Archive for April, 2010

Why Would I Buy an SG?

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Make no mistake about it, I love 335s and 345s. I buy and sell a few dozen a year and try to enjoy every one of them for at least a month between buy and sell.  I also spend a lot of time with each guitar making sure everything is as it should be-sometimes dipping into the bottomless parts bin for an original pickguard bracket or something that’s missing from the guitar and sometimes just setting the action, truss and intonation. Only then do I sell them.  So, why did I score a 65 SG off of Ebay yesterday?  SGs are terrific guitars-great tone-light weight-simple to work on (no pulling the harness required). Up until recently, however, they weren’t terribly collectible.  It wasn’t long ago that you could pick up a 64 or 65 for around $3000. At that same time, a good original stop tail 64 ES 335 was approaching $10000 on its way to around $22K at the peak. SGs, especially Les Paul SGs from 61 through 63 went through the roof and peaked at $20,000 or more. The very desirable late 63 through early 66s shot up too-well over $10K and as high as $15K for a good one. Well, they’ve dropped back to some pretty reasonable levels and I picked up an early 65 with all the 64 specs: nickel hardware-fat wide neck-short neck join-what the aficionados call the “Harrison” specs since George played one like this for a while.  I played an SG back in my late gigging days-in fact it was the last guitar I owned before giving up gigging and becoming a bedroom player. It was a late 68 or early 69 with a neck so big, I could hardly wrap my hand around it. the intonation, however, was awful and it wouldn’t stay in tune. Friday afternoon example, no doubt. I had a couple of SG Customs since-a 63 and a 69 but neither spoke to me and they’re long gone. But by next week, I’ll have another one to play with while I wait for the 64 ES 335 I just bought that’s only 23 serial numbers away from Eric Clapton’s. How cool is that? Gibson confirms it was built AND shipped the same day as ECs. I’ll let you know when that gets here. Why buy an SG? Because it’s there?

Right: George’s SG
Below: My SG

To Bigsby or Not to Bigsby

Friday, April 30th, 2010

In the collectors world, at least the 335 and 345 collectors world, the addition of a Bigsby means a drop in the value of your vintage piece. Most folks will tell you a Bigsby (or Maestro or Sideways) will lower the collector value by 25%. Some say more.  I think 25% is probably about right but why? Just about every Stratocaster ever made has a trem (really a vibrato since it changes pitch but that’s another entry) and they are worth all kinds of stupid money-in fact a hardtail is worth less on a Strat. Go figure.  SG’s all had Maestros and while they may not be quite as collectible as a 335, nobody gives it a second thought. But on a 335, well, that another matter.  What’s wrong with a trem on a 335?  I don’t use one so I don’t see any reason to add an extra half pound to my guitar but if it saves me that much money maybe it makes some sense. If you’re collecting as an investment, don’t buy one with a Bigsby. The best investment is going to be the most desirable incarnation in the best most original condition possible.  Everybody likes to talk about the “mojo” of the guitar they’re selling but we all know it just means wear and tear. Back to the Bigsby…sorry the ADD kicks in a lot-we’ll cover mojo later.  If you use a Bigsby or other trem, then by all means, save some money and buy one with a trem.  Better yet buy a “convertible one” you know, the ones I wrote about a few days ago with the “Custom Made” plaque covering the stop tail studs.  This advice doesn’t apply to the ES 355 because nearly all of them were factory equipped with one sort of trem or another.  I’ll go a step further-if you’re going to get a 335 or 345 with some kind of whammy bar, I would suggest you go with the Bigsby rather than the sideways or the Maestro.  First reason-the Bigsby leaves fewer holes in the top of the guitar should you want to remove it. Second, it just works better as a unit. The sideways version looks a lot cooler but the guitars just don’t stay in tune very well and the thing is just about worthless as a tremolo.  The Maestro, to my eye, just looks wrong. It works OK and the simplicity of the design is kind of interesting but it looks like it belongs on an SG.  Even the Epiphone “trem-o-tone” looks better on a big guitar like a 335 (or a Sheraton or Riviera) than a Maestro. If you thought I was going to solve the mystery of why some guitars are worth more with a tremolo and some less, I can’t. It makes no real sense. But a lot of guitar collecting makes no sense. Things like rarity are almost irrelevant, but I”ll discuss that another time.

