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Archive for the ‘ES 355’ Category

You Set ‘em Up Part 1

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

It Hurts When I do This

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

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

And the doctor says…”Don’t do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stinger Things

Saturday, May 27th, 2017
Who doesn't love a stinger on their 355? It looks cool and, uh, it looks cool.

Who doesn’t love a stinger on their 355? It looks cool and, uh, it looks cool.

One of the cooler looking Gibson features is the headstock stinger. You know, that black pointy painted thing on the back of the headstock on many high end arch tops, the occasional 335, 345 and lots of early 355’s. In most cases, it’s a decorative thing. But not always. Now, why would you go looking under there to begin with? In general, there’s no rational reason for anything sinister to be going on, is there? I mean, c’mon it’s the Gibson factory in the Golden Age. What could they be hiding?

Gibson, like Fender, didn’t like to let things go to waste. It’s bad for your profit margins. So, maybe a little repurposing of damaged parts was normal. A bad sunburst paint job was often sprayed over with a custom color over at Fender. A piece of flawed maple plywood got a deeper sunburst at Gibson and a “2” stamp. I had a 65 335 with a graft in the wood of the rim that the seller insisted came from the factory that way. So, there’s no doubt that the company policy for both Fender and Gibson was “waste not”.

So, back to the original question-what’s under that stinger? Well most of the time, nothing at all. I think. I don’t go removing stingers to see what’s under them but I had occasion to do so a while back. I had a 60 ES-355 with a cracked headstock-or so I thought. I took it to my luthier to assess and he noted that there was a piece of veneer on the back of the headstock and it was cracked-not the neck. My first thought was that somebody veneered the back of the headstock to cover extra tuner holes but the guitar still had its original tuners. So, maybe they had been taken off, different ones put on, then taken off and the originals put back on and the holes covered by the veneer. OK, makes sense. I’ve seen it plenty on 335’s but most people don’t take the Grovers off a 355. In any case, the veneer was cracked and it had to come off. Better a cracked piece of veneer than a cracked neck. So, we decided to remove the offending veneer and see why it was there in the first place. The result was a surprise.

What's all this then? What they did here was to take a 335 neck-already drilled and ready to go and cut the smaller wings off the sides and put big 355 wings on it. Then the doweled the holes and re-rilled them located for a 355. Then they put a piece of mahogany veneer over it and painted on the stinger. The only tuner holes you see are the original Grover holes. Definitely factory.

What’s all this then? What they did here was to take a 335 neck-already drilled and ready to go and cut the smaller wings off the sides and put big 355 wings on it. Then the doweled the holes and re-drilled them located for a 355. Then they put a piece of mahogany veneer over it and painted on the stinger. The only tuner holes you see are the original Grover holes. You don’t see the dowels on the front because the headstock overlay was re-done as a 355 which would cover the dowel marks. Definitely factory.

Under the veneer there were filled holes but not the holes we expected. These were tuner shaft holes that were in a completely different location on the headstock. A quick measurement showed me that they were in the exact location of the tuner shaft holes of a 335 or 345. How do we explain that? Pretty obvious, actually. The headstock of a 335 or 345 is smaller than the headstock on a 355. So, if you have extra 335 or 345 necks that you aren’t using and you have a batch of 355’s that need to be built, what do you do? Well, the headstock of a 335 is made up of three parts. The middle is the same piece of wood as the neck blank. The edges of the headstock are two smaller pieces of mahogany usually called wings. The face of the headstock is covered by a veneer of holly wood so you can’t see the seam of the wings from the front but if you look carefully, you can see them on the back. The only difference between a 335 headstock and a 355 headstock as far as structure is concerned is the size of the wings. So, a 335 headstock can be converted to a 355 headstock by putting on bigger wings. The inlays in the front of the headstock are different but they are inlaid into the holly overlay and not the mahogany, so turning a 335 neck into a 355 neck should be pretty easy. New wings and new holly overlay and correct inlays. But what if its already been drilled for tuners? Therein lies the reason for that piece of veneer on the back that wasn’t supposed to be there under the stinger. Because the 355 headstock is wider, the tuners are in a different location. Using an already drilled 335 neck would require those holes to be doweled and the tuner shaft holes re-drilled closer to the edges of the headstock. No problem on the front-there’s the holly overlay. But on the back, you would be able to see them. The solution? You guessed it, a thin piece of mahogany veneer and a stinger to cover the whole thing up.

