 63 isn’t vintage. It’s got the age, the quality and the desirability to be considered by nearly everyone as vintage. But look at 70’s Gibson’s and Fenders. We all know the quality of these brands suffered in the 70’s. In fact, many believe the vintage market was created because the 70’s guitars were so inferior when compared to those from the 50’s and 60’s. So, age is part of it but certainly not all of it.

Quality is certainly a factor but there are plenty of old guitars that are of dubious quality and plenty of non newer that are wonderful. So, let’s assume vintage has to be high quality and old. How old? I don’t know. I could pick a year and get a good argument pro and con for any given year. Thirty years old? That makes an 87 vintage. That doesn’t seem right. Forty? Fifty? The problem is that the really great stuff is more like 60 years old. If I had to pick a cutoff  year, it would probably be 1969. That coincides with Gibson being sold and the quality starting its downhill slide. I would argue that Fender, even though it was sold in 65, didn’t really go too far downhill until 1972 or so (three bolt Strat). Brands like Martin and Guild didn’t suffer much, if at all,  in the 70’s at all but 70’s guitars seem to be tarred with the same brush and considered less desirable than 60’s guitars. But something like an 80’s Zemaitis throws that out the window. Hmm.

So that leaves desirability which is a bit of a slippery slope because it changes over time. In 2017, new guitar heroes are an endangered species. Many of the 60’s guitars are desirable because one of our guitar heroes played one. A red 64 ES-335 is the easiest vintage Gibson to sell because Eric Clapton played one. But, a 63 Gretsch Country Gentleman, as played George Harrison, is neither valuable nor easy to sell. While I would consider a 63 Country Gentleman to be a vintage guitar, it is not a particularly desirable one.  Plenty of guitar heroes played or play Stratocasters and they are certainly desirable because of that and they are good guitars. It makes sense that when they went downhill, the desirability went down as well. So, perhaps, the Stratocaster is the one that best proves the rule. A vintage guitar has to be old. It has to be desirable. It has to be good. That leaves me with this: How old? How desirable? How good?

It’s pretty subjective stuff and there will be plenty of disagreement. To me, good means great tone, playability and looks. Desirable means there will always be more buyers than there are guitars. Old means…I dunno. I think the 80’s were like only yesterday but they were 30 odd years ago. So, maybe the 80’s are ready to be vintage. You decide and let me know.

1984 Zemaitis Hummingbird. Very cool but maybe not old enough?
I would call it vintage but you might not.

 

Small Parts. Big Bucks.

September 12th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35510 Comments »

An original long tortoise guard for a 58-60 ES-355 is not only hard to find but, not surprisingly, is ridiculously expensive. This is mostly because not only are they rare but they can deteriorate badly just by sitting in the case. Buy a $250 boutique reproduction. The real ones are at least $1200. And yes, that’s a factory stop tail 355. talk about rare…

If you had to build a car from original parts, you’d spend more than the value of the entire car. That’s been a common thought for as long as I’ve owned a car and had to pay for stupid little parts that seem to cost way more than they’re worth. But there are a lot of parts in a car and relatively few in a guitar, so why are vintage parts so freaking expensive for vintage guitars?

It’s stunning to see the vast difference between the average price of a really accurate repro stop tailpiece versus a real one from the 50’s or 60’s. But the difference in the look and quality of said parts is minimal. In some cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. I can buy a fairly convincing repro stop tail for around $55. I can buy a really convincing one for $125. I can tell the repro from the real ones but only if I take it off the guitar and examine it carefully. From a foot away, you can fool anyone. A real vintage stop tail averages $1000 or nearly ten times the price of a good reproduction and 20 times the price of a Gibson Historic. And it’s not just stop tails, it’s just about every part on the guitar.

Catalin switch tips have been reproduced pretty well. A real one is $175-$250. A good repro is $25 (and probably cost a quarter to make). Boutique PAFs like Throbaks (which I really like) are $550 a pair. Real PAFs? Ten times that unless they are white or zebras. Throbaks look right and sound as good as many PAFs. Vintage Kluson tuners? Eighty bucks for repro and $800 or more for the real ones. See a pattern here?

