GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Misinformation

April 17th, 2017 • ES 3356 Comments »
And nobody knows if you know anything about guitars but it doesn't stop some folks from acting like they do.

And nobody knows if you know anything about guitars but it doesn’t stop some folks from acting like they do.

The internet is a funny place. Sometime ha-ha funny, sometimes peculiar funny. I don’t, as a rule, spend too much time in places like forums or social media but I will occasionally nose around to see what folks are talking about. Mostly, it’s current events or politics but sometimes, it’s guitar related stuff. I shouldn’t be surprised and I shouldn’t be annoyed or upset but sometimes it’s surprising, annoying and upsetting. There was once a cartoon of two dogs at a computer and one says to the other “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”.  True enough. But it is also true that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a complete idiot. Except when they do.

There is an incredible amount of simply wrong information about guitars in general and ES-335’s are well represented here. Here’s what I found in 15 minutes of surfing:

They switched to block markers in 1961. Wire ABR-1’s came in in 1963. The nut width went back to 1 11/16″ in 1968. All 60’s 335’s have “Union Made” on the orange label. T-tops were standard starting in 1965. All 335’s before 1964 have a solid center block.

All of the above “facts” are wrong and were stated by someone as true. The problem is that you don’t generally know who posts this stuff  and you it’s hard to ascertain what’s true and what isn’t. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t use internet forums as a learning center. Fortunately, folks who know the facts often call out the poster of “alternative facts” as not knowing what they’re talking about. But, too often, nobody says anything, so Joe Neophyte, who’s trying to learn about 335’s takes it as fact. I have had dozens of emails disputing my claim that the nut width didn’t go back to 1 11/16″ in 1968. This is kind of a special case since this “information” was posted on a very accurate and very useful website about vintage guitars. It is where I got a lot of my non 335 knowledge from. But it’s wrong. My 335 (and 345 and 355) knowledge comes from looking at real guitars over a period of many years. And I’m not always right because, on occasion, I’ll see something in a real 335 in my possession that breaks a rule and I have to amend my “facts”.

To make matters worse, the misinformation gets repeated by folks who read it somewhere and didn’t question it. So, eventually, it pops up in enough places that you figure it must be true because you’ve seen it ten different times in ten different places. Unfortunately, the wrong “facts” get repeated just as often as the true ones. So, why don’t I call out the purveyors of alternative facts? The truth is that I used to but eventually I got a little tired of being the internet 335 police. I remember, early on, seeing Ebay listings that had the year wrong and a completely inaccurate description and I would diligently write to the seller and set them straight. The response was, occasionally, “oh, thank you so much. I had no idea that the 12 holes in the back weren’t factory.” More often, it was, …”who the hell are you and what makes you think you know more than I do?” That gets pretty old. So, I stopped correcting those who are in need of correction. Much as I’d like to be, it’s simply too much work to be the 335 police, so be careful where you get your information and, more importantly, be careful who you buy from. There are literally 100 things that can be wrong with an electric guitar. I don’t expect anyone to know everything but if you want to know the important stuff, I’ve probably covered it in a post. Use the search function and if that doesn’t find you what you’re looking for, send me an email and I’ll tell you the truth, assuming I know it.

Oh, and the switch to block markers was early 62, wire ABR-1’s were also 62, the nut width didn’t go back to 1 11/16″ in 68, 335’s from 64 until some time in 68 had “Union Made” on them and cut center blocks first appeared in 61 but weren’t the rule until 65.  T-tops seem to have shown up in 66. I’ve never had a 65 with them but I haven’t owned every 65 either (and I don’t open sealed covers).  I’m sure one of the experts out there has seen them in a 65. The trouble is that half the 65’s out there are actually 68’s. There’s a lot of serial number overlap between those two years and, for some reason, nearly everybody simply picks the earlier year, presumably so they can ask more money.  But that’s a different post.

You do get to the point where you can tell the nut width by eye. No calipers required. This is a 68. Does that look like 1 11/16" to you. I didn't think so.

You do get to the point where you can tell the nut width by eye. No calipers required. This is a 68. Does that look like 1 11/16″ to you. I didn’t think so.

 

Another Holy Grail in the House

March 31st, 2017 • ES 3557 Comments »
Note the designation "no Bigsby" on a couple of 355's in the left column. We know you're out there. We just have to find you.

Note the designation “no Bigsby” on a couple of 355’s in the left column. We know you’re out there. We just have to find you.

Not long ago I acquired and later sold what I considered to be a true holy grail guitar. It was a 59 mono ES-355 with a factory stop tail. At the time, it was the only one that anyone had ever seen. Gil Southworth had it for awhile and not long after he sold it, I was offered it. Although it looked pretty good, it was purported to have a shaved neck. It blacklighted well but I took Gil’s word for it but I wonder if it was simply the fact that 355 necks even in 59 can be quite slim. There are a few out there with huge necks mostly with 58 serials or FONs. I have one in my shop right now with a neck as big as any 335 I’ve ever had but that one has, as usual, a Bigsby. The 59 stop tail 355 is gone and my eyes were open for another. I had seen the above page of the 59 shipping log that showed two other 355’s with “Spec. no Bigsby” noted. Neither of these was the one I had, so I knew there were two more stop tail 59’s out there somewhere unless, in a horrific case of irony, someone later added a Bigsby (stranger things have happened). I didn’t know if they were mono or stereo from the log but it didn’t really matter since neither had surfaced. I used to think the chances of a particular special guitar coming up for sale that I had seen in the shipping log was pretty slim but after snagging three black 59 345’s last year, I’ve reconsidered.  I think, eventually, most all of them come up for sale.

