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Archive for March, 2014

Idle Frets

Monday, March 31st, 2014

 

"Little" frets on a 58 unbound 335. If the guitar is set up properly, you shouldn't have any trouble bending the crap out of the strings.

“Little” frets on a 58 unbound 335. If the guitar is set up properly, you shouldn’t have any trouble bending the crap out of the strings.

I’m not very adept with a pair of calipers. Today I tried to measure the frets on all the guitars I have in the house (snow day with nothing much to do). I know approximately how big the frets are supposed to be but for some reason my measurements aren’t that close. Of course, the size of the fret wire as it came out of the box 50 years ago (or tube or whatever) isn’t necessarily the size of the fret wire today. Some general knowledge of Gibson’s fret “repertoire” will help. In 1958, Gibson wasn’t using what we now call “jumbo” fret wire in the first 335’s off the line. The first thing I noticed when I picked up the first 58 I ever owned was that the frets looked like vintage Fender frets (I was a Fender guy before I was a Gibson guy). I measured them at .075″ which is pretty close to Fender which, if what I read on the internet is correct, are .078″. Often, when I get a request from a potential buyer for a dot neck, I ask whether they want a 58, 59, 60 or 61. Most want a 59 and when I ask why, they sometimes say “I can’t play on those little frets on the 58″. I’ve been playing a string of 58’s for the past few months and, while I’m not the world’s best player (OK, not even a good player), I find very little difference between the feel of a 58 and the feel of a 59. Big bends seem to work just fine on the “little” 58 frets. I think setup has more to do with bending than fret wire does but perhaps fat frets are more forgiving of a mediocre setup. I’ll have to look into that. I measured a few others as well. The frets on my 59 ES-345 were around .085″ and were extremely comfortable -a bit flatter than the 58’s but that could be from dressing and wear. The 66 I have had about the same size as the 59 only taller. I have an 82 here that measures .092″ so apparently bigger frets were introduced at some point after the 60’s ended. My 59 Epi Sheraton’s frets measured .080 but I’m such a klutz, they were probably the same as those on my 59 ES-345 and I just didn’t a good measurement. These are pretty small differences after all. But, when you compare these “vintage jumbo” frets to modern jumbo frets, they are quite a lot smaller. A .085 today is considered medium. So, what do I specify when I need to have one of my vintage beauties refretted? I’ve had great results with Dunlop 6105 wire (.090″). It’s so close to vintage spec that I can’t tell the difference. I played refrets done with 6100, 6120, Stew Mac 146 and 154 and they all seem pretty good. I will say that I’m completely obsessive about proper intonation and the big wide 6120’s make intonation more difficult and finicky-especially when they need a crown. In fact, all these frets, once they flatten out from wear (“railroad ties” in luthier vernacular) will cause you some intonation issues. It’s simple physics really. The more precise the pressure point on the string (i.e. the top of the fret) the more precise the note. With flat frets, if the string contacts the back edge of the fret, the note will be rather different from the note produced at the middle or front edge of the fret. On a properly crowned fret, there is only a single point at which the string touches the fret. That doesn’t mean you can get away with poor intonation but it allows you to better adjust and control it. So, I’m afraid I haven’t shed that much light on which 335s used which frets-it seems like 58’s used little ones and 59-66 (and later) used what would be called medium today. If anybody is real good with the calipers, I’d be happy to learn what you find. 99% of what I know about these guitars comes from owning them and looking at them.  You can’t get most of this stuff from a book.

These are original 59 frets. Not exactly huge by modern standards but plenty big for me. These measure around .082"

These are original 59 frets. Not exactly huge by modern standards but plenty big for me. These measure around .085″

Deep and Dark

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
Back in the deep dark 40's, a Gibson sunburst could look like this. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Back in the deep dark 40’s, a Gibson sunburst could look like this. Pretty cool, if you ask me. That’s a Kalamazoo but you know who made it.

Most of you are aware that the little two on the back of the headstock above (or below) the serial number means the guitar is a factory second…the mark of shame for a guitar that couldn’t pass QC. The problem was usually a little teeny flaw in the finish. But not always. The “2” designation can mean almost anything. The good news is that, mostly, you can’t even find the flaw and the fact that it’s a factory second doesn’t affect the price or the desirability. Recently, I acquired a very early (probably first week in January) ’59 ES-335 with the “2” on the back of the headstock.  I have only seen one other factory second this early in the run-a fairly early 58 335 and it wasn’t anything obvious, although the guitar was heavily played so its hard to tell what was going on. But the flaw on this one is sort of glaring-and kind of cool if you ask me. It looks a little like a 40’s J45 with that deep, deep sunburst. Under blacklight, the guitar glows exactly as it should but a flaw shows up under the black near where it transitions to red. So, it would appear that the painter was going deeper and deeper until the flaw disappeared. QC was not amused. The back is, however,  totally normal. I think that, in this case, the “2” kind of saves the guitar from it’s appearance. I would have said a refinish was possible if not likely if not for the “2”. I’ve been through the guitar from end to end and there is no sign that this finish didn’t come from the factory this way. It is also not the only one like this I’ve seen. There is a late 58 (which I also think is very cool looking) owned or formerly owned by an acquaintance of mine which also has an unusually heavy dark element to the sunburst. No “2” on that one, however. At least not that I can recall.

