Archive for the ‘ES 335’ Category

Somebody Famous was Here

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016
I once had a white '65 ES-355 with BB Kings autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I once had a white ’65 ES-355 with BB King’s autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I get a lot of emails from folks buying and selling ES models and one of the most frequently encountered subjects is guitars that have been autographed. While this is not my market, I feel it’s worth writing a post about. The assumption by most sellers is that an autographed guitar is worth more than one that isn’t. I don’t entirely agree.

Well, let me clarify. Right now there are no less than four Gibson “Lucille” models for sale of One is $60,000, another is $15K, one $14K and one at $8000. The guitars, without the autographs, are nice guitars but they aren’t particularly old nor are they particularly collectible. I can pick up a 90’s or 2000’s Lucille for $2500 or so. So, do the sellers believe that the autograph is worth $5500 to over $50K?  OK, the really expensive one comes with some tour swag but $60K seems like a really big number. So do all the rest of them. Let me tell you a fairly short story. A few years ago, I was contacted by the widow of the owner of a pretty nice 1958 ES-335. I flew to Nashville to meet with her and discuss the value of her late husband’s guitar. We hadn’t finalized a price but we had established a range pending my inspection of the guitar. I ended up offering around $25000 for it and her reaction was “…but it’s autographed by BB King.” My clever rejoinder? “OK, $24000.”  I explained to her that the first thing I would do when I got back home was to remove the autograph.

My point is that a collectible guitar is not made more collectible just because its autographed by someone famous. In addition to the great BB King, I have removed Eric Clapton’s autograph, Les Paul’s, various members of Kiss and quite a few others. If you must get your vintage guitar autographed, have them sign the pick guard-preferably on the back. Or bring along a new (cheap) guitar and have them autograph that. A lot of these guys sign thousands of guitars and the value of the autograph is very small. If you’ve got a Beatle or Elvis, then leave it alone. A Rolling Stone? I’d probably remove it from a vintage Gibson unless it was a Firebird VII autographed by Brian Jones. That would be worth something.

OK, well how about if the guitar was owned by somebody famous? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame if you’ve got good documentation. And he (or she) can’t just have played it once. It has to have really good provenance. An album cover photo is good provenance. A signed letter by the artist with a photo will probably do. A letter from a friend of the friend who got it from the famous player’s ex-wife’s cousin isn’t good enough. A photo of the famous player holding the guitar isn’t good enough either. I’ve had plenty of famous players in my shop and if a photo of them with one of my guitars was worth something, I’d be snapping photos all day.  Be careful though. Provenance is pretty easy to fake. That’s why the album cover photo is great provenance. And make sure the guitar that’s in the provenance is the same guitar as you’re considering buying. Wood grain is pretty much like a fingerprint. If the grain doesn’t match, walk, no, run in the opposite direction. We all know what the Clapton guitars have sold for and the Dylan Strat and the Lennon J160. It’s some serious dough which is why I generally stay away from that market. The price of admission is high and the rate of fraud is up there as well.

EC's autograph on an '84. I think I left this one on too. It didn't affect the value at all.

EC’s autograph on an ’84. I think I left this one on too. It didn’t affect the value at all.

FON Follow up.

Monday, October 17th, 2016
Huge neck, pat applied tuners, thin top, "T" FON...58, right? well maybe not. The serial number is 1960 in the A331xx range. What do I call it?

Huge neck, pat applied tuners, thin top, “T” FON…58, right? well maybe not. The serial number is 1960 in the A331xx range. What do I call it?

Just when I make my big point about FON’s and serial numbers, a guitar comes along that makes me feel like I just shot myself in the foot. Generally, conflicting FON’s and serial numbers are on the cusp of the years they straddle. So, you might have a late 59 FON and an early 60 serial. I’d call that a 60. There are 58 FONs that show up in mid 59 which is strange. There’s a whole lot of them, in fact.

My database shows that 1959 serial numbers A30247, A30248, A30251, A30268 and A30659 have “T” FON’s which means they were at least started in 1958. All show certain 58 only features like the thinner top. Some, but not all,  have the shallow neck angle. Another 58 feature is patent applied Klusons rather than patent number. Interestingly, none of the 59’sn with 58 FON’s had them. That leads me to believe the bodies and necks were made in 58 but the guitars were assembled in 59 with 59 parts. None had shaved bridges or the low profile bridge (most of which have collapsed by now. These are June 59 (and later) 335’s. Were these bodies somehow left over after Gibson made the changes? There were complaints about cracks in the tops and collapsing bridges, so maybe they put the unfinished 58 bodies aside until the complaints died down (or they got too busy) and decided to sell them anyway.

