GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Top Ten List

June 25th, 2016 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3555 Comments »
58's are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58's.

58’s are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58’s.

I keep a mental top ten list of the best ES guitars to pass through my hands and, while the list is pretty diverse, there are some factors that are becoming meaningful. As I get to play more and more of them, I re-evaluate the things that make some of them simply good, others great and a few simply extraordinary.

It’s interesting that the current top ten (or maybe top 12) includes guitars from 58, 59, 60, 62 and 64. I try to keep personal preference out of the equation-like the fact that I like guitars with necks that start medium and get really big by the 12th fret. I’m really talking about tone. And that’s personal preference too,  I suppose,  but we all like a guitar that has great sustain and that singing almost vocal quality that some 3×5’s have and some don’t. Some of that is setup but some of it is simply the wood, the strings and the electronics and the relationship between them. I can’t totally explain why this 335 sounds so much better than that one but there are some common denominators that I can quantify and only because I’ve played (and set up) so many.

Common denominators: All are 58-64 which doesn’t tell you much. All are stop tails. All have PAFs or early patents. Nearly all were re-fretted at some point. But there have been dozens and dozens that fit that description so there must be something more to these standouts. Four of the top ten have thin tops. If you aren’t a regular reader, you should be aware that all 58’s and some 59’s have a three ply top that is 25% thinner than the four ply tops that were used from 59 on. Of course, that means that 6 of the top ten had the thicker tops. But wait. There’s more. If we go to the top five, three of the top five have the thinner tops which tells us something. The top five are as follows–#1 late 58 335, #2 thin top 59 335, #3 refinished 62 dot neck, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 unbound 58 335. So, I’m going out on a limb and saying the thin top early 335’s seem to have an edge when it comes to great tone. Looking at the next five on the hit list #6 is a first rack 59 345, #7 is a 59 355 stop tail, #8 is a 64 335, #9 is a 59 335 and #10 is an early 60 335. This is out of perhaps 500-600 that I’ve owned. There are perhaps another 75 that I would call contenders-an extraordinary one isn’t that much better than a great one. Most 58-64 3×5’s are simply excellent guitars. We’re talking microns here.

This list is rather fluid and I’m always replacing one with another as I play more of them. It is tricky to compare a guitar I have today to one I had five years ago (or more) but I consider the top ten to be kind of interchangeable. I’m sure that if I had all of them in a room, I would put them in a different order but they would all still be great. What would be really useful is if I could predict which ones would be the standouts before I even picked them up and played them. It would be nice to be able to tell folks to look for a particular factory order number or group of features that make for great tone but, alas, no such information exists. I’ve had 59 dot necks that are uninspiring. I’ve had trap tail 65’s that would give any of the top ten a good run for their money. There are a lot of variables and too many aren’t easily quantified.

There are a few consistencies that have occurred to me, however. First rack ES-345’s are generally excellent. What’s a first rack? Read this. It’s actually three racks but they all share certain characteristics and these characteristics seem to translate to great tone. Late 58’s and early 59’s are also fertile ground for great tone-again, the thin top is a possible factor. The shallow but not too shallow neck angle could also be in play here. The big neck? Maybe but there’s a 62 in the top 5 that had a skinny neck (and a refinish). Here’s another factor that throws a monkey wrench into the mix: On a given day, a particular guitar can sound great and on another day, it doesn’t sound so great. Humidity is a big factor and probably the state of my playing ability is another.

So, what can you take away from this? Well, mostly that you should play a guitar before you buy it. Just buying a 59 dot neck that you like the looks of will probably get you a great guitar but it may not be an extraordinary one. Buying a beat up refinished 62 could get you one of the best players you ever had. But you can’t know for sure until it’s properly set up and you sit down and play it.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

 

Fathers Day 2016

June 18th, 2016 • Uncategorized12 Comments »
Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt. I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.

Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt.  I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.

A number of years ago, I wrote a memoir about my unusual family. It was very well received by a number of publishers who then unanimously rejected it. It seems a book about a family where no one was locked in a closet and starved or chained in the basement with rats won’t sell and that was the end of that. The book was called Centerboard (my father loved to sail) and followed the nine Gelber brothers (and Mom and Dad) through the fifties and into the 60’s.  In honor of my Dad and Dads everywhere, Chapter One is today’s post.  Enjoy (and call your Dad).

CHAPTER ONE

The Pram

 My father was of the opinion that the laws of physics didn’t apply to him. For that matter, I don’t think he subscribed to the laws of nature either. He did, after all, father nine sons in a row. It was 1957 or maybe 1958 and my father, a surgeon who took great pride in the accomplishments of his very gifted hands, decided to build a sailboat. Well, actually, it started out as just a boat. It was later that he decided that it should sail.

We all lived in a big house overlooking a small lake in a quiet village in upstate New York. The house was pink. It was pink the day we moved there in 1956 and was pink until we sold it in 2011.

One evening late in the fall, right after dinner, I went down to the basement – not to the playroom where the TV was, but to the workbench. The workbench was the personal domain of my father. You messed with his tools at your peril; bending dimes in the metal vise attached to the side of the workbench was attempted only during the working hours of a surgeon. If he caught you or even suspected you were messing with the vise, you were in trouble. Big trouble. He had an odd sixth sense about his tools. He could tell if someone had so much as touched a chisel or taken a shot at the wall with his staple gun. He didn’t know who, but he knew.

That evening, I went down to watch my very talented father yell and curse at a sheaf of papers that I can only assume were the directions. There was a large pile of wood, mostly cut into odd, vaguely boat-shaped pieces. There was also a lot of sawdust and the smell of glue – not Elmer’s glue like today, but glue factory glue probably made from the hides of old race horses that couldn’t even muster a show in a claimer at Saratoga.

Laid out in a boat-like pattern were the big pieces of wood and alongside, some smaller deck-looking things. He was trying to figure out just how to attach the sides of the boat to the bottom without whacking holes in it. The directions must have said to nail the sides to the bottom but he was having none of it. Put nails in the bottom of a boat, he must have thought? How dumb is that if you want the thing to float?

