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Black is the New Black

This page from mid 59 shows a black 345 which, to my knowledge, hasn't surfaced, and a black EB-2.

This page from mid 59 shows a black 345 which, to my knowledge, hasn’t surfaced, and a black EB-2.

Joe Bonamassa noted not too long ago on the Les Paul Forum that black is the new blonde and, for a minute, I thought he was right. But now I don’t. Black Gibsons are in a class by themselves. While blonde 335’s and 345’s (and the über rare 355) command a huge premium-generally double the price of a sunburst or more if collector grade, black ones are so rare that there aren’t any rules. Let me add a quick disclaimer-Les Paul Customs don’t count because they are a standard color and are plentiful. We’re talking about black 335’s, 345’s 355’s from before 1969 and maybe a few others if I have the space.

Black is a tricky color. It generally doesn’t age well and it is prone to excessive wear-especially the back of the neck. Being opaque, its an obvious choice for refinishers looking to hide plugged holes, broken headstocks and any number of other indignities. So, if you are lucky enough to find a black ES 335, 345 or 355, make sure it hasn’t been refinished because the likelihood is, it has. Gibson didn’t keep a record of how many black guitars were shipped, although they sometimes show up in the shipping ledgers as special orders. Unfortunately, they weren’t terribly consistent about noting special orders in the ledgers and if you happen to have a copy of the page, it may or may not mention the color. And, there is always that possibility that a factory black guitar was refinished in black either for cosmetic reasons or to hide a repair.

Considering that you’re going to be spending some really serious bucks on a factory black guitar, it is in your best interests to do what you can to authenticate it. A black light is a good place to start but be aware that a black light won’t do you any good on a guitar that has been totally refinished. It will show you touchup and show newer lacquer vs. older but a 30 year old refinish is going to look like original lacquer under a black light.

Try to get the ledger page. Call or email Gibson customer service. They can be pretty close to the vest with these pages but it’s worth asking. Also, do a search on the internet for ledger pages-there are perhaps 20 of them out there from various years. If the page shows your guitar as black, then it’s a factory black example-that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been refinished at some point but at least you know it started as a black guitar. Here’s the tricky part-if the ledger doesn’t show it as black, it doesn’t mean it’s a refinish. It may simply mean they didn’t note the special finish. Out of the five black 335’s and 345’s I’ve had, three are noted in the log-all 59’s.

There is a technique that I use to determine a refinish that is quite nearly foolproof. When doing a total refinish, the guitar is generally sanded to remove the old finish. Even if it’s done with great care, there will usually be a tell tale sign left behind. If you run your fingernail between the body binding and the rim of the guitar-not the top-there will be a ridge that you can catch your fingernail on. If the transition from rim to binding is smooth and even, it’s been sanded. Period. Every original finish ES model that I’ve owned has that ridge. Every refinish hasn’t. I say nearly foolproof because if the body was chemically stripped or the new finish was added over the original, the ridge will still be there. Chemical strippers usually damage (melt) the bindings so pay attention to that as well. Look inside the f-holes for any sign of black overspray. Unless the guitar was touched up-like one of the 59’s I had, there shouldn’t be any.

So, how many black guitars are we talking about here? The 59 ledger pages that I have show five 345’s, one 335 and no 355’s. I know of three of the five 345’s, the 335 and at least two 355’s (Keith Richards has one of them). There is a black early 60 345 that surfaced last year that has a 59 FON. I had a black 66 335 a while back (and a black 66 330). I know of a black 65 or 66 345 as well. I’ve owned three black 59 345’s. There are at least two black 59 EB-2’s. Let me know if you find one, I have a client looking for one. There are photos of a few artists playing black ES’s-Bill Haley’s guitar player (345)  and Dave Edmunds (335). There is no way to know if they are factory, although the Haley guitar is likely original since the photo is from the late 50’s or early 60’s. Roy Orbison played one but it was much later-from the 80’s. Black was a catalog color in the early 80’s and there are a lot of them out there.

Black ES guitars are valuable enough that they are worth the effort to fake by unscrupulous scam artists. If you have any doubts, you should probably pass. It’s too much money to take chances with.

Two of the three black 59 ES-345's that have passed through my hands. Both were great. Both were "first rack".

Two of the three black 59 ES-345’s that have passed through my hands. Both were great. Both were “first rack”.

12 Responses to “Black is the New Black”

  1. RAB says:

    “Back in black!” Very cool and rare as hen’s teeth…I don’t care for a black finished ES myself…make mine blonde!

  2. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – this post involving the ledgers brings to mind a question I’ve had for some time. Do you know how the guitars were assigned numbers once the pre-stamped ledgers were in use? I assume with the A series labels — which had no corresponding stamp into the headstock — an inventory of labels in the same sequence as the ledger were printed up and affixed just before shipping. The fact that the sequences all fall in uniform, orderly date ranges supports that. But what about the dual numbering system – label and headstock. Were the headstocks stamped when the neck was completed – prior to installation — or when the guitar was assembled but prior to finishing? I suppose the late 60s handwritten labels could have been completed AFTER the stamping — but the ledger-like stamped labels had to accompany and match the stamped headstocks. It’s confusing – and for late 60s guitars relevant in trying to match features up to completion or ship dates. Such as one-piece “68-style” necks that sometimes seem to be on guitars made after some 3-piece and even volute neck guitars were made and/or shipped. Any light you can shed would be very interesting!

  3. John says:

    59 Black 335….noted in the ledger as black.

  4. Rod says:

    Personally I always feel slightly uneasy about ANY guitar painted an all-over solid colour. Even with factory finishes I always tend to think it is covering something up, even if it’s just a bit of ugly grain. Can’t see with a factory finish it would ever be worse than that but when it’s an after-market solid refinish…that’s a different matter for me. Of course, the factory finish in a rare colour has it’s own financial attraction.

  5. RAB says:

    Interesting the black stop tail guitar in the above picture has gold as opposed to black knobs. Black would have been the more cosmetic choice…

  6. RAB says:

    The first rack cherry red ’59 345 I owned (A31411) had black knobs…

  7. chuckNC says:

    Perhaps the original customer wanted gold knobs. I’m assuming the guitar was ordered through a Gibson dealer, who could have provided gold knobs at the point of delivery…..? Not a bad cosmetic choice IMO. I’ll bet the guitar was pretty dog-gone sharp band new. The knobs don’t work nearly so well now that all the gold on the hardware has evaporated!

  8. chuckNC says:

    Just looked at the pic again. Not ALL the gold has evaporated of that one.

  9. Jeff B says:

    If find it interesting that listed on the same ledger page as A30583 (the EB-2 bass) and A30603 (ES-345), which are both designated black, are two other apparently factory-black 345’s (A30576 and A30589) that have no special color designation and which shipped on the same or within one day of A30583 or A30603. Charlie, this really illustrates your point about Gibson’s inconsistency in noting special colors in the log, even within the same day.

  10. RAB says:

    And some of the uber-rare stop tail 355s were designated “special” in the ledger or something to that effect. Others had no special notation as in the case of the ’63 mono stoptail ’63 355 I used to own…

  11. G says:

    vintage black 3×5 are stunning..! btw,speaking of ledgers.. does anybody have pages from 1964 ? just curious about my 64 355.. thanks!

  12. cgelber says:

    I would have posted yours but I never post guitars belonging to others without permission. As far as I know, this is the only known 59 black 335 dot neck.

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