That brings us to today’s subject guitar. The serial number is March 1960. That means the guitar sat for at least 15 months. The guitar has a relatively early (for a bound 335) 58  factory order number and shows all of the late 58 features including the pat. applied Kluson tuners, the shaved bridge and extremely shallow neck angle, thin top, “rolled” plastic truss cover (gone by mid 59). So, using the policy I laid out in my last post that says the serial number designates the year, it’s a 60. The problem is that everybody associates an early 60 dot neck with a smaller “transitional” neck profile. This one has the biggest neck I’ve ever measured on a 335-.94″ at the first fret and over 1″ at the 12th. Most 58’s are .88″ or so at the first fret. The biggest 59’s are usually .90-.93″. Calling it a 60 does the guitar an injustice but as a compromise, I’m calling it a 58/60 with a 58 FON and 58 features.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a big gap in FON/serial number but its the first one that so clearly shows it’s FON heritage. I had a 62 block neck that somehow got an “R” FON designating a 60 build. But in that case, the guitar wouldn’t have been completed in 1960 as it had a block neck (started in 62) and patent number pickups (a completed 60 would always have PAFs). That one had a darker overspray at the endpin but it didn’t cover anything up. I just assumed it was covering some amateur paint work. maybe that’s why it didn’t ship when it was built.

As I’ve said before, buying and selling vintage guitars requires a bit of amateur forensics and some imagination. You have to ask why something like that would occur and come up with a reasonable scenario beyond “uh, it must have been a special order…” Gibson seems to have been in a state of constant change throughout the period from 56-65 or so. That is perhaps why anomalies come up from time to time.

Looks like a 62 but there is hidden weirdness going on. It has a 1960 Factory Order Number and has the thinner body of a dot neck.

Looks like a 62 but there is hidden weirdness going on. It has a 1960 Factory Order Number and has the thinner body of a dot neck. No one has a good answer for why this occurs.

FON or Serial Number?

Friday, September 30th, 2016


Here's aa 59 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the "rack"-usuall 30-40 guitars. The last number is the "rank" or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Here’s a 60 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the “rack”-usually 30-40 guitars. The last number is the “rank” or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Pet peeve warning…I’ve talked endlessly about how so many sellers will look up their guitar serial number and when they see multiple years come up will usually pick the earliest year. Understandable? Yes, I suppose but not particularly honest and pretty easy to debunk. Trying to get more money for your guitar by misrepresenting the year and making it look justified is wrong. Either disclose the possible years or learn how to tell the difference. Pretty straightforward, right? Good. Now try this:

From 58 to 61, there was both a serial number and a factory order number for all 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. FON’s existed way before 58 but since 335’s didn’t, we’ll look at only those 4 years. There is no debate that, in general,  a 59 335, 345 or 355 is worth more than any other year, assuming the condition and originality is equal. Usually, the FON and the serial are from the same year. But not always. So, how do we assess the value of those guitars that have a factory order number from one year and a serial number another? I recently bought a J200 for a client that was advertised as a 59. When I got it, I noted that the serial number was very early 60. I currently have a 59 ES-335 with a 58 FON and I recall a blonde 60 345 with a 59 FON. One thing you won’t see is a FON from a later year than the serial. This is simply because the FON goes on the guitar first.

So, I have this 59 ES-335 with a 58 FON. That means it was built (or at least started) in 1958. It could have been completed in 1958 as well but there is no absolutely foolproof way to know for sure. But there are clues. It has the thin top of a 58, so that tells us that it’s got some 58 aspects. It’s got a pretty good neck angle-no thin bridge or shaving required-so that’s kind of a 59 thing but there were very late 58’s with that feature. The tuners are patent numbers rather than the patent applied tuners that nearly all 58’s had which leads me to believe that it was built in late 58 and assembled in 59. Why the completed body sat around from sometime in late 58 until April of 59 is a mystery. I had another 335 with a 58 FON that didn’t ship until August of 59. Maybe they built a load of 58’s and put them aside because Gibson was getting complaints about the cracks around the jack (typical of 58’s). Then, perhaps they were selling more than they could built in mid 59 and raided this cache of 58’s. I’ve spoken to a couple of Gibson employees from the era but none could shed any light on this.  My point is-do I consider it a 58 or a 59? It is to my advantage to call it a 59. But what about that 60 with the 59 FON? Again, I’m probably going to get more for it if I call it a 59. So, it works both ways. But you can’t have it both ways, can you? My hard rule is that I go by the serial number, i.e a 60 serial means it’s a 60 regardless of the FON. I’ll mention the FON in all cases if it’s different so I’ll list the guitar for sale as, say, a 1959 ES-335 with a ’58 FON. That’s about as honest as I can be.