Below: Bigsby on a 67

Right: Sideways on a 62 ES 355

Below: Maestro on a 64

The ABR-1 “Tune-o-matic” Bridge

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Every ES 335 ever sold from 1958 until now has had one of two bridge types. The ABR-1 (also called Tune-o-matic) from 1958 to 1975 or so and the Nashville from 1976 until 1989 or so. Then it was back to the ABR-1. ABR-1 bridges came in a few varieties and that can be helpful when trying to get a handle on the date of your ES 335/345/355. The earliest variety was nickel plated (or gold plated for 345 and 355) and had no little retaining wire to keep the saddles in place. the saddles were plated brass. This type had the designation “Gibson ABR-1″ on the underside and a trademark from the company who manufactured them. These were used from 58 until sometime around 1962. Gibson never makes a change over night-they begin to use new designs while they still are using the older design to transition into a new configuration. the next ABR-1 had the same markings, same saddles but had a small retaining wire which held the saddles in place so when you broke a string on stage you didn’t have to crawl around looking for it before you could restring. Drag.  Then, in 63 sometime, they decided to change the saddles from metal to plastic (nylon, apparently). Some felt this helped eliminate string breakage while others felt (and still feel) that it made the guitars dull sounding.
Clapton’s 335 had nylon saddles and it didn’t sound dull to me.  The bridge continued to have nylon saddles well into the 70s. During 64-65 they phased in 2 new elements. We start seeing a different inscription on the underside with smaller writing which said “Gibson Pat# 2,760,313″ in late 64. We also start seeing the use of chrome plating rather than nickel. The overlap is such that you can have a chrome bridge with the old inscription (i had that on my 66) or a nickel bridge with the new inscription (which was on my 64). It’s this transition that makes it difficult to use the bridge for dating a 335 from mid 64 until late 66. There were just too many combinations. The change in inscription also changed on the gold plated version found on the 345 and 355 at around the same time. The ABR-1 remained chrome throughout the period until the Nashville bridge with its longer travel and screwed in saddles replaced it in 1976 or so.  We’ll talk about that in another post.
This is a no wire ABR-1
Below it is the underside which is the same
for the wired type until mid 64-65
Below that a wired type
and below that, the “patent #” type in gold

Am I Uncool? I Like Skinny Neck Guitars.

