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 345’ 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.
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.
No, not the Rolling Stone with the same name, although he’s old Wood as well. Interestingly, Gibson and other manufacturers have gotten very close to being able to replicate all of the parts that make up a vintage guitar. For many of the parts, they don’t improve with age. This is true of most of the hardware. Certainly old Klusons are not better than new ones-in fact they can be pretty quirky. Old bridges tend to sag and I routinely replace the bridges in my players with Tone Pros or other aftermarket parts. The plastic repros are looking pretty authentic these days as are most of the metal parts. It’s actually getting hard to tell the high end aged repros from the vintage stuff. That’s good in a way and not so good in another. Parenthetical note: I can still tell the difference but I see about a zillion of every part every year. There is some discussion as to whether old pickups like PAFs and early patent numbers have improved with age. It may be that they were just better by accident due to the low tech winding and construction techniques used back then. Or they improve with age. I don’t know. What I do know is that there are some pickup winders out there who can get pretty darn close to a PAF. Everything but the sticker in some cases. I could name names but this post isn’t about pickups. This post is about the thing they can’t do. They can use the same grade of plywood and the old timey hide glue and the same specs but there are a few things they can’t do. They can’t use Brazilian rosewood, the can’t afford to do as much by hand and they can’t use old wood. As I’ve stated pretty clearly, I don’t think anybody can hear the difference between a Brazilian board and an Indian Rosewood board. Argue if you want, it only supports my larger point. Old wood sounds different than new wood. I think it generally sounds better and most players would agree with that. I don’t know if it’s because the wood dries out and becomes less dense or more dense and perhaps carries the sound differently or whether the glue hardens and the lacquer sinks in and the “relationship” between the wooden parts and the stuff that holds it together somehow coalesces to form something wonderful. I just don’t know. But I’m dead sure the old stuff sounds better than the new stuff and if the parts people could figure out a way to make new wood old, they would have done it already. But time is the thing you can’t fake. I suppose you could leave the plywood blanks in an open air barn in the Swiss Alps and let the breeze blow through it for a few years but they don’t. It would be expensive. They would rather kiln dry it or perhaps not dry it at all. That’s not how new wood gets to be old wood. New wood gets to be old wood the same way young Ron Wood got to be old Ron Wood. Time. Think about this. Which would you rather have (and which would sound better?)–a ’58 ES-335 with new parts or a ’13 ES-335 with old parts? No brainer.
VINTAGE TONE!!! TONE FOR DAYS!!! You know all the pimply faced hyperbole by now. If you read ads on Ebay for capacitors (and believe them) you’d think a bumblebee cap is the secret weapon of great sounding guitars. It isn’t. The capacitor comes into play but not in a way that will make a bad sounding guitar into a good one. If you’re one of those players who keeps the tone pot dimed, this doesn’t even concern you. But if you actually use the tone knob on your guitar, it’s worth knowing something about capacitors. There are only two of them in a 335 and they are part of the tone circuit. There are something like 14 of them is an ES-345 but all but two are in the Varitone. It’s the two that are attached to the tone pot that we’re going to look at. You’ve all heard the Les Paul guys going nuts over their bumblebees and how you can’t have “vintage tone” without them. Yes, it’s nice to have vintage parts (or even repro ones) in your reissue guitar but a couple of overpriced ’50′s bumblebees isn’t going to appreciably change the tone of your guitar. They may change the response of your tone control though. The way I understand it, the capacitor really only affects the taper (response) of the tone control. Maybe the bass will come on sooner or the treble will roll off later-you’ll just have to experiment. There are plenty of youtube videos that do this. I don’t really have the qualifications to explain how various caps will affect your tone but I can tell you what’s supposed to be in there if you are so brave as to pull the harness on your 335. Actually, you don’t have to because you can usually see the caps through the f-holes. Gibson, as usual, used a number of suppliers for their components and those suppliers sometimes changed their products or discontinued them forcing their customers to change along with them. We’ll look at 335′s (and mono 355′s) first. Starting in ’58, Gibson used .022 mfd Sprague bumblebee paper in oil (PIO) caps but the technology took a leap forward very shortly after that. By late 58, Bumblebees were mylar film based. ’58 ES-335s and 355′s (which were all mono) are the only semi hollows that used PIO caps. Every 59 I’ve looked at has the later mylar film type and some late 58′s as well. Still bumblebees but not PIO. That goes for ‘bursts too, by the way. That 59 burst you lust after probably has mylar caps. The conventional geek wisdom is that PIO is better. I’ll stay out of that debate. Look for the little filler cup at one end. No filler cup? Not PIO…simple as that. But the value is the same .022 mfd.
