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Archive for July, 2015

Hot Town (Summer in the City)

Thursday, July 30th, 2015
How hot is it? It ain't the heat, it's the humidity. OK, it's both. Your guitar doesn't like the weather. It can't jump in the pool and it doesn't like going to the beach.

How hot is it? It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity. OK, it’s both. Your guitar doesn’t like the weather. It can’t jump in the pool and it doesn’t like going to the beach.

Most guitar owners are aware of the havoc that low humidity can cause but when it comes to high humidity, most of us are relatively clueless. I live in New England where the Winters are ridiculously cold and the Summers are hot and humid. The relative humidity in my shop in the Winter with the heat blasting can go as low as 10% and that will wreak havoc on any guitar. I keep a humidifier going 24/7 during the Winter that keeps the RH at 40% which seems to be just fine. But what about the really high humidity that is pretty common around here in the Summer?

Right now, it’s 78 degrees and the RH is 85%. That’s pretty nasty but by 10 PM tonight, according to weather.com, it’s going to be 70 degrees and 100%. What does that do to the “A” rack at OK Guitars? You know, the one with all the old 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. This week, it’s got five 59’s, a 60, 2 61’s, a 62, a 64 and a 65. Well, frankly, it doesn’t do much because I keep the A/C on and set at 74 which keeps the relative humidity around 50% on a humid day and 40% on a warm but dry(ish) day. No such thing as dry heat around here. According to the nice folks at Taylor Guitars, the optimum humidity for an acoustic guitar is 40 to 50%. Electric hollow bodies would follow the same rule and, while they are less reactive to humidity, solid and semi hollow guitars do well in that same environment. But there is another interesting factor to consider.

Back in the day, the wood used for guitars was air dried whereas today it is kiln dried. We are an impatient species and air drying simply takes too long, so we use heat to dry the wood before it is made into a guitar. Apparently (and I’m not an expert in wood), kiln dried wood is less stable that air dried wood so it would react more to changes in humidity. As it turns out, I have old guitars and new guitars in my shop and I can compare some of the effects of changes in humidity. Even though I try to keep the humidity stable, it still fluctuates 10 or 15% over the course of days and I do perceive some changes in some of the guitars. The newer guitars seem to be going out of tune-often sharp. I know the tuning pegs can’t turn themselves, so what is happening and why is it only the new ones? What’s happening is the wood is expanding-the same reason your doors won’t close in the Summer but close easily in the Winter. As the wood expands, the strings are drawn tighter and go sharp. And since  kiln dried wood sucks up moisture more than old air dried wood, the newer guitars are more susceptible to expansion. It won’t turn your parlor guitar into a Dreadnought, but it will expand enough to affect the tone and the tuning. Wet wood doesn’t resonate as well as dry wood and some days, your guitar won’t sound as good as it does on others.

So, what do you do in the hot humid weather to keep your guitar in top form? Keeping it an an air conditioned space is a good start. I’m told that keeping it out of the case helps but there are some who disagree with this. If you have to take the guitar in the car, don’t put it in the trunk and don’t leave it in a hot car. That kind of heat can melt the glue joints. If you’re going a long way, keep the A/C humming and keep the direct sunlight off the case. Black Tolex will absorb a lot of heat. I drive a hatchback and it has one of those rollup shades, so I use that to keep the sun off. Or I put the guitar behind the front seat, so the A/C keeps it fairly cool. Finally, when you bring it indoors from a hot car and the case feels hot, don’t open it right away. Let it acclimate if you’re in a much cooler space. Your guitar will thank you.

Hollow bodies like this cool 59 Epi Broadway are more susceptible to the humidity than solids or semis. Keep it cool.

Hollow bodies like this cool 59 Epi Broadway are more susceptible to the humidity than solids or semis. The center block on your 335 actually stabilizes the structure and keeps it from reacting too much. 

Double Reverse

Sunday, July 19th, 2015
Hey, get some pickup covers. Nobody wants to see naked zebras. But naked reverse zebras? That's another story.

Hey, get some pickup covers. Nobody wants to see naked zebras. But naked reverse zebras? That’s another story.

I like to think I don’t miss much but sometimes I do. Maybe there’s a wire bridge on a guitar that should have a no wire or maybe a repro tailpiece that looks real even when I look closely. Actually, I miss stuff all the time-especially when I’m trying to buy guitars from widows and orphans. I hate to ask them to pull the pickups or even remove the bridge. But when buying a guitar in person, I shouldn’t miss anything. But I did this time.

I always feel a little bad for the seller when I start pulling his (Grandpa’s) guitar apart in front of him. Often, they have never turned a screw or even done more than strum a chord or two. The seller had disclosed a few issues and had also recalled that the pickups were zebras. I’ve heard that before only to find a pair of double blacks (“I could have sworn they were zebras!”). In one case, the seller insisted the original double whites were in there only to find that his scumbag luthier had swapped them out for DiMarzios when the guitar was in for a setup in the 80’s. In the case of the 59 I picked up this week, the seller was right. They were zebras all right. The covers were chrome and wrong but I pulled the bobbin screws and saw the white showing and that was that. I found a few other undisclosed issues but no dealbreakers and negotiated a fair price. End of story, right?

I got back to my shop and pulled off the chrome covers-I certainly wasn’t going to sell it with those and started rummaging around for a set of nickel ones. I had only one and I really wanted to get this guitar up on my site and on Gbase, so I just left the covers off and put it up that way. I took the “look…zebras” approach and thought nothing more of it. I’d get another cover and reshoot it later with its covers and leave up a shot with those zebras showing just to prove they were in there. Then I get an email from a regular reader.