My initial thought was that it wasn’t a common thing until months later, I had another stinger 355 with a headstock break. We scraped a little of the finish away from the edge of the stinger and saw that this one had veneer over the back of the headstock as well. Since we were repairing the headstock anyway, we took a peek under the veneer. Same thing. I don’t know if every 355 with a stinger has a veneer covering doweled tuner holes but we found two of them.

Just in case you want to see the other one-here it is same deal but there are additional tuner holes in this one.

The filled holes line up EXACTLY with a 335 or 345 neck-remember the headstock is smaller. This one had changed tuners as well which accounts for the additional holes above the shaft holes

The filled holes line up EXACTLY with a 335 or 345 neck-remember the headstock is smaller. This one had changed tuners as well which accounts for the additional holes above the shaft holes

Once a Tree…

Friday, May 19th, 2017
This shows the spruce that is glued to the maple center block between the block and the top and back. It also shows the mahogany end piece.

This shows the spruce that is glued to the maple center block between the block and the top and back. It also shows the mahogany end piece.

There is plenty of debate about new wood versus old wood and I come down on the side of old wood sounding better than new wood. Even plywood. I would argue that the trees were better fifty years ago. They grew slower, they grew longer, they were dried the old school way and they’ve had an extra 40 or 50 years to “season”. I’m not going to talk about why old wood is better-I think I did that a few years ago. I am going to talk about the wood that went into 335’s and hope to clarify a few questions that have been asked of me recently.

The body is plywood. Yep. Plywood. It’s nice plywood but there it is. The early ones had three ply tops but by early 59, Gibson had switched to four ply presumably because they were getting complaints about cracking. Look at almost any 58 and you’ll usually find cracks around the output jack. The four ply tops were 25% thicker and the cracking problem went away. The composition was, generally, maple/poplar/poplar/maple. That’s information from the internet though. I know what maple looks like but the two hidden plies could be anything. I’ve never delaminated a top to look. And besides, I wouldn’t know poplar from ash from basswood. All were supposedly used. Plywood isn’t exactly a tonewood but it’s strong and cheap and you can form it into an arch without having to carve it. Does it matter if it’s new plywood or old plywood? Hard to know. Somehow I don’t think it’s a major element in the tone of a great 335. I would argue that the thinner top is more resonant and I’ve found some of the best 335’s to be 58’s and early 59’s.

Here's a nice flame maple center block showing the spruce insert between it and the top.

Here’s a nice flame maple center block showing the spruce insert between it and the top.

The center block is maple with mahogany at the butt end. I think there is tone in there-it acts a lot like the body of a solid body guitar.  I believe the quality of the tone has to do with how dry the wood is. New wood has more moisture in it than old wood. Wood with more moisture is less resonant than wood that has been dried. You can hear the difference. When I split firewood for the winter I can tell by the sound when I bang two logs together whether it’s dry on not. The dry ones are louder. You have probably heard of “roasted” or “torrefied” wood. Drying wood in a kiln or oven has been around for a long time and, essentially, it’s a way to lower the moisture and raise the resonance without waiting 50 years. And it works to a degree. I contend, however, that there are differences beyond moisture that give a wood its tonal qualities. I think looking at new growth vs. old is a worthwhile endeavor. I just don’t have the skills or knowledge to interpret the differences. I do know that there isn’t much old growth wood left. There is also spruce between the center block and the top and the block and the back of the guitar. Spruce is a tone wood and I’m guessing it makes a tonal difference. It’s a fairly complex design, that center block, and Gibson would have eliminated the spruce if it didn’t make a difference. In fact, I could do an entire post on center block construction.

The neck is mahogany, usually quarter sawn. Stability is the main factor here. I don’t think there is much tonal difference between a 335 with a mahogany neck and a 335 with a maple neck. Mahogany is considered a tone wood (my favorite acoustics are all mahogany) but so is maple. Maple is considered brighter, mahogany better balanced. I’ve had a few vintage 335’s re-necked and I don’t hear any difference at all. The wood was supposed to be old wood but I couldn’t tell you if it was old old growth or old new growth. There’s a difference. Big neck vs. small necks from a tone standpoint? That’s a whole ‘nother topic.

