Archive for the ‘ES 335’ Category

Red Dot Necks and FONs

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Very early 60 red dot neck. Nice, right? It’s got all the 59 features including the transitional neck but the factory order number is a little odd. Factory Order Number? What’s a factory order number?

Red dot necks are not rare. They made 448 of them. OK, that’s rare when you compare it to Stratocasters and other Fenders but for 335’s it’s not that rare. 1958 red dot necks are super rare. There’s one or at least one that is known. 1959’s are stupid rare, there are perhaps 6 (I’ve had two). 1960’s are less rare with 21 shipped but 60’s have to be looked at a little differently because changes were afoot during 1960 and they didn’t all happen on January 1. In fact, none of them did. They mostly happened around mid year. We’ll get to those after I totally confuse you with the concept of Factory Order Numbers (which I keep a database of).

For those of you who aren’t complete geeks like I am, there is a number inside the body of a 58-61 ES-335 that isn’t the serial number. It goes on (supposedly), the day the assembly of the guitar begins. Assembly-not manufacture. The tops, necks and backs would have been made earlier than the FON indicates but when the folks at Gibson gathered the components together for a “rack” of guitars to be assembled, they stamped a number in there with a letter prefix to indicate what year they were built and what number the guitar is in the rack (usually 35 guitars, usually but not always of the same model). I’m only going to include 335 FON’s because the others make even less sense. The numbers are sequential-they start at 100 (although I’ve never seen one lower than 600) and they go to 9999 and then start over. “T” means 58, “S” means 59 and “R”means 60 and “Q” means 61 until they stopped using them at some point in 61.

So, pay attention. This gets kind of convoluted. At the end of the years, there is some weird overlap. Theoretically, say the last FON of 58 was T7303 (which is the latest I’ve seen). So, the first rack of 59 should have been S7304 (which it isn’t). I had a 335 with the FON S7303 which is odd since 7303 is a T rack. Maybe someone forgot to change the year like they did on some Fender amps in 66. To make matters worse, there is a rack designated S6525 which shouldn’t exist as an S rack unless they went all the way through 9999 and back to 6525 which they didn’t. Unfortunately, it gets worse, not better.

At the end of 59, the last 335 rack looks like S1765. It’s lower than the first S rack of the year because the numbers went through 9999 and started over in 59. But hold on, rack number 1762 is an R-the first R I’ve found. So is rack 1765 earlier or later than rack 1762? It should be earlier since the numbers are supposed to be sequential but it’s not an S (59) rack. Who cares, you ask? Well, me for one and here’s why. I recently bought one of those 21 red 335 dot necks from 1960 with all of the 59 features. Lucky me. I was ready to bet that it was a 59 FON and a 60 serial-it’s a very early 60 and I’ve had another 60 like this one with a fairly close serial number to this one with a much earlier 59 FON. 60 335’s with 59 FONs are essentially 59’s that got shipped in 60-that’s why I care. This one isn’t quite that even though the guitar is totally identical. As I mentioned, the changes didn’t start on January 1, 1960. I’ve had a few other 60 red dots with later 60 FONs well into 1960, all with at least some 60 features like double ring tuners, smaller neck, reflector knobs and at least one with a short guard in late 60.

So, I’m going to ignore the features and odd FON and call the guitar a 60 rather than what I usually designate as a 59/60. But make no mistake, if I put this guitar next to any 59 made after September or so, it’s identical. The last serial of 1959 is supposedly A32285. This 60 is A329xx. The last 60 red I had was A328xx and had a 3rd quarter 1959 FON. No wonder I’m confused.

Here’s a later 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 35 guitars. The last number is the “rank” or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Year Ender 2017

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Red dot necks are one of my favorites. Rare but not impossibly so, unless you want a 59. This mid 60 went to a well known rock star in 2017

Contrary to popular belief, guitar dealers actually talk to one another once in a while. And, to have heard them talk last Summer and Fall,  you would have thought the bottom had fallen out of the market. There was all kinds of moaning and complaining going on. “Nothing is selling.” “Seller are asking stupid prices.” “The are too many Strats on the market…” and so on. I don’t generally speak to the broader market-I simply don’t sell enough of anything other than ES models to have any real street cred. OK, maybe big tweed amps but that’s a different market from guitars in so many ways.

First, what the heck gives me the credentials to analyze this market? Well, look at the market itself for ES models. I would say that the average big dealer might sell ten 58- 64 ES models a year and perhaps out of that one two or maybe three dot necks. The smaller dealers with 5o guitars or less in inventory, might sell half or a third as many. I sold 47 1958 to 1965 ES semi hollow guitars last year. Seventeen were dot necks. Right now, there are 29 1958-1964 ES-335s on the market. One third are mine. So, I know the market based not on research but on my own real world numbers.

