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Archive for the ‘ES 335’ Category

Secret Sauce, Part 1

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Number 9 on the top ten list is this 59 ES-345 in red-possibly the first red 345 ever made. The pickups are white/zebra, the neck is fat, the top is thick and the neck angle is normal.

I try to keep a record of which ES-335’s sound best (“top ten”) which is not an easy task. First off, I sell all the guitars I get so that I have to remember what a guitar sounded like years after I last heard or played it. I keep notes on each guitar but tone is so subjective that I don’t trust my own notes sometimes. In fact, I’ve had guitars that sound absolutely great one day and not so great the next. I’m guessing that if I lined up the ten best 335’s I’ve ever had and played them one after the other, they would sound really similar if not identical. But my ears aren’t your ears and my taste isn’t your taste. And my amp isn’t your amp. Beyond that, if I took the next ten that I’ve liked, I don’t think the difference would be all that great either. In fact, I no longer rate them in order-just top ten best and top twenty.

I bought an unbound 58 yesterday that is pretty close to mint and possible top ten contender. The conventional wisdom says the good ones get played. That’s often true but the converse is not. Just because a guitar is mint and barely played doesn’t mean it can’t sound great. If the original owner kept it under the bed and was a lousy player who gave up after 6 months in 1959, then the condition has nothing to do with the tone. This 58 is a monster. The dealer from whom I bought it thought it was the best 335 he had ever heard (and this was after I had agreed to buy it). I wasn’t playing it through a $12000 tweed Bandmaster either. I was playing it through a $1500 Gibson GA-80-a great amp but certainly not a legendary one. When I go back and look at my current list of the best 335’s I’ve owned, there are more 58 335’s than any other year and model. There are a bunch of 59’s (335’s, 345’s and a 355) some with a 58 factory order number (FON). There’s a 60 and a 62 on that list but 8 out of ten are 58’s and 59’s. Here is a list of the current top ten-ignore the order: #1 bound 58 335, #2  59 (58 FON) 335, #3 unbound 58 335, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 bound 58 335  #6 is an early 60 335, #7 is a 59 355 mono stop tail, #8 is a refinished 62 335, #9 is a 59 345 and #10 is a 59 335.

So, what’s the “secret sauce”? Is there any shared aspect of these guitars that tells us something about what makes them so good? All are stop tails. They all have long magnet PAFs except the 62 335. Many have the thin top-6 for sure, perhaps as many as 8-I don’t have notes on numbers 9 and 10-they could be either thin or regular tops. Numbers 1,3 and 5 have the shallow neck angle. How about the body depth? Body depth? Yes, the body depth kept getting deeper and deeper over the years. The typical 58 and many 59’s are 1.5-1.6″ deep. By 60, most were around 1.65″ deep. By 64, the average was around 1.72″ and by ’65, 1.8″ was not unusual. All have shallow bodies except the 60, the 62 and maybe one of the 59 335’s. What about neck profile? All but two have a chunky neck. The question is which aspects make the difference or is it a combination of all of them. Or is it the wood? Or how they were kept? Or how much they were played?

So, we’ve got the raw data but its interpretation is the sticking point. Maybe I need to look at a larger sampling or maybe it’s impossible to know without having all of them side by side. Doing things like swapping out pickups won’t tell us much since 9 out of 10 have PAFs. But wait. We all know that PAFs are not very consistent. We’ve all had experiences where a pickup swap has made a guitar better. Most of us believe that if a guitar sounds great unplugged, it will sound great plugged in. I don’t buy that as a rule. It’s a decent starting point but it’s not gospel. So, I think we know a great pickup is a big part of it. I believe the thin top makes a difference. The data tells me that. Or does it? None of the top ten are blondes. Three are red. One is refinished. So, six are sunbursts. That’s data but logic tells us that the color can’t possibly make a difference. Well, that same logic might tell us what does make the difference. We will look deeper in my next post.

Number 7 on the list is a 1959 mono factory stop tail ES-355. Big neck, white PAFs (which we all know sound better than black ones), thin top.

 

After the Goldrush

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

The end of the Golden Era-the Gibson executives decide on what changes will make the 335 (or in this case, the 345) more competitive with the rival Fender line. Fortunately the company was in good hands.

Most of us will acknowledge that the most desirable 335’s are 58 and 59 dot necks. 64’s are pretty desirable too and all of these fall into what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Era”. Judging by the characteristics of these three years, the conclusion is pretty clear. People like guitars with big necks. But there has to be more to it than that or Gibson would have simply kept on with what they were doing. Since this era is largely our own perception of what’s desirable and what isn’t, you have to assume that something changed. Was it simply that Gibson and later Norlin, made inferior guitars? Well, that’s part of it.

