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Early 58 to Early 59 Evolution: Part 2

December 13th, 2014 • ES 3353 Comments »

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early 58 to Early 59 Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three ply thin top 58

Three ply thin top 58

Four ply thicker top on a 59.

Four ply thicker top on a 59.

Timeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Wolf Notes and Dead Spots

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibson Got This Right

November 7th, 2014 • Gibson General8 Comments »

 

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

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

 

This is the very well executed reissue done in 2009.

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

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

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

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

Real Life Scary Stuff

October 24th, 2014 • Uncategorized3 Comments »
This "first rack" 345 was recently  on Ebay and it was right in my wheelhouse.

This “first rack” 345 was recently on Ebay and it was right in my wheelhouse.

It’s almost Halloween and time to do something scary. What shall we do…haunted house? Scary carved pumpkins? Norlin Gibsons? How about a post on how to adjust a sideways trem? That’s plenty scary. But, no, let’s talk about Ebay scams. The potential loss of around $13000 ought to get your attention. Recently, I was the high bidder on a 1959 ES-345 on Ebay. There were red flags from the get go but I consider myself to be be relatively savvy when it comes to spotting a scam. The seller had a zero feedback rating. That, in and of itself, does not scare me at all. I’ve bought at least 3 or 4 guitars from zero feedback sellers without issue. I’ve also bid on a few that turned out to be scams but I only lost money once and learned a valuable lesson from that experience. The guitar appeared to be a “first rack” 345 which are very desirable among 345 aficionados and players alike. They usually have huge necks and often have double white or zebra PAF’s. The photos looked good and the description was credible so I saw no reason not to bid on it. Here’s a link. Ebay has made it a lot less scary by doing something they should have done from day one: Guarantee the sale to be legit. Now, if you pay using Paypal, they do just that and they should.  After all, they collect almost 3% on every transaction. They make a boatload of money and the least they can do is offer some protection and they do. Good for them. That makes it a little less scary.

So, I win the auction and set up to pay using Paypal. I had sent the seller an message on Ebay asking if we could ship it using my Fedex account and included my email address so we could correspond outside of Ebay. Then it started. Cue the scary music. “Can you pay me by bank wire? I don’t take Paypal.” The email even included links to sites like Paypalsucks and IhatePaypal or some such silliness. I pay by wire all the time but I also knew that Ebay won’t protect me if I do that. So, I emailed back and said I needed more proof that the seller has the guitar in hand before I send a wire. I got a few more photos but they were clearly from the same batch of photos that appeared on Ebay. I wanted some new ones and maybe a “hostage” photo (A photo with today’s newspaper). “Sorry, I’m traveling in the UK and I don’t have access to the guitar right now…” More scary music goes here. Then I get another email that looks just like an Ebay invoice with the bank wire information on it. There were two problems with that email. One, Ebay doesn’t send invoices with bank wire information on them and two, the headers showed that the email came from somewhere other than Ebay. What? More scary music? I explained to the seller that I’d usually be happy to send a wire but that the zero feedback and lack of new photos was causing me some concern. So, what does the seller do? He (or she) mocks up a new feedback page showing 1300 positives. All the sales were for video game supplies and none were guitar related. That’s another red flag. Seller had also changed the user name slightly which I probably wasn’t supposed to notice. It’s kind of funny how the once very polite seller starts getting indignant at this point. How dare I impugn his honesty (gasp). So, I got on the phone to Ebay customer service (8 minutes on hold-not that scary) and explained the situation to someone-probably in Bangalore but at least it was a human being. Don’t get me started on outsourcing American jobs. Ebay said “Why don’t you just pay using Paypal?” When I fully explained the email trail, they transferred me to another department and they were very helpful-explaining that Ebay doesn’t send invoices outside of Ebay messages and that they would never include bank wire information.

So, the lesson here is simple. If something seems too good to be true, don’t immediately assume it is not true. But make damn sure it is true before you send any money no matter what the feedback. Google the seller. Make sure he exists in the location he says the item is located. Call the bank and explain the situation to them if you still aren’t sure. Use Paypal when you can-you aren’t paying the fees, the seller is and their protection program actually works. There’s some red tape but at least you have some recourse. Send a wire and you are out of luck if the item never shows up. And don’t expect much out of the local police if it ever comes to that. I have a long ugly story I can tell about that.

