GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
RSS

Scavengers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Better, Part 2

January 16th, 2015 • ES 3456 Comments »
This late 2014 ES-345 looks pretty authentic and plays pretty well too. There's still little nitpicky stuff wrong but overall, it's a very nice guitar. It is over $4000 if you're buying from the usual discounters. Gibson stickers it over $6000. You would think they could get the pickup covers right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Better All the Time

January 12th, 2015 • ES 33515 Comments »
One of these is a real 61 and the other is a Warren Haynes 61 built in 2014. Getting close aren't they?

One of these is a real 61 and the other is a Warren Haynes 61 built in 2014. Getting close aren’t they?

The doomsayers in the vintage market are saying that it’s only a matter of time before there is no vintage market. The word on the street is that after all of us old guys (you know who you are) either get too old to play or simply die, the market will die along with us. The other word on the street is that the reissues are getting so good that nobody will spend the money for the vintage stuff anymore. As an old guy, my response is that I won’t stop playing until you pry my vintage guitar from my cold, dead hands. I have no plans to die in the next 35 years either (my Dad lived to 95). But the other reason is worth looking into a bit more.

I recently took in two guitars that are recent reissues and they are worth commenting on. There have always been a fair number of folks saying how great the Gibson reissues are but I’ve always attributed some of that to commenters who have never played a great vintage one or who just want to feel better about the guitar they bought. I felt that way because I had played the guitars they were raving about and I just didn’t see what they were seeing and I didn’t hear what they were hearing. I had a 2006 Nashville ES-335 that was a wonderful guitar but it wasn’t up there with the best of the vintage pieces. I don’t know if the issue was the pickups, the wood or the construction but it just wasn’t as complex, articulate or as “musical” as my old 58. Now, the Memphis built 335’s (and 345’s) are getting a ton of praise and much of it is deserved. I’m not only talking about whether they got all the details right (they didn’t but they are closer than ever), I’m talking tone and playability.

Not even close. How tough is it to get the knobs right? That's a real 60's reflector on the right. A blind person could tell the difference.

Not even close. How tough is it to get the knobs right? That’s a real 60’s reflector on the right. A blind person could tell the difference.

And just how tough would it be the get this right? The vintage one is one the left.

Well, I certainly can’t tell the difference here. Not. The vintage one is one the left.

My first example is a Warren Haynes ’61 dot neck. It looks like a 61. Really. While they’ve finally gotten the body shape pretty close. Given the variation that the vintage ones have, I don’t think I could tell this from a real 61 very easily until I look at the neck. The way it’s shaped at the headstock is still too sharp and defined-probably because it’s being done by CNC rather than by a human being. They still have some easy details totally wrong like the knobs and the pickguard bracket and, especially, the pickup covers. These are really easy things and it is kind of baffling why they are so far off. But really, who cares as long as the guitar sounds and plays like the guitar it is trying to emulate. One out of two ain’t bad. The guitar feels like the real thing. If I close my eyes, I can be convinced that I’m playing a real 61. But my ears aren’t convinced. Maybe once the wood dries out a bit and a bit more resonance emerges, it will be closer but the guitar sounds a bit one dimensional. It sounds good but it doesn’t sound like the great dot necks I’ve played and loved. You could argue that it’s because the smaller 61 neck doesn’t sound the same as the big 58 and 59’s that I usually play. Fair enough. But I’ve got a 61 here that sounds pretty good and the Haynes isn’t quite up to the challenge. Close. It’s an excellent sounding guitar for sure. I really should get a Rusty Anderson model and compare that. Those are getting some great buzz as well. My feeling is that given a few years and some playing time, these reissues will get better and better. I can’t tell you if they are going to kill the vintage market but I have no intention of buying a load of them and putting them away for a few decades to find out.

Next, we’ll look at a new 2015 ES-345 out of the Memphis shop and see how that stacks up.

This Haynes 61 is looking like the real thing, sort of. Those pickup covers are an easy giveaway though. The edges are way too round. And that VOS finish...don't get me started.

