GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Dating in the 1950’s

April 24th, 2016 • ES 3353 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 General6 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.

Guitar Adventures

March 28th, 2016 • ES 34511 Comments »
I am dead certain that this is the very first black ES-345 made and maybe even the first black ES thinline. It is a first rack (short leg PAF and huge neck) and was shipped in April of 1959. It is awesome.

I am dead certain that this is the very first black ES-345 made and maybe even the first black ES thinline. It is a first rack (short leg PAF and huge neck) and was shipped in April of 1959. It is awesome.

As I write this, I’m sitting (in coach) on a Delta flight to Las Vegas with the single mission of picking up a very rare and very expensive ES-345. It’s a first rack black stop tail and is almost certainly the first black 345 ever made and maybe the first black ES ever made. Let’s see, it took me 2 hours to get to the airport and another hour for security and boarding and another 5 hours and change to get to Las Vegas and who knows how long before I check into the hotel. Then make the deal with the seller-check out the guitar and do the whole trip in reverse.

Ever wonder why dealers need to mark things up? Let’s see…36 hours out of my life, $500 for airfare, $70 worth of parking at JFK, $150 for a room and probably another $75 for food. So, why not just send the guy the money and have it shipped? What could possibly go wrong? (go wrong…go wrong…). Well, there are a few things to consider. When buying from an individual seller, you can’t always count on the dealer amenities you expect from a reputable dealer-like an approval period, professional packing and a full disclosure of every part, ding, scratch and issue with the guitar. Sometimes it isn’t reasonable or fair to ask a seller to take out the pickups and look at the stickers. Sometimes the seller knows nothing about guitars and wouldn’t know a broken headstock from a broken toilet.  This seller happens to be fairly knowledgable but this is a very expensive guitar and whoever buys it will certainly expect me to have gone through it with the proverbial fine tooth comb. That’s why I’m on an airplane and not at home with my beautiful wife and lunatic dog.

There’s another factor to consider as well. Black is a tricky color. It photographs terribly. The good news is that it usually looks better in person than it does in the photos. The bad news is that opaque colors are a good way to hide a break or a refinish. More good news. I have the shipping ledger page for this one and it indicates factory black. I’m pretty good at sniffing out a refinish but it almost impossible to do it from a photo, especially on a black guitar. My method requires having the guitar in hand (and no, it isn’t a black light, although it’s a good tool especially for revealing overspray).

When you can’t assume the option to return a guitar if it isn’t as described, then a road (or plane) trip is almost mandatory at the high end of the market. I have had plenty of $30,000+ guitars shipped to me. One has gotten broken. A surprisingly high number have had undisclosed issues from repro switch tips to changed pots to non functioning truss rods to twisted necks. It is generally not malicious. Most folks simply don’t know how to tell a real catalin switch tip from a good repro. Even fewer folks know when a truss rod is no longer working. Fewer still can pull a harness to check the date codes (or even read the date codes).  Scary? You betcha. I have to admit that being a vintage guitar dealer is fun and often rewarding but it can be pretty stressful on the buy side. So, maybe 12 hours in an airplane and 2 hours in airports and 4 hours in the car is worth it. Well, look at it this way, it’s worth it if I come home with the guitar. What happens if something is wrong and the seller won’t alter the agreed upon price? Then I go home empty handed about $800 poorer (assuming I stay away from the craps table) but maybe I don’t take a huge loss on a guitar that isn’t what it was cracked up to be.

I expect this to turn out well though. I have a lot of photos and I have spoken to the seller many times (it took a very long time to make this happen-I knew about this guitar in 2014). He is a pro player and even played on a few hit records back in the 60’s. Still, this one wasn’t going to be shipped sight unseen. Too much stress and too much money at stake. I’ll post photos when I have it.

 

Questioning the finish? Folks always do, so this ought to put your mind at ease. Not sure who J.H. is but he ordered a black guitar 57 years ago.

Questioning the finish? Folks always do, so this ought to put your mind at ease. Not sure who J.H. is but he ordered a black guitar 57 years ago.

