This is a difficult subject because the effects of various neck angles are impossible to quantify. By neck angle, we’re talking about the angle at which the neck meets the body of the guitar. The easiest way to see this is to look at how much neck is showing under the fingerboard at the area where the neck overlaps the guitars top. A shallow neck angle would mean there is very little neck showing and the most visible result of a shallow angle is that the bridge sits very low on the guitar. A steeper neck angle (raked toward the back of the guitar) will result in the bridge that sits higher off the guitar body. But there’s more to it than that. A shallow neck has a larger area of contact with the body than a deeper angle. Not by much but there are plenty of folks who believe the guitars with the shallow angle sound better. But, again, that’s not the whole story. Let’s look at the most notoriously shallow angle on a 335-the 1958. The neck angle on many (and most) 58′s was so shallow that they needed a thinner bridge to allow a decent string height (action). Those bridges quickly collapsed and Gibson started shaving full size bridges to accommodate that angle. But a bridge that is set as low as it can go actually sits on the guitar top so there is more area of contact than there would be if it was sitting only on the bridge posts. Does that make a difference in tone? Beats me, but it certainly will translate more vibration to the top of the guitar because there is more metal in contact with the top. It’s like when you are sitting in a chair playing (without the amp) and the guitar makes contact with the arm of the chair and all of a sudden, your guitar gets louder because the chair starts vibrating along with the guitar. The question is whether this actually translates into a better sounding guitar. I really like most 58′s. But I really like most 64′s too. They don’t sound the same but I can’t say the shallow neck angle on a 58 makes the difference. It could be the bigger neck on a 58 or the PAFs or the thinner top. There are just too many variables to make some kind of general statement. You can certainly make the argument that more wood equals more vibration equals more tone. That would suggest that big necks might sound better than small ones. Experience doesn’t bear this out with any degree of certainty. I’ve had thin neck 62′s that sound as good as any 59. Similarly, I’ve had just OK sounding early 60′s with a steeper neck angle, a fat neck and PAFs. Throw in variables like poorly cut nut slots, over notched bridge saddles and poorly adjusted truss rods and any 335 can sound worse than it should. These guitars are, quite simply, the sum of their parts. If, at some point, I get two totally well set up, similarly equipped. same size neck 335′s -one with a steep angle and the other with a shallow angle, I can do some kind of side by side. But for now, I will go with my gut and say that the difference is real but it is probably overshadowed by all the other parameters.
Archive for the ‘ES 335’ Category
I’m not very adept with a pair of calipers. Today I tried to measure the frets on all the guitars I have in the house (snow day with nothing much to do). I know approximately how big the frets are supposed to be but for some reason my measurements aren’t that close. Of course, the size of the fret wire as it came out of the box 50 years ago (or tube or whatever) isn’t necessarily the size of the fret wire today. Some general knowledge of Gibson’s fret “repertoire” will help. In 1958, Gibson wasn’t using what we now call “jumbo” fret wire in the first 335′s off the line. The first thing I noticed when I picked up the first 58 I ever owned was that the frets looked like vintage Fender frets (I was a Fender guy before I was a Gibson guy). I measured them at .075″ which is pretty close to Fender which, if what I read on the internet is correct, are .078″. Often, when I get a request from a potential buyer for a dot neck, I ask whether they want a 58, 59, 60 or 61. Most want a 59 and when I ask why, they sometimes say “I can’t play on those little frets on the 58″. I’ve been playing a string of 58′s for the past few months and, while I’m not the world’s best player (OK, not even a good player), I find very little difference between the feel of a 58 and the feel of a 59. Big bends seem to work just fine on the “little” 58 frets. I think setup has more to do with bending than fret wire does but perhaps fat frets are more forgiving of a mediocre setup. I’ll have to look into that. I measured a few others as well. The frets on my 59 ES-345 were around .085″ and were extremely comfortable -a bit flatter than the 58′s but that could be from dressing and wear. The 66 I have had about the same size as the 59 only taller. I have an 82 here that measures .092″ so apparently bigger frets were introduced at some point after the 60′s