As a vintage dealer, I’m totally comfortable with the prices I charge for guitars. I shoot for a particular margin and price the  guitars I sell (and buy for that matter) to reach that goal. My prices are often lower than other dealers which means either I’m making better deals on the buy side or making less profit on the sell side (or both). The other dealers don’t tell me what their margins are and I don’t ask.  I also don’t look at their prices in order to judge the market-not on 335’s, 345’s and 355’s anyway. I also don’t consult with the various price guides except for guitars I know little or nothing about. I don’t generally buy guitars I don’t know anything about but sometimes I’ll take a trade of a guitar I know little about. But that’s another post.

But when it comes to parts, I just follow the market. And I’m sometimes embarrassed to ask the ridiculous prices commanded by certain parts. My response to sticker shocked buyers is usually “I don’t make the market, I just follow it. Do yourself a favor and buy a good repro.”

And that’s my point. How important is it that every part on your vintage guitar is original or vintage correct? If you’re a collector, it’s pretty important. If you’re a player, it needn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t be. There are very few cases where, in my opinion, the vintage part might improve the tone and playability of your guitar. You could argue that vintage PAFs can’t be replicated but I would argue that point with my ears. I generally can’t hear the difference between a really good boutique PAF and a real one. I can hear a difference between any two pickups but if you lined up ten guitars and nine had PAFs and one had Throbaks, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the Throbak equipped guitar from the others. There’s a pretty big range to PAF tone. I could probably tell a really great one from a Throbak but an average one? I think not.

The only clear exception I can think of-and feel free to challenge me on this-are nylon saddles as found on most 63 and later ABR-1’s. Reproduction nylon saddles are too soft and don’t sound anything like the original milled nylon saddles you find on 62 and later guitars. Part of that could be the age factor but I think it’s mostly because it’s probably too expensive to mill the saddles rather than molding them. The molded ones are simply too soft and seem to dampen the vibration of the string. The metal repro saddles are pretty good if they are the nickel over brass ones. The tusq ones are a lot like the milled nylon ones and a good substitute.

So, if you have a collector grade 335 and it needs a part, go ahead and buy the real one. You’ll get it back when you sell. A no excuse guitar is always easier to sell than one that is all original except for…whatever. On a player grade guitar, you might get your investment back but you probably won’t. I’d be happy to sell you that $1200 long tortoise guard for your 59 355 but you can get a nearly identical one for $250 from one of a few boutique makers. I promise, your guitar will sound the same.

New nylon saddles are too soft and will cause your guitar to sound muddy. If you need to replace the nylon saddles on your post 62 ES-335, either find real vintage ones or get Tusq ones. Newer nylon saddles are too soft.

Reelin’ in the Years

September 3rd, 2017 • Uncategorized7 Comments »

 

Walter Becker  Feb 20, 1950- September3, 2017.

Walter Becker
Feb 20, 1950-
September 3, 2017.

 

Walter Becker died today. He was 67, about the same age as I am, and that, faster than the guitar break in Bodhisattva, will make you stop and consider his contributions (and your own). Rock gods have a nasty habit of dying too soon but few, if any, would call Walter Becker a rock god. He could play guitar (and bass) but the heavy lifting on the albums was generally done by guys like Skunk Baxter, Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Rick Derringer, Mark Knopfler and Elliott Randall who actually played the solo on Reelin’ in the Years.  Here’s how I see it: It’s as if Becker and Donald Fagen decided that they would write the most musically demanding and complex, lyrically subversive and cynical jazz infused rock songs ever written and then get the best musicians they could find to play them. And it worked for decades. Notably (to me anyway) there is hardly a Steely Dan song that I can play with any competence.