I believe there are only four black 59’s (the 60 with a 59 FON is still a 60). Here are two. They are from the same factory order 13 numbers apart.

Long Time Comin’

March 26th, 2016 • ES 3355 Comments »
Nope. Not a reissue. Not a real dot neck either. It's a Ken McKay "tribute" 335 that took me and my friends more than four years to complete.

Nope. Not a reissue. Not a real dot neck either. It’s a Ken McKay “tribute” 335 that took me and my friends more than four years to complete.

I think it was 2011 that I was contacted by Ken McKay to help him out with some measurements for his new 59 ES-335 “tribute” bodies. Ken was going to make the bodies an exact copy of a 59 ES-335 and you were on your own when it came to putting a neck on it and fitting it out. I was very impressed with Ken’s work and wrote a blog post about him. Find it here. I bought one of Ken’s creations to see how it checked out against the real thing. Then things started going awry.

My friend Chris made a neck for me using a nice piece of Brazilian rosewood for the fingerboard I had been saving since the 90’s. I had the dot markers made from a set of vintage inlays and had him custom carve a rather 64ish neck profile. It was a true custom as I was there when he shaped it so I could say take a little more off here and leave it fat here. I did it by feel-not by the numbers. I could have asked for .88″ at the first fret and .98″ at the 12th like my 58 but I chose to go by feel alone. It turned out to be around .855″ at the first and .96″ at the 12th. A little shoulder but not much and a neck set angle somewhere between the really shallow 58 and the more moderate 60. Medium jumbo frets finished slightly lower and flatter than normal and I had a true custom neck. That part was delayed by various circumstances affecting my life and Chris’s so it took some time. I think we had a completed body and neck by around 2013. Then came the finishing.

I wanted the guitar to be watermelon red and I asked my regular luthier, Dan, to paint it. I was very specific about the red I wanted and we just couldn’t get it right. We got a nice red but it wasn’t the right red. So, I told him to just paint it black. Dan got very busy with his own line of guitars and I got very busy moving from Westport, CT, closing my NYC video business and opening my shop in Kent, CT. I kind of forgot about the McKay 335 and so did Dan. We both had too many other things to do. But, finally, the McKay was painted and ready to put together.

I thought about assembling the guitar using only vintage parts but I didn’t have everything I needed, so I improvised. The tuners are no lines from a 52 Les Paul, the bridge is a 59 no wire ABR-1, the stop tail is a repurposed wrap tail from a LP Special. The neck pickup was a Shaw PAF that Dan rewound for me using the purple enamel wire of a PAF and a pair of white bobbins that I left uncovered for the neck. The bridge pickup is a real 59 PAF that I left covered. The harness is from RS, the knobs and guard are repro. The TRC is a real “Custom” from the early 60’s and the strap buttons are the real deal plastic ones from 59 or 60. So, it should sound like a real 59, right? Well, the wood isn’t exactly old and the lacquer is still curing but I strung it up with a set of 11’s and sat down to play.

First impression was more than just OK. The bridge pickup is awesome. Bright, articulate and complex. The neck pickup is a monster. Loud, prone to distortion (it’s slightly overwound per my specs-I love a neck pickup that approaches 9K) and did I say loud? The middle position was out of phase which is pretty interesting but I’ll probably flip the magnet in the neck pickup and see if I like it better in phase. I’m supposed to check the phase before I install the pickups and string up the guitar. I didn’t. But beyond the great tone of this guitar was the surprising playability. Having a custom made neck is a real luxury. Having the frets done to my spec is also a luxury. And a piece of very tightly grained dark, dark Brazilian rosewood completes the package.

So, it took me more than four years to get this guitar done but it really compares favorably with the best of the dot necks I’ve had. The shallow(ish) neck angle and perfect intonation make for a very playable and comfortable guitar. Vintage electronics and a custom wound neck pickup make it sound like I want a 335 to sound like. And look at it. It looks authentic. Ken got the shape dead on which Gibson still can’t do. I didn’t have it relic’d so I can crap it up myself. Most of you know, I never keep guitars-even my favorites end up for sale and this one will probably go as well. Somebody is going to get a work of art. Thanks Ken.