Well, a few weeks ago, a Craigslist ad appeared for a “58 ES-355″ and I saw it within an hour of its posting. An astute reader of this blog tipped me off to it but I was already on the phone with the owner. It turns out that serial number A29538 was a little bit south of Saskatoon,  in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan and it belonged to the seller’s aunt (who was a singer and player) and she had passed away and the guitar was coming to him as an inheritance. It also turns out to be not a 58 but a mono 59 355, so I was pretty excited. There is often a problem with individual sellers and that is that they look at dealer prices and assume they are what the dealers get and the sellers initial asking price was “six figures”. Yikes. It’s pretty easy to understand, though.  A 355 looks pretty much like a 335 to anyone who isn’t really tuned into the models and the asking 335 prices for a 59 are up there, although “six figures” is reserved for mint blondes. I explained to him that a stop tail 355 is super rare and that his guitar commands a considerable premium over the Bigsby version and we came to a agreement on price about as far North of a Bigsby mono 59 as Saskatchewan is from Connecticut. Yes, it’s really, really rare but the market is much smaller for 355’s. Folks who can afford it, want a 335.  But a mono stop tail? Well, now that’s a fancypants 59 335 with an ebony board. And some serious cachet.

I don’t have it in my hands yet but my friend Mike in British Columbia went through it for me and gave it the thumbs up, so it’s on its way. Remember the old rule I have about falling in love with a guitar. Well, I’d better embroider a pillow with it because it’s about to get tested again. I thought it was tough to sell the black 345’s but this? Even rarer and even cooler if you ask me. Now where is A29540? And that cherry Byrdland in the next column would be pretty cool too.

Yes, it has a correct case but it was shipped in this one. It had to get from Assiniboia Saskatchewan to Nanaimo, British Columbia in the dead of Winter in a snowstorm. It took awhile nut it arrived safely. How cool is this?

Yes, it has a correct case but it was shipped in this one. It had to get from Assiniboia Saskatchewan to Nanaimo, British Columbia in the dead of Winter in a snowstorm. It took awhile but it arrived safely. How cool is this?

 

 

Shootout

March 27th, 2017 • ES 3356 Comments »
Here's the lineup. That's the 2014 in front with the 69 behind it. Then the 64, 65 trap. 58, 65 stop, the 62 and the 60.  A 345 and a couple of 355's are lurking in the back.

Here’s the lineup. That’s the 2014 in front with the 69 behind it. Then the 64, 65 trap. 58, 65 stop, the 62 and the 60. A 345 and a couple of 355’s are lurking in the back.

Things get a little slow at OK Guitars during the month of March in Kent, CT. Kent is a tourist town and it appeals mostly to outdoorsy types who hike the Appalachian Trail which passes along the ridge a mile or so from my shop. It also appeals to families who visit Kent Falls to the North of me. So, given how terrible the weather usually is around here in March and the snow that still covers most everything and the mud and the depressing lack of sunshine, it’s no wonder things have been a little slow at OK Guitars. What to do on a rainy, windy Saturday? Play some guitars.

Tone is subjective. What I like isn’t necessarily going to be what you like. So, if I play every 335 in my shop and rank them according to tone, I’m really just giving you my opinion. But certain aspects of an electric guitar are pretty universal. Most everyone wants a guitar that is balanced, that sustains well, that has a decent tonal range and is comfortable to play. Well, if they’re all 335’s, how much variation is there going to be? I kind of expected quite a lot.  I was surprised.

Here’s what’s on the wall in 335’s. We’ve got a 58, a 60, a 62, a 64, two 65’s, a 69 and a 2014. All stop tails except the 64 (Bigsby), one of the 65’s (trap) and the 69 (trap). All of them are set up to my preferred specs. Pickups close to the strings, action medium, 11’s and, for the stop tail, the tailpiece screwed 80-85% of the way down so the break angle is fairly steep. Obviously, I can’t do that with the Bigsby and the traps. But we’ll let the chips fall where they may.

First up was the 58. Big fat neck, shallow neck angle, thin top and a killer set of PAFs. It’s no wonder this bad boy performed at the top of the pack. Singing sustain, searing highs, tons of harmonics, no fretting out and big range. This is as good as a 335 gets. But then, because I expected something wildly different, I picked up the 65 trap tail. Big neck but later patents (chrome covers usually indicate poly windings), fairly steep neck angle and the thicker top of a post 58 335. If I rate the 58 a 99, this guitar, trap tail and all gets a 96. It was a little heavy for a 335 at around 8.5 lbs (the 58 was a pound lighter) but this guitar performed brilliantly. Lots of tonal range, great sustain, easy playability and great tonal and volume balance between the pickups. As I’ve said before, the stop tail makes a difference but not a huge difference. Right there with the trap 65 was the stop 65, the 60 and the 62. 62’s are vastly underrated mostly because of the thinner neck profile but most of the 62’s I’ve had are wonderful players. The major difference between the 60 and the 62 and the stop tail 65 was neck profile. The pickups (nickel covers in this 65) are the same, although the 60 and the 62 had PAFs and the 65 patents and the configuration is the same except the 65 had nylon saddles and the 60 and 62 had metal. Almost no difference in sustain between the three. I think the 62, on the subjective side, had a sweeter sounding neck pickup but the 65 had that chainsaw of a bridge pickup that I like so much.  The 60 was the best balanced but the 65 and the 62 were really close. Still, these five guitars were just killer. I’d play any one of them for the rest of my life and be happy.