“Hey…cool…reverse zebras.” Somehow I completely missed it. The guy said they were zebras, I saw the white bobbin from the back and I pulled the covers. Yep, zebras. Reverse zebras never entered my mind because they are so freaking rare. How rare? I’ve had 500 ES models and at perhaps 100 were from the era when whites and zebras were more common. Know how many reverse zebras I’ve seen? Three. Two on a first rack 345 and one on a ’60 ES-355 . I saw one on Ebay once but it looked like a fake to me since the seller disclosed that it might have been rewound. Something that occurred occasionally was to take a trashed double white and a double black and make two zebras out of it. One would be the usual slug coil zebra and the other would be a reverse. I had learned to pay very close attention to reverse zebras because most are fake-made from parts. I don’t know why they are so rare but they are.

I do think the premium paid for double whites and zebra PAF’s is a little silly but plenty of things that vintage collectors do are silly. And I love getting a set of double whites or zebras in a guitar. It’s like Christmas in July. It’s a little like the window dresser in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”. He insisted that there should be a Balenciaga scarf in the mannequin’s purse even though no one would see it because he would know it was in there (and “she” would have one in there). Even under the pickups covers, I know they are there. And I like that.

Slug coil zebras are fairly common-I've had dozens of them.

Slug coil zebras are fairly common-I’ve had dozens of them.

Cool to find a single reverse zebra in a 335 but two? Anybody else got one like this?? There's a 345 on Clay H's vintage guitar site with two of them so I know they are out there.

Cool to find a single reverse zebra in a 335 but two? Anybody else got one like this?? There’s a 345 on Clay H’s vintage guitar site with two of them so I know they are out there.

Anatomy of a 72

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

 

There a big fat section of the center block missing from 70's ES-335's. That's not such a good thing. There is nothing from the bridge to the lower edge of the neck pickup.

There a big fat section of the center block missing from 70’s ES-335’s. That’s not such a good thing. There is nothing from the bridge to the lower edge of the neck pickup. Note the Phillips screws on the backs of the pickups. Most folks think that means pre T-tops. Nope. Those are T-tops. I checked.

I don’t get to see a lot of 70’s ES-335’s because I don’t generally buy them mostly because I don’t generally like them. But they are ES-335’s and they are made by some of the same folks who made the early ones, so maybe it’s time we looked under the hood and took some notes while we’re at it.

I had to ask myself…”what makes a 335 sound like a 335?” Certainly the electronics are part of that but it’s the construction of the guitar that is the big player. Otherwise, a 335 would sound just like a Les Paul which has the same electronics. The guitar I have in my hands is a 1972 ES-335 made by Gibson during the much maligned Norlin Era. Norlin was in the business of making a profit (as was Gibson) but there was a difference-or at least one that can be perceived from their respective products. Gibson-especially under ted McCarty, wanted to make money AND make great guitars. Gibson-under Norlin- wanted to make money. Period. There were no notable innovations during the Norlin years but there were some serious cost cutting measures that made the business profitable but hurt the guitars.

A 335 is not the easiest guitar to build. The center block alone of the original version had four separate components-the maple block-two mahogany end blocks and a kerfed spruce “spacer” on top of the block. Apparently, assembling all those components was too costly and time consuming for the Norlin (beer/cement) bean counters and they “simplified” the design. The 72 I have has no mahogany end blocks and the maple is missing about a 5 inch space from the bridge to the back edge of the neck pickup. You would think that this had the upside of decreased weight but this one weighs 8 lbs which is pretty average. It is more resonant unplugged but that makes it less like a 335.  And then there’s the neck. While it’s probably less work to make a one piece neck, it’s more expensive because you need bigger pieces of mahogany. So, in 1969, Norlin went to a three piece neck. More money for us, less quality for you. Actually, I don’t really have a problem with a three piece neck from a tone standpoint. I’ve play many multi piece neck guitars that sound great. But I’m sure they were saving a few bucks on every guitar.

Where I think the 70’s 335 falls even farther is in the neck join. The long tenon is gone and the loss of all that wood coupling the neck to the center block causes what I find to be a clear change in the tone and sustain of the guitar. I’m sure the missing 5 inch chunk of center block has something to do with that as well. I’m not getting the same richness of tone-the complexity and harmonics that I get from the early 335’s. Maybe it’s the pickups? I dunno, it’s got T-tops and I’ve heard some great T-tops that have made their way into early 335’s and some 67’s and 68’s with them that could give a dot neck a run for its money. T-tops are often a bit thinner sounding but they can still be an excellent pickup, so I don’t think the pickups are the problem. If I dropped a pair of 59 PAFs into this guitar, it might sound better, but it wouldn’t sound like a 59. And, by the way, just because you see Philips screws on the back doesn’t mean they aren’t T-tops. This 72 has them and I looked. T-tops.

There are plenty of other differences but they are largely cosmetic. The neck volute annoys most of us but it probably doesn’t change the tone of the guitar. The bigger headstock just looks funny as does the “pantograph” logo. The binding on the neck tends to crack at the fret ends but I don’t know what’s actually different about it. Different plastic formulation? Still, it doesn’t change the tone. The overall construction of the body is pretty similar outside of the changed block characteristics, so that isn’t the thing making it sound different. So, I can conclude that the real difference in tone comes from the center block and neck tenon changes. That’s not to say that a 70’s 335 can’t be an excellent guitar. It just won’t sound like a 59-68.

Where's the neck tenon? Not where it usually is on the 58-68's. It's missing a couple inches. Also not a good thing.

Where’s the neck tenon? Not where it usually is on the 58-68’s. It’s missing a couple inches. Also not a good thing.