He barely acknowledged my presence and kept on working and cursing and working a little more. There were many evenings that fall and winter that I watched and sometimes even helped. He’d let me hold a piece of wood after he’d glued it or used me for a third hand if he needed it. I even felt that maybe there was some camaraderie going on here, although at the age of six I didn’t exactly know what camaraderie was. He was, however smiling more and cursing less.

By the spring, all the wood had been used up. The directions, once neatly packaged, were stained and wrinkled and in a state of disarray. The floor was covered in sawdust, bent nails and wood chips. And there, by the stairway, next to the workbench, sat, wonder of wonders, a boat. A pram they called them. Squat and squared at both ends, it looked more like a bathtub than a thing of seaworthiness. It wasn’t painted yet and the caulk and glue oozed from every join and miter. My father stood over it – proud, defiant, larger than life. He had built a boat.

“Charlie, my boy, what color shall we paint it?” he said to me.

“Blue”, I said, knowing that he had already bought the paint and sparing him the explanation of why red is a lousy color for a boat.

“Blue it is.” And he opened the can of blue gloss marine paint. No primer, of course. Primer was for losers, he must have thought. Real men use paint. Only pantywaists and sissies bother with primer. It must have occurred to him four or five coats of blue gloss marine paint later that he should have primed it first. Cover the wood a little better, maybe.

At some point between screwing in the oarlocks and that little brass eye that goes through the bow, my father had an idea. A really good idea. There were a few pages left in the directions that were labeled “optional sail package instructions.” All he had to do was order the pre-made spars and sails, put in a mounting bracket for the mast and rudder and …cut a hole in the bottom of the boat for the centerboard.

“What the hell is a centerboard?” he said to no one in particular even though I was standing two feet away from him. I didn’t know and didn’t hazard a guess.

“I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to cut a hole in the bottom of my new boat”, he said, again to no one in particular. So my father added the optional sail package, leaving out what he interpreted to be the optional centerboard.

The sails arrived as did the day we were to take our maiden voyage. Maybe it was because my three older brothers took less interest in his big boat project or maybe they were scared or smarter than I was, but my father asked me to go out in the new sailboat with him.

Next order of business, bring the boat up the stairs. My father asked my oldest brother Ben, who was eleven, to help him hump the ungainly boat up the basement steps and out into the backyard. The lake was in back, down a steep embankment with a winding trail to the bottom. The trail was part of a network of trails around Collins Lake worn into the hillside by generations of kids off on adventures. Everyone called it “The Monkey Trail.”

“How do you know it’ll fit through the door?” my brother asked. My father ignored the question.

“Don’t scratch it on the banister. Look out for the wall. Watch what you’re doing.” He rattled off a series of commands that met with no response. This was not an invitation to have a conversation.

The boat was at the top of the stairs on its side. The door was clearly high enough to accommodate it but the opening was too narrow.

“Gotta take the door off. Take it back down. Watch out for the wall,” my father said. Again, no response was required.

Back down the stairs they went with the boat, setting it back into its place among the sawdust. My father, hammer and screwdriver in hand, went up to dismantle the door. The door came off pretty easily and was now leaning up against the pink stucco of the house. There was no screen door so the basement was now open to any and all bugs lurking in the yard. I don’t know where my mother was at the time, but I’m sure she would have complained about the open door had she seen it. Once again Benjy – he wasn’t to become Ben for another few years – headed up the basement stairs with my father, the blue boat and a newfound respect for measuring tapes.

“Godammit”, my father rarely used any other profanity in the presence of his children but godammit was perfectly acceptable. The boat still didn’t fit.

“Where’s the goddamn crowbar?” he roared. I swear I didn’t know whether he was going to whack Ben in the head with it or take off the door frame. The boat went back down the stairs again and my father went back up the stairs wielding the crowbar. I can’t imagine why my father even had a crowbar. Maybe it was for times like this. It didn’t take long for him to pry the door frame away from the plaster walls. The wooden frame pieces made a kind of shrieking sound as they were ripped away.

“That ought to do it”, he said.

I watched from my usual spot next to the workbench as my father for a third time ascended the staircase with his eldest son and a slightly scraped blue boat. With considerable body english and an expletive deleted, the boat popped out of the doorway and into the back yard.

“Charlie, go get the sails and carry them down to the lake.” So, with a combination of fear and delight, I headed for the garage. The sails had already been attached to the wooden spars and the whole rig was rolled into an unwieldy package of dangling ropes, canvas, all manner of unusual brass hooks, fasteners and wooden poles. It was also three times my six-year-old size.

By the time I wrestled the “sails” out of the garage and onto the back lawn, my father and Ben were halfway down the trail to the lake. I needed some help. It’s an odd thing. At the time, there were seven children and, on that day, only two were accounted for. Bob was probably in the basement watching TV because that’s where he always was, but what about Frank and Brian? Frank was seven and Brian was four, certainly old enough to help me haul the sails down to the lake. They were nowhere to be found.

“What’s the problem with those sails?” my father yelled. “Don’t you want to go sailing?”

Now here’s what must have happened. Based on prior knowledge, I knew that my brother Ben, being the oldest, was by orders of magnitude, my father’s favorite. I also knew that Ben understood, even at the age of eleven, that getting into a boat that my father had built, centerboard or no centerboard, was potentially life threatening and he would have no part of it. Ben was also the only one with any sailing experience since he had tried it the preceding summer on Lake George at Camp Chingachgook.

“It won’t sail straight without a centerboard, Dad.” Ben said.

“Since when are you an expert?” said my father. That was his standard reply whenever anyone told him anything unless, of course, he was speaking to an actual expert. It’s worth noting that when speaking to an actual expert, my father would listen intently, taking detailed mental notes so that he could recycle the information with an air of “expertness” to any who would listen. Had he spoken to an actual sailing expert earlier that day, the conversation would have been more like, “You know, Ben, the centerboard’s function is to counteract the thermopassive force vectors of the prevailing hydromolecular pressure caused by the wind so that even if the wind is in your face, the boat goes forward.”

“I’m not going.” Ben said.

“Fine, I’ll just take Charlie,” my father said as I dragged the sails, spars and ropes onto the rickety wooden dock he had built a few summers before. In fact, substitute “dock” for “boat” in this story and knock a couple years off all the ages and there’ll be no need to tell that one.