This is what I got in the email. Looks legit but it isn't. Ebay never includes wire information.

This is what I got in the email with some redactions. Looks legit but it isn’t. Ebay never includes wire information.

 

Bargain Bin, Part 2

October 23rd, 2014 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 355No Comments »
Who buys a fat neck dot for under $15K? Smart, savvy buyers, that's who. A re-neck kills the vintage value but can get you a great guitar for a reasonable cost

Who buys a fat neck dot for under $15K? Smart, savvy buyers, that’s who. A re-neck kills the vintage value but can get you a great guitar for a reasonable cost

OK, so I covered the usual stuff-refinishes, repairs, holes and changed parts. Most of you probably knew most of what I pointed out. But there are other elements that can put a guitar into the bargain bin that aren’t as obvious. Re-necks are not uncommon and when done correctly can give you a guitar every bit as good as an original at around half the price. I have two good examples of this. One was a 61 dot neck that I bought that had a bad neck break. Everything else was pretty much stock; the repair was ugly but stable on the typically flat profile neck. I sold the guitar as is and the next buyer had a luthier make a new neck for it using the 59 profile which is, of course, much more popular these days. In fact, the only reason a 60 or 61 costs any less than a 59 is the neck. Everything else is pretty much the same unless you want to talk about short magnets (mid to late 61) vs long magnets. I took back the 61 with its new neck in trade and sold it for about half the price of an equivalent big neck dot marker 335. I think that was a pretty good score. The buyer got the equivalent of a 59 dot for the price of a renecked 61. Great player too. The other example was a 64 that was done at Gibson a few years ago It was re-necked when I got it using the Memphis fat neck. To be honest, I don’t like that particular profile-the shoulders are way too big and the neck feels clunky to me. But, plenty of players love it and that neck on a 64 was pretty appealing especially at half the price. In the first case the buyer saved around $10,000 and in the second, around $7000. Each one played and sounded like a completely stock vintage guitar.

Another way to save a bunch of money requires a bit more of a leap of faith. These guitars are not broken, refinished nor do they have changed parts. They are guitars that have altered serial numbers. This sends up a big fat red flag to many buyers because most guitars with altered serial numbers have probably been stolen at some point. I’m not going to make a moral judgement here because there are factors that you just cannot know. For example, I bought a 64 ES-335 (the one in the photo in the last post) from a Canadian gentleman who bought the guitar used (from a music store) in 1966 and the serial number was partially defaced when he got it. It may have been stolen or it may have been altered to avoid Customs in some way. But he had the guitar for nearly 50 years and I had no doubt that he was telling the truth about its origin. That guitar sold at a very large discount. The only problem will be when the current owner is ready to sell it and he has to make all the same explanations I had to make. It makes it harder to sell for sure and it pretty much kills any collector value. I have a 60 right now that has black marker inside the f-holes and a repro label. That could mean that someone was trying to cover the serial and the FON. Or not. I’ve seen black paint in the f-holes a few times over the years with the serial number fully intact.  Most thieves aren’t even aware that there is a FON in there. Many owners don’t even know about it. I’ve also seen plenty of ES’s that the label has fallen out of.  It still calls the guitar into question and that question has to be priced in. It is worth noting that the seller wasn’t aware that the label was a repro and I considered returning it because of that. But it’s a great guitar and you just price it into the mix. It’s a slippery slope for sure and I’m always more than a little hesitant to accept any guitar that has a serial number issue.

One more road into the bargain bin and that is excessive wear. The Fender people are at an advantage here because their guitars are solid and bolt together. An abused, road hard and put away wet ES-335 can have all sorts of hidden issues like deteriorated glue and delamination. As long as the guitar isn’t literally falling apart, excessive wear shouldn’t affect the tone or, as long as the frets, the nut and the bridge are good, the playability. I don’t like a lot of neck wear but some folks aren’t bothered by it. Just make sure the neck isn’t twisted or backbowed and that the top or back isn’t separating from the sides. Oh, and look at the neck join. There should be no space between the heel and the body. The lacquer may be broken but no gaps. A true beater can play like a dream and save you $5000-$10000 on a high end 335 from 58 to 64.