Stereo Wars

March 14th, 2016 • Uncategorized8 Comments »
60-345-1

Good old ES-345 stereo. Relatively simple and straight forward. One output, two pickups going to two channels or two amps. Occasionally useful and always fun to play with. And hugely unpopular today.

I like stereo guitars. They are like driving a car with tail fins. They are decidedly out of fashion but still plenty cool. Most of you are aware of the Gibson stereo models and how they work. In case you aren’t, here’s a short tutorial:

The Gibson ES-345, released in mid 59 is always made with stereo electronics. The ES-355 could be had with the stereo circuit or with the 335 (mono) circuit. Other models occasionally were made into stereo guitars as special orders. There are stereo 335’s, Byrdlands, ES-350’s and probably a few others that I haven’t seen.  But Gibson wasn’t the first to release a stereo guitar. I believe that distinction goes to Gretsch and their Project-o-Sonic circuit, I believe.  The concept was similar but the execution was very different.

The Gibson stereo circuit splits the neck pickup and bridge pickups to a stereo output, allowing each pickup to be amplified separately. Simply put, the bridge pickup goes to channel one (or amp one) and the neck pickup to channel (or amp) two. But the Gretsch “Project-o-Sonic” was completely different and, frankly, somewhat baffling. I recently purchased a Gretsch White Falcon stereo guitar. It’s an early 62 and is the first of the double cuts and the last of the “second” stereo version which is way too complicated to explain but mostly has to do with the switches and where they are located. In all versions, the Grestch stereo system splits each pickup into two separate units sending the high (G-B-E) strings and the low (E-A-D) strings to different outputs. There are five separate three way switches that allow 54 different combinations (according to the Gretsch hype).  So, to be clear, you can have the top three strings picked up by the bridge, the lower three picked up by the neck and each sent to a different amp. Or, how about the high strings coming from both pickups and the lower strings turned off completely? It’s all a little silly but there are some pretty interesting combinations that sound pretty good.

A good thing about the Gretsch system is that you can simply override the stereo effect by using a mix down cable (stereo on one end and mono on the other). You can still get the odd combinations but they aren’t split between channels. On a Gibson stereo, if you simply use a mix down cable, you get great tone out of the individual pickups but when you want to use both pickups, they are out of phase, so they tend to cancel each other out. You can get around this by flipping over one of the magnets, which requires you to unsolder the cover or you can back off one of the volume controls and limit the “phase cancellation” that occurs at full output from both pickups. Of course, Gibson also put their “Varitone” switch into the circuit which has caused more debate (and consternation) than just about any other guitar feature. The Varitone is, essentially, a fairly primitive notch filter that removes certain frequencies from the signal. Useful? Maybe. Necessary? Not hardly. It can give you some honky, quacky tones not usually associated with a Gibson but how often do you use honky, quacky tones? If I wanted honky and quacky, I’d play a Stratocaster.

Ultimately, nobody won the stereo wars because nobody really wants stereo guitars. I’m not sure anybody ever really wanted stereo guitars but sales hype sometimes sways buyers looking for the next big thing. Gibson sold a lot of them. Gretsch, not so many. And while the Project-o-Sonic White Falcon I now own is a pretty cool guitar in its pimpmobile kind of way, the functionality of the circuit is more than a little arcane. It sounds pretty great but what am I going to do with 54 different tonal possibilities? I don’t even know 54 songs.

So you like a lot of switches on your guitar and plenty of tonal possibilities? According to Gretsch, there were 54 varieties available on the stereo White Falcon-the top of the Gretsch line from the mid 50's and beyond. It's a cool retro guitar but definitely not for everybody.

So you like a lot of switches on your guitar and plenty of tonal possibilities? According to Gretsch, there were 54 varieties available on the stereo White Falcon-the top of the Gretsch line from the mid 50’s and beyond. It’s a cool retro guitar but definitely not for everybody.

