Archive for January, 2011

The Evil Tone Sucker

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Here's the schematic of the stereo version that's in the ES 345 and 355. If you can't read it, don't give me a technical argument as to why the Varitone sucks. It's pretty easy to learn how to read them. Take some time and learn. You'll be glad you did.

One of my regular readers has tackled one of my pet subjects. The Varitone. Or, more accurately the “evil tone sucking Varitone”, at least to a good percentage of players. Interestingly, there are a good number of nay sayers out there who have probably never played a guitar that has one. The internet is, unfortunately full of “experts” and posers. Unfortunately, they are often the same. Let me say this up front: I like the Varitone. When used properly-that is with a stereo amp or a stereo cable a 2 amps or a stereo cable with a 2 channel amp, it is a wonderful device that gives you a load of useful and not so useful tones. The tone sucking part comes from 2 sources, I believe. One source is the folks who get a “mixer” cable that takes the two outputs and mixes them down to mono. The others have never experienced one-they are bandwagon jumpers. We’ll ignore the latter. Let me make this clear-I’m not an engineer. I can read a schematic and I know a capacitor from a resistor but I’m no expert. A gentleman and regular reader named Chris Wargo is an engineer and he knows his stuff. The reason most of the players who have actually had some experience with the Varitone equipped guitars find the Varitone to be a detriment are using them with a mixdown cable. This will suck the tone out of your guitar when both pickups are being used. I can’t explain this in completely layman’s terms. The pickups on a 345 are out of magnetic phase. When out of phase pickups are used together, you get the difference between them, not the sum of them. Or, to simplify, they cancel each other out since they are essentially the same. Instead of editing Chris’ work, I’m going to upload it and give you a link so you can read the entire thing. he also devised a “true” bypass and supplies a video that clearly illustrates the difference between the built in “bypass” which is position 1 and a true bypass which removes all components to the circuits. I’ll link to that as well. For those who have never experienced the Varitone, it is a notch filter that removes certain frequencies from the output of the pickups of the guitar. In a 345, it is a stereo filter that handles each pickup separately. You cannot, however use different settings on the two pickups. You must notch out the same frequency on both pickups. I suppose you could make it so that you could but that isn’t how it’s designed. The Varitone is used by quite a number of well known players. BB King, Freddie King, Chuck Berry, Alex Lifeson, Bill Nelson, Elvin Bishop, Chris Isaak and probably a load of others I’ve left out. I would note that Keith Richards plays one but his is mono so no Varitone. I don’t know if any of the players mentioned have disconnected their Varitones. I can tell you that there are some big names who love it in that list.  Here’s the link to the paper.  And the Video. And here’s a big tip of the hat and a thank you to Chris for all his hard work and research. His full Varitone Demo follows because I just learned how to embed video. Who says you can’t teach an old dog…

The Mono ES-355

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

Here's a nice 59 ES 355 mono. It looks great with the long guard and that orangey fade. Don't like the color? Just look for a later one. I know where this one lives.

