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Liquid Assets 335 Edition

April 9th, 2015 • ES 3353 Comments »
Easiest ES to sell is a 64 with a Bigsby and Custom Made plate. They fall in the sweet spot price wise for many buyers, they sound great and play great and they have the bigger neck that everybody seems to want. Priced correctly, these don't last more than a week or two. Usually more like a day or two.

Easiest ES to sell is a 64 with a Bigsby and Custom Made plate. They fall in the sweet spot price wise for many buyers, they sound great and play great and they have the bigger neck that everybody seems to want. Priced correctly, these don’t last more than a week or two. Usually more like a day or two.

Over the course of years, ES-335’s from 58 to 64 have proven to be a pretty good investment. Yes, the bottom fell out in 2008 as it did in the real estate market and almost every other market but the recovery has been slow and steady and most models continue to rise. There are exceptions and there are standouts. Bear in mind, I’m not an investment counselor but I know this market so I have some street cred.

There are a couple of things to look at if you are going to convince yourself (and your wife) that the expensive vintage guitar you are looking to buy is an investment. First is, of course, how much can you expect it to appreciate over time. That’s the one nobody can really predict. That’s where the big boys tell you that “past performance is no guarantee, blah, blah, blah”. Professional ass covering is what it is but it’s true. There is no crystal ball. But there are trends, though and the trend has been a steady upward climb in prices for 335’s. That’s the safer kind of price rise. The “irrational exuberance” of 2006-2008 is not happening this time and as long as it doesn’t, the rise could continue back to 2008 levels. And it might not.  One thing I can say with some confidence is that the cream of the crop will rise faster than the player grade stuff. There is simply less of it and the demand is still fairly high for collector grade guitars from the fifties and sixties. Note that they ain’t making any more. After 50 or more years, it only makes sense that the number of collector grade guitars not already in the hands of collectors is diminishing. So, don’t look for bargains. The likelihood is that the collector grade guitars that come to market are coming from the collectors themselves.  Player grade guitars can be a good investment as well for reasons you might not expect.

That’s where liquidity comes in. Lots of players who buy guitars from me are stretching their finances to get something from the era that has some issues but is still a decent investment that will at least hold its value and perhaps appreciate ahead of inflation. The question that often arises from buyers like this is “what if I have to sell it?” Here’s a good example. You’ve got $12000 to spend and you can buy a Bigsby 64 with some further issue like Grovers on and off or maybe a wrong part or two-nothing drastic like a refinish or repair. For that same $12000, you can buy a no issue 61 ES-345 stop tail in really good shape. Not mint but, say, a 9.0. Which is the better investment? I would say the 64 for this type of buyer. First, he’s going to play it, not put it in a closet and that 9.0 condition 61 may not stay 9.0 forever. Moreover, and this is key, the 64 is way easier to sell. There are many more buyers for a well priced 64 335 than any well priced 345, even the very sellable and desirable big neck early 59. You may ultimately get more dollars for that nice 61 ES-345 but you won’t necessarily get them quickly and sometimes speed is more important than actual dollars. Another great example of this is rare one offs. I love one offs and rarities and have trouble resisting them. I’ll take any black 335 (or Pelham Blue Trini) that comes along and not worry that it might take me a year to sell it. That way I get to play it for a year. But for you as an investor? Maybe not such a great idea unless you know you’ll never have to sell it.

So, which 335’s are the easiest to sell? Red 64 ES-335’s are the easiest for sure. It doesn’t even matter what condition-there are buyers for mint ones and buyers for beaters. Bigsby/Custom Mades are less desirable than stop tails but they sell faster because they can be thousands of dollars less. Late 63 335’s too. Next, even though the price range is totally different, are 59 dot necks. 58 335’s are up there too. That leaves 60, 61, 62 and early 63’s. Great guitars-all of them and good investments too. They will rise with the market and always have buyers but simply not as many buyers as the others. The reason for this is simple. Big neck guitars sell better than slim necked ones. I’m not sure more players actually prefer them but the investor does for sure. You’ll pay a premium but you’ll also have an easier time recouping your investment should the need arise. And you can play your investment. Let’s see you play “Steppin’ Out” on an Apple stock certificate.

One offs and oddities tend to be much less liquid but often more valuable.  I love them. This is a very early red 59 with a factory Varitone. This is probably the second red dot neck made. How cool is that?

One offs and oddities tend to be much less liquid but often more valuable. I love them. This is a very early red 59 with a factory Varitone. This is probably the second red dot neck made. How cool is that?

To Scavenge or Not to Scavenge

April 4th, 2015 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3554 Comments »
I love getting a guitar with double whites especially when it wasn't disclosed. It's like an early Christmas. It also tells me that its unlikely anyone has messed with the guitar. I'lll never pull the covers but isn't it great to know they are in there.

I love getting a guitar, like this killer 59 with double whites especially when it’s a surprise (it wasn’t on this one). It’s like an early Christmas. It also tells me that its unlikely anyone has messed with the guitar. I’ll never pull the covers but isn’t it great to know they are in there.

