I was going to write about a very cool sunburst ES-355 sent to me by a reader but that will have to wait since I’m currently homeless. In case you don’t watch the news (and who can blame you), we had a storm here in the East. I have the (usually) good fortune of living on the water. The downside is, of course, the water. My house was built at what they call the “100 year flood” elevation. That means every 100 years or so, you can expect the water to reach this record level. Anything higher would be unprecedented in recorded history. Last year. Hurricane Irene was our 100 year flood. We survived that one with little damage and we thought we could kind of relax for the next 100 years. Well, one year and two months later, here comes Hurricane Sandy-even bigger and badder than Irene. We evacuated this time and went to stay with friends in the next town. I took a J-200 and a Fender Esquire with me and brought the rest of the guitars to my office. Then we settled in at our friends house to watch the weather reports and, more importantly, the tide readings. You can get a real time reading every six minutes that includes the predicted tide, the actual tide and the “residual” which in this case is added to the actual tide. That’s the storm surge you hear so much about. The tide was predicted to be 7 feet. The surge 5-10 feet. If you do the math you can see I’m screwed. If the surge is 10 feet and it hits at high tide, that will be a 17 foot tide. The one hundred year elevation is 12 feet which would allow for a 13.8 foot tide (don’t ask why) before my house is under water. So, potentially, my main floor is under 3.2 feet of water if the surge is as predicted and it hits at high tide. My friend George, with whom we are staying is an MIT trained engineer and spent Monday evening on the computer doing “models” that showed where the water was and where it was likely to go. High tide was to hit at 11:57 PM Monday. At 6:24 PM, the surge hit 9 feet and it was low tide. So at low tide predicted to be around sea level, the tide was already 9 feet which is flood stage. There was another 7 feet of tide coming in the next 6 hours and the surge was increasing as the easterly wind piled up water in Long Island Sound. By 8 oclock, the surge was nearly 10 feet and the tide had risen to 2.6 feet putting us at 12.6. George’s chart said at this rate we’d be looking at another 4 feet of surge and another 4.5 feet of tide. That would put the water at 21 feet or just below the second floor of my house (where my guitars usually live). Then he showed me the wind chart showing that the hurricane had turned inland and the winds were shifting toward the southeast which would stop the water from piling up any further in the Sound. So we waited for the surge to reverse. By 9 o’clock it was down to 9 feet but the tide was up to 4 feet putting the water at 13 feet. I had less than a foot before the house was inundated. At 10, the surge was down to 8 feet but the tide was above 5 feet putting the water just 8 inches from the floor. But George’s data said the surge was falling faster than the tide and that we would be OK. This is a guy who worked at NASA during Apollo 13 and if he says it’ll be OK, I’m inclined to believe him. The water peaked at 13.26 feet a few minutes later. That’s about 6 inches from disaster. The surge was falling faster than the tide was rising and, barring another wind shift, my house was safe. By high tide, the surge had dropped to 4 feet and we were out of danger. The good news is that my family was safe. It’s great that my house and my guitars all survived as well but that’s just stuff. All insured and replaceable. And thanks to George (and his wife Cheryl) for keeping my head from exploding during the worst of it. I’ll write about this again in another 100 years (or after the next “100 year” event which if it follows the recent timetable will be next December)…
Archive for October, 2012
The specs on ES-335s and their brethren fall within a fairly well defined range even though, within that range, they are all over the place. The pickups are almost always between 7.4K and 8.7K (more or less), the weight can be as low as 7 lbs 5 oz. for a stoptail 335 to 9.5 lbs for a Bigsby ES-345 or 355. There are tighter ranges to things like nut width-probably because the nuts were mass produced and ranges that follow production years like body depth. Body depth, as I’ve written before was thinner on may 58 and 59 ES’s but by the end of 59 was within a range of a few hundredths of an inch. And, of course, few guitars actually match the published specifications. I’m not completely obsessive about these things-in fact I don’t usually check much other than the nut width and the neck depth at the first and 12th fret. I’ll check the DC resistance if somebody asks me to. Things like body depth and even weight don’t really concern me unless they seem to fall way outside of the expected range. Then I get real interested. I recently acquired a ’61 dot neck that seemed kind of light. I didn’t give it very much thought until my tech mentioned how light he thought it was. I agreed but figured it was somewhere near the lower end. The lightest ES-335 I had ever encountered was another ’61 that weighed in at around 7 lbs 5 ounces. I would have expected the lightest to be a ’59 with the thinner body depth but maybe the big neck makes up for that. Then I figured maybe the later ones with the cutout in the centerblock would be the lightest-like maybe an early ’63 with the cutout and a smaller neck. But no, the lightest ’63 I’ve encountered was in the same ballpark of just under 7.5 lbs. This particularly