So, what happened following the so-called “Golden Era”? I don’t like to make a blanket statement that all 70’s Gibson’s are crap. They aren’t, but here’s the distinction I draw between the Golden Era and it’s fringe (the late 60’s)…a bad 335 from 58 to mid 69 is the exception, not the rule. The bad 335 from mid 69 to 81 is more the rule. You have to look pretty hard to find a really bad 68. You have to look pretty hard to find a really good 78. If you own one and you love it, good for you-you found a good one. The intent of the Norlin Corp. who owned Gibson from 1969 to 1986 was to print money. Corners were cut, compromises were made, quality suffered and prices rose. The wood was often inferior, the center block nearly disappeared, pickups were simplified and suffered for it, necks were no longer a single piece of mahogany, the non too popular neck volute appeared and on and on. This might help explain the price differential between a 68 and a 78 but it doesn’t do much to explain the differential between a 59 and a 68.

The guitar boom that followed the Beatles to America was a cultural tidal wave. Sales of 335’s went from a few hundred a year (592 in 1959) to thousands ( close 6000 by 1967). That’s a tenfold increase and that must have put some strain on the work force. It is no secret that the quality in 67 is not as consistent as it was in 59. But, the quality was still quite good and apparently Gibson was able to handle the huge increase without ruining the product. There were, however, decisions made that make them less collectible or desirable than a 59 or a 64. The change from stop tail to trapeze in 65 was simple economics. It took longer to install a stop tail than it did to install a trapeze. Time is money. More important was the decrease in the nut width, dictated largely by competition from Fender where thinner meant faster (and we all wanted to be faster).  Imagine the vintage 335 market if 67’s had the wide nut and the big profile of a 59. The 335 market would be vastly different with thousands of additional, desirable wide nut 335’s available to satisfy the demand (the total for 65-68 is over 13000). OK, granted a 67 isn’t a 59 with a narrow nut-there’s the Indian rosewood board, the poly wound pre T (cheaper than enamel wire) and then t-top pickups and the chrome hardware (more durable than nickel) but still, they are more similar to a 59 than they are to a 78. I believe I could take a 67, put on a set of early patents, a stop tail and re-neck it with a wider mahogany neck and present you with a guitar you would swear was a 64 and you’d like it a lot.

The big dollars that 58-64’s command is not arbitrary. There are quantifiable reasons for their market values. I never took an economics course but the simple rules of supply and demand are at work here along with other, less tangible market forces. A dot neck plays and sounds no better than a block but commands a premium. An early patent is the same as a late PAF (but for the sticker) but it looks and sounds the same but commands a premium. Mickey Mouse ear cutaways are no better than the pointy ones from late 63 on but they command a premium. Starting to see a pattern here?

Fads and trends made a big difference here. The Golden Era didn’t end abruptly on Dec 31 1964. It didn’t end because the quality went down the tubes. The Golden Era is our perception of whats good and desirable- right now. It ended, in part, because the current demand is for wide nut guitars and Gibson, in it’s wisdom, blinked and followed Fenders lead for a “faster” neck. And further, in the quest for a less labor intensive tailpiece, Gibson went to the trapeze.  If, for whatever reason, narrow nut, trapeze tailpiece guitars become the rage among players and collectors, the 65-68’s are going to be king. And the Norlin era? Well, that’s a much more involved tale that we’ll get to soon.

The end of the Golden Era. This is a very early 65-all nickel, stop tail big neck. A few weeks after this was made, the stop tails were used up and the trapeze took its place. The big neck was gone by around June. Chrome was phased in throughout the year and even into 66 with the pick guard bracket the last piece of nickel hardware to fall.

 

 

When is a 58 not a 58?

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

This 59 has a T7280 FON from 58 and the serial number A30518 which is June of 59.

When it’s a 59, of course. Guitars that fall on the cusp of a new year are often tricky to describe. We are all obsessed with what year our guitar is from. In fact I get more emails about dating these guitars than for any other reason. they can be hard enough to date without the year end confusion that Gibson’s seem to cause. During those years, there wasn’t really a “model year”. Gibson didn’t tout the “new 1959” lineup but we are conditioned to expect exactly that thanks to the automobile industry. They touted new models but not the new model year probably because guitars, especially higher priced guitars, often didn’t sell during the year they were built. I’ve found lots of guitars with a sales receipt dated a year or even two years later than the serial number indicates.

