Archive for July, 2012

Factory Seconds

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

This early 65 has the "2" stamped above the serial number. Can you see a flaw? It's the bridge pickup. It's slightly rotated clockwise one or two degrees. It should be parallel to the neck pickup but it isn't. I'm sure it has zero effect on the tone and zero effect on the value.

No, that isn’t when you go back up to the Gibson lunch counter for another plate of hash, that’s when a little number “2” gets stamped above or below the serial number indicating some element caught the eye of the QC folks. The QC department was probably one or two workers who spent a minute or two with each finished guitar looking over the fit and finish and giving it a few strums to make sure it played OK. Gibson wasn’t cranking out vast numbers of guitars until the mid 60’s at

This 64 has the "2" above the serial number over to the right of center. The "2" is smaller than the serial number font. On others, I've seen the 2 under the serial in the same font as the serial.

which point the QC department would have had to have gotten much larger. There’s a big difference between knocking out a few dozen guitars a day and a few hundred. Even so, the percentage of factory seconds seems very low and the flaws are generally imperceptible. Most often, it’s a tiny finish flaw-but sometimes it was something more sinister. The first question I usually get when I have a factory second is “does it lower the value of the guitar?” Conventional wisdom says no. If you can’t see the flaw, then the appearance of a tiny number “2” isn’t going to make much, if any, difference. If you can find the flaw and its something benign, like a drip or run in the clearcoat or a dark spot in the red dye, then take off a buck-nobody cares. But there have been some other flaws that I’ve seen that might set off an alarm or two. There was the 65 with the splice in the wood in the cutaway. The dealer insisted it was from the factory that way (the guitar had the “2” stamp) but I thought it was a repair-a really good repair. Could it have come from the factory that way? I suppose it could have but if I was the QC guy, I would have labelled it “BGN”. BGN? WTF? “BGN” stands for “bargain” and is stamped on guitars that have more serious flaws. Unlike the factory seconds, I’ve heard that “BGN” guitars were sold only to employees of Gibson and not the general public..  BGN guitars have more obvious flaws like veneer separations or poorly aligned center blocks or neck joins. I don’t believe a simple finish flaw is a ticket to the “BGN” bin. Generally, on a factory second,  I can’t find the flaw or it’s something really, really minor. I had a 63 ES-345 with a couple of clear coat drips on the headstock. I recently sold a stunning 64 ES-335 that had a small spot on the back where the red dye was applied a little too heavily. But it isn’t always the finish. I have a 65 factory second that has a poorly placed bridge pickup. It’s cocked about 2 degrees off its proper axis. The rout is straight but the assembler who screwed the ring in had a few extra martinis at lunch that day. There are plenty of flaws that don’t qualify as factory seconds but we’ll cover that another day. One final note-Gibson no longer sells factory seconds. According to the Gibson CEO (in a forum post), they are sawed in half and thrown away. The rationale is that Gibson no longer “condones” mistakes which is sort of noble, I suppose, but it seems a waste of resources. Worse than that are all the stories I hear about new guitars being returned to Gibson for serious flaws. Granted, you don’t hear about the good ones but if errors aren’t condoned, then we shouldn’t be hearing about returns, should we?

Note the BGN stamp between the tuners. This guitar would have had a flaw more serious than a paint issue but not necessarily one that would affect its playability or vintage value. Thanks to my friends at Southside Guitars for the photo.

Bonnets, Top Hats and Witch Hats.

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Here's a nice example of a set of bonnet (or "bell") knobs from the nice folks at Vintage Correct parts. There's a link for their store over in the links. Nice guys, too.

It’s not a millinery convention, it’s a post about knobs. I’ve covered them sort of peripherally in the posts about plastics but there are some finer points and dates that merit a little more detail. The first ES models had the “bonnet” or “bell” type knob. You know, the Les Paul type that are gold colored and are numbered 1-10. These are also called tophats by some but I usually refer to the later reflector type as a tophat.  All 58 and 59 ES-335s and 345s had them (except the 10 or so red ones that have surfaced).  The earliest  ES-355s had them too but most 355s of the era have the same knob in black. Of the ten

These are reflectors-"short shaft" on the right and "long shaft" on the left.