The songs are still, in my opinion more sophisticated and innovative than anything I’ve heard since. And no, I’m not a jazz guy so please don’t write to me to tell me this jazz piece or that one is more sophisticated. I’m sure they are plenty sophisticated musically but nobody wrote lyrics like these guys. This is mainstream rock and roll for folks with a brain.  The lyrics could range from philosophical to silly and from introspective to invective and everything in between. The love songs (Hey Nineteen) could be kind of dopey but they were dopey with a wink-they knew they were dopey. They could also be quite moving in their simplicity (Aja). The story songs were always my favorites (Caves of Altamira, Charlie Freak, Don’t Take Me Alive) because that’s what songs were invented to do. Tell a story.

I honestly don’t really know how Becker and Fagen worked. Did they write everything together or, like Lennon and McCartney, generally write their own songs and put both names on them. It doesn’t matter to me. The lyrics are often brilliant, surprising and as clever as anything Cole Porter ever put to paper. That’s saying something. I can gush over great musicianship (as a less than mediocre guitar player ) and have a great appreciation for complex musical structure, rhythm and innovative melody and harmony. I get that stuff, but it’s born of a lack of musical knowledge whereas when I look at the lyrics Becker and Fagen turned out, I see it from a different perspective. I can make the words dance on a page when I put my mind to it. Writing is one of the things I can actually do. But I can’t write like Becker and Fagen.

I’ve never grown tired of the music and every time I hear it, I hear something new that I missed. A dazzling chord change or even a dazzling chord. A turn of a phrase that makes me stop and think. A half dozen Steely Dan songs live forever on my little iPod shuffle that I use when I walk or run. The only band with more songs on it is The Beatles. If the only back seat you take in (my) life is to Lennon and McCartney, then, Walter Becker, you did pretty good.

I saw them last at the Beacon Theater in New York City in maybe 2007.  I paid a fortune (scalpers suck) for two tickets- one for me and one for my son who was maybe 19 at the time. Fourth row center and we were dazzled (and he wasn’t that much of a Steely Dan fan). Notwithstanding the douchebag who kept standing up in front of us and singing along, it was a great show. The awesomely talented Jon Herrington had to be all those guitar players I mentioned up top and Walter Becker, age 57 or so, looking a little shopworn, was holding his own on guitar and just looking like there was somewhere else he’d rather be. I’m guessing he’d rather have been at home writing. It was, after all, the thing he did best. Goodbye Walter. We will miss you.

Walter and Donald just standing around thinking about the next brilliant song they would write.

Walter and Donald just hanging around looking really serious and maybe thinking about the next brilliant song they would write. Or maybe wondering what’s for dinner. They look kind of hungry. Hard to know with these guys.

 

A Little Nostalgia

August 27th, 2017 • Uncategorized8 Comments »
This might have been the coolest catalog of all. They made about a gazillion different guitars and even though they were never at the level of Gibson or Fender, they had the cool factor above everyone else.

This might have been the coolest catalog of all. Vox made about a gazillion different guitars and even though they were never at the level of Gibson or Fender, they had the cool factor above everyone else. I carried this around with me all through ’66.

Imagine a world with no internet. OK, if you had to imagine it, you’re too young to get this post. But if you remember how life was before everyone was connected-like it or not-this may speak to you.

Within the first minute or so of the Beatles first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, I decided I would be a guitar player. I share this moment with a few million kids around my age. I was 11 and a half at the time (February 9, 1964) and immediately started bugging my father for a guitar. He brought home a Kay flat top from Woolworths that cost him somewhere around 15 bucks. “Learn to play it and I’ll get you something better.” I think he figured he was safe since follow through was not my greatest strength as a child. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Hermie's in Schenectady where retail rules. Still there with the same sign out front. I'm pretty sure Hermie himself is no longer with us, however. I haven't set foot in the store since 1964 but it looks exactly the same- from the outside anyway..

Hermie’s in Schenectady where retail plus 10% rules. Still there with the same sign out front. I’m pretty sure Hermie himself is no longer with us, however. I was thrown out of Hermies at least 25 times.