From the very beginning the top of the line ES-355 was available in both stereo with the varitone circuitry and in mono. The mono version was wired to be identical to a 335 but with all sorts of upgrades.  The gold hardware ES-355-unless specially ordered, came with a Bigsby or, by late 1960, a sideways trem and by 63 a Maestro vibrato. There are almost no stoptail 355s out there. I’ve seen photos of two or three. The next upgrade was Grover tuners and later, Kluson “wafflebacks.” While the 335 had dot markers, then small blocks and a rosewood fingerboard, the 355 always had big block markers and an ebony board. Finally, the single ply binding on a 335 was classic simplicity while the 355 had a 7 ply binding. Rumor has it that the wood used for 345s and 355s was of better quality but I really haven’t seen that much difference. Finally, the headstock was bound and had a big split diamond inlay on it to class the thing up a bit. To some it’s the most elegant guitar there is. To others, it’s just a 335 tarted up to look like a cheap hooker. A cheap hooker always dressed in red. While the occasional sunburst or custom color 355 shows up now and then, red was the only standard color. The much reviled Varitone (I’m writing a big post about it and will debunk the myths next week) is a factor in the lack of desirability of the 355. They just don’t sell very well. It’s just one of those guitar collector ironies where the bottom of the line outshines the top. The Les Paul Standard and Les Paul Custom are another good example. The Fender Telecaster and the Fender Jaguar are another. It isn’t unusual for the lower end “peoples guitar” to  be the ones everybody wants. But then there’s the mono 355. It’s still a tarted up 335 but it does everything a 335 does and nothing more. That’s a good thing to most collectors. The mono 355 is somewhat rarer than the stereo version with only 624 out of 1853 examples made in the mono format in the years 1958-1964. That’s about a third of them for those of you who won’t do the math.  Recently, I’ve been seeing an uptick in the interest level of the mono 355. With dot necks still out of reach of many collectors and players, they are looking for alternatives. The early block necks have always been popular but they can be pretty pricey as well with good examples reaching into the high teens. But a mono 355 is still relatively well priced. Not exactly the bargain of the century, but still, for a “Golden Era” ES, it’s pretty affordable. One thing to look out for is the neck carve. While no year is totally consistent, you can be pretty certain that a given year 355 is going to have a narrower neck than the same year 335. I’m not entirely certain why. Maybe Gibson felt that thinner necks were more desirable and put a premium on them by placing that aspect in the high end guitars first. Maybe because ebony was so expensive, they figured they would save a couple of bucks by making the fingerboard narrower. But put a 64 ES 355 up against a 64 ES 335 and you’ll notice a small difference in the nut width and a rather large difference in the depth of the neck. The one’s everyone seems to be looking for are the 58’s and 59’s. There are only 10 58’s, so don’t bet on finding one. There are 177 59’s out there and they come up for sale pretty regularly. What I like about the early ones is the way they fade. As most of you know, the red in the Les Paul sunburst tended to disappear over the years while the 60 Les Pauls tend to retain their red element. That’s no accident. Gibson changed the formulation or the manufacturer of the red aniline dye used on their red finish in 1960. The early 345s and 355s fade to a gorgeous watermelon to orange color. Some 1960 355s fade the same way since they didn’t do the changeover right away. The mono 355 is, on its own, a terrific guitar. Being somewhat less costly than the corresponding 335 year over year, it’s a great value too. An average 59 335 will cosy you close to $30,000. I’ve seen mono 355’s from 59 for $15K to around $18K. There are plenty that cost more but they are overpriced, so don’t buy them.

I think I'd buy a red 64 if it had that great 64 neck profile. Unfortunately, most of them have a thinner than "normal" neck on them. Look at the nice red. I personally prefer the faded ones but this is nice, too.

The Key to a Fine Guitar

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

This key will open just about any ES 335 case. I'm betting you've lost yours or never had one to begin with. You can still get them..

Whyizzit nearly every guitar I ever buy is missing its case keys? It’s not like anybody actually locks their guitar case. I’ve always just left them in the case pocket and when I sell the guitar, they are still in the case pocket. And, just in case you’re the guy who actually does lock his guitar case, you should know that nearly all the keys for 335s are the same or so it seems. I’ve gotten a few guitars with keys and I’ve picked up some loose keys along the way and every last one of them is identical. They fit the Gibson badged cases, the Lifton cases, the Stone cases and even a Guild case I have lying around. I don’t have a Victoria or an Ess and Ess at the moment but I wouldn’t be surprised if it fit everything but the Ess and Ess (because it has a spring latch). The probable reason is that the case hardware was manufactured by the same company and they just didn’t bother with making multiple key types. I never really got the idea of a case key anyway. If someone is going to steal your guitar, I’m pretty sure they’re going to steal it whether the lid is locked or not. Unless you lock it to a large pice of furniture with a bike lock, I think the thief wins.  When I buy a vintage guitar, one of the things I look for is the key. It tells me that the guitar was well cared for. Think about it. If someone has managed to go 50 years without losing both of those little keys, then they must either be very organized or they really loved that guitar. Or both. In 20 years of buying vintage guitars, I would say that maybe 10% have one key. About one if 50 has both keys. The gorgeous red 59 ES 345 I found had both its keys-in the envelope-in the case along with the PAF directions and the ABR-1 directions. This was a pro player, too so it’s not like the guitar sat at home in its case its whole life. In fact, the 61 dot neck that DID sit in its case for 47 years didn’t have its keys. I’ve learned that there are 2 ways to preserve a great vintage guitar. One way is to take very good care of it for 50 years or so. The other way is to totally neglect it for that same period of time. I generally prefer the ones that have been played and cared for. They still have their keys. Oh, and if you would like to get a key for your Lifton or Gibson case? There an almost 100% chance that the Excelsior H345 is your key. H345-how appropriate is that?