From 1958 to 1961, Gibson used two numbering systems. The factory order number (FON) which was generally stamped in black ink on the inside of the guitar (often twice-once on the back of the top and once on the inside of the back. And there was the serial number stamped or written (usually stamped during this period) on the orange label. No serial on the back of the headstock until 61. There is little confusion when the two indicate the same year but when they don’t, it can give you a headache. When I date a guitar, I consider a few factors: The serial number carries the most weight-that indicates the year the guitar was shipped. The factory order number indicates the year the build was started but not necessarily completed. And finally, the features of the guitar (dot markers, long guard, bonnet knobs, etc.). It’s not surprising that year end builds would get a following year serial number. I usually mention that in my listings-I would describe a 60 with a 59 FON as exactly that. I’ve covered this situation in earlier posts but there is an anomaly that occurred in the late Spring to early Summer of 1959.

The changes that were made in early 59 are quantifiable. The neck angle increased and the thickness of the top increased. These changes addressed some problems the 58’s were having. An early 59 with a 58 FON is common. I usually just call them 59’s. But what about a mid year 59 that has a 58 FON? How did that happen? Was there a rack of leftover builds that got put aside due to complaints about top cracks in the thin tops? So far, I’ve had seven ES-335’s with mid year serial numbers that have 58 FONs. The earliest is A30247 (probably late May) and the latest is A30659 (mid July). Most are from one of two racks-T7303 and T7304 both late 58 racks. Two, including the one pictured, are from earlier racks. The rack number is not really of interest here but the year designated by the letter “T” is. That’s a 58 build.

So, are these “not-on-the-cusp” 59’s really 58’s? Well, yes and no. Here’s why. It’s pretty clear from the thin tops and the big round necks that the bodies and necks were fabricated in 58. The increased neck angle would have already been in place by late 58. But many of them have double white or zebra pickups which didn’t exist in 58-they were the result of a shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins in 59. They also have 59 pot codes. So, we can assume that the assembly of the finished guitar occurred in 1959. But, this is Gibson and nothing is totally logical. Another change occurred in 1958 to 59. The Kluson tuners went from patent applied to patent number (and they changed the formulation of the plastic). Some of these 58/59 ES-335’s got 58tuners and some got 59. Go figure.

I wasn’t there so all of this is speculation. They could have simply been leftover tops and backs that were already stamped but I doubt it. The neck and neck angle just shouts late 58. But I still call them 59’s probably in part because everybody wants 59’s anyway but also because of the 6 month discrepancy between the FON and the serial. The best I can do is describe it as a 59 with a 58 FON and call it a day. There is good news amid the confusion, however. These are some of the best of the best. The thin tops are more fragile and prone to cracking, to be sure. But they are also more resonant. The necks are big and rounded-the baseball bats we all know and love. The neck angle allows for plenty of height adjustment at the bridge unlike the earlier 58’s where the bridge sits on the top of the guitar. So, look for these and ask about the FON when you buy a 59, especially one in the above mentioned serial number range. It might be an exceptional one.

The “T” means 58. The rack numbers are sequential (supposedly) and the last digits are the rank-what number the guitar was in the 35 unit (more or less) rack. T7280-xx is pretty late in 1958 but the guitar didn’t ship until June of 59. No idea why.

 

 

Small Parts. Big Bucks.

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

An original long tortoise guard for a 58-60 ES-355 is not only hard to find but, not surprisingly, is ridiculously expensive. This is mostly because not only are they rare but they can deteriorate badly just by sitting in the case. Buy a $250 boutique reproduction. The real ones are at least $1200. And yes, that’s a factory stop tail 355. talk about rare…

If you had to build a car from original parts, you’d spend more than the value of the entire car. That’s been a common thought for as long as I’ve owned a car and had to pay for stupid little parts that seem to cost way more than they’re worth. But there are a lot of parts in a car and relatively few in a guitar, so why are vintage parts so freaking expensive for vintage guitars?

It’s stunning to see the vast difference between the average price of a really accurate repro stop tailpiece versus a real one from the 50’s or 60’s. But the difference in the look and quality of said parts is minimal. In some cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. I can buy a fairly convincing repro stop tail for around $55. I can buy a really convincing one for $125. I can tell the repro from the real ones but only if I take it off the guitar and examine it carefully. From a foot away, you can fool anyone. A real vintage stop tail averages $1000 or nearly ten times the price of a good reproduction and 20 times the price of a Gibson Historic. And it’s not just stop tails, it’s just about every part on the guitar.

Catalin switch tips have been reproduced pretty well. A real one is $175-$250. A good repro is $25 (and probably cost a quarter to make). Boutique PAFs like Throbaks (which I really like) are $550 a pair. Real PAFs? Ten times that unless they are white or zebras. Throbaks look right and sound as good as many PAFs. Vintage Kluson tuners? Eighty bucks for repro and $800 or more for the real ones. See a pattern here?