My father and Ben carried the blue pram to the end of the dock and carefully slid it into Collins Lake. It did, indeed, float. My father attached the rudder without incident and then began to tackle the sails. Since they were already attached to the mast and the mast to the boom, it should have been simply a matter of stepping the mast and raising the sails. But it wasn’t. The mast didn’t fit in the hole that had been drilled in the plywood plank that was nailed over the front seat to hold the mast. The mast was supposed to fit through that hole and through a hole in the front seat and set into a wooden block in the bottom of the boat. It didn’t.

“Goddammit, the mast is too big,” he roared. And he stormed up the hill with what appeared to be steam coming out of his ears.

Since there was no electricity down at the lake, the reasonable approach to the problem would have been to take the boat out of the water and back up the hill, run an extension cord into the backyard and drill the holes a little larger. A really long extension cord from the house to the lake also might have worked, but he probably would have electrocuted himself in the process. The battery-operated drill hadn’t been invented yet. A hand drill might have worked but not very well because the hole was so big.

Minutes later, my father came down the hill, hammer and chisel in hand.

“Couple of whacks with this thing and it ought to fit just fine.” And he went at it with an air of determination I have always associated with warfare and disaster movies.

“Try it now”, he said, the sweat dripping from his bald head.

The holes, which were perfectly round before, looked a little like three leaf clovers or the club suit on a deck of cards. The mast slipped easily through the holes and actually set perfectly into the block in the bottom of the boat, which apparently had been the right size all along. The problem now was stability. The mast moved around in the now slightly oversized hole.

“The wind will keep it from moving too much”, he said with more hope than conviction.

“Let’s go, Charlie,” he said, turning to me as I sat watching from the shore.

The wind was blowing from directly behind us so the boat was pretty much sailing even before I got in. Ben was trying to hold it at the dock as we boarded, my father in the back seat and me in the middle seat. I could see little beads of water forming where the sides of the boat joined the bottom.

“Don’t worry, the wood expands when it gets wet and it seals the joints”, my father said.

“Yeah, right,” I thought, “since when are you an expert?”

With the wind behind us, the lack of a centerboard wasn’t much of an issue. As I learned later, you can sail a refrigerator straight downwind without a centerboard. I have to admit that, for the five or so minutes it took to get from our dock to the other side of the lake, it was fun. I’m not sure if I got more pleasure from the sailing or watching the look of sheer pride on my father’s face. Then, as they say in the news, something went horribly wrong. We had to turn. We had run out of lake.

“Ready about,” he said. I have no idea where he learned the jargon. “Hard alee!”

I had no clue what he was talking about so I just watched what he did. He threw the tiller hard to his right and slid over to the starboard side of the boat. He fully expected the boat to turn onto a port tack and head away from the shore. The boat turned and the sail filled but instead of heading back across the lake, the boat went sideways toward the shore. In the mild chaos that always seems to accompany coming about, it didn’t immediately occur to me that anything was amiss. Then the boat tipped over, depositing the two of us into the unexpectedly cold water of Collins Lake in May.

“Stay with the boat!” my father screamed with a panic in his voice that was anything but reassuring to a six-year-old. “Stay with the boat!”

He had prepped me for my first sailing experience by telling me how, if the boat capsized, to stay with the boat, holding on to it to stay afloat. My young mind interpreted that as, “if there’s a hurricane on Collins Lake while we’re sailing, the boat might turn over and that staying with the boat until the Coast Guard helicopter arrived would be a smart thing to do.”

I stood up. The water barely covered my knees. “What for?” I asked.

The optional centerboard kit arrived a few days later and with fear and trepidation, my father sliced an eighteen inch gash into the bottom of the boat to accommodate it. It still didn’t sail worth a good goddam but at least it didn’t go sideways. It also leaked worse than ever, the wood refusing to expand in compliance with the laws of nature.

More Great Amps for your 335

June 12th, 2016 • Uncategorized24 Comments »
Never should have sold this 59 bandmaster. This was a great amp for 335s (and for LPs). I just bought another one but i don't think I'll be selling it. 26 glorious (and dirty) watts.

Never should have sold this 59 bandmaster. This was a great amp for 335s (and for LPs). I just bought another one but i don’t think I’ll be selling it. 26 glorious (and dirty) watts.

Since opening my actual brick and mortar shop, I’ve acquired a ton of amplifiers and I’ve learned a few things along the way. There are some spectacularly good amps out there and I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with a nice range of them. Of course, they are all vintage and all tube (and mostly Fenders). When I opened my shop I had four amps in my shop. Now I have around 25 of them. So what amps really get along well with a 335? The answer? Not all of them.

Humbucker equipped guitars like 335’s (and Les Pauls and SGs) seem to really like certain amps and there is not much rhyme or reason to it but I’ll try to make some order out of chaos. For 335’s, I’ve always been partial to Fender tweeds but as I’ve acquired a number of 60’s black face and silver face amps, I’m expanding my list of great matchups. One thing I’ve noticed is that amps with more than one speaker seem to be more 335 friendly. I love my little tweed Champ but it is a true one trick pony. With virtually no headroom, it is pretty limited. On the other end of the scale, I had a 65 Twin Reverb with JBL’s that sounded magnificent but was so clean that I had to rattle the windows to get any kind of grit out of it. I guess that’s why they invented pedals. Continuing with the Fenders, I was disappointed in the BF Deluxe Reverb I had but I’m finding the early Silver face Vibrolux to be an excellent match. Same goes for the tweed Super, the BF Tremolux and the tweed Bassman.

What’s the common thread here? Ten inch speakers, specifically Jensens (and not the reissues) and more than one of them. My favorite amp of all is the 3-10″ Bandmaster followed by the 2-10″ tweed Super. The 4-10″ Bassman is right behind it but only because it’s so damn loud. BF Tremolux and Vibrolux are right there too. The Gibson GA-79 with P10Q’s is a very 335 friendly amp as well and is the ultimate amp of choice for stereo 345 owners. But, to leave the tens behind for the moment, the BF Pro and the ’63 Vox AC 30 are pretty awesome too. There is another common thread here as well-tube rectifiers. The “sag” associated with this type of circuit seems to play nicely with 335’s as well.