made in 1958, the three or four that have surfaced all have the gold bonnets. Once red guitars became standard issue, the black knobs became common but not for long. Most, if not all 1959 ES-355s have black bonnets and  a few early 60 335s and 345s (in red) have them as well. By early 1960, the first reflector knobs showed up. I suppose it was important to someone that the knobs were designated as tone and volume on the knob itself. After all, it can be pretty confusing to have four knobs with no labels-at least for the first 20 minutes you own the guitar. Reflector knobs (which I call tophats) come in a few sizes and shapes. The earliest ones are what I called “short shaft” where the opening for the pot shaft is positioned very low in the knob. It seems this type lasted into early 62-more or less. After that, the shaft was set farther into the knob-probably to make them fit more flush to the top of the guitar. The reflector knob was in use at Gibson well into the 70’s but not on the 335. They came in black and in gold. They also came with silver reflectors and gold reflectors. As they age, it can be hard to tell the silver from the gold. As you might expect, the gold insert gold knobs were for sunburst ES-345s and the gold insert black knobs were for ES-355s and red ES-345s. If you’re lucky enough to own a sunburst 355, it would have a gold knob with a gold reflector insert. I know of exactly two of them. By late 66, the ES-335 and its brethren got the witch hat knob which looks suspiciously like a Fender amp knob. To my eye, witch hats never really looked right on a guitar-maybe because we were all so used to seeing blackface and silverface fender amps by the time Gibson decided to change the knobs on the ES series. They are called witch hats because they look a lot like a witch hat. Duh. The transition occurred right near the end of 66. Most 66’s have reflectors and virtually all 67s have witch hats. There are enough other ways to date your “on-the-cusp” 66-67 that the knobs-which are easy to change anyway, aren’t a critical dating feature. The 335 kept the witch hats until the 81 reissue dot neck was released which went back to a somewhat modified bonnet knob-now more amber than gold and with a slightly shallower slope to the sides. Wait, what about “speed” knobs. You know, the barrel shaped knobs that were on early goldtop Les Pauls? Didn’t they show up on 335s too? Well, actually, they show up a lot but not from the factory. Given that nothing Gibson ever does is totally consistent, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few slipped through that way. I can just see the assembly guy on a Friday afternoon in July. He just finished a batch of ES-335 “Pro” models (which did have speed knobs as did the ES-347) and he has one more standard 335 to knock out before quittin’ time. He’s got a pile of speed knobs on his table and no witch hats. Whaddya think he’s gonna do? Go all the way across the room to grab 4 witch hats from the bin or stick on the speed knobs that he already has? It’s Friday. It’s July. It’s hot. Duh.

Here's a set of witch hats in their native habitat. Note the inserts are gold. If they're silver, they should be on a red 335. 345s and 355s got the gold inserts no matter what color they were. Walnut finishes normally got the gold.

It’s 1965. I’m 13. Gibson is Making Changes.

Friday, July 20th, 2012

One of my favorites ever "The Mexican". Here's a 65 with an original stoptail and all of the 64 features EXCEPT the narrow bevel truss. These can be a bargain if you can find one

