Archive for March, 2015

Weird and Wonderful One-Off

Saturday, March 21st, 2015
What the....??? No, it isn't a Barney. It's a one off '63 ES-355 with Venetian cutaways.

What the….??? No, it isn’t a Barney. It’s a one off ’63 ES-355 with Florentine cutaways.

Back in the olden days, before Gibson was overrun by beer and cement makers (Norlin), they would make just about any variation of a catalog model you wanted. For a price, of course. Odd colors, fancy or personalized inlays, different bindings…really just about anything. The result is guitars like the “greenburst” 335, or the red 59 dot neck with a varitone or Tommy Mottola’s no f-hole sunburst 355 and plenty of others. I’ve written about most, if not all of the ones I just mentioned but a reader sent me another, perhaps weirder than any of the others.

The owner says it’s a 63 and the serial number bears that out although you really can’t tell much from the guitar itself. It’s had more than its share of mods done over the years. It is, essentially, a stereo VT ES-355 with Florentine cutaways and bound f-holes. I’ve seen bound f-holes on a few custom made ES models including the black 66 335 I had. But Florentine (sharp) cutaways? Thats a new one for me. There seems to be no record of it in the Gibson shipping ledger although I have seen entries that read “spec. cutaway” before. It looks, essentially, like a thinline Barney Kessel-not my favorite design but I’m not a big archtop guy. I’d say this one is about as close to one of a kind as you’ll get. Too bad it’s been so heavily modded. What did they do?

There are few obvious changes like the 70’s harmonica bridge and the extra switch at the treble side cutaway. Possibly a kill switch or a coil tap. It looks like it came from the factory with a Bigsby like most 355’s and that was removed and a stop tail installed (a bit low). Perhaps the most unusual mod is a separate-probably mono-output jack. You don’t see that one very often. It’s got Grovers but looks to have been shipped with Kluson wafflebacks which is correct for 63. Finally, it looks like the headstock had a “smile” crack that was repaired and oversprayed. As I’m fond of saying, 50 years or more is a long time for a guitar to stay stock. It just takes one owner with “improvements” in mind to, let’s say, “take it out of collector grade”.

Still, I’m always inclined to want one just like it because it’s just so different. I love 355’s and there’s nothing like a one off to get a conversation going. Like it or hate it, it’s just too interesting to ignore. Somebody really wanted this-enough to pay some very serious dollars for sure. ES-355’s were really pricey to begin with. By 63 they were pushing $1000 with the optional case which is close to $8000 in 2015 dollars. And that’s for a stock one. I wonder what this cost? Big thanks to David P. for letting me write up his guitar.

Nice flame on the back too. I can't figure out why so many had flame backs and plain tops.

Nice flame on the back too. I can’t figure out why so many had flame backs and plain tops.

Mods to Rockers

Saturday, March 14th, 2015
Good mods and bad mods. An added stop tail when properly placed (by someone else) can be a good mod. On a 355 or a 65 and later trap tail, it can make the guitar more desirable and somewhat less expensive.

Good mods and bad mods. An added stop tail when properly placed (by someone else) can be a good mod. On a 355 or a 65 and later trap tail, it can make the guitar more desirable and somewhat less expensive.

Not those mods, with their fancy Carnaby St. clothes and their scooters. Nope, I’m talking mods to vintage guitars that kill the value for the collectors but make them affordable for the players. This is about the modifications that make a valuable vintage guitar less valuable and don’t affect the tone or the playability. The kind of mods this rocker likes.

Stop tail conversions done by someone else are always welcome but you don’t want to do it yourself because it diminishes the value. On the other hand, it sometimes makes for a better player. The big problem is that they are so frequently put in the wrong place. Your idiot brother-in-law who is real good with a drill press but knows nothing about guitars puts the stop where the trapeze cross piece was and thinks its right. Nothing bugs me more than a stop that’s a mile off (that means yours Larry Carlton). It will still play just fine but it looks way wrong. A stop tail conversion on a 65-68 will knock off $1000 or more and you won’t care a bit.

Grovers. Not Schallers. Both are perfectly good tuners and both are better tuners, if you ask me, than Klusons. That’s why so many players made the switch back in the day. They simply work better even if they are heavier. But the Schallers usually have that offset screw that requires an extra hole for each tuner. Not good for the value. Most Grovers can use one of the Kluson holes, so no new holes. Both require enlarged shaft holes but that’s invisible. The other reason I don’t like Schallers on vintage 335’s is because they look too ’70’s. They just don’t seem to belong on a 50’s or 60’s guitar. Grovers are at least correct for the era and they work real well. A tuner conversion can mean savings of perhaps $1000 on a mid 60’s but as much as $5000 (maybe more in some cases) on a dot neck.

Then there are the refinished ones. Refins, especially well done ones, will save you a boatload of dough and won’t affect the tone and playability one iota (what is an iota, anyway). The idea that a refin knocks off half the value-the same as a busted headstock-seems a little nutty to me. Especially now that so many of the Les Paul aficionados are sending their factory finished R9’s to Kim at Historic Makeovers for a pricey, better-than-Gibson refin. Who’da thunk. When HM starts offering busted headstocks as an upgrade, then I’ll freak out but in the meantime, I’ll go on about what a great deal a refin can be. Granted, there aren’t that many people who can do a really convincing dot neck style sunburst, but you see them on occasion, so they are out there. Also blondes and blacks. You know you can’t afford a blonde dot neck or find a factory black one but you might find a refin for a price that doesn’t require a mortgage and, if you’re a player, will look very cool on stage and not require an armed guard between sets. I’m not going to get into the nitro/poly thing. I don’t know if poly affects the tone or not but I suggest you look for a refin that was done in the correct nitro lacquer. It just looks better and is much more authentic.

