Things I Don’t Care About: Part 1
Odd name for a post. If I don’t care about it, why should I write about it? Because you do. And maybe you shouldn’t (or at least not so much). It’s in the nature of both guitarists and collectors to be detail oriented and more than a little picky. Guitar collectors who play their guitars and not lock them in a humidified cabinet are the most picky of all. Ideally, it has to be three things: great tone, great playability and great looking. It’s the fourth element-originality-that gets so many of us nuts. Here, we’ll talk about the first three. Or I’ll talk and you’ll (hopefully) listen.
Good news first. Great tone is achievable on the huge majority of pre Norlin (1969) ES 3×5’s. Yes, t-tops in a 68 are going to sound different than PAFs in a 58 but I’ve heard 68’s that are stunning. To get your great tone, you may have to fix a sagging bridge or raise or lower the pickups, do a re-fret or put in a new nut but these are the kind of changes I don’t care about. Put the old nut and bridge in the case and stop worrying. What about bad wood? There is nothing wrong with the wood through the 60’s. It’s maple and poplar plywood (usually) and its properly dried and it has had 50 years to settle in. Just play the average 70’s 335 and you’ll notice a difference-the wood changed-it’s heavier and less resonant. There’s also less of it as they started shortening the center bock and got rid of the mahogany end pieces. Yes, there are great sounding 70’s 335’s. Just not a lot of them. There are good and not so good PAFs, patent numbers and t-tops. Changing a pickup you don’t like for another correct one is not a big deal to most of us. It is, in fact, something I don’t care about. Do I prefer the originals? I do but not if they don’t sound good.
Appearance issues can kill a deal pretty quickly with a lot of players but great tone often trumps it. Most players will take an ugly guitar that plays great over a beautiful guitar that plays like crap. On the other hand, why shouldn’t you have both. Answer? You should but it’s gonna cost you. But there are, once again, things I don’t care about. Wear in the usual places-arm, back and back of the neck certainly affect the appearance and that should be reflected in the price. If you care about it, then I get it and I agree. It’s just that the price can be a compelling force even if you don’t like the appearance. The back of the neck is the exception. It doesn’t particularly bother me visually or feel wise but I get that it bothers some players. But that’s a point to be made under “playability”. Plugged holes are really an appearance issue too and also something I don’t really care about as long as it’s reflected in the price. Yes, it kills the “investment” angle but a 335 with a couple of Bigsby holes and a removed coil tap switch will sound the same as a collector grade one. If you cut a big access panel in the back of a 335, it won’t affect the tone or playability either. But I’ll never buy one that has had that done unless it’s something so rare that I’ll never see another. No logical reason I just hate it. Full disclosure? Yes, I bought a stop tail 355 with an access panel.
Playability can be the tricky part. There’s a lot that can be done by a competent luthier to make a marginal player into a good one. But can we make it into a great one? It depends on what’s wrong. It’s hard to separate playability from tone sometimes but if you play a 335 unplugged, you’ll have a better understanding of where they overlap and where they don’t. Resonance is a tone component and if it’s not good unplugged, it doesn’t mean it won’t sound good plugged in. The reverse is true as well. Unplugged resonance is, in fact, something I don’t care about because I will be playing plugged in. But playability goes way beyond that.
If the guitar doesn’t feel good to you, you need to consider why that is. Action? Generally fixable. Bad intonation? Generally fixable. Dead frets? Inconsistent sustain? Poor balance between strings? There are so many factors involved in playability that I often take the easy way out when confronted with a 335 that doesn’t play well. I walk away. It’s rare for a 335 to be a dog (at least from 58-68). But I’ve had 335’s (and 345’s and 355’s) with a perfectly straight neck, level frets, a properly cut nut a no sign of a structural issue that fret out, don’t sustain, have “wolf” notes (notes that are louder or more resonant than others), buzzes, rattles and on and on. My advice? If you don’t like the way it plays, don’t buy it. The luthiers will disagree and probably rightly so but there are limits. Money limits. I had a 61 335 that looked just great but could not be made playable. It was dull sounding and the sustain was really inconsistent all over the fretboard. It went to three separate and very competent luthiers. It had two fret jobs with different sized fret wire and a fingerboard planing. After spending close to $1000 on it, I gave up. To paraphrase Bob Fosse “I can’t make you a good player but I can make you a better player”. But I don’t want a better player. I want a good one.
Next, we’ll look at the final element-originality. This is the one that makes so many player/collectors nuts. It’s also the one that makes me nuts.