People get all a twitter about Brazilian rosewood. I have folks tell me they can tell the difference tonally between a Brazilian and an Indian fingerboard. Brazilian rosewood is not magical. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brazilian rosewood boards-they are just as pretty as a piece of wood can be but the idea that the fingerboard is a driver of great tone is just wrong. Old Telecasters and Stratocasters don’t even have a proper fingerboard. They sound pretty good. Ebony (on a 355) is also a nice piece of wood and the conventional wisdom says it adds “snap” to the tone. I’ve played hundreds. Some are snappy. Some not so snappy. I do like ebony but mostly because its harder and slicker. When Gibson switched to Indian rosewood boards in late 65 or 66 (there is overlap), the tone didn’t suffer. The change from a stop tail to a trapeze-which really didn’t affect tone all that much-did more to the tone than the switch to Indian.

There’s one more piece of wood in a 335. It’s holly (hooray for holly wood). It’s the thin veneer that covers the face of the headstock. It’s dense and takes the black lacquer nicely. But Gibson (or Norlin) decided that some crappy fiber board would be cheaper and nobody would know the difference. That happened around 1970 or so. I’m not sure when they went back to holly but they use it now and, yes, it does take the lacquer very nicely.

So, in conclusion, where does the tone come from? I think its the sum of its parts. A 335 doesn’t sound exactly like a Les Paul but they aren’t that far apart. An SG is pretty close too which leads me to believe the pickups are the biggest factor. Just take out a PAF and replace it with an 80’s Shaw or tar back. You’ll hear plenty of difference. Now, change the fingerboard in your 66 from Brazilian to Indian. Hear that? No? I didn’t think so.

This is a mid to late 59 and has the four ply top and back. Not sure what the inside wood is-probably something cheap like poplar. This is an EB-2 but the 335/345 and 355 had the same construction.

This is a mid to late 59 and has the four ply top and back. Not sure what the inside wood is-probably something cheap like poplar. This is an EB-2 but the 335/345 and 355 had the same construction.

Another Holy Grail in the House

Friday, March 31st, 2017
Note the designation "no Bigsby" on a couple of 355's in the left column. We know you're out there. We just have to find you.

Note the designation “no Bigsby” on a couple of 355’s in the left column. We know you’re out there. We just have to find you.

Not long ago I acquired and later sold what I considered to be a true holy grail guitar. It was a 59 mono ES-355 with a factory stop tail. At the time, it was the only one that anyone had ever seen. Gil Southworth had it for awhile and not long after he sold it, I was offered it. Although it looked pretty good, it was purported to have a shaved neck. It blacklighted well but I took Gil’s word for it but I wonder if it was simply the fact that 355 necks even in 59 can be quite slim. There are a few out there with huge necks mostly with 58 serials or FONs. I have one in my shop right now with a neck as big as any 335 I’ve ever had but that one has, as usual, a Bigsby. The 59 stop tail 355 is gone and my eyes were open for another. I had seen the above page of the 59 shipping log that showed two other 355’s with “Spec. no Bigsby” noted. Neither of these was the one I had, so I knew there were two more stop tail 59’s out there somewhere unless, in a horrific case of irony, someone later added a Bigsby (stranger things have happened). I didn’t know if they were mono or stereo from the log but it didn’t really matter since neither had surfaced. I used to think the chances of a particular special guitar coming up for sale that I had seen in the shipping log was pretty slim but after snagging three black 59 345’s last year, I’ve reconsidered.  I think, eventually, most all of them come up for sale.

Well, a few weeks ago, a Craigslist ad appeared for a “58 ES-355″ and I saw it within an hour of its posting. An astute reader of this blog tipped me off to it but I was already on the phone with the owner. It turns out that serial number A29538 was a little bit south of Saskatoon,  in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan and it belonged to the seller’s aunt (who was a singer and player) and she had passed away and the guitar was coming to him as an inheritance. It also turns out to be not a 58 but a mono 59 355, so I was pretty excited. There is often a problem with individual sellers and that is that they look at dealer prices and assume they are what the dealers get and the sellers initial asking price was “six figures”. Yikes. It’s pretty easy to understand, though.  A 355 looks pretty much like a 335 to anyone who isn’t really tuned into the models and the asking 335 prices for a 59 are up there, although “six figures” is reserved for mint blondes. I explained to him that a stop tail 355 is super rare and that his guitar commands a considerable premium over the Bigsby version and we came to a agreement on price about as far North of a Bigsby mono 59 as Saskatchewan is from Connecticut. Yes, it’s really, really rare but the market is much smaller for 355’s. Folks who can afford it, want a 335.  But a mono stop tail? Well, now that’s a fancypants 59 335 with an ebony board. And some serious cachet.