One of the great things about these old guitars is all the hand work that is done. Myself, I love to see the great variations that human hands (and human error) can produce on instruments like these. And not just in the finishes. In the neck carves as well. There are certainly guidelines that hold true for Gibson necks of a given year but there are always, and I mean always, exceptions. I recently had a 59 with a neck that would have been more likely found on a 62-barely .82″ at the first fret. Contrast that with this guitar at .93″ at the first fret. Both 59’s. The human touch at work for sure. There are great variations in body thickness, variations in nut width and neck sets and even knob placement and f-hole location. I’m sure they used templates for the latter two so there isn’t much variation but there is some. But these things don’t get you the dreaded scarlet letter-am I being overly dramatic?. OK, the stamped number “2”.

My larger point here is that the guitar with the weird sunburst is something to be enjoyed (and I’m enjoying it plenty). It is testament to hand crafting and to QC, I suppose. And, if you don’t want your dot neck to look like everyone else’s, you might want to seek out one these freaks with the “2” on their head. It might save you a buck or two and make you stand out in the crowd.

What was there, a special sale on black paint that week? Or maybe the paint guy was still hung over from New years Eve. This guitar is one of the first off the line in 1959.

What was there, a special sale on black paint that week? Or maybe the paint guy was still hung over from New years Eve. This guitar is one of the first off the line in 1959.

58

This 58, while it doesn’t have a “2” designation is still pretty unusual for a 335. This is one of my favorite sunbursts ever. This guitar has character. And, being a bound 58 is probably very close in serial number to the one above it.

 

 

 

Falling in Love

Saturday, March 15th, 2014
I can't do a post about falling in love without including a photo of my beautiful wife who tolerates calls from buyers during dinner and loud screeching noises coming from the "guitar room".

I can’t do a post about falling in love without including a photo of my beautiful wife who tolerates calls from buyers during dinner and loud screeching noises coming from the “guitar room”.

I haven’t been a guitar dealer for all that long. Up until 2010, I was just kind of a guitar player with a particular affinity for certain old Gibsons. But up to 2010, when I kind of zeroed in on the very narrow range of  58-65 ES models, I played all kinds of guitars and owned a fair number of them. There were certain guitars that I’ve always (since I was 12 anyway) had a deep and abiding longing for and others I could simply take or leave. Obviously 335’s have always been on my radar although I couldn’t afford one when I was gigging in the 60’s and 70’s. But I also liked Epiphone solid bodies, SGs and Stratocasters. I was never a Telecaster guy, although I like them now. Until recently, I had never owned a Gretsch or a Rickenbacker even with my great love for the Beatles and their music. My acoustic for more than 30 years was a 69 Martin D-28 but I never really liked it all that much. I kind of stopped playing from the late 70’s until my son was born in 87. Playing for him on the old Martin (to keep him quiet or just to entertain) really got me back into it. I dabbled in guitars through the 90’s and into the early 2000’s. I bought an Epiphone Crestwood, an Epiphone Wilshire, a reissue ’60 Stratocaster, a Taylor 12 string, a 70’s Les Paul Custom, a Rickenbacker 350, Baker B1 and a 64 ES-335. I didn’t fall in love with any of these guitars (OK, maybe the 335) although I enjoyed them while I had them. I still have the Taylor but the rest are long gone, although I owned the 64 335 for many years until somebody talked me out of it. But I also found that I loved the journey perhaps more than the destination and then found it easier to not keep every guitar I bought that I really connected with.