I’m not sure what other dealers do unless they are in the parts business but I have a problem with scavenging parts from less popular models. The time will likely come when every 57-63 ES-175 that isn’t in the hands of a collector will have its PAFs removed and put into another guitar-probably an R9 Les Paul but that’s another story. This story is about when its OK to scavenge parts and when-in my opinion, of course-it isn’t. As a bushiness person, the temptation can be compelling. Somebody brings in an all original ES-175 with a pair of double whites and you know you won’t get as much for the guitar in its original state than you will if you drop in a pair of blacks and scavenge the whites to sell separately. After all, a set of nickel covered, sealed double whites can sell for $9000-maybe even more. That’s the most dramatic of the scenarios but there are plenty of others. No wire ABR-1’s seem to disappear at an alarming rate from the less expensive early models like 175’s and 330’s. The repros have gotten really convincing and the price of an original no wire is nothing to sneeze at ($700 or more). The repro will look and sound as good and probably won’t diminish the value that much. But swapping out the bridge and selling the original just doesn’t seem right sometimes.

When is it OK and when isn’t it OK? Good question-glad I asked. Again, my opinion…I’m neither moralizing nor claiming the moral high ground. I’m just telling you how it works for me. If the guitar is already compromised-busted headstock, refinish, other changed parts, then I have no problem swapping out a bridge or even pickups. All of this is disclosed to the next buyer and is reflected in the price. But to start scavenging an all original guitar-even if its one that isn’t all that popular, then I think you are doing the guitar culture a disservice. There was a time when ES-345’s and ES-355’s were treated like a 175 is treated today. I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve seen with pickups (and stop tails) swapped out. And it’s hard to tell on a 345 or 355 stereo because the pickups are soldered to the three way and not to the pots. It’s very easy to scavenge the double whites or zebras and drop in a set of blacks and make it nearly invisible. Couple that to the fact that so many are changing the stereo circuit to mono anyway so the original solder to the three way becomes irrelevant. It’s just too easy. A 50’s or early 60’s gold stop tail can sell for $1000 with a set of long studs. A 70’s stop with short studs can be found for $200. That’s a potential $800 profit for the scavenger and the next owner may not even notice. Learn the difference and ask a lot of questions and look over the guitar the day you get it. Every single part.

Scavenging parts is part of the culture and has been for quite some time but the larger lesson here is to make sure the supposedly “all original” guitar you just paid a lot of money for is just that- 100% original. A ’59 335 with a pair of black PAFs is vintage correct but if it had double whites when it came from the factory, then I don’t think 100% correct is quite the same as 100% original. I could get into the “original solder joint” debate which most agree can be a bit over the top but at the kind of prices some of these guitars are commanding, I have no problem with checking the solder for any buyer who needs to know. In fact, the only way to know with any certainty whether your PAFs have ever been rewound is to buy the guitar that has pickups that are still sealed with their original solder both on the cover and on the pot or three way. Why both? Well if you want to be 100% certain, the solder on the covers isn’t enough. A talented tech can resolder totally convincingly as long as the covers aren’t bent (that’s an easy give away). If I’m paying $20,000 or more for a vintage 335, I want to know everything I can and just because scavenging is common doesn’t mean I accept it as OK. As I’ve said before fully 90% of the guitars I buy from individuals have some undisclosed issue. Sometimes as simple as a changed knob but sometimes as drastic as a changed harness. That’s why I keep a big stash of parts. Vintage correct isn’t the same as “all original” but it’s a lot better than repro this and later year that.

 

Weird and Wonderful One-Off

March 21st, 2015 • ES 3559 Comments »
What the....??? No, it isn't a Barney. It's a one off '63 ES-355 with Venetian cutaways.

What the….??? No, it isn’t a Barney. It’s a one off ’63 ES-355 with Florentine cutaways.

Back in the olden days, before Gibson was overrun by beer and cement makers (Norlin), they would make just about any variation of a catalog model you wanted. For a price, of course. Odd colors, fancy or personalized inlays, different bindings…really just about anything. The result is guitars like the “greenburst” 335, or the red 59 dot neck with a varitone or Tommy Mottola’s no f-hole sunburst 355 and plenty of others. I’ve written about most, if not all of the ones I just mentioned but a reader sent me another, perhaps weirder than any of the others.

The owner says it’s a 63 and the serial number bears that out although you really can’t tell much from the guitar itself. It’s had more than its share of mods done over the years. It is, essentially, a stereo VT ES-355 with Florentine cutaways and bound f-holes. I’ve seen bound f-holes on a few custom made ES models including the black 66 335 I had. But Florentine (sharp) cutaways? Thats a new one for me. There seems to be no record of it in the Gibson shipping ledger although I have seen entries that read “spec. cutaway” before. It looks, essentially, like a thinline Barney Kessel-not my favorite design but I’m not a big archtop guy. I’d say this one is about as close to one of a kind as you’ll get. Too bad it’s been so heavily modded. What did they do?

