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Archive for April, 2013

Nuts. Just How Big are They?

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

 

This 62 ES-335 has a very average nut width. This one is measure below the nut whereas I usually measure across the nut. As you can see there would't be much difference. Everyone would call this 1 11/16" but its actually a few hundredths of an inch less.

In 1944 during the siege of Bastogne, Belgium, the American general, Anthony McAuliff was given an ultimatum by the Germans who surrounded the town: “To the USA Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. . .There is only one possibility. . .the honorable surrender of the encircled town.” The now famous one word response? “Nuts.” That ends todays history lesson. Now we can talk about nuts. Guitar nuts. No, not guys like us who are nuts about guitars but the little white plastic thing that the strings go through at the top of the neck. I wrote about the basic stuff but recently, I started paying more attention to the measurements of these little pieces of plastic (what nuts did you think I was talking about?). What’s really interesting is that the width of the neck at the nut is the single most important feature that makes the 58-early 65 ES models the most expensive and the most desirable. Yeah, nickel parts and the stoptail are a big part as well but I believe that if the nut width stayed at 1 11/16″ through ’66, they would be included in the “Golden Era.” It’s worth noting that the 65 ES-335 with the wider 1 11/16″ nut is worth $2000-$3000 more than the one with the narrow 1 9/16″ nut. The conventional wisdom (is that even wisdom?) is that the nut measures either 1 11/16″ (58-early 65), 1 5/8″ early to mid ’65 or 1 9/16″ mid ’65 – 69 and later. There are two things to consider. First, where do you measure from? I’ve always measured across the nut itself-after all, we’re talking about the nut width, not the neck width where it meets the nut. But there are folks who feel the width of the neck where it meets the nut is more relevant. Be that as it may, the measurement is rarely exactly 1 11/16″ on a 58-mid ’65 no matter where you measure it. There is a range and, interestingly, the actual nut width on these 1 11/16″ nut guitars is almost always slightly less than 1 11/16″. Let’s do the math using decimals (I know, you were absent that day). 1 11/16″ equals 1.6875″. The most common measurement I get (after about 150 measurements) is around 1.6535. Now 1 5/8″ is equal to 1.625″, so the common 58-65 measurement of 1.6535 is actually closer to 1 5/8″ but since we always seem to round up instead of down, we call it 1 11/16″.  Fair enough as long as we’re consistent. The range is pretty big. The smallest from the 1 11/16″ nut era that I’ve come across is 1.6425. The largest was 1.71″ which, to be fair, should be rounded up to 1 3/4″. These differences are hundredths of an inch and you’d be surprised how easily you perceive them. You may not feel 1/100″ but I’m pretty sure you’ll feel 3/100″. I sure do. Just an aside, the difference you’ll probably get measuring the actual nut vs the neck at the nut will be around 2/100″ or less. I would suggest that if you are very sensitive to the nut width that you ask for a measurement made with calipers in decimal mode. Most people are going to answer 1 11/16″ when you ask and if that “ballpark” is good enough for you, then so be it. But if you really want to know what you’re getting, especially when you can’t play the guitar before you get it, the insist on the more accurate measurement and specify if you want it measured across the nut or across the neck. That way there will be no surprises (which is generally a good thing when buying a vintage guitar unless the surprise is double white PAFs).

This fat boy is a 65 SG. I'm sure there are 335s that are its equal but this is as fat as I've seen from the era. I also measured it across the nut which came out to 1.7135. I had a 330 with the same measurement a while back. I know of others in the same ballpark.

Early 1960 Dot Necks

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

This 60 is in the A335xx range and had a very 64 like medium chunky neck-not the wide flat neck we all expect on a 60. A lot of 1960 ES-335s have a "transitional" neck. So do some 59's.