A well known vintage dealer once told me what he thought it took to be a successful vintage dealer. He said: “DON’T FALL IN LOVE”. Well, I don’t fall in love that often (after all, I’m still with my first wife after almost 30 years) but I’ve had a small number of guitars over the past few years that have really been hard to let go. And recently, I’ve had two that are real heartbreakers. Over the past few years the ones that come to mind are the red ’59 ES-345 and the red 59 ES-335. Their rarity and the great playability of both of them keep them fondly in my memory. I knew they would go when I bought them; simply because I couldn’t afford to keep them, but I wasn’t happy about it. I don’t really like the term “holy grail” but since everybody else seems to use it, I will too. The usage of it in the guitar world is pretty well understood so calling the most sought after guitars something else will just confuse you (golden fleece guitars?). My holy grail (no caps) is probably a stop tail mono big neck red 59 ES-355 with a pair of double white PAFs. Never seen one. I’ve been close with the stop tail stereo version I just sold (and it was hard to let that one go). Blonde 335’s and 345’s are certainly in that category and I’ve let a few of them go but with fewer regrets than those red 59’s. Finally, the last guitar I fell for was one that didn’t even make the “for sale” page on my site. I just didn’t want to let it go. Finally a good friend wanted it even more badly than I did and I made him promise to never sell it unless he sold it back to me. And it wasn’t even a Gibson. well, yes it was but it didn’t say Gibson on it anywhere. It was the guitar you see below. Best playing guitar I’ve ever played. Probably the prettiest too. Best tone? Probably not with those single coils but it sounded great to my old ears. So, the old girl is gone and I miss her already. But, I’ve got a closet full of cool guitars here (and a great old 58 coming tomorrow), so, in the immortal words of Steven Stills…”if you can’t be with the one you love…you know the rest.

Goodbye old girl. I miss you already. It's not like I'm going to find another blonde 59 Sheraton. They only made three of them.

Goodbye old girl. I miss you already. It’s not like I’m going to find another blonde 59 Sheraton. They only made three of them.

 

 

The 70’s Called…

Saturday, March 8th, 2014
The Seventies got really ugly in a very short period of time. You should have seen this guy in the 50's and 60's.

The Seventies got really ugly in a very short period of time. You should have seen this guy in the 50’s and 60’s.

…and they want their guitars back. Fat Elvis. Annie Hall. Ziggy Stardust. The Fonz. Farrah. Rocky, Tricky Dick. Fewer decades have shown so much range and not in a good way. I contend that the 60’s didn’t start until ’63 and didn’t end until 73 or so. The real 70’s as I recall them, seem to be disco, mood rings, pet rocks and platform shoes for men. There was some great music but it was overshadowed by so much ugly stuff. It was like a 60’s hangover. I mean, we had Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac. We also had the BeeGees (the disco ones not the early ones), The Carpenters, all those horrible disco acts and Glam Rock. For Gibson, the 70’s began in 1969. Norlin (beer, concrete) bought Gibson that year and started thinking about ways they could make more money than they were already making. Their best effort? Make the guitars cheaper and sell them for more money. Geniuses. Capitalism at its best. Gibson used to be run by people of vision who simply wanted to make a great product  (and a profit) and, in so doing, were creative, inventive and dedicated. With the suits from Norlin at the switch and guitars sales still booming, their approach was to make a great, great product into a mediocre one (at best) that could be produced quickly and cheaply. No wonder they sent Epiphone to Japan. I almost never get 70’s ES-335’s into my hands. I don’t take them in trade and I don’t seek them out. They are simply too inconsistent. I have one here now and I will take you through it. First of all, there are good ones. Really. I freely admit it. There is nothing wrong with the design even with some of the dumb changes they made to cut costs. The 73-74 I have here has only half a center block (up to the bridge). But it doesn’t seem to make that much difference. The resonance is pretty close to an earlier one. The pickups are still pretty good. The neck tenon has all but disappeared and the neck is not as stable. I don’t need a Bigsby-I can do vibrato (not tremolo) by pulling on the neck. I don’t like necks that do that. The volute (the reinforcement bump behind the headstock) is ugly but it doesn’t really make much difference nor does the three piece neck versus the one piece. The fiber headstock overlay is just cheap but it doesn’t change the tone or playability. They could have made all these changes and still made a pretty good guitar. What suffered was the build quality. The fit and finish is just not the same. The glue is sloppy, the neck join is sloppy-things just don’t fit together as well as they did “back in the day.” Not every 335 is poorly constructed but even if 25% of them are, that’s 25% more than there were in the 58-64 era. Out of the 350 or so that I’ve had, not one was poorly built. There is a bit of a range for sure but never poor quality-even the factory seconds. One result of bad build quality is poor sustain-the parts just don’t fit together so well and they don’t seem to vibrate as a unit like the early ones do. Another is less durability. A 70’s ES-335 is more likely to fall apart after 50 years than a 58-68. There’s less glue where glue belongs, more glue where it doesn’t belong and less precisely measured and cut components. If a 59 is like a piece of fine furniture, a 75 is sort of like the bookcase you made in 8th grade shop class (you know what it looked like). There are other elements-like a decline the quality of the woods used, for example. It all adds up to a good design that has been compromised. Vintage prices reflect the difference and I can’t say that a 70’s ES can’t be a relatively good value. Early 70’s seem to be generally better than late 70’s (and they changed the body shape to something that looks weird in 76). Just play it first or buy with a return policy to make sure it isn’t a dog. Actually, I may be insulting dogs.