I can’t quantify any of this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an engineer and can barely read a schematic. Second, tone is so subjective and with my tired old ears, who knows if I hear just what you hear.  I like enough headroom to cut through the mix with clean tones but I also like the breakup to come on pretty early so I don’t need pedals. And it’s not  just the purist in me. It’s also the fact that I couldn’t afford a big amp when i was a kid, so when it was time to solo, I had to crank the old 64 Princeton to 10 just to be heard. Pure tube distortion was a big part of my tone back in the day. When I finally played enough gigs to afford a big amp, I ended up with a 64 single Showman JBL 15″ (about as clean an amp as there is). Then, the old reliable Fuzztone did the job. Of course, I didn’t play a 335 back then. I could only afford a 330.

Vintage ten inch Jensens (P10R and P10Q) , 6L6 or 5881 tubes and a tube rectifier seem to be a great combination for hum bucker guitars and especially 335's.

Vintage ten inch Jensens (P10R and P10Q) , 6L6 or 5881 tubes and a tube rectifier seem to be a great combination for hum bucker guitars and especially 335’s.

 

Six Figure 335’s?

May 30th, 2016 • ES 33511 Comments »
Where have all the blondes gone? To collectors who will probably be buried with them. They only made 209 of them, so it's not surprising that they have become so hard to come by. I haven't seen a no issue 59 stop tail hit the market in almost two years. There have been a few 58's, some Bigsby's and a couple of 60's. This killer 58 will be in my hands soon.

Where have all the blondes gone? To collectors who will probably be buried with them, that’s where. They only made 209 of them, so it’s not surprising that they have become so hard to come by. I haven’t seen a no issue 59 stop tail hit the market in almost two years. There have been a few 58’s, some Bigsby’s and a couple of 60’s. This killer 58 will be in my hands soon.

By any standard, the 335 is kind of a deal. Granted there is a pretty big range for the “Golden Era” guitars but when you put it up against the current giants of the collectors world, a 335 is downright cheap. Let’s look at the current market at the top end.

There were somewhere around 1400 Les Paul bursts built. LP guys will argue there are less because all of them can’t still be intact but that applies to any old guitar.  I’ve seen bursts with issues on the market for $80,000 (repaired headstock and a few minor issues) all the way up to $1,000,000. I don’t know what the highest price ever realized for a non celebrity owned burst is but it’s a lot higher than the highest price ever paid for a non celebrity owned 335. I know of at least one LP that sold for over $400K. There are a fair number in the $250K range. Most sales at this rarefied level are private and the prices paid aren’t public knowledge. Could one have sold for a million bucks? Maybe. Seems like a lot of money for a guitar.

I’ve written extensively about the fact that rarity isn’t the main factor in guitar values. Rarity only matters when the supply is wildly outstripped by demand. And that’s true of a few guitars in the Gibson lineup. Take the original Gibson Explorer. They allegedly made somewhere between 35 and 100 of them between 58 and 63 and they hardly ever come up for sale. Again, I don’t know how high they actually go-I know of at least one that reached $350,000. There is one on the market now for $750,000. Flying Vees are in the same ballpark even though there are perhaps twice as many of them as there are Explorers. Again, I know of a Vee that sold for around $300K. I don’t really keep track of these things so there certainly could be higher sales. The shipping totals are speculative. No one seems to know exactly how many left the factory.

There are no other Gibson guitars that even approach these numbers. If you ask me (and I know you will), the 335 is every bit as good a guitar as a Les Paul, an Explorer or a Flying Vee. The circuit is pretty much the same. The pickups are the same. The design is every bit as good and playability is arguably better on a 335 than any of them. Again, my opinion. Tone is subjective but plenty of folks have called 335’s (and 345’s) “burst killers” and some of these folks are burst owners. You know who you are. So why can you buy a sunburst 58, 59 or 60 ES-335 for $20,000 (for a 60 with minor issues) to $50,000 (for a mint 59)? It has to be the demand. There were about the same number of 58-60 335’s made as there were 58-60 Les Pauls. There were around 1700 58-60 Les Paul Standards (some 58’s were gold tops). There were around 1300 335’s made during the same period. Interestingly, a lot more 58-60 335’s come on the market for sale than do Les Pauls. But here’s where it gets strange. The blondes.

There were 209 blonde 335’s built from 58-60. There are a few built later-I know of one 61, one 63 and one 64. Of the 209 dot neck blondes built, I’m sure a few didn’t survive the nearly 60 years since they left Kalamazoo. So, lets be generous and say that 20 were either refinished, broken or simply trashed in some way, leaving 189. There must be at least 100 already in the hands of collectors and probably more than that. I know a lot of the owners and a few with multiple blonde 335’s. They are very attached to them so many of these guitars are effectively off the market for the foreseeable future. So, how many are left with original or later owners or widows and families that will hit the market as “uncirculated” 335TDN’s? Well if the present slate of blonde 335’s is any indication, precious few. There was one 60 at a well known dealer in California listed at $100K. An unbound 58 in the Heartland for $86K which apparently sold recently, although I don’t know the sale price . There is a Bigsby 60 with a 345 fingerboard at $72K and a Bigsby 60 with an unusual “Custom Made” plate in a lower than normal position for $66K. The only other one I know of is a 58 that has a damaged top.  As I said, not much out there.

I know that stop tail blondes approached and, although I don’t have absolute proof, reached $100K in 2008. I predict they are on their way back to that number. There simply aren’t very many left.  The old rule of thumb for blondes was double the price of a sunburst. With near mint sunburst 59’s now approaching $50K, a near mint blonde 59 should be at $90K+. Call me biased, but that still seems like a much better deal than a $300,000 Vee or a $750,000 Explorer.

Unbound 58's are a little less desirable to many collectors. I think they are very cool. This one looks like the top came from the same piece of maple as the bound one at the top. I sold this one in 2015.

Unbound 58’s are a little less desirable to many collectors. I think they are very cool. This one looks like the top came from the same piece of maple as the bound one at the top. I sold this one in 2015.