There are few obvious changes like the 70’s harmonica bridge and the extra switch at the treble side cutaway. Possibly a kill switch or a coil tap. It looks like it came from the factory with a Bigsby like most 355’s and that was removed and a stop tail installed (a bit low). Perhaps the most unusual mod is a separate-probably mono-output jack. You don’t see that one very often. It’s got Grovers but looks to have been shipped with Kluson wafflebacks which is correct for 63. Finally, it looks like the headstock had a “smile” crack that was repaired and oversprayed. As I’m fond of saying, 50 years or more is a long time for a guitar to stay stock. It just takes one owner with “improvements” in mind to, let’s say, “take it out of collector grade”.

Still, I’m always inclined to want one just like it because it’s just so different. I love 355’s and there’s nothing like a one off to get a conversation going. Like it or hate it, it’s just too interesting to ignore. Somebody really wanted this-enough to pay some very serious dollars for sure. ES-355’s were really pricey to begin with. By 63 they were pushing $1000 with the optional case which is close to $8000 in 2015 dollars. And that’s for a stock one. I wonder what this cost? Big thanks to David P. for letting me write up his guitar.

Nice flame on the back too. I can't figure out why so many had flame backs and plain tops.

Nice flame on the back too. I can’t figure out why so many had flame backs and plain tops.

Mods to Rockers

March 14th, 2015 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3558 Comments »
Good mods and bad mods. An added stop tail when properly placed (by someone else) can be a good mod. On a 355 or a 65 and later trap tail, it can make the guitar more desirable and somewhat less expensive.

Good mods and bad mods. An added stop tail when properly placed (by someone else) can be a good mod. On a 355 or a 65 and later trap tail, it can make the guitar more desirable and somewhat less expensive.

Not those mods, with their fancy Carnaby St. clothes and their scooters. Nope, I’m talking mods to vintage guitars that kill the value for the collectors but make them affordable for the players. This is about the modifications that make a valuable vintage guitar less valuable and don’t affect the tone or the playability. The kind of mods this rocker likes.

Stop tail conversions done by someone else are always welcome but you don’t want to do it yourself because it diminishes the value. On the other hand, it sometimes makes for a better player. The big problem is that they are so frequently put in the wrong place. Your idiot brother-in-law who is real good with a drill press but knows nothing about guitars puts the stop where the trapeze cross piece was and thinks its right. Nothing bugs me more than a stop that’s a mile off (that means yours Larry Carlton). It will still play just fine but it looks way wrong. A stop tail conversion on a 65-68 will knock off $1000 or more and you won’t care a bit.

Grovers. Not Schallers. Both are perfectly good tuners and both are better tuners, if you ask me, than Klusons. That’s why so many players made the switch back in the day. They simply work better even if they are heavier. But the Schallers usually have that offset screw that requires an extra hole for each tuner. Not good for the value. Most Grovers can use one of the Kluson holes, so no new holes. Both require enlarged shaft holes but that’s invisible. The other reason I don’t like Schallers on vintage 335’s is because they look too ’70’s. They just don’t seem to belong on a 50’s or 60’s guitar. Grovers are at least correct for the era and they work real well. A tuner conversion can mean savings of perhaps $1000 on a mid 60’s but as much as $5000 (maybe more in some cases) on a dot neck.

Then there are the refinished ones. Refins, especially well done ones, will save you a boatload of dough and won’t affect the tone and playability one iota (what is an iota, anyway). The idea that a refin knocks off half the value-the same as a busted headstock-seems a little nutty to me. Especially now that so many of the Les Paul aficionados are sending their factory finished R9’s to Kim at Historic Makeovers for a pricey, better-than-Gibson refin. Who’da thunk. When HM starts offering busted headstocks as an upgrade, then I’ll freak out but in the meantime, I’ll go on about what a great deal a refin can be. Granted, there aren’t that many people who can do a really convincing dot neck style sunburst, but you see them on occasion, so they are out there. Also blondes and blacks. You know you can’t afford a blonde dot neck or find a factory black one but you might find a refin for a price that doesn’t require a mortgage and, if you’re a player, will look very cool on stage and not require an armed guard between sets. I’m not going to get into the nitro/poly thing. I don’t know if poly affects the tone or not but I suggest you look for a refin that was done in the correct nitro lacquer. It just looks better and is much more authentic.

Patched holes from mini switches, coil taps and other 70’s forays into stupid are another mod that will keep the green in your wallet. The range of competence with which they are repaired runs a gamut but a well patched extra hole or two will save you thousands. Your guitar won’t appreciate like a collector grade guitar will but it should hold its value and serve you well as a player. And besides, you can’t really see that patch from more than five feet away anyway.

I generally stay away from busted necks or headstocks. Some, like the “smile cracks” can be totally stable and will save you major bucks. But I suggest you play it before you buy it. Some headstock breaks are trouble and I can’t tell you which ones because it could be any of them. A splined repair usually means the break was major and while they can be perfectly stable, I’d still be wary.

This refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing. A smart buyer saved himself about ten large over an original finish.

This refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing. A smart buyer saved himself about ten large over an original finish.