I’ve been compiling a FON database for a couple of years now and I’m still filling in some of the blanks before I post it. There are lots of surprises and ambiguities. It seems that the more I learn, the more confusing it becomes. I’ve never run a large manufacturing business, so I have little insight into the day to day operations of a factory. Especially a factory operating more than 50 years ago. I’m convinced that they worried less about paperwork and more about filling orders. I’ll post the database when I have enough information for it to make some sense because now, with around  130 entries (all 335, 345 and 355’s) it’s about as clear as mud. Feel free to continue sending me data-serial, FON, model, finish and configuration (stop or Bigsby). No names will be entered.

This is an April 59 serial number 335 with the 58  factory order number T7281 24.  I call it a 59.

This is an April 59 serial number 335 with the 58 factory order number T7281 24. I call it a 59.

New 335 Book

Sunday, September 18th, 2016
Tony Bacon's just released 335 book.  Fortunately, it won't replace me as the "335 guy" but it's a worthwhile addition to your guitar book collection. I would call it the best 335 book ever written.

Tony Bacon’s just released 335 book. Fortunately, it won’t replace me as the “335 guy” but it’s a worthwhile addition to your guitar book collection. I would call it the best 335 book ever written.


Tony Bacon writes a lot of guitar books and the very first guitar book I ever bought was one of Tony’s called “The Ultimate Guitar Book”.  I was happy to hear he was writing a 335 book. I received a copy of the book a few weeks ago and was asked to not write about it until its release and, since it’s now available, I can talk about it. Bear in mind, I’m not a book reviewer.

The beginning of the book is a history lesson-stuff that, if not for Tony’s vast knowledge of the development of the electric guitar, would likely be lost forever. He doesn’t dwell on the minutia that I lean towards but takes a more macro view of the 335 and it’s ancestry. I was flattered when he asked me to consult with him about the really fine details of the 58-65 era and the level of detail he goes into is satisfying without being too geeky. I’m happy that he left geekdom to me and my readers. But he doesn’t gloss over the fine details either. He presents the evolution of the 335 mentioning specific changes that made a real difference rather than every little detail. Big changes like neck angle and top thickness are discussed in detail but minor changes like who made the pots in what year and the other really geeky stuff I cover was, probably wisely, downplayed or left out entirely.  I was particularly impressed by his knowledge of the other guitar makers and their products that either competed or influenced Gibson in its development and manufacture of the ES series. Who knew that Gretsch patented its stereo system in ’56 and that Rickenbacker’s stereo guitars were launched in ’58 a full year before Gibson came out with the 345 and 355 stereos? I don’t think there is a better guitar historian than Tony.

Tony covers the evolution of the line admirably, hitting the high spots with regard to features, finish and early adopters. The fact that he even mentions the Argentine Gray finish gets kudos from me. Instead of completely separating the development of the guitar from the players of the day, he seamlessly moves from the evolution of the model to the back story of how ES players like Elvin Bishop, Justin Hayward, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Hicks and lots of others (and largely British) artists came to appreciate these American icons. Following the ES timeline through the changes of the late 60’s and into the 70’s, ES players like Alvin Lee, Steve Katz (who was the very first customer in my shop when I opened in 2014) and, of course, Eric Clapton come into focus, all drawn to the versatility and gig worthiness of the guitar. And he doesn’t stop there. Tony follows the format of evolution and artist through every decade right up to the highly regarded Memphis 335’s available today. And, unlike me, he isn’t judgmental about it. I have no problem saying that most of the ’76-79 335’s I’ve played are less than stellar. He sticks to the facts and the book is probably better for it. After all, it isn’t a buyer’s guide, it’s simply the most comprehensive history of the line ever compiled in one place.

And the photos. When folks ask me why I don’t write a book myself, my stock answer is that I don’t have the skills to shoot the photos that such a book would require. Tony’s photos define the guitar book genre. The guitars themselves are impeccably photographed and the historic photo content is a real pleasure to see. In fact, my biggest complaint about the “other” 335 book was the horrible photos. Tony’s photos are always totally professional and his choice of what guitars to feature is dead on (there’s even a Fender Starcaster).  So, thanks, Tony, for all the great content. I don’t get the 335 reissue on the cover but at least it’s red. And that counts for something.

I Love Surprises (Sometimes)

Thursday, September 8th, 2016
Very early Trini Lopez Standard. This guitar had a few aces up its sleeve.  Pickups are pre T-top with the purple windings like a PAF. It also had a zero fret which is just weird.