I don’t have it in my hands yet but my friend Mike in British Columbia went through it for me and gave it the thumbs up, so it’s on its way. Remember the old rule I have about falling in love with a guitar. Well, I’d better embroider a pillow with it because it’s about to get tested again. I thought it was tough to sell the black 345’s but this? Even rarer and even cooler if you ask me. Now where is A29540? And that cherry Byrdland in the next column would be pretty cool too.

Yes, it has a correct case but it was shipped in this one. It had to get from Assiniboia Saskatchewan to Nanaimo, British Columbia in the dead of Winter in a snowstorm. It took awhile nut it arrived safely. How cool is this?

Yes, it has a correct case but it was shipped in this one. It had to get from Assiniboia Saskatchewan to Nanaimo, British Columbia in the dead of Winter in a snowstorm. It took awhile but it arrived safely. How cool is this?

 

 

Things I Don’t Care About, Part 2

Saturday, March 11th, 2017
Mint but how do I know that none of the parts have been changed? Do I have to take someone's word for it or is there a way to tell? I mean don't all vintage parts look pretty much the same?  No, the photo isn't backwards, it's a mint 58 lefty thanks to Alex P.

Mint but how do I know that none of the parts have been changed? Do I have to take someone’s word for it or is there a way to tell? I mean don’t all vintage parts look pretty much the same?
No, the photo isn’t backwards, it’s a mint 58 lefty thanks to Alex P.

In the last post, I discussed three elements-uh, let’s see, there was tone, there was playability and there was one more. Oh, yeah, the Department of Energy. No, that was Rick Perry. It was great looks. The fourth element worthy of some discussion is originality. For the collector, it’s really important-to some more so than playability or tone. But there are some paradoxes when it comes to originality that probably drive collectors nuts.

First, there is a limit. I did have a 66 Stratocaster come into my shop from the original owner who tried to play it for a month when he was a kid (now in his 60’s) that still had five of its original strings. Apparently, he got discouraged when he broke the E string and never played it again. But, as the title of the post implies, I don’t care about the strings. And, to be fair, collectors don’t care either. It’s kind of cool that 50 year old guitars exist that still have their original strings but seriously, nobody cares. It’s like buying a classic automobile that still has it’s first tank of gas in it. The gas will be about as good as those strings. Beyond the original strings, there is room for debate. Some stuff, I care about. Some stuff I don’t.

Here’s the tricky part. You can’t know for absolutely certain that any removable part is original. Oh yeah?, you say-what if it’s the original owner and he knows he never changed any parts? Well, that will give you a fair level of assurance except when he brought it to his local luthier for a setup and the unscrupulous luthier scavenged the PAFs and replaced them with fakes. It happened to a 60 ES-345 I bought from its original owner in North Carolina a few years back. When I buy a guitar that is supposedly all original, I look at a few things. First, I check to see if all the parts are from the correct era. That’s easy. It won’t tell me if the part is original but if it’s vintage correct, I don’t really care because you simply can’t know for sure. But then I look at the wear pattern on the guitar. If the body is beat to hell but the gold is still on the tailpiece, an alarm goes off in my head. If the hardware is perfect and the neck has heavy player wear, there’s that alarm again. This type of forensics is really useful and generally follows simple logic. The guitar and all it parts should make sense as a used guitar. The less wear the guitar has, the easier it is to make the assumption of originality. That’s simply because there’s less evidence that tells you something is wrong. Counter intuitive, right? Sort of. But it’s harder to find a mint part than a worn part, so it makes sense.

Frets are a great indicator of a few things . If they are original and not worn much, the guitar probably either didn’t get played much or had flat wounds on it. It doesn’t tell me much about the rest of the guitar though. I do not care if a guitar is re-fretted as long as it’s done well. A serious collector will care and I understand that. If I’m looking for my holy grail guitar (59 stop tail 355 mono in black?), I won’t care about the frets (or much else). And that’s an important element. The real serious collectible and valuable ES models are often rare. Even the “common” ones are pretty rare in the over all scheme of things with hundreds, not thousands made. I had a buyer looking for a 59 mono big neck 355 the other day. I had a good one but it had been re-fretted and he decided to wait for one that wasn’t. Any big neck 355 is rare, monos more so. I hope he’s a patient man. There are probably less than 50 of them.

So, what else don’t I care about? Tuner tips on a 59-most are shrunken and if they are replaced, it isn’t a big deal to me. Saddles. Again, if they are correct, I don’t care (they should have the mill marks on the flat side). Saddles got lost all the time with a no wire bridge. Any part that is removable without evidence of it having been removed has to be vintage correct and have a wear pattern that makes sense. Otherwise I care. Use common sense and logic. If a part looks wrong for the guitar its on, it probably is wrong. Even if you know its vintage correct.