ended. My 59 Epi Sheraton’s frets measured .080 but I’m such a klutz, they were probably the same as those on my 59 ES-345 and I just didn’t a good measurement. These are pretty small differences after all. But, when you compare these “vintage jumbo” frets to modern jumbo frets, they are quite a lot smaller. A .085 today is considered medium. So, what do I specify when I need to have one of my vintage beauties refretted? I’ve had great results with Dunlop 6105 wire (.090″). It’s so close to vintage spec that I can’t tell the difference. I played refrets done with 6100, 6120, Stew Mac 146 and 154 and they all seem pretty good. I will say that I’m completely obsessive about proper intonation and the big wide 6120′s make intonation more difficult and finicky-especially when they need a crown. In fact, all these frets, once they flatten out from wear (“railroad ties” in luthier vernacular) will cause you some intonation issues. It’s simple physics really. The more precise the pressure point on the string (i.e. the top of the fret) the more precise the note. With flat frets, if the string contacts the back edge of the fret, the note will be rather different from the note produced at the middle or front edge of the fret. On a properly crowned fret, there is only a single point at which the string touches the fret. That doesn’t mean you can get away with poor intonation but it allows you to better adjust and control it. So, I’m afraid I haven’t shed that much light on which 335s used which frets-it seems like 58′s used little ones and 59-66 (and later) used what would be called medium today. If anybody is real good with the calipers, I’d be happy to learn what you find. 99% of what I know about these guitars comes from owning them and looking at them. You can’t get most of this stuff from a book.
Most of you are aware that the little two on the back of the headstock above (or below) the serial number means the guitar is a factory second…the mark of shame for a guitar that couldn’t pass QC. The problem was usually a little teeny flaw in the finish. But not always. The “2″ designation can mean almost anything. The good news is that, mostly, you can’t even find the flaw and the fact that it’s a factory second doesn’t affect the price or the desirability. Recently, I acquired a very early (probably first week in January) ’59 ES-335 with the “2″ on the back of the headstock. I have only seen one other factory second this early in the run-a fairly early 58 335 and it wasn’t anything obvious, although the guitar was heavily played so its hard to tell what was going on. But the flaw on this one is sort of glaring-and kind of cool if you ask me. It looks a little like a 40′s J45 with that deep, deep sunburst. Under blacklight, the guitar glows exactly as it should but a flaw shows up under the black near where it transitions to red. So, it would appear that the painter was going deeper and deeper until the flaw disappeared. QC was not amused. The back is, however, totally normal. I think that, in this case, the “2″ kind of saves the guitar from it’s appearance. I would have said a refinish was possible if not likely if not for the “2″. I’ve been through the guitar from end to end and there is no sign that this finish didn’t come from the factory this way. It is also not the only one like this I’ve seen. There is a late 58 (which I also think is very cool looking) owned or formerly owned by an acquaintance of mine which also has an unusually heavy dark element to the sunburst. No “2″ on that one, however. At least not that I can recall.
One of the great things about these old guitars is all the hand work that is done. Myself, I love to see the great variations that human hands (and human error) can produce on instruments like these. And not just in the finishes. In the neck carves as well. There are certainly guidelines that hold true for Gibson necks of a given year but there are always, and I mean always, exceptions. I recently had a 59 with a neck that would have been more likely found on a 62-barely .82″ at the first fret. Contrast that with this guitar at .93″ at the first fret. Both 59′s. The human touch at work for sure. There are great variations in body thickness, variations in nut width and neck sets and even knob placement and f-hole location. I’m sure they used templates for the latter two so there isn’t much variation but there is some. But these things don’t get you the dreaded scarlet letter-am I being overly dramatic?. OK, the stamped number “2″.
My larger point here is that the guitar with the weird sunburst is something to be enjoyed (and I’m enjoying it plenty). It is testament to hand crafting and to QC, I suppose. And, if you don’t want your dot neck to look like everyone else’s, you might want to seek out one these freaks with the “2″ on their head. It might save you a buck or two and make you stand out in the crowd.