Look for the designation H345.

Not Hip?

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Here's a wall of hip guitars at Southside Guitars. Jazzmasters and Danelectros. Classic hipness.

I stopped by Southside Guitars in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last week because Ben Taylor (no, not that Ben Taylor), one of the owners, was interested in my 59 ES-345. Williamsburg, for those who aren’t from around here, is the ultra hip part of Brooklyn that used to be cheap until the hipsters moved in and turned it into the next generation Park Slope which used to be hip but isn’t any more. I mention this because Southside is kind of the “Home of the Hipster Guitar”. I brought my 23 year old son with me, so I was able to judge the hipness factor for myself. There were a lot of terribly hip guitars with the Danelectros in the forefront. The old 50’s and 60’s solid body Epiphones were there in profusion (I walked out with a 61 Wilshire) as were some spectacularly hip Wandres, Hallmarks and a very strange Gruggett. And, of course, a profusion of Jazzmasters.  What there weren’t a lot of were ES-335’s. Oh, there was a Trini but that became hip somewhere along the way-probably because Dave Grohl uses one-but only a couple real 335’s. I was actually surprised he wanted my 59 345 considering his clientele. The guitars that I write about are largely out of reach of the 20-something starving artists but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t 335’s that can be had for cheap. I would guess that the average age of my readership is in the 50-something range and that the average age of folks who buy 50’s and 60’s ES 335s are in that same range. Not that I’m up on what bands are young and hip right now but it seems that few, if any, of the guitar players are playing 335’s. I found an interesting article about Caleb Followill, the guitar player for the formerly hip Kings of Leon. Well, Caleb plays an ES-325 that he got on Ebay for $900. Apparently, they don’t always work so well since this article was about how he couldn’t get the sound he wanted and smashed the thing onstage during a show. I’ve got news for young Caleb: I’ve played a 325 and I would have smashed it too.  Nope, the hipsters don’t play 335’s. There’s Jack White-is he still hip?-who plays an Airline. Then there’s the

These guys are supposed to be all the rage this week. And true to hip geetar form, they're playing some bottom of the line classics. The Gibson Melody Maker and the Fender Mustang (or is that a Duo Sonic II?).

über hip, like Ariel Pink whose guitar players play a Gibson Melody Maker and a Fender Mustang (both hip) and Deer Hunter playing the always hip Jazzmaster. I called my son, Mack to ask him who’s hip these days (damned if I know) and he told me to check out Serena Maneesh. OK, let’s see Serena Maneesh…looks like a Silvertone Danelectro and the ever present Jazzmaster.  Like I said, classic hipness. But, fear not, ES 335 aficionados, Mack also gave me Vampire Weekend. Guess what they play? No, they don’t. But they play a Sheraton which is a cheap import version of a 335, so maybe we’re aren’t as terminally unhip as I thought. The truth is that a hip guitar is often a cheap guitar-hipness, after all is founded on a kind of reverse snobbery anyway.  You could argue that hipness is wasted on the young but that begs the question… Is it still possible to retain ones hipness into advanced age if one has the right hip accoutrements (and that doesn’t include a hip replacement)? Let me just grab the phone here…Hello, Keith? What are you playing these days? A what? 355? Nope, no reason, just askin’

Here's Keith in that Louis Vuitton ad with his ES-355. What's in the cup, Keith?

Bad 335?

Friday, January 14th, 2011

This is actually a 78 and not the 75 ES-335 I played recently. This shows you the strange pinched shape that these somehow acquired in the mid 70's. Then there's the coil tap. I think we may have damaged some brain cells in the 60's and the 70's were the unfortunate result.