So, if you’re a collector looking for the most original guitar you can find, learn what’s correct and apply some simple forensics. You’ll be more comfortable with your choice and you’ll probably be right. Buying from a reputable dealer who knows his stuff will probably reassure you as well. As the old Russian proverb goes, Doveryai, no proveryai (trust but verify). And you thought President Reagan came up with that.

Maybe I'm better off paying way less for a great playing, great sounding player grade guitar. Then I won't care so much about originality. I'll spend less and know I'm getting a guitar that I can use day in and day out. Originality? Who cares as long as I love it.

Maybe I’m better off paying way less for a great playing, great sounding player grade guitar. Then I won’t care so much about originality. I’ll spend less and know I’m getting a guitar that I can use day in and day out. Originality? Who cares as long as I love it.

Things I Don’t Care About: Part 1

Sunday, February 26th, 2017
This guitar had, if I'm remembering correctly, 29 filled holes in it. There was a removed arm rest, the bridge was repositioned, there was a removed back pad and a host of other insults. Played great. Sounded great and was a bargain to boot.

This 64 had, if I’m remembering correctly, 29 filled holes in it. There was a removed arm rest, the bridge was repositioned, there was a removed back pad, tuner change holes and a few other insults. Played great. Sounded great and was a bargain to boot. Looks pretty good from the front because nearly all the holes are on the back.

Odd name for a post. If I don’t care about it, why should I write about it? Because you do. And maybe you shouldn’t (or at least not so much). It’s in the nature of both guitarists and collectors to be detail oriented and more than a little picky. Guitar collectors who play their guitars and not lock them in a humidified cabinet are the most picky of all. Ideally, it has to be three things: great tone, great playability and great looking. It’s the fourth element-originality-that gets so many of us nuts. Here, we’ll talk about the first three. Or I’ll talk and you’ll (hopefully) listen.

Good news first. Great tone is achievable on the huge majority of pre Norlin (1969) ES 3×5’s. Yes, t-tops in a 68 are going to sound different than PAFs in a 58 but I’ve heard 68’s that are stunning. To get your great tone, you may have to fix a sagging bridge or raise or lower the pickups, do a re-fret or put in a new nut but these are the kind of changes I don’t care about. Put the old nut and bridge in the case and stop worrying. What about bad wood? There is nothing wrong with the wood through the 60’s. It’s maple and poplar plywood (usually) and its properly dried and it has had 50 years to settle in. Just play the average 70’s 335 and you’ll notice a difference-the wood changed-it’s heavier and less resonant. There’s also less of it as they started shortening the center bock and got rid of the mahogany end pieces. Yes, there are great sounding 70’s 335’s. Just not a lot of them. There are good and not so good PAFs, patent numbers and t-tops. Changing a pickup you don’t like for another correct one is not a big deal to most of us. It is, in fact, something I don’t care about. Do I prefer the originals? I do but not if they don’t sound good.

Appearance issues can kill a deal pretty quickly with a lot of players but great tone often trumps it. Most players will take an ugly guitar that plays great over a beautiful guitar that plays like crap. On the other hand, why shouldn’t you have both. Answer? You should but it’s gonna cost you. But there are, once again, things I don’t care about. Wear in the usual places-arm, back and back of the neck certainly affect the appearance and that should be reflected in the price. If you care about it, then I get it and I agree. It’s just that the price can be a compelling force even if you don’t like the appearance.  The back of the neck is the exception. It doesn’t particularly bother me visually or feel wise but I get that it bothers some players. But that’s a point to be made under “playability”. Plugged holes are really an appearance issue too and also something I don’t really care about as long as it’s reflected in the price. Yes, it kills the “investment” angle but a 335 with a couple of Bigsby holes and a removed coil tap switch will sound the same as a collector grade one. If you cut a big access panel in the back of a 335, it won’t affect the tone or playability either. But I’ll never buy one that has had that done unless it’s something so rare that I’ll never see another. No logical reason I just hate it.  Full disclosure? Yes, I bought a stop tail 355 with an access panel.

Playability can be the tricky part. There’s a lot that can be done by a competent luthier to make a marginal player into a good one. But can we make it into a great one? It depends on what’s wrong. It’s hard to separate playability from tone sometimes but if you play a 335 unplugged, you’ll have a better understanding of where they overlap and where they don’t. Resonance is a tone component and if it’s not good unplugged, it doesn’t mean it won’t sound good plugged in. The reverse is true as well. Unplugged resonance is, in fact, something I don’t care about because I will be playing plugged in. But playability goes way beyond that.