This Haynes 61 is looking like the real thing, sort of. Those pickup covers are an easy giveaway though. The edges are way too round. And that VOS finish…don’t get me started.

Ring in the Old

January 1st, 2015 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3558 Comments »

 

Star of the show once again is the 59 dot neck. These ran up a good 20% this year and show no sign of weakening in 2015 even with therapy exchange rates for European buyers. Flame tops are nice too but not a requirement for big bucks.

Star of the show once again is the 59 dot neck. These ran up a good 20% this year and show no sign of weakening in 2015 even with the crappy exchange rates for European buyers. Flame tops are nice too but not a requirement for big bucks.

The old guitars that is. Now that 2014 has faded into the rear view mirror, let’s take a minute to see what the year was like for the vintage ES market and what it might look like going forward. First off, don’t look at Ebay asking prices to figure out what your guitar is worth. I can’t tell you how many emails I get that enlighten me about current ES prices. (…there’s a 64 for $100,000 on Ebay…surely my 64 is worth $30K”). Anybody can ask any price they want. I can ask a million dollars for my über rare 59 ES 355 stop tail but I’m not going to get it. Look at the completed listings that actually sold if you want real world sale prices. But even that can be misleading. There are some unscrupulous dealers who will mark a guitar as sold at a high price and then relist it hoping someone sees that a “similar” guitar sold at that inflated price. It happens with relative frequency, so be alert. Or you can just ask me.

2014 was a quirky year. The dot neck market was extremely strong, especially among Europeans until the Euro tanked late in the year. The dot neck market is still strong and should continue to do well. 59’s with no issues are bumping up against $40K with some frequency but the discount for issues has gotten steeper. Folks want no issue guitars when they are spending that kind of money and I don’t blame them. But that makes single issue guitars a bit of a bargain. 59’s with changed tuners can be had in the low to mid $30K range. That’s a big discount for a few little holes that don’t show much. A stop tail 59 with a removed Bigsby with top holes will knock the price down even farther. You should be able to find one under $25K. That’s 15 large for two little holes in the top and four by the end pin. Great if you’re a player. But the no issue guitars are the ones that will lead the market forward. They seem to be getting harder and harder to find. And it isn’t just 59’s that are strong. 58’s (bound and unbound) are right behind the 59’s with prices in the mid $30’s for no issue, clean ones. Early 60 dots with the transitional medium neck are about equal to 58’s. All of these are trending upward at the moment and seem to have done so all year. It’s the thinner neck later 60 and the 61’s that seem to be lagging. Still, it was a good year for dots all around but the thinner necks just seem to sell much more slowly and can’t seem to find their way past $30K unless they are mint. As always, look out for neck issues on the ones with the thinnest necks.

Interestingly, I sold more dot necks than block necks in 2014. That’s a first. It seems that the market for 62-63’s with the thinner necks is slow. Folks want big necks, although I’m not entirely sure why. There is, of course, the school of thought that big neck guitars sound better. My experience doesn’t prove that but it doesn’t disprove it either. One of the best I ever had was a 62 (dot) with a pretty small neck. However, the rest of the top five are 58’s and 59’s. The continued strength of late 63’s and 64’s comes as no surprise then, what with their near perfect neck profiles and consistently excellent tone. Prices for 64’s have definitely crept up-especially stop tails but also Bigsby/Custom Made models. Reds still outsell sunbursts by a wide margin. A really good no issue stop tail red 64 has pushed back to close to $20K at retail. Just a year ago, it was pretty easy to find one in the $16K range. Now the Bigsby/CM’s are in that range. That’s about a 20% increase in just the past year. Pretty impressive. The bargain still remains the big neck 65. You should be able to find one for $8K or less. Just make sure it’s really a big neck. Most sellers don’t know how to read a ruler. Ask for a photo with the ruler or calipers in the shot.