Next up was the 64 Bigsby which was tonally awesome but didn’t have the crispness and touch articulation of the stops or the 65 trap. I think the Bigsby could be the culprit. The good news is that it has stop tail bushings and had I more time, I would have strung it up with a stop to see how much of  difference it makes. So, that’ll be another post. Still, excellent balance, great sounding pickups with lots of harmonics and great range. You gotta love the neck on a 64/early 65. Fairly slim at the first fret, these necks get real big real fast. No wonder 64’s are the most popular 335 out there.

So that leaves two more to play…the 69 (which is rewired 340) and the 2014 Memphis VOS 59 reissue.  The 69 has a maple neck with a huge profile but a narrow nut. The narrow nut is a generally playability problem for me but after 10 minutes, I found it fairly comfortable and I wasn’t falling all over myself trying to play it.  The maple neck and Indian rosewood board make no discernible difference. The pickups are late patent numbers but are likely pre T-tops. Unusual for a 69 but not unheard of. The sustain was quite good as was the tonal range. The balance was lacking but I could probably  dial it in-the neck pickup was too loud and a little muddy. A pretty nice guitar especially for the price. And a good looker too in blonde. Yes, it’s birch rather than maple and looks a little like your kitchen cabinets but they’re nice kitchen cabinets.

Last up was the 2014. It looks great and feels really good to play. The shoulders on the 59 sized neck are big and it makes me feel a little clumsy (actually I am a little clumsy but this was worse than usual).  You might like that. I don’t. Sustain wasn’t quite there and I really don’t know why. I can only blame the wood. Too wet? Too new? The frets were good-it’s essentially a new guitar. This has been my complaint about new Gibsons. They’ve got the look pretty close to vintage (except the guard and the pickup covers), they’ve got the feel pretty close to vintage but they simply don’t sound vintage. My thought is that the 58 probably sounded a lot like the 2014 when it was new. I will re-do the test in around 60 years and see how the 2014 does. I’ll be 124 but by then I should be a pretty decent player by then if I keep practicing.

Things I Don’t Care About, Part 2

March 11th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3554 Comments »
Mint but how do I know that none of the parts have been changed? Do I have to take someone's word for it or is there a way to tell? I mean don't all vintage parts look pretty much the same?  No, the photo isn't backwards, it's a mint 58 lefty thanks to Alex P.

Mint but how do I know that none of the parts have been changed? Do I have to take someone’s word for it or is there a way to tell? I mean don’t all vintage parts look pretty much the same?
No, the photo isn’t backwards, it’s a mint 58 lefty thanks to Alex P.

In the last post, I discussed three elements-uh, let’s see, there was tone, there was playability and there was one more. Oh, yeah, the Department of Energy. No, that was Rick Perry. It was great looks. The fourth element worthy of some discussion is originality. For the collector, it’s really important-to some more so than playability or tone. But there are some paradoxes when it comes to originality that probably drive collectors nuts.

First, there is a limit. I did have a 66 Stratocaster come into my shop from the original owner who tried to play it for a month when he was a kid (now in his 60’s) that still had five of its original strings. Apparently, he got discouraged when he broke the E string and never played it again. But, as the title of the post implies, I don’t care about the strings. And, to be fair, collectors don’t care either. It’s kind of cool that 50 year old guitars exist that still have their original strings but seriously, nobody cares. It’s like buying a classic automobile that still has it’s first tank of gas in it. The gas will be about as good as those strings. Beyond the original strings, there is room for debate. Some stuff, I care about. Some stuff I don’t.

Here’s the tricky part. You can’t know for absolutely certain that any removable part is original. Oh yeah?, you say-what if it’s the original owner and he knows he never changed any parts? Well, that will give you a fair level of assurance except when he brought it to his local luthier for a setup and the unscrupulous luthier scavenged the PAFs and replaced them with fakes. It happened to a 60 ES-345 I bought from its original owner in North Carolina a few years back. When I buy a guitar that is supposedly all original, I look at a few things. First, I check to see if all the parts are from the correct era. That’s easy. It won’t tell me if the part is original but if it’s vintage correct, I don’t really care because you simply can’t know for sure. But then I look at the wear pattern on the guitar. If the body is beat to hell but the gold is still on the tailpiece, an alarm goes off in my head. If the hardware is perfect and the neck has heavy player wear, there’s that alarm again. This type of forensics is really useful and generally follows simple logic. The guitar and all it parts should make sense as a used guitar. The less wear the guitar has, the easier it is to make the assumption of originality. That’s simply because there’s less evidence that tells you something is wrong. Counter intuitive, right? Sort of. But it’s harder to find a mint part than a worn part, so it makes sense.