If  the guitar doesn’t feel good to you, you need to consider why that is. Action? Generally fixable. Bad intonation? Generally fixable. Dead frets? Inconsistent sustain? Poor balance between strings? There are so many factors involved in playability that I often take the easy way out when confronted with a 335 that doesn’t play well. I walk away. It’s rare for a 335 to be a dog (at least from 58-68). But I’ve had 335’s (and 345’s and 355’s) with a perfectly straight neck, level frets, a properly cut nut a no sign of a structural issue that fret out, don’t sustain, have “wolf” notes (notes that are louder or more resonant than others), buzzes, rattles and on and on. My advice? If you don’t like the way it plays, don’t buy it.  The luthiers will disagree and probably rightly so but there are limits. Money limits. I had a 61 335 that looked just great but could not be made playable. It was dull sounding and the sustain was really inconsistent all over the fretboard. It went to three separate and very competent luthiers. It had two fret jobs with different sized fret wire and a fingerboard planing. After spending close to $1000 on it, I gave up. To paraphrase Bob Fosse “I can’t make you a good player but I can make you a better player”. But I don’t want a better player. I want a good one.

Next, we’ll look at the final element-originality. This is the one that makes so many player/collectors nuts. It’s also the one that makes me nuts.

You really wanted to se the holes, didn't you. OK, here's the back. No one will ever see it.

You really wanted to se the holes, didn’t you. OK, here’s the back. No one will ever see it.

A Day Late (and more than a dollar short)

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017
This near mint 61 sold for $25K. If it was a 60, it would have sold for at least $30, if not $32K. It's 100% identical to a late 60 and that's something worth knowing.

This near mint 61 sold for $25K. If it was a 60, it would have sold for at least $30, if not $32K.
It’s 100% identical to a late 60 and that’s something worth knowing.

Guitars are not automobiles. Buyers seem to forget that sometimes and that can cost you. Let me elucidate. Cars have always had what we all call “model years”. I remember when I was a kid, my Dad would take us around-usually in the Fall around Halloween-to all the local car dealers to see the “new models”. Back in the late 50’s and through the 60’s and well into the 70’s, cars got a fairly extensive redesign every year or two. Go look. A 55 T-bird looks a lot like a 56 but a 57 is different and a 58 is even more different. A 59 looks a lot like a 58 as does a 60 but a 61 is totally different again. Cadillacs from the era are another good example. Look how the fins grow to humongous from 55 to 59 and shrink back through the 60’s. It was good marketing but it was expensive. Unlike the guitars of the era, cars are a big ticket item costing thousands. A few hundred dollars got you a 335, so complete retooling every couple of years didn’t make much sense. But, and I’m as guilty as you are, guitar players and collectors alike treat guitars as if they had “model years” as well and, at least during the period from the 50’s through the 60’s, they simply didn’t.

There were plenty of changes but nearly all of them occurred during a given year-not on some predetermined date that would designate these guitars as “59” or “60” or whatever. We can accurately (more or less) date the guitars we so desire but the fact that a particular guitar from a particular year is worth x dollars and a guitar from the following year is worth y dollars is a big flaw in our system of valuation. Year dating is very convenient but what I would call feature dating is more accurate. I recently sold a really clear example of this phenomenon.

A near mint, no issue mid to late 1960 ES-335 stop tail is a $30,000 guitar plus or minus a few grand depending on how close to mint it is and some squishy stuff like tone and playability. So, why is a 61 so much less? It isn’t like they changed anything on January 1. Gibson didn’t make changes that way. They made changes when changes were needed or wanted and they often phased them in over weeks or even months. It is actually extremely rare for a change to have been made at year end. So, back to the 61. I had a near mint 61 from early January. Nice neck-wide but sort of flat, just like a 60. It had a white switch tip-just like a late 60. It also had a long guard-I thought that added considerable value to this particular 61 because the short guard is one of the reasons folks don’t pay big bucks for a 61. Interestingly, there are late 60 335’s with short guards and early 61’s with long guards. That transition thing I mentioned. It isn’t all that logical, but there it is. The 61 sold for $25000 which, I think, was a $5000-$7000 savings over a guitar that was made a few weeks earlier with all the same features. The buyer was smart. He looked at a 60 that was priced much higher and chose the 61.