This 61 dot was played hard and was pretty beat up but it sold for under $12K. Still, it had no issues other than wear and two tine mystery holes behind the tailpiece.

This 61 dot was played hard and was pretty beat up but it sold for under $12K. Still, it had no issues other than wear and two tiny mystery holes behind the tailpiece.

Bargain Bin, Part 1

October 19th, 2014 • ES 330, ES 335, ES 345, ES 3553 Comments »
This candy apple red dot neck 62 is still one of the best playing 335's I've ever had. Top five for sure out of around 400 of 'em. You could probably find one for around $10K if you're patient. IfI'm recalling correctly, it had no other issues.

This candy apple red dot neck 62 is still one of the best playing 335’s I’ve ever had. Top five for sure out of around 400 of ‘em. You could probably find one for around $10K if you’re patient. If I’m recalling correctly, it had no other issues other than the refinish-maybe a changed part or two.

I get asked this all the time. “How do I get a “Golden Era” player without breaking the bank, upsetting my wife and raiding my child’s college savings?”

There are a few ways-some obvious and some not so obvious. Some will get you a great player but a lousy investment (which is sometimes just fine). Some will get you a beat up piece of crap that sounds and plays horribly. The key word here is “player”.  “Player” doesn’t mean a piece of crap. It means just what it says and that infers a guitar you can actually play (and sound good doing so). Typically, when a guitar goes up for sale in a public marketplace like Ebay or Craigslist, the seller describes it in such a way as to get you to buy it. That often means not disclosing stuff that will stop you from doing so. The lie of omission is rampant so ask a lot of questions. If the seller doesn’t know the answer, get lots of photos and prepare to pass on the guitar. There are certain issues that drop the price drastically and most of you are probably aware of them. The good news is that many of them have nothing-and I mean nothing-to do with how the guitar plays or sounds.

The best way to get a great guitar for cheap is to buy one thats been refinished. That generally cuts the price in half and, unless somebody dumps a vat of poly on the guitar, has little or no effect on the tone. A bad refinish sounds the same as a good one most of the time. You can argue that poly finishes don’t “breathe” and affect the tone of the guitar. I’ll stay out of that for now. Also,  I almost never see poly finishes on refinished 335’s. The next big price cutter is a repair. Any repair. Headstock breaks are good for 50% off in most cases and are often stable and a non issue. I would suggest that you get a lot of photos and show them to your local luthier because a bad repair will affect the playability and possibly the tone of your prospective purchase. The little “smile” crack that is typical is not generally that big an issue. They are relatively easy to repair and often completely stable. You know-the old “glue is stronger than the wood” theory. A headstock that has been broken off and reattached requires a little more scrutiny. I stay away from them but some are quite stable. The best repair? If you can get a good enough deal, get a guitar with a repaired hole somewhere. I recently got a great player for a great price because it had a repaired hole from a mini switch. I also had a dot neck a while back that had a small repair under the pick guard that was as good a player as any $40000 dot. Unless you pulled the guard, it looked just as good, too. It probably saved the buyer $10000 or more. Tuner holes and removed Bigsby holes can save you thousands and don’t affect anything. Changed tuners don’t have much to do with tone and often are an improvement in tuning stability (another story).  These are the obvious ones but there are other things that can save you a ton but might not make you happy.

Changed parts are a good way to save a buck and you can always replace them when you feel like it down the road. A repro ABR-1 sounds the same as an original. A Tone Pros or other aftermarket bridge might sound even better. A repro tailpiece will make no difference in tone nor will changed tuners. Knobs and other plastic is strictly cosmetic but they still can have a big effect on the price. It’s pretty easy to negotiate $1000 off a 58-60 missing its long guard because everybody knows that $1000 is about what they cost. Missing PAFs should really knock down the price of an early example but expect to pay $4000 or more to replace them if you don’t like the pickups that are in the guitar. Most folks don’t care much if a guitar has a vintage correct bridge, tailpiece or plastic as opposed to the actual originals. You couldn’t possibly prove they weren’t original unless the wear patterns are wildly different between components (again, another story). But when the pickups are replaced and the solder broken, folks get concerned. Again, a broken solder joint won’t affect the tone or the playability but it will affect the investment value of the guitar. But you wanted a player, so don’t worry about the investment value. Next, we’ll look at some things to avoid and some not so obvious ways to save a buck or two.