Ten (or Eleven) Years After

February 29th, 2016 • ES 3357 Comments »
Here's the real one before he changed the knobs (and probably the tuners).

Here’s the real Clapton 335 before he changed the knobs (and probably the tuners). I used to have the same strap definitely not the shirt.

Even though Alvin Lee (Ten Years After) played a red 335, this post isn’t about him. It’s about the now more than ten year old “Crossroads” ES-335. In 2004, Eric Clapton’s 64 red block neck was sold by Christies Auction house for $847,500. The folks at Guitar center who bought it hyped it mightily as the “Crossroads” ES-335 even though most believe that the recorded version of “Crossroads” was played on an SG. Sounds like an SG to me. In any case, the guitar was used as the basis for the “Clapton” Crossroads Reissue. That was nearly 11 years ago now.

It’s interesting that the iconic guitars of these 60’s masters weren’t even this old when such great music was played on them. If “Crossroads” had been actually played on that 64 ES-335, it was not even four years old at the time of the Winterland Ballroom show in San Francisco (although we all grew up thinking it was The Fillmore). Now the Clapton reissue is close to eleven years old and since I have number 25 of 250, I thought it was worth another look.

I first played a Clapton 335 in 2006 when a guy who was buying a guitar from me brought one along for me to check out. Immediately liked it and felt that it captured the look and feel of the real thing. I had a lot less experience with vintage 335’s at that time but I had been buying and selling them for awhile on a very small scale. I would buy and sell 6 or 7 guitars a year from 1998 or so until 2010 when I really started getting serious writing this blog and buying 50 or more a year.  I’m going from memory here but I recall a couple of things-I thought the guitar looked particularly authentic. And I thought it played great and sounded quite good.

Gibson, until recently, hasn’t been able to get the body shape right (MM ears and later pointy ears). I still contend they aren’t quite there but they are close. Interestingly, these Claptons are almost dead on. I had #25 next to a real 64 on the “A” rack in my shop and a potential buyer came in to play the 64 and I inadvertently handed him the Clapton. I realized I had done so before he took the guitar from me (I noticed the Grovers and knew I had erred). But I gave it to him anyway just to see if he would notice. He didn’t until I mentioned it. He really liked the guitar and I have to agree with him. The rumor is that the guitar bodies were built by Terada in Japan. If so, kudos to the Japanese-they got it right.

The body is right, the neck is right, the bindings are darn close, the pickup covers are screamingly wrong. Wrong? Yes, Gibson doesn’t seem to be able to get the pickup covers right. They’ve been reissuing 59 335’s for 35 years and they still can’t get the covers right. That aside, the feel is right. It would be even better if folks would actually play these guitars and get a little real player wear into the mix but they seem to be more popular with collectors than they are with players. I get that. They were expensive in 2005 at $12000. They have held their value relatively well but are still expensive and they certainly haven’t gone up in value. But when you look at the street price of Gibson’s top 335 reissue now at $6000+, maybe the Clapton cachet and playability isn’t such a bad deal. If the new reissues are equally good at $6000 and a Clapton will cost you $10,000-$11,000, is it worth the extra $4000 or $5000? I think it is because in 10 years, a 59 reissue is simply going to be a 10 year old reissue that they will probably still be making and it will probably cost a few thousand more. The Clapton will be 20+ years old and still be a limited edition of 250 with EC’s autograph. It will likely be worth at least what it is worth today. I don’t think it will matter if it sits in the case for the next ten years or you play the crap out of it. It will still be what it is and you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more if you play it.

Lastly, I’ll mention the tone. While the playability and feel are very close to a 50+ year old honest to god 64, the tone is good but not quite the great tone of a 64. Maybe in another ten years, it will be there. If I was really, really curious, I would drop in a set of 64 pickups just to see how it sounded then but collectors are funny about certain things. If I break the original solder in order to try a set of early patent numbers, somebody is going to be unhappy when they find out the pickups have been out. So, it will stay as is and I will continue to enjoy playing it until somebody comes and buys it. Don’t even ask about the case.

