We all think we know the product line pretty well since it really hasn’t changed much since 1958. It’s pretty simple-a 335 has a 3 way switch and dots or small blocks, a 345 has stereo wiring, a Varitone and parallelogram inlays and a 355 is red, with a trem and usually stereo with a Varitone but not always. That pretty much sums it up until you start looking at what is actually out there. A 335 could be ordered with a Varitone. The probable reason there aren’t very many is because you could just buy a 345 at your local music store and be done with it. Custom orders took time. I love it when these oddities come up. Some are truly strange-like a short scale ES-345 that was sent to me from the UK. It kinda looks like a full size 345 but the stoptail is an inch or more closer to the neck. Look at the photo. The pickups are very close together as well. This is the only one I’ve ever seen. I don’t know the scale length-whether it’s like a Byrdland at 23.5 or something in between. When I sent the photo to the venerable (and enigmatic) Gil Southworth, he sent me a couple of oddballs that he has run across. First he sent me a trap tail that looked pretty normal until I counted the strings. Yep. it’s a tenor ES-345 and the only one either of us has ever seen. But wait, the Great Gilvis wasn’t done with me yet. he also has a photo of what appears to be a 3/4 scale ES-335. On this one, the stoptail is lower than usual-not so low as the LP Jrs and Specials that came in the 22.75″ scale but still a half inch or so lower. But look at the neck length. It’s tough because of the angle and perspective but it sure looks like a tiny little neck to me. Time was when Gibson would make you whatever you wanted. When you consider that the volume of guitars that left the factory was pretty low until the mid sixties, so I’m guessing that they spent more time on each guitar and they had the time to make you what you wanted. You can still have that done-call a skilled luthier because I think that if you called the Gibson Custom Shop and asked them to build you a short scale 335, they’d laugh at you. I had a hard enough time getting them to just put a new neck on a 60’s 335 that had been broken (and they charged me $3500). They did a very good job and explained that the new necks don’t fit, so they had to use a Clapton leftover (too bad, right?). While these guitars are great fun to look at, they don’t command anywhere near the dollars that the unusual colors do. Next, we’ll take a look at a very unusual ES-355 and a one of a kind EB-2 sent to me by a well known collector in California.
Archive for January, 2012
What’s the heck is this? Here’s a very original 64 which is complete with all of its original paperwork-including the invoice and it seems to have an extra piece of plastic between the neck pickup and the neck. Now, Gibson has been know to “adapt” partially built guitars to become slightly different guitars. Most of you are probably familiar with the “goof rings” on some 70’s goldtop Les Pauls that fill the gap between the mini humbuckers that were apparently placed in the P90 routs.Waste not, want not, I guess. But, while those aren’t particularly common, they aren’t exactly rare either. But the “goof strip” if that’s what it is on this guitar is a new one on me. It was sent to me by a reader who asked me if it was original and I have almost no doubt that it is. I asked him to pull the neck pick to see what the rout looks like. I’ll update the post as soon as I get it. It would make sense, I suppose that if the router slips on an already completed 335 body, that it wouldn’t automatically hit the trash bin but I would expect maybe a “2” stamp to indicate a flaw. Not here. We all are aware that weird stuff happened all the time and if any one of you out there has some oddball feature like this, I’d like to see it. The first thing I though was that perhaps they were messing with a new way to do the neck join at the tenon. Gibson did do some unusual things like that-I had a 335 that appeared to have been stained using a rag rather than a spray gun that was authenticated as original. I guess the sprayer got clogged and he needed to hit his quota. It was, perhaps, the darkest cherry 335 I’ve had. Back to the “goof strip”-it occurred to me that it was sort of like the upper cover on an SG which covers part of the tenon. But I really think it’s covering an oversized or misplaced rout , in fact, you can see a little bit of unfinished area at the lower left hand corner as well. But, generally the pickup ring is pretty much butt up against the fingerboard so you couldn’t even fit this strip in there. So, here’s another theory-perhaps the buyer wanted the neck pickup to be slightly farther from the bridge for some sort of tonal reason and asked Gibson to make him a custom. Gibson being Gibson, instead of custom routing one, maybe they just took one that was completed, enlarged the rout to accommodate the move and put in the strip. Sounds a lot like Gibson, doesn’t it? What would we do without all these silly minutiae that occupy so much of out time and make this all so much fun.
In case you’re wondering what “goof rings” look like, here’s a 70’s Les Paul Deluxe probably routed for P90s that got minis. Cheap bastards.