Dot necks can’t really be looked at as a single category any more because the 58’s and 59’s have diverged in a big way from the 60’s and 61’s (and the handful of 62’s). You can lump early 60 335’s in with 59’s but these two markets have not acted the same at all. The 58 to early 60 market was strong all year with prices climbing through the first two quarters, stabilizing through the Summer and Fall and starting on up again in Q4. The problem is folks asking too much for them has stagnated much of the market. A sunburst 58 or 59 335 is not, in my opinion, currently a $45-$50000 guitar and yet four out of seven on the market right now are in that range. The other three? They are in the $32K-$39K range and all three belong to me. So, either they are wrong or I’m wrong. The difference is that my guitars are selling and theirs appear not to be. I think the current range for no issue 58 and 59 stop tail ES-335’s is $35,000-$45,000 depending on condition and other factors (double white PAFs adds a few thousand, figured tops add a few as well). More than $45K? Not yet unless its a blonde.

The later dot necks have not been nearly as strong. It’s still the big neck vs skinny neck thing. By mid 60, the necks were very slim-still wide-but slim from front to back. A 61 dot only occasionally reaches $20K. A super clean one might hit $23K and asking prices can be much higher but the sale prices are in block neck territory. I don’t sell that many 61’s because I don’t buy that many. That market is relatively stable right now. The sleeper in the dot market is the early 60. It is 100% identical to a late 59. Everything…the knobs-still bonnets, the neck profile-still medium “transitional”, the pickups-still long magnets, the tuners-still single ring, the caps-still bumblebees. All that changed by June but the early 60 averages $5000-$10,000 less than a late 59. But the “magical year” of 59 has some kind of voodoo cachet that commands the big dough.

Block necks are the interesting group this year because the dealers and most individual sellers somehow have gotten the impression that a clean block neck is a $25,000 guitar and an average one is a $20,000 guitar. For what it’s worth, I’ve sold at least a hundred blocks in the past five years and I’ve never, ever gotten more than $20K for one and that one was mint. Somebody else surely has gotten more-there are folks who don’t pay much attention to price when they really want something but that’s the exception, not the rule. But the market is trending upward and I have acknowledged that. I have a 62 PAF block for sale right now for over $20K. I hope I get it. Bigsby/Custom Made blocks have crept into the $15K range this year and exceptional examples even higher. That’s way up from last year. 64’s are the most popular due to the bigger neck but I think PAF 62’s are the one to watch. I find them consistently excellent and many have neck profiles that are what I would call medium rather than slim (.83″ at the first and .90″ at the twelfth). Some of those late dots are .79″ and .87″ which is really slim.

I’m running out of space, so I’ll cover 345’s and 355’s separately. There were some pretty striking changes over the year in these guitars.

Figured tops are not the norm on a 335 but every once in a while, one pops up. They command a premium for sure but not a ridiculous one. This 59 sold for well under $40K early in the year. I think figured dot necks are a great investment guitar.


Nickel or Chrome. Metallurgy 101

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Well this is nice and shiny, must be chrome right? Nope. This near mint 62 has nickel parts but they spent the last 50 years or so in the case so they never tarnished. Without a chrome item in the same photo, it’s hard to tell the difference.

OK, I’m a fraud. I know nothing about metallurgy but if you look at enough pickup covers and bridges, you get pretty good at telling nickel from chrome. I’ve covered this in an earlier post but I keep getting emails asking about this, so I’ll do another. And it lets me show a photo of this incredible 62 I just got with shiny nickel hardware.

Nothing gives away a changed part like being the wrong metal. Any time somebody wants to sell you a 64 with chrome pickup covers, walk away. There weren’t any. But, how the heck do you tell the difference, especially from a photo?

First, there’s nothing wrong with chrome. It’s a very nice looking metal and it doesn’t tarnish or discolor over time. It’s a great choice for bathroom fixtures and the kitchen faucet. It isn’t bad looking on guitars either but it’s a little boring (I could have said a little dull but chrome never gets dull). Gibson switched from nickel plated parts on 335’s to chrome plated parts in 1965, phasing it in slowly over the course of the year. They weren’t being subtle, they were simply using up the parts they had in stock. Gibson didn’t think anybody could tell the difference between nickel and chrome because they mixed the parts in 65 with no regard whatever for how they would age. They generally made both pickup covers out of the same metal, so at least they had an inkling that it might be noticed by some astute metallurgist, like me. But they mixed bridges, tailpieces, pickguard brackets-everything metal except the tuners which stayed nickel through the 60’s. I’m told by guys who worked at Gibson that there were complaints from customers about the metal tarnishing and that’s why they made the change. I wonder if one was cheaper than the other?

So, how does one tell the difference. Well, there’s the easy way and the hard way and it has nothing to do with how good you are at telling the difference. The easy way is if it’s dull and tarnished, it’s nickel. Chrome can get pretty crapped up with dirt and sweat but a wipe with a damp cloth will bring it back to its factory shine. You can bring back nickel too but it will take some elbow grease and metal polish which, by the way, I don’t recommend. Results are pretty variable and it ends up looking like somebody tried to clean the nickel. Ever try to clean an old coin? It never looks right. Don’t clean the nickel. Then there’s the hard way. supposing the nickel is brand new and as shiny as a new dime? Then you need to call on a bit of very old technology-your brain. Your brain can determine the difference between the reflected color of chrome and the reflected color of nickel. It takes a little practice and it’s not so easy without having both metals in the same photo. A photograph is as variable color wise as the two metals. I should know, my job for about a million years was a a film and video colorist. That’s the guy who makes sure all the shots in a film match. It’s really annoying when Scarlett Johannssen’s sweater is red in the wide shot and maroon in the close up. Yes, somebody actually has to fix that. It’s a real job.