Very early Trini Lopez Standard. This guitar had a few aces up its sleeve. Pickups are pre T-top with the purple windings like a PAF. It also had a zero fret which is just weird.

Every time I buy a guitar, it comes with a surprise. It doesn’t matter if I get it from another dealer or from Craigslist, Ebay or The Gear Page. There is always a surprise. Usually, it’s an undisclosed issue and generally it’s a small one like changed saddles or the wrong bridge. Maybe changed tuner tips or spliced leads on the pickups or opened covers. Or missing PAF stickers or two repro knobs or a changed pot. There are a fair number of parts on a guitar and stuff gets swapped out over the course of decades. So, I generally accept stuff being wrong-or different than expected. It’s not generally because anyone is trying to cheat me. Its simply because most folks just don’t know the difference between a no wire ABR-1 and a wired one. And I don’t expect them to. I’m allowed to ask a lot of questions and look really carefully at the photos but somehow, something always gets by me. The good news is it cuts both ways. A really good example came to me recently off of Craigslist (the biggest crapshoot of all).

The seller had a Trini Lopez Standard for sale. Now, I like Trinis although I rarely find the early ones that I prefer. The very first ones had a wide 1 11/16″ nut, all nickel hardware and pre T-top pickups.  This one had some unusual issues but I bought it anyway – for a reasonable price. There was one issue I saw in the photos and that may have scared away some buyers. Someone had installed a zero fret which shouldn’t work properly without moving the nut which they didn’t. So, I figured, what the heck, I can simply remove it and fill the slot with some glue and rosewood dust. Well, oddly enough, the intonation seems fine, so I left it. When the guitar arrived, the pickups had chrome covers. But the photos showed nickel. “WTF”, I said to myself. But the nickel ones were in the case pocket which was a relief. So, I decided to removed the badly soldered chrome covers and put the nickel ones back on. I know, from experience that this guitar should NOT have had t-tops. Regardless of what you read elsewhere, 65’s don’t have t-tops. They usually have the later poly winding pre T’s. Not this one. Both pickups had the coveted purple enamel wire. They were identical to PAFs. The pickups alone were worth the price of the entire guitar (almost). And yes, it’s pretty unusual to see these pickups in 65 but if the covers are nickel, the windings are almost always purple.

Other good news, 64 date codes on the pots, nice wide neck, Brazilian board and the rest of the parts were nickel. Bad news? I had to buy a set of proper vintage strip tuners to replace the ill-fitting Schallers that had been added. And it plays great. I should point out that for every time I get lucky and get more than I expected, there’s another guitar with a rewound PAF or a repro stop tail or a back bow in the neck. You can always ask a lot of questions but when the 89 year old widow of the original owner is selling the guitar to pay for her nursing care, you really can’t ask her to pull the pickups to check the stickers or try the truss rod to see if it still turns. And I don’t (ask her, that is). It’s the crapshoot part of the business. It’s nice that it goes my way once in a while. Like the 61 ES-355 with the neck break, changed bridge, wrong tuners and a pair of double white PAFs. Christmas can come all year round.

Always nice to find an undisclosed double white. It's like your birthday and Christmas rolled into one.

Always nice to find an undisclosed double white. It’s like your birthday and Christmas rolled into one.

Didja Ever Notice…

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

Rooney obit

Those of you old enough to remember Andy Rooney on “60 Minutes” will recall that the opening line of many of his segments was the title of this post. So, “didja ever notice” how every guitar seems to be all original except for something somebody did to it along the way? All original except for the Grovers. All original except for the frets, the nut and the saddles. All original except for the plastic, the pickups and , oh yeah, the finish. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. It’s just marketing. But beyond the typical stuff people do, there are some other things they do beyond the usual disasters.

Not all mods are terrible but they all will take something away from the vintage value. I can think of a couple that are kind of break even like taking the stereo circuit out of a 345 (as long as you keep it with the guitar). Adding a stop tail to a trapeze equipped 60’s ES-335 won’t hurt the value much (as long as you put it in the right place) since everybody seems to want to do that anyway. But there are some pretty alarming things have have perpetrated on these (and other) guitars over the years. And even rock stars aren’t immune to the overwhelming desire to somehow make what is nearly a perfect guitar somehow better.

Alvin Lee put a single coil between the hum buckers on his 335. Larry Carlton stop tailed his 68 and missed by about a half inch. At least all EC did was to add a set of Grovers, a Hare Krishna sticker and a “custom” truss cover. Somehow that added around $800,000 to the value (oh, yeah and he played it). Neil Young swapped out some pickups in that old black Les Paul and Frank Zappa never met a guitar he couldn’t “improve.” But beyond rock stars, we mere mortals have done some monumentally stupid things (and some that were simply ill advised).