Not vintage yet but on its way. Even if Gibson simply called it a 64 reissue, it would be a really good guitar.

Not vintage yet but on its way. Even if Gibson simply called it a 64 reissue, it would be a really good guitar.

Unless British exports got a totally different case (or he changed it out), the reissue case is nothing like a real 64 case. It's a perfectly good case but it if I got a vintage 64 in this case, I would make a stink about it.

Unless British exports got a totally different case (or he changed it out), the reissue case is nothing like a real 64 case. It’s a perfectly good case but it if I got a vintage 64 in this case, I would make a stink about it.

Bein’ with Bacon

February 17th, 2016 • Uncategorized11 Comments »
Tony Bacon has written more guitar books than I can count. There must be at least 50.

Tony Bacon has written more guitar books than I can count. There must be at least 50.

telebook

Tony Bacon has written so many guitar books that I’ve lost count. Dozens for sure. The very first guitar book I ever bought was his “Ultimate Guitar Book” back in the early 90’s. He has written about just about every guitar there is. Gibsons, Fenders, Gretsches, Rickenbackers, Ibanez and plenty of general books about guitar history. He has written about specific guitars like the Telecaster, Stratocaster and Les Paul. No other writer has published anywhere near the number of guitar books and they are generally very well conceived and executed. I received an email from Tony a few weeks ago asking me to share some of my knowledge of the semi hollow ES models (335, 345, 355) for his next book.

Why another ES-335 book? I’d like to take a little credit for being the head cheerleader for the model over the past decade or so. They have never been more popular than they are today. The only 335 book on the shelves today is Adrian Ingram’s “The Gibson ES-335: It’s History and It’s Players”. I don’t know Mr. Ingram and I don’t know the circumstances behind the writing and publishing of the book. My opinion about it is somewhat mixed. I thought it looked cheap and rushed. The photography was horrendous and amateurish in many cases. But, on the positive side, he covered a lot of ground and I give him credit for getting into some very arcane details. While Tony Bacon’s books are usually extremely well photographed and well written, he usually doesn’t dig deeply into the really small stuff. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Ingram did. Perhaps not to the extent that I have in my blog but I’ve never tried to cover the entire history of the model. I don’t think I’ve ever written about 335’s from the late 80’s and 90’s at all. I don’t write much about the Norlin era either (other than the 81-85’s). So, to answer my own question, another 335 book-with great photos and a comprehensive history would be a welcome addition to the guitar enthusiasts library. Is that what Tony Bacon is doing? I hope so and,  based on his bibliography and the fact that he is reaching out to me,  I’m optimistic that it will be excellent.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Why aren’t you writing the book?”  Pretty simple, really. The only book I could write is a book about the “Golden Era” of 335’s. My expertise is based almost entirely on my hands on experience with the guitars. I’ve owned somewhere around 500 ES 335’s, 345’s and 355’s built between 1958 and 1965. Add in a few dozen from 66-68 and from 81-85 and I probably approach 600 or so. I’ve taken every single one apart. So, I know what parts showed up when and I know what changes were made and when they made them. But ask me what changed between 1974 and 1975 and I’ll have to change the subject. I just don’t know because I haven’t seen that many.

I have had two long phone conversations with Tony and a few emails to clarify some of the more arcane stuff. You know I love the small stuff. In fact, the very first thing Tony and I discussed was why I became “obsessed” with the 335 (his word, not mine). I explained that it was the guitar I really coveted as a teenager that I could never afford (I played a 62 ES-330 as a kid). When I finally decided to buy one (in the early 90’s), I started reading about 335’s online. The internet was pretty new and search engines weren’t too highly developed but I found Clay Harrel’s very comprehensive and informative Vintage Guitar Info site. I probably learned as much from him as I did from taking 600 guitars apart. But there was a hitch and that hitch set me on the path to learning everything I could about 335’s. I wanted a 335 with a wide nut and I didn’t want to spend a ton of money either. I had a young son and a mortgage and a brand new business and money was pretty tight. I learned from that site that the nut width went to 1 9/16″ in 65 and widened back out to 1 11/16″ in 1968. 64’s were pretty expensive, so I figured I would acquire a 68. After looking at about a dozen of them, I concluded that the information was erroneous. 68’s don’t have a wide nut. So, I knew that there was more information to be learned and I set out to do so. I still write posts about new stuff I’ve learned and I continue to learn.