I’m going to skip ahead to 355’s. Mono 355’s have gone nuts. They are hard to come by and don’t last a week when I get one. It doesn’t matter what year either. The 65’s I had this year (wide nut) went just as quickly as the 59’s. Less money, for sure, but still extremely popular and desirable. Expect to spend up to $20K (or even more for double white PAFs) for a 59/60 long guard and in the mid teens for 61-64’s with Bigsby’s. Maestros are less. 65’s are still well under $10K but still strong. We’ll wait for the next post to talk about the stereo 355’s and 345’s. We’ll also take a look at the rarities and at the big issue guitars with refinishes and repairs. That market is pretty interesting as well.

Mono 355's were a big item in 2014. I buy every one I see as long as the sellers leave a little room for me to pay the rent. I'll take a half dozen 59's, sir.

Mono 355’s were a big item in 2014. I buy every one I see as long as the sellers leave a little room for me to pay the rent. I’ll take a half dozen 59’s, sir. I know, the neck pickup is upside down. I fixed it.

Geekfest

December 23rd, 2014 • ES 3355 Comments »

Yikes. Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river. It hadn’t occurred to me that Gibson might have simply shortened the headstock and caused all these other changes. Note the very precise high tech measuring device.

My friend Mike up in Victoria, British Columbia pointed out that the 58 headstock in the 58-59 comparison photo in my last post looked like it was elongated compared to the 59. Another reader (Roger) pointed out that maybe the tuners were moved rather than the inlay. I had mentioned that the truss cover had moved downward in 59. Well, I thought Mike in Victoria was on to something, so I did some measuring. The length of a 335 headstock is pretty consistent among the ones I have here in the shop. Unless it’s a 58.

If you measure from the highest point of the headstock to the nut of a 59-66 ES-335 you will get a minimum of 6 3/4″ and a maximum of 6 7/8″. That’s a range of 1/8″ which isn’t much. I measured 7 different guitars from 59, 60, 64, 65 and 66. Then I measure the 58. It measures 7 1/8″. That’s a difference of a quarter inch or more. Who cares, you ask? Probably no one, but it points out that many of the differences between a 58 and a 59 are due to a longer headstock and not the migration of the various elements. There’s just less real estate and things have mostly only moved relative to the ends of the headstock. The inlay is the exception but the position of the truss cover and the tuners (and the logo) stay the same relative to each other.  Now, I never thought the brass at Gibson was sitting around making microscopic changes to make their product better or cheaper but it starts making sense when one fairly big change starts a chain reaction of smaller ones. So, was the reduction in the size of the headstock a conscious change to make things better or cheaper? I couldn’t say but I can guess. My guess is that these early 335’s were largely hand made. The very neat routing in a 58 compared to the almost always sloppy routing in a 60’s 335 suggests this. I’m not a builder but I’m assuming that jigs were eventually made once the model was deemed successful in order to facilitate the build process. That would also explain the consistent Mickey Mouse ears you see from late 58 through mid 62.

Too geeky by half? I suppose, but after this many posts, one has to start taking smaller bites out of the knowledge pie. There’s plenty of new information coming in the new year. I’ve been compiling a database of factory order numbers rtelative to serial numbers for 58, 59 and 60. It’s actually pretty interesting. I’ve been at this for a few months and I’d like to thank all the readers who sent me serial and FON’s to be included. It’s still ongoing so if you have a 58, 59 or 60 ES-335, 345 or 355, send me the serial and FON along with a little information (what model, color, tailpiece, bobbin color if you know it). Trying to reconstruct the thought and manufacturing processes at Gibson during this era is loads of fun. I suppose if I could find someone who was actually there who was involved in the day to day operations, it would be easier. Not so much fun but easier.

Early 58 to Early 59 Evolution: Part 2

December 13th, 2014 • ES 3355 Comments »

 

Small stuff to be sure. The "crown" inlay is slightly lower in 58 and the truss cover is significantly higher. By the mid 60's, the TRC sits right on top of the nut

Small stuff to be sure. The “crown” inlay is slightly lower in 58 and the truss cover is significantly higher. By the mid 60’s, the TRC sits right on top of the nut

 

OK, this is where I get really geeky. If you’re interested in the really little teeny details, the read on. Does it matter that the headstock inlay is a couple of millimeters lower in 58? Nope. But it is and I’m going to talk about that fact and some other silly little details that set our geeky little hearts aflutter. Just like the Les Paul guys.