By 1961, the bumblebees were gone and the replacement-from the same manufacturer, Sprague, looked a bit different. It was still a .022 mfd mylar film capacitor but it no longer had it’s bumblebee stripes. It was simply black with thevalues in big red letters rather than in coded stripes. Brilliant. These have taken on the moniker of “black beauty” although they get to share their nickname with a certain type of amphetamine that was popular when I was in college back in the Middle Ages. The 335s are pretty consistent up through 64 but then some other types started showing up but that’s for another day. You can experiment with different values and see what happens but I don’t suggest pulling the caps on your all original vintage 335. You’ll have to pull the harness (no fun) and you’ll diminish the vintage value of your guitar –all for a very small result. We’ll leave the later ones alone for now and look at the 345′s and stereo 355′s from 59 through 64. These are different. For some reason, which I’ve never quite been able to fathom, the stereo guitars were built with shielding cans presumably to minimize hum. It makes some sense but it seems that the shielding can intended for the tone control on a 345 or 355 won’t fit because the pot is too close to the rim of the guitar. Oops. So, they leave off the fourth can. Because there are cans, I guess they needed to use a capacitor that would fit inside the cans. That would be the ceramic disc type that we’re all familiar with. Most people will agree that these are inferior but I have no idea why. I’m not sure which types drift more easily or drift more or drift sooner but that could be a factor. The bottom line here is if it ain’t broke…Unless you are experiencing real issues with your tone controls (and you use them a lot) I would leave the caps alone. If your 335 sounds like crap, a cap change isn’t going to fix it. Thanks to Josh L. for suggesting the topic.
I’ve been trying to make some sense out the relationship between serial numbers and factory order numbers (FONs). I wrote about these mysterious numbers in June of 2012 and was more confused than enlightened by my research. So, I’m putting them all into a spreadsheet and trying to make some order out of the apparent chaos. I’m only going to look at 1958 through 1961 since those are the only years relevant to ES 335/345/355 guitars. They stopped using the FON in 61, so we don’t need to go any farther than that. Here’s what we know about them. They are sequential. They begin with a letter which designates the year (going backwards in the alphabet from Z to Q which is 1952-1961). Following the letter prefix was a three or four digit number known as the “rack” or “batch” number. I’ve read that they started at 1000 and went through 9999 and started over again. I’ve also read that they started at 100 and, until recently, I never saw a three digit FON but now I have . Among the guitars I have catalogued, shortly after FON S9xxx is S6xx and shortly after that S9xx. So, it appears that they actually do go back to 100.
What is most important about these numbers is that they represent the beginning of the process of building the guitars and not the shipping date which is really what the serial number and Gibson shipping logs will tell you. It really depends on how much information you actually want or need. Mostly, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference whether your guitar was built in July and shipped in August but for low volume models, the FON can tell you a lot. That’s because the amount of time that may have passed between manufacture and assembly and shipping could be years. You heard right. Years. It’s not common for ES 335s to have sat around waiting to be sold since they were always pretty popular but models like ES-350s and Byrdlands and ES-5′s could have a very long wait between the build date and the shipping date. There are notable exceptions. I recently sold a 335 with a ’62 serial number but a “R” factory order number. “R” designates the guitar was built in 1960. It has some odd finish issues so it may have initially been rejected and used later. This is the kind of stuff I’m trying to figure out. Another good example is a mono ES-355 I had with the serial number well into 1959-A30659. But it had a FON that began with “T” making it from a ’58 rack. Interestingly, it had a huge 58 like neck and the thinner top of a 58 build. Most 59 ES 355′s have a fairly slim neck (unlike most 335s and 345s). Granted, this is something of an exercise is minutia but I have nothing better to do today (it’s cold, it’s raining and it’s Sunday-and I don’t like football). FONs are particularly useful when a guitar is on the cusp of a transition-like an early 60. Even if the serial number indicates a later 60, the FON may tip you off to some earlier features. My ’60 ES-345 TDN had a January serial number but it had an “S” FON so I know it was built in 1959. That made it more desirable to my buyer and it justified the 59 knobs and transitional neck profile. The conventional wisdom in dating these guitars is to use the serial number-I get that. But I think the FON will be more accurate in predicting the features and measurements and give you-the player, the buyer, the collector-more ammo when it comes to buying a guitar sight unseen.
So, PLEASE, if you own a 58-61 ES-335/345/355, email me the serial, the FON, the model and a short description. You and your guitar will remain completely anonymous. I will publish the database when I reach around 500 guitars. It will only note the serial, the FON, the model and a few features (stop tail or Bigsby, etc. or anything unusual). You can email me at email@example.com. And thank you.