As a vintage dealer, I’m totally comfortable with the prices I charge for guitars. I shoot for a particular margin and price the  guitars I sell (and buy for that matter) to reach that goal. My prices are often lower than other dealers which means either I’m making better deals on the buy side or making less profit on the sell side (or both). The other dealers don’t tell me what their margins are and I don’t ask.  I also don’t look at their prices in order to judge the market-not on 335’s, 345’s and 355’s anyway. I also don’t consult with the various price guides except for guitars I know little or nothing about. I don’t generally buy guitars I don’t know anything about but sometimes I’ll take a trade of a guitar I know little about. But that’s another post.

But when it comes to parts, I just follow the market. And I’m sometimes embarrassed to ask the ridiculous prices commanded by certain parts. My response to sticker shocked buyers is usually “I don’t make the market, I just follow it. Do yourself a favor and buy a good repro.”

And that’s my point. How important is it that every part on your vintage guitar is original or vintage correct? If you’re a collector, it’s pretty important. If you’re a player, it needn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t be. There are very few cases where, in my opinion, the vintage part might improve the tone and playability of your guitar. You could argue that vintage PAFs can’t be replicated but I would argue that point with my ears. I generally can’t hear the difference between a really good boutique PAF and a real one. I can hear a difference between any two pickups but if you lined up ten guitars and nine had PAFs and one had Throbaks, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the Throbak equipped guitar from the others. There’s a pretty big range to PAF tone. I could probably tell a really great one from a Throbak but an average one? I think not.

The only clear exception I can think of-and feel free to challenge me on this-are nylon saddles as found on most 63 and later ABR-1’s. Reproduction nylon saddles are too soft and don’t sound anything like the original milled nylon saddles you find on 62 and later guitars. Part of that could be the age factor but I think it’s mostly because it’s probably too expensive to mill the saddles rather than molding them. The molded ones are simply too soft and seem to dampen the vibration of the string. The metal repro saddles are pretty good if they are the nickel over brass ones. The tusq ones are a lot like the milled nylon ones and a good substitute.

So, if you have a collector grade 335 and it needs a part, go ahead and buy the real one. You’ll get it back when you sell. A no excuse guitar is always easier to sell than one that is all original except for…whatever. On a player grade guitar, you might get your investment back but you probably won’t. I’d be happy to sell you that $1200 long tortoise guard for your 59 355 but you can get a nearly identical one for $250 from one of a few boutique makers. I promise, your guitar will sound the same.

New nylon saddles are too soft and will cause your guitar to sound muddy. If you need to replace the nylon saddles on your post 62 ES-335, either find real vintage ones or get Tusq ones. Newer nylon saddles are too soft.

Upside Down Market

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017
Best value there is in 335 land. This is an early 65 with the big neck and wide nut. It's been converted to a stop tail (Yes, it's placed a little too low) but for $8000 or so, it's $10,000 less than a 64 which is almost the same guitar. Read on and be amazed.

Best value there is in 335 land. This is an early 65 with the big neck and wide nut. It’s been converted to a stop tail (Yes, it’s placed a little too low) but for $8000 or so, it’s $10,000 less than a 64 which is almost the same guitar. Read on and be amazed.

It’s not unusual for the vintage market to fall into familiar patterns. The most common is simple: Folks asking for more money than the guitar they are selling is worth. That’s just human nature doing what it does. Dealers do it, individual owners do it, widows and orphans selling Grandpa’s pride and joy do it. I will cover this phenomenon (which is particularly prevalent lately in dot necks) in a later post. This post is about the opposite phenomenon.

There have always been guitars that seem like they are undervalued. They are desirable but, strangely, do not sell easily or for a price that is in line with similar guitars. They are often rare but command little or no premium for their rarity. There are also über rare guitars out there that are not particularly desirable that also command little or no premium (blonde Byrdlands are a good example). Then there are relatively common guitars that are quite desirable but just don’t get the respect (and high prices) they deserve.

So what are these bargain basement guitars and where do you find one? The common one that comes to mind is the early 65 big neck 335’s and 345’s. The early ones with nickel hardware are virtually identical to a 64 except for the tuners and the tailpiece and yet they are priced at less than half the going rate for a 64. Even more surprising is the fact that they aren’t much more than the top of the line brand new Gibson 335’s. The tuner difference is negligible-double line Klusons instead of single lines. In fact, some late 64’s have double lines and that doesn’t diminish their value at all. So, it must be the trapeze tailpiece. So, having a trapeze tailpiece rather than a stop tail accounts for an approximately $10000 difference in price. Granted, only the earliest ones that have nickel parts definitely have the early patent number pickups but even some of those with chrome pickup covers have them (same as a PAF).  Conventional wisdom seems to think that 65’s have t-tops. They don’t. I’ve never, ever, seen a t-top in a 65. Hey, for a $10000 savings, you can afford to have the trapeze removed and have a stop tail installed. You can even put in a set of PAFs and still come out ahead. Big neck early ’65 345’s are even less than 335’s and are one of the great bargains in vintage guitars. I’ve seen plenty of them for $6000 or so. They almost always have the early patents and even, on rare occasions, PAFs.