Most Gibsons “suffer” from the “59” phenomenon. Never heard of it? It’s when anything Gibson from 59 gets it’s value jacked up simply because it’s from that magical year that defines the “top” of the “Golden Era”. Too bad I don’t get paid by the quotation mark.  I don’t disagree that 59 is as valid as any year for being the pinnacle of Gibson’s march to greatness, although you could make an argument for 58 what with the introduction of the burst, the V, The Explorer and the 335/355. In any case, the 59 commands a premium and it’s a pretty big one. A 59 stoptail 335 in excellent condition is going to cost you $35K to $40K. You might find one with an issue or two down around $30K but they have become hard to source. Bigsby 59’s are also up there. $25K plus is typical. Of course, there are still the dreamers  on Ebay looking for $35K for a Bigsby 59. As you probably know, Gibson didn’t really have a “model” year like a car does. They made some changes on January 1 but mostly they transitioned in any changes over a period of time. The transition from typical 59 features to typical 60 features took place over a number of months. The first thing to change was the neck profile but it changed in stages. The big fat 59 neck that has become the big selling point didn’t last until December 31, 1959. The necks started getting slimmer, according to what I’ve seen, sometime in the late Fall. Certainly by December a kind of  “medium chunky” transitional neck was in place. I had three December 59’s at the same time not long ago and two of them had medium necks and one had a chunky neck. I’ve had two early 60 ES-335’s recently as well and both had the transitional neck. They also had the other “59” features that everyone seems to want. Both had bonnet knobs and single ring tuners. Both these things are easy to change too, so you never really know whether they left the factory that way. The way I see it is that if it’s an early 60 serial and a medium rather than the flat neck, it isn’t unreasonable for the knobs and tuners to be 59 spec. What is early though? The first serial in 1960 is A32286. I’ve seen 59 specs well into the A33xxx range and single ring tuners into the A34xxx range. I’m not certain when the necks got flat but I had A343xx and it had a flat neck and I recently had A335xx and it had the medium transitional neck. I don’t see more than 3 or 4 60’s a year so this is still research in progress. The larger point here is that you can get a killer dot neck for a lot less than a 58 or 59 without spending $35000. The early 60 neck is kind of like a 64, the pickups are the same as a 59 (and often double whites or zebras) and it sure looks just like a 59. So, if you have your heart set on a 59 but your wallet says maybe I should get a 60 or 61, take a look at the serial number and ask a lot of questions. Clearly, the neck is the big issue here seeing as you can change the tuners and knobs if you absolutely must. You’ll be able to afford the real ones with all the money you saved. Who knows you might like the transitional neck even better than the big 59. I sure do.

Tortoise Guard

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

No surprises here-long guard from a 59 on the right and a short guard from a 64 on the left. Note the bindings are different. There are short guards with the binding you see on the long guard but only in late 1960 and into 61 from what I've seen.

No, not the guy who keeps an eye on your turtle. Continuing the discussion of pick guards, we’ll take a look at the ES-355 guard which is, of course, the tortoise guard. The 355 was the only guitar in the line that got a bound tortoise guard and, although the timeline is similar, the guards themselves are anything but. First, the composition of the plastic is different. These are celluloid based and are therefore prone to “off gassing”. You can read about that phenomenon here. You see a lot of 355s with repro guards because the original celluloid based ones tend to self destruct. They are quite different from the 335 and 345 guards in that they are not made from multilayered plastic but a single layer of celluloid with and separate five-ply binding glued to it. Flip it over and there is an extra strip of black plastic glued to the back that appears to act as a stiffener to keep the guard from warping. It doesn’t work that well if thats the function because most of them are warped. The shape of the guard is the same as a 335/345 guard and the long guard has the same timeline-more or less. They seem to have run out of long tortoise guards a little earlier than they ran out of long black ones because a pretty fair number of late 60 355’s have short guards. More than half the 60 ES-355’s I’ve had seem to have a short guard. Also, since there is no bevel on a tortoise guard, there is no wide bevel or narrow bevel distinction to use as a “tell” when dating a 355. But there is a change that occurred. The long guards and the early short guards have a different binding. While both are 5 ply, the early ones have two thin white plies, a fat white ply, a thin black ply and a thick black ply. The later ones which appear to have shown up in 62 also have two thin white plies and a fat white ply but both black plies are thin. OK, it;s a small point but isn’t that why you read this stuff? The bound tortoise guard lasted through the 60’s and into 1970’s. I’m not certain the bound tortoise guard lasted until the model was discontinued in 1982. If you have one, let me know what the guard is like.

This photo of the back side of the tortoise guards shows where they depart from their 335/345 counterparts. Note the extra strip of black plastic and also note how the binding is glued-somewhat less than neatly- to the guard. No bevel at all.

Keeping up your Guard

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Long guard on my all time favorite 59. Note that it extends past the bridge and that the bevel is wide and the lower white layer is wider than the upper one. This becomes important later. there will be a quiz.