It’s hard but it’s simple. Huh? Chrome reflects blue and shiny nickel reflects green. If you see them next to each other, it should be sort of clear unless you are even the slightest bit color blind in which case, ask somebody. It’s not a true blue or a true green-it’s a bluish cast on the chrome and a greenish cast on the nickel. See if you can get your hands on a nickel pickup cover and a chrome one. Then stare at them side by side. You’ll get it. It doesn’t take an expert in metallurgy, just a working brain.

One of these is nickel. The other is chrome. They look totally different to me and should to you. If they don’t, they have handy labels to help you.

Secret Sauce Part 2

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

This unusual Mickey Mouse ear 66 ES-345 throws a monkey wrench into a lot of my theories. This guitar, if not a top twenty, was very close. Best post 64 I ever had. It wasn’t played much (one theory gone), it’s not a stop tail (another theory gone), it’s not from the “Golden Era” (and another), it has a Varitone (ditto).

I’ve given this post a fair amount of thought and have concluded that logic doesn’t serve us very well here. Logic says the larger the sample, the more valid the results. Let’s see. OK, let’s start with the largest possible sample-all the 335, 345 and 355’s that I’ve owned. My top ten list or top twenty list is compiled from approximately 500 guitars that I’ve owned and sold over the past 10 years or so since I started doing this seriously. Looking at the “also rans” might be illustrative.

Where do all the later ones fall? Well, there aren’t that many later ones because I don’t generally buy them. There could be spectacularly good 66 and later 335’s but I don’t get to play very many of them. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s more that I wanted to keep my “niche” fairly small. I’ve owned a few dozen 66-69’s, so I have a pretty good handle on those but I’ve owned less than 5 from the 70’s. So, my opinion on 70’s guitars is no more informed than yours. The ones I’ve had have been playable, decent sounding guitars but none has impressed me and all were kind of heavy and perhaps less “335” sounding than earlier ones. Could be the changes in construction that occurred in the 70’s. Not much to be learned there. The 66-69’s have generally been pretty good. I don’t like the narrow nut but that aspect doesn’t affect tone. Nor does the Indian rosewood board on these. I’ve had folks tell me they can tell the difference in tone between the rosewoods but I can’t. The pickup changes that occurred during this period may be a factor-66’s generally have poly winding pre T-tops but by 69, most have T-tops. Later pre T-tops seem to lack some of the complexity of the early ones and T-tops, while very consistent, sound kind of thin to me. My conclusion? PAFs and early patents are a factor for sure. Short magnet or long magnet? Well, I’ve swapped out magnets more than a few times and I don’t hear that much difference between a long A2 or A4 and a short A5. I find short magnet PAFs to be more consistent but a great long magnet PAF seems to be best of all. I’ll take a good short magnet over a not so great long magnet though (yes, they exist).

I’d also like to point out how much difference a proper setup makes. I recently had a Bigsby 61 brought to me as a trade. It had a Bigsby bridge installed rather than an ABR-1, a worn out set of strings (10’s) but other wise it was a pretty typical 61. Thin wide neck, PAFs, “normal” neck angle. But it sounded dull and lifeless. No sparkle in the bridge pickup, not much in the way of overtones or harmonics and crappy sustain. New strings made a difference but a few other tweaks made a marginal 335 into a really excellent one. I added a vintage ABR-1 with metal saddles (which I prefer over nylon). I raised the pickups setting them very close to the strings which seems to be the ideal setting on 335’s. I made certain that the saddles weren’t slotted too deeply-this is really important for sustain-and did the same for the nut. Finally, the neck was dead flat-it played fine that way but I dialed in a bit of relief. This allows the strings a little more room to vibrate freely and I find it makes a difference-especially for folks who like really low action. So much of the tone seems to flow from how freely the strings vibrate. Consider the things that affect this-saddles, nut, pickups (magnets can affect this), relief and the strings themselves. Getting these things right made quite a big difference in the 61 in question.

What about the build quality? I believe that the guitars built after the “guitar boom” of the mid 60’s are marginally inferior to earlier ones. Instead of cranking out hundreds a year, Gibson was building thousands. In 1958, there were 327 semi hollow ES guitars built. By 1967, there were around 7300 built. Not only did ES shipping numbers grow exponentially but all the other models did as well. That had to affect the build quality and, if you take a look at the amount of glue slopped around in a typical 67, you’ll get the idea.

Finally, what about the quality of the wood used in the early days? I’m no expert here but I would guess that the quality of the wood in 1958 was not significantly different than the quality of the wood in 1966.

What’s it all mean. It means that a great guitar is the sum of its many parts. You need 5 things. A great design, great wood, great build, great electronics and a great setup. Add a few decades of “seasoning” and a good amp and I think you’re there.

Don’t let the shallow neck angle scare you. Unbound 58’s are always up there in tone and usually in playability as well once you get the setup right.


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 in my database 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.