You would think that the nice folks at Gibson wouldn’t do anything to diminish the value of their vintage guitar market but at the same time, their clientele is clamoring for more and more accurate reproductions. The aftermarket parts makers-especially in Japan-have gotten really good at making parts that are nearly indistinguishable from the original vintage parts. Clever aging make it even harder to tell just what the heck is on that 62 you just bought. To make matters worse, Gibson is also doing a pretty good job reproducing their own vintage parts. Recently I bought a 62 ES-335 that, to my eye, looked exactly right. It’s always tough to buy a guitar over the internet or even over the phone depending solely on photos and descriptions. I’ve had original owners swear they never changed a part other than the strings only to find out that it’s got the wrong bridge or the wrong pickups.
The 60’s were a time of “forgetfulness” it seems and those of us who were there and were old enough to partake remember it well. Or, uh, don’t remember it well. Or maybe remember that there was some illicit stuff going on and maybe you did something to your guitar that seemed pretty cool at the time but that you’ve now conveniently forgotten. OK, you get it. typically, when a “new” guitar arrives at my house or ay my studio in New York, I try to go through it immediately so that if something isn’t what it’s supposed to be, I can get it packed back up and on its way back to the seller. The seller is usually pretty indignant or pretty embarrassed. It’s pretty hard to tell which over the phone. The louder they protest, the more likely it is that they got caught doing something unseemly. Or not. Like I said-it’s tough to tell. The problem was the bridge. This guitar was in great, great shape, so I really couldn’t use wear patterns to distinguish what parts were original and what parts were correct or what parts were repros without some pretty close scrutiny. The bridge looked perfect. The old Historic Gibson ABR-1 didn’t have the mark on the back from the company who did the manufacturing, nor did it have the serif (the little line) on the bottom of the number “1”. Then they added it but the edges of the rectangular indentation the words “Gibson ABR-1″ sat in were kind of sloped and that gave the repros away. Then, it appears that they fixed that too and I had a bridge that looked awfully good. To make matters worse I have terrible eyesight. I wear contact lenses AND glasses most of the time. I can’t see close up worth a damn unless I take the lenses out and take off the glasses and put on magnifiers. So, I’ve got a bridge that I think is a repro but it looks perfect. Too new looking, but perfect. Then I got real up close and personal and started finding all sorts of little things. First was the font-it was just a little too narrow and the relief of the letters was wrong. On the real ones they are kind of flat. On the repros they are sharper. You can also note that the “A” in ABR-1 has a lower crossbar in the repro and appears a good bit narrower. When I removed the saddles, I saw something else. In the pockets where the saddles sit, there are no markings in the original. They’re usually full of crud from years of playing but I have a pretty clean one here. The repro has three circular tooling marks in the high E, the G and the low E slots. Then I looked at the notches where the saddle adjustment screws go. On the original the sides are sloped -still “u” shaped but with sides that head slightly outward. the repro had u shaped notches too but the sides were dead straight up and down. So now you know. Look closely and always, always be suspicious of parts that look too new-even on a mint guitar because even if the guitar sits in its case for 45 years unplayed, the nickel will still tarnish and should have a patina. You won’t always have a couple of real ones to use as a comparison, so these photos should help.
The question I get most from readers is: “What’s it worth if…” You can finish the sentence yourself. The one that seems to vex a lot of people-especially the folks selling Grampa’s old Gibson is why an original Bigsby devalues an all original guitar by that much. Why would an extra cost option do that? And then they might ask, “then why is a hardtail Strat worth less?” I’ve asked that one myself. It all comes down to what folks want. There was a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when a Bigsby was a desirable option. You couldn’t do a lot of the really self indulgent, feedback laden, psychedelic stuff without a whammy-although they weren’t called whammys back then. But that was then. Now, the Bigsby isn’t so desirable. Whoever it is who decides what options players and collectors really want has decided that a Bigsby or other unit on your ES-335 is a big downer and knocks up to 25% off the value. That seems high but I don’t make the rules. But there is a silver lining. Most early ES-335’s that came with a Bigsby or Maestro were already drilled for the stoptail studs and they were covered by something. You’ve all seen the “Custom Made” plaque. There are also pearl inlays (my