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Somewhere along the way, the trend in neck profiles has gone toward larger and larger profiles. I spend some time on a few of the guitar forums (fora?) and discussion often runs to neck profiles. This is more a Gibson player phenomenon than a Fender players. Maybe because Fenders have usually had skinnier necks. Anyway, the folks on the Les Paul Forum love their big fat boat necks-the bigger the better.  There’s a bit of “mines bigger than yours” going on but its mostly good natured as the folks on LPF tend to be-unlike some other forums who shall remain nameless.  Gibson started the 335 with a big fat neck with a
1 11/16″ wide nut. That remained fairly constant until early 1960 when the profile (not the nut width) started getting thinner. The depth of the neck at the first fret averaged in the range of .90 or a bit more for 58 until early 60 and then it creeped down to .86 (my 60 ES 345) to .83 (my 61 dot) to .81 (my ’62 block). I found all of these necks extremely comfortable to play even though they are very different. It seems that nut width is more important to me. I have small hands and fairly stubby fingers. My 62 was one of the most comfortable guitars I ever played. As I read posting after posting extolling the virtues of fat necks, I started to try some of them. I had a 69 Les Paul Goldtop that was huge-1 3/4″ at the nut and close to 1″ in depth at the first fret. I found I could play it just fine but I lost some velocity but gained some accuracy-maybe more room to put my stubby fingers.  I find a really large neck wards off some fatigue as well-maybe because my hand has more area to “lean” on. When I had the opportunity to play some of the later Gibson 335s (65-66-67-68), the nut had shrunk to 1 9/16″. One eighth of an inch makes all the difference in the world. I found I was sloppy and my hands got tired. After about an hour of playing, that wasn’t the case any more. I was playing with accuracy and speed. When all is said and done, I think neck size is a bit overrated. If you find a guitar that you can play that has the tone you want, then don’t listen to fat neck guys. So your buddy has a 59 dot neck that’s twice the size of your 67.  That doesn’t make you uncool, just perhaps a bit more flexible. I took guitar lessons for a year when I was 12 from an old jazz guy (Mr. Orsini in Schenectady) who insisted that I get a guitar with a wide fingerboard and a thin neck. I took that to heart and bought a 62 ES 330 that was just that and played it in my band throughout the 60’s until I became enamored of the SG that Clapton played and switched to an SG Standard in 1969 which I bought new (at Manny’s in NYC). It had a huge neck and I thought I had made a big mistake. But no, in a few hours I was comfortable and playing SWLABR and sounding just like EC (well, almost).  I still love the 64 profile best but I’ve done some of my best playing on that 62 ES 330 and the 62 335 I got much later. I sold the 62 ES 335 a couple of years ago to, what else, a wide flat neck playing jazz guy. The skinny neck 335’s are a relative bargain that you shouldn’t dismiss out of hand. Just play one and see if it works for you. If it does, you can save yourself anywhere from a couple hundred to many thousands of dollars.

That’s me in 1968 (age 16) playing my 62 330 at Scotia High School in Scotia, NY. Note the Vox Royal Guardsman with the head turned around. How cool was I?

And below, at age 15-same guitar
different gig. Dig the sideburns on a 15 year old

My Old 335 Says "Custom Made"

Monday, April 26th, 2010

These are actually pretty cool. When Gibson started making 335s, they were all drilled with holes for a stop tailpiece. Gibson would provide a guitar to an individual or a dealer with a Bigsby tailpiece when requested.  Since the Bigsby eliminates the need for a stop, they needed to cover up the holes with something.  Their odd choice was to use a plastic engraved plaque that said “Custom Made” which was nailed into the top of the guitar with 2 or 4 small brass brads.  I’ve seen at least one that was glued to the top.  You might also see pearl, black or metal inserts (little circles) set into the stud holes. I originally thought that these were added later but I know now that they are, indeed, factory. Even I learn stuff now and then.  Gibson eventually made guitars that only had the Bigsby and no stud holes at all-my 1960 345 in the top picture is a good early example. But they continued the “Custom Made” plaque up through 1964 or early 65 when they stopped using stop tailpieces altogether in favor of the trapeze which was cheaper and easier to attach.

Interestingly, There were customers who complained that their guitars didn’t say “Custom Made” and they wanted that plaque, so Gibson put them on some Bigsby equipped guitars late in the run that had no stud holes. Seems dumb to me but that’s Gibson. Give ‘em what they want whether it’s good or not (see their incredibly dopey “guitars of the week” like the reverse V).

The One Owner Guitar

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Last week, a client of mine brought in his Grandfather’s guitar for me to evaluate.  It was a beautiful 1959 Gibson ES 175 that had been played and loved. OK, it isn’t a 335 but the point can be made for any vintage guitar. One owner guitars are usually the best cared for and this one was no exception. This was no case queen, it showed plenty of wear and tear. But it was from playing-not from neglect. In general,  a guitar that has been played will sound better than one that hasn’t.  Two reasons: one a cause and the other an effect. If a guitar plays well and sounds great, it’s owner is likely to keep it and likely to play it. If the guitar you bought just doesn’t speak to you, then you are likely to sell it, trade it, put it in the closet or whatever. The second reason is that a guitar that is played regularly will sound better than one that sits. This ES 175 is a very good example. When the guitar came to me, it sounded pretty awful-old strings and years of dust don’t help any. I brought it home, restrung it, cleaned it up a bit and played it for the weekend. By Sunday it had “opened up” and started sounding like the great guitar it had always been.  Think of it as being awoken from a rather long sleep (it hadn’t been played in many years). I’m sure there are scientific and psychological reasons behind this phenomenon, I just don’t know what they are.