 

Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game?

March 11th, 2015 • Uncategorized9 Comments »
I've been waiting for this guitar for a week now. It's been to NYC, Memphis, Albany, Newark, NJ and god knows where else.

I’ve been waiting for this guitar for a week now. It’s been to NYC, Memphis, Albany, Newark, NJ and god knows where else.

Back when the New York Mets were brand new, the manager was the legendary Casey Stengel. The Mets were terrible and were mired in last place when Mr. Stengel famously commented “can’t anybody here play this game?” This statement applies to the shipping industry at least when it comes to vintage guitars. I’ll use Fedex as the example but UPS and the US Postal Service aren’t any better.

I had a 63 ES-335 shipped to me from the UK this week (on my account) and it cost over $300 to do so (and I get a good rate). First off, Fedex won’t insure vintage guitars for more than $1000. It’s the “declared value” line and you can put any number in there you want and they will charge an ever increasing fee for your “insurance”. I know, before I read the fine print, I was “insuring” them for as much as $25000 and paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege. Then they broke a mint 64 SG Standard and explained that I needed to read the “terms and conditions” which clearly state Fedex’s policy. This is a cut and paste from the Fedex website: Shipments (packages or freight) containing all or part of the following items are limited to a maximum declared value of US $1,000: Guitars and other musical instruments that are more than 20 years old, and customized or personalized musical instruments. It should add (but it doesn’t) that “we’ll take your money, however if you want to give it to us but we won’t increase our liability beyond $1000.” So, I put $1000 in the space provided and carry my own insurance through another carrier (the very well regarded Heritage Insurance in Pennsylvania). Caveat Emptor, shippers. Fedex has enough money without throwing more at them for no service.

But that isn’t the issue with the aforementioned 63 ES-335 (which is a very rare factory blonde). I was on vacation, so I had it shipped International Economy rather than the Priority service I usually use. In general, a well packed guitar doesn’t mind sitting for a few extra days. What it doesn’t like is being handled. Here’s where my guitar has been. Note that I live less than two hours from JFK Airport in Jamaica (Queens) NY where it landed five days ago. I could have walked from JFK to my house in that amount of time. Note the date and month are backwards – Euro style. Read from the bottom up.

Date/Time
Activity Location
10/03/2015 – Tuesday
21:21 Arrived at FedEx location NEWARK, NJ
16:41 In transit LATHAM, NY
09/03/2015 – Monday
05:23 Departed FedEx location MEMPHIS, TN
08/03/2015 – Sunday
18:18 In transit MEMPHIS, TN
13:33 International shipment release – Import MEMPHIS, TN
10:15 International shipment release – Import MEMPHIS, TN
07/03/2015 – Saturday
12:08 Arrived at FedEx location MEMPHIS, TN
10:39 In transit JAMAICA, NY
05/03/2015 – Thursday
16:17 In transit POYLE GB
14:29 International shipment release – Export POYLE GB
13:53 In transit POYLE GB
04/03/2015 – Wednesday
20:58 Picked up STOKE ON TRENT GB

So, here it is, eight days down the road and the guitar has been from the UK to JFK to Memphis, to Albany/Latham (also less than 2 hours away) and then to Newark (2 hours in the other direction). It is now Wednesday night and I have no idea if its still in Newark or on its way to Kuala Lumpur. I’m not sure where its going next but I hope it’s to CT where I live. The more a guitar gets handled, the more likely it is to get broken. That’s why I suggest that expensive guitars be sent next day or two day Fedex. I asked the folks at Fedex why this guitar has been routed this way and they didn’t know. They blamed the weather (which has been pretty nice since the guitar arrived in NY). They also kept going back to the fact that the guitar wasn’t due to be delivered until March 12th. I tried to explain that just because you have 8 days doesn’t mean you have to give the guitar a tour of the East Coast while you use up the allotted time. I suppose they could ship it to LA and back a few times given the timetable. I understand that shipping a lot of stuff is hard work and the logistics of containerized shipping must be a bitch but come on folks. You were so close (and yet so far). I think perhaps computers have been given too much power and human beings have been largely eliminated from the equation. The fact that four different Fedex agents gave me four different stories speaks volumes. Interestingly, all four kept going back to the scripted line “…delivery is on schedule…”

I would use a different shipper but I’ve used them all and while Fedex is pretty poor a lot of the time, they don’t lose stuff very often. That’s not true of some other shippers. I shipped a guitar to Australia using the Postal Service and it got lost. Twelve days later, they found it at a post office 8 miles away from where I dropped it off. I just wanted to make you aware that shipping sucks and nobody in the shipping business can play this game. I think the ’62 Mets would have figured out how to get the guitar from Queens to Connecticut.

Day Traders

February 24th, 2015 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3558 Comments »
Fastest selling 345 on the planet is a "first rack" '59 ES-345. These don't last a week when I get them. Sometimes not even an hour.

Fastest selling 345 on the planet is a “first rack” ’59 ES-345. These don’t last a week when I get them. Sometimes not even an hour.

