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Archive for the ‘ES 355’ Category

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.

Somebody Famous was Here

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016
I once had a white '65 ES-355 with BB Kings autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I once had a white ’65 ES-355 with BB King’s autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I get a lot of emails from folks buying and selling ES models and one of the most frequently encountered subjects is guitars that have been autographed. While this is not my market, I feel it’s worth writing a post about. The assumption by most sellers is that an autographed guitar is worth more than one that isn’t. I don’t entirely agree.

Well, let me clarify. Right now there are no less than four Gibson “Lucille” models for sale of Reverb.com. One is $60,000, another is $15K, one $14K and one at $8000. The guitars, without the autographs, are nice guitars but they aren’t particularly old nor are they particularly collectible. I can pick up a 90’s or 2000’s Lucille for $2500 or so. So, do the sellers believe that the autograph is worth $5500 to over $50K?  OK, the really expensive one comes with some tour swag but $60K seems like a really big number. So do all the rest of them. Let me tell you a fairly short story. A few years ago, I was contacted by the widow of the owner of a pretty nice 1958 ES-335. I flew to Nashville to meet with her and discuss the value of her late husband’s guitar. We hadn’t finalized a price but we had established a range pending my inspection of the guitar. I ended up offering around $25000 for it and her reaction was “…but it’s autographed by BB King.” My clever rejoinder? “OK, $24000.”  I explained to her that the first thing I would do when I got back home was to remove the autograph.

My point is that a collectible guitar is not made more collectible just because its autographed by someone famous. In addition to the great BB King, I have removed Eric Clapton’s autograph, Les Paul’s, various members of Kiss and quite a few others. If you must get your vintage guitar autographed, have them sign the pick guard-preferably on the back. Or bring along a new (cheap) guitar and have them autograph that. A lot of these guys sign thousands of guitars and the value of the autograph is very small. If you’ve got a Beatle or Elvis, then leave it alone. A Rolling Stone? I’d probably remove it from a vintage Gibson unless it was a Firebird VII autographed by Brian Jones. That would be worth something.

OK, well how about if the guitar was owned by somebody famous? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame if you’ve got good documentation. And he (or she) can’t just have played it once. It has to have really good provenance. An album cover photo is good provenance. A signed letter by the artist with a photo will probably do. A letter from a friend of the friend who got it from the famous player’s ex-wife’s cousin isn’t good enough. A photo of the famous player holding the guitar isn’t good enough either. I’ve had plenty of famous players in my shop and if a photo of them with one of my guitars was worth something, I’d be snapping photos all day.  Be careful though. Provenance is pretty easy to fake. That’s why the album cover photo is great provenance. And make sure the guitar that’s in the provenance is the same guitar as you’re considering buying. Wood grain is pretty much like a fingerprint. If the grain doesn’t match, walk, no, run in the opposite direction. We all know what the Clapton guitars have sold for and the Dylan Strat and the Lennon J160. It’s some serious dough which is why I generally stay away from that market. The price of admission is high and the rate of fraud is up there as well.

EC's autograph on an '84. I think I left this one on too. It didn't affect the value at all.

EC’s autograph on an ’84. I think I left this one on too. It didn’t affect the value at all.

FON or Serial Number?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

 

Here's aa 59 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the "rack"-usuall 30-40 guitars. The last number is the "rank" or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Here’s a 60 FON. The letter is the year T for 58, S for 59, R for 60 and Q for 61 and then they stop. The number that follows is a three or four digit number and that designated the “rack”-usually 30-40 guitars. The last number is the “rank” or the guitars number within the rack. Confused?

Pet peeve warning…I’ve talked endlessly about how so many sellers will look up their guitar serial number and when they see multiple years come up will usually pick the earliest year. Understandable? Yes, I suppose but not particularly honest and pretty easy to debunk. Trying to get more money for your guitar by misrepresenting the year and making it look justified is wrong. Either disclose the possible years or learn how to tell the difference. Pretty straightforward, right? Good. Now try this:

From 58 to 61, there was both a serial number and a factory order number for all 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. FON’s existed way before 58 but since 335’s didn’t, we’ll look at only those 4 years. There is no debate that, in general,  a 59 335, 345 or 355 is worth more than any other year, assuming the condition and originality is equal. Usually, the FON and the serial are from the same year. But not always. So, how do we assess the value of those guitars that have a factory order number from one year and a serial number another? I recently bought a J200 for a client that was advertised as a 59. When I got it, I noted that the serial number was very early 60. I currently have a 59 ES-335 with a 58 FON and I recall a blonde 60 345 with a 59 FON. One thing you won’t see is a FON from a later year than the serial. This is simply because the FON goes on the guitar first.