However, there are plenty of guitars out there that haven’t been played for decades that may be excellent guitars. They just never got the chance to prove it. There are thousands of guitars  that have been sitting under a bed since the mid sixties when 13 year old would be rock stars bugged their parents for an electric guitar. Many lost interest and never touched it again (it’s not that easy to become a rock star).  These were not usually high end, valuable pieces but they could be. A 335 cost a few hundred dollars in 1964 and while that was real money back then, it wasn’t out of the question for a family to spend that kind of money on a musical instrument for their child. My father bought me a 1964 Fender Duo Sonic and a Fender Princeton amp for $159 at Hermie’s Music Store in Schenectady-home of the “just beyond retail” sale. We didn’t know that you could get a brand new Stratocaster for a few dollars more at Manny’s in New York-just 160 miles away.

But I digress.  My client’s father was at my office as well and he was able to give me a detailed history of the guitar…played in church every Sunday…had a repair to the switch…Bigsby later put on at the Gibson factory and so on. That’s what so great about a one owner guitar-you can usually learn its entire history and that, for a collector, is of great value.  With a guitar that’s been through as many as a dozen owners or more in its lifetime, you never quite know what’s original and what isn’t and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether its been well cared for or just refinished or loaded up with repro parts.  But a guitar that’s been lovingly played all its life by a single player is usually a keeper.  Just ask the previous owner.

If you’re interested in this guitar, it’s for sale. It’s all original except for changed tuners- (the originals are in the case) and the added Bigsby. The original tailpiece is MIA. You can contact me at or just post a comment with your contact information.

Best 335 for Not Too Much Money

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Well, that depends on what your definition of “not too much money” is but let’s assume you have around $4,000-which is about what a Gibson Historic ES 335 will cost you slightly used.  You could buy the Historic-they are great, great guitars and will serve you as well as a vintage one. If you buy into the “old wood” notion, then take a look at the late 60’s ES 335s-especially 1967-1969. These years were very well made, excellent sounding guitars-the best  of them will rival any other year but there are some tradeoffs that keep these years (and 65-66 as well) from being as desirable or expensive as the earlier ES models.  First and foremost is the neck shape. Somebody (probably at Fender) got it into their head that a skiniier neck was a “faster” neck. Fingerboards went from 1 11/16″ wide to 1 9/16″ wide in mid 65 and stayed that way
pretty much through the rest of the 60s. The depth of the neck got very slim as well reaching its thinnest in 67 and creeping back up in 68. I’ve found at least one 68 with a pretty big neck and a wider board so they are out there.  But most are what we not so endearingly call “pencil necks”.  If you can play one of these comfortably, then you can save some big bucks and still have a killer sounding vintage instrument. The pickups changed at some point as well from the red/orange wire on a “PAF” type bobbin to the T-Top variety. Both have the same patent # sticker but the t tops usually are held together by slotted screws rather than philips screws (the gold screws on the bottom of the pickup-not the polepiece screws on the top). There is no way to be 100% certain without taking off the covers. Don’t. Buyers like it when the covers still have their original solder. If they’ve already been opened up and show new solder, then go ahead and take a look. The good news is that both are very good sounding pickups. I’ve seen non t-tops as late as 1968 and perhaps they go even later than that. I’ve seen T-tops as early as 67 and have heard of them showing up in late 66. Nothing at Gibson ever happens overnight.  My Blue Trini Lopez is a 67 and has the narrow neck and a pair of killer non T-tops. I can play it but I’m not as comfortable as I am with a 64 or a 59.  You should be able to find one of these for around $4000. There are plenty of them listed WAY higher on Ebay but, if you pay attention, these don’t ever sell. Look for a no reserve auction and at least you know you’ll be getting the guitar for its true market value.  If you’re a player and not a collector, then condition doesn’t really count as long as its stable and playable. If you don’t mind a neck repair, you can play vintage for real cheap. I’ve had a few and I’ve had good luck with them. Just don’t expect them to grow in value like a mint example will. More on this later. That’s a 67 below-note the trapeze tailpiece.