One of the most frustrating things about a 3×5 is the harness. It’s really hard to remove ad even harder to install especially if the center block isn’t cut. Then it has to go in and out through the f-holes. Well, that’s an easy fix. Just cut a big hole in the back and put a plastic plate over it. But wait, that will show. I know, cut a big wedge out of the top-it’ll be covered by the pick guard. Nobody will ever know (except that they will). Bad intonation? How about a 70’s “harmonica” bridge-that won’t look too bad. A lot of mods were supposed to be improvements (I’m sure Alvin Lee really liked the extra pickup) and they were simply the fads of the era. Coil taps were a big deal in the early to mid 70’s and a lot of mini switches sprouted on the tops of 335’s. Master volumes were also added during that dark decade. The 80’s brought DiMarzio pickups and, eventually, active electronics. Fortunately, plenty of players left their guitars alone and those are the ones getting the premium prices these days. Also, many of the mods over the years have been reversible. You can take the DiMarzios or the EMGs out but you can’t grow the wood back where that coil tap and phase switches went.

Yep, we’re idiots all right but we can take some comfort in the fact that we were young when we did all this dumb stuff and we know better now. After all, they were just old guitars back then. Vintage was for wine (which we didn’t drink-we were men-we drank Jack Daniels). So, when you send that Les Paul R9 out to Historic Makeovers for the full treatment, just remember that in 2060, somebody is going to moan that some idiot messed up a perfectly good 2000 Les Paul by refinishing it, changing the fingerboard and taking the all important “condom” off the truss rod. Everybody knows the tone for those comes from that truss rod condom.

This probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This is a 64 ES-335. Heartbreaking.

This probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This is a 64 ES-335. It’s all original except for this big ol’ hole in the back.

I guess this mod worked out OK for Mr. Young. I'm guessing you wouldn't touch this guitar with a ten foot pole if I had done this.

I guess this mod worked out OK for Mr. Young. I’m guessing you wouldn’t touch this guitar with a ten foot pole if I had done this. It’s all original except for a couple of changed pickups.



Mid Sixties 335s.

Sunday, July 10th, 2016


I bought this late 65 (narrow nut) for $5000. Great guitar, great pickups, Braz board and less than some off the new ones. No brainer

I bought this late 65 (narrow nut) for $5000. Great guitar, great pickups, Braz board and less than some of  the new ones. No brainer

Not everyone can afford a 58-64 ES-335. $15000-$45000 is an awful lot of money for a guitar (even if you’ll probably get it back when you sell it). When I get asked for advice from buyers with $5000-$7000 to spend, I usually steer them toward 345’s and 355’s with issues from the same era. But if a 335 is the only choice for you, then 65 to 69 models are worth considering. Most of you already know why the values drop precipitously from 64 to 65 but I’ll give you the short version in case you missed that day.

In 65, the stop tailpiece was discontinued and replaced with a trapeze. But that isn’t the big reason. By mid ’65 the nut width has shrunk from 1 11/16″ to 1 5/8″ to 1 9/16″. It doesn’t seem like much but wrap your hand around that narrow neck and you will definitely notice the difference. There were other changes, like nickel hardware being switched for chrome and changes to the pickups (from enamel coat windings to poly coat) that took place in 65. But the neck size is the main reason you can pay $15000 or more for a 64 and $5000 for a late 65. We’ll toss out the big neck 65’s from the discussion because they generally are priced at around $8000-$9000. Less than a 64 but beyond that $5000-$7000 range that is such a popular range.

So, we have late 65, 66, 67, 68 and 69 to look at. I would toss out late 69 because the “Norlin” changes (neck volute, short neck tenon) should cost even less. They aren’t terrible guitars but 65-early 69 are generally better. Nobody likes the volute and the shorter tenon can have stability issues (although most don’t). One of the common assumptions is that all of these guitars have t-tops except maybe a few early 65’s. That’s simply not true. I’ve seen pre T-tops as late as 69 and I’ve never, repeat, never, seen a t-top in 65 and rarely in 66. In fact most 67’s don’t have t-tops either. 68 is a toss up but plenty of them have pre t-tops. T-tops can be great pickups as well, so, stop worrying about the pickups.

There are vast differences in the neck profiles during this period and that might help you decide. The problem is that they are kind of all over the place. I find most 65’s to have fairly large necks but 66’s generally have really, really thin necks. They go from a bit larger to way larger in 67 but some are still pretty thin. By 68 and into 69, they can get very large. I have a 69 (OK, it’s a 340) that has a huge (but narrow) neck profile. It rivals many 59’s. It’s not just the profile that merits a look-65’s and some 66’s  get you a Brazilian board while 67 and later gets you Indian rosewood. One the point to make-a very popular vintage guitar information site states that 68’s have a wide nut. They don’t. Period.