light ’61 weighed in a 7 lbs one half ounce. That’s 4 and a half ounces lighter than its nearest competitor. That’s getting into Telecaster territory. What might have made the difference is that this ’61 has the centerblock cutout-the earliest I’ve ever seen it. It is a very late ’61-December for sure and I have seen the cutout in an early ’62, so it isn’t that much of a headscratcher in that regard. Certainly the cutout and the fact that there is a bit less mahogany in the thinner neck ’60-early ’63 335s (and mahogany is a pretty heavy wood) might have tipped the scales in the favor of lightness. Interestingly, the weight of the guitar doesn’t seem to correspond much to the tone, although I think big necks might but that’s a different topic that’s been covered before. The biggest advantage of a very lightweight guitar is for old folks like me who can’t shoulder 9 lbs for more than a few tunes without moaning about our aching backs (getting old sucks). The difference between 7 lbs and even 8 lbs is glaring if you don’t have the back for it. So, I’m always looking for the exceptions to the little rules that we expect all ES-335s/345s and 355s to follow. One offs get me excited. Things like Mickey Mouse ears on a 66 or a wide nut on a 67 or bound f-holes on a 60’s 355 make me want to buy them all. My next post will be about a true one off-a 1962 ES-355 in sunburst which is rare enough but with factory bound f-holes as well.
Seeing as it’s October and Halloween is right around the corner, I thought a fright themed post made some sense. You want scary? One of the scariest things you can do is buy an expensive guitar sight unseen. Digital photos make it very easy to get a sense of what’s going to show up at your doorstep but they can be deceptive. Equally deceptive are some sellers who go to great lengths to hide issues and then tell you to “look at the photos” when you question something. I will say that most sellers are eager to please and will go out of their way to answer your questions if they can and even start turning screws in some instances. So here’s a compilation of the really scary things that you have to look out for when you buy a guitar sight unseen. Removed pickup covers: It seemed that everybody removed the pickup covers from their humbuckers in the 70’s. We all believed that the covers were keeping the pickups from their full output so we took ‘em off and promptly lost them. The scary part is that, in my experience, at least a third of the pickups that have been opened have had at least one coil rewound or repaired. Play an uncovered humbucker for long enough and your bound to wear through a wire-whether a lead wire or a winding. The other problem is that it’s often impossible to get an inexperienced seller to start taking Grandpa’s old guitar apart. So, you rolls the dice. Funky finish at the neck join: I hate to pass on a guitar just because the glue at he neck join might be getting flaky or the finish is showing some signs of abuse. On the other hand, it could be a sign that the neck was reset or repaired. This is a huge problem on SGs and less of one on 335s. Nonetheless, a less than perfect join is cause for concern. The likelihood of the current non player owner knowing how it got that way is pretty slim. Asking the seller to pull the neck pickup so I can see what’s going on in the neck pocket is dicey as well. Checking at the headstock: This really scares me. It’s sometimes hard to tell a check from a crack when you’re 2 inches away from the guitar. Trying to tell from a photo can be impossible. The best thing to do is try to see if any of the cracks follow a grain line as that’s where they usually crack. Beat up case-perfect guitar. Of course, the idea is that the case protects the guitar but if the case is absolutely beat to hell and there’s barely a scratch on the guitar, my “refin” alarm goes off. There are folks who take impeccable care of their stuff and people who don’t. We all know the guy in the band who would never let you even touch his guitar and wiped it down between sets (or songs) and even cleaned the case if it got scuffed. He would also insist that his guitar ride in the car and not in the van with the rest of the gear. We also know the guy who, as Mike Bloomfield is reputed to have done, shows up with his guitar without a case covered with snow and leans it up against the radiator until it dries off. Beware of that beater guitar in a perfect “original” case. The case wear and the guitar wear can be pretty far apart but use some common sense. Neck issues: The good news is that Gibson necks are fairly stable and most of the problems you might encounter are fixable-although they may be pretty invasive and expensive. The bad news is that most sellers don’t disclose any neck problems-usually because they don’t know. Most guitars will play even with severe neck trouble but they won’t play well and they won’t play everywhere on the fingerboard. Perhaps the scariest part of getting a new guitar is taking off the truss rod cover and seeing that the truss is either screwed all the way down or that the nut is loose. Having a backbow and a loose nut is trouble. But even that can be addressed. The solution to all this fright is to make an attempt to see and play the guitar in question in person or have a friend who plays check it out. Finally, if you drive 6 hours to check out a guitar and it isn’t right and you can’t negotiate a new deal, walk away. Get back in the car and drive home. I’ve done it more than once (six hours each way). You’ll feel like you’ve wasted a day but it sure beats feeling like you wasted your hard earned money.