Patched holes from mini switches, coil taps and other 70’s forays into stupid are another mod that will keep the green in your wallet. The range of competence with which they are repaired runs a gamut but a well patched extra hole or two will save you thousands. Your guitar won’t appreciate like a collector grade guitar will but it should hold its value and serve you well as a player. And besides, you can’t really see that patch from more than five feet away anyway.

I generally stay away from busted necks or headstocks. Some, like the “smile cracks” can be totally stable and will save you major bucks. But I suggest you play it before you buy it. Some headstock breaks are trouble and I can’t tell you which ones because it could be any of them. A splined repair usually means the break was major and while they can be perfectly stable, I’d still be wary.

This refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing. A smart buyer saved himself about ten large over an original finish.

This refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing. A smart buyer saved himself about ten large over an original finish.


Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015
I've been waiting for this guitar for a week now. It's been to NYC, Memphis, Albany, Newark, NJ and god knows where else.

I’ve been waiting for this guitar for a week now. It’s been to NYC, Memphis, Albany, Newark, NJ and god knows where else.

Back when the New York Mets were brand new, the manager was the legendary Casey Stengel. The Mets were terrible and were mired in last place when Mr. Stengel famously commented “can’t anybody here play this game?” This statement applies to the shipping industry at least when it comes to vintage guitars. I’ll use Fedex as the example but UPS and the US Postal Service aren’t any better.

I had a 63 ES-335 shipped to me from the UK this week (on my account) and it cost over $300 to do so (and I get a good rate). First off, Fedex won’t insure vintage guitars for more than $1000. It’s the “declared value” line and you can put any number in there you want and they will charge an ever increasing fee for your “insurance”. I know, before I read the fine print, I was “insuring” them for as much as $25000 and paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege. Then they broke a mint 64 SG Standard and explained that I needed to read the “terms and conditions” which clearly state Fedex’s policy. This is a cut and paste from the Fedex website: Shipments (packages or freight) containing all or part of the following items are limited to a maximum declared value of US $1,000: Guitars and other musical instruments that are more than 20 years old, and customized or personalized musical instruments. It should add (but it doesn’t) that “we’ll take your money, however if you want to give it to us but we won’t increase our liability beyond $1000.” So, I put $1000 in the space provided and carry my own insurance through another carrier (the very well regarded Heritage Insurance in Pennsylvania). Caveat Emptor, shippers. Fedex has enough money without throwing more at them for no service.

But that isn’t the issue with the aforementioned 63 ES-335 (which is a very rare factory blonde). I was on vacation, so I had it shipped International Economy rather than the Priority service I usually use. In general, a well packed guitar doesn’t mind sitting for a few extra days. What it doesn’t like is being handled. Here’s where my guitar has been. Note that I live less than two hours from JFK Airport in Jamaica (Queens) NY where it landed five days ago. I could have walked from JFK to my house in that amount of time. Note the date and month are backwards – Euro style. Read from the bottom up.

Activity Location
10/03/2015 – Tuesday
21:21 Arrived at FedEx location NEWARK, NJ
16:41 In transit LATHAM, NY
09/03/2015 – Monday
05:23 Departed FedEx location MEMPHIS, TN
08/03/2015 – Sunday
18:18 In transit MEMPHIS, TN
13:33 International shipment release – Import MEMPHIS, TN
10:15 International shipment release – Import MEMPHIS, TN
07/03/2015 – Saturday
12:08 Arrived at FedEx location MEMPHIS, TN
10:39 In transit JAMAICA, NY
05/03/2015 – Thursday
16:17 In transit POYLE GB
14:29 International shipment release – Export POYLE GB
13:53 In transit POYLE GB
04/03/2015 – Wednesday
20:58 Picked up STOKE ON TRENT GB

So, here it is, eight days down the road and the guitar has been from the UK to JFK to Memphis, to Albany/Latham (also less than 2 hours away) and then to Newark (2 hours in the other direction). It is now Wednesday night and I have no idea if its still in Newark or on its way to Kuala Lumpur. I’m not sure where its going next but I hope it’s to CT where I live. The more a guitar gets handled, the more likely it is to get broken. That’s why I suggest that expensive guitars be sent next day or two day Fedex. I asked the folks at Fedex why this guitar has been routed this way and they didn’t know. They blamed the weather (which has been pretty nice since the guitar arrived in NY). They also kept going back to the fact that the guitar wasn’t due to be delivered until March 12th. I tried to explain that just because you have 8 days doesn’t mean you have to give the guitar a tour of the East Coast while you use up the allotted time. I suppose they could ship it to LA and back a few times given the timetable. I understand that shipping a lot of stuff is hard work and the logistics of containerized shipping must be a bitch but come on folks. You were so close (and yet so far). I think perhaps computers have been given too much power and human beings have been largely eliminated from the equation. The fact that four different Fedex agents gave me four different stories speaks volumes. Interestingly, all four kept going back to the scripted line “…delivery is on schedule…”

I would use a different shipper but I’ve used them all and while Fedex is pretty poor a lot of the time, they don’t lose stuff very often. That’s not true of some other shippers. I shipped a guitar to Australia using the Postal Service and it got lost. Twelve days later, they found it at a post office 8 miles away from where I dropped it off. I just wanted to make you aware that shipping sucks and nobody in the shipping business can play this game. I think the ’62 Mets would have figured out how to get the guitar from Queens to Connecticut.