Frets are a great indicator of a few things . If they are original and not worn much, the guitar probably either didn’t get played much or had flat wounds on it. It doesn’t tell me much about the rest of the guitar though. I do not care if a guitar is re-fretted as long as it’s done well. A serious collector will care and I understand that. If I’m looking for my holy grail guitar (59 stop tail 355 mono in black?), I won’t care about the frets (or much else). And that’s an important element. The real serious collectible and valuable ES models are often rare. Even the “common” ones are pretty rare in the over all scheme of things with hundreds, not thousands made. I had a buyer looking for a 59 mono big neck 355 the other day. I had a good one but it had been re-fretted and he decided to wait for one that wasn’t. Any big neck 355 is rare, monos more so. I hope he’s a patient man. There are probably less than 50 of them.

So, what else don’t I care about? Tuner tips on a 59-most are shrunken and if they are replaced, it isn’t a big deal to me. Saddles. Again, if they are correct, I don’t care (they should have the mill marks on the flat side). Saddles got lost all the time with a no wire bridge. Any part that is removable without evidence of it having been removed has to be vintage correct and have a wear pattern that makes sense. Otherwise I care. Use common sense and logic. If a part looks wrong for the guitar its on, it probably is wrong. Even if you know its vintage correct.

So, if you’re a collector looking for the most original guitar you can find, learn what’s correct and apply some simple forensics. You’ll be more comfortable with your choice and you’ll probably be right. Buying from a reputable dealer who knows his stuff will probably reassure you as well. As the old Russian proverb goes, Doveryai, no proveryai (trust but verify). And you thought President Reagan came up with that.

Maybe I'm better off paying way less for a great playing, great sounding player grade guitar. Then I won't care so much about originality. I'll spend less and know I'm getting a guitar that I can use day in and day out. Originality? Who cares as long as I love it.

Maybe I’m better off paying way less for a great playing, great sounding player grade guitar. Then I won’t care so much about originality. I’ll spend less and know I’m getting a guitar that I can use day in and day out. Originality? Who cares as long as I love it.

Things I Don’t Care About: Part 1

February 26th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3557 Comments »
This guitar had, if I'm remembering correctly, 29 filled holes in it. There was a removed arm rest, the bridge was repositioned, there was a removed back pad and a host of other insults. Played great. Sounded great and was a bargain to boot.

This 64 had, if I’m remembering correctly, 29 filled holes in it. There was a removed arm rest, the bridge was repositioned, there was a removed back pad, tuner change holes and a few other insults. Played great. Sounded great and was a bargain to boot. Looks pretty good from the front because nearly all the holes are on the back.

Odd name for a post. If I don’t care about it, why should I write about it? Because you do. And maybe you shouldn’t (or at least not so much). It’s in the nature of both guitarists and collectors to be detail oriented and more than a little picky. Guitar collectors who play their guitars and not lock them in a humidified cabinet are the most picky of all. Ideally, it has to be three things: great tone, great playability and great looking. It’s the fourth element-originality-that gets so many of us nuts. Here, we’ll talk about the first three. Or I’ll talk and you’ll (hopefully) listen.

Good news first. Great tone is achievable on the huge majority of pre Norlin (1969) ES 3×5’s. Yes, t-tops in a 68 are going to sound different than PAFs in a 58 but I’ve heard 68’s that are stunning. To get your great tone, you may have to fix a sagging bridge or raise or lower the pickups, do a re-fret or put in a new nut but these are the kind of changes I don’t care about. Put the old nut and bridge in the case and stop worrying. What about bad wood? There is nothing wrong with the wood through the 60’s. It’s maple and poplar plywood (usually) and its properly dried and it has had 50 years to settle in. Just play the average 70’s 335 and you’ll notice a difference-the wood changed-it’s heavier and less resonant. There’s also less of it as they started shortening the center bock and got rid of the mahogany end pieces. Yes, there are great sounding 70’s 335’s. Just not a lot of them. There are good and not so good PAFs, patent numbers and t-tops. Changing a pickup you don’t like for another correct one is not a big deal to most of us. It is, in fact, something I don’t care about. Do I prefer the originals? I do but not if they don’t sound good.

Appearance issues can kill a deal pretty quickly with a lot of players but great tone often trumps it. Most players will take an ugly guitar that plays great over a beautiful guitar that plays like crap. On the other hand, why shouldn’t you have both. Answer? You should but it’s gonna cost you. But there are, once again, things I don’t care about. Wear in the usual places-arm, back and back of the neck certainly affect the appearance and that should be reflected in the price. If you care about it, then I get it and I agree. It’s just that the price can be a compelling force even if you don’t like the appearance.  The back of the neck is the exception. It doesn’t particularly bother me visually or feel wise but I get that it bothers some players. But that’s a point to be made under “playability”. Plugged holes are really an appearance issue too and also something I don’t really care about as long as it’s reflected in the price. Yes, it kills the “investment” angle but a 335 with a couple of Bigsby holes and a removed coil tap switch will sound the same as a collector grade one. If you cut a big access panel in the back of a 335, it won’t affect the tone or playability either. But I’ll never buy one that has had that done unless it’s something so rare that I’ll never see another. No logical reason I just hate it.  Full disclosure? Yes, I bought a stop tail 355 with an access panel.