It’s like jumbo shrimp. Or airline food. To hear me talk, you’d call “bad 335″ an oxymoron. It’s true, I rarely say anything bad about them. So, without further oxymoronics, I present the bad ES-335. This past week I had the pleasure/pain to play a 1975 ES-335. It was awful. It looked bad with its pinched mid-70’s odd shape, it was poorly constructed with glue drips and finish flaws and it played like crap-it barely rang, the notes just died. I’m told there are good 70’s 335’s but, truth be told, I haven’t played one. On the other hand, to be fair, I haven’t played that many 70’s 335s.  I tend to avoid them. The chances of getting a bad 70’s 335 are somewhere around 90%-so bad that I don’t think it’s worth writing about. What is worth writing about, however is the likelihood of getting a bad 335 (or 345 or 355) from 1958-1964. Truthfully, the likelihood is just about zero. I’ll single out the 58’s as the only problem area. The neck angle on a 58 can be so shallow that you have to lower the bridge until it sits on top of the guitar or, worse, you have to shave the bridge to get the strings even lower.  Gibson was made aware of the problem and fixed it sometime in 1958 or 59. I’ve had a 59 with a shallow angle but I’ve played a 58 with a decent angle, so I don’t know when it was actually fixed. However, even my 61 has a pretty shallow neck angle. Mostly it isn’t an issue. Of the 80 plus 1964 or earlier ES-335s, 345s and 355s that I’ve owned, none of them were bad players. I’ve had to do some serious work on a few to get them into good playing order but, ultimately, they turned out to be good to excellent players. Are some better than others? Without a doubt but that’s not what we’re talking about here. I’m really addressing a fear most of us have when buying a guitar that we can’t play first.  To listen to the sellers with their “tone monsters” or “sustains for days” hyperbole, you would think that all of them are superb guitars. The truth is, when it comes to these guitars, almost all of them are. That’s one of the great things about this era. You can buy one and you’ll have an excellent chance of getting a good one and an almost 100% chance of getting

Here's an early unbound 58 from Tom H.'s site. On later guitars, you can see a bit of the neck at the body join, not just the fingerboard. This shallow angle results in a bridge that sits on the top of the guitar. They can be great players.

a decent one. But, if you’re spending $10,000 plus on a 64 or earlier, “decent” isn’t really good enough, is it?  It isn’t. That’s why you buy from someone who knows them or from someone close enough to you to go and play it. A reputable dealer who gives you an approval period is your best bet but often they aren’t the best deal in town. I guess it all comes down to how much of a crapshooter you are. Most of the guitars I buy I get to play before I put down my hard earned greenbacks. I’ve walked away from a few but not many. Usually it will be an undisclosed issue that stops me, not a bad playing guitar. Also, considering how poorly most guitars are set up, it no wonder people are disappointed on occasion. Intonation on a 335, as I said in a recent post, can be a real nightmare. But I’ve found that nearly all the guitars I get can be brought back to life with a good setup and a new set of strings. If you’re considering buying a 58-64 ES 335, 345 or 355, don’t worry too much about how it will play. As long as it’s in decent shape-the neck isn’t twisted or backbowed- you’re very very likely to have an excellent guitar in your possession. I think there is no substitute for good design and the 335 is one of the best. A well made, well designed guitar should be consistently good and this era 335 proves the point.

Compare this 64 to the 58. You can see a lot more neck below the fingerboard. This increased neck angle allows a bit more "breathing room" for the bridge. Thanks again to Tom H.'s site. I don't know what I'd do without him.

Irony Defined

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Here's the man with his ES-345. The girls went nuts for him. After all he was the guitar player and he looked like Bobby Darin (according to his daughter). I wonder where Phil Anthony is these days?