The best example of a very rare guitar that is desirable but is vastly underpriced is a blonde 59 or 60 ES-330. Dot neck 330’s (two pickup) are great guitars that are well priced to begin with. Consider a brand new 330 Historic is pushing $6000. A vintage block neck from 64 or even earlier can be found for less. Even a dot neck 60 or 61 can be bought for $6000. A 59 might go a little higher but $7000 is a typical selling (not necessarily asking) price. But the blondes are the real head scratcher. Consider this, they only made 294 blonde 330’s-most of them in 1960. A blonde 335 has pushed past $75K and can ask over $100K. A blonde 345 has long since passed $40,000 and at least two have sold for over $60,000. That’s way more than double the more common sunburst. So, why is it you can get a blonde ES-330 for $10,000-$12000? Seems kind of low, doesn’t it? I do a lot of research and I look pretty hard (and in a lot of places) for the guitars I buy and yet I’ve only had 3 blonde 2 pickup 330’s in the last 10 years.

Well, I don’t make the rules nor do I set the prices, so keep an eye out for big neck 65’s and blonde 330’s. They are the best deals out there and they are great guitars. If I see them before you do, I’ll be buying them. And you don’t need to take out a second mortgage. And you’ll get your money back when it’s time to sell.

Great guitar and a great deal. I can't believe that these guitars aren't way more than the $10K-$12K they sell for. As rare as a blonde 335 and about one eighth the price. I'll buy yours if you have one.

Great guitar and a great deal. I can’t believe that these guitars aren’t way more than the $10K-$12K they sell for. As rare as a blonde 335 and about one eighth the price. I’ll buy yours if you have one.

 

You Set ’em Up-Part 2

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017
This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched.

This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched. Pole screws are pretty low but they don’t do that much anyway.

OK, so you’ve set the truss rod for the way you like the neck and the action and intonation are good. You raised or lowered the stop tail into the sweet spot or maybe you came to the conclusion that there really isn’t a sweet spot and that’s fine. There’s no buzzing, so the frets and the nut are good, so you’re done right? You might be but maybe the sustain isn’t quite right or the balance between the pickups seems off or maybe the A string is too loud compared to the others. The truth is that, for some guitars,  there’s a lot more to do. On others, there isn’t. A lot of it is personal preference but some of it isn’t.

One of the biggest problems with 335’s is lack of sustain and the culprit is almost always the saddles. For a guitar to sustain, the string has to vibrate freely for as long a possible. Since nearly all the vibration takes place between the nut and the saddles, you can bet the nut and the saddles are at issue when the guitar sounds dull or muffled. The wood could contribute to the problem as well but there’s no adjustment for that. Well, what could be restricting the strings? It could be that the nut slots are cut too deep or it could be that the saddles are notched too deep. Most 335’s I come across still have the original nut and while they are not without problems, deeply cut slots are usually not an issue. Slots that are too narrow are common which is why a lot of 335’s seem to go out of tune when you do a lot of note bending. That isn’t the tuners slipping. Slipping tuners will make your string go flat. A binding nut slot (which is really common) will make the string go sharp. I usually fix that wth a little graphite (from a pencil). If that doesn’t work, talk to your luthier unless you are comfortable widening the nut slots.

Assuming the nut isn’t the problem (and it probably isn’t), take a look at the saddles. I see saddles with multiple slots, slots that are way too wide and, most often, slots that are way too deep. To get the best performance out of your strings-meaning maximum vibration and sustain-the saddles should be as shallow as possible. The slots are there to keep the strings in place and it doesn’t take much of a slot to do that. On the wound strings, at least half of the string should be above the saddle, so the slot is no more than half the depth of the string. If they are deeper than that but you aren’t experiencing any problems, then leave them. If it ain’t broke… But if the guitar seems a bit lifeless, more often than not, it’s the saddle notches. It’s less of a problem on the wound strings but on the high E, B and especially the G, the difference between a really shallow notch and a deep one is huge. On the plain strings start with the shallowest notch you can cut. If the string pops out when you bend a note, then make it a little deeper and try again. If you have to get a new set of saddles, put the originals in a zip lock and put them in the case  pocket. Somebody down the line is going to want the original saddles. Try to find nickel plated brass saddles. Vintage nylon are great, too but the newer nylon ones are too soft. The vintage ones with the flatter top surface seem better to me but the knife edge ones work OK too. Vintage ones are hard to find but they are out there.