Gibson moved the “crown” inlay a few times over the years. The most notable was in late 66 when they lowered it about 3/4″. But between the earliest 58’s and the earliest 59’s the inlay was raised slightly. Not by much-maybe 1/8″ or less but this is what we do.  I can’t imagine why they would do this but I’m sure it had something to do with the ease of the manufacturing process.

There is a block of spruce between the maple center block and the top. Kerfed by 59 but not kerfed in 58. I'm not even certain that it's spruce in 58.

There is a block of spruce between the maple center block and the top. Kerfed by 59 but not kerfed in 58. I’m not even certain that it’s spruce in 58.

The invention of the semi hollow body guitar is a watershed event, I think. Even though the 335 was designed by Ted McCarty, the real credit should probably go to Les Paul. His “log” was, essentially, a 335. The maple center block-which makes a semi hollow what it is, underwent all sorts of changes over the years. It got shorter in the 70’s and lost it’s mahogany end blocks in the late 60’s. It also had a notch cut out of it in the early 60’s to make it easier to thread the harness into the guitar. But in 1958, another change occurred and I thought it might be related to the change in the number of plies in the top. A 59 ES-335 has a kerfed layer of spruce between the maple block and the top (and back) of the guitar. Again, this was probably done to make the manufacturing process more streamlined and thus more cost efficient. This layer is visible inside the pickup routs but that layer in 58 doesn’t appear to be kerfed. Same with my early 59 with the thin top. But my later thin top 59 ES-355 does have the kerfed spruce insert. So my thin top theory is out the window.

It's easy to see the difference in the size of the heel. 58 is the only year they looked like this until the 80's.

It’s easy to see the difference in the size of the heel. 58 is the only year they looked like this until the 80’s.

Another small change is the size of the neck heel. The 58 is taller and rounder. By 59, the heel gets very short and more squared off. There is a fair amount of variation in heel sizes in a given year but they rarely are as large as a 58. I have a 65 that’s as tall but it is square across the top like most 59 and later examples. I don’t think the size of the heel makes a particle of difference in the stability of the neck join or in the tone of the guitar. It’s just another small change that the brass at Gibson thought was an improvement. I’ve read where folks think tenon is larger in these 58’s but it doesn’t appear to be. You can see the tenon in the photo that shows the non kerfed layer in the center block. It looks like most other years to me.

Something that does make a difference to some players  is the fret size. If you’re lucky to have a 58 with its original frets, you will see that they are pretty small. Not as small as “fretless wonder” frets but smaller than your average 50’s Fender by a little. Players who like big jumbo frets probably won’t like the 58’s but even the bigger frets from 59 onward aren’t as large as a modern “jumbo”. I find that if the guitar is properly set up, then the big bends don’t fret out but then I’m not a big bender. I’ve been on a few big benders but that’s another story.

Oh, and something you probably never noticed…the tuners. Both 58 and 59 have single line single ring Klusons but the 58 is more likely to have the patent applied for designation rather than the patent number on the back. No difference, you say? Not true. It seems that someone at Kluson changed the formulation of the plastic for the tip around that time. Almost every 58 I’ve had still has it’s original tuner tips and nearly every 59 has those mummified, shrunken, falling apart tips. So much for improvements.

Also pretty obvious. Little 58 frets frets next to bigger 59's.

Also pretty obvious. Little 58 frets frets next to bigger 59’s.

Early 58 to Early 59 Evolution

December 2nd, 2014 • ES 3358 Comments »
This photo kills a few birds. It's not that easy to see but the ears are different. MM on the bottom and pointier on the top. Also note the tailpieces. The one on the bottom is that odd one with the stubby ends where it wraps around the studs. Bottom is A28363 and the top is A27703

This photo of two unbound 58’s kills a few birds. It’s not that easy to see but the ears are different. MM on the bottom and pointier on the top. Also note the tailpieces. The one on the bottom is that odd one with the stubby ends where it wraps around the studs. Bottom is A28363 and the top is A27703

I don’t get a lot of 58 ES-335’s. That’s mostly because there aren’t that many out there. Being the first year, I guess it took a little while for the design to catch fire with the players of the day. There were 317 335’s shipped in 1958. There were also 10 ES-355’s shipped in 58. By the next year, there were nearly 600 335’s shipped, not to mention the 300 ES-355’s and the 478 ES-345’s. While we tend to focus on year end transitions, it’s noteworthy that some very big changes occurred during 1958 and into 59. It seems they were making changes as they went along.