I drove to beautiful Staten Island, New York on Friday to pick up a 64 ES-345 from Danny S., the original owner. Danny was a professional musician for most of his life and tells me he was Frank Sinatra’s guitar player for some of his later shows. He told me this story. They were playing at the London Palladium with the Queen (yes, that queen) in attendance. There was a woman of indeterminate age who somehow had finagled a front row seat and she was taunting Mr Sinatra throughout the

Yikes. Good intentions. Bad idea.

show by shaking her considerable chest in his general direction. As Danny tells it, Ol’ Blue Eyes stops the song in mid sentence and addresses the woman-on mike – over the sound system. “Lady, what are you doing?  I’m 79 years old fer Chrissakes. I’ve got a two inch fuse and no explosives.” End of story. He laughs. Yep, Danny is a bit of a character. He probably didn’t trust the guy (me) coming to his house to buy his old Gibson, so his son-in-law and daughter show up to make sure everything is, as Frank would say, copacetic.  Well, it was kind of copacetic and kind of not. This guitar had seen an awful lot of use over the past 46 years and it showed. There were some oddities that made me kind of shake my head in disbelief. The guitar had a Bigsby B7 from the factory and it was strung over the tension bar, not under it as its supposed to be. I asked Danny about it and he said “I bought it from Sam Ash in Brooklyn and that’s how it was strung when I got it.” So, I guess it worked just fine that way. But that wasn’t the thing that struck me as most peculiar. Danny was proud of this guitar “Cost me $600 back when $600 was real money,” he said. he saw that his belt buckle was causing some scratches as we’ve all seen many times. The classic buckle rash. Well, Danny wasn’t having any of that. He saw what Gretsch had done on its Country Gentleman and Nashville guitars, so he added a back pad, complete with 8 snaps which screwed into the back of the guitar. The eight little holes would have been bad enough but, in hindsight, who knew it was going to be worth thousands of dollars some day? When he gave up performing, the guitar, in its case, with it’s vinyl back pad went into the closet for 15 years or so. We all know how certain plastics and nitrocellulose lacquer don’t get along too well. The finish under the pad-put there to protect his beloved guitar-actually wound up nearly destroying it. His attempt to preserve his instrument wound up cutting its value considerably. If anyone ever asks you to define the term irony, tell them this story. Not the one about the lady with the big chest, although there’s a good bit of irony there as well, considering the life Frank led. Even with all of its “issues”, it’s still a great example of what a 345 can sound like. For those who scoff at the Varitone as a “tone sucking gimmick”, you ought to hear this one. It’s loaded with character-lots of double tones and harmonics, especially in stereo as it was meant to be. Remember this-back in 1964, the only pedal you could buy was a fuzztone. So, if you wanted some real versatility, this was the way to go.

Look what happens when you leave vinyl next to nitrocellulose lacquer for a couple of decades.

Pickup Resistance Part 2

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Here's a "long magnet" which means it's probably alnico 2. A short magnet looks pretty much identical except that its, uh, shorter by around 1/4". And it would be made of alnico 5 which makes a stronger magnet. Thanks to Kim LeFleur at Vintage Checkout, my favorite parts store, for the photo. Let's give him a link, shall we?

When I was single, I was kind of shy when it came to picking up girls. I’d see an attractive woman, say, at a bar, and I would agonize about what I could say that would be pithy and impressive enough to make said young woman take an interest in me. It hardly ever worked and you could call it…you guessed it…pickup resistance. But were not talking about that either. We talked about the DC resistance of a pickup and the variations in the windings. These have a lot to do with what a pickup sounds like but there is one other component that comes into play. I’ve done my own experimentation withe pickup magnets and I have to say that the differences are pretty small. I have a pretty good set of ears and I can hear a difference between various magnets but it really gets buried by the time you’ve cranked your amp up to eardrum splitting levels. The differences are subtle.  Gibson, according to the usual sources used all sorts of magnets in PAFs and Patent number pickups but all of them were the AlNiCo type. AlNiCo is a metal made from Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt-hence the name. Alnico magnets are designated 2,3,4 and 5. the higher the number, the stronger the magnet. The vaunted “long magnet” PAFs would likely be Alnico 2. The sometimes disparaged “short magnet” PAFs are Alnico 5. I couldn’t tell you when Gibson used Alnico 3 and 4 but the experts say they did, so I won’t argue the point. I had an 59 ES 345 that I liked to use for swapping pickups. The Varitone was removed but the circuit was still stereo. I decided to see what difference the magnet makes in the tone. The DC resistance of the pickup I was using as my guinea pig was 8.05 and was a long magnet PAF from 1959. Since the cover had already been opened, I was able to swap magnets without hurting the value of the pickup. Don’t go unsoldering covers unless you have a really good reason-like the pickup is broken. The pickup was well balanced, had nice high end bite and strong mids. The bottom was a little light. I pulled the Alnico 2 long magnet and dropped in a short magnet. The DC resistance dropped to 8.00 although I’m not sure I understand why because it shouldn’t have. The pickup sounded almost identical. If anything, it sounded a little brighter and thats it. Not much difference. Then I dropped in a magnet from an ’80s Shaw PAF. It was as long as a “long magnet” but wasn’t rough-it was smooth on all sides. This one sounded different. It was darker and less articulate (defined). I would call it muddier. The trouble is, I don’t know what kind of magnet it was. What I take away from this is, first-I need to do more research because doing this once is really inconclusive. Second, it seems that the strength of the magnet is the key more than the Alnico 2 vs Alnico 5 thing. I don’t know how to measure the “power” of a magnet but I’m guessing the first 2 were virtually identical while the third one, from the Shaw, was different-either more powerful or less. What I take away is that the debate between long magnet and short magnet PAFs has less to do with the magnets and more to do with the increased level of consistency in the later short magnet PAF and the identical Patent number pickups that followed the short magnet PAF. The magic, it seems, isn’t in the magnet.

