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Once a Tree…

This shows the spruce that is glued to the maple center block between the block and the top and back. It also shows the mahogany end piece.

This shows the spruce that is glued to the maple center block between the block and the top and back. It also shows the mahogany end piece.

There is plenty of debate about new wood versus old wood and I come down on the side of old wood sounding better than new wood. Even plywood. I would argue that the trees were better fifty years ago. They grew slower, they grew longer, they were dried the old school way and they’ve had an extra 40 or 50 years to “season”. I’m not going to talk about why old wood is better-I think I did that a few years ago. I am going to talk about the wood that went into 335’s and hope to clarify a few questions that have been asked of me recently.

The body is plywood. Yep. Plywood. It’s nice plywood but there it is. The early ones had three ply tops but by early 59, Gibson had switched to four ply presumably because they were getting complaints about cracking. Look at almost any 58 and you’ll usually find cracks around the output jack. The four ply tops were 25% thicker and the cracking problem went away. The composition was, generally, maple/poplar/poplar/maple. That’s information from the internet though. I know what maple looks like but the two hidden plies could be anything. I’ve never delaminated a top to look. And besides, I wouldn’t know poplar from ash from basswood. All were supposedly used. Plywood isn’t exactly a tonewood but it’s strong and cheap and you can form it into an arch without having to carve it. Does it matter if it’s new plywood or old plywood? Hard to know. Somehow I don’t think it’s a major element in the tone of a great 335. I would argue that the thinner top is more resonant and I’ve found some of the best 335’s to be 58’s and early 59’s.

Here's a nice flame maple center block showing the spruce insert between it and the top.

Here’s a nice flame maple center block showing the spruce insert between it and the top.

The center block is maple with mahogany at the butt end. I think there is tone in there-it acts a lot like the body of a solid body guitar.  I believe the quality of the tone has to do with how dry the wood is. New wood has more moisture in it than old wood. Wood with more moisture is less resonant than wood that has been dried. You can hear the difference. When I split firewood for the winter I can tell by the sound when I bang two logs together whether it’s dry on not. The dry ones are louder. You have probably heard of “roasted” or “torrefied” wood. Drying wood in a kiln or oven has been around for a long time and, essentially, it’s a way to lower the moisture and raise the resonance without waiting 50 years. And it works to a degree. I contend, however, that there are differences beyond moisture that give a wood its tonal qualities. I think looking at new growth vs. old is a worthwhile endeavor. I just don’t have the skills or knowledge to interpret the differences. I do know that there isn’t much old growth wood left. There is also spruce between the center block and the top and the block and the back of the guitar. Spruce is a tone wood and I’m guessing it makes a tonal difference. It’s a fairly complex design, that center block, and Gibson would have eliminated the spruce if it didn’t make a difference. In fact, I could do an entire post on center block construction.

The neck is mahogany, usually quarter sawn. Stability is the main factor here. I don’t think there is much tonal difference between a 335 with a mahogany neck and a 335 with a maple neck. Mahogany is considered a tone wood (my favorite acoustics are all mahogany) but so is maple. Maple is considered brighter, mahogany better balanced. I’ve had a few vintage 335’s re-necked and I don’t hear any difference at all. The wood was supposed to be old wood but I couldn’t tell you if it was old old growth or old new growth. There’s a difference. Big neck vs. small necks from a tone standpoint? That’s a whole ‘nother topic.

People get all a twitter about Brazilian rosewood. I have folks tell me they can tell the difference tonally between a Brazilian and an Indian fingerboard. Brazilian rosewood is not magical. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brazilian rosewood boards-they are just as pretty as a piece of wood can be but the idea that the fingerboard is a driver of great tone is just wrong. Old Telecasters and Stratocasters don’t even have a proper fingerboard. They sound pretty good. Ebony (on a 355) is also a nice piece of wood and the conventional wisdom says it adds “snap” to the tone. I’ve played hundreds. Some are snappy. Some not so snappy. I do like ebony but mostly because its harder and slicker. When Gibson switched to Indian rosewood boards in late 65 or 66 (there is overlap), the tone didn’t suffer. The change from a stop tail to a trapeze-which really didn’t affect tone all that much-did more to the tone than the switch to Indian.

There’s one more piece of wood in a 335. It’s holly (hooray for holly wood). It’s the thin veneer that covers the face of the headstock. It’s dense and takes the black lacquer nicely. But Gibson (or Norlin) decided that some crappy fiber board would be cheaper and nobody would know the difference. That happened around 1970 or so. I’m not sure when they went back to holly but they use it now and, yes, it does take the lacquer very nicely.

So, in conclusion, where does the tone come from? I think its the sum of its parts. A 335 doesn’t sound exactly like a Les Paul but they aren’t that far apart. An SG is pretty close too which leads me to believe the pickups are the biggest factor. Just take out a PAF and replace it with an 80’s Shaw or tar back. You’ll hear plenty of difference. Now, change the fingerboard in your 66 from Brazilian to Indian. Hear that? No? I didn’t think so.

This is a mid to late 59 and has the four ply top and back. Not sure what the inside wood is-probably something cheap like poplar. This is an EB-2 but the 335/345 and 355 had the same construction.