The most obvious change was, of course, the neck binding. Somewhere around serial number A28365 they switch from unbound to bound. I’ve had A28763 in my hands and it was unbound. I’ve also had A28768 and it was bound. It was also a lefty which may throw things off but that’s as accurate as I can get. I’m really certain as to why the change was made but it probably had something to do with the unbound neck seeming a bit cheap looking at that $300+ price point. Gibson rarely made changes that made their guitars more expensive to produce and there are a number of additional procedures that are required to bind a fingerboard.

This is a very early 58. Unbound fingerboard, thin ABR-1, pointy ears and a few other features you might not be aware of.

This is a very early 58. Unbound fingerboard, thin ABR-1, pointy ears and a few other features you might not be aware of.

The next really obvious (to me anyway) is the cutaway shape. Most of us associate Mickey Mouse ear cutaways with early 335’s but the really early ones are different. More pointy. Not as pointy as a 64 but not those big fat ears we all know and love. The best I can figure is that they made the change around serial number A28000. It’s hard for me to nail down because I haven’t seen any in the A278xx to A279xx range. But A28000 has MM ears and A27788 doesn’t. I should probably be going by FON’s rather than serial numbers but my database isn’t far enough along to do that.

The next change didn’t actually occur until early 59. Most 335s have a 4 ply top that measures around .20″ but all 58’s and some early 59’s have a three ply top that measures only .15″. My 59 ES-355 which has a rather late serial A30877 has the thin top but 355’s were low volume sellers compared to 335’s, so the serial number becomes less dependable as a timeline. The FON on that 355 is S7625xx which is pretty early in 59. ES-335 serial A28950 is an early 59 that has the thin top but it has a 58 FON. So we know the thin top made it into 59. I’m just not sure exactly when the transition occurred. I do know why it occurred, however. Any one who has ever owned a 58 is aware of how easily the jack area cracks. Of the dozen or so 58’s I’ve had, all but three had top cracks, usually at the jack but often in other areas as well. The good news is that it is rarely through all three plies. Usually only the top ply seems affected. But it looked bad and Gibson must have been responding to customer complaints when they switched to the heavier top. It was probably a good thing but I have to say, I love the tone of a thin top 335. More air, less wood.

Then there’s the little stuff. The change from the thin ABR-1 to the “normal” or sometimes factory shaved ABR-1 is just about impossible to determine since almost all of the thin ones collapsed and were tossed in the trash. I currently have A27771 and it still has its original thin bridge but that doesn’t tell us much. The existence of the thin ABR-1 is the result of the very shallow neck angles the early 335’s have. There is considerable range even within 58 but by early 59 the angle had been deepened a bit eliminating the need for the thin version. A28950 is an early 59 but the neck angle is such that the normal ABR-1 sits right on top of the guitar. Shallow angles existed much later but never again so shallow that the bridge had to be shaved. Did you ever notice the neck heel on an early 58? It’s bigger than the later ones. That went away pretty early. The center block changed as well. The early ones don’t have the spruce insert between the maple block and the top. The routs are also different in early 58. They are much cleaner and neater. Then there are the little frets and even a strange stubby looking stop tail version that shows up now and then. And the inlay position. I’ll go into more detail on the small stuff in my next post.

Three ply thin top 58

Three ply thin top 58

Four ply thicker top on a 59.

Four ply thicker top on a 59.

Timeless

November 21st, 2014 • Gibson General11 Comments »
Bad industrial design is notorious for going out of style. This 76 AMC Matador screams 70's. But does a 335 or a Strat scream 50's?