Playability can be the tricky part. There’s a lot that can be done by a competent luthier to make a marginal player into a good one. But can we make it into a great one? It depends on what’s wrong. It’s hard to separate playability from tone sometimes but if you play a 335 unplugged, you’ll have a better understanding of where they overlap and where they don’t. Resonance is a tone component and if it’s not good unplugged, it doesn’t mean it won’t sound good plugged in. The reverse is true as well. Unplugged resonance is, in fact, something I don’t care about because I will be playing plugged in. But playability goes way beyond that.

If  the guitar doesn’t feel good to you, you need to consider why that is. Action? Generally fixable. Bad intonation? Generally fixable. Dead frets? Inconsistent sustain? Poor balance between strings? There are so many factors involved in playability that I often take the easy way out when confronted with a 335 that doesn’t play well. I walk away. It’s rare for a 335 to be a dog (at least from 58-68). But I’ve had 335’s (and 345’s and 355’s) with a perfectly straight neck, level frets, a properly cut nut a no sign of a structural issue that fret out, don’t sustain, have “wolf” notes (notes that are louder or more resonant than others), buzzes, rattles and on and on. My advice? If you don’t like the way it plays, don’t buy it.  The luthiers will disagree and probably rightly so but there are limits. Money limits. I had a 61 335 that looked just great but could not be made playable. It was dull sounding and the sustain was really inconsistent all over the fretboard. It went to three separate and very competent luthiers. It had two fret jobs with different sized fret wire and a fingerboard planing. After spending close to $1000 on it, I gave up. To paraphrase Bob Fosse “I can’t make you a good player but I can make you a better player”. But I don’t want a better player. I want a good one.

Next, we’ll look at the final element-originality. This is the one that makes so many player/collectors nuts. It’s also the one that makes me nuts.

You really wanted to se the holes, didn't you. OK, here's the back. No one will ever see it.

You really wanted to se the holes, didn’t you. OK, here’s the back. No one will ever see it.

Renecks Revisited

February 6th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 3452 Comments »

 

This was re-necked at Gibson back in 2007 or so. They did a great job using the neck from a Clapton reissue and charging me $4000. Sure played great though.

This was re-necked at Gibson back in 2010 or so. They did a great job using the neck from a Clapton reissue and charging me $4000. I wish I still had the detail shots. Sure played great though.

About 6 and a half years ago, back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a post called “Renecks, not Rednecks”. You can find it here. The post dealt with how to spot a renecked ES model (and how to tell a redneck from a reneck which, by the way is the default spelling the stupid spellchecker decides I really want to write when I write the term reneck without a dash). Well, since I wrote that post in October of 2010, I’ve come to look at renecked 3x5s a little differently. They still aren’t collector grade stuff but there is a lot to be said for bringing a great sounding guitar back into the realm of real playability and personal preference.

I’ve had a few done since that post and will talk about my experiences. The first was a red 335 that I bought off Ebay with all of its parts but no neck. I was told it was a 65 but in 20/20 hindsight, I think it was a 68-no headstock inlay to tip me off and I didn’t notice whether the f-holes were big or small. I wrote to the repair folks at Gibson and they told me that there weren’t any necks that would fit a 65/68 except for the recently released necks from the Eric Clapton “Crossroads” reissue. I was thrilled (until they told me how much it would cost). The estimate was $4000 (and six months). I had paid around $1500 for the body and hardware so I thought it might make a nice player for me. The market was pretty weak in 2011 but I went ahead and they did a truly excellent job except that the G string wouldn’t intonate-they must have mis-measured the scale by a fraction of an inch. I was able to to find a luthier who worked some magic on the nut and the problem was solved. It turned out to be a great player with a great neck and I eventually sold it and didn’t make a dime on it. Why? Probably because it had been re-necked. I swore off projects for a while.

A number of years later I bought a 61 dot neck that sounded absolutely glorious but had a badly broken and badly repaired headstock. I also didn’t like the flat neck profile much. I sold the guitar to a dealer in Toronto who had it renecked by Gord Barry who, I believe, works (or worked) at the well known 12th Fret guitar shop there. He used an old growth piece of mahogany, the original fingerboard, binding and truss rod and carved a very 59ish profile. I can’t remember if he used the headstock inlay or not on this one. The work cost around $3500 which, when you’re talking about a dot neck isn’t so much, really. especially when it goes from being a great sounding busted 61 with a so-so neck to being a great sounding intact 61 with a custom neck profile. Not long after the work was done, the guitar was offered back to me and I remembered what a great sounding guitar it was. The work was spectacular. If the seller hadn’t disclosed the reneck, I don’t think anyone would have known-not even me. It was not an easy guitar to sell. The purists scoffed at it but the logic was pretty sound. You were basically getting a player grade 61 with a 59 neck. The only way to get a big 59 neck is to buy a 59 (or a 58) and that would set you back $30K or so even for a player grade. So, I sold it for around $15K and didn’t exactly get rich off of it.  Upside? The buyer still has it and tells me how much he loves it every time I speak to him. Lucky guy.