Early 70's ES-335. Doesn't look that different than a 68 but it is different. Play it before you buy it.

Early 70’s ES-335. Doesn’t look that different than a 68 but it is different. Play it before you buy it.

By the late 70's the waist got thinner, the horns got thinner and Elvis got fatter.

By the late 70’s the waist got thinner, the horns got thinner and Elvis got fatter.

 

Bucket List or Bust

Saturday, March 1st, 2014
A factory stop tail ES-355 has been on my personal bucket list for years. The fact that it's a 59 is just icing on the cake. If it was mono, I'd be beside myself but this'll do. Love that watermelon red too.

A factory stop tail ES-355 has been on my personal bucket list for years. The fact that it’s a 59 is just icing on the cake. If it was mono, I’d be beside myself but this’ll do. Love that watermelon red too.

I love the rare stuff but I always approach them more than a little skepticism. This week I had two opportunities to buy extremely rare 355’s. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that many sellers-especially those selling Grandpa’s old Gibson-don’t know very much about guitars. So, I assume nothing when I get an inquiry about buying the old girl. Most guitar collectors know that rarity is not a good indicator of value in a vintage piece. There are, after all, over 1000 Les Paul bursts (some say more like 1500) and you know how much they sell for. But I do love the rare stuff and I tend to buy those that come up even if I can’t make a dime on them . It’s the weird collector side of me, I guess-and I’m really not a collector. I only own 4 or 5 guitars and there is perhaps only one I won’t sell (for now anyway).  It was a personal mission of mine to get a red 59 dot neck for years. I finally found one a couple of years ago and was thrilled to have done so. But it was the chase more than the acquisition that got my motor running.

Recently, two very rare birds have flown into my nest. One, a 59 ES-355 with a factory stop and the other, a 63 factory sunburst ES-355. Factory stops are really rare but there are probably a dozen of them, at least. I know of 5, so there are probably a fair number that haven’t surfaced yet. I’ve tried to buy a 60 mono and a 63 mono, only to be outgunned by buyers with more money or more desire. The one I have now is a 59 stereo. The other is a sunburst ES-355 and I only know of two of them. Most of you know that 355’s only came in red unless custom ordered. I don’t know why things come in pairs like this but it’s true. It’s happened over and over again. So, now I have both guitars and it’s a good cautionary tale. I picked up the stop tail 59 ES-355 in person so I was safe there. Even though I drove for a couple of hours, I could still walk away (or negotiate a fair deal) if something wasn’t right. But everything checked out and I have one of my little “holy grails”. It’s for sale, of course, but I can check it off my bucket list and enjoy it while I have it.

The 63 sunburst is a different story. That one actually was Grandpa’s guitar but Grandpa had some work done before he went to rock and roll heaven. I had my suspicions when I got the photos but I really hoped I was wrong. But when I got the guitar in my hands and was able to look in the nooks and crannies, there were traces of red where red didn’t belong. So, instead of being a rare sunburst 355 worth many thousands of dollars, it’s a nicely refinished mono 63 in an unusually red looking sunburst. The reason for that is the red dye gets deep into the wood and the person who did the refinish was smart not to try to sand it all away because you’ll go through the top maple ply nearly every time. It’s still a nice guitar-I love mono 355s but it isn’t collectible-it’s just a nice player. I paid a player price (the deal was contingent on my inspection) so at least I didn’t get hosed. And really, one out of two ain’t bad. In fact it’s pretty good. If 50% of the guitars I bought were exactly as described, I’d be ecstatic. The truth is the number is more like 10% even though the discrepancies in description are usually minor (wrong bridge, changed pot, tuner tips and so on). So, the moral of the story is twofold-go look at the guitar in person if you can before you commit to big bucks for a rarity. And second, hope for the best but prepare for something less. It’ll save you some disappointment. The search continues.

Gibson sunbursts are pretty consistent and this one looked too red but I've seen oddball sunbursts before so I was kind of hoping this one was original. But it isn't. I do like the sticker on the guard (beep, beep). Plays nice and sounds great even with the Maestro. I'd stop tail it since it's a player.

Gibson sunbursts are pretty consistent and this one looked too red but I’ve seen oddball sunbursts before so I was kind of hoping this one was original. But it isn’t. I do like the sticker on the guard (beep, beep). Plays nice and sounds great even with the Maestro. I’d stop tail it since it’s a player.