I didn’t own a Gibson in 1965. I was playing guitar in a garage band but a Gibson would be out of my reach until a year or two later. I did own a Fender Duo Sonic and later that year a Fender Jaguar. 65 is an interesting year in so many ways-some of which I’ve already covered. Interestingly, it represents the beginning of a slow downhill trajectory for both Gibson and Fender-not that 65 Gibson and Fenders are bad guitars-far from it. They can be great. We all know that Fender was bought by CBS in 65 and the suits took over Leo’s job. Over at Gibson, there were no internal upheavals of note until 1969 but the decline began anyway. It’s worth noting that the great Ted McCarty left in 66 and I’m sure that didn’t help matters any. But 1965 is the year that some poor choices (in hindsight, of course) were made that impacted the ES line. Most were economically motivated but that also involves efficiency and productivity. As anyone over the age of 52 knows, 65 was the first full year of the guitar boom which began the moment The Beatles turned up on Ed Sullivan. Gibson had to crank out more guitars than it was prepared to crank out. ES-335 production went from 1250 to 1750. So, big deal, another 500 guitars, right? Well, consider this: Melody Makers jumped by more than 5000 units. So, on a company wide scale, the shit was probably hitting the fan. I like 65 ES-335s and I don’t like 65 ES-335s. There are so many different varieties, it’s no wonder every time a seller has an ambiguous serial number, he chooses 65 as the year his guitar was made. It’s almost like a one year timeline of the entire history of the 335. That’s the fun part. The very first 65’s had the big 64 neck, a stoptail and all nickel parts. They were nearly identical to 64s. The 2 stops I’ve had both had narrow bevel truss rod covers and double line Klusons but I’ve had 64s with double lines as well. I’ve also had them with 3 single lines and three double lines. See? I told you 65s were fun. The change from stoptail to trapeze was clearly economics. to put in a stop, you had to drill 2 holes, insert two bushings, screw in two studs and install the tailpiece which wouldn’t stay in place until you strung the guitar. To install a trapeze, all you did was drill three holes and screw in three screws. Time is money.  The switch from nickel to chrome was gradual and totally inconsistent. It probably wasn’t economics but customer complaints that drove that change-customers didn’t, apparently, like tarnish. I’ve seen 65s with one nickel and one chrome pickup cover. I’ve seen chrome covers, a nickel bridge and a chrome trapeze. I’ve seen just about every possible combination of chrome and nickel hardware with no pattern emerging. It’s not like they ran out of nickel trapezes and then pickup covers and then bridges. It seems totally random and the probable reason is that new chrome and new nickel don’t look all that different to an untrained eye-especially under harsh factory lighting which was probably fluorescent which makes everything look green. So the assembly folks grabbed what they needed without any regard for the plating on the hardware. It was pretty early on that the headstock angle changed and the neck got thinner. By late Spring, the necks were 1 9/16″. The headstock angle seems to have changed even earlier as I’ve only seen a few with the 17 degree angle-and don’t go by serial numbers. They are pretty misleading. For example, I recently acquired 334265. I don’t have the ledger page but I don’t think it’s that early in the year. Chrome covers, chrome pickguard bracket (most unusual) nickel ABR-1. But the guitar has a full 64 size neck with the steeper headstock angle. If anybody has the ledger page, I would love to see a shipping date because that seems like a fairly late serial number. I will also point out that the latest non cut out center block I’ve ever seen was an early 65 stop tail. I’ve seen enamel wound pickups and poly wound. I’ve never seen a T-top on a 65 even though folks keep on insisting they started in 65. I think not. I’ve had a 345 and a 355 with a PAF in 65 as well. Like I said, 65 has it all. Just make sure that when you buy one, you ask all the right questions.

This is kind of unusual-no, not the "Custom Made" plaque, that was added later. What's unusual about this 65 is the fact that it has a 17 degree headstock and a big fat 64 like neck. It also has a mid 65 serial number and mostly chrome hardware. You can't predict anything at Gibson, especially in 65.


ES-335-12 String

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

This 335-12 sold on Ebay for around $2K. The range for these is from around $1800-$3500. This was advertised as a 67 but it looks like a 66 to me.

I love twelve strings. I play mine all the time and truly enjoy it. It isn’t, however, an ES-335-12. So, why wouldn’t the guy who lives and breathes all things 335 play a different 12 string, especially when 60’s 335-12’s are so cheap? Because they are just about impossible to play, that’s why. It’s funny, all that great 335  tone translates well to 12 strings but the model had the misfortune of being developed

That's a big honkin' headstock. Rickenbacker had a clever solution.