Nothing Like Old Wood. An Expert Responds

May 11th, 2016 • ES 3357 Comments »

Before you read this post, please read the post entitled “Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.” This post was an email sent to me by luthier Ken McKay who built the guitar I’m writing about in the previous post. He fills in a lot of the blanks for me and explains his (and Gibson’s) methodology. Here it is in its entirety.

I enjoyed reading that and generally speaking I wholeheartedly agree.

In 1959 Kalamazoo factory was filled with newly ordered racks pattern grade mahogany, it was just dried the normal way.  They used drying kilns in those days. These billets of mahogany were pattern grade meaning they used the wood to make patterns for automobile parts. They had to be stable. So that is the neck. Just pattern grade mahogany. Still available if I look hard.

Let me get into the other parts a little bit. But first I have to tell you that the ES xx5 guitar design is evolutionary. Once they got it right with the center block they pretty much kept it that way. That is until circumstances made it different and it became an entirely different guitar.  Current 3xx guitars only replicate the essence of the original models. It’s too bad some players get confused and think they’re getting something that they are not. They are simply not the same. If a player wants that sound and feel that comes with a vintage guitar. Then only a vintage or McKay will get you there. If A player goes into a store and plays a new 335, and likes it, that’s a different story. There’s no confusion there and they’re getting what they want. I would encourage players to play a few vintage models though to see what’s really possible.

In my Benchmade guitars I use different quality contour brace material. I also have the veneer sliced to different dimensions using different materials than the current factory does. I use different glue. And like you,  I like to use Brazilian Rosewood for fingerboards.

It’s an engineered guitar. It’s ply construction. Not just the top and back plates but the entire body. If you take a cross-section of the guitar body cut in half there will be 11 layers from top to back. Four veneers for the plates, spruce followed by Maple followed by Spruce again and then four more layers of maple veneer. These are all glued up in different succession to make up a composite. This was the best they could do at that time. The materials at the time were simply wood and glue. Metal was too heavy and Carbon plastics and things did not exist. And some things  were happy circumstances, for example the glue they used dried hard and crisp. This of course could’ve been engineered into the plan but I think it was just circumstance. Because it helps retain the crisp high-end.

Another huge factor is the part of the guitar that is not there, the air. The pickups hear all the parts including the resonance of the air. Air is a cushion. It gives the guitar the acoustic attack and is mixed with the sustain of the center block maple. The amazing thing is they got the proportion correct pretty much from the start. Personally I think it’s a practical thing if they were to have made it thicker it would be too heavy. In the body, the size does seem to be perfect. So this is part of the engineered guitar… the double air chambers.

The center block is soft maple. It’s not too heavy. It’s not too anything for that matter,  it’s just correct. I have used different material and it did result in different sounds. So this, of course, can be part of the process. Generally speaking, though lightweight, soft maple works out best. If you wanted for example little more crisp high-end and spankiness then perhaps hard maple might work out for you.

The Spruce contour brace material is also important because it helps sound waves travel rapidly. I use very straight grain material and the speed of sound is rapid through this material. With this you get a quick attack. I think this would drive up the price of a factory guitar if they used only high-quality material like I do.

And then there’s the other things that add up. Long studs, proper metal for saddle, bridge,  proper nut material. The headstock angle and the neck angle also make a difference of course.

Here’s a picture of my innards.  Contour brace stock and maple centerblock stock. I weigh each for  comparison.

Ken1

Ken2

Ken3

Ken’s logo on one of his wonderful guitars.

Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.

May 10th, 2016 • Gibson General7 Comments »
Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.

Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.

When you talk to vintage players and collectors, many will sing the praises of old wood. Many will sing the praises of classic old electronics. And old wood. Many will wax rhapsodic about great craftsmanship. And old wood. And you can count me in on all of the above but I’m having some second thoughts. About the old wood part. Perhaps we should be talking about good wood rather than old wood.

Is it possible that wood is good just because it’s old? There are plenty of theories out there regarding old wood and most seem to make a lot of sense. The trees weren’t farmed or fertilized or even planted by humans. They were simply there. They grew at the speed at which nature intended and they grew under conditions that generally weren’t under the control of humans. Old growth predates the guitar business by eons. Then there’s the processing part. Some  of the tonal qualities of wood come from moisture content or the lack thereof. Generally, wood was dried before it was turned into a guitar. In the ways of old school guitar building, the wood was dried over a long period of time-years even until someone who knew about these things said it was ready to use. I’m no expert and would welcome any details as to how this worked. Today, the process is speeded up by managed growth and enhanced methods. The time to season the wood has been replaced by heat and dehumidifiers and I would expect that might make a difference. Again, not an expert, just using some logic.

So, let’s say a builder sources some high quality (but not old) wood and lets it season the old school way and even makes his own plywood, again the old school way. We are talking about ES’s here and they are, of course,  plywood. The maple center block contributes to the tone as well, so the builder seasons that the old school way as well. Then he builds the guitar using the same methods that the folks at Gibson used in 1959. He shapes the plywood using a form and methodology that is the same. He hand carves a neck from a piece of seasoned Honduran mahogany and attaches the components together with hide glue. He scavenges some Brazilian rosewood from a secret source and builds a 335. Next, it gets finished using nitrocellulose lacquer-the old kind that you can’t get in the US anymore-maybe he goes to Canada-maybe he has squirreled away a few cans.

Of course, the question will be “does this guitar sound as good as the real thing?’ Does the fact that the old fashioned way of building and the use of old wood when possible and new wood treated the old way make a difference in tone in an ES style plywood bodied guitar. One way to find out. Let’s drop in a set of old pickups and use some other older parts (although I don’t think we have to). I had a double white re-wound  PAF on hand that measured well into the 8K range, so that went into the bridge position. For the neck, I used a Tim Shaw husk that had been re-wound using enamel .042 wire like a PAF and was wound to the low 8K range. I used a newer harness because it simply was easier and I’m a big believer in the concept that proper electronic values will sound the same no matter what age the components are. I defy anyone to actually hear a difference between same value tone caps. You might sense a difference in how the tone changes when you crank the tone knob and you might like having a bumblebee better than a 25 cent disc cap but the tone will be largely the same. Feel free to disagree.