What’s So Great About a 1964?

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I wrote a post a few days ago about the 58 ES 335 and, of coursed, I raved about what’s so wonderful about it. I mentioned that the best ES 335 I ever played was a 58. And yes, it sounded better than any I had played but it wasn’t my all time favorite.  There is nothing like a 64. Except perhaps a late 63 or a very early 65. Gibson doesn’t necessarily make changes on New Years, so there is always some overlap between iterations of these guitars. The neck on the 335s and 345s from 1958-1959 were big fat, full necks. Then, from 60 to early 63 they got skinnier every year. The width of the fingerboard stayed the same but the front to back measurement got very small. In late 63, for reasons unclear to me or probably anyone else who wasn’t there (at Gibson) at the time, they fattened it back up to nearly the 59 size. Nearly.
Somehow, they got it exactly right from my perspective. A big handful of neck that starts out comfortable and gets slowly but evenly fatter as you go toward the body. I can play a 64 for hours with no fatigue. It’s too bad Gibson didn’t copy a 64 profile when they issued the Historic ES-335 63 Block neck. That’s a very nice guitar with a nice neck but its a little slim for me. The Eric Clapton reissue which was a limited edition that cost over $10,000 when issued and now commands a bit more, had that magical 64 neck carve and that’s pretty much the only other way to get that carve.  There are late 63s with it and some very early 65s as well. But in 65, they switched the tailpiece to a trapeze which some say decreases the sustain. I’m not sure I agree but I think a stop tail looks better and is way easier to restring. There were some early 65s with a stop but they are pretty rare. I had an opportunity to buy one not too long ago for a very reasonable price but I was just too lazy to drive to South Jersey to get it. I regret that decision. They are very hard to find. And what about the pickups and the sound of the 64? The 64 uses the first or second patent sticker variety of humbucker and these can sound every bit as good as the revered PAF.  The bridge switched from metal to nylon saddles at about this time as well but that’s an easy swap if you prefer the harder edge of the metal saddles. I kind of like the nylon ones and they don’t break strings as easily. It’s no wonder Mr Clapton played a 64 for so long. And it’s no wonder that his 64 went for over $800,000 at auction. Not so much because it was a 64 but it was his 64. If you have one and you want to sell it, I want to buy it. I love these guitars (have I mentioned that?) Here’s one below from favorite 335 site hosted by my friend, Tom Hollyer.

You can see the telltale holes from a formerly mounted Bigsby. These 2 little holes will save you a lot of money as they can drop the value of a 335 by 25%. And yet, they don’t hurt the tone and they aren’t noticeable from more than 5 feet away. Note the pointier “ears” as well. The rounded “Mickey Mouse” ears were gone by mid 63. And above it is that great neck profile. You can’t tell much by looking but you can see it’s got some heft to it.