…and they want their guitars back. Fat Elvis. Annie Hall. Ziggy Stardust. The Fonz. Farrah. Rocky, Tricky Dick. Fewer decades have shown so much range and not in a good way. I contend that the 60′s didn’t start until ’63 and didn’t end until 73 or so. The real 70′s as I recall them, seem to be disco, mood rings, pet rocks and platform shoes for men. There was some great music but it was overshadowed by so much ugly stuff. It was like a 60′s hangover. I mean, we had Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac. We also had the BeeGees (the disco ones not the early ones), The Carpenters, all those horrible disco acts and Glam Rock. For Gibson, the 70′s began in 1969. Norlin (beer, concrete) bought Gibson that year and started thinking about ways they could make more money than they were already making. Their best effort? Make the guitars cheaper and sell them for more money. Geniuses. Capitalism at its best. Gibson used to be run by people of vision who simply wanted to make a great product (and a profit) and, in so doing, were creative, inventive and dedicated. With the suits from Norlin at the switch and guitars sales still booming, their approach was to make a great, great product into a mediocre one (at best) that could be produced quickly and cheaply. No wonder they sent Epiphone to Japan. I almost never get 70′s ES-335′s into my hands. I don’t take them in trade and I don’t seek them out. They are simply too inconsistent. I have one here now and I will take you through it. First of all, there are good ones. Really. I freely admit it. There is nothing wrong with the design even with some of the dumb changes they made to cut costs. The 73-74 I have here has only half a center block (up to the bridge). But it doesn’t seem to make that much difference. The resonance is pretty close to an earlier one. The pickups are still pretty good. The neck tenon has all but disappeared and the neck is not as stable. I don’t need a Bigsby-I can do vibrato (not tremolo) by pulling on the neck. I don’t like necks that do that. The volute (the reinforcement bump behind the headstock) is ugly but it doesn’t really make much difference nor does the three piece neck versus the one piece. The fiber headstock overlay is just cheap but it doesn’t change the tone or playability. They could have made all these changes and still made a pretty good guitar. What suffered was the build quality. The fit and finish is just not the same. The glue is sloppy, the neck join is sloppy-things just don’t fit together as well as they did “back in the day.” Not every 335 is poorly constructed but even if 25% of them are, that’s 25% more than there were in the 58-64 era. Out of the 350 or so that I’ve had, not one was poorly built. There is a bit of a range for sure but never poor quality-even the factory seconds. One result of bad build quality is poor sustain-the parts just don’t fit together so well and they don’t seem to vibrate as a unit like the early ones do. Another is less durability. A 70′s ES-335 is more likely to fall apart after 50 years than a 58-68. There’s less glue where glue belongs, more glue where it doesn’t belong and less precisely measured and cut components. If a 59 is like a piece of fine furniture, a 75 is sort of like the bookcase you made in 8th grade shop class (you know what it looked like). There are other elements-like a decline the quality of the woods used, for example. It all adds up to a good design that has been compromised. Vintage prices reflect the difference and I can’t say that a 70′s ES can’t be a relatively good value. Early 70′s seem to be generally better than late 70′s (and they changed the body shape to something that looks weird in 76). Just play it first or buy with a return policy to make sure it isn’t a dog. Actually, I may be insulting dogs.
A would be client of mine (and a friend, although I’ve never sold him a guitar and never met him in person-the internet is a funny place) called me up to ask about a particular ’59 ES-335 he was thinking about buying. It had tons of issues-extra holes under the guard, removed Bigsby, heavy wear and probably BO. But he really liked it and was very concerned about overpaying for it. Nobody likes to overpay for anything but there is a limit, I think. Most vintage buyers have a pretty good idea about what a no issue guitar of a particular type should sell for-although I can think of a few dealers who take the term “should” to whole new levels. But we’ll leave that alone. What bogs so many buyers down is when they find a guitar they like-they like the way it plays, they like the way it sounds and they like the way it looks (and you can’t see under the guard anyway) but they hesitate. They want to know what each hole, each crack, each parts swap does to the resale value. I understand the desire to do this but you really can’t. If you assign a value to each issue, each hole and a value to each changed part, eventually someone will have to pay you to take the guitar off their hands. It’s a little like the reverse of building a car from parts-it’ll cost you ten times the cost of buying the already built car. The general rule about a refinished guitar is that it’s worth 50% of the value of an original. The general rule about a headstock break is the same. So, what if somebody has a 59 dot neck with a broken neck and a refinish for sale? Is it worth 25% of the value of a no issue one? And what if it has a Bigsby-that’s another 15-25% off. And maybe a few filled holes at $1000 each off. I’m not going to do the math (although I could) but you get the idea. There are diminishing returns here. In situations where I’m dealing with a severely impacted guitar, I often work backwards. If the PAFs are intact, that’s $3500 or so. Original parts can add up pretty quickly and even a refinished and repaired headstock husk has “old wood” value.