I received an email from a reader who likened the buying and selling of vintage guitars-specifically my guitars-to day trading. He mentioned that they seem to sell very quickly on a “last in-first out” basis. That can be true but to liken the guitar business to day trading is a little off the mark, I think. From a business perspective, you can look at guitar buying and selling from a few diverging viewpoints.

If you’re a player and you want a tool for your playing, you will likely be less concerned about whether you get your money out of the guitar many years down the road. Your emphasis is on playability and tone-not investment potential, although they aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s why “player grade” guitars are such a large part of the guitar business. Unfortunately, player grade has often come to mean beat up and modified (regardless of how it plays) as opposed to a great playing, great sounding guitar that isn’t collector clean or 100% original. I, unfortunately, don’t control the vast nomenclature of the guitar universe. If I did, the term “sustains for days” would not exist. Frequently, a “player grade” guitar will sell very quickly as it affords a newcomer to vintage or someone who just doesn’t have the resources for a “collector grade” guitar access to these great old instruments. It is not unusual for a 60’s ES model to sell for a figure that approaches the reissue Gibsons. Granted, you won’t see dot necks in that neighborhood but I’ve seen plenty of Bigsby 345’s – even some from 64 or earlier-that will cost you about what you’ll pay for a new high end 335. You can argue which one is better among yourselves. I like some of the new ones but it isn’t my field of expertise nor is it my market. Player grade guitars aren’t particularly good investments from a growth standpoint but they are very liquid. I can sell a player grade 64 much faster than I can sell a near mint dot neck. Bigger market by a mile and less hassle too. The cleaner and more original a guitar is, the more scrutiny it requires to make a sale and to make the buyer happy. That’s fine but it will slow down the process.

So, what made my reader make the day trader comment? I think it is due to the fact that some guitars show up on my site and are gone in a day or less. There are two very good reasons for that. One is that I keep a list of buyers who are looking for a specific year and model. They are notified-usually even before I have the guitar in hand-that the guitar they seek is coming in. Usually, those buyers see the photos and description at the same time as everyone else-when I post the guitar for sale. That’s just fairness. Often, the guitar is gone in five minutes and it looks a lot like day trading. I never, ever engage clients in a bidding war. If I list a guitar at $15000 and someone makes me an offer of $14000 and I accept it, the deal is done. If buyer number two the offers $16000, it’s too late. If buyer number one commits and then can’t pay, that’s another story. One note-most guitars show up first on Gbase and occasionally on Twitter if I remember to post them. If there is a particular year you are after, let me know and I’ll try to remember to give you a heads up when it is on my radar. I do occasionally have a guitar that is sold before I even get it in my hands. But then I post it as a hold or sold right away. That probably looks a lot like day trading. There are also guitars that I buy specifically for a particular buyer . Those never make the listings.

At the risk of tooting my horn, which I am generally loathe to do, I price my guitars to sell. If you do a search of a particular model and year 335/345/355, you will find, more often than not, that I have the lowest price apples to apples. The philosophy here is not so much magnanimity but practicality. I’d rather make a small profit on five guitars and have five very happy customers who feel they got a good deal, than have one customer who paid top dollar or more  (after I perhaps sat on the guitar for a year or more waiting for that one buyer at that high price) who may or may not be happy with the price. It seems to work and it allows me to acquire more guitars and serve more clients. I suppose I could make the same profit buying one or two bursts a year and selling them at stupid high prices. It wouldn’t be much fun and wouldn’t keep me that busy. Then I would have to fix stuff around the house that my wife points out on a regular basis (I live in a 300 year old house). “Sorry, dear, I’ve got to go to the shop and sell some guitars…”

Mono 355's don't hang around long either

Mono 355’s don’t hang around long either

The biggest, fastest seller of all-a red 64 "player grade". These are often gone before I get them.

The biggest, fastest seller of all-a red 64 “player grade”. These are often gone before I get them. This one might be a little above a player grade but you get the idea.

Strange Magic

February 15th, 2015 • ES 34510 Comments »

 

Just another mid 60's 345? Not quite. This one has something special going on.

Just another early 60’s 345? Not quite. This one has something special going on.

Almost all 1958-1964 ES-335/345/355’s sound good. Great even. Those that fall a little short can usually be tweaked and be made to fall within a fairly narrow range and that range is really good to really great. The ones that fall short are almost always the ones that have neck, nut, saddle or fret issues. Sometimes that can be fixed, sometimes not. I get asked frequently about the best sounding ones I’ve had and after more than 500 ES’s made between 58 and early 65, I have a few favorites. Up until today, they were all PAF guitars. The top five were (until now) a 59 335, a 58 335, a 62 (dot) 335, a 59 345 and a 59 355 mono. Now, keep in mind that there were dozens more that were extraordinary instruments and of that 500 or so I’ve had, there were maybe 10 true dogs-all with neck problems. And also keep in mind that tone is very subjective stuff and just ‘cuz I think a guitar sounds extraordinary doesn’t mean you will. I play some blues, 60’s rock and tons of Beatles tunes. I play a lot on the neck pickup, emulating as best I can, Mr. Clapton. When I play on the bridge I want Mike Bloomfield for blues and George Harrison in the “Hey Bulldog”, Taxman” and “Paperback Writer” vein. So, you know what I like. So, where’s this magic I’ve teased you with? Well, it’s a beat up 1963 ES-345 with a heavily worn fretboard, passable fret job, new nut, changed tuners and tailpiece and early patent number pickups.