This phenomenon exists on a few other instances-more dramatically with 335’s than 345’s or 355’s. An interesting one is the difference between a late 59 and an early 60 dot neck. There is no difference. None. zip. They are absolutely identical except for the price. A mint late 59 will cost you close to $45K. A mint early 60? Maybe $38K on a good day. So, a day late for that 60 will be more than a dollar short. It will be more like $7000 short. But the guitar community reveres 59 Gibsons. Again, I don’t make the rules.

A late 58 will save you a few thousand over an early 59-not as much as the 60-61 or 59 to 60 but enough. Similarly,  a very early 65 is exactly the same as a late 64. It still has the stop tail at least through January and into February, so there are more than a few. A stop tail 64 is approaching $20,000 if a good clean, no issue example. The same with a 65 serial number will be at least $5000 less. 66 to 67 isn’t very dramatic, nor is 67 to 68. After that it starts getting tricky due to the major design changes that occurred when the nice folks at the Norlin Corp (beer, cement) took the wheel and drove Gibson into a sink hole. Just like an automobile.

This completely stunning early 60 sold for $32000. If this was a late 59, it would have been at least $40K. Maybe more. If you picked it up, it would feel and look just like a late 59 because it is the same in every way.

This completely stunning early 60 sold for $32000. If this was a late 59, it would have been at least $40K. Maybe more. If you picked it up, it would feel and look just like a late 59 because it is the same in every way.

Year Ender: 345’s and 355’s

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016
Post 59 ES-345's are still cheap. A few years ago, I could have sold this very clean watermelon red 60 for $16K. Today, it's $13K. It's got a couple of changed parts but still, $13K? For this? I must be nuts.

Post 59 ES-345’s are still cheap. A few years ago, I could have sold this very clean watermelon red 60 for $17K. Today, it’s $13K. It’s got a couple of changed parts but still, $13K? For this? I must be nuts.

If you read last year’s year ender, you would have noted that 345’s were really in the dumper. Stereo 355’s were in the same leaky boat. But that was then and this is now. And, somewhat surprisingly, they are pretty much right where they were then only now… it’s now. Still a tough sell and still a smart buy. I get that they aren’t as good an investment as a 335. I get that they aren’t as desirable as a 335. But I also get that they are every bit as good (and often better) than a 335 and they cost about half as much. Leave the stereo VT circuit or pull it out. I don’t care (as long as you put the original harness in the case). I sold a stop tail 64 this month with no issues-just some wear-to a smart buyer in Italy for under $10K. That same guitar, had it been a 335, would have been at least $17K. Stereo 355’s are the same story only maybe a little worse since there aren’t more than a handful of stop tails and the Bigsby (or sideways or Maestro) only makes it harder to sell. As these guitars dip below $10K, they become a pretty amazing deal. Most gold hardware guitars made up through 63 have PAFs and some 64’s do as well.  At the current market value of over $2000 each for PAFs, these guitars are no brainers.  When you consider the cost of a brand new Gibson, these make even more sense. They are a steal. Truthfully, I don’t see much more downside and I’ll likely be buying well priced stop tail 345’s as they come up. Yeah, there are still plenty of buyers who think their 60 is worth $20K or more but they either must not want to sell them or they are delusional (or both).

The exception to the above are the 59’s and the mono 355’s. Especially the early ones. An early big neck mono 59 355 or a “first rack” stop tail 59 ES-345 is a hot, hot guitar. I can sell as many as I get. I just can’t get that many. Both have cracked the $20K mark and sell very quickly-often in a day or two. Later 59’s are also strong but not quite at the level of these rarefied fat boys. A transitional neck 59 345 stop tail will be in the mid teens for sure and a really collector clean one might hit the high teens. Knock off 15%-20% for a Bigsby version. Since virtually all 59 355’s are Bigsby’s, the discount is built in. A 59 355 stereo falls somewhere below a stop tail 345 and a Bigsby 345. I still can’t figure out why a late 59 is worth more than an early 60, which is identical in every way, but I don’t make the rules.

And speaking of early 60’s, what is keeping the prices so low on 60-64 ES-345’s and stereo 355’s? There has been a quiet trend toward slimmer necks. Not everyone can play the real fatties but everyone seems to like to talk them up. I recently switched from playing a huge neck 58 to playing a transitional 60. As my hands get older, my ability to move quickly with all that wood diminishes. So, maybe with so much of my clientele over 50, it’s just the arthritis talking. But it’s talking fairly loud. Even so,  the prices remain fairly depressed. I remember selling a Bigsby 60 back in 2010 for $12000. I’d be lucky to get anywhere near that much today and the overall market is well up from then. If, indeed, the slimmer necks are getting more love these days, then the 60-63 market is poised to move upward. And it should. Even the slim neck 345’s and 355’s can be spectacularly good. There is a school of thought that equates fat necks with great tone and while I agree to an extent, it is not a rule. I recently had a 62 that was stunningly good and there is another 62 in my all time top five.