That's what the re-neck looks like on that 61. Looks pretty original to me

That’s what the re-neck looks like on that 61. Looks pretty original to me

Not long ago, I bought a 60 335 with a 66 block neck on it. I called Gord Barry and asked if he could do the same work on this one. We couldn’t use the fingerboard (it had block markers) but I had a piece of beautiful Brazilian I’d been saving for decades. He used the original truss rod and the headstock overlay in all its checked and yellowed glory. The result was stunning. Another ruined dot neck brought back to life. Again, I didn’t make a dime on it but sold it to a regular client who has owned no less than a dozen dot necks (4 of which he bought from me). The reneck is his favorite. Same deal-a great sounding guitar turned from an uncollectible marginal player to an uncollectible great player. That’s a good return but not particularly good business. It is good PR though. There are some very happy players out there who bought themselves killer dot neck players with the neck profile they really wanted and saved $10000 or more.

A few weeks ago I bought a fairly well trashed ES-345 TDN-yes, a blonde. It had two holes drilled in the top, all the wrong parts, a heavily shaved neck and two repaired headstock breaks. The finish was in very good shape though and the wood was quite stunning. The solution was obvious. It was, after all, an original finish blonde 345 and they only made 50 of them. So off it goes. We will use the original fingerboard, bindings and truss rod and hopefully the headstock overlay. It will get a proper 59 neck carve using a old growth piece of mahogany. We’ll fill the two holes and have a killer player. Add a couple of uncovered double white PAFs and we’ll have something so cool I won’t be able to let it go. What’s it worth? Beats me.

What makes me OK with doing this is that as long as the luthier can get the good old wood, I don’t really care if the neck was made by a skilled factory worker in 1959 or an accomplished luthier in 2017. If one is better at it than the other, I certainly can’t tell. It will take a long time to get that blondie done-guys like this are always booked well in advance, so I expect to have it completed by September. I’m totally stoked.

Add an old growth mahogany 59 profile new neck, the original board, bindings and frets, a correct long guard, the right knobs  and fill those nasty holes and I'll have a keeper. If not for me then for somebody.

Add an old growth mahogany 59 profile new neck, the original board, bindings and frets, a correct long guard, the right knobs and fill those nasty holes and I’ll have a keeper. If not for me then for somebody.

Rosewood Ban

January 30th, 2017 • Uncategorized3 Comments »
It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it's all rosewood.

It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it’s all rosewood.

I’m a big environmentalist and I understand fully the actions taken by governments to protect endangered species. Protecting elephants by making trafficking in ivory illegal is laudable and necessary. Prohibiting the cutting of dalbergia nigra trees is important as well. So is acknowledging and acting on climate change. The problem is not in the acknowledgement of the crises. The problem is in the methodology undertaken by governments to address these crises.

It doesn’t save any elephants to strip the ivory off an antique piano. I wrote a post about this a few years ago when a client told the story of her antique French Erard piano being refused entry into the USA. Find that post here. The government approach to preserving Brazilian rosewood has been flawed and unwieldy but made some sense. It took too long (up to 90 days) to get certification and was fairly expensive ($100 per guitar). But the exemption of pre ban guitars (1992 and earlier) was reasonable. All you had to do was prove the guitar was made before that date. All of this was a pain in the ass but conservation of endangered species is important. I don’t know what the countries where Dalbergia Nigra grows have been doing to keep poachers from illegally cutting the trees that remain. Once the wood is cut, all the regulations in the world won’t bring back that tree. You have to keep it from being cut. This is where the time, money and effort should be going. I hope the government is taking the money collected for certification is spending it to keep the remaining trees from being poached. But the game has changed.

CITES has banned ALL rosewood. You can thank the Chinese for this since the bulk of the rosewood being cut is going to China as furniture. Apparently, the supply of Indian rosewood and a few other species has been affected in a detrimental way  (Vietnam was cited as a prime example). There is still, apparently, plenty of Indian rosewood left but trying to fix the problem before it becomes a crisis is good management . There was, however, another reason for doing this as I understand it. The Customs officials couldn’t tell Brazilian rosewood from Indian rosewood, so the solution was to ban it all. It’s a little like saying that since your doctor doesn’t know your spleen from your appendix, he should just remove both of them. You didn’t need them anyway. That adds a ton of paperwork and a not insignificant amount of dollars to the cost of all guitars-not just vintage ones. I don’t know all the details yet but if the wheels of the bureaucracy turn as slowly as they have in the past, you aren’t going to get your guitar anytime soon. And you’ll end up paying an additional fee for the certification. Once the guitar is certified, it’s certified so when you go to sell it, you will have the correct documentation in hand.

Note that this only affects international shipments. All types of rosewood can still be shipped domestically. I’m taking a wait and see approach to the new rules. I don’t ship many pre ’92 guitars anyway, the changes probably won’t affect me much. Also, the fact that they weren’t all that diligent in seeking out rosewood made it pretty manageable. I only had two guitars stopped by Customs for “illegal” woods. In both cases, they were wrong but it did hold up my shipment. Mostly, it seemed that they didn’t pay much attention-certification or not. That is likely to change. Without the proper certification, Customs can take your 59 ES-335 and confiscate it. You have no recourse. So, if you’re a big exporter, get your “Master File” in order. If not, be ready to wait 60-90 days to get your guitar certified

 

A Day Late (and more than a dollar short)

January 17th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3556 Comments »
This near mint 61 sold for $25K. If it was a 60, it would have sold for at least $30, if not $32K. It's 100% identical to a late 60 and that's something worth knowing.