Pickup Resistance

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

This PAF is fuller on one side than it is on the other. Sometimes it fuller in the middle. Sometimes on both edges. Thanks to the Throbak site for the photo.

When I see a double white PAF for sale, it’s hard for me to keep my trigger finger off of the “Buy it Now”. I just can’t resist. “What?” “Not that kind of pickup resistance?” Oh, you mean the electrical kind with ohms and stuff. Ok, we can do that. Joking aside, there is an awful lot that has been written about “hot” pickups and resistance. I’m going to defer a bit to Seymour Duncan for the technical stuff and then I’ll chime in with my opinion based on practical experience. Seymour tells us: Resistance to the flow of alternating current is called impedance and it changes with frequency. The frequency where a pickup’s impedance reaches its highest level is called the resonant peak. Generally speaking, the higher in frequency the resonant peak, the clearer and brighter the pickup’s tone. The higher the DC resistance-the ohm number you see that is usually between 7K and 9K on vintage pickups, the lower the resonant peak. So, a high DC resistance-lower ohm

Here's a PAF-thanks to the Throbak site-that is wound fairly evenly. The configuration of the windings can have a big effect on the tone of a pickup.

number will be brighter and clearer. Surprised? I was because most people put the higher resistance pickup in the bridge position where you want bright. However, a high ohm number doesn’t mean a dark pickup and that’s where the idea of “hotter” pickups comes in. According to Seymour, who should know, The higher the ohms number, the higher the output and the “fatter” the tone. Too high and it does the opposite. Too low and its thin and weak. So, to me, my original instinct that a high ohm number in the bridge position still makes sense given this information. But, be aware that higher resistance comes at the expense of dynamics and high end. The thing is, though, that there is so much more to pickup character, that using only the DC resistance is kind of missing the point. The type of magnet-Alnico 5 or Alnico 2 makes a discernable difference and the way the pickup is wound makes a difference as well. Is it evenly spaced on the bobbin? Is it piled up in the middle? the edge? both edges but not the middle? That’s another reason why PAFs are so different from each other. PAFs were wound by machine-The Leesona 102 was one of them- the number of windings and the pattern were supposedly controlled by the machine. But, apparently, in practice, they weren’t or at least not completely. As I understand it, they had to be calibrated for different types of pickups and the setup was often done quickly or carelessly or not at all.  I read that the timers/automatic shutoffs didn’t work and so somebody had to stop the winding.  PAFs had all kinds of windings and all kinds of DC resistance since they wound them “until the bobbin was full” in other words, by eye. Here’s my theory on why double whites tend to be higher resistance: When you’re winding dark copper wire on a black bobbin, its hard to see if you’re getting to the end of the capacity. With a white bobbin, its easier to see that there is more room to wind more wire, so you continue on a little longer. Thus, a “hotter” pickup. Just my theory based on the fact that most of the DW PAFs I’ve had are 8K and above. The highest I’ve found was around 9.2K in a neck pickup on a 59 ES 345. Once they got to using a fully automatic winder, the variations became much less and some of the “magic” went away. But consistency replaced it and where early PAFs can be a crapshoot, the later PAFs and early Patent Number pickups are more consistently excellent, IMO. Many of the best pickups I ever owned were in the 7.7-7.9K range. To me, that seems to be a sweet spot-at least as far as the DC resistance goes. I’ll talk about Alnico 5 vs Alnico 2 in the next post.