So, I have this 59 ES-335 with a 58 FON. That means it was built (or at least started) in 1958. It could have been completed in 1958 as well but there is no absolutely foolproof way to know for sure. But there are clues. It has the thin top of a 58, so that tells us that it’s got some 58 aspects. It’s got a pretty good neck angle-no thin bridge or shaving required-so that’s kind of a 59 thing but there were very late 58’s with that feature. The tuners are patent numbers rather than the patent applied tuners that nearly all 58’s had which leads me to believe that it was built in late 58 and assembled in 59. Why the completed body sat around from sometime in late 58 until April of 59 is a mystery. I had another 335 with a 58 FON that didn’t ship until August of 59. Maybe they built a load of 58’s and put them aside because Gibson was getting complaints about the cracks around the jack (typical of 58’s). Then, perhaps they were selling more than they could built in mid 59 and raided this cache of 58’s. I’ve spoken to a couple of Gibson employees from the era but none could shed any light on this.  My point is-do I consider it a 58 or a 59? It is to my advantage to call it a 59. But what about that 60 with the 59 FON? Again, I’m probably going to get more for it if I call it a 59. So, it works both ways. But you can’t have it both ways, can you? My hard rule is that I go by the serial number, i.e a 60 serial means it’s a 60 regardless of the FON. I’ll mention the FON in all cases if it’s different so I’ll list the guitar for sale as, say, a 1959 ES-335 with a ’58 FON. That’s about as honest as I can be.

I’ve been compiling a FON database for a couple of years now and I’m still filling in some of the blanks before I post it. There are lots of surprises and ambiguities. It seems that the more I learn, the more confusing it becomes. I’ve never run a large manufacturing business, so I have little insight into the day to day operations of a factory. Especially a factory operating more than 50 years ago. I’m convinced that they worried less about paperwork and more about filling orders. I’ll post the database when I have enough information for it to make some sense because now, with around  130 entries (all 335, 345 and 355’s) it’s about as clear as mud. Feel free to continue sending me data-serial, FON, model, finish and configuration (stop or Bigsby). No names will be entered.

This is an April 59 serial number 335 with the 58  factory order number T7281 24.  I call it a 59.

This is an April 59 serial number 335 with the 58 factory order number T7281 24. I call it a 59.

58 ES-355. Cool. Rare. Evasive.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
This extreme fade is typical of very early red 355's. You can seethe original color peaking out from behind the guard. Stop tail isn't factory-this would have had a Bigsby.

This extreme fade is typical of very early red 355’s. You can see the original color peaking out from behind the guard. Stop tail isn’t factory-this would have had a Bigsby.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know that I never keep any of the guitars I get. I do tend to jump up and down when I get something really rare like the 63 blonde 335 or any of the three black 59 ES-345’s I’ve had. Or maybe the “nonexistent” red 59 335’s and 345’s or the three stop tail ES-355’s I’ve had. All great guitars and all so impossibly rare that it’s a wonder I ever found them at all. There is one ultra rare ES that I’ve never had-until today that is.

In 1958, they made 10 ES-355’s. Now, we know that model years don’t mean very much and the first 59’s were the same as the 58’s but not for long. The 58’s have some very distinctive characteristics that make them interesting and very cool. All of them were mono and every one I’ve seen has gold bonnet knobs. That would change almost immediately in 59 along with a few other features. In 59, the ES-355 would be offered in both stereo and mono  and would be fitted with black knobs. The 58 has the 3 ply thin top which lasted into 59 but was gone by the Spring. That’s not what is so interesting, though.

In the late 50’s, there was a burgeoning trend toward smaller neck profiles and, while we are all familiar with the big 58 and 59 335 necks, the ES-355 followed a different timeline.  As the top of the line, Gibson saw fit to equip it with a slimmer “faster” neck fairly early in 1959. I can’t tell you exactly when but I can say that big neck ES-355’s are very hard to come by. Out of the perhaps 50 ’59 355’s that I’ve owned or played, only four have had a big fat neck. Of those four, all have had a 58 factory order number. There are other interesting features that seem to be limited to 58. They were all red but of the 5 ’58’s I’ve seen, all but one has faded to a pale orange. The 59’s and the early 60’s tend to fade to that wonderful “watermelon” red but the 58’s must have been a slightly different paint/dye formulation. Maybe more like the red element of a burst. Plenty of 59 Les Pauls lose their red element completely. The 58 ES-355 I just got is nearly blonde, it has faded so extensively. It’s not a particularly pretty color but it sure is distinctive. It’s very red under the guard and under the bridge but mostly it’s blonde with an orange tinge.