This near mint 61 sold for $25K. If it was a 60, it would have sold for at least $30, if not $32K.
It’s 100% identical to a late 60 and that’s something worth knowing.

Guitars are not automobiles. Buyers seem to forget that sometimes and that can cost you. Let me elucidate. Cars have always had what we all call “model years”. I remember when I was a kid, my Dad would take us around-usually in the Fall around Halloween-to all the local car dealers to see the “new models”. Back in the late 50’s and through the 60’s and well into the 70’s, cars got a fairly extensive redesign every year or two. Go look. A 55 T-bird looks a lot like a 56 but a 57 is different and a 58 is even more different. A 59 looks a lot like a 58 as does a 60 but a 61 is totally different again. Cadillacs from the era are another good example. Look how the fins grow to humongous from 55 to 59 and shrink back through the 60’s. It was good marketing but it was expensive. Unlike the guitars of the era, cars are a big ticket item costing thousands. A few hundred dollars got you a 335, so complete retooling every couple of years didn’t make much sense. But, and I’m as guilty as you are, guitar players and collectors alike treat guitars as if they had “model years” as well and, at least during the period from the 50’s through the 60’s, they simply didn’t.

There were plenty of changes but nearly all of them occurred during a given year-not on some predetermined date that would designate these guitars as “59” or “60” or whatever. We can accurately (more or less) date the guitars we so desire but the fact that a particular guitar from a particular year is worth x dollars and a guitar from the following year is worth y dollars is a big flaw in our system of valuation. Year dating is very convenient but what I would call feature dating is more accurate. I recently sold a really clear example of this phenomenon.

A near mint, no issue mid to late 1960 ES-335 stop tail is a $30,000 guitar plus or minus a few grand depending on how close to mint it is and some squishy stuff like tone and playability. So, why is a 61 so much less? It isn’t like they changed anything on January 1. Gibson didn’t make changes that way. They made changes when changes were needed or wanted and they often phased them in over weeks or even months. It is actually extremely rare for a change to have been made at year end. So, back to the 61. I had a near mint 61 from early January. Nice neck-wide but sort of flat, just like a 60. It had a white switch tip-just like a late 60. It also had a long guard-I thought that added considerable value to this particular 61 because the short guard is one of the reasons folks don’t pay big bucks for a 61. Interestingly, there are late 60 335’s with short guards and early 61’s with long guards. That transition thing I mentioned. It isn’t all that logical, but there it is. The 61 sold for $25000 which, I think, was a $5000-$7000 savings over a guitar that was made a few weeks earlier with all the same features. The buyer was smart. He looked at a 60 that was priced much higher and chose the 61.

This phenomenon exists on a few other instances-more dramatically with 335’s than 345’s or 355’s. An interesting one is the difference between a late 59 and an early 60 dot neck. There is no difference. None. zip. They are absolutely identical except for the price. A mint late 59 will cost you close to $45K. A mint early 60? Maybe $38K on a good day. So, a day late for that 60 will be more than a dollar short. It will be more like $7000 short. But the guitar community reveres 59 Gibsons. Again, I don’t make the rules.

A late 58 will save you a few thousand over an early 59-not as much as the 60-61 or 59 to 60 but enough. Similarly,  a very early 65 is exactly the same as a late 64. It still has the stop tail at least through January and into February, so there are more than a few. A stop tail 64 is approaching $20,000 if a good clean, no issue example. The same with a 65 serial number will be at least $5000 less. 66 to 67 isn’t very dramatic, nor is 67 to 68. After that it starts getting tricky due to the major design changes that occurred when the nice folks at the Norlin Corp (beer, cement) took the wheel and drove Gibson into a sink hole. Just like an automobile.

This completely stunning early 60 sold for $32000. If this was a late 59, it would have been at least $40K. Maybe more. If you picked it up, it would feel and look just like a late 59 because it is the same in every way.

This completely stunning early 60 sold for $32000. If this was a late 59, it would have been at least $40K. Maybe more. If you picked it up, it would feel and look just like a late 59 because it is the same in every way.

Sometimes It’s Just Firewood

January 11th, 2017 • Gibson General6 Comments »
Is this going to be Fender necks? Maybe Les Paul tops? Or is it going to heat my house?

Is this going to be Fender necks? Maybe Les Paul tops? Or is it going to heat my house?

The Les Paul guys all go nuts over their beautiful flame maple tops. “Mine’s AAAAA.” Oh, yeah? Mine’s AAAAAA. I don’t know what any of that means but sometimes you have to wonder about all the fuss about figured maple. It’s pretty wood-no doubt about that and it makes a real attractive top for a Les Paul. It’s not terribly common on ES models and those that have it get a lot of attention but really don’t command much of a premium, if any, on the open market. Figuring doesn’t improve tone but there’s more to wood than its tonal qualities. I like figured wood a lot but it’s really hard to split.