About 2 years ago, I bought a 61 dot neck that had a headstock break and a Bigsby (and Grovers and a fair amount of wear). I sold it for around $7000 and made a modest profit. It was a decent sounding, decent playing guitar with a terrible repair-it was solid but really ugly and the front of the headstock was poorly re-veneered and painted with no inlay. Pretty cheap for a dot neck-the PAFs and the bridge were worth almost that much. Then the buyer did something sort of miraculous. He did something I almost never consider doing (because it’s usually a bad business decision). He made it into a project. He had a local luthier make a new neck for it using the original binding, fingerboard, inlays and truss rod. And he made a big ol’ 59 sized neck and the repair was just stellar. This was not a small investment either-close to $4000. So now it’s a renecked Bigsby ’61 instead of broken headstock 61 and his investment is around $11K. Is he nuts? I would have said yes at first look-at least from an economics standpoint. A reneck is still considered to be half the value of an original so, in theory, it was worth exactly the same as it was before $4000 worth of work. Except that it wasn’t. It looked perfect, it played beautifully and it now had the neck that everybody wants. When it came up for sale, I hesitated. can it really be worth that much? I remembered how good it sounded even with its broken neck and bought it back. It was a wonderful guitar-good enough to keep (if I didn’t already have a 58). With 59 dot necks well over $30,000 and approaching $40K or more, maybe this was an opportunity for someone to get a big old neck dot for well under half the price of a 59. I listed it at $14500 and had five potential buyers within a day. Four of the five were questioning my pricing and asking me to justify how a renecked 61 could sell for that much. My explanation was that if you want a dot neck with a big neck and you can’t afford a 58 or 59, you can buy a reissue or you can buy one with issues. A smart buyer saved a wad of cash over the cost of a 59. Was it a good investment? Well, the buyer traded it back to me months later for a big neck early 60 and I put it up again for the same price. Gone in a day, again. The way I see it, if you can get the guitar of your dreams for a price you are comfortable with that plays and sounds just like you want it to, the smart thing to do is damn the torpedoes and buy it.
What’s the most often heard request I get?—”I want a 59 (size) neck.” Neck sizes are trendy things. Back in the mid 60′s the trend was for “fast” necks-narrow at the nut and slim from front to back. You can probably thank Leo Fender for that as Gibson was chasing Leo and followed, when necessary, the leader. The necks at Gibson were still finished by hand so there is bound to be some variation within any given era. That said, we tend to describe ES necks by a year designation. To most of us a 58 neck is big and round from one end to the other, a 59 is also big with a bit more shoulder and widening and deepening going toward the 12th fret. A 60 is wide and flat with almost no taper, as is a 61 and a 62. Most of us perceive a 63 and a 64 as medium chunky with some shoulder and a considerable increase in size going up. That’s a fairly good generalization but it isn’t really all that accurate. It may be accurate for the majority of the ES guitars for those years but it may not be accurate for the one you just bought and that’s the one that counts.
Let’s look at the range for each year as I’ve seen them. 1958: These are pretty big and pretty consistent. I’ve measured perhaps 6 or 7 of them and the measurement at the first fret from the board to the middle of the back is .88″-.90″. By the time you reach the 12th, it’s around .98 which is not much of a taper. 1959: Here’s where it gets really tricky. The range at the first fret in 59 is from around .83″ to over .90″ that’s a big range. Most get pretty big by the 12th fret -a full inch or slightly more. But here’s the problem. They are all over the place. It’s not like you can say that a particular serial number range is going to have a particular neck. It just isn’t so, although the earlier the serial, the more likely you are to get a big neck. Anything in the A28xxx range to A30000 will probably have a big neck but there are no guarantees. After that, it’s a even more of a crapshoot. For example A30906 (which was my red one) has what I think is a perfect neck. It was, I believe, around .87 at the first and 1.00″ at the 12th. I currently have A31348 with a neck measurement of around .83″ at the first fret and .94″ at the 12th. That’s a nice neck but it isn’t a size most of us would associate with a 59. I’ve always called that size a “transitional” neck but that one is pretty early-probably early October. I expect that neck in the A31800-A32285 range in 59 and on into 1960 for another 800 or 900 serial numbers. But that’s not consistent either.