favorite), black plastic covers and even nickel covers. The conventional wisdom is that a Bigsby equipped ES is worth 25% less than an original stoptail. That made some sense when these were under $10,000 but is my 1960 ES-345 in blonde worth 25% less than an original stop? On that guitar, that’s a $10,000 reduction which is nuts. On a ’64 ES-345, that’s a difference of maybe $2500. I don’t think an arbitrary percentage makes sense here. There’s no “official” guide to these kind of things although the Blue Book would like you to stick with the 25% (which is probably where it came from). I propose a separate price scale. I’ve found that on most ES-335 and ES-345 models, the Bigsby/studs option seems to devalue the guitar by around 10-15%. There aren’t very many Bigsby only block necks but there are quite a number of 345s and some 58-61 335s. With no factory stoptail stud holes, the option to convert to the more desirable stoptail is gone unless you want to start drilling holes in your guitar. In this case, the difference seems to be the 25% that is generally accepted. That begs the question: “Which is worth less-a factory Bigsby with studs or an original stoptail with Bigsby holes? I honestly don’t know. It can be tough to tell which came first. You can tell on the red ones by looking at the bushings to see if there’s any red finish on them. If there is, then they are original. You could look for lacquer on a sunburst. But, really, how big a deal is this? It goes back to the value of a hole which I’ve covered a few times. A Bigsby/stud 335 has 4 holes in the top. But a Bigsby only has just two. A stoptail also has two. A 335 with the Bigsby removed has 6 extra holes in it. None of this affects the sound or playability by very much. What about tuner holes or reamed out tuner shaft holes? 10%? 5%? I guess it also depends on what other issues there are. A mint 335 with Grovers would be affected differently than a beater. The question is how? Percentage-wise, the Grovers on the mint one would be less but dollar wise they would affect the value more. There are no rules. For example, we all accept refins and headstock repairs at around half price but why is it when I price a refin that way, it disappears in a day or two? Supply and demand? Maybe, but I think the real truth is that, while the convention is for 50%, the reality is that buying a refin is a great way to get a vintage piece that you otherwise couldn’t afford. If done well and with the proper materials, it will look as good and sound as good as one that is all original. And while I don’t usually go for headstock breaks, the same can apply-if it’s done right, a headstock repair can be almost irrelevant on every front except value. Frankly, it gives me a headache. It’s enough to make you ask the question: “What’s it worth if…?”
When I watched the Ed Sullivan Show on that February night in 1964, I was actually already very interested in their guitars. I recall getting right up close to the (black and white) screen and trying to read the name on the headstock of John’s guitar. It sure looked like “Rickenbacker” to me but who had ever heard of a Rickenbacker? George’s Gretsch Country Gent was easy to recognize and Paul’s Hofner bass was just plain strange. Being a Beatle would have meant that you could play any guitar you wanted and I’ve always found it interesting to try to get into their heads when it came to their choices. As far as I know, none of them ever owned a 335 but all three of them owned Epiphone Casinos which, frankly, was not a
particularly high end guitar. Casinos, like ES-330s, could be fairly problematic at high volume. The feed back easily and I’m guessing if you’re a Beatle, feedback was not something you wanted beyond the opening note of “I Feel Fine.” I also found it interesting that in the mid to late 60’s I was playing essentially the same guitar that they were. I had a 63 ES-330 for a number of years. But there is an ES that’s much less well known that counts as a Beatle guitar. It’s a sunburst stoptail ES-345 that George bought some time in 1965 and began playing in November of that year. He began using it as his main stage guitar after his second Country Gent fell off the back of their van and was run over by a truck in 1965. The 345 looks to me to be a late 63 or a 64. It was pretty common for higher end guitars to be purchased a year or two or even three years after they were shipped. Especially in the UK. They toured for much of 1965 (that was Shea Stadium if you’re old enough to remember) but the 345 didn’t hit the stage until very late in the year. The Beatles did their final British tour in December of ’65 and George began it with his beloved second Gretsch Country Gentleman. After the aforementioned incident involving a truck ( or a lorry, if you want to be culturally correct), George brought out the 345 and used it for the rest of the tour along with his Rickenbacker 12 string. After the tour ended around Christmas, the guitar wasn’t seen in public again. I have no idea what happened to it but I like to think that maybe it’s one of the ones that passed through my hands over the years.