Bad industrial design is notorious for going out of style. This 76 AMC Matador screams 70’s. But does a 335 or a Strat scream 50’s?

This 1958 Ford Edsel might be an even better example because it was designed at the same time as the ES-335. Hmm...which one has held up better all these years.

This 1958 Ford Edsel might be an even better example because it was designed at the same time as the ES-335. Hmm…which one has held up better all these years.

I know a little bit about design. I designed graphics for TV and, while it doesn’t make me an industrial designer, it does give me some insight. The old “form follows function” adage has its limitations especially when appearance is taken into consideration. It’s easy to see the difference when design takes beauty into consideration and goes beyond current trends and pure functionality. There will always be something called “modern” design. A Gibson Explorer from 1958 might have been considered radical, futuristic or just plain bizarre by some. But that same year Cadillac Eldorado (and the 59 which took it even farther) might have elicited the same response. With the Caddy, fins became the “modern” trend and they disappeared as fast as they arrived (and haven’t come back). The Explorer was a resounding flop in 1958 only to find its footing in the 70’s when it appeared that everyone had run out of good ideas. But when we look back at objects that were designed many years ago that remain unchanged, the beauty and the functionality still shine.

Certainly the ES-335 and the Fender Stratocaster are great examples. While both have faded and returned to popularity, they never went away (unlike the Les Paul). Both guitars look as modern today as they did when they were designed in 1958 and 1954 respectively. During the ensuing 60 years or so, guitars have gone through nearly as many trends as the automobile. Pointy Superstrats, oddball shaped Voxes, headless Steinbergers, BC Riches and plenty of others but the ones that endure seem to be the classics. All have had a similar level of functionality but design is what made them distinctive and, in many cases, led to their demise. Let’s go back to the automotive examples. These cars will never come back–From the 50’s–The Edsel, the 60’s The Rambler, the 70’s The AMC Matador, Pacer and Gremlin and the 80’s, the Yugo. Every one of them an industrial design punch line that started as someone’s “modern”  vision. So, when Ted McCarty designed the ES-335, was he going for beauty? Functionality? Modernity? Let’s take a critical look at all three.

There’s little to argue when it comes to beauty. The proportions and symmetry cannot really be improved upon. It is simply a beautiful instrument, the equal of any guitar design before or since. It doesn’t scream “futuristic” like his Flying Vee nor does it strive for stripped down functionality like Leo Fender’s Telecaster.  It is simply what an electric guitar should look like. It is no surprise that it has been in production since the day it was debuted. You can probably argue some functionality issues but not many. The knobs and buttons are where they should be from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint. The bridge and tailpiece are fully functional although you could argue that the ABR-1 needed more travel for intonation with the advent of lighter gauge strings. I will certainly make the point that the harness was way too hard to install and remove through the f-holes. This was addressed later by cutting a big notch out of the center block. So, functionality gets a good score but not perfect. The Stratocaster has its own minor functionality issues but, like the 335, looks as fresh and contemporary as it did in 1954.

OK, so what about modernity? And what is modernity anyway? Look at the automobile at the top of this post. Is there any question in your mind  that it wasn’t modern in 1976? Or look at an early cell phone or an 80’s laptop (especially a PC). I may not be able to describe modernity but I sure know it when I see it. You might argue that things like cell phones and laptops evolved to become modern and that this evolution is where we get our “modern” aesthetic from. Makes sense, I guess but not for guitars (or cars for that matter). Gibson has tried to evolve the electric guitar at least a dozen times in the past 60 years and yet they keep going back to the classic designs of the 50’s and 60’s. And, even when they try oh so hard to be cutting edge, they just seem to recycle those tried and true forms that are as old as I am. That self tuning, computer savvy Firebird X uses a 60’s design as its basis. Their largely ill conceived “Guitar of the Week” series showed some truly questionable aesthetics by doing dumb things like reversing the flying Vee and cutting holes in an Explorer. Truly, the Matador and Pacer of the era.

So, perhaps the guitar stands alone as the one bit of industrial design that cannot be improved on. Or maybe not. We won’t actually know until somebody actually improves on it.