Lastly, let’s look at the pickup height. I start with them as high as they will go without interfering with the strings. That’s my personal taste-there’s no right or wrong-use your ears. If the balance between them is off, lower the louder pickup until they are closer to being equal. If the balance from bass strings to treble strings is off, raise one side of the pickup or the other until it sounds right. If a particular string is too loud or too soft, you can try adjusting the pole screws but I have to say that it really doesn’t seem to do much. I think the proximity of the magnet to the strings has a lot more to do with volume than the pole screws which are hardly magnetized.

That should get you set up properly. I’m not a luthier, so I leave any major fret issues and the nut issues to them. You might want to experiment with different string makers or different gauges. I find 335’s sound best with 11’s or 10’s. 9’s generally don’t intonate well on older guitars-they simply weren’t made for lighter gauges. I have no favorite strings. I do like Pyramids but they are expensive and they don’t last very long. D’Addarios have always worked for me as have DR and a few others. It mostly depends on what you play and how you play. I like brighter strings.

The larger point is to experiment and trust your ears. There is no magic formula.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you. This is a 59 345.

 

You Set ’em Up Part 1

Saturday, July 8th, 2017
This is how I usually configure the saddles but there is no "right" way. Turning the G saddles is often necessary to get it far enough back to intonate properly.

This is how I usually configure the saddles but there is no “right” way. Turning the G saddles is often necessary to get it far enough back to intonate properly.

 

I always appreciate readers suggestions for posts. There’s only so much to be written about any given subject and when your subject is as narrow as mine and you’ve been writing about it for seven years, you will run out of subject matter. You will note that I’m posting less frequently than I used to. It’s not simply laziness or being too busy with other things, it’s just that I’ve covered almost everything. Going forward, going into greater detail on subjects already covered is a logical next step, so instead of writing about a PAF, I could do a post about magnets. Or tuner bushings. But this week a writer made a suggestion for a post that somehow slipped through the cracks. It should have been done years ago. How do you set up a 335? Or, more to the point, how do I set up a 335?

I set up a lot of 335’s (345’s/355’s) and the good news is that they are pretty easy to get right and relatively consistent. I’m going to assume that you don’t need to recut or replace the nut or level the frets. These are really important elements for a good setup and it may be necessary to do one, the other, or both. But we will save that for later.

First, play the guitar and decide what you don’t like or what is wrong with the setup. Consider the action, the intonation and the sustain. The action pretty easy. Raise or lower the bridge until you like the action. Then the real work can begin. If any of the open strings are buzzing, then you have a problem which we will address later. It can be the nut, it can be a fret or frets or it can be the relief (truss adjustment). Or maybe you simply have the action too low. Factory spec. is 5/64″ for the low E at the 15th fret and 3/64″ at the high E. I like mine slightly higher at the high E.

After getting the action where I like it, I look at the relief (the amount of bow in the neck). Sight down the neck. If it’s dead flat and there is no buzz, you can leave it alone. I like a little bit off relief-a small amount of bowing away from the strings- so I would loosen the truss rod a quarter turn to a half turn until I see a slight bow. You may have to leave it for a while. Truss adjustments aren’t instantaneous. If there is buzzing and you see the neck is bowed toward the strings, do the same-loosen the truss a quarter to  a half turn. Leave it for a bit and go back and look. If the neck has flattened out or bowed slightly away from the strings and the buzz is gone, then you’re done with the truss rod. If it is still back bowed or buzzing, loosen the truss some more. If you run out of adjustment-the truss nut is all the way loose-then you will have to see your luthier. Back bows are rare in 335’s with big necks but not uncommon in thin 60-63 necks.

Once I have the truss adjusted, I adjust the stop tail. This is more art than science. Raising or lowering the stop (skip this step if you have a Bigsby or trapeze) can make a small difference in sustain or no difference at all. Some 335’s have a sweet spot usually a few turns up from being screwed all the way down. It’s trial and error and the likelihood is that it won’t much, if any, difference. You’re changing the string break angle which affects the downward pressure on the bridge. Some argue that the break angle changes the ease of bending notes. I’ve never perceived it. The theory is that  less break angle means easier bending. You decide.

Once I have the truss adjusted, I set the intonation. Using a good clip on tuner is the easiest way to do it, although I use harmonics  as well. I assume you know how to intonate a guitar with an ABR-1. Be aware that 335’s were made to be played with a wrapped G string, so intonating a plain G can be tricky. Usually, you have to turn the saddle around so the flat side faces back rather than forward. That allows more adjustment back toward the tailpiece. Most vintage 335s with 10’s require the G saddle to be as far back as it will go. Otherwise it will be sharp at the upper frets. 9’s generally won’t intonate well. I usually turn the top three strings flat side back but it’s usually only necessary to do the G that way. Once you’ve done the intonation and there is no buzzing and you are happy with the action, it’s time to plug it in.