Don’t ignore the small stuff either. 65 and 66 have the wide bevel pick guard which I think is a lot more attractive. 68 and 69 have big f-holes which look a bit cartoonish to my eye. 65 and most 66’s have reflector knobs while late 66 to 69 have witch hat knobs which I really don’t like but knobs are easy to change. They certainly don’t affect tone or playability nor do other little details like the position of the headstock “Crown” inlay. It’s higher in 65-66 and lower in 67-69. They also changed the inlay material at some point in 67 (I think). The inlays are whiter and don’t have the same tendency to dry out and curl up at the edges.

For my $5000-$7000, I’d go with a 65. Narrow but medium chunky neck profile, Brazilian rosewood for sure, big bevel guard and maybe some nickel hardware. A big problem is that so many sellers describe their 66-69 335’s as 65’s. The reason for this is because the serial numbers were re-used as many as four times over these years. It never surprises me that these sellers simply look at the serial number charts and pick the earliest possible year. Do your homework. Look at the features. It’s pretty easy to tell a wide bevel guard from a narrow bevel. It’s easy to tell a low “crown” inlay from a high one. It’s not that hard to tell the big f-holes from the small ones. Read my old posts-I’ve covered all of this before and then go out there and find the “one”.

Wanna blonde without paying huge bucks? Buy a 69 ES-340 and rewire it as a 335. You can find these in the $4000 range. 70 and later are less busy they'll have the neck volute.

Wanna blonde without paying huge bucks? Buy a 69 ES-340 and rewire it as a 335. You can find these in the under $5000 range. 70 and later are less money but they’ll have the neck volute which everybody hates. You might even get pre T-tops. This one has them.


Top Ten List

Saturday, June 25th, 2016
58's are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58's.

58’s are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58’s.

I keep a mental top ten list of the best ES guitars to pass through my hands and, while the list is pretty diverse, there are some factors that are becoming meaningful. As I get to play more and more of them, I re-evaluate the things that make some of them simply good, others great and a few simply extraordinary.

It’s interesting that the current top ten (or maybe top 12) includes guitars from 58, 59, 60, 62 and 64. I try to keep personal preference out of the equation-like the fact that I like guitars with necks that start medium and get really big by the 12th fret. I’m really talking about tone. And that’s personal preference too,  I suppose,  but we all like a guitar that has great sustain and that singing almost vocal quality that some 3×5’s have and some don’t. Some of that is setup but some of it is simply the wood, the strings and the electronics and the relationship between them. I can’t totally explain why this 335 sounds so much better than that one but there are some common denominators that I can quantify and only because I’ve played (and set up) so many.

Common denominators: All are 58-64 which doesn’t tell you much. All are stop tails. All have PAFs or early patents. Nearly all were re-fretted at some point. But there have been dozens and dozens that fit that description so there must be something more to these standouts. Four of the top ten have thin tops. If you aren’t a regular reader, you should be aware that all 58’s and some 59’s have a three ply top that is 25% thinner than the four ply tops that were used from 59 on. Of course, that means that 6 of the top ten had the thicker tops. But wait. There’s more. If we go to the top five, three of the top five have the thinner tops which tells us something. The top five are as follows–#1 late 58 335, #2 thin top 59 335, #3 refinished 62 dot neck, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 unbound 58 335. So, I’m going out on a limb and saying the thin top early 335’s seem to have an edge when it comes to great tone. Looking at the next five on the hit list #6 is a first rack 59 345, #7 is a 59 355 stop tail, #8 is a 64 335, #9 is a 59 335 and #10 is an early 60 335. This is out of perhaps 500-600 that I’ve owned. There are perhaps another 75 that I would call contenders-an extraordinary one isn’t that much better than a great one. Most 58-64 3×5’s are simply excellent guitars. We’re talking microns here.

This list is rather fluid and I’m always replacing one with another as I play more of them. It is tricky to compare a guitar I have today to one I had five years ago (or more) but I consider the top ten to be kind of interchangeable. I’m sure that if I had all of them in a room, I would put them in a different order but they would all still be great. What would be really useful is if I could predict which ones would be the standouts before I even picked them up and played them. It would be nice to be able to tell folks to look for a particular factory order number or group of features that make for great tone but, alas, no such information exists. I’ve had 59 dot necks that are uninspiring. I’ve had trap tail 65’s that would give any of the top ten a good run for their money. There are a lot of variables and too many aren’t easily quantified.