This all original 64 stop tail was a big bargain. No changed parts, no refine, no breaks. I'll tell you why next post.

This all original 64 stop tail was a big bargain. No changed parts, no refinish, no breaks. I’ll tell you why next post.

Fingerboard Oddities

October 10th, 2014 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35510 Comments »
This is a 60 ES-335 with what is purported to be a factory installed ES-345 board. Very cool. I wish I owned it.

This is a 60 ES-335 with what is purported to be a factory installed ES-345 board. Very cool. I wish I owned it.

We all know that a dot neck has a dot marker fingerboard, a block neck has little blocks, a 345 has parallelograms (yes, I can spell) and a 355 has big blocks. But supposing someone wanted a 335 with parallelograms or a 345 with dots? Is that something Gibson would do? Or even farther out of the box, say Super 400 markers on a 335? Maybe an ebony fingerboard on a 335? I’ve always said that anything was possible at Gibson during the “Golden Era” and that leaves some wiggle room for anomalies like this. It is fairly well known that some owners were upset when Gibson changed from dots to blocks in 1962. No one knows how many dots were returned to Gibson to be “upgraded” to blocks but I’ve seen a few. The serial numbers were pretty reliable during the dot neck era so if you see a block neck with a 58-61 serial number, you can be pretty certain that it was redone at the factory.

Here's a 68 ES-335 with a 355 board. I've never seen it in person so I don't know if its an ebony board or just big 355 inlays. Probably a factory one off.

Here’s a 68 ES-335 with a 355 board. I’ve never seen it in person so I don’t know if its an ebony board or just big 355 inlays. Probably a factory one off.

But what about other fingerboard anomalies? When I’m confronted with one of these oddities, I always assume at the outset that it didn’t come from the factory that way. After all, it isn’t that hard to change a fingerboard. It isn’t easy, either but plenty of luthiers can do it properly. But some are definitely factory one offs. The trick is knowing how to tell a factory custom board from one that was changed later. We are fortunate that some pages of the Gibson logs still exist (although Gibson isn’t real good about making them public). They were pretty good about noting special orders in 59 and 60 but by 61 there seems to be less documentation, so the best method is to look closely for anything that might suggest that the original fingerboard was removed and get in there with a magnifying glass or a camera with a macro lens. The camera will always see stuff that you can’t see with the naked eye. You are looking for breaks in the lacquer between the binding and the neck itself. You are looking for excess glue where it doesn’t belong. If the fit isn’t perfect, it was probably added later. Factory boards tend to fit pretty much dead on.

So, what’s out there? I’ve seen a few 335’s with a 345 board. How do I know it isn’t a 345 with no Varitone? The body bindings are multi-ply rather than single and the hardware is gold. How about a 345 with a dot board? I was recently told by a fellow dealer that he had one and that it looked legit. I’ve never seen one but I couldn’t deny its possible existence. He’s promised me a photo. I have seen a 355 with a Super 400 board but I can’t find the photo. Gruhn Guitars had a ’62 335 with bowtie inlays (like a Kessel Custom) not too long ago but I’m pretty sure it was done somewhere other than the Gibson factory. It’s all part of the fun of Gibsons from the 50’s and 60’s. The truth is that you can find almost anything because if Gibson didn’t offer an ES–335 with a Varitone and an ebony dot fingerboard with factory Grover Imperials, somebody probably wanted one at some point and had Gibson make one up just for them. And if Gibson wouldn’t do it, there is always somebody who will.