Next post will cover pickup height adjustments and what to do if you have buzzing or bad sustain.

 

Adjusting the stop tail height changes the break angle of the strings. It may make a difference, it may not. There is not correct break angle, so try a few settings until you like it. If you don't perceive a difference, a couple turns up from all the way down looks good to me.

Adjusting the stop tail height changes the break angle of the strings. It may make a difference, it may not. There is no correct break angle, so try a few settings until you like it. If you don’t perceive a difference, a couple turns up from all the way down looks good to me.

 

It Hurts When I do This

Sunday, June 25th, 2017
Lemme just pull these knobs off so I can re-solder the loose wire...huh? Some idiot glued the knobs onto the shafts. Now what do I do?

Lemme just pull these knobs off so I can re-solder the loose wire…huh? Some idiot glued the knobs onto the shafts. Now what do I do?

And the doctor says…”Don’t do that.”

There are a lot of things that guitar players do to their guitars that guitar players shouldn’t do to their guitars. Many of these things (on vintage guitars) date back to when they were simply old guitars and not worth very much. They were practical solutions to everyday problems. If a pot became scratchy, you replaced it. Who cares about the date code anyway? The tuners aren’t working so well, so lets get a set of those fancy new Schallers. The bridge PAF is little weak and a new DiMarzio will sound great. None of these things really mattered when the guitar was simply an old guitar. Few of us (me included) could have guessed that a ’59 335 that cost $600 in 1982 would be worth 60 times as much 35 years later.

None of these things destroy the value, they simply lower it and most of these things are reversible with little damage to the guitar’s vintage value. And some are not. Refinishing always seemed like a good idea if your guitar got so beat up that it was an embarrassment on stage. Adding a Bigsby made sense if the music you played called for one. You know all this stuff and you know to look for these mods when you buy a vintage guitar. You can generally see them in the photos and many, if not most, sellers will disclose them. Then there are the insidious changes that you can’t see that simply cannot be reversed without destroying some expensive vintage parts.

The volume knob is slipping on the pot shaft because the plastic has worn out. You can put a little tape around the shaft and that sometimes works. You can bend the posts of the shaft outward if you’re careful not to break them and that usually works. Or you can super glue the knob to the shaft and that always works. Until you need to get the knob off. And while you’re at it, lets do all four of the knobs since they could all use a little help. And the switch tip cracks and tends to get itself unscrewed after a few gigs. You could take it off and glue it back together, let it dry and screw it back on. Or you could put dab of super glue inside and screw it back down and that will keep that tip on there forever. I can’t tell you how many guitars have arrived at my shop with glued on plastic parts. Dozens for sure. Glued on knobs make it impossible to repair a harness without destroying $400 worth of knobs. Glued on switch tips cause fewer problems unless you need to replace a three way, in which case you will be replacing a $200 catalin switch tip if the guitar is a 60 or earlier.

But wait, doesn’t acetone dissolve super glue?. It does but it can also dissolve the plastic but that isn’t the big problem (and I’ve tried this). The problem is that you can’t get at the acetone to where the glue is. What are you going to do turn the guitar upside down and carefully flow some acetone into the underside of the knob and hope it somehow penetrates only to where the glue is. Oh, and don’t get it on that nice finish. It will dissolve it. So, if someone has glued on the knobs or the switch tip, here’s what you can do: Leave it and hope the pots don’t go south on you. You cannot get them off and you shouldn’t try. You’ll only make it worse. And don’t ever use super glue to solve a problem like that. Get a new set of knobs and put the originals in the case. Or try the tape trick. And if the knobs have already been glued down and you’re selling the guitar, disclose it. And if you’ve never checked, please do before you sell it to me. I don’t think anything annoys me more.

That should be the end of the discussion but I would like to reach out to everyone who reads my blog and ask for solutions to the problem. If you’ve got a way to get a glued on knob or switch tip off, I want to know it. And I want everybody else to know it as well. I thank you in advance. Just don’t experiment on a $35000 guitar with $600 worth of plastic. And if the knobs are slipping on your 335, take the doctor’s advice. Don’t do that.

 

Once a Tree…

Friday, May 19th, 2017
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.

Humbucker Timeline

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

 

Mid 65 ES-335 with chrome hardware. What pickups should be in this guitar. If you polled 100 players, I would bet that 60 would say T-tops. Not even close. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. How many 65's have you taken apart?

Mid 65 ES-335 with chrome hardware. What pickups should be in this guitar?  If you polled 100 players, I would bet that 60 would say T-tops. Not even close. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. How many 65’s have you taken apart?

Just when you think you know it all, it turns out that you don’t. I thought I had seen enough 335’s (345’s and 355’s) to have a good handle on when and how  the various parts evolved and when various changes were made. And, while the only real consistency at Gibson is inconsistency, sometimes I get a surprise. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant surprise.