So, this guitar actually exists and I’ve been playing it a lot lately. It’s my Ken McKay “tribute”. I can feel the “newness” for sure. The neck bindings need to roll off a bit but that will come from years of playing not a number 12 bastard file (whatever that is). I can still smell the lacquer and that’s most un-vintage like but that will go away soon, I think. The frets are a little high and angular  but an hour or two a day of playing ought to fix that. I really like the feel of the guitar probably because the neck was made with me in the room. Play a little, sand a little, play little, sand a little more until it feels exactly right. That’s a real luxury. The neck on the guitar is kind of 64ish at the first fret-maybe .85 with a little more shoulder than the usual 64. Then, by the twelfth fret, it’s a full tilt 59 at 1″. The fingerboard was made very slightly wider than usual as well at 1 23/32″. You don’t think you can feel an extra 1/32″? I promise, you can.

Last, we plug it in. I’ve got a 59 Bassman here that wants to be played loud. Old wood? We don’t need no stinkin’ old wood. This is mostly new wood treated like old wood. The only old wood here was the Brazilian and that wasn’t more than 25 years old. I’d been saving  a few pieces for projects since 1990 or so. This is mostly new wood with old pickups with new windings. It took four years to complete.  And this thing plays and sounds as good as any 335 on the “A” rack here at OK Guitars and that currently includes 2 59’s, 2 60’s, a 62 and a 64. Another sacred cow, shot dead? I think so.

Top Dollar-Block Neck 335 Edition

May 7th, 2016 • ES 3355 Comments »

 

This beauty of a 62 sold for what I consider to be top dollar in today's block neck market. That would be $20,000. It was about as mint as they get.

This beauty of a 62 sold for what I consider to be top dollar in today’s block neck market. That would be $20,000. It was about as mint as they get.

I sell a lot of ES guitars. I’m on track to sell close to 100 this year-nearly all from 1958 to 1965. I sold around 75 of them last year and about the same number the year before. That’s a lot of 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. This gives me an unusual level of insight into the marketplace for these guitars. Clearly, there is a range for any guitar from any year. Aspects like configuration (stop tail/Bigsby/Custom Made), originality and condition are the big factors but there is something else. That something else could be described as overreaching, greed or,perhaps, ignorance. You’ve all seen guitars listed for ridiculously high prices. You probably scoff and say “that’s a ridiculously high price.” And you should. But these prices cause something of a ripple effect in what should be a relatively predictable and stable marketplace.

Go to Ebay and see what the asking prices are for an early (62-64) block neck. Wait, I’ll save you the effort—the bottom is $12000 for a 64 with a few changed parts and Bigsby holes to $100,000 for, well, I’m sure you know which one that is. $12K is not an unreasonable price for  64 with original paint, no repairs and original electronics. $100K? You decide. What’s really interesting to me and what caused me to write this post is the number of stop tail block necks that are in excellent condition that are priced higher than I’ve ever gotten for that model and year.  And it’s not just a few There’s a 63 for $38K, a 64 for $25K, a 63 for $24,900, a 62 for $24,500, a 64 for $24K, a 63 for $22,900, and a 64 for $21,900. There are dealers and individual sellers in there and most of these guitars have been listed week after week.

Here’s the buried lead (lede?). The MOST I’ve ever gotten for a block neck 335 with a stop tail is $20,000 (post 2008). That covers all 62-64 blocks except the blonde 63 I sold last year.   That’s at least 100 guitars. The range has been $7000 for a 64 with a not very good headstock repair to $20,000 for a dead mint 62 with PAFs. Truthfully, if I can’t get $21,900 to $38K for a block neck 335, then, in all likelihood,  neither can you unless you get really lucky. Are the sellers waiting for a billionaire who doesn’t really care about what things cost? I’ve sold guitars to billionaires and they negotiate harder than your average starving musician. Perhaps this is how they became billionaires or how they stay that way. Are they waiting for the sucker who doesn’t do his due diligence? Maybe. Are they simply kidding themselves? Some clearly are. I understand that you can put your guitar out there for any price you want. It isn’t really any of my business except when it is.

When another dealer or an individual asks thousands more than the current market rate, he potentially affects all buyers. Here’s how. Grandpa dies and his 62 ES-335 has been in the closet since 1975. The family wants to sell it quickly and for a reasonable and fair price. They do some research-they check Ebay and maybe Gbase to see what the asking prices look like and they see these. Then they call a dealer or two and are told that the value is perhaps half to 2/3’s of those big asking prices. They often feel like the dealers are trying to cheat them and they simply perpetuate the problem by putting Grandpa’s pride and joy up on Ebay for a stupid high price. I tell Grandpa’s family to check the completed listings on Ebay as part of their research. That’s a good start except that some sellers have taken to showing their guitar as “sold” at a very high price and then it turns up for sale again (often at a slightly lower price) a few weeks later. That messes up the research but not as much as the “ambitious” prices asked by so many sellers.

The other side of the equation is that these prices make my prices look pretty compelling. The problem is that I can’t keep my prices reasonable and fair if I can’t buy the guitars at true (and fair) market prices. I understand that a rising market can be good for me and good for owners but the market isn’t rising that much-in fact, it’s pretty stable. It’s getting back to being a standoff where the buyers won’t buy and the sellers won’t sell. And that hurts everybody. There’s nothing wrong with asking top dollar for your near mint beauty. But there is something wrong with asking 20% to 500% more than top dollar.

This 64, which as a terrific player had, if I'm recalling correctly, 29 filled holes in the body. I believe there were 12 on the back from a back pad, at least six on the headstock from different tuners. A few on the bass bout from an armrest and a few more under the bridge from it being repositioned. I sometimes figure on $1000 per hole off the top dollar price but, clearly, that doesn't always work. I would have had to pay you to take this one.  I don't remember what it sold for.

This 64, which was a terrific player had, if I’m recalling correctly, 29 (nicely) filled holes in the body. I believe there were 12 on the back from a back pad, at least six on the headstock from different tuners. A few on the bass bout from an armrest and a few more under the bridge from it being repositioned. I sometimes figure on $1000 per hole off the top dollar price but, clearly, that doesn’t always work. I would have had to pay you to take this one. I don’t remember what it sold for.