There are two things I love about getting a “new” vintage guitar. One is checking out the bobbins on the pickups-there’s nothing like an “undisclosed” double white or zebra. It happens more often than you would expect. It’s a little like winning the lottery (albeit a rather small one). The other thing I love is checking out the case pocket. Let’s see what’s in there…Along with the really obvious stuff like the instruction manual, the pickup height adjustment instructions, the Varitone instructions (345s and stereo 355s), the ABR-1 instruction sheet, there were a few other Gibson items as well that generally got lost. There was almost always a leather strap-usually brown and sometimes stamped with the name of the music store. It was never a very good strap but we all seemed to use them at least until we had a little extra money saved to buy something hipper. There was also a polishing cloth which either never got used or got used to death. You know the guy in your band who would let anybody even breathe on his guitar who always wiped it down between sets (and even between songs) and then had a fit when he got a ding in the headstock from a cymbal or stand and then blamed it on you? He’s the guy who used the cloth. The rest of us left it in its little bag in the case. Then there’s the little yellow screwdriver with the pocket clip. These usually got lost in the first week or so but I’ve managed to accumulate 3 or 4 of them. Case keys in the little yellow manila envelope are always a welcome surprise but, alas, not a very frequent one. There must not have been a truss rod wrench because in all the years I’ve been buying these guitars I’ve never seen one in a case pocket. I have seen some pretty weird stuff. Strings-tons of ‘em-often used. Who saves used strings? I’ve found banjo and mandolin strings (in a guitar case), set lists from all genres, original sales receipts, all manner of business cards from bars to cathouses to lawyers, Musicians Union manuals and time cards (especially from the late 50’s and early 60’s), photos of bands, wives, girlfriends, even a few “racy” photos that seem tame by today’s standards. Interestingly, given the period and the nature of musicians, I’ve never found any drugs in a guitar case. No pot stashed in the pickup cavity, no coke taped under the pickguard and no pills in the case pocket. I guess they all use them up before they sell the guitar or maybe the thing about musicians using drugs is just a big myth. The picks are always interesting-often from a local music store but sometimes imprinted with a band name. Fender picks seem to be the most ubiquitous. I’ve probably found at least 50 of them rattling around inside the guitars. I even found one stuck under the sideways vibrato that had actually reacted with the surface of the finish. You could see the big backwards Fender “F” and the word “medium” etched into the clear coat of the guitar. I once found half a dollar bill-probably some deal made with a woman in the audience that they’d meet in twenty years at the top of the Empire State Building each with their “half” dollar and something wonderful would happen (actually, I think that was a movie). Dog toys. How do dog toys get in the case pocket? Maybe Alice knows.
Did you ever notice how a lot of guitar folks can’t spell? I have to think that either the public education system in America is just horrible or that musicians aren’t wired for spelling. There is a plethora of guitar terms that come up over and over again in ads and posts that are just screaming for correction. And no, I’m not holier than thou. I can just spell better than thou. But I’m a writer, I’m supposed to be able to spell. I’m sure you’re a much better musician than I am. Here are a few glaring examples. Resonant is an adjective (describes a noun) NOT resonate. Resonate is a verb. A guitar resonates when it rings out. But a guitar that resonates is resonant. Easy, right? Heel. The place where the neck meets the body (on a guitar body-not your body unless you’re built upside down). Not heal. Heal is when the blisters on your phalanges (the tips of your fingers) that you get from playing too long get better and stop hurting. Fretware. I think you mean fret wear. Ware is a thing-like silverware, housewares or, to quote the Byrds-“sell your soul to the company who are waiting there to sell plastic ware”. I’m pretty sure they meant vinyl records. Wear spelled w-e-a-r means damage to something from use. Cord. The thing you plug the guitar into the amp with. Chord. The multi-note thing you play on your guitar that has a name like C7 or D9. The next time I see an Ebay ad that says “comes with the original coil chord,” I’m going to come to your house and strangle your cat with it. (This is a joke, cat lovers. Don’t write me nasty emails). Finally. tremolo and vibrato. This isn’t a spelling issue but more of a definition issue and I’m guilty of perpetuating it as well. You can blame Leo Fender for this according to the conventional wisdom. Tremolo is the modulation of volume to create a pulsing effect. Vibrato is the modulation of pitch to create a pulsing effect. The vibrato channel on a Fender amp has tremolo function. The patented “synchronized tremolo” on your Strat is a vibrato device. Most amps have tremolo, few have vibrato-old Magnatones are the exception here. I don’t know of any guitar with built in tremolo but anything with a Bigsby or a Maestro or sideways or Kahler or Floyd or any other whammy bar equipped device is a vibrato and not a tremolo. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll stop calling a Bigsby a trem and you stop writing me asking about how “resonate” a guitar is. If you’re old enough to remember cigarette commercials on TV, there was an ad for Winston cigarettes that said “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” At some point a member of the teaching community pointed out that the grammar was poor and that the word “as” would be correct instead of “like”. Winston’s ad agency (probably headed by Don Draper) responded with an ad that said “whaddya want, good grammar or good taste?” The clever grammar police retort? “Good grammar is good taste.” I would extend that statement to include spelling as well. So, in the words of the immortal Stephen Sondheim: “Smoke on your pipe and put that in.”
