I work on the guitars I get fairly routinely. I don’t do big stuff like structural repairs or pickup winding but I can resolder a jack or swap out parts and do a setup. I’ve gotten pretty used to working on very expensive guitars and i don’t get too scared of doing anything stupid. I don’t drill holes for any reason. I don’t mess with paint or lacquer. I don’t do fret work. I spend a ridiculous amount of time filing and reslotting saddles because that can make a huge difference in the tone and I like the get the relief just right, so I usually adjust the truss rod as well. It’s generally pretty easy stuff and, unless a screwdriver slips, I can’t do much damage. And I never have…until today. No, I didn’t drop it or smack it into the doorframe and break the headstock-nothing so dramatic. In fact the action that caused the problem was so slight that I’m still scratching my head over it. I was working on a very nice stoptail 64 ES-335. It had once had Grovers and now had a set of Klusons with those big oversize adapter bushings. I figured I would swap out those bushings for a set that looked like the originals but still filled the larger shaft hole. Some of them were a little tight, so I took off the tuners and popped the bushings out with a mallet and small dowel (it was actually a half a chopstick). I’m sure Stew-Mac gets $19 for one of those. Anyway, the bushings popped right out and the new ones went right in. No problemo. Then all I had to do was screw the tuners back in. I noticed the screws didn’t look original-they looked very slightly too long but thought nothing of it since they worked fine for however many years those Klusons were back on. So, I started screwing the tuners back in place. I don’t like loose tuners, so I generally tighten them down pretty securely. Then it happened. I was tightening the “B” tuner and the screw wouldn’t quite go all the way in easily. Well, I knew the screw wasn’t going to go through the front of the headstock-it wasn’t that long and I turned with a bit of force to get that last thread in. I hear a pop. Not a snap or a crackle. Just a pop. “Oh, shit…what did I do.” The headstock wasn’t cracked. But I heard something. I turned the guitar over and I saw that there was a hairline fracture in the face of the headstock. If you aren’t aware of this-and I’ve never written about it-the face of the headstock has a thin veneer of holly wood over the mahogany-presumably because holly is a tight grained wood that takes the black paint well. Mahogany has open grain and needs to be filled before you can get a smooth finish on it. Anyway, holly is fairly brittle and splits easily. Apparently the screw was just long enough to reach the holly and cause it to split. It’s very thin and very old. The good news is that the crack is in no way structural. The neck or headstock isn’t weakened at all by this but the lesson is clear. With apologies to Dylan Thomas, do go gentle into that good guitar.
Archive for January, 2013
Seems like a long time, doesn’t it? A fifty year marriage is positively revered in our culture. Fifty years on the job still gets you a pat on the back (it used to get you a gold watch). But a lot can happen in fifty years and it doesn’t take much to alter the course of things over that span of time. One moment of poor judgment probably won’t ruin your career or your marriage. Marriages can survive thousands of moments of bad judgment. If I got fired every time my boss didn’t like something I did at work, I would have wound up asking if you want fries with that but then I have a problem with authority figures which explains why I’ve been my own boss since 1983. Do you think democracy has lasted 240 years in the USA without some seriously bad judgment? The Bay of Pigs comes to mind. Or Prohibition. Or the 70’s. Now consider your ES 335. Fifty years is a long time. It only takes one moment to mess up what, fifty years later, would have been a no issue collector’s piece worth all kinds of money. Just as in a marriage, there’s a pretty big range of poor choices you can make-some much more destructive than others. Having an affair with your secretary is not on a par with forgetting to take out the garbage before you go away for the weekend. Similarly, putting a set of Grovers on your guitar is not on a par with painting it purple sparkle and then cutting an access panel in the back. The really bad part, when it comes to the guitars, anyway, is that you probably had nothing to do with it. Some guy back in 1975 decided the guitar would be so much cooler if the pickup covers were off. It probably took the 70’s guy less than ten minutes to do the damage but it’s done and it stays done. A no issue guitar can only be a no issue guitar if that moment never occurs. And fifty years is long time. Granted, there are plenty of changes made to guitars that are reversible without a trace. I’ve said before that there is no way that anyone can tell if a vintage correct part was on the guitar the day it left the factory. Now, with so many of the original owners being pretty old, the “original owner” guitar isn’t even totally reliable. But that won’t really affect the value of a “no issue” example. When I inspect a guitar, if the parts are vintage