Dating in the 1950’s

April 24th, 2016 • ES 3356 Comments »
59 or 60? This guitar, which is not the one I'm talking about in the post, had all the 59 features including a big fat neck. But it is a 60 based on the serial number and the FON.

59 or 60? This guitar, which is not the one I’m talking about in the post, had all the 59 features including a big fat neck. But it is a 60 based on the serial number and the FON.

Yes, today I’m going to tell you what it was like to date in the 1950’s…Actually not even I’m that old but I can tell you about a dating problem I had recently with a dot neck ES-335.

A well known and respected dealer has a ’59 dot neck ES-335 to sell. It’s beat up but, hey, it’s a 59, right? Well maybe not right. I emailed the dealer and asked a bunch of questions-like “what is the serial number, how big is the neck profile and are the tuners original?” I also asked that they try to locate the factory order number (FON) and even sent a photo in case they didn’t know where to look. I was assured that they had no doubt it was a 59 and that it couldn’t possibly be anything else. The neck profile is kind of small, the knobs are bonnets and the tuners are single ring, all of which say 59. Oh, and the label was missing.  OK, it’s pretty well priced for a 59, so just get me the FON and we’ll talk. “Sorry, I can’t find the FON but the tech department assures me it’s a 59.” It has 37th week of 59 date codes on the pots.

So, to review, the only features that tell us it’s a 59 are the knobs, the tuners and the pot codes. An early 60 will have those knobs and those tuners. Gibson didn’t have “model years” like a car. They made their changes when it suited them and always used up the old parts and transitioned in the new ones. So, how do we tell a late 59 from an early 60 and why do we care that much. Well, we shouldn’t really care that much-an early 60 and a late 59 are the exact same guitar. Same build quality, same builders, same pickups and so on. But the vintage market has decreed that a 59 is better than any other year and therefore requires that you pay a premium for the privilege of owning one. I don’t make the rules but I can’t dispute that a 59 is easier to sell, commands a higher price and comes with a set of bragging rights only surpassed by owning an original Les Paul burst. Everybody wants a 59. I could argue that 58’s have some real advantages but that’s a whole ‘other post.

So, back to the guitar in question. It could be a 59. It could be a 60. Using the knobs and the tuners as an absolute dating feature is unreliable. They can be changed and that doesn’t even matter here since those knobs and tuners are correct for both years anyway (until some time in the Spring of 60). So, there are a lot of 60 ES-335’s that fit the description. But what about those pot codes.  The 37th week is sometime in mid September. I’ve seen earlier pots on a 60. The pot codes really only tell us that a guitar can’t be earlier than the pot code date. Because the pots were ordered in large numbers, the idea that a pot sat around for as few as 16 weeks is not even remotely out of the question. I’ve seen ’66 pot codes in 68. I’ve seen 1954 pot codes in 1958. 16 weeks is nothing. My conclusion is that in the absence of a serial number of FON, you can’t (and I can’t) tell a late 59 from an early 60. There is one other possibility and this guitar doesn’t have it. An original sales receipt. Without these things, it should be priced like an early 60. Simply put, pot codes are no good for dating a guitar with any accuracy-they only tell you the earliest build date and not the latest.

One other point-if it had a 59 FON, it could still be a 60. I go by serial number when dating a 3×5 but I always mention the FON if it differs-as in “it’s a 1960 but construction began in 1959 as indicated by the 59 FON. Or, it’s a 1959 serial with a 58 FON. You get the idea. Fortunately, most FON’s are visible and I wouldn’t be surprised if this guitar has one somewhere. The position of the FON can be almost anywhere-it was put there before the guitar was built. Sometimes you have to look a little harder.

345's count too. This blondie had a 59 FON and an early 60 serial number. I called it a 60 although plenty of dealers would call it a 59. I'm not really sure who is right, so disclosing both is a good solution.

345’s count too. This blondie had a 59 FON and an early 60 serial number. I called it a 60 although plenty of dealers would call it a 59. I’m not really sure who is right, so disclosing both is a good solution.

Rare as a Warm April Day in 2016

April 10th, 2016 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3558 Comments »
It doesn't get much rarer than this. This is the only known 63 stop tail ES-355 Mono (or stereo, for that matter). If perhaps you know of another, I'd like to know about it.

It doesn’t get much rarer than this. This is the only known 63 stop tail ES-355 Mono (or stereo, for that matter). If perhaps you know of another, I’d like to know about it. Thanks to Roger in California who was kind enough to offer this beauty to me. I was so close to getting this one last time it sold.

Those of you who live in the East have noticed that Spring has taken a vacation. It was warm for a minute and a half in March but Winter isn’t letting go. My beautiful magnolia trees were just blooming and bam!, 14 degree weather and all the flowers are dead. Bummer. This has nothing to do with the post but I’m pretty bummed about those trees. So, warm April days have been rare this year and rare is the subject today.

You know, if you read my posts regularly, that I love the rare stuff. I’ve had the most unbelievable luck  finding rare 3×5’s over the past year. I’ve found two of the four black 59 ES-345’s, a factory blonde 63 block neck 335, a red 59 dot neck with a a factory Varitone, three blonde 335’s and three stop tail 355’s. Now, I’ve got the only stop tail 63 ES-355 known. This guitar is a pretty interesting story on its own. There are only 6, maybe 7 known stop tail ES-355’s. I’ve now owned 4 of them. A stereo 59, a mono 59, a stereo 60 and now a mono 63. My friend Tom in Texas has a mono 60 (and the stereo 60 that I had). There’s a stereo 60 in Sicily and that’s about it. There are probably a few that haven’t surfaced yet but it’s still one of my “holy grail” guitars, especially the mono ones.

The stop tail 63 showed up on Craigslist (if I’m recalling correctly) in North Jersey three or four years ago. I got on it right away and made what I though was a fair offer. The seller apparently thought so too and agreed on the price. This was a Friday. I told him I would make the drive on Monday to pick it up. I had a conflict and asked if I could pick it up Tuesday. He told me he had gotten a better offer and it was sold. I would have gone higher (I really wanted this guitar) but he said the deal was done. I thought the deal with me was done three days earlier but sometimes integrity goes out the window when an extra grand flies in.