There are a few consistencies that have occurred to me, however. First rack ES-345’s are generally excellent. What’s a first rack? Read this. It’s actually three racks but they all share certain characteristics and these characteristics seem to translate to great tone. Late 58’s and early 59’s are also fertile ground for great tone-again, the thin top is a possible factor. The shallow but not too shallow neck angle could also be in play here. The big neck? Maybe but there’s a 62 in the top 5 that had a skinny neck (and a refinish). Here’s another factor that throws a monkey wrench into the mix: On a given day, a particular guitar can sound great and on another day, it doesn’t sound so great. Humidity is a big factor and probably the state of my playing ability is another.

So, what can you take away from this? Well, mostly that you should play a guitar before you buy it. Just buying a 59 dot neck that you like the looks of will probably get you a great guitar but it may not be an extraordinary one. Buying a beat up refinished 62 could get you one of the best players you ever had. But you can’t know for sure until it’s properly set up and you sit down and play it.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.


Six Figure 335’s?

Monday, May 30th, 2016
Where have all the blondes gone? To collectors who will probably be buried with them. They only made 209 of them, so it's not surprising that they have become so hard to come by. I haven't seen a no issue 59 stop tail hit the market in almost two years. There have been a few 58's, some Bigsby's and a couple of 60's. This killer 58 will be in my hands soon.

Where have all the blondes gone? To collectors who will probably be buried with them, that’s where. They only made 209 of them, so it’s not surprising that they have become so hard to come by. I haven’t seen a no issue 59 stop tail hit the market in almost two years. There have been a few 58’s, some Bigsby’s and a couple of 60’s. This killer 58 will be in my hands soon.

By any standard, the 335 is kind of a deal. Granted there is a pretty big range for the “Golden Era” guitars but when you put it up against the current giants of the collectors world, a 335 is downright cheap. Let’s look at the current market at the top end.

There were somewhere around 1400 Les Paul bursts built. LP guys will argue there are less because all of them can’t still be intact but that applies to any old guitar.  I’ve seen bursts with issues on the market for $80,000 (repaired headstock and a few minor issues) all the way up to $1,000,000. I don’t know what the highest price ever realized for a non celebrity owned burst is but it’s a lot higher than the highest price ever paid for a non celebrity owned 335. I know of at least one LP that sold for over $400K. There are a fair number in the $250K range. Most sales at this rarefied level are private and the prices paid aren’t public knowledge. Could one have sold for a million bucks? Maybe. Seems like a lot of money for a guitar.

I’ve written extensively about the fact that rarity isn’t the main factor in guitar values. Rarity only matters when the supply is wildly outstripped by demand. And that’s true of a few guitars in the Gibson lineup. Take the original Gibson Explorer. They allegedly made somewhere between 35 and 100 of them between 58 and 63 and they hardly ever come up for sale. Again, I don’t know how high they actually go-I know of at least one that reached $350,000. There is one on the market now for $750,000. Flying Vees are in the same ballpark even though there are perhaps twice as many of them as there are Explorers. Again, I know of a Vee that sold for around $300K. I don’t really keep track of these things so there certainly could be higher sales. The shipping totals are speculative. No one seems to know exactly how many left the factory.

There are no other Gibson guitars that even approach these numbers. If you ask me (and I know you will), the 335 is every bit as good a guitar as a Les Paul, an Explorer or a Flying Vee. The circuit is pretty much the same. The pickups are the same. The design is every bit as good and playability is arguably better on a 335 than any of them. Again, my opinion. Tone is subjective but plenty of folks have called 335’s (and 345’s) “burst killers” and some of these folks are burst owners. You know who you are. So why can you buy a sunburst 58, 59 or 60 ES-335 for $20,000 (for a 60 with minor issues) to $50,000 (for a mint 59)? It has to be the demand. There were about the same number of 58-60 335’s made as there were 58-60 Les Pauls. There were around 1700 58-60 Les Paul Standards (some 58’s were gold tops). There were around 1300 335’s made during the same period. Interestingly, a lot more 58-60 335’s come on the market for sale than do Les Pauls. But here’s where it gets strange. The blondes.

There were 209 blonde 335’s built from 58-60. There are a few built later-I know of one 61, one 63 and one 64. Of the 209 dot neck blondes built, I’m sure a few didn’t survive the nearly 60 years since they left Kalamazoo. So, lets be generous and say that 20 were either refinished, broken or simply trashed in some way, leaving 189. There must be at least 100 already in the hands of collectors and probably more than that. I know a lot of the owners and a few with multiple blonde 335’s. They are very attached to them so many of these guitars are effectively off the market for the foreseeable future. So, how many are left with original or later owners or widows and families that will hit the market as “uncirculated” 335TDN’s? Well if the present slate of blonde 335’s is any indication, precious few. There was one 60 at a well known dealer in California listed at $100K. An unbound 58 in the Heartland for $86K which apparently sold recently, although I don’t know the sale price . There is a Bigsby 60 with a 345 fingerboard at $72K and a Bigsby 60 with an unusual “Custom Made” plate in a lower than normal position for $66K. The only other one I know of is a 58 that has a damaged top.  As I said, not much out there.