Is this the Gibson equivalent of the AMC Matador? I think its worse because it takes a successful design and ruins it.

Is this the Gibson equivalent of the AMC Matador? I think its worse because it takes a successful design and ruins it.

 

Some people just get it. And he can play too.

Some people just get it. And he can play too.

Wolf Notes and Dead Spots

November 16th, 2014 • ES 330, ES 3353 Comments »

 

This 60 Byrdland has a spruce top and is fully hollow. Perhaps the prettiest guitar I've ever owned but it was not the best sounding. Find out why.

This 60 Byrdland has a spruce top and is fully hollow. Perhaps the prettiest guitar I’ve ever owned but it was not the best sounding. Find out why.

I was nosing around the Les Paul Forum today and came upon an older thread that had to do with pickup spacing. That’s a pretty irrelevant subject with 335’s and their brethren because Gibson never messed with the pickup placement on these guitars. Still it’s interesting and you can read it here. I think you can access it even if you aren’t a member. But a few of the posts discuss wolf notes-notes that are louder and more resonant and dead spots which is, essentially, the opposite-notes that are less loud and resonant. Fully hollow instruments have all kinds of vibrations going on and the relationship between these vibrations is key to how the instrument sounds. If the top is vibrating one way and the back is vibrating another, then they can cancel each other out. It’s a little like out phase pickups-certain frequencies are enhanced while others are diminished. There’s tons of math and physics involved in the finer points but the over all gist is that the front and the back should be vibrating more or less together to sound balanced. Violins and cellos have a post inserted between the top and the back (called, cleverly, a sound post) and it transmits some of the vibration from the top to the back helping them to vibrate more in sync.

I remember as a 4th grader taking violin lessons and the “A” was really loud and sounded almost like it was feeding back. You could feel the instrument come alive when you played an “A”. Sort of cool but not a good thing unless the only note you’re going to play is “A” (which probably would have been an improvement for me). My teacher looked inside the cheap rental violin and announced that it had no sound post. He rummaged around in a little box of parts and came up with a small wooden dowel-a sound post. He had this strange little bent metal tool and used it to wedge the post between the top and the back near the bridge. Problem solved-at least for the purposes of a 4th grader. An amplified instrument will make discrepancies like this become glaring. In general, guitars don’t have sound posts.  Carved spruce top arch tops like L5’s, Super 400’s and a few others, can be “tap tuned” – the builder taps the top and carves away wood until the tone of the tap is consistent throughout-and this goes a long way in eliminating wolf tones and dead spots. Whether a sound post would improve it further is up for debate. I don’t get to play a lot of fancy arch tops. Feel free to send me one if you’re not using it.

This brings us to laminate tops like you find on ES models. The tops on all arched ES’s are stamped from a flat sheet of plywood. No carving (or tap tuning) involved. And if the top and the back don’t vibrate at the same rate, tough crap. You get wolf notes and dead spots. That explains the high level of inconsistency I’ve experienced from ES-330’s and ES-175’s. Some are just great but some just suck. In a worst case, half the notes seem dead, a quarter of them normal and the other quarter howling at the moon. Especially when amplified. Recently I’ve had a lot of ES-330’s and mostly, I’ve been lucky. The next time I get one that isn’t sounding right, I’m going to insert a sound post and see what happens. Stay tuned.

Finally, one of the best things about ES-335’s-particularly early ones-is their great consistency of tone. I rarely get a bad one and I find 90% fall into the classification of excellent tone. There are perhaps 5% that are exceptional-those magical ones that I hate to sell. Another 5% might fall into the “ho-hum” (that’s a technical term) classification-these are guitars that just don’t quite have that great 335 tone I’ve come to expect. There are a lot of ways to make a ho-hum sounding 335 better and I’ll write a post about that later. but, to the point, one of the biggest reasons that 335’s sound so consistently great is that big ol’ block of maple and spruce down the middle. It keeps the top from interfering with the back. It is, more or less, a giant sound post.