A couple of days later, one of my most avid readers tells me how he scored a 63 stop tail 355. I couldn’t blame him-he didn’t know that the seller had already accepted another deal. I immediately started my subtle campaign to get this guitar from him. Four years later (more or less), in an email with the subject line “temporary insanity”, the 63 stop tail was offered up to me. I dropped a hefty 40% markup over what he paid and the guitar was mine. At least for now. And it’s just great. Of course, I’ll sell it but I’ll play it and get to know it for awhile before I do. Once again, I have to go back to the old rule…something about not falling in love with guitars.

I’m sure a lot of you think it’s weird to seek out these rare birds only to turn around and sell them. It IS weird. But I can’t afford to keep them and all of them go to folks who truly appreciate the rarity (and the craftsmanship and playability and tone). I know where every single one lives and I generally ask the buyers to offer them back to me before selling them elsewhere. I’ve had the great fortune of playing and owning some of the rarest of the rare. Here’s a list of the ones that stick out in my mind:

’59 ES-345 in red. The first red one made. ’59 red dot necks-I’ve had two-one with a Bigsby and a stop tail with a factory Varitone. A Pelham Blue Trini Lopez, two black 59 ES-345’s, a blonde block neck 63, four stop tail ES-355’s, two blonde ES-345’s, that little blonde ES-140 with the PAF and 8 blonde ES-335’s. I was also lucky enough to find a 59 dot neck with a pair of reverse zebra pickups. Oh, and the white 65 ES-355. Then there’s “The Mexican” which is one of perhaps two or three cherry sunburst stop tail ES-335’s made in 1965. I would have kept every last one of them if i could afford to. They have all been great. Some better players than others for sure, some prettier than the others but ll interesting and, oh yeah, rare.

To many collectors, rarity doesn’t matter much. If the model isn’t popular, then rarity doesn’t matter at all. I’ve had two of only 11 blonde Byrdlands made in 1961 but they are really not worth much-rare or not. Why? Because nobody seems to want archtops these days. But when you get a rare version of a sought after model, it’s a different thing all together. They command a pretty serious premium and you start getting emails from billionaires and rock stars. Nice to know people are paying attention.

They didn't make any block neck 335's in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. One of my favorite rarities. This came out of Scotland.

They didn’t make any block neck 335’s in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. One of my favorite rarities. This came out of Scotland.

Then there's this 67 Pelham blue Trini Lopez I had back in 2010. Near mint. Bought it off of Ebay. I think there are 16 of them. Not a great player but it sure looked cool.

Then there’s this 67 Pelham blue Trini Lopez I had back in 2010. Near mint. Bought it off of Ebay. I think there are 16 of them. Not a great player but it sure looked cool.

 

Heart of Darkness

April 4th, 2016 • Gibson General7 Comments »

 

Most sunbursts have a dark heel but the rest of the neck is lighter. But there are exceptions.

Most sunbursts have a dark heel but the rest of the neck is lighter. But there are exceptions.

Lots of aspects of any guitar made by Gibson in the 50’s and 60’s are going to be inconsistent but nothing raises suspicion like a dark finished neck. There are a few variations of this but all of them tend to bring up more questions than they answer. I’d like to try to dispel some of the fear.

Some have dark paint at the headstock as well. That's less usual but still fairly common.

Some have dark paint at the headstock as well. That’s less usual but still fairly common.

It would appear that the QC folks at Gibson had a problem with wood. Specifically, things like knots or weird grain. They didn’t like to see these things and would take evasive action when a piece of less than perfect wood was used on one of their guitars. The guys in the paint department were, I would guess, told to minimize things like this by covering them up with paint. We’ve all seen Gibsons with dark heels, dark headstock backs and even completely dark necks. There were also stingers-heel and headstock to cover blemishes and marginal wood. The question is usually “…what are they hiding? Is there damage under there? Is it factory or an aftermarket repair?

All good questions. Most 58-68 ES’s have a consistent finish on the backs of the necks and headstocks. Sunburst got a medium brown stain, usually darker at the heel than at the headstock but not always. Plenty of sunbursts got a shot of dark lacquer at the headstock as well. I don’t think they were always trying to hide something but sometimes, I’m sure they were.  The dar finish at the heel was generally cosmetic. The heel was up against the dark edge of the sunburst and they probably felt it was a more natural color transition to spray the heel dark and feather it up the neck. Makes sense. The dark spray at the back of the headstock? Maybe not so natural but still very common. I’ve seen a pretty significant number of ES’s with a dark finish from heel to head. I’m sure some are simply the painter not getting the fade right and just spraying the whole thing to cover his error but I also think that it might be covering bad looking wood. However, unless I start taking the dark

Most reds are completely consistent color-wise. This one has a dark heel, however. Less common than a consistent red. Dark heel and dark headstock is a rare thing on a red 335 but they do exist.

Most reds are completely consistent color-wise. This one has a dark heel, however. Dark heel and dark headstock is a rare thing on a red 335 but they do exist.

finish off these guitars, I’ll probably never know for sure what’s under there. Here, the black light is your friend. If the finish is original, then don’t worry about what’s under there. Bad grain doesn’t make for a bad neck. If an opaque finish doesn’t black light correctly, then you want to do some further investigating.

The red ones are more consistent. The dark heel and headstock are rare, at least in the early ones. You see a few more by the late 60’s. The neck is usually somewhat different looking color-wise than the body but that’s due to the difference in the wood. Mahogany is darker than maple and the red dye reacts differently resulting in a bit more brown color in the neck. The dark heel and headstock seems more common on SG’s although I can’t tell you why. I went through my archives of red ES’s (there are about 100 of them in there) and probably 85% were consistent color-wise. A few had stingers (mostly 355’s) and really just a handful had the dark red finish at the heel and/or headstock.

I think the best approach to a darker neck is to get out the black light. If any funny business shows up, question it and decide whether it’s a big enough issue to make you walk away. And use a little logic. If it looks wrong, it probably is. You can’t get burned if you walk away.

The stinger may or may not be hiding something but they look pretty cool so nobody complains. Usually on a 355 or blondes.

The stinger may or may not be hiding something but they look pretty cool so nobody complains. Usually on a 355 or blondes.