OK, so Gibson made some big changes necessitated by the huge runup in guitar sales that occurred in early 64. Interestingly, these changes are largely responsible for the end of what we call “The Golden Era”. How do you otherwise explain the fact that a December 1964 ES-335 will cost you somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 and a January 66, made just 13 months later will cost between $3000 and $5000? I’m purposely skipping 65 because the transition makes it impossible to generalize. What I mean is a big neck 65 with nickel parts is worth more than a big neck with chrome which is worth more than a skinny neck and so on. The 66’s are mostly the same both in features and value. Back to the question at hand. Let’s take a close look at the 66 ES-335. The biggest change is the neck profile. It’s a full 1/8″ narrower at the nut-and that’s a lot- and the profile is quite a bit shallower. It is still round rather than flat – the laws of geometry tell us that even with a depth equal to the depth of, say, a 62. it will feel more rounded because the neck is narrower. The other big change is the trapeze tailpiece replacing the stoptail. There were other changes worth noting: The fingerboard changed from Brazilian to Indian rosewood, the pickups, while still pre T-tops (and I know I’ll get an argument from someone) were the later type with poly coated wire. Tuners are double line Kluson rather than single and the truss rod cover has a narrow bevel. That seems like a lot but is it enough to justify the huge price discrepancy. There were some big changes by ’68 too but they aren’t really worth much (if any) less than a 66. Let’s look at what’s good about a 66 and why it’s a relative bargain. I don’t believe the trapeze really affects tone much and I don’t believe it affects sustain that much either. It looks kind of wrong and that isn’t inconsequential. The pickups and the construction of the guitar are more important in that regard and those things didn’t change much. The pickups are generally considered to be very good but not as “good” as the earlier ones which were identical to later PAFs. I agree with that assessment but they can still sound truly great. The only thing that changed, besides the covers, is the wire they wrapped the coil with. It went from enamel coated to poly coated and that changed the tone a bit. I think the big thing is the current trend toward larger necks. In some ways it’s like a “mine’s bigger than yours” thing. You hear folks actually bragging about how big the neck is on their guitars (“It’s a freakin’ baseball bat, dude”). That’s just sophomoric silliness. In other ways, it goes to playability. I like a wider nut on my guitars. The depth of the neck is of lesser importance to me but the extra space for “cowboy” chords is really appreciated. However, if you have no problem with the narrower nut-and Fender players probably have less of a problem than Gibson players, then the 66 is an awesome choice for a first foray into vintage. If you can’t play the narrow nut, then, by all means, don’t buy a 66. Most players will get used to it fairly quickly and if it was the only way I could get myself a vintage 335, then I would try to adapt. In fact, the first one I bought when I returned to the vintage fold in the 90’s was a 66 ES-345. I didn’t want to spend too much and I loved the guitar. It led me back to all this (blog, business and collection) and it was an excellent and not too expensive starting point. If you really hate the trapeze, look for one that’s been converted to a stop-especially one where they put the stop in the right place. It will diminish the collector value, to be sure, but it will look cooler and that’s worth something, isn’t it?
Most of us place the beginning of the Great Guitar Boom precisely on Feb 9th, 1964 at around 8:45 PM EST. Why so exact? That’s about the time the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan for the first time. I’m not totally sure of the exact time-I remember having to slog through the usual dog acts and ventriloquists to get to JPG&R. I was 12. I was impressionable. I was hooked. I bugged my Dad to buy me a guitar and he came home with a Kay flat top with terrible action that was just about impossible to learn on but I started lessons within a few months. Most of us Gibson types feel that the Golden Era ended in 1964 with a little slopover into 65. Fender folks fall in line to around that time as well. Is the fact that so many kids wanted electric guitars the reason that the perceived quality of the instruments started its long decline? Is it true that Gibson couldn’t keep up with the demand? The simple answer is yes. But there’s more to it than that. Fender was giving Gibson fits because they were mass producing guitars cheaper and faster than they could and with the sales going through the roof, Gibson had to do something. It’s a little like New Coke, if you remember that. Consider this: Gibson sold 1241 ES-335’s in 1964. In 1967, they sold 5718 and these were not “starter” guitars either. So, the guitar boom was on and all the guitar makers benefitted (and they sprung up like mushrooms). Suddenly Gibson was trying to appeal to a younger, hipper and less discerning buying public who was inundated with rock groups appearing on TV with their oh so cool guitars. There were no less than 4 TV shows that emerged that put the spotlight on the rock groups of the day. Shindig! showed up on ABC in September of 64, Hullabaloo was NBC’s entry in 1965. Where the Action is was created by Dick Clark and aired after school on ABC (House band Paul Revere and the Raiders). Finally, there was a show that had actually been on the air since 1961 which was sort of a LA based American Bandstand called The Lloyd Thaxton Show which went national in late 64. That’s a lot of programming showing a
lot of guitars. Beatles aside, most of them were Fenders, if memory serves and Gibsons were a rarity. Sure, there were Guilds and Voxes and Gretsches but Fender seemed to rule the roost. I bugged my father to take me to the local Fender dealer-the estimable Hermies Music Store in Schenectady, NY-our motto “we will sell no guitar below retail” to get an electric. Gibson wasn’t even on the radar. I ended up with a white Duo Sonic and a Princeton Amp. So Gibson saw that even though their sales were climbing exponentially, they had to do something to compete with Fender. I assume they took a look at Fender guitars and tried to figure out what the attraction was. Apparently it wasn’t the bolt on neck. Apparently it wasn’t the contoured body. It must have been the skinny neck because that was Gibson’s response. The common perception was that a slim neck played “faster” and fast was what a lot of kids were about on their guitars. The perception was that the best lead player was the guy who could play the fastest and Fenders were known as fast. Gibson had to compete and so they narrowed the nut to 1 9/16″ which was about 1/16″ narrower than most Fenders of the day. The addition of the trapeze tail was related as well but only because it eliminated a step or two from the manufacturing process. And what are the elements that separate the Golden Era from the years that followed? Of course, the trap tail and the skinny neck. Next up, we’ll take a close look at the 66 model year.