We’re talking about pickups and the disconnect between the conventional wisdom and actual observation. I’ve been on about this before with regard to T-tops-the conventional wisdom says they started in 65 but that is wrong (and that’s another post).  Most of us know the PAF timeline. Started in late 56 with steels and into guitars in 57. Covers changed by 58 from stainless to nickel plated. Long magnets until some time in 61. Whites and zebras from mid 59 to around mid 60 in nickel PAFs but into 61 in gold versions. Short magnets from late 61 or so (there was overlap) up to 63 and rarely 64 in nickel PAFs. I’ve never seen a gold PAF later than 64 but others have. I’ve heard of PAFs as late as 67 in gold models but I’ve never seen it myself and I’m skeptical. But, mostly, everybody agrees about PAFs. Patent numbers are another story.

Patent numbers appeared in 62 and were often mixed with PAFs. Many 62’s and 63’s have one PAF and one patent number. Everybody knows the only difference is the sticker. Here’s where the conventional wisdom goes off the rails. Early patents have 2 black leads and enamel coated windings (and a short A5 magnet). The next version had one white and one black lead and poly coated windings. It is widely believed that the poly windings showed up in 64. They didn’t. Now, I don’t pull the covers on pickups that have never been opened but I usually do if the solder is not original. Taking the covers off was really common in the late 60’s, so I’ve pulled a lot of covers. I’ve never, ever-not once-seen a poly wound patent number under a nickel cover. If I’m correct, then poly windings began some time in 65. But wait–the conventional wisdom says T-tops started in 65. If poly windings just came in in 65, it doesn’t make sense that T-tops showed up at the same time. That’s because they didn’t.

The first 65’s had nickel covered pickups and they were enamel wound. I found, through looking at a lot of 65’s that if the cover was nickel, the windings were enamel coated and, if chrome, the windings were poly. Not so fast…I recently bought a beater 65 and I decided to part it out. It was a mid 65, SN 332xxx. Wide nut but all chrome parts. I pulled the harness and noted early 65 pot codes and completely undisturbed solder, so I knew the pickups had never been out of the guitar. One pickup had been opened but the other was sealed. I fully expected to see one white lead and one black lead and poly coated (orange) windings. Nope. Enamel (purple) windings and two black leads. That is, essentially,  a short magnet PAF with a different sticker in a 1965 chrome hardware 335. No wonder some 65’s sound so good. I’ve seen enough 65’s (probably 40 of them) to know that most of them have the later patent numbers but, as I now know, not all of them. The value of early patent numbers has crept up in recent days and many parts dealers are asking as much as $2000 for one. I think that’s optimistic (OK, it’s nuts) but I think everybody overprices their parts.

The problem is that it’s impossible to know what’s in there without pulling the covers. A 65 ES-335 can cost anywhere from $4500 (for a late narrow nut 65 with issues) to as high as $15000 for an early 65 with a stop tail. I don’t recommend you go out and buy the next 65 that comes up for sale thinking it’s going to have the equivalent of a PAF because it probably won’t. But it could.

For the record, there are plenty of 65’s with poly coated windings – most of them, in fact. This guitar with the early patents may be a bit of a fluke. Moving forward, I recently picked up a 69 ES-340, which is a 335 with a badly conceived circuit. I opened that one up and found not T-tops as you might expect but later patent numbers (poly). I’ve found them in many 68’s, many 67’s and most 66’s. The best I can estimate is that T-tops arrived some time in 66 but weren’t common until 67. I don’t see all that many post 65’s but I see enough to get a sense of what’s in there. If you buy a 67 or a 68, you still have a really good chance of getting pre T-top patent numbers. If you can’t (or won’t) pull the cover, then there is another not terribly reliable rule. The bobbin screws can tell you something. If they are Phillips, then the pickup is more likely a pre T but it could be a T-top. If they are slotted, it is almost certain that it is a T-top. You can also measure the DC resistance. Most t-tops are the same 7.47-7.52K. If you have slotted screws and both pickups are in that range, you likely have T-tops. Or just use your ears. If you like the sound, don’t worry about which version it is. If you don’t, then change them.

Enamel coated wire is purplish to brown and poly coated wire is orange to red. You would expect poly in 65 and that's what most 65's have. But, if you get lucky, you might find the enamel windings on your 65. That, but for the decal, is a PAF. There is no way to know for sure without pulling the cover.

Enamel coated wire is purplish to brown and poly coated wire is orange to red. You would expect poly in 65 and that’s what most 65’s have. But, if you get lucky, you might find the enamel windings on your 65. That, but for the decal, is a PAF. There is no way to know for sure without pulling the cover.