I have seen the first 58 shipped and it also has that orange fade-not as extensively but definitely not watermelon. I was offered another 58 (which I passed on because the seller wanted nearly $25K for it) a few years ago and it too had the orange fade. I know of another that hasn’t faded extensively and I can only assume it spent much of its life in the case.  I like this guitar a lot. There’s a list of features that I really like on 3×5’s and very few ES’s have all of them. The neck should be .88″ at the first fret and around 1″ at the 12th. Check. The center block should be uncut. Check. The top should be thin. Check. The guitar should be red. Check (sort of).  It should be a stop tail (it’s had one added) and it should be a great player. Check and check. Red ES guitars with a big neck are pretty much limited to late 63 and 64 but even those have more of a medium neck. No 64 is as large as .88″ at the first fret.

There are a half dozen red 59 ES-345’s and perhaps five or six red 59 335’s. Add those to the ten 58 355’s and maybe another fifty (could be more-could be less) early 59’s and you have perhaps 75 big neck red ES’s. So, your chances of getting a big fat neck red 335, 345 or 355 is pretty slim. That’s why I jump on them when I see them. And then I sell them. What a dope.

This is the very first 58. Similar fade and, of course, the gold knobs. Thanks to LP Forum member/owner "MacDaddy" for the photo.

This is the very first 58. Similar fade and, of course, the gold knobs. Thanks to LP Forum member/owner “MacDaddy” for the photo.

 

Top Ten List

Saturday, June 25th, 2016
58's are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58's.

58’s are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58’s.

I keep a mental top ten list of the best ES guitars to pass through my hands and, while the list is pretty diverse, there are some factors that are becoming meaningful. As I get to play more and more of them, I re-evaluate the things that make some of them simply good, others great and a few simply extraordinary.

It’s interesting that the current top ten (or maybe top 12) includes guitars from 58, 59, 60, 62 and 64. I try to keep personal preference out of the equation-like the fact that I like guitars with necks that start medium and get really big by the 12th fret. I’m really talking about tone. And that’s personal preference too,  I suppose,  but we all like a guitar that has great sustain and that singing almost vocal quality that some 3×5’s have and some don’t. Some of that is setup but some of it is simply the wood, the strings and the electronics and the relationship between them. I can’t totally explain why this 335 sounds so much better than that one but there are some common denominators that I can quantify and only because I’ve played (and set up) so many.

Common denominators: All are 58-64 which doesn’t tell you much. All are stop tails. All have PAFs or early patents. Nearly all were re-fretted at some point. But there have been dozens and dozens that fit that description so there must be something more to these standouts. Four of the top ten have thin tops. If you aren’t a regular reader, you should be aware that all 58’s and some 59’s have a three ply top that is 25% thinner than the four ply tops that were used from 59 on. Of course, that means that 6 of the top ten had the thicker tops. But wait. There’s more. If we go to the top five, three of the top five have the thinner tops which tells us something. The top five are as follows–#1 late 58 335, #2 thin top 59 335, #3 refinished 62 dot neck, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 unbound 58 335. So, I’m going out on a limb and saying the thin top early 335’s seem to have an edge when it comes to great tone. Looking at the next five on the hit list #6 is a first rack 59 345, #7 is a 59 355 stop tail, #8 is a 64 335, #9 is a 59 335 and #10 is an early 60 335. This is out of perhaps 500-600 that I’ve owned. There are perhaps another 75 that I would call contenders-an extraordinary one isn’t that much better than a great one. Most 58-64 3×5’s are simply excellent guitars. We’re talking microns here.

This list is rather fluid and I’m always replacing one with another as I play more of them. It is tricky to compare a guitar I have today to one I had five years ago (or more) but I consider the top ten to be kind of interchangeable. I’m sure that if I had all of them in a room, I would put them in a different order but they would all still be great. What would be really useful is if I could predict which ones would be the standouts before I even picked them up and played them. It would be nice to be able to tell folks to look for a particular factory order number or group of features that make for great tone but, alas, no such information exists. I’ve had 59 dot necks that are uninspiring. I’ve had trap tail 65’s that would give any of the top ten a good run for their money. There are a lot of variables and too many aren’t easily quantified.

There are a few consistencies that have occurred to me, however. First rack ES-345’s are generally excellent. What’s a first rack? Read this. It’s actually three racks but they all share certain characteristics and these characteristics seem to translate to great tone. Late 58’s and early 59’s are also fertile ground for great tone-again, the thin top is a possible factor. The shallow but not too shallow neck angle could also be in play here. The big neck? Maybe but there’s a 62 in the top 5 that had a skinny neck (and a refinish). Here’s another factor that throws a monkey wrench into the mix: On a given day, a particular guitar can sound great and on another day, it doesn’t sound so great. Humidity is a big factor and probably the state of my playing ability is another.

So, what can you take away from this? Well, mostly that you should play a guitar before you buy it. Just buying a 59 dot neck that you like the looks of will probably get you a great guitar but it may not be an extraordinary one. Buying a beat up refinished 62 could get you one of the best players you ever had. But you can’t know for sure until it’s properly set up and you sit down and play it.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

 

Rare as a Warm April Day in 2016

Sunday, April 10th, 2016
It doesn't get much rarer than this. This is the only known 63 stop tail ES-355 Mono (or stereo, for that matter). If perhaps you know of another, I'd like to know about it.