This guitar that doesn’t fit the mold at all. To keep the commerciality out of it, this guitar is already on hold but I spent most of today playing it. I literally could not put it down. I sold this guitar in 2012 and was very impressed with it then but it sold so quickly, I didn’t get much of a chance to play it. What is it about this guitar that makes it so special? I honestly can’t tell you. It’s got it’s original stereo Varitone circuit. It has early patent number pickups in the 7.7-7.9K range, a neck that starts fairly thin but gets quite large by the 12th fret. It is a stop tail and has always been one. The tuners are modern Gibson Klusons although it had Grovers at some point. The bridge is the original ABR-1 with milled nylon saddles. So, what the heck is it about this guitar that makes it sing like a violin? It is among the best 345’s I’ve played. The bridge pickup is good but not quite great. But the neck pickup on this guitar rivals any 335 from any year. If there has ever been a guitar that, for me, at least, puts the “tone sucker” Varitone theory to bed, it’s this guitar. It may even be the later Varitone which actually is a tone sucker. I haven’t looked. So, what’s my theory?

I think one of the factors is a properly cut and installed nut. The original nuts on Gibson from the era are almost always too tight (which is why everybody changed out the tuners in the 60’s). In many cases, when you bend the strings, the nut pinches and they go sharp. And you thought it was the tuners slipping but they can’t slip sharp. Obviously, there is a wonderful randomly great pickup in the neck. I really should take it out and install it in another guitar just to see if the magic is in there. But it could be the wood. It’s a relatively light 345 considering all that electrical stuff in there, weighing in at 8 lbs 5 ounces. The stereo VT circuit is almost 12 ounces heavier than a 335 harness. It’s also kind of a mess-heavily checked and worn-it’s been played long and hard. The red has faded to a brownish tone and it certainly isn’t a pretty thing. But holy crap…shut your eyes and play if you don’t want to look at it.

I’d love to be able to quantify what it is that makes this one so special But tone is a combination of a lot of factors(including the player and the amp).  It’s clear that some changes just don’t matter with regard to tone. Tuners don’t seem to matter. Re-frets done right don’t matter and can even improve tone. Nylon saddles, if they’re the milled ones and cut properly don’t matter (compared to metal) but properly notched saddles are a huge factor for sustain which affects tone. I’d like to say a stereo Varitone circuit doesn’t matter but I’ll just stir up a storm. I’ll just say it doesn’t matter in this guitar. And one more thing-I’m playing it in stereo using a stereo Y cable. And, where you set  your pickup height does matter. Many ES’s have a sweet spot and it’s a trial and error thing. The height of the stop makes a small difference but more in playability than tone. So, without doing a lot of part swapping and experimentation, I’m not going to know all the answers but that’s OK. I’m happy to just call it magic. Strange and wonderful magic.

Keys to the Kingdom

February 6th, 2015 • Gibson General5 Comments »
Got a Lifton or a Gibson badged case with a lock that looks like this? The right key says 6K11 or H345. Note that the lock even says 6K11 on it. So much for security.

Got a Lifton or a Gibson badged case with a lock that looks like this? The right key says 6K11 or H345. Note that the lock even says 6K11 on it. So much for security.

I’ve written about case keys before but I’ve had some reader questions lately and I’ve got a bit more information than I had back when I first wrote about case keys. First off, let me point out that locking your guitar into its case and thinking it’s more secure that way is kind of dumb. If I’m playing a gig in some dive bar and someone in the bar is bent on stealing my guitar, they will not be deterred. You will never hear this statement: “Oh, crap. I was going to steal this guitar but the case is locked so even if I do, I won’t be able to open it.” You all know it takes about ten seconds to break the lock off a guitar case. I think the only function of a working lock on a vintage case is to keep your kids from messing with your prized instrument while you’re at work or out shoveling the driveway. Your kids are probably going to figure out where you keep the key anyway.

As collectors, having the original key in its little manila envelope is a nice thing, along with the little screwdriver and the other nice case candy items that came with the guitar when it was new in 1958. At least 90% of the original keys are long gone by the time these guitars get to me. Probably closer to 95%. But the good news is that all the locks from a given case maker are opened by the same key. Gibson badged cases and Lifton cases have the same lock and the same key will open them I have brown cases from 58-61 and black cases from 61-68 and all can be opened by an Excelsior key numbered either H345 or 6K11. They appear to be identical. They are pretty easy to find and will usually cost you around $15 or so. That key will open most 335/345/355 cases but not all of them.

