GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Hot Town (Summer in the City)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Reverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anatomy of a 72

July 12th, 2015 • ES 3356 Comments »

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick of the Pocket

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

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

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

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

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

String Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Play it

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geekfest Circa 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye Bye, BB

May 16th, 2015 • Uncategorized6 Comments »
Don't matter what guitar you play if you play like BB.

Don’t matter what guitar you play if you play like BB.

A lot of folks with a lot more guitar cred than I have already weighed in on the loss of the great BB King. He certainly was the common denominator that links most blues players, would be blues players and wannabe blues players together. We all stole licks from him and we all tried to emulate his wonderful economic style. BB could play one note that said more than any 20, no, any 100 I could play.  But his skill and technique also points out something that vintage aficionados hate to admit. I was just listening to a clip from 1972 wherein BB was playing an early 70’s 355. It could have been custom but I doubt it. It looked like an off the rack walnut finished 355. And, in case that isn’t enough, he was playing through a solid state (non tube if you’re under 25 and never heard the term “solid state” before) amp-it looked like an Acoustic Control. Vintage guys like me don’t like 70’s Gibsons very much. The quality suffered under Norlin and, while there are still good ones, there seem to be more bad. Not for BB.

I think he proves better than almost anyone that the player transcends the instrument. For hack players like me, I can say that there are guitars that make me a better player and they are mostly old. But for a man like BB King, the guitar is merely the link between the player (and his experience) and the audience. His tone comes from within, not from that wooden box with the strings on it and all the little electronic bits inside. Those of us who play the blues because we know the notes aren’t doing the same thing as a bluesman.

What does a guy from suburban upstate NY from a middle class family know about the blues? Yes, we’ve all had some hard times but that doesn’t make me a bluesman. I don’t know what it takes but I know it when I hear it. Those British kids in the 60’s who co-opted American blues did us suburban white kids a favor. They introduced us to a genre that was right in our backyard that we barely knew existed. There was a time not that long ago when mainstream radio (it was AM back then) wouldn’t play black artists playing what was then called “race music”. They would have white guys (like Johnny Rivers) do covers and those were the songs that made the airwaves up here in the North. By the mid 60’s that was changing but I’m willing to bet that I couldn’t have found BB King on the radio in Schenectady, New York in 1963.

I saw BB King a few of times over the years and he was always entertaining and sometimes mesmerizing. I saw him in his 50’s, his 60’s and his 80’s and while he may have lost a note or two near the end, he still had great command of both his guitar and his audience. And he looked like he was having fun. The blues is rooted in misery but playing the blues is a joy. BB knew that and taught us more than just the notes. So, goodbye Mr. Riley B. King and thanks for the lessons.

This is a little more up my alley. BB with a mid 60's ES-355. No whammy bar necessary.

This is a little more up my alley. BB with a mid 60’s ES-355. No whammy bar necessary. He called the oft maligned Varitone the “magic switch”.

Mothers Day

May 10th, 2015 • Uncategorized3 Comments »
Liz Gelber circa 1946. Bye, Mom. And thank you. I miss you already.

Liz Gelber circa 1946. Thanks Mom.

Did your Mom yell at you to turn that thing down? Did she tell you that there was no future in being a guitar player? That maybe you should be a doctor or a lawyer or maybe a nice accountant? Mine did not and that’s just the beginning.

My mother had nine children (all boys in case you think it was going to be easy). She’s been gone since 2011 but I think of her much more often than one day a year in May. She always encouraged her sons to play a musical instrument. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was mandatory. We had a spinet piano in the living room which she played often and competently. She could sight read like you read the newspaper but she wasn’t going to be mistaken for a musician. Still, there were show tunes coming from the living room. Each of my brothers played at least one instrument. None of us were good enough to make a living at it but most of us stuck with it. I took violin starting in the 4th grade. I wasn’t very good. My parents added an organ to the living room when I was around ten (not a chord organ either-a real dual manual, no fooling’ around pedal board pro Allen) and I took lessons on that too. I wasn’t very good. My oldest brother, Ben-who also played violin, took to it and then there was Bach coming from the living room.

The Beatles showed up in 64 and I bugged my father endlessly to get me a guitar and he came home with a flattop Kay that cost $15. I started guitar lessons and quit the organ. I still had to play the violin in the school orchestra (I switched to upright bass that same year). Mom made sure I practiced like she did with every other brother and every other instrument. The big surprise was that I was pretty good at it. They agreed to get me an electric guitar (Fender DuoSonic and Princeton amp in 1964) and my younger brother, Brian, who already played the oboe, albeit not that well, took over the Kay. He would take over the DuoSonic when I got the Fender Jaguar in 65. I would often practice in the living room with the amp turned up to somewhere around 11. And then there were Beatles songs coming from the living room. My Dad would come home from work and yell at me to turn it down but Mom never did.