It doesn’t get much rarer than this. This is the only known 63 stop tail ES-355 Mono (or stereo, for that matter). If perhaps you know of another, I’d like to know about it. Thanks to Roger in California who was kind enough to offer this beauty to me. I was so close to getting this one last time it sold.

Those of you who live in the East have noticed that Spring has taken a vacation. It was warm for a minute and a half in March but Winter isn’t letting go. My beautiful magnolia trees were just blooming and bam!, 14 degree weather and all the flowers are dead. Bummer. This has nothing to do with the post but I’m pretty bummed about those trees. So, warm April days have been rare this year and rare is the subject today.

You know, if you read my posts regularly, that I love the rare stuff. I’ve had the most unbelievable luck  finding rare 3×5’s over the past year. I’ve found two of the four black 59 ES-345’s, a factory blonde 63 block neck 335, a red 59 dot neck with a a factory Varitone, three blonde 335’s and three stop tail 355’s. Now, I’ve got the only stop tail 63 ES-355 known. This guitar is a pretty interesting story on its own. There are only 6, maybe 7 known stop tail ES-355’s. I’ve now owned 4 of them. A stereo 59, a mono 59, a stereo 60 and now a mono 63. My friend Tom in Texas has a mono 60 (and the stereo 60 that I had). There’s a stereo 60 in Sicily and that’s about it. There are probably a few that haven’t surfaced yet but it’s still one of my “holy grail” guitars, especially the mono ones.

The stop tail 63 showed up on Craigslist (if I’m recalling correctly) in North Jersey three or four years ago. I got on it right away and made what I though was a fair offer. The seller apparently thought so too and agreed on the price. This was a Friday. I told him I would make the drive on Monday to pick it up. I had a conflict and asked if I could pick it up Tuesday. He told me he had gotten a better offer and it was sold. I would have gone higher (I really wanted this guitar) but he said the deal was done. I thought the deal with me was done three days earlier but sometimes integrity goes out the window when an extra grand flies in.

A couple of days later, one of my most avid readers tells me how he scored a 63 stop tail 355. I couldn’t blame him-he didn’t know that the seller had already accepted another deal. I immediately started my subtle campaign to get this guitar from him. Four years later (more or less), in an email with the subject line “temporary insanity”, the 63 stop tail was offered up to me. I dropped a hefty 40% markup over what he paid and the guitar was mine. At least for now. And it’s just great. Of course, I’ll sell it but I’ll play it and get to know it for awhile before I do. Once again, I have to go back to the old rule…something about not falling in love with guitars.

I’m sure a lot of you think it’s weird to seek out these rare birds only to turn around and sell them. It IS weird. But I can’t afford to keep them and all of them go to folks who truly appreciate the rarity (and the craftsmanship and playability and tone). I know where every single one lives and I generally ask the buyers to offer them back to me before selling them elsewhere. I’ve had the great fortune of playing and owning some of the rarest of the rare. Here’s a list of the ones that stick out in my mind:

’59 ES-345 in red. The first red one made. ’59 red dot necks-I’ve had two-one with a Bigsby and a stop tail with a factory Varitone. A Pelham Blue Trini Lopez, two black 59 ES-345’s, a blonde block neck 63, four stop tail ES-355’s, two blonde ES-345’s, that little blonde ES-140 with the PAF and 8 blonde ES-335’s. I was also lucky enough to find a 59 dot neck with a pair of reverse zebra pickups. Oh, and the white 65 ES-355. Then there’s “The Mexican” which is one of perhaps two or three cherry sunburst stop tail ES-335’s made in 1965. I would have kept every last one of them if i could afford to. They have all been great. Some better players than others for sure, some prettier than the others but ll interesting and, oh yeah, rare.

To many collectors, rarity doesn’t matter much. If the model isn’t popular, then rarity doesn’t matter at all. I’ve had two of only 11 blonde Byrdlands made in 1961 but they are really not worth much-rare or not. Why? Because nobody seems to want archtops these days. But when you get a rare version of a sought after model, it’s a different thing all together. They command a pretty serious premium and you start getting emails from billionaires and rock stars. Nice to know people are paying attention.

They didn't make any block neck 335's in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. One of my favorite rarities. This came out of Scotland.

They didn’t make any block neck 335’s in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. One of my favorite rarities. This came out of Scotland.

Then there's this 67 Pelham blue Trini Lopez I had back in 2010. Near mint. Bought it off of Ebay. I think there are 16 of them. Not a great player but it sure looked cool.

Then there’s this 67 Pelham blue Trini Lopez I had back in 2010. Near mint. Bought it off of Ebay. I think there are 16 of them. Not a great player but it sure looked cool.