I don’t expect to be writing a book any time soon, so talking to Tony was a good thing. I appreciate when someone of his stature in the guitar community acknowledges that he doesn’t know everything (nor do I) and his reaching out to me shows that he is serious about writing an accurate and comprehensive book about 335’s. I hope it turns out great and sells a zillion copies (and no, I don’t get a percentage-just a mention and a link).

Another Rare One

February 7th, 2016 • Gibson General8 Comments »
At first glance it's just an ES-140 with a PAF instead of a P90. But look closer and you'll see about a dozen upgrades.

At first glance it’s just an ES-140 with a PAF instead of a P90. But look closer and you’ll see about a dozen upgrades.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the diminutive ES-140. You can find that here. They are fun little guitars, great for travel and far from being some toy. They were, however, fairly low priced “student” grade guitars. They were also popular with women who didn’t want to wrestle a huge ES-175 or other big guitar. None of the manufacturers were making a high end short scale or “3/4″ guitar. Gibson made the ES-140 and 3/4 size Les Paul Jrs, ES-125’s and the occasional Les Paul Special (I’ve seen one). Fender had the Duo Sonic and Musicmaster (and later, the short scale Mustang). The other big makers had similar choices but nobody made anything that approached a pro players guitar. Enter this little unit.

Clearly, a custom order, this 1961 ES-140 looks like somebody shrunk  a blonde single pickup ES-350 or 175. While the stock ES-140 had a P90, this one has a PAF. The neck on a stock 140 was unbound mahogany. This one has a three piece flame maple neck with fancy multi ply binding like a Byrdland. The body on a stock 140 has single ply binding. This one has multi ply binding on the body like a 345 (front and back unlike a 345) and the same fancy parallelogram fret markers except that these are real mother of pearl as opposed to celluloid. But wait. There’s more. Check out the star inlays on the bridge base. Pretty cool and definitely custom. Factory Grovers, upgrade headstock overlay and a multi-ply guard as opposed to the single layer tortoise guard on the stock version. Did I mention the bound f-holes? Somebody really wanted a very special little guitar.

pope

Is that the Pope? Sure looks like his hat.

Back in the 60’s, the Gibson folks were very accommodating to professional musicians and well heeled players. They would make you just about anything you could think of. There are, as you’ve probably seen, ES-355’s with the players name inlaid on the fingerboard, snazzy headstock inlays including one that looks suspiciously like the Pope. While Gibson maintains a “custom shop”, they don’t really do true customs there as far as I know. I looked at the Gibson web site and saw no mention of the kind of custom work they did back in the day. They do the “artist” models and a lot of the reissues but it really seems like an excuse to charge more for what is simply a slightly upmarket guitar. Maybe it’s more a factor of the artists not wanting to be quite so ostentatious these days, although I rather doubt it. I’m a huge fan of custom guitars-it speaks to the history of the instrument and of the artist. There are a pretty fair number of custom inlaid guitars out there with the names of some pretty obscure (mostly country) artists. You just don’t see that very much these days.

And more’s the pity. I like personalized guitars. They carry their provenance with them forever and, in a small way, immortalize the original owner. Elvis had one but he didn’t need an inlaid fingerboard to become immortal. I don’t know who JS Peterson was but he thought enough of himself to have his guitar do the job of immortalizing him (on an admittedly small scale). That’s the Pope headstock inlay. Sorry it;’s a fuzzy picture.

JS Peterson-a name that will live on for as long as somebody is playing this guitar. The Custom Shop really was a custom shop back then. That looks like a 64 ES-355.