Dodgy Intonation

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

This is one of my '61s-the one with the dead on intonation. Note the position of the G string saddle. I even had to flip it around because I ran out of range. Even though it's at its limit, the guitar is in tune everywhere with little compromise.

One of the things that has always bothered me about vintage Gibson guitars is that, more often than not, they don’t intonate very well without a lot of effort. Since the week between Christmas and New Years is always a slow one, I can spend some time with my guitars. Today I spent over an hour getting the intonation of one of my early 60’s 345’s spot on. I am blessed (cursed) with very good pitch. Not perfect-I can’t hear a note and tell you what it is like one of my brothers can but I can tell if a note is even slightly out of tune when played with another note. That means when my guitar isn’t intonated perfectly, I can’t play without retuning every thirty seconds. Drives my wife nuts. Part of the problem with these guitars is that the gauge of the string can affect the intonation and these guitars were designed for a wound G string. Well, I don’t use a wound G string and sometimes you have to take the ABR-1 to it’s extremes to even get it acceptably close. I can almost always get it but sometimes the saddle is jammed up against (usually) the back of the bridge. You can, of course, turn the saddle around if you need just ever so slightly more room unless, of course, its already turned around. When I intonate, I do the following: First I tune the guitar by using an electronic tuner. Then I turn the tuner off. Then I play a harmonic at the twelfth fret-starting with the low strings and tune the string so that the harmonic and the twelfth fret note are the same. Then I start testing the octaves playing an open string and its octave on the next higher string (tweak, tweak, tweak). Then I play two adjacent open strings together (fourths) and listen for beats (you know, the sort of tremolo that you hear when notes are out of tune). I tweak some more. Then I play 5ths on adjacent strings and do the same thing -and tweak some more. Then I play chords all over the neck to see that they are all in tune. It will never be perfect but I can usually get it very close. It is the nature of the fretted instrument to either be out of tune at certain places on the fingerboard or seem out of tune.  So, as a result, something called “tempered tuning” was developed.  Tempered tuning places all the notes at a slightly compromised frequency to yield good, but not perfect, tuning in all keys. The other kind of tuning called “Pythagorean” tuning tunes all the notes to their exact pitch. The trouble is that they are only in tune for the key your tuning in. So, if you tuned everything relative to a “C” and you want to play in the key of “E”, you would have to retune. My intonation/ tuning method is my own invention-it works for me but may not work so well for you. It largely depends on your ear. Using an electronic tuner will get you very close if your intonation is properly set. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t. At least do the harmonic 12th fret thing-that will get you closer. I don’t think that there is an innate defect in Gibsons that make them difficult to intonate but I can tell you from experience that I can get a Fender to intonate with a lot less fussing than most of the Gibsons I’ve played. My first brand new Gibson was a 68 SG and from the time I got it until I finally sold it a few years later, it would never tune properly. I didn’t know much about intonation and, apparently, neither did the guy at Manny’s on 48th street where I bought it. I thought the neck was warped or something but, having had these same B string and G string problems on a dozens of Gibsons since, I’m thinking there probably wasn’t anything wrong with it that a good setup couldn’t have cured. I wonder if Gibson went to the longer range Nashville bridge because of intonation complaints. I’ve had Gretsches that intonated better with a bar bridge that had no adjustment at all beyond moving the entire thing toward or away from the nut. A very talented guitar player named Buzzy Feiten was another intonation freak and he actually did something about it. But I will say this-if you put in the effort and get it right, nothing sounds as good.

Here's my 59 345. It is also very close to dead on. Note the G string again. It's got a little room left but not much. Don't use my photos to intonate your guitar. They're all different.