I know that stop tail blondes approached and, although I don’t have absolute proof, reached $100K in 2008. I predict they are on their way back to that number. There simply aren’t very many left.  The old rule of thumb for blondes was double the price of a sunburst. With near mint sunburst 59’s now approaching $50K, a near mint blonde 59 should be at $90K+. Call me biased, but that still seems like a much better deal than a $300,000 Vee or a $750,000 Explorer.

Unbound 58's are a little less desirable to many collectors. I think they are very cool. This one looks like the top came from the same piece of maple as the bound one at the top. I sold this one in 2015.

Unbound 58’s are a little less desirable to many collectors. I think they are very cool. This one looks like the top came from the same piece of maple as the bound one at the top. I sold this one in 2015.

Nothing Like Old Wood. An Expert Responds

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Before you read this post, please read the post entitled “Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.” This post was an email sent to me by luthier Ken McKay who built the guitar I’m writing about in the previous post. He fills in a lot of the blanks for me and explains his (and Gibson’s) methodology. Here it is in its entirety.

I enjoyed reading that and generally speaking I wholeheartedly agree.

In 1959 Kalamazoo factory was filled with newly ordered racks pattern grade mahogany, it was just dried the normal way.  They used drying kilns in those days. These billets of mahogany were pattern grade meaning they used the wood to make patterns for automobile parts. They had to be stable. So that is the neck. Just pattern grade mahogany. Still available if I look hard.

Let me get into the other parts a little bit. But first I have to tell you that the ES xx5 guitar design is evolutionary. Once they got it right with the center block they pretty much kept it that way. That is until circumstances made it different and it became an entirely different guitar.  Current 3xx guitars only replicate the essence of the original models. It’s too bad some players get confused and think they’re getting something that they are not. They are simply not the same. If a player wants that sound and feel that comes with a vintage guitar. Then only a vintage or McKay will get you there. If A player goes into a store and plays a new 335, and likes it, that’s a different story. There’s no confusion there and they’re getting what they want. I would encourage players to play a few vintage models though to see what’s really possible.

In my Benchmade guitars I use different quality contour brace material. I also have the veneer sliced to different dimensions using different materials than the current factory does. I use different glue. And like you,  I like to use Brazilian Rosewood for fingerboards.

It’s an engineered guitar. It’s ply construction. Not just the top and back plates but the entire body. If you take a cross-section of the guitar body cut in half there will be 11 layers from top to back. Four veneers for the plates, spruce followed by Maple followed by Spruce again and then four more layers of maple veneer. These are all glued up in different succession to make up a composite. This was the best they could do at that time. The materials at the time were simply wood and glue. Metal was too heavy and Carbon plastics and things did not exist. And some things  were happy circumstances, for example the glue they used dried hard and crisp. This of course could’ve been engineered into the plan but I think it was just circumstance. Because it helps retain the crisp high-end.

Another huge factor is the part of the guitar that is not there, the air. The pickups hear all the parts including the resonance of the air. Air is a cushion. It gives the guitar the acoustic attack and is mixed with the sustain of the center block maple. The amazing thing is they got the proportion correct pretty much from the start. Personally I think it’s a practical thing if they were to have made it thicker it would be too heavy. In the body, the size does seem to be perfect. So this is part of the engineered guitar… the double air chambers.

The center block is soft maple. It’s not too heavy. It’s not too anything for that matter,  it’s just correct. I have used different material and it did result in different sounds. So this, of course, can be part of the process. Generally speaking, though lightweight, soft maple works out best. If you wanted for example little more crisp high-end and spankiness then perhaps hard maple might work out for you.

The Spruce contour brace material is also important because it helps sound waves travel rapidly. I use very straight grain material and the speed of sound is rapid through this material. With this you get a quick attack. I think this would drive up the price of a factory guitar if they used only high-quality material like I do.

And then there’s the other things that add up. Long studs, proper metal for saddle, bridge,  proper nut material. The headstock angle and the neck angle also make a difference of course.

Here’s a picture of my innards.  Contour brace stock and maple centerblock stock. I weigh each for  comparison.




Ken’s logo on one of his wonderful guitars.