You've all seen the center block of a 335 but this little detail is kind of important. These spruce "spacers" make sure the top, the back and the maple block are properly attached to each other and not causing dead spots and wolf notes. Gibson stopped doing this for awhile but is apparently doing it again. This photo is from my friend Ken McKay's shop. He makes the best "tribute" 335 out there. I have one myself.

You’ve all seen the center block of a 335 but this little detail is kind of important. These spruce “spacers” make sure the top, the back and the maple block are properly attached to each other and not causing dead spots and wolf notes. Gibson stopped doing this for awhile but is apparently doing it again. This photo is from my friend Ken McKay’s shop. He makes the best “tribute” 335 out there. I have one myself.

Gibson Got This Right

November 7th, 2014 • Gibson General9 Comments »

 

This is a 61 Epiphone Wilshire. One of my all time favorite non ES guitars. They reissued it in 2009.

This is a 61 Epiphone Wilshire. One of my all time favorite non ES guitars. Yes, it’s in the wrong case. They reissued it in 2009.

 

This is the very well executed reissue done in 2009.

This is the very well executed reissue done in 2009. Note the three way and the jack are located differently. This was changed in 62 so it’s still accurate.

When I was a gigging teenager back in the Stone Age, I used to borrow a 61 or 62 Epiphone Wilshire from a friend of our lead singer (whose actual name was Charlie Rocker-really). It was all beat up and the case was falling apart but it was the only guitar  I could get my hands on that I could get any kind of  “Claptonesque” tone out of. I played a 330 back then and it would feed back long before I could push the amp into overdrive. So, whenever I could, I would borrow this old P90 equipped Wilshire. I’ve owned a number of vintage Wilshires, both from the P90 era and from the mini hum era but the stop tail 61’s and 62’s are my favorites. They were also the only Gibson made guitar from the era that had a pair of P90’s and a stoptail ABR-1 combination. Remember, SG Specials and LP Specials had wraptails. Original Wilshires are around but they are pretty rare and will cost you around $5-$6K which isn’t that bad considering how good these guitars are. But there is an alternative.

In 2009, Gibson released the limited edition mouthful called the Epiphone Custom Historic USA 1962 Wilshire Reissue. Seriously, that’s what they called it. They only made a couple hundred of them and put a sticker price of nearly $5000 on them. I’m not sure what the street price was but they apparently sold out very quickly. The fact that you could get a real one at that time for about the same price didn’t seem to stop anyone. So, why am I writing about these now? They’ve been around for years now. Well, because I have one in my hands and it’s a very nice guitar. Nice like you close your eyes and it feels like a vintage one. Nice like it sounds like a vintage one as well. OK, it’s not an ES but it’s still a very cool guitar. The design was stolen from Leo’s Telecaster. Look close-it’s a rounded off Tele with a double cutaway. And it’s light and comfortable to play. The really cool thing is you can find them at a very reasonable price – there’s usually one or two on Ebay for around $2000 and sometimes less. The only problem is the neck join is a little unstable you can detune the guitar by pulling on the neck-just like the original. And don’t confuse it with cheapo Wilshire “Pro”or the recent “Phantomatic”.

Gibson is getting a lot of stuff right lately. I don’t know what’s come over them but the Memphis built 335’s are getting raves from all corners of the internet. The Rusty Anderson ’59 335 and the Warren Haynes ’61 335 are getting to be all the rage out there. I will write those up as soon as I get my hands on one. It’s great to see that they seem to have responded to a lot of the online criticism they were getting. They are about as close to getting it right as they have ever been and maybe these are the vintage guitars of the future. And maybe not. The good news is that these guitars can be in your hands for a few thousand dollars. That’s still a lot of money for most players but if they are as good as everyone says, then it sure beats spending five figures on a vintage one if what you’re going to do is play the crap out of it. We all knew they could do it. We just couldn’t figure out why they weren’t doing it. Maybe they were just too busy coming up with such brilliant variations like the Holy Explorer and the Reverse Vee. But those were released the same year as the Epiphone Custom Historic USA 1962 Wilshire Reissue, so I’m flummoxed. And I don’t flummox that easily.