Cases for 335’s were made by Stone during the 50’s and early 60’s and Ess and Ess in the mid 60’s and later. The Excelsior keys that fit the Gibson and Lifton cases don’t fit these. Stone cases were widely used in the 50’s and a lot of 58, 59  and 60 335’s have them. They are a really good case but, unlike the Gibson and Lifton, they have one spring type latch for the locking piece and usually the springs get broken. The latches usually still work and the key, if you can find one will still work. The key for some Stone cases will also be an Excelsior (which means “ever upward” in Latin in case you care-and it’s the state motto of New York). The key for the Stone case will have the number 301 on it but it is for the type of latch pictured. There are also brown Stone cases with a different spring latch. I don’t know what key opens these.

By the early 60’s Stone Case Co. (of Brooklyn) was either gone or Gibson stopped using their product. If your case is black, it isn’t a Stone. If it doesn’t have a Gibson badge on the outside or a Lifton badge on the inside, it’s most likely an Ess & Ess (also of Brooklyn). These usually have a label inside up by the headstock (but not always) and they also. like a Stone, have a spring type latch for the lock. The key that I have that works on an Ess & Ess has no writing of any kind and it looks like a generic luggage key. Good luck.

After 1969, the cases changed but some of the same keys still work. I have a black with purple interior 70’s case made by Lifton that uses the same H345 or 6K11 key. I have a grey Epiphone case from the early 60’s that uses it as well. Finally, I have seen 335’s from the 60’s in Victoria cases but I don’t believe that Gibson ever supplied them. They were used extensively by Fender for the Coronado series and they will fit a 335 pretty well. I have no idea what key they used, however. If I find out, I’ll revise this post.

Any early 335 may have a case made by Stone. They have a spring latch-usually broken-with a key that is numbered 301.

Any early 335 may have a case made by Stone. They have a spring latch-usually broken-with a key that is numbered 301. Not all Stone cases used the same lock, however. See the next photo.

Here's the lock on another Stone case from the late 50's or early 60's. I don't have a key that fits this type. If anyone has one, send me a photo and I'll update the post

Here’s the lock on another Stone case from the late 50’s or early 60’s. I don’t have a key that fits this type. If anyone has one, send me a photo and I’ll update the post

If your 335 is mid 60's or late 60's or even 70's, you might have an Ess & Ess case. They key is pretty generic looking with no number. It looks like this if that helps

If your 335 is mid 60’s or late 60’s or even 70’s, you might have an Ess & Ess case. They key is pretty generic looking with no number. It looks like this if that helps

Scavengers

January 24th, 2015 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3558 Comments »
This 61 ES-345 looked pretty darn good but wasn't quite 100% when I got it. Fortunately, I have a lot of spare parts.

This 61 ES-345 looked pretty darn good but wasn’t quite 100% when I got it. Fortunately, I have a lot of spare parts.

Scavengers. There. I said it twice. The guitar marketplace is full of them. It’s the sellers who think you don’t know the difference between a repro part and a real one. It’s the Les Paul guys who want double white PAF’s and no wire bridges for their R9’s. It’s the parts dealers who know that sometimes the parts are worth more than the guitar.  I’m not making a moral judgement here, just putting some facts out there.

There are a lot of parts on a vintage guitar. There are a lot of vintage guitar brands and models and variations and nobody knows everything about all of them. I try to know everything about ES-335’s but I learn new stuff all the time, so I don’t know everything either.  Take a guitar with around 50 different parts and cook over a low flame for 50 or so years. That’s the recipe for errors and omissions right there. It’s actually a surprise when I get a guitar (often sight unseen) that is 100% untouched. For the high end stuff, I always go in person (even to Europe) and check out the instrument myself. Crapshooting on a 58 or 59 is just too much risk. But I get other vintage pieces from individuals and dealers based on a couple of photos all the time. Want to know how many of these guitar have an undisclosed issue? About 90%. Yep. Nine out of ten. Seem high? Buy ten guitars on Ebay and compare what you get to what was advertised. It’s usually because the seller doesn’t know any better but not always.

Sometimes it’s laziness on the part of the seller (or dealer). I’ve been guilty of that myself-you get a guitar that looks just right and you don’t check the pot codes because nothing else has been changed and it’s a huge pain to get in there with a mirror and most of the date codes are covered with solder anyway.  Or the tailpiece looks exactly right so you don’t pull it off and check that the studs are the right length. I’m not talking about a changed saddle (virtually all no wire bridge ES’s have at least one) or a changed pickguard screw here or there. Those are cheap and easily replaced. But get a 345 with a repro tailpiece and studs and you’re out $800 or more for the real deal if you want the guitar to be vintage correct. Or you disclose it and lower the price. Repro stuff has gotten awfully convincing and it just makes it harder to spot them. All the more reason to buy from someone who knows the difference.