This is a mid to late 59 and has the four ply top and back. Not sure what the inside wood is-probably something cheap like poplar. This is an EB-2 but the 335/345 and 355 had the same construction.

14 Responses to “Once a Tree…”

  1. RAB says:

    Interesting stuff, great photos! Think the reason for great tone on the Classic Year ES models is “all of the above!” Great, old woods, amazing craftsmanship by skilled luthiers (people who cared) and 50 plus years of being played and generally mellowing out!

  2. RAB says:

    I read the inside, long strips on the back and front of the guitar were made of spruce…

  3. James says:

    I’ve noticed it’s never maple glued to maple. Maple to poplar to poplar to maple for 4 ply or just maple to poplar to maple for 3 ply. Is there a problem with gluing two sheets of maple together to make plywood for the body?

  4. Jonathan Krogh says:

    I hope the instrument pictured gets put back together successfully, what’s the story on it? I recently rebuilt a 345 from the same condition of all of the wood joints coming apart (except the hide glue joints, those were perfect) and from that autopsy I have the following comments.

    The top and back plates remained in perfect shape with no delamination of any kind, even when the side wall plywood layers came apart completely. They clearly used different glues, and the type of glue used on the top and back gave it a void free consistency that allowed them to have a ‘tap tone’. Definitely not the same glue used anywhere else on the body.

    The spruce layer I think was a choice of convenience, the inner compound curve surface of the top and back that it must be shaped to fit, is of a serpentine curve lengthways, and cupped crossways, so in these days before CNC, it would have been a real b*tch to shape and sand for a close fit. Having done it myself, I would say there is no way to do this with maple, it would just take too long per unit. The use of spruce with the added kerfing especially, means that this layer was soft and pliable enough to rough shape+sand it to the serpentine curve as much as possible, then glue and clamp it into the ply plate so that it will cup into and conform to the curves. Having taken these apart, I could see sections where the spruce and maple did not meet properly and either glue gaps and air gaps filled the space! Again a scenario that would have been made worse by the use of any other harder wood.

  5. Jonathan Krogh says:

    Here is another shot of where the center block meets the spruce, notice that the kerfing has left glue lines along the lower part, but did not leave any impression on the upper part from bridge pickup to neck Here the spruce layer was planed too much, and left a huge air gap where the glue layer did not bridge the gap between the two pieces of wood, this may have been prevented from more clamping pressure on the middle of the body.

  6. Jonathan Krogh says:

    Here is a shot of two new spruce layers being shaped to fit the plates, as you can see lengthways the curve is quite serpentine, as well as being cupped crossways, making it very labour intensive to shape each piece for a good fit.

  7. Jonathan Krogh says:

    I don’t want to clog up your comments with all these photos but I must let you all know that she survived the restoration and is healthy and being played every day.

  8. cgelber says:

    On the glue issue, as far as I know, there is no reason you can’t glue maple to maple. I have a 69 with a maple neck which is glued to the maple block. No problem with the joint.

  9. cgelber says:

    Nice work. Mine is being restored eventually but not by me. I’m dangerous with power tools and even worse with paint. One of the biggest reason for the variations in resonance in these guitars is the gaps between the top and the spruce. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get mine restored using all the original wood. The finish is actually in pretty good shape. Mostly it needs to be glued and the body re-bound. Of course, it’s an EB-2 which will probably never be worth what it will cost to make it whole. I’m considering making a 335 out it by using the back for a top and making a new back. I would also have to make or find a 335 neck.

  10. RAB says:

    Jonathan, thanks for the wonderfully informative narrative and photos! Charlie, looking forward to seeing your restored EB-2. It’d be cool to make it a blonde 2 pup version! Much better tonal range than the single mudbucker!

  11. Jonathan Krogh says:

    Frankly I think this is an easy resto based on all of the pieces being in perfect shape, you have no separation of the laminates on the side walls, and at a glance I can see the spruce layers were better prepared than the ones in my 345. In your first photo, on the upper left corner of the spruce you can see a routing mark left from where they levelled off the spruce flush with the maple, on my 345 this was all routed too deeply and you could see that mark about 1/32″ too deep all around the spruce perimeters, that’s why I replaced my spruce layers so they would be at the correct height eliminating glue gaps, yours are perfect. Your EB2 here is a straight case of regluing binding and finishing with no strucutural replacements or corrections needed.
    If you used the pieces for a 335 you could only use the back and sides at best, you could just keep the pieces handy in case another damaged guitar comes in that needs those pieces, but i’d bet a dollar the plate outlines wouldn’t match up. I support the idea of the EB2 resto

  12. Danny says:

    Perhaps a ridiculous comment, but since this site goes to the nth degree of detail, I’m going to risk being ridiculous: if you’re calculating that the 4-ply tops are 25% thicker based on the fact that there’s simply a fourth ply added (as opposed to calculating it by mass), then it’s 33 1/3% thicker. (How’s that for the nth degree?)

  13. cgelber says:

    You math guys are soooo annoying. You are correct, of course. Actually it’s probably not that exact since the layers aren’t always perfectly equal. The inner poplar layers are sometimes slightly thinner. The ones in the photo are pretty much the same though.

  14. Danny says:

    Sorry Charlie! I know it’s similar to correcting people’s grammar, but I thought there was a tiny chance you’d appreciate it. But point taken.

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