OK, a pickguard isn’t the most interesting part of your guitar but on ES-335s and 345s it can be a pretty expensive one. It can also tell you a lot about when your guitar was made. We’ve been through some of this-but not all of it so don’t bail on me. First of all, who pays well in excess of $1000 for a piece of plastic? Answer: anybody who needs a long pickguard for a 58-60 ES-335 or 345. Yes, it seems silly but considering the Les Paul crazies will pay close to $5000 for one pickup ring makes us ES types a little less crazy. The long pickguard which extends to the bottom of the bridge was used from the beginning until late 1960. If you have a late 60 ES-345, there is a pretty good chance it will have a short guard. Late 60 ES-335s are less likely to have them but I wouldn’t rule it out. I’ve never had one but I’m sure they exist. So, how do you know someone didn’t steal the long guard off that late 60 and substitute a short guard. After all, a short guard will “only” cost you $400 or so (still a lot of money for a piece of plastic). Look underneath the guard at the mounting block-the thing that the bracket screws into. If its been moved and reglued, the guitar probably had a different guard at some point. The angle that the bracket comes off the guard is different on a long guard than it is on a short guard so if somebody swapped the long for short, they would have to rotate the block slightly and reglue it. Sneaky bastards. Gibson is generally inconsistent during transition periods and the transition from long guard to short was no different. There are late 60 ES’s with short guards and early 61’s with long guards-especially 345’s for some reason. It all sorts out within a few months but it gets confusing. The next pickguard change came in 1967 when they switched from the wide bevel short guard to a narrower bevel. There are some “in-between” bevels as well-not quite wide and not quite narrow just in case you thought this was going to be easy. It’s pretty easy to tell the wide bevel from the narrow. It’s also a fairly quick transition from wide to narrow. You’ll find most 67’s have the narrow bevel with only a few early ones getting the wide version. There’s another odd one out there as well. I call it the “upside down” version. The way I see it, the guys (or women) who cut out the guards had a big sheet of 5 ply plastic-black on the top and bottom and black in the middle with unequal depth white plies between the black ones. Well, it would seem that every once in a while, somebody would cut a sheet of plastic into guards upside down. I’m sure they looked just fine but over the years, they tend to warp backwards. Instead of dishing like 99% of them do-that is, the middle gets lower than the edges, these “upside down” guards bow upward. I’ve only seen two upside down guards so far-one on a 66 and one on a 64. They also tend to be overly shiny which must be a function of the difference in the finish of the back versus the front. The difference in price between a narrow bevel short guard and a wide bevel is pretty significant as well. A wide bevel short guard should cost you around $400 while a narrow bevel will be around $100. A bit more if you are looking for the rare “boob” logo guard that showed up for a minute in 1968. The pickguard is a pretty handy way to tell if a guitar is a 66 or a later one since the serial numbers are so screwy during the period. 66’s always have a wide bevel guard or so it seems from my experience. 67’s almost always have a narrow bevel-it’s an unusually consistent feature for Gibson. Useful. too. Very often 66’s and 69’s share a serial number, so the presence of a wide bevel guard is a good indicator of which year it is. There are other “tells”, of course and you should look at all of them. After all, how hard is it to change out a pick guard? Also, you should be aware that the guard on an ES-355 is a completely different animal. And the timeline is a bit different. We’ll look at that next.

These are both wide bevel guards but the one on the left was cut from a sheet of plastic that was upside down. You can see that it has warped convex as opposed to "dishing"like most of them do. You can also see that the wide white ply is the upper one on the "upside down"guard and the lower one on the normal guard.

 

Here's a narrow bevel guard with the rare "boob" logo and a shameless plug for my bud Kyle at Vintage Correct Parts. Most of them don't have the logo. Only some 68's as far as I can tell.

Wise Cracks, Part 2

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

 

This is pretty typical headstock crack of the "smile" variety. It is not usually difficult to repair and can be very stable once done. Glue doesn't last forever so take a close look every now and then to make sure it's still stable.