What strikes me now is how hard it was to know just what guitars were out there and who made them and how much did they cost and what made this guitar better than that guitar. We had just a few ways to learn about them. There were two music stores in Schenectady, NY where I grew up. The oft maligned (by me) Hermie’s who sold Fenders and Martins and would charge full retail plus another 10% to set up the guitar and deliver it (who charges to set up a new guitar?) The other music store was Georges and they sold Gibsons and cheap Japanese junk with the name St. George. The Gibsons were mostly big jazz boxes that were lined up in a glass case. Nobody was allowed to play them and especially not little kids. Hermies was even worse. Hermie would literally toss us out of his store if we didn’t intend to buy anything. Later-in 66 or 67, he would throw you out if you had long hair. So, at least we could see some of the guitars that were available from the big manufacturers and find out how much they cost. I remember asking for a Gibson brochure at Georges and a Fender brochure at Hermie’s. They both said essentially the same thing…”these brochures cost money” (which they didn’t-they were always free to dealers)-and “come back with your parents if you want one.” So, no brochures or catalogs.  At least not from the local dealers. We would write a letter to the company and about 6 weeks later, get a catalog in the mail. I heard back from Fender, Gibson, Epiphone and Vox. I took them with me everywhere I went. They were in tatters from thumbing through them and drooling.

TV was a great way to get a good look at the guitars of the day. The first 335 I ever saw was in the hands of Johnny Rivers on the after school TV show “Shindig” or was it “Hullabaloo”. It was red but it was hard to tell on black and white TV. We didn’t get a color TV until around 67. Those two TV shows (and Bandstand) and a couple of others often gave us our first glimpse of a Jazzmaster or a Sheraton or a Vox Phantom. I remember seeing the Hollies on “Hullabaloo” and playing “Look Through Any Window” with Tony Hicks playing a Phantom 12. Coolest thing I ever saw. I went out and bought the single the next day and the Hollies were a personal favorite from that moment on. It was a pretty crappy 12 string once I got to play one years later but the coolness factor was off the charts. I remember getting the Vox brochure which was a big foldout affair that said “Vox: It’s What’s Happening.” A few years later, I would buy a Vox Royal Guardsman amp. Worst piece of crap I ever owned. Nice speakers though (Celestion Silvers) and a half decent built in fuzz. The thing was broken more often than it worked. Traded it for ’64 Showman 15. The Fender brochure always had lots of cool stuff but the one that caught my eye was the Bass VI. Cool design, three pickups and a whammy but it was a bass and I was a guitar player. Why couldn’t they use that cool half Strat/half Jazzmaster body for a guitar? I didn’t actually own a Bass VI until last Friday when one walked into my shop and I bought it. Still a really cool guitar (uh, bass).

Album covers were the other way to learn about guitars. I remember seeing my first Esquire on the Yardbirds “Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds” in Jeff Beck’s hands (half hidden behind Keith Relf). I thought it was the ugliest guitar I had ever seen. We were all familiar with John’s Rickenbacker 325 and George’s Country Gentleman and Paul’s Hofner from photos on the albums (“Something New” had the classic lineup). I recall Gene Cornish of “The Rascals” on the back on one of their albums with a black Barney Kessel. Haven’t seen one since. Then there was Brian Jones with the white teardrop Vox and also with a Firebird VII, Roger McGuinn with a Ricky 360-12 (I think he was still Jim) and David Crosby with a Gretsch Tennessean? Zal Yanovsky’s Guild Thunderbird still sticks in my mind as well. Those were the days…

First 335 I ever saw was played by Johnny Rivers (sitting down) on "Shindig"

First 335 I ever saw was played by Johnny Rivers (sitting down) on “Shindig”

 

Upside Down Market

August 16th, 2017 • ES 330, ES 335, ES 34516 Comments »
Best value there is in 335 land. This is an early 65 with the big neck and wide nut. It's been converted to a stop tail (Yes, it's placed a little too low) but for $8000 or so, it's $10,000 less than a 64 which is almost the same guitar. Read on and be amazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You Set ’em Up-Part 2

July 25th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35510 Comments »
This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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