1960-1962: It’s a pretty good bet that the neck is going to be pretty flat and stay that way. With the exception of the early 60, you are likely to find some consistency here in that none of them will be particularly large, They will be wide (1 11/16″ more or less) at the nut but the first fret measurement is going to be from .79″ which is blade thin up to around .82″ which is still thin but not glaringly so. I’ve had a number of 61′s that were so thin that there is almost no wood between the truss rod and the back of the neck. You should look out for cracks (and back bows) in these thinnest of necks. The crack is usually from an overtightened truss rod and the back bow is because there just isn’t much wood to counter the string tension and folks keep tightening the truss to compensate until there’s no more range. Then somebody takes the strings off and boinng, you have a back bow. By the time you hit the 12th fret on these, the neck hasn’t gained much heft, Measurements of .87″ are common. As you get into later 62 and into 63, the really thin necks disappear and something like .82″ at the first fret is pretty common.
1963-1964: By mid 63, the necks have gotten pretty big again-even if the first fret measurements don’t entirely bear this out, there is so much more shoulder in many cases that the neck feels pretty chunky. I’ve played 64′s that measure only .82″ at the first fret that feel huge. That’s the shoulder-a rounder profile as opposed to a flatter one. The range from mid 63 to early 65 seems to be from around .82″ to around .86″ at the first fret which many folks feel is the best of the Gibson neck carves for a 335. I like them myself. And don’t go by the contemporary Gibson “59″ and “63″ reissue profiles. The 59 has a ton of shoulder- much more than a real 59 and the 63 is more like an early 62-at least that’s how they felt to me last time I played one (2012 or so).
These is pretty general stuff and there are going to be exceptions all over the place. If you are very particular about neck size, ask a lot of questions or better still buy from someone who will take the guitar back if you don’t bond with the neck. Playing the guitar before you buy it isn’t always possible, so go into your deal with a little knowledge. Most of us are pretty adaptable but if you’re spending the kind of money these guitars go for, shouldn’t you have the neck you really want?
Fifty or sixty years is a very long time. OK, not in the sense of the history of the Earth or anything but it’s a long time for me and for a guitar, among other things. Stuff gets old, stuff gets used, abused and thrown away. When’s the last time you saw a 1961 Chevy at the local Starbuck’s? The old car business is a little like the old guitar business with at least one notable exception. Cars rarely get used for 50 or more years without being restored (unless you live in Cuba). It makes little economic or practical sense to keep a 50 year old car running as your daily driver. On the other hand, a 50 or 60 year old guitar that been played its entire life might be the best playing, best sounding guitar you ever played. It just won’t look that great. The main factor is probably the number of moving parts. A guitar doesn’t have very many so it might show all kinds of player wear but the parts that actually wear out are limited. Frets, tuners, nuts, bridges and pots are the parts that tend to go and all are relatively cheaply replaced. A warped or twisted neck will put a guitar out of commission but little else will. In fact, the first thing I check on a “mint” guitar is the neck. The biggest reason a guitar goes back under the bed for 40 years is that it doesn’t play well. I might add that the biggest reason a guitar gets played year in and year out is because it DOES play well. I know, it’s a cliché but the good ones really do get played. The bad ones get played too and some good ones don’t get played but, on average, beaters are better players than mint guitars. That doesn’t mean a mint guitar is inferior but if a guitar is being played, its probably set up properly and doing what it’s supposed to do…play well and sound good. A guitar that’s sitting under the bed doesn’t have to do either.