One further point. I’ve been asked what these rarities are worth and it is a very good question (and up for debate). We all should know that rarity and price are not directly proportional. That’s why a 62 Byrdland in blond (10 made) isn’t worth more than a ‘burst. Or a sunburst 62 ES-335 for that matter. There just isn’t much demand. I think one offs are great but they tend to ask more questions than they answer. No one wants to explain why their collectible guitar doesn’t follow the “rules” because, unless they have factory documentation, it will always be questioned by collectors. Even with factory docs, most collectors want a bone stock classic-not a one off. My opinion? Much as I like the 345 and 355 inlays, I’d rather have a stock 335. I don’t think I’d be willing to pay a premium for a custom board on any 335, 345 or 355. Still, that blonde with the 345 board is awfully cool.

This one has bowties like a Kessel Custom. I can't tell if it's factory or not.

This 62 has bowties like a Kessel Custom. I can’t tell if it’s factory or not. I’m guessing not. It also has a bound headstock.

The Only Consistency in Inconsistency

September 29th, 2014 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3553 Comments »
An early 59 on the bottom and a fairly late 59 on top. It's hard to see a .1" difference but you can sure feel it. Most players can feel a difference of .03" That's 3 hundredths of an inch. That's the usual difference between a 62 and a 64.  The difference between an early 59 and a typical 60 is three times that.

An early 59 on the bottom and a fairly late 59 on top. It’s hard to see a .1″ difference but you can sure feel it. Most players can feel a difference of .03″ That’s 3 hundredths of an inch. That’s the usual difference between a 62 and a 64. The difference between an early 59 and a typical 60 is three times that.

I probably touched on this a few times before but I’m struck by the huge variation in neck sizes in a particular year. And that year is the oft venerated and sought after 1959. Everybody talks about that perfect 59 neck but the truth is, I don’t know which 59 neck they think is so perfect. Right now I happen to have a lot of 59 guitars. I have three 335’s , two 355’s and a 330. These guitars and a few others I’ve measured have wildly differing neck profiles. A28950 is a very early 335-January 59 and has that baseball bat neck like a 58 on steroids. It is around .93″ measured front to back behind the first fret and is 1.03″ at the 12th. That’s big. I have a 56 Les Paul with the same measurement. A31172 is a 335 from early September, I believe, and has the 59 neck that I associate with that “59 neck”. It measures .88″ at the first fret and around .98″ at the 12th. I also have A30877 which is a 355 and has the same profile (but has a much earlier FON-probably April). Another 59 ES-355 is A31525 which measured only .82″ at the first .91″ at the 12th. I have a 335 in the same serial number ballpark with serial number A31627 which has a first fret depth of .84″ and a 12th of  .93″. It’s worth noting that 335’s and 355’s don’t follow the same timeline. The 355’s got thinner much earlier in the year.

Most of us don’t get to play that many 59’s, so we tend to remember the ones we have the privilege of playing. The conventional wisdom is that a 59 has a big neck and a late 59 has a “transitional” medium neck. But as you can see, it isn’t that simple. The 59 range (at the first fret) is .83″ to .93″.  That’s more range than any other year. 1960 is a good example. That same conventional wisdom says a very early 60 has a medium neck and a later one has a thin neck. That’s also generally true except that the transition comes very early in 1960. Serial A33009 is one of my all time favorites and it measures .85″ at the first fret. But just 500 numbers later is only .81″. That’s only 4 hundredths of an inch but you can certainly feel a big difference.

There is a problem using serial numbers to gauge the manufacture date, however. Especially in the case of ES-355’s which were a much lower volume seller. Factory order numbers present a little more accurate timeline. I have had a lot of 59’s from the S8xxx range and nearly all have had .88″ first fret necks. That includes the “first rack” 345’s (S8537) that have become so sought after. They are usually in the A296xx to A 299xx range. But the 59 ES-355 I mention above has a FON of S7625 but the serial is way later at A30877. So, perhaps we should be looking more closely at FONs to get a better idea of the evolution of the 59 neck. That ’59 ES-335 with the big fat .93″ neck has a 58 FON of T5490. I have been keeping a database of FONs and serial numbers and, so far, it’s not showing me much consistency in terms of features following a predictable timeline. I’d like to be able to say that big necks ended at FON S9xxx or so but it isn’t that easy. Remember FON’s go to 9999 and then start over again at 100. So, the year 1959 starts in the S66xx range and goes through S9999, restarts at S100 and ends at around S1765.  In case you’re confused, read my post on FON’s here.