I’ve had the good fortune to have 2 ’58 ES-335’s in my hands this week-one a near mint lefty. Interestingly, both guitars had an early (and rather different) version of the ABR-1 bridge and one had a most unusual stoptail. The early ABR-1 is not, as many websites would have you believe, a shaved “normal” ABR-1. It is actually a whole ‘nother version that is about half the depth of the “normal” one. Interestingly both 58s had completely collapsed bridges. It is clear that this was a design flaw and I’m not surprised that none
of the 58s I’ve had in years past had this little bridge. It just doesn’t hold up under pressure. The reason for the shallow ABR-1 is because of the very shallow neck angle the first ES-335s had. If you use a full size ABR-1, it often needs to sit right on the top of the guitar (which isn’t a problem but Gibson must have felt that there had to be some room for further adjustment). I think it would be very cool if someone like Callaham made a shallow ABR-1 just for these early 335’s. The cheap metal that Gibson used can’t cut it but if you carve it out of a block of steel (or titanium) I’m guessing it would work just fine. The other oddity is the stoptail on the lefty. The cut out part of the stop that “fits” into the studs usually is a little deeper than the stud itself. This 58 has a much shallower cut and, as a result, the stop doesn’t extend as far forward as it usually does-so it looks a bit like a wraptail looks when the set screws are screwed in all the way. I checked the 58’s on the “other” ES-335 site and found one that had the same tailpiece. Look for A28598. It is, of course, impossible for Gibson, or any other manufacturer for that matter, to know for certain how a new part will hold up over years of use without some kind of sophisticated long term testing. There was nothing like that available, so I’m assuming they modified the design so that it worked on Day One and didn’t worry too much about the long term consequences. They eventually changed the neck angle to allow for more bridge adjustment but there is a belief among aficionados that the ones with the shallow neck angle sound better. You can count me among them. 1958 is a favorite year of mine. They are unique among 335s in that the top has one less ply in the wood and so the tops are much thinner and the guitars tend to be more resonant. they are also very fragile. I’ve seen more than a few with some serious cracks in the top. The body shape is slightly different too-the ears are not as round as “Mickey Mouse” ears but not as pointy as a 64. Even the headstock inlay position is a little different than the other dot necks. Much as I love 58’s, I do have a bit of a problem with that huge neck with my little hands. It occurs to me that perhaps the most famous lefty player doesn’t have one of these as far as I know, even though he has been a fan of the Epiphone Casino for 47 years or so. So, Sir Paul, if you are reading, I can have this one put aside for you. You think that Les Paul sounds good? OK, actually it does, but you’ll like this one even better, I promise.