Looking Backwards and Forward (not at the Same Time)

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

"The Mexican" found in Guadalajara, Mexico where it had spent 40 years as a player

Everybody does a year ender so why would I be any different. Call this post highlights of 2010 and predictions for 2011 or just random musings for the most boring day of the year (OK, maybe Easter but at least the weather doesn’t suck). I think the biggest thing that happened in the guitar part of my life was starting this website and blog in April of 2010. I somehow managed to write 120 posts in 9 months and never ran out of subject matter. Let’s see if I can do another year without repeating myself. This was also the year I went from collector/player to collector/player/writer to collector/player/writer/dealer.  The dealer part was quite by accident , really. I always bought and sold 4 or 5 guitars a year, almost always 335’s or 345’s as I searched for my “keepers”. When I started writing this blog, folks started coming to me to help them find 335’s and also to help sell them. These opportunities pushed me decide to become a dealer. Rather than just being a “guitar” dealer, I decided to be a 335, 345 and 355 dealer, keeping my focus as narrow as possible and learning as much as I could about these great old girls. Yeah, I might take a trade on a Fender something or othercaster and you’ll see them up for sale here or in my Gbase store but my acquisitions will be only the best 335’s, 345’s and 355’s that I can find. I’ve developed a pretty good system for finding the ones that are under beds and lurking in closets-often with the help of regular or, sometimes, casual readers. Since April, I’ve somehow attracted 4,790 unique visitors, most of whom keep coming back. This doesn’t exactly put me in the top 100 but I’m happy to have every one of you. And you’re spending a bit of time here as well. The average reader spends almost 2 and a half minutes here each time he or she shows up.  While you were sitting at your computer reading, I was out in the real world where  I had three or maybe four extraordinary “finds” this year-the kind most collectors dream about. The first was the blue Trini Lopez. This came from Ebay and there was actually a second one that came up this year as well. The rumor has always been that there are only 12 of them but I think there are more. The next one was “The Mexican”-a super rare cherryburst stop tail 65 ES-335 that lived in Guadalajara for 40 years. Guts? You want guts? Who buys a guitar from Guadalajara from a guy with zero feedback? Guts…guts I tell you. There are something like 10 of these in the world. Next and perhaps the best of all was the red 59 ES-345 that isn’t supposed to exist. This guitar seems to have its own built in curse as it caused me to take an inordinate amount of crap from some members of the Les Paul Forum and was, in fact, the event that made me decide to become a dealer. There are now at least 4 of them that have surfaced but mine still is the oldest of those that have turned up. While it isn’t mine any more, I am thrilled to have owned it. It is the single most beautiful guitar I have ever seen and one of the best players to boot. This one did not come from Ebay. Guitars like this never do. I never gave it a name ; I only had it for a couple of months and spent as much time looking at it as I did playing it. The color, as my wife put it, just “breaks your heart”.  It was the color of a freshly sliced watermelon on a hot June afternoon. So, I’ll call it “The Watermelon”. Almost as extraordinary was “The Hoosier Daddy”-a 61 ES-335 I found in Indiana that the original owner got as a gift for his grade school graduation from his Aunt with the stipulation that he take one year of lessons. Well, he did just that and then put the guitar in the closet at his Aunt’s house where it remained, undisturbed and unplayed for 47 years. The Aunt passed away in the Summer of 2010 and the owner was cleaning out her house and found his old guitar in the closet. He agreed to sell it to me. I still have that one. So those were my high points, along with starting this site and my Gbase store. I’ve had a lot of fun doing this and I’ve enjoyed the input from you, my readers, so keep it up in 2011. If you’re looking for something, I’ll help you find it. If you’ve got one to sell, I’ll try to help you sell it. If you need to know what its worth, I’ll help you with that too. If I find the same grade of guitars in 2011 that I found in 2010, I know it will be a successful year. They are out there. Under beds, in closets, basements and attics just waiting for me-or you-to find them. It takes time and perseverance and, yes, luck and I had all of that this past year. But I also had all of you and that’s just as valuable because without readers, I’m pretty much telling myself stuff I already know. One resolution for 2011: I promise to find some other backgrounds for my photos. You must be getting pretty tired of that black leather chair.

We'll call it "The Watermelon" a guitar so beautiful it breaks your heart. The actual color cannot be captured on a digital image.

"The Hoosier Daddy" The finest 1961 ES-335 in all of Indiana (so named because, uh, Indians once lived there).