When she was in her 50’s, Mom decided it was time to learn another instrument. She asked me to help her find a cheap and playable guitar and we ended up with a German Framus flattop that had good action and she taught herself to play. I helped her with chord charts but she wouldn’t have it. She had to read music – not some chart. That was cheating. Just the notes please. She never got that far but she was never one to shrink from the task at hand. Mom had no fear. She learned to windsurf in her 60’s, built a path down to the lake behind our house, wallpapered the bathrooms, made a quilt out of my Dad’s old neckties and about a zillion other “projects”. She never excelled at any of them but showed a level of determination and ingenuity that has influenced me throughout my life. If someone says that something is so simple “…even your Mom could do it…”, they didn’t know my Mom.

So thanks Mom. Thanks for the encouragement, your example and your unwavering support. And thanks to my wife, too, for carrying on the tradition of superb mothering. Our son is a pretty good guitar player and can play the piano better than my Mom thanks to the support of his Mom. In our house, there was Chopin and Gershwin and Lennon and McCartney coming from the living room.

Liz Gelber circa 2005 Thanks again, Mom.

Liz Gelber circa 2005 Thanks again, Mom.

 

Red 335 Number Two?

April 26th, 2015 • ES 3355 Comments »
Red dot neck. 59 serial. 58 FON and a factory Varitone.   Probably the second red dot neck made.

Red dot neck. 59 serial. 58 FON and a factory Varitone.
Probably the second red dot neck made.

I have a couple of Holy Grail guitars and the one that generally tops the list is a red dot neck from 1959. Of course, they are as rare as hen’s teeth (do hen’s even have teeth?) and Gibson says they didn’t make any. Although I know of at least 5 ’59’s and one 58, I don’t believe any are indicated in the shipping logs. But they exist for sure. I’ve got one right here with me. The well known 58 in the photo at the bottom of the post is considered to be the very first red 335 with a serial number of A28800 and a ship date of  December 15th.

The one at the top of this post just arrived at my shop from France. It has a later serial by quite a bit-A29553 with a ship date of  April 1, 1959. The FON is T6473 which means it was built in 58. That means it could actually be the very first one built but until I find out the FON of the one shipped in 58, I won’t know for sure-not that it really matters in terms of value. It’s just bragging rights. The 58 is a Bigsby with a stereo circuit but no Varitone. This one is a factory stop that has both the stereo circuit and a Varitone. It appears to be factory-everything is just as it should be-shielding cans on three pots, disc caps, cut center block to accommodate the choke. Aftermarket Varitones tend to have sloppy routs and almost always skip the shielding cans. I have a copy of the shipping log page for this guitar and it neither indicates stereo, Varitone or red. But the finish is absolutely a no doubt factory original finish and the logs are notoriously sketchy at times. And, while the ship date usually has little to do with the build date, the guitars logged (and supposedly shipped) the same day as this one were almost all red ES-355’s. Only two 335’s were logged that day but at least 20 ES-355’s were and a couple of 350’s and 175’s. A single EB-2 and a J-185 also went. I wonder if they were red? You can click on the log page to blow it up so you can read it.

1959GibsonES335FONrecords

All of this is speculation, of course. Someone who was in charge of the shipping records back then is probably laughing hysterically at the geeks (like me) who see these things as some kind of sacred text. But, you have to take this with a healthy dose of skepticism. They just weren’t that meticulous over at 225 Parsons Street in Kalamazoo. But let’s take a look at the guitar itself; it is interesting in a few ways. The 58 that is considered the first red 335 has gold knobs. This one has the solid black ones. The very first 355’s had gold ones but they also switched to the solid black ones fairly early on. The finish on the 59 is barely faded. It isn’t displaying the watermelon fade that almost all 58-early 60 red ES’s show. That could mean they were still fooling around with the dye formulation-the red 58 isn’t a watermelon either or it could mean the guitar didn’t see a lot of sunlight. Another interesting feature is the frets-they appear to be original but are the larger 59 style. That makes sense-it’s a 59 but most 335’s with a 58 FON and a thin top have the smaller frets. I own A30248-also a 59 with a 58 FON but it has the small frets. Go figure.

I wonder if this is a prototype for the soon to be released ES-345 SVT? I’ve seen one 58 ES-335 with a Varitone but I don’t know if it was factory as I never inspected it. The first 345’s were shipped around three weeks later. What I don’t know is when the first stereo VT ES-355’s were released. We know that all the 58’s were mono and the early 59’s were as well. The earliest 59 SVT ES-355 I’ve had is later than the “first rack” 345’s but, frankly, I haven’t had that many.

This 58 is generally considered to be the very first red dot neck. I don't know the FON but it was likely the first to leave the factory in any case.

This 58 is generally considered to be the very first red dot neck. I don’t know the FON but it was likely the first to leave the factory in any case.