We’re all familiar with guitars that have been played so much that there’s almost no finish left (like the Rory Gallagher Strat) and with guitars that have had all their parts replaced, although many ES’s have been scavenged for parts by Les Paul owners. It’s pretty typical for ’59 and ’60 ES-345′s to have splices in the pickup leads because somebody swiped the double whites for their R9 Les Paul. But the beater has a great deal of allure for many. It’s a sign that the guitar has a history and, more often than not, a sign that the guitar was played by someone serious who probably gigged regularly and relied on his instrument as a means of support. That usually means two things: Great player and cheap. And really, what more can you ask for if you aren’t buying an investment? Excessive wear doesn’t really affect playability and tone. A well executed headstock repair usually doesn’t either, although some would argue the point. Neck reset? As long as it was done properly, it won’t make the guitar sound any different although it will make it play better. The typically changed parts don’t make much difference in tone either. I routinely put repro or Tone Pros bridges on my players-a worn or partially collapsed bridge doesn’t do your tone or sustain any favors. A worn nut can be deadly to your tone and slipping tuners are simply a pain if you’re a gigging player. We could argue about changed pots but I don’t think it makes much difference. Pickups are another story. Myself, I try to find beaters with correct era pickups, at least. Not that some aftermarket pickups don’t sound great but I just like vintage better.
So, what should you look for? Well, cheap for one thing. What makes a guitar cheap? Issues. Holes in the guitar that don’t belong have no effect on tone or playability. A worn finish (or in most cases, a refinish) won’t affect the tobe or playability. A bad headstock break or poor repair should be avoided as should a less than straight neck. Some problems can be adjusted away, some can be planed away, some (like a twist) are better left to be someone else’s headache. If you pick up the beater in question and you love the way it plays and the way it sounds, do you really care what its been through? I don’t.
You thought I was going to write about PAF bobbins didn’t you. Go on, admit it. And it doesn’t matter if they’re black or white (unless you’re buying or selling). But, no. I’m writing about black guitars and white guitars. They made both as custom orders during the 50′s and 60′s but they are rare and they are desirable. Out of 300 or so ES-330, 335, 345 and 355′s I’ve had here since I started this site, I’ve had only two legitimate factory black ones (and a couple of black Trinis but those were actually a stock color, although they are awfully rare). I’ve had exactly one white one. You would think both those colors would have been more popular but they just aren’t. Gibson made an awful lot of Les Paul Customs in black so it wasn’t like they didn’t have the paint around. They also made a fair number of factory white SG’s-mostly Customs and Specials and a few Jrs. So how is it that these colors rarely found their way onto the other guitars in the Gibson line? Let’s see what’s out there. There’s the very famous Keith Richards ES’s-a black 59 ES-355 (the one in the Louis Vuitton ad) and a white ES-345 which I think is a 64. There’s Alex Lifeson’s white ES-355 but that’s from the 70′s-a 76 I think. There’s a photo of dave Edmunds playing a black dot neck 335 but it has the headstock inlay in the wrong position and I don’t know if it’s factory black. In any case, these custom colors don’t come up very often and I’m always happy to see one when they do. Recently I’ve had two of them – both from ’66 and both done up with fancy bindings (including the f-holes) and gold hardware. The serial numbers are very close as well (two apart) and it’s possible, in fact likely, they were ordered by the same buyer. Interestingly, they both ended up in the hands of a gentleman in Southern California and then both ended up with me. There’s a black ES-355 that’s been on Ebay lately with the same look. How do you price one of these? Well, it’s not easy given that the supply is minuscule and the demand is, well, there is no demand because most folks think they are totally out of reach. You can figure on a custom color being at least double the price of a red or sunburst of the same year. That doesn’t include “Sparkling Burgundy” which nobody seems to like very much. That also doesn’t include black or white (well sort of white) 335′s from the 80′s. They are actually worth less than their blonde counterparts. If you’re lucky enough to come up with a black or white dot neck 335 from 58-61, then all bets are off because you can pretty much name your price. There are some but I don’t think you’ll find one in your lifetime. Black 59 and 60 ES-345′s and 355′s were made but I’ve never seen a white one from that early. I had a white ’65 ES-355 a few years back and I mentioned Keith’s white ’64 ES-345. Then there are the Trinis.