correct and the wear patterns are consistent, I have no problem making the small leap that says its original. On the other hand, if I swap out an incorrect part for a vintage correct one, you may not know it but I will and that gets disclosed. Here’s a simple truth: The fewer of these guitars that are available out in the market place, the more they are going to cost. As the guitar of your dreams starts receding into the distance because it’s just too much money, you need to start deciding what issues you will accept. It would be nice to be able to construct a big chart that says clearly what each type of mod will deduct from the value of a “no issue” ES-335. But it doesn’t really work that way. The “deductions” are not necessarily additive. Otherwise, you’d have to pay me to take a guitar with a refinish, broken headstock, Bigsby holes, changed tuners, open pickups and the wrong harness. Yes, people do some pretty destructive things over fifty years but, somehow, the thing survives. It seems that if anything is going to last fifty years or more in this world, it will need to endure some level of compromise. Just ask your congressman. Or your wife.
With apologies to BB King fans, the most famous ES ever is Eric Clapton’s red ’64 ES-335 which he bought new in London that same year. But suppose his career never took off after the Yardbirds and he was just another obscure British Invasion blues/rock player with a 335 to sell. Let’s say he came to me and I spent a few hours evaluating it. How would that go? First, I would take a look at the serial number-they were pretty accurate until ’65 so you can pretty accurately date the early ones with just the serial.
The label and headstock both show 67473 which makes it a mid 64. The Gibson ledger shows it was shipped on May 20th along with a number of identical 335’s. Condition is good but it shows some rash on the back and a fair number of dings and scratches. It is clearly a players guitar. It’s been refretted, probably more than once and the work is professional. Looks like a two piece top to me which is not unusual for a red 64. Let’s take a look at the parts. Right off the bat, I can see that the guitar has Grovers. They are worn gold Grover patent pending Rotomatics which are pretty decent tuners. Fortunately, he used the same screw holes as the original Klusons. Still, that’ll knock off a few bucks. The truss cover is unusual for a 64. I’ve seen truss covers with the word “custom” a number of times but not with that wide border-like a J-200. Certainly not original. There’s a small stamp sized sticker on the back of the headstock-probably from some “Indian Mystic” phase the owner went through in the 60’s. Who does he think he is? George Harrison? That probably won’t hurt the value if I can get it off cleanly. OK, let’s loosen the strings and see what else we have. OK, the bridge isn’t original-it’s a patent number and should be the earlier type that says ABR-1 so we’ll have to find a vintage correct bridge for it. The patent number bridges didn’t show up until ’65 and nickel ones are rare but this one appears to be nickel. Clearly, it got swapped out at some point probably because it was sagging. The pickups look original but they have both been opened at some point (I don’t care what the Gibson guy says in the video-they’ve both been opened). The bridge pickup rout is the solid type which is kind of 50-50 for 64’s. I prefer the tone of the solid ones to the ones with the cutout (that is, until I have to pull the harness). So, it’s clear we’ve got some issues with this particular guitar. The stoptail is original and there is no evidence of any other tailpiece having been installed during its lifetime. That’s good. So, let me string it back up and see how she plays. Nice. So, what we have here is an 8.0-8.5 condition ’64 ES-335 with some changed parts and a refret. It has a nice medium chunky neck profile, a couple of real nice sounding early patent number pickups that have been opened but don’t appear to have been rewound (although it can be pretty hard to tell). It’s gonna cost me a few hundred bucks for a correct bridge and probably $450 for a set of single line double ring Klusons and a set of adapters to properly fit the shafts. Single line double ring tuners are getting tough to find. Then a hundred bucks for a correct truss rod cover. Uh. oh, wait a second. Those knobs look wrong. This is a 64 and so it should have reflectors and these are bonnets. OK, there’s another $150 for a set of 60’s reflectors. Some guys just can’t leave their guitars alone. And that case. Much as I like things like band names and a little sense of history, this thing looks pretty well abused. A fair amount of Tolex is missing and it’s kind of coming apart. It’s got a big stencil on it that says “Cream”. Never heard of ‘em. Kind of a dumb name for a band-not “The Cream”, just “Cream”. Confusing. Cream of what? Of the crop? Of Mushroom? Of Wheat? So, what’s a guitar like this worth? Well, if I get the right parts and bring it back to vintage correct specs, a stoptail 64 in this condition might bring $16000 or so. If only it had been played by somebody famous. Then it would be worth, say, $847,500. Give or take a few bucks for correct parts.