right when the industry trend toward little skinny necks was in full bloom. It’s tough enough to play a 6 string that has a 1 9/16″ nut (for me anyway) but try playing twice as many strings in the same limited space. It is not fun and, for me, it just isn’t possible. I just get in my own way. There’s nothing wrong with the design. The double notched saddles work fine, the trap tail is functional, the headstock is a bit on the huge side and a bit top heavy but it’s manageable.  Gibson made the ES-335-12 from late 1965 until 1970.  Twelve string guitars were huge in the mid 60’s due to the tremendous popularity of the Beatles, Byrds and a few others who depended on the twelve for much of their distinctive sound. Tom Petty would pick up the mantle later on. What all of these players had in common was that none of them used a Gibson. They just about all used Rickenbackers, which aren’t much easier to play because they mostly have a small nut as well. At least Rickenbacker solved the giant headstock issue with a clever mix of slotted and standard tuners. Not everybody used a Ricky-I recall seeing the Hollies using a Vox Phantom 12 and plenty of acoustic 12’s on stage but the 335? Not a one. This seems odd because the 335 was still a very popular 6 string and Gibson sold over 2000 of the 12 string version between 65 and 70.  In fact, in 66, the 12 string version actually outsold the ES-345. This is another instance of players wanting to play what the big boys were playing and the big boys weren’t using Fenders or Gibsons at all. The Fender XII never really caught on that well with the pro players and Gibson twelves didn’t either.  There were also 12 string Firebirds, Melody Makers and even a few SGs and LPs but it seems nobody played them. The Ricky got all the glory probably because it had the sound everyone wanted. Due to the way it is strung (with the lower octave first rather than the higher one), the Ricky has that very distinctive “jangle”. What better way to emulate our guitar heroes than to use the same guitar (some things never change). Rickenbacker must have sold a zillion twelve strings while both Fender and Gibson flew below the radar. Even today, if you’re in the market for an electric 12, Rickenbacker owns the market even with their teeny little 1.63″ nut (except the 660-12). A fair number of 335-12 strings have been converted to 6 strings and that is actually a kind of intriguing option, especially if it’s done well. I’ve seen some conversions that are stunnungly good wherein the middle of the headstock is cut out and a new overlay in installed. But it doesn’t even take that much work. Change out the saddles and the nut and you’ve turned an nearly unplayable anachronism into a 335. It’ll look funny with that giant headstock but it will sound just like a 335 (same body and pickups) and you can get them for under $2000. It will still have a 1 9/16″ nut but you’ll only have 6 strings taking up space.  For the record, I play a Taylor acoustic/electric 12 with a 1 3/4″ nut.

This was once a 12. Nice conversion from this angle anyway. Sparkling Burgundy, too. A fair number 12s seemed to get this finish.

Vintage Guitar Folks are Nuts

Friday, July 13th, 2012


This 58 ES-350 was about $400 in 1958 when it was new. It sold last year for around 20 times that amount.

On the other hand, this was a about $300 in 1958. Not sure what it sold for but I'd bet it was around $30K perhaps even more. That's 100 times its original price if you're too lazy to do the math. This photo comes from the nice folks at Rumble Seat Music with whom I spent a very pleasant hour last weekend in Ithaca, NY playing a lot of their very cool stuff. Great shop and nice people.

We really are a strange bunch. Not that vintage guitar collectors are any weirder than other collectors but we have some quirks that are kind of bizarre when you think (rationally) about them. Consider pickups. You can buy a really good humbucker for $130 brand new. A vintage early patent number will cost you $800 or so. The same pickup with a different sticker will cost you around $1500 (short magnet PAF). The same pickup with a weaker but larger magnet will cost you $2000. But wait, there’s more. If the plastic is half white or all white, it’ll cost you double (or more). But, if the sticker is missing, it’ll cost you half. But the sticker alone isn’t really worth much. Consider neck size-an excellent 59 ES-335 will cost you $30,000 with its big fat neck. A late 60 will cost you $10,000 less. A 64 ES-335 with a stoptail and a fat neck will cost you around $17K but change the tailpiece to a trapeze (early 65) and the price is half. Other than the tailpiece, a big neck early 65 is pretty much identical to a late 64 but will save you about $8,500. That’s pretty nutty. I could go on…A Bigsby knocks off 25% even though it was an extra cost option when new. It’s a matter of trends-a 335 with a trem is less desirable to a collector than a stop. BUT a hardtail Strat is less desirable than a trem equipped one. Does that make sense? Really?  I had a guy ask me why it’s so important for a vintage guitar to have its original case. He pointed out that you really can’t be sure its original. Well, he’s right. Even if you are the original owner, the case could have been different than the one it showed up at the music store in. They always removed them from the case and displayed them. Then when they sold them, they went in the back and got out a case that fit. You could argue that any part that is removable is suspect. So, what do we do? We do a little detective work. Refins are a great example. I recently sold a beautiful red 64 and was asked how I knew it wasn’t refinished. There are a lot of tells but one of the best ones is asking yourself why anyone would actually do it. I suppose if you didn’t like the color, you might refinish a nearly mint guitar-it happens with Fenders sometimes perhaps due to the many color choices they had.  But, there were only 2 color choices for a 335 in 64 and you have to scratch your head and wonder why someone would go through the time and expense to take a red one and make it sunburst or vice versa. If it’s black or white or Pelham blue, then I understand why someone might have a near mint 335 refinned-just as I can see if you had a sunburst Strat and you wanted a Sonic blue, I guess but even then, I’m not sure you’d do the refin unless the guitar was a little beat up. But, then again, we are a bit nuts as a group. How about this? Back at the top of the market, I paid over $200 for a switch tip for a 59 345.  That’s a 15 cent piece of plastic (OK, catalin). They still sell for around that but a vintage Dakaware Telecaster tophat is about $30. Actually, you don’t even have to dig that deep to see how nutty we actually are. We’ll pay 100 times the original asking price for  54 year old 335 but you can buy a 54 year old ES-350 for around 15 or 20 times the original price. Don’t even get me started on Les Pauls. LP owners are in a class by themselves when it comes to nutty. And, I’d be right there with them if I could afford to play in their league. If we were all completely sane, this wouldn’t be nearly so much fun, so I urge all of you to be as nutty as I am.