That’s what Ronald Reagan’s character said after waking up from surgery in “Kings Row” minus his legs. That’s not what this post is about. It’s about a small guitar. I always have had a soft spot for “student” or “3/4″ guitars. My first electric was a brand new 64 Fender Duo Sonic bought at just above retail from the notorious Hermie’s Music Store in Schenectady, NY. (have I mentioned them before?). Anyway, with my small hands and relatively poor technique, I don’t mind the 22.5″ or 22.75″ scale as long as the fingerboard isn’t too skinny. I still have a wonderful maple vee neck 57 Duo Sonic that I play when a Fender is called for. But I never paid a lot of attention to 3/4 Gibsons. Probably because the short scale Les Paul Jrs and specials are so ugly. The proportion of the body to the neck is all wrong, probably because of where they put the tailpiece. But the ES-140 is a slightly different beast. It’s not a full size body with a smaller neck, it’s a scaled down ES-175 (more or less). I had never owned one or played one until recently. One of my regular clients had been searching for a blonde ES-140T and when I found one, I picked it up. I’ve been playing it for a few days now and it’s no toy. It’s a pretty cool little guitar. First, some historical perspective. The original version was called the ES-140 and had a full depth fully hollow body. These were made from 1950-1957. In 1956, they added a thin version and then discontinued the full body in 1957. They made the ES-140T until 1968. The huge majority of these were sunburst and all had a single dog ear P-90. The blonde ES-140 is a pretty rare bird. I’ve only seen one or two of the 140 and this is only the second blonde 140T that I’ve seen. Only 57 blonde ES-140T’s were made out of around 1600. Just 30 of the full body version were made in blonde and only in 1956. Just under 2400 were shipped from 1950 to 1957. One of the things about a short scale guitar that I like is that the string tension is somewhat less than a longer scale guitar-making it easier to play for beginners (and weaklings like me). While this isn’t exactly a rock and roll death machine, it makes a pretty c0ol travel guitar and sounds good (and loud) acoustically or plugged in. The pickup being close to the neck keeps things relatively mellow but it’s a nice mellow. The case isn’t much bigger than a viola and doesn’t take up a lot of space when you’re traveling. The thinline version feels like it weighs less than five pounds and yet it has a pretty chunky (.87 at the first fret) neck even if it is a little narrow at the nut for me. Fit and finish is as good as any ES-175, so this was no poor stepchild. Sunburst 140T’s tend to run around $1200 to $1500, so while not dirt cheap, they are pretty reasonable for a Golden Era instrument. The full body 140 usually runs a few bucks more and is seen by some as slightly more desirable. As usual, I’ll take the thin one.
I have a client who is always interested in how resonant these guitars are. He’s a jazz player and he prefers the instrument to have some acoustic qualities which was the intent of the inventor, Ted McCarty (with a nod to Les Paul). Anyone who has played more than a few ES-335s and their brethren will notice that, from a resonance standpoint, they are not created equal. There are a few reasons for this. I’ve covered the first reason before but I’ll summarize. Some 335s, all 345s and most 355s have part of the center block removed to make assembly easier and to accomodate the varitone choke in stereo models. More airspace in there means more resonance. The difference is not all that great and I don’t think it makes all that much difference. I’ve had folks insist on uncut center blocks in their 62-64 ES-335s and most of them have that feature. Certainly there are more cut blocks by 64 but it’s by no means consistent. Now the other reason is a little more speculative. Because the top of the guitar is arched and the center block is flat, there is a space between the top and the block. Gibson’s solution was to place a piece of kerfed spruce in there to fill the gap. Perhaps they felt the spruce would add some resonance as well since it is not as dense as maple and is typically used for acoustic guitar tops. Recently, I’ve noticed that some 335s have a better fit than others or there has been some shrinkage or separation in there over the years. If you own a 335, 345 or 355, do a tap test. Tap on the top in the area where you know the center block is and listen to where it resonates and where it doesn’t. It really shouldn’t resonate anywhere except by the bridge pickup if the block is cut. What I’ve found is that the guitars that have the greatest acoustic qualities tend to have some air space between the top and the block, particularly between the bridge and the endpin. I’ve also found some with air space in the area between the pickups, which is where I kind of expected to find it since the arch in the top is a little more pronounced there. I have two 65s right now-one is a Bigsby and one is a traptail. Both are early 65 big necks but one rings out like an ES-175 and the other is as quiet as a typical Les Paul when unplugged. When I tap the resonant 65 on the lower part of the body over the block, it sounds hollow. When I tap the Bigsby equipped, it sounds solid. Part of this could be related to the fact that the Bigsby version has two screws through the top, essentially screwing the top to the spruce pieces. That would make sense if traptails were consistently more resonant. But they aren’t. They are actually, slightly less resonant, in general, than a stoptail. Interestingly, the difference doesn’t really translate to the amplified sound of the guitars all that much. The two guitars don’t sound that different once you crank ‘em up. Neither feeds back. So, does it matter how much resonance you semi has? Probably not, if you like the way it sounds when it’s plugged in. I play my guitars unplugged a lot and I kind of like being able to really hear my 335 when I sit on the couch while I watch a ballgame and practice at the same time. Would I go out of my way to find a really resonant one? Again, probably not. What I really should do is to buy myself a 330 for the couch.