I’ve had a 66 and a 67 in the past year or so and I’ve seen at least two others including the one played by Rusty Anderson (Paul McCartney’s guitar player). But the Trinis were a standard factory color so there may be a lot more of them under beds and in closets. Pelham Blue was a standard color as well but rumor has it there are only 16 of them. I’ve had only one and seen four or five others. Still, a black Trini is going to cost you about double what a red one will cost, so standard issue or not, folks still will pay a big premium for them. The Pelham Blue Trini went for more like three times the cost of a red one but it was practically mint so you have to figure that in as well. There are some black ES-175′s, at least a few black Byrdlands and Kessels (Gene Cornish of the Rascals played one back in the day) and a few black early double necks (which are rare enough in any color). The tricky part is, of course, the “factory” part. There are a number of ways to tell if a guitar was refinished and, frankly, a lot of black ES’s are not factory. Black can be used to cover all sorts of nastiness-headstock cracks being the usual sin but also filled holes and routs. I had a 68 Les paul Custom come to me that looked legit until you got the light to hit it just right and you could see that there was a Kahler rout that had been skillfully filled. So, be extra careful with these beauties. The paint is thick and opaque and sometimes it’s a little scary to imagine what’s under there. But if you find a real one, hang on to it (or sell it to me). There just aren’t that many of them and if they are cool enough for Keith, they are probably too cool for the likes of you (or me).
I got some less than friendly replies to my Big Bang, Little Bucks post and I think I deserved it. The guitars I described were in the $5000 range but, with repairs or upgrades got up in the $6500 range. The problem is that I called this amount “Little Bucks”. It’s not. $5000 is a load of money for a guitar to many folks and, because I sell and write about some mighty expensive guitars, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that the air is a bit rarefied in the 58-64 years. So are the prices. A vintage guitar, for almost all of us, is a luxury. Nobody has to have a vintage piece. Eric Clapton’s ‘burst was only 7 years old when he played with Mayall & Co. The argument that they “just don’t make ‘em like they used to” doesn’t really apply any more. They (and I don’t mean Gibson, alone) make plenty of great guitars-some every bit as good as the ones I sell. I’ve made my point about “old wood” but you can still get a ton of tone out of a brand new or fairly new guitar that won’t cost you a years tuition at a major university. So, let’s look to see what you should buy if you have $3000 or less to spend and you want something old. I’m not going to talk about anything new because it isn’t my field. I’ve played a lot of the newer 335′s but you don’t need me to tell you which one to buy. Use your ears and your hands to figure out which one works for you. It’s a guitar, not an investment. Leave the investments to others if you don’t have the disposable income or assets to play that game. And ask them how they did on the guitars they bought in 2007-2008 when you get a chance. So, you have $3000 to spend on a guitar. Guitar Center has brand new 335′s for $2999. That’s the base model and it’s probably a pretty nice guitar although I haven’t played one. But you can get something vintage as well and it can be from the 60′s, 70′s or 80′s. It’s hard for old farts like me to believe but 1984 was almost 30 years ago. That makes those mid 80′s 335′s vintage. I particularly like the 81-85′s although the quality stays pretty much the same for the rest of the 80′s. Only the pickups change (and not for the better). The 81-85′s are the last of the Norlins and are quite good but they have also creeped up in price. You might find a blonde one under $3000-I have-but you’d be better off and so will your wallet if you look for another color. The black ones, although somewhat rare don’t seem to command a premium. I’ve seen a few under $2000. Reds and the somewhat dull sunbursts are easy to find in the $1800-$2400 range. They are generally well made and generally sound pretty good if a little dark. Change out the crappy harness with its 300K pots for a good one with 50-0K pots and it will brighten up. Make sure the Tim Shaw PAF reissues are still in there. I think they’re a little overrated but they are still good pickups. Some have big necks, some small, some three piece, some one piece…just make sure you know what you’re getting. Ask a lot of questions. Next choice-a ’68 or early 69 ES-345. It’s going to have a narrow nut and if you can’t play a guitar with a skinny little 1 9/16″ nut, don’t buy one. You can’t fix it. Look to see whether it has a long neck tenon. All the 68′s do and some 69′s do. Avoid the ones where you can’t see the neck tenon sticking most of the way through the neck pickup rout. If you are able to play it in person, you can consider a later 69 but make sure the neck is stable. Some aren’t. 335′s from these years are pretty much out of your budget unless they are refinished or have neck breaks but 345′s with some minor issues (like added stop tails and changed tuners and harnesses) still turn up on Ebay, The Gear Page and Craigslist for $3000 or less. If you get lucky a 335 might turn up that you can negotiate down to that level. I was gonna talk about the 70′s but I’m out of space. Another time.