Dot Neck v Block Neck

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Does anybody really care that much about whether their ES 335 has a dot neck or a block neck? There seems to be a certain cachet that places the dot neck above all others as the most desirable 335.  There is a certain elegant simplicity to the dot neck that is very appealing today. It wasn’t always so. Dots are probably the cheapest inlay that a guitar maker can obtain. They are usually found at the bottom of the guitar manufacturer’s line. Granted, the 335 was the bottom of the new semi hollow line in 1958 but it was not a cheap guitar-not by any means.  And that was part of the problem. It seems that some players complained to Gibson about the 335 being too plain for the price.  Easy solution-just buy the 345 with its split parallelograms or the 355 with its big pearl blocks. But the 345 was a stereo guitar with a Varitone circuit and not everyone wanted that. The 355 had an ebony neck and came standard with a Bigsby (or later the sideways trem or the Maestro) and not everyone wanted that either. So, the 335 was the bottom and a real workingman’s guitar. In case you’re wondering the other “thinlines” weren’t semi hollow-they were hollow, including the ES-330. After a little over 4 years of dot necks, Gibson got the memo and changed the inlays to small blocks.  At the time, it probably didn’t send dot neck owners running to the guitar shop (or music store in those days) to trade in their dots for blocks. But it may have made the guitar a bit more appealing and, sure enough sales rose steadily during the block neck era until the boom ended (see the post about the 70’s).  The popularity of the dot today-both in vintage and in reissues is, in part due to the uncluttered simplicity of the dot neck 335. The other part of it is the size of the neck which may be the biggest reason certain years are more popular than others. In fact, in the case of the 1965 ES 335, an early 65 can command triple the price of a later one. We’ll look at that phenomenon over the weekend. Maybe.

Is My Old ES-335/345/355 Valuable?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Well, it depends on what valuable means to you. If you love to play it and it gives you pleasure, then it doesn’t matter what year it is…it’s valuable.  On the other hand, if you’re thinking of selling it, then other aspects come into play. Here’s a couple of quick tips to get you in the ballpark. In order to assess the year, there are a lot-and I mean a lot-of details that will give the year away. Gibson made so many changes-so often-that every year is distinctive in some way. Why not just look up the serial number on the Gibson website. OK, here’s the LINK. Now do you see the problem? Gibson reused some numbers as many as four times. In fact, if you want to include the 70’s, they used the 800XXX numbers as many as seven times! 66,67,68,69,73,74 and 75. So, that barely gets you started. First off-if you know the guitar is old, then look at the label. If it’s orange, the guitar is pre 1970. If its purple and white, its 1970-1981 or so. Then the labels were white. Recently, Gibson has gone back to using orange in their higher end models and white in others. If your 335 is new, then, simply, it isn’t worth more than it cost in the first place.  OK, so you have an orange label on an old 335-what now? Does it say “Union Made” on it? If not, it’s probably from 1958-1964 or so. All changes happened slowly so there is a range of dates but in general, 64 is the cutoff for non union made labels. Except that they started using them again somewhere around 68, so you need more information. We’ll cover that later. If your label is purple and white, the value of your 335/345 is probably no more than $3000. See my post about what sucks about the 70’s models below. We’ll discuss the 80’s another day. So, for example, you have a 335 with an orange label and the serial number list says its either a 65, a 66 or a 68. They all had orange “union made” labels and there is some difference in the value of these years. These are the three years that are most often confused (along with 67). they all had trapeze tailpieces, they all had chrome hardware (mostly) and they shared serial numbers. Yikes.  Here’s a quick lesson. Every 335 and 345 has an inlay in the headstock that looks like a crown or a flowerpot. The position of that crown changed in late 1966 through early 67 (again, a transition). If it is placed above the A and B tuners, its either a 65 or a 66. If its below them, its a 67 or later. I’ll post some photos so you know what I’m talking about. In later posts, I’ll go through how you narrow it down even further.  Something I’ve noticed-and it’s the biggest reason I’m doing this blog-is that everyone who has a 60’s 335/345/355 seems to look up the serial number on the list and pick the earliest year it could be. So, the list says 65, 66 or 68-everybody chooses 65. Why? because they’re worth more. So, that’s why I’m here-so you don’t get stuck with a 65 that’s really a 68.  You can thank me later.