Generally, I don’t buy guitars with headstock cracks or repairs because unless you can inspect it in person, it’s really hard to know how well it was repaired or how bad the crack is. The conventional wisdom is that a headstock crack or break cuts the vintage value in half. Most folks think that’s about right and I don’t argue the point (like I do with refins). But should we treat a “smile” crack the same as we treat a headstock that has completely broken off and been put back on? Or broken in more than one place? There is a pretty big range of damage that falling guitars can sustain and it’s tough to go by a rule as simple as 50% off. The most common break, usually from a guitar falling backwards, is the “smile” crack. It often follows the grain because that’s where the wood is weakest and it usually occurs near the truss rod end where the headstock is thinnest. A competent luthier can simply flow some glue in there and clamp it for a visible but stable repair. It’s when they start trying to cover the repair up that it gets a little hairy. My rule of thumb, at that end of the neck is that if the color is darker around the base of the headstock, somebody worked on it. Blacklight it, look at it in bright sunlight, take a magnifying glass to it-do what you can because it is a very, very rare thing for a repair to be undetectable. It is not rare for a guitar to be represented as unbroken when it has been repaired. The factory didn’t spray opaque color at the base of the headstock. They did at the heel on certain guitars, so that’s another story. They did stingers once in a while usually to cover something in the wood or the finish but not to conceal a repair. Learn what a factory stinger looks like before you take someone’s word for it. Bigger breaks require bigger repairs. I recently bought a 64 with an undisclosed break that was pretty serious. The seller cleverly shot the photos from an angle that effectively hid the work but it was totally obvious when I got it in my hands. In that case, the neck was probably hanging on by a few slivers of wood and a simple glue job wouldn’t have been strong enough. There are a lot of methods for repairing a major break and, since I’m not a luthier (or even a Lutheran) I can’t speak intelligently about the best way to accomplish a stable reapir. The 64 I got had a spline that went from well past the break down to the second fret or so. It wasn’t pretty but it was smooth and stable. It looked like a bit of fiberglass or some kind of resin may have been added as well. The guitar sounded good and will make a good player for someone. I think the only way to buy a 335/345 or 355 with a headstock repair is to see it in person or be prepared to spend some more money of its done poorly. The worst case is a new neck which can be a great solution. It’ll cost a couple of thousand and will ruin much of the vintage value but, I gotta say, I’d buy a reneck long before I buy a broken headstock. A well executed renecked vintage 335 can be a great bargain and pose no issues at all if it was done competently.

Not pretty but pretty effective. This 64 with a major break was repaired with a spline and was totally stable. Too bad the owner sold it to me without disclosing it. Better me than you.

This nasty break in a 64 ES-335 was sent by a reader (thanks, Eric) and occurred during shipping. If you're shipping a 335 in a vintage case, you have to immobilize it in its case with an impact absorbing material. Throwing in a few handfuls of packing peanuts won't do it. Eric says this was repaired and is now his main player.

 

This happened when I overtightened a tuner screw and the screw end pierced the holly headstock veneer and cracked it. In this case, the crack looks worse than it is since the structural integrity of the headstock is not compromised. If you see a crack like this, make sure there is no movement or the string pull on the tuners could make it worse.

Wise Cracks

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

This 58 had a few long vertical cracks in the top. This is very common in 58's because the top has one less ply and is very thin. That's a repair by the f-hole. It doesn't look great but it isn't likely to go anywhere either. It occurs in post 58 guitars as well but less frequently.

 

Wood is fickle. It is completely inconsistent in how it acts, what it weighs and what it sounds like when sound passes through it. To make it even more complicated an ES-335 is made of no less than six different kinds of wood, all of which expand and contract at different rates when subject to temperature changes. They also have differing strengths when they take a hit. So, it’s just about a given that over fifty years or so, something is going to crack or break. The body of the guitar is generally maple plywood with a poplar or other wood core. The top laminate can split fairly easily and it can also delaminate. The neck is, of course, mahogany which has a nasty habit of splitting along the grain lines when stressed. The center block is maple and spruce and since you can’t really see it, nobody really cares if it splits or not but it can affect the tone of the guitar when it does. The headstock veneer is holly and splits really easily because the grain so straight and the wood is so brittle. The fingerboard is rosewood and rarely cracks-probably because of the moisture content which is often replenished from your greasy, sweaty hands. Buyers get all stressed out over cracks and the truth is that many of them are completely benign and will never cause you a problem. It is simply the nature of wood to crack when it dries or when it is subject to temperature and humidity changes. The hard part is knowing which cracks to worry about and which ones to simply accept as part of the vintage vibe. Rule of thumb here is if it isn’t structural and under stress, then don’t worry about it. Top, side and back cracks are usually in the top laminate and don’t extend through the others. That’s part of the point of using plywood. It’s thin and strong and the grain in each adjacent ply goes in a different direction. An unrepaired top or back crack in an ES is nothing to worry about. Knock off a few bucks for cosmetics but don’t treat it like a headstock break because it is unlikely to change much over time. I often see hairline cracks in the back of the neck, usually between the 5th and 9th fret and usually in a very straight line right along the grain. This is a bit of a red flag because it’s usually caused by an overtightened truss rod. If properly glued, it shouldn’t stop you from buying a well priced guitar if and only if the truss rod issue has been resolved. There really isn’t much stress on it as long as the truss is no longer overtightened and the neck is straight. Things get tricky at the headstock. We’ve all heard that glue is stronger than wood and that seems to be true up to a point. That point is that the glue doesn’t last forever and dries out and gives up but that is a different post. A hairline crack in the headstock face is not unusual-sometimes between the tuners, sometimes at the “wings” which are two small pieces of wood glued to the sides of the headstock to widen it. Wing cracks look worse than they are and once repaired are nothing to worry about as long as they follow the lines of the original seam. Cracks in the veneer are never anything to worry about because its very thin and has no structural significance at all. A crack between the tuners or extending from the tuner to the edge of the headstock is often caused by an overtightened or oversized screw and is usually along the grain line. Generally these aren’t structural but they should be looked at by a luthier who may or may not want to float some thin glue into the crack to stabilize it. There is stress at the tuner shaft so if the crack is open and shows movement, you best fix it. Again, as long as its stable and doesn’t move, you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Any crack, whether benign or structural is going to diminish the value of the guitar. Make sure you factor these things into the price or better yet, buy from a dealer who factors these things into the price. Next we’ll look at typical headstock cracks and breaks.