So, get out there and find the bargains. They are out there for sure. A 60-64 ES-345 or 355 is calling your name. I think I can hear it now. Or maybe that’s just my ears ringing from diming that tweed Bandmaster I’m so fond of.

Of course all bets are off if the 345 in question happens to be factory black. These went for some pretty big bucks in 2016. I hope I find another pair.

Of course all bets are off if the 345 in question happens to be factory black. These went for some pretty big bucks in 2016. I hope I find another pair.

More One Off Fun

Thursday, December 1st, 2016
Not your run of the mill 355. This is a late 1960 special order.

Not your run of the mill 355. This is a late 1960 special order.

Call them customs, call them one offs, call them special orders, call them late for dinner-it makes no difference to me-I just love them. Whether it’s somebody’s name inlaid into the fretboard (whom you’ve never heard of), a custom order color, short scales, tenors, weird cutaways-it doesn’t matter. They are still the coolest guitars out there. They represent, to me, a more accurate and detailed snapshot of the era. Instead of buying what Gibson was selling, the folks who ordered these specials wanted what they wanted and were willing to pay extra and wait a long time (usually months) to get them .

We see more custom orders at the higher end of the market-ES-5’s, L-5’s, Super 400’s and the like probably because these were the guitars played buy the pro players with a steady (and sometimes considerable) income. Considerable egos too, sometimes. This custom is a 1960 ES-355 that was just offered to me (and I bought it) and it’s a beauty. So what’s special here. Well, lots. There are no less than 4 custom elements here. See if you can spot them before I spill the beans. Look at the close ups at the bottom of the post for better detail.

Well, it’s a 355, so there ought to be a Bigsby. Stop tails are crazy rare but how about a trapeze? And it says Byrdland on it. I don’t know if that’s the one Gibson put on the guitar but there are no extra holes so if there was a different one the day it was built, the holes lined up perfectly. No telltale “snakebite” Bigsby holes in the top. This baby came with a trapeze for sure. And what about those Super 400 inlays. The big pearl block inlays on a 355 are pretty nice but these really pop. Beautiful. Let’s see, what else is there…look at those f-holes. Not only are they bound but they are bound with multi ply binding. My Super 400 didn’t even have that. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that on a Gibson-correct me if you have. And then there’s the fingerboard binding-multiply again-this time like a Super 400. So, it’s kind of a 355 mono with S400 elements but not quite. The original buyer must have been very specific about what he wanted and probably paid a huge premium for it.

What is great about this one-beyond the unusual and wonderful custom elements is that it’s very clear that these weren’t aftermarket mods. It’s not too hard to put bindings on the f-holes or change out a fingerboard with different inlays and binding. I’ve got a guy in my area who can do that with one hand tied behind his back. But the trapeze? Can’t fake that. The holes are always the giveaway. No stop tail holes, no Bigsby holes, no sign of anything but that big ol’ trapeze. The other cool thing is that the label says “Custom” written in ink right next to the 355. My inside guy at Gibson took a peek at the shipping log page for me and confirmed that it says “custom” next to the entry but no details.

So, do these one offs have a different value than the standard issue 355? That’s a tough question because some do and some don’t. I don’t mind an owner’s name in the fingerboard, although most collectors find it off putting and the price reflects that. I kind of like it, in fact. You sometimes see a 58-60 335 that should have dot markers with a 345 fingerboard. That one is actually worth a bit less, in my opinion because you buy a dot neck for what…the dot neck. Now, if you bought a 355 for the block markers, then S400 markers would be a negative but you buy a 355 because it’s a bit of a pimpmobile and the fancier, the better is kind of the whole idea. While not quite the pimpmobile that a Gretsch White Falcon is, the 355 is still pretty tarted up. So, to take the most appealing element of a 355 Mono-(the fancy stuff-otherwise, you’d just buy a 335) and make it even more appealing is, well, pretty appealing.

And the old rule–“don’t fall in love” still applies. Like I always say, I’d own 200 of these if I didn’t abide by the rule.

 

OK, this is too obvious.

OK, this is too obvious.

Must be a custom - it says so right on the label.

Must be a custom – it says so right on the label.