JS Peterson-a name that will live on for as long as somebody is playing this guitar. The Custom Shop really was a custom shop back then. That looks like a 64 ES-355.

No Rules

January 30th, 2016 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3554 Comments »
Very unusual 66 ES-345. Look at those ears...M-I-C-K-E-Y you know the rest. Stranger things have come along but not many.

Very unusual 66 ES-345. Look at those ears…M-I-C-K-E-Y you know the rest. Stranger things have come along but not many.

I write frequently about how to identify the various years and models of ES guitars and, mostly, they follow a pretty predictable set of rules. Except when they don’t. Just when you think you’ve got it nailed down, something comes along and you say to yourself…”see, anything is possible at Gibson in the 60’s…” And, by and large, it is. I’ve written about a number of oddballs over the years.

Recently, I bought a 66 ES-345. It’s the third one I’ve seen with Mickey Mouse ear cutaways. Those were gone by mid 63, so the idea that they were left over bodies is remote. But there they are. I’ve seen some kind of rounded, almost MM ear 66’s and with the hand work that went on, I suppose some variation is likely but this one is dead on. OK, big deal, I wrote up the first one a couple of years ago. Everything else about that one was typical 66. The neck was 1 9/16″ at the nut and the depth was a pretty typical .80″ or so at the first fret. Not this one. First off, the nut is 1 5/8″. Not unusual on a 65 but not usual at all on a 66. Being a fairly low volume model, the neck could have been left over from 65. But then there are the other measurements. This one is .87″ at the first fret and a whopping 1.02″ at the 12th. That’s 58-59 territory. Not even the 64’s reach .87″. Custom order? Maybe but there was no “Custom” truss rod cover which is pretty consistent on custom orders. Employee guitar? I have been told by a Gibson employee from the 60’s that the employee guitars had to have “2” stamps (even if they weren’t “seconds”). Somehow, that neck is outside the “normal variation” bell curve that 60’s ES’s seem to exhibit. An outlier, if you will.

That’s one of the things that is so much fun about 60’s Gibsons (I still say “so much fun” rather than “so fun”-that still sounds wrong to me) is that there are these rule breaker guitars. When I buy a guitar sight unseen from an individual, it’s still an adventure (or a crapshoot depending on your attitude)-even after many hundreds of them. It still feels a little like Christmas morning when I open a guitar box-especially one bought from Ebay or Craigslist. Mostly, the surprises are not so good-changed harnesses, wrong bridges, changed pickups and on and on. When the widow or the family is selling the guitar, it really isn’t fair to ask them to start taking the guitar apart. You look at the two or three photos they provide and hope for the best. Sometimes you get a bad surprise, sometimes you get a good surprise. It would be nice to say that the good surprises outnumber the bad ones but they don’t. That’s simply part of being in this business. But, to be truthful, the good surprises usually outweigh the bad ones. Getting a set of double white PAFs in a 61 when you didn’t even ask if the guitar had PAFs is a good surprise. Getting a 76 harness in a 59 dot neck is not. And, really, you can’t point a finger at the widow of the original owner and say “you didn’t disclose this…” There are no returns in these cases. You simply make the best of it and hope you get it back to being correct and playable.

The point here is not so much that Gibson was full of surprises back in the day. They weren’t. Most of the guitars I get follow the timeline pretty well. But then there are some that don’t and sometimes they don’t in a wonderful way. It’s often a big gamble when you’re spending thousands of dollars on a guitar that you’ve seen perhaps 6 photos of and have no hope of recourse from the 86 year old seller. But, in this case,the Mickey Mouse ears were right there for everyone to see. So how come I was the only one interested? Well, it’s that crapshoot thing again. And besides, that’s why I’m here.

Speaking of unusual, my friend Richie just bought this very rare and very cool 64 Bigsby only. These are are rare to begin with but this one has ears that don't match. How cool is that?

Speaking of unusual, my friend Richie just bought this very rare and very cool 64 Bigsby only. These are are rare to begin with but this one has ears that don’t match. How many martinis did you have for lunch?