It seems that a large percentage of 50’s and 60’s ES-335’s have been modified. I look at a lot of these guitars and pass on a large number of them-usually because the sellers want the same price that the big dealers are asking for a collector grade piece for a player grade piece. There is a “mint” ’63 that’s been listed on Ebay for a long time at $32,995. Seller calls it “high retail”. The seller has the right to ask any price he wants but what makes it difficult is that when Joe Average Guy wants to sell his beloved 335, he researches what to ask for it by, what else, looking at Ebay and Gbase. Most of you who read what I write know that many Ebay sellers and dealers alike are waiting for the sucker. And they wait. And wait. And wait. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to buy a nice 335 at a price that doesn’t require a home equity loan. Nearly every “mod” that affects the price of a 335, 345 or 355 doesn’t appreciably affect the tone or playability of that guitar. If you’re buying an investment, buy the one that has no mods and is as original as you can afford. If you just want to play it and maybe break even in the long run, buy a player. There are those who believe that changed tuners (Grovers/Schallers usually) affect tone but I don’t think so. You can always put Klusons back on-they make adaptor bushings that will allow them to fit properly. Extra holes don’t look so great, but they don’t affect the tone or playability. I had a refinished 64 ES-335 with 29 holes in it. 29. It had, at some point, a back pad, an arm rest, two different tailpieces and a repositioned bridge. It played great and it sounded great and it sold for around $6000-not much more than a new Historic. I guarantee that it will be worth at least that going forward. There are plenty of players who believe that a refinish hurts the tone. Not in my experience. Maybe a heavy poly finish would cause a problem but not a proper lacquer finish. Either finish cuts the price in half. Even if the refinish is superior to the original Gibson finish. A poorly repaired neck break can affect the tone but a properly executed repair should not. It cuts the value in half but may allow you to afford an otherwise bone stock vintage dream guitar. Ask any woodworker-they’ll tell you the glue is stronger than the wood. Then there are the changed parts that don’t require new holes. Changed bridges, knobs, pick guards, harnesses and pickups can all be returned to stock without any more expense than the cost of the parts. When you consider the “gap” between a “player grade” and a “collector grade” 335 can be triple, think about why you want this guitar. I would also suggest paying more attention to the neck. There is a surprisingly large number of 335’s, 345’s and 355’s that have neck issues especially the thinner 60-63’s. And especially those that have sat unplayed for decades. Nearly all of them can be repaired-in fact I’ve never had one that couldn’t be made totally playable. I believe playability is the most important aspect of any guitar. Tone doesn’t matter, if the guitar doesn’t play well. A tone monster that frets out isn’t a tone monster. A mint guitar with a back bow isn’t a mint guitar. ASK and, if possible, play it before you buy it or buy it from a dealer with a return policy.