Part of the reason I write so extensively about the real geeky stuff is so that you, as a buyer, know what to look for. Here’s a story about a recent purchase. I was contacted by an individual seller with an early 60’s ES-345. I got lots of photos and a very fair price. He said it came from a reputable dealer (a few years ago) and that it was 100% original except for a mono conversion. The photos showed little reason to doubt him. I questioned the tuner tips because it was an early 60’s and the tips looked too good. He didn’t know and so I assumed they were repros (and they were). No big deal-lots of late 50’s and early 60’s ES’s have repro tips. When I got the guitar, it would have been easy to just take the photos and list it as all original except for the tuner tips and the harness. It played  great and sounded great and everything looked right. But I’m not that lazy. I pulled the tuners to make sure there weren’t enlarged shaft holes from Grovers (even though there were no marks on the headstock) and I pulled the bridge and tailpiece. Both looked correct at first glance but the telltale “hump” on the tailpiece felt like it was missing. The bridge was correct but the tailpiece was a long seam 70’s probably off of a Les Paul Custom as were the studs-1 3/8″ rather than the correct 1 1/2″. Some people measure the thread length – 1″ for vintage and 7/8″ for later. The seller didn’t know and I don’t expect him to know. He wasn’t a dealer but he had bought the guitar from a dealer. That begs the question…was the dealer lazy? or dishonest? or clueless? That’s the hard part.

Correct "short seam" tailpiece on the right. Correct "long thread" stud on the left. These parts won't really affect how the guitar sounds but I'm sure you would rather have the right era parts on your expensive vintage guitar.

Correct “short seam” tailpiece on the right. Correct “long thread” stud on the left. These parts won’t really affect how the guitar sounds but I’m sure you would rather have the right era parts on your expensive vintage guitar.

Getting Better, Part 2

January 16th, 2015 • ES 3458 Comments »
This late 2014 ES-345 looks pretty authentic and plays pretty well too. There's still little nitpicky stuff wrong but overall, it's a very nice guitar. It is over $4000 if you're buying from the usual discounters. Gibson stickers it over $6000. You would think they could get the pickup covers right.

This late 2014 ES-345 looks pretty authentic and plays pretty well too. There’s still little nitpicky stuff wrong but overall, it’s a very nice guitar. It is over $4000 if you’re buying from the usual discounters. Gibson stickers it over $6000. You would think they could get the pickup covers right.

Having gone through the well regarded Warren Haynes 61 reissue, I was anxious to get my mitts on a non artist Memphis reissue. The first one to walk in the door happened to be a 2014 ES-345. Not an inexpensive guitar either. These list for over $6000 and sell for over $4000. The blondes are $4299 at the usual discounters. I’ll start with the nitpicky stuff.

The pickguard bracket is wrong as are the pickup covers. The Varitone ring has gold numbers and they should be silver, I think. I’ve actually never had a blonde 345 with a black ring but I’ve seen a couple and the numbers are silver. Easy fix Mr. Gibson. I do think they should know that 345’s didn’t come with plastic strap buttons. 335’s did until 61 but not 345’s or 355’s. That’s a pretty glaring oversight, not that it makes any tonal difference. None of this stuff is a big deal because this isn’t a vintage guitar and even though it aspires to be a reissue, it’s just a facsimile. They could get all of this stuff right but either they just don’t pay attention or they actually don’t do enough research (or they’re too cheap). The switch tip isn’t catalin nor do I expect it to be. It’s amber plastic and it’s inferior to most of the repros out there because it has a big ol’ seam (mold mark). Too much work to smooth it off.

They have gotten some big stuff right, however. The body shape is pretty darn good and the 59 neck profile is closer than ever. Still too much shoulder compared to a real early 59 but closer than ever. I would have been surprised if they had done a vintage Varitone and they didn’t. The technology of a 59 VT is clunky and probably too labor intensive to try to duplicate. It is approximately 20 separate components soldered to that 6 way switch. To Gibson’s credit, the tone is right and it looks like they’ve saved some weight by making the chokes much smaller. It’s also mono which will make most folks happy. That earlier version with the two jacks on the rim seemed to make nobody happy. The bindings are finally correct looking after years of getting them wrong. Kudos. And the guitar feels right. I still hate the VOS finish and the really bad aging on the gold hardware. Why is the neck pickup shiny and the bridge pickup dull? Because somebody sweat on the bridge and not the neck pickup? I’ve seen an awful lot of vintage 345’s with all kinds of pickup cover wear but never one that looked like this one.

Vintage details aside, it plays extremely well and feels very much like a vintage 345. Tone-wise, the neck pickup really sings but the bridge is a little dull. This may be the guitar and not the pickup. This one is brand new and needs a bit of playing time before I can make a fair assessment. At $4000, it had better be a very good guitar. I’ve bought a few mid 60’s 345’s at around that price and once the reissues start creeping into vintage territory price-wise, it’s time to seriously consider vintage. In fact, if you don’t mind the narrow nut, I’d be buying a 66-68 345 before I shelled out $4K+ for a reissue. Of course, you’re out of luck if you want a blonde one. One last complaint. Look at the photo below. That’s some pretty shoddy workmanship. You would think they would take the time to clean up those edges on the guard.

This is simply a lack of attention to detail. Unforgivable on a guitar with a $6000 sticker price.

This is simply a lack of attention to detail. Unforgivable on a guitar with a $6000 sticker price.