I’ve been a little remiss in doing the third part of my “Bang for the Buck” miniseries and I’ve had a few emails asking for the third installment. I actually covered a lot of the material in the “Old Wood” post since that is the key to getting your hands on a vintage piece without breaking the bank (or upsetting your wife). Take a quick look at a vintage 335. What parts are going to make a significant difference in the tone and playability of the guitar? Wait, don’t bother-I’ll tell you. The bridge, the nut, the strings, the wood and the pickups. Oh, and the design. The strings aren’t vintage so we can throw them out of the equation. A modern repro ABR-1 (or Tone Pros) will probably sound better than a vintage one since metal fatigue and wear take their toll over 50 years, so we can throw that out as well. The nut is important but it’s simply a piece of nylon and a properly cut new one will probably improve your guitar-whether it’s the same material or something else like bones or Tusq. That leaves us the wood and the pickups. And the design. I’m being a little simplistic here and not really taking into consideration the construction techniques-the glue, the hand work, etc. That’s important but we’re talking about vintage pieces here not trying to make a modern guitar sound like a vintage one. We want a vintage guitar that sounds like a vintage guitar for cheap. This leaves us with the body and neck and the electronics. Have you listened to some of the pickups out there? They are very close to PAFs. A good PAF and a particularly good boutique pickup are just about indistinguishable to my ears-which are pretty good ears. I can’t see worth a damn but I can hear. But, I have to say, a guitar that was just made doesn’t sound like an old one. I’ve put old parts on a Les Paul R9 including a set of PAFs, an original ABR-1, tuners, stop tail and harness. It sounded great but it didn’t sound that different from any other R9. I made the same point in my last post…an old guitar with new parts beats a new guitar with old parts as long as the old guitar is in good playing condition. It’s one of two things-either the wood itself is better or the passage of time has made the guitar sound better. I was there when these guitars were new-I played brand new 60′s ES-335′s (as early as 64) and if fuzzy memory is worth anything, they sounded pretty good right in the store. Take that for what it’s worth considering I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.
So, let’s say you have $5000 to spend. You can buy any of the new Gibson ES-335s from your local music store for that much, I think. I hear the new Memphis 335′s are quite good. But supposing you take $3500- $5000 and buy a boogered up 63 ES-345 with a load of holes in the top, maybe holes from a set of aftermarket tuners and maybe a minor repair that was well executed. It might have all the wrong parts on it but you can change those out over time. Bigsby or Maestro holes don’t change the tone or playability. Make absolutely certain that the neck is in good shape-no back bow, no twists. Make sure the truss works right. Good frets are important too unless you want to pay a few hundred bucks for a refret. Somebody stuck a set of tar backs or T-tops in there? Take em out if they sound bad and get a used set of SD’s or Fralins or Throbaks or Rolphs or any of a dozen other pickup winders. They don’t have to be the very expensive boutique pickups. Throw in a new harness from Mojotone or RS or Dr. Vintage if necessary. Get a repro ABR-1 from Tone Pros or Gibson if you want it to look correct. If the tuners work and they don’t bother you, leave ‘em. A vintage set of Klusons will look right but an old set of Grovers will work better. By the time you’re done you’ve probably spent $4500-$6000 and your guitar will probably sound just about as good as my favorite 64 or 59.
A great candidate is a big neck 65 335 or 345 that has had a Maestro or Bigsby removed. I’ve also seen a lot of 345′s from 60-64 that have all sorts of dreadful things done to them (59′s are always more money no matter what). I had one with no less than 29 filled holes in it-from a back pad, an arm rest, two or maybe three different trems, a moved bridge and two or three sets of tuners. It sounded great and didn’t really look all that bad from 3 feet away. And it had character. That’s gotta be worth something. And a refinish will cut the price in half and ,as long as it’s not covered with an eight of an inch of poly, it should sound pretty much the same. Stay away from bad repairs and bad necks and you will do fine.