Not the best photo but there is a truss rod crack in this neck. It happens to the ones with the real flat necks more than those with plenty of wood between the truss rod and the back of the neck. Have one like this looked at before you buy.

 

The Plane Truth

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Nice pro fret job, very clean inlays, nice smooth board with no visible wear, perfectly straight neck. Could this have been planed?

I’ve often commented about just how long 50 years is in the life of a guitar. That, coupled with the fact that guitarists are tinkerers by nature and the fact that wood is inherently unstable makes it very likely that someone has messed with your vintage guitar at some point during those long 50 years.  There are a whole lot of bad things that can happen and a whole lot of not so bad things. The big question is “which is which”? An extra bunch of holes from a tuner change bothers a lot of folks but it won’t hurt the guitar if its done right. A missing Bigsby with holes in the top is another one that rankles some folks. Refrets generally don’t bother anyone if done well. In fact, they are often better than the originals. But supposing that the luthier who did the refret needed to do some planing to get the fingerboard flat either due to extreme rutting (rutting season?) or, worse, from a warped or twisted neck. The necks on 335s are generally pretty stable but 50 years is a very long time for a piece of wood under intense force to stay straight. I talked about the effect of gravity on a guitar recently and also covered fret leveling to compensate and a few other procedures but I didn’t talk much about planing the fingerboard. First off, how do you know the board has been planed? Being bound, you can’t really see the edges but therein lies the “tell”. I’ve had perhaps ten 335s come through here that have had planed fingerboards and the easiest way to tell is to look at the side dots. They should be pretty close to the middle of the binding on the neck. If they are right up near the top, then you can be pretty sure than someone took off some wood-especially if they aren’t uniformly spaced along the length of the board. By that I mean that the dots at the higher frets are closer to the top of the binding than they are at the lower frets or vice versa. If the luthier who did the work was really conscientious, he might take the bindings off, plane the board, re-rout the binding area and replace it but don’t count on it. So, let’s say you just took a closer look at your guitar and you knew it was a refret but you never looked that closely to see if the board was planed and it looks like it was. If it’s smooth and even and the guitar plays well, then forget it. I don’t think it diminishes the value of your guitar any more than a refret. But why plane the board? Isn’t the truss rod supposed to take care of the ravages of gravity and time? To some extent, yes but the truss rod can’t fix a twist or a rise that occurs near the body-it doesn’t extend that far and the real action takes place in the middle of the truss-not at the ends. That’s simple physics (and design). If we just threw away all the Gibsons that had humps and dips and twists in the fingerboard, there wouldn’t be a lot of them left. These guitars are really likely to do these things over time. I would estimate that more than 50% of the guitars I see have something other than a perfectly straight neck. A truss adjustment is the first line of defense. As I’ve said before-you play the frets, not the fingerboard and a fret level can very often fix a minor problem that a truss adjustment can’t. A “compression” refret can sometimes fix a back bow but not always. Steaming the neck is sometimes successful but not always.  Planing the fingerboard is a bit like “if ya can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” You are acknowledging that the wood has won. In most cases, once the board is planed, the problem is gone and the guitar plays like it should. The rosewood blanks are pretty substantial, so you needn’t worry about the board getting too thin to hold the frets. The biggest casualty is usually the fret markers-they are pretty thin to begin with and pretty unstable (335 blocks in particular). Sanding or planing them can actually help if the are curling or lifting but there isn’t much there so they may get too thin. Replacement of the blocks is not the end of the world either. The good news is that the wood, having been under stress for 50 years or so has probably stabilized to a great extent and the fix for your wavy fingerboard should last a good long time. Maybe not 50 more years but you can let the heir to your guitar collection worry about that.

I'm going to guess that there was a rise at the 9th that extended to just past the 12th that was planed. Pay attention to how high on the binding the dot at the 9th fret sits as opposed to the one at the 15th. BTW, the guitar plays great. This is the same guitar as the first photo. I think the inlays were replaced.