ES Artist

Monday, July 9th, 2012

This is a 78 and is pretty typical of Most ES-Artists that you'll find.

It’s the seventies and the traditional electric guitar has been “replaced” by the gimmickry and gadgetry of a more modern era. The guitars that supplied the tonal palette for the best rock music in history are, apparently, no longer adequate, or so the folks at Gibson seemed to believe. The ES-Artist was conceived when active electronics were all the rage back in the 70’s and was released in 78 and ran through around 85. I have actually never played one, at least not plugged in. The body shape is that pinched 70’s look that I don’t like and the back has an access panel like a solid body because the active electronics printed circuit is pretty big and had to be installed through the back since there were no f-holes (and it probably wouldn’t have fit through them anyway). The electronics were developed by Moog, which was, by then, owned by Norlin (beer, concrete) and was a fairly well respected name back in the day. Dr. Moog pretty much invented the analog synthesizer, so he had the proper street cred. “Dr. Bob” left the company in 1977 probably due to the way Norlin was running it. The “active” part of the electronics was an onboard compressor/expander and bright function-stuff better left to pedals if my opinion counts here. Why not go the Vox route and add a fuzz and a palm controlled wah? One of the wonderful

What is that? A flying f-hole? A musical sea horse? A flying musical seahorse? Drugs were popular in the 70's.

aspects of a 335 is its simplicity. The ES Artist kind of went the other way. Look at the headstock inlay. What is that? A musical sea horse? Flying f-hole?  Whatever it is, it’s bad design and a little dopey. Where the 335 has a simple 3 way and a volume and tone for each pickup, the Artist (at least they didn’t call it the “Artiste”-that would have been just too much) had a master volume and a tone control for each pickup that cut or boosted tone parameters when activated. It was, as I understand it, a switch with a center detente and five positions in each direction. The middle position was “neutral” and there were 5 “plus” positions and 5 “minus”. There were 3 two way switches for turning on the active effects and a 3 way which functioned like a traditional pickup selector. They all had the TP-6 fine tune tailpiece, although there could be a Bigsby or two out there. Every Artist I’ve seen has a 3 piece neck and most have the “volute” that was typical of the 70’s and early 80’s. I’ve seen a couple of later ones that had no volute, however. The access panel on the back seems to come in a couple of different sizes as well. The tuners say “Gibson” but look to be Schallers or maybe Grovers. It has no f-holes (unless you count the flying f-hole inlay in the headstock) and has a center block like a 335.  The guitars were considered high end models with multiply bindings like an ES-355. It also shared the 355’s tortoise guard. Fingerboards are ebony and hardware is gold, so it really does kind of line up with the 355 except that the inlays are offset dots rather than blocks like a 355. It’s clear that Gibson was trying to go upscale here. In keeping with the era during which it was released, the ES Artist has a brass nut. The electronics package was powered by a single 9 volt battery which, apparently, went dead pretty quickly. Artists are mostly sunburst but there are cherrybursts and black ones out there as well. I’ve never seen a  red one but there are a few blondies. There is a rumor afoot that the Moog electronics are “tone suckers” and many have been removed (sound familiar?). The solder joints were pretty awful too and generally need restoration if you get your hands on one that’s still intact. I’m also told that the pickups are rather low impedance and the guitar benefits from a pickup swap if you pull out the active electronics. Feel free to send me one so I can assess it it and make an informed comparison to the more mundane and utilitarian 335/345 and 355s were all used to. All in all, it sounds like a victim of the times both in its design and execution. Perhaps if Norlin wasn’t driving the bus at the time, it might have endured…Nah.

This is what the active electronics circuit looks like. I believe there are two boards stacked in the ES as opposed to the LP and RD that have the boards laid out in a single layer. I guess there's more room in an ES.