Gibson has always been the leader in “artist” models. Even in the 50’s and 60’s, the list is pretty huge: Les Paul, Barney Kessel, Hank Garland and Billy Byrd, George Gobel, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith and Trini Lopez. That list would explode in the 90’s and the artist models would come fast and furious for the decades which followed. But of all the early artist models, only one was a semi hollow. That one is, of course, the Trini Lopez standard or, more correctly, “regular” (that’s what it says on the label). It was just before Christmas in 1964 that the first Trinis were ready to ship. They were among the first 335 type guitars to get the trapeze tailpiece. The 335 still sported the stoptail for the early weeks of 1965 but the Trini was trap tail right from the start. The Trini was as different from the 335 of the era as it was similar. It shared the same construction-maple laminate body with a maple center block, rosewood fingerboard (the early ones are Brazilian), 24 3/4″ scale, two patent number pickups and the same electronics. It was largely ornamentation that set the Trini apart except for that headstock. Trini Lopez himself had a big hand in the design and wanted all six tuners on the same side. The Firebird was already in production, so the TL model used a 335 style neck carved with a Firebird headstock. The result is a little disconcerting looking but kind of cool too. No banjo tuners here, however. The ornamentation is most un 335-like. F-holes aren’t f-holes at all but diamond shaped slashes. 335’s have unbound f-holes, the Trinis are bound. While the 335 of the era had block markers, the Trini had split diamonds. The trapeze is a standard issue example with a rosewood insert with a plastic engraved plaque announcing the name of the guitar’s namesake. The earliest Trinis have nickel hardware but the transition to chrome was quick and nickel models are fairly rare and command a premium. The very early ones have a 1 1/16″ nut and are also rare and relatively pricey. Standard issue 335’s are rarely found in unusual colors; the factory stock colors were red and sunburst. The Trini, on the other hand, was, by 1967, available in four colors. While the overwhelming majority of Trinis are red, the “regular” was also available in Pelham blue, Sparkling burgundy and black. As far as I know, no factory records exist to tell us how many of each were shipped. Urban legend says that 16 Pelham blue Trinis were made. That seems low to me but that’s only because I’ve seen a fair number of them over the years. I had a wonderful near mint Pelham a couple of years ago. It was one of the first guitars featured in this blog. They are desirable, rare and expensive. The fact that Dave Grohl famously played a blue Trini probably has a lot to do with that. He, of course, has his own artist model now which is, in fact, a Trini Lopez reissue (even though there was a Trini Lopez reissue as well). I’ve seen five or six sparkling burgundy examples in the past few years but that color is notably unpopular and no one seems to pay much attention to them. This week, I saw my first black one and, of course, I bought it. Out of 1,966 Trini Lopez regulars shipped, the overwhelming majority are red. I think the overwhelming minority are black.
It’s pretty hard to explain to your significant other that you want to spend $15000 on a guitar. Especially when you’ve already got a few in the closet. She (or he) didn’t bat an eye when you bought the Volvo for $40K. Perhaps she didn’t realize that the car will lose close to half its value the day you drive it off the lot. Or perhaps that after 5 years, it’ll be worth less than a third of what you paid. Buy hey,you needed a new car, you played the safety card and you got a nice car even though you wanted the BMW. Never mind you could have bought an old Volvo wagon like I drive (1997) and still had $35000 left over for guitars. That’s not really the point. The point is that a vintage guitar doesn’t have to cost you a nickel in the long run. We all know how high the market got during the “bubble” that ended in 2008 (unless you’re one of a few select dealers who didn’t get the memo, not to mention almost every Ebay seller). The vintage market is still fairly low but has shown signs of life lately. I can go out and buy a brand spankin’ new ES-335 dot or block Historic for around $4500. But I can also go out and find a pretty decent mid 60’s ES-335 for less than $1000 more and that is significant. In five years, the Historic will probably be worth $3500 if you decide to sell it. OK, that’s not so bad. But the 66-68 that you paid $5000 for is going to be worth at least that. Can I guarantee that? No, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to get out of bed tomorrow but I’d bet on it. Let’s go up the scale a bit. Let’s look at the 335 you really want. I’ll use a 64 as the example because they are so popular. You can get your hands on a 64 with minor issues for around $12000 for a Bigsby/Custom Made or a few thousand more for a stoptail. You can probably get a no issue stoptail 64 for around $18,000. At the top of the market, the Bigsby was closer to $18000 and the stop pushed past $25000. You still see them out there for as high as $32000 but they never sell anywhere near that. So, the loss since the top of the bubble has been around 25-30%. The good news is that they have not dropped any further since the bottom fell out and, in fact, I’ve seen an improvement of 10-15% in the past couple of years for 335s. But percentages are a funny thing-an increase of 10% from the bottom doesn’t make up a third of a 30% drop from the top. Do the math. Even so, a rising market tends to continue to rise (until it doesn’t)-the trend is upward as the economy improves. Most buyers of vintage 335’s are men in their 50’s. The kids are done or just about done with college and you’re secure in your job. You’d love a 64 but you just can’t justify the expenditure. I know, it sounds like a sales pitch from the guy with the 335’s but it really is an investment. And it’s a lot more fun than 30 shares of Apple stock. As long as expensive new guitars continue to be inferior to the vintage ones we all love, vintage guitars will sell. So tell the wife (or the significant other) that you want to make an investment that you can enjoy for the rest of your life and maybe hand down to your children. An investment that is nearly as liquid as Apple shares and will give you a heck of a lot more pleasure than trying to play a stock certificate. I can never keep them in tune and they don’t sustain worth a damn.