Yes, that’s firewood in the photo. I get my wood from a local landscaper and I always ask for maple (because it smells nice and burns well). And I always find a few logs of figured maple. It really isn’t that uncommon up here in New England. In fact, I can’t recall a year when I didn’t get any in my usual cord or two of firewood. There are a few points to be made here. One, wood is just wood. What talented folks can do with it separates a Les Paul top from that stack of firewood. I’m told that the figuring in maple is the result of some kind of stress on the tree-like a virus. I’ve also been told it has nothing to do with that. I read a good article about it written by collector Mike Slubowski who runs the Les Paul Forum. Here’s a link. Read it. You’ll learn something. The next point is that when used in a guitar, it is ornamental. How important that is has to do with how you see your guitar. Is it a work of art? A thing of beauty? A tool of your trade?

That’s one of the very cool things about guitars. They are all of those things. Or none. They can be monumentally ugly (reverse flying vee) or stunningly beautiful (too many to list). A beautiful guitar can play like crap. An ugly guitar can play brilliantly. There is no doubt that beautifully figured wood is a large part of what makes a guitar a work of art. Figured maple, koa, macassar ebony, bubinga, cocobolo and a zillion other species make for stunning guitars.

It also makes a pretty good fire. Stay warm.

Flamey ES's can be pretty stunning and the equal of any Les Paul. This 59 ES-345 was actually a refinished sunburst.

Flamey ES’s can be pretty stunning and the equal of any Les Paul. This 59 ES-345 was actually a refinished sunburst. I don’t think it will burn that well though.

Year Ender: 345’s and 355’s

December 27th, 2016 • ES 345, ES 3555 Comments »
Post 59 ES-345's are still cheap. A few years ago, I could have sold this very clean watermelon red 60 for $16K. Today, it's $13K. It's got a couple of changed parts but still, $13K? For this? I must be nuts.

Post 59 ES-345’s are still cheap. A few years ago, I could have sold this very clean watermelon red 60 for $17K. Today, it’s $13K. It’s got a couple of changed parts but still, $13K? For this? I must be nuts.

If you read last year’s year ender, you would have noted that 345’s were really in the dumper. Stereo 355’s were in the same leaky boat. But that was then and this is now. And, somewhat surprisingly, they are pretty much right where they were then only now… it’s now. Still a tough sell and still a smart buy. I get that they aren’t as good an investment as a 335. I get that they aren’t as desirable as a 335. But I also get that they are every bit as good (and often better) than a 335 and they cost about half as much. Leave the stereo VT circuit or pull it out. I don’t care (as long as you put the original harness in the case). I sold a stop tail 64 this month with no issues-just some wear-to a smart buyer in Italy for under $10K. That same guitar, had it been a 335, would have been at least $17K. Stereo 355’s are the same story only maybe a little worse since there aren’t more than a handful of stop tails and the Bigsby (or sideways or Maestro) only makes it harder to sell. As these guitars dip below $10K, they become a pretty amazing deal. Most gold hardware guitars made up through 63 have PAFs and some 64’s do as well.  At the current market value of over $2000 each for PAFs, these guitars are no brainers.  When you consider the cost of a brand new Gibson, these make even more sense. They are a steal. Truthfully, I don’t see much more downside and I’ll likely be buying well priced stop tail 345’s as they come up. Yeah, there are still plenty of buyers who think their 60 is worth $20K or more but they either must not want to sell them or they are delusional (or both).

The exception to the above are the 59’s and the mono 355’s. Especially the early ones. An early big neck mono 59 355 or a “first rack” stop tail 59 ES-345 is a hot, hot guitar. I can sell as many as I get. I just can’t get that many. Both have cracked the $20K mark and sell very quickly-often in a day or two. Later 59’s are also strong but not quite at the level of these rarefied fat boys. A transitional neck 59 345 stop tail will be in the mid teens for sure and a really collector clean one might hit the high teens. Knock off 15%-20% for a Bigsby version. Since virtually all 59 355’s are Bigsby’s, the discount is built in. A 59 355 stereo falls somewhere below a stop tail 345 and a Bigsby 345. I still can’t figure out why a late 59 is worth more than an early 60, which is identical in every way, but I don’t make the rules.

And speaking of early 60’s, what is keeping the prices so low on 60-64 ES-345’s and stereo 355’s? There has been a quiet trend toward slimmer necks. Not everyone can play the real fatties but everyone seems to like to talk them up. I recently switched from playing a huge neck 58 to playing a transitional 60. As my hands get older, my ability to move quickly with all that wood diminishes. So, maybe with so much of my clientele over 50, it’s just the arthritis talking. But it’s talking fairly loud. Even so,  the prices remain fairly depressed. I remember selling a Bigsby 60 back in 2010 for $12000. I’d be lucky to get anywhere near that much today and the overall market is well up from then. If, indeed, the slimmer necks are getting more love these days, then the 60-63 market is poised to move upward. And it should. Even the slim neck 345’s and 355’s can be spectacularly good. There is a school of thought that equates fat necks with great tone and while I agree to an extent, it is not a rule. I recently had a 62 that was stunningly good and there is another 62 in my all time top five.

So, get out there and find the bargains. They are out there for sure. A 60-64 ES-345 or 355 is calling your name. I think I can hear it now. Or maybe that’s just my ears ringing from diming that tweed Bandmaster I’m so fond of.

Of course all bets are off if the 345 in question happens to be factory black. These went for some pretty big bucks in 2016. I hope I find another pair.

Of course all bets are off if the 345 in question happens to be factory black. These went for some pretty big bucks in 2016. I hope I find another pair.