No, not the movie this time either (which I also didn’t see). Just the sequel to the last post where I covered things that wear out like strings and frets and plastic parts. Over the very long haul, there a lot of other parts that can wear out. Because the ABR-1 bridge is made out of some really crappy metal, they aren’t very strong and after 50 years of pressure from the strings, there is a pretty good chance that your bridge is falling down (falling down, falling down). They sag in the middle and the nature of the metal is such that it doesn’t bend back very well. In fact it usually breaks and if it doesn’t, it just sags again. So get a repro or a Tone Pros and put the original in the case pocket. Nobody will mind. How will you know if the bridge is sagging? The strings should follow the radius of the fingerboard. If they don’t, the bridge is sagging or the saddles aren’t properly seated. Check the saddles. If they look right, then take off the bridge and remove the saddles. Lay it on a flat surface upside down. It should be dead flat-no light passing under the straight edge. Seeing daylight? Into the case pocket. The saddles themselves get worn out as well. The single most likely culprit when your 335 is sounding dull and plinky (plunky?) is a worn out saddle. If the groove is too deep, it will keep the string from vibrating freely. Usually new saddles are the best solution. I’ve had some luck with filing the tops of all the saddles so that the groove is much shallower but you have to be careful not file them unevenly or you’ll screw up the heights. Again. put the originals in a ziplock in the case pocket and get some new ones. The metal ones are easy to find-the plated brass ones are closest to vintage. If you want nylon saddles, it’s a bit trickier. The original nylon saddles were milled and are hard as a rock. The newer ones aren’t. I haven’t found decent new nylon saddles. The Tusq ones are a good substitute but they are expensive. They work great though. When I get new saddles, I string the guitar up before I notch them to see where the strings cross the saddles without deflection (straight across at 90 degrees). It’s not always the middle. Then I mark the saddles with a sharpie. Then I get out the little teeny file I use and make the shallowest notches I can that will still hold the strings in place. Heading to the other end of the neck, we have another culprit in the “why does my 335 sound like crap” parade. The nut. A lot of folks complain that 335s don’t stay in tune and almost everyone blames the tuners. Klusons are not high tech items. They’re kind of crappy. But they aren’t the reason your 335 goes out of tune. The nut is slotted too tight. So, some wear in the nut slots is actually a good thing because a slightly enlarged slot will help keep your guitar in tune better no matter what tuner in on it. But beyond a little wear, there are other problems like strings popping out of the slot or poor sustain caused by too much play in the slot. Time for a new nut. The originals are nylon and most folks use a nylon replacement. Bone is another choice and, to be honest, I don’t hear much difference and if a guitar has had its nut replaced, I don’t really care what it was replaced with as long as it works properly and was properly (and neatly) installed. I let my tech do nuts. A changed nut shouldn’t impact the value of the guitar very much if its done properly. Next, Part 3 where I go inside the guitar and look at the electronic doo hickeys that give up the ghost after 50 years or so.