GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Once a Tree…

May 19th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35515 Comments »
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.

Humbucker Timeline

April 30th, 2017 • ES 3356 Comments »

 

Mid 65 ES-335 with chrome hardware. What pickups should be in this guitar. If you polled 100 players, I would bet that 60 would say T-tops. Not even close. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. How many 65's have you taken apart?

Mid 65 ES-335 with chrome hardware. What pickups should be in this guitar?  If you polled 100 players, I would bet that 60 would say T-tops. Not even close. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. How many 65’s have you taken apart?

Just when you think you know it all, it turns out that you don’t. I thought I had seen enough 335’s (345’s and 355’s) to have a good handle on when and how  the various parts evolved and when various changes were made. And, while the only real consistency at Gibson is inconsistency, sometimes I get a surprise. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant surprise.

We’re talking about pickups and the disconnect between the conventional wisdom and actual observation. I’ve been on about this before with regard to T-tops-the conventional wisdom says they started in 65 but that is wrong (and that’s another post).  Most of us know the PAF timeline. Started in late 56 with steels and into guitars in 57. Covers changed by 58 from stainless to nickel plated. Long magnets until some time in 61. Whites and zebras from mid 59 to around mid 60 in nickel PAFs but into 61 in gold versions. Short magnets from late 61 or so (there was overlap) up to 63 and rarely 64 in nickel PAFs. I’ve never seen a gold PAF later than 64 but others have. I’ve heard of PAFs as late as 67 in gold models but I’ve never seen it myself and I’m skeptical. But, mostly, everybody agrees about PAFs. Patent numbers are another story.

Patent numbers appeared in 62 and were often mixed with PAFs. Many 62’s and 63’s have one PAF and one patent number. Everybody knows the only difference is the sticker. Here’s where the conventional wisdom goes off the rails. Early patents have 2 black leads and enamel coated windings (and a short A5 magnet). The next version had one white and one black lead and poly coated windings. It is widely believed that the poly windings showed up in 64. They didn’t. Now, I don’t pull the covers on pickups that have never been opened but I usually do if the solder is not original. Taking the covers off was really common in the late 60’s, so I’ve pulled a lot of covers. I’ve never, ever-not once-seen a poly wound patent number under a nickel cover. If I’m correct, then poly windings began some time in 65. But wait–the conventional wisdom says T-tops started in 65. If poly windings just came in in 65, it doesn’t make sense that T-tops showed up at the same time. That’s because they didn’t.

The first 65’s had nickel covered pickups and they were enamel wound. I found, through looking at a lot of 65’s that if the cover was nickel, the windings were enamel coated and, if chrome, the windings were poly. Not so fast…I recently bought a beater 65 and I decided to part it out. It was a mid 65, SN 332xxx. Wide nut but all chrome parts. I pulled the harness and noted early 65 pot codes and completely undisturbed solder, so I knew the pickups had never been out of the guitar. One pickup had been opened but the other was sealed. I fully expected to see one white lead and one black lead and poly coated (orange) windings. Nope. Enamel (purple) windings and two black leads. That is, essentially,  a short magnet PAF with a different sticker in a 1965 chrome hardware 335. No wonder some 65’s sound so good. I’ve seen enough 65’s (probably 40 of them) to know that most of them have the later patent numbers but, as I now know, not all of them. The value of early patent numbers has crept up in recent days and many parts dealers are asking as much as $2000 for one. I think that’s optimistic (OK, it’s nuts) but I think everybody overprices their parts.

The problem is that it’s impossible to know what’s in there without pulling the covers. A 65 ES-335 can cost anywhere from $4500 (for a late narrow nut 65 with issues) to as high as $15000 for an early 65 with a stop tail. I don’t recommend you go out and buy the next 65 that comes up for sale thinking it’s going to have the equivalent of a PAF because it probably won’t. But it could.

For the record, there are plenty of 65’s with poly coated windings – most of them, in fact. This guitar with the early patents may be a bit of a fluke. Moving forward, I recently picked up a 69 ES-340, which is a 335 with a badly conceived circuit. I opened that one up and found not T-tops as you might expect but later patent numbers (poly). I’ve found them in many 68’s, many 67’s and most 66’s. The best I can estimate is that T-tops arrived some time in 66 but weren’t common until 67. I don’t see all that many post 65’s but I see enough to get a sense of what’s in there. If you buy a 67 or a 68, you still have a really good chance of getting pre T-top patent numbers. If you can’t (or won’t) pull the cover, then there is another not terribly reliable rule. The bobbin screws can tell you something. If they are Phillips, then the pickup is more likely a pre T but it could be a T-top. If they are slotted, it is almost certain that it is a T-top. You can also measure the DC resistance. Most t-tops are the same 7.47-7.52K. If you have slotted screws and both pickups are in that range, you likely have T-tops. Or just use your ears. If you like the sound, don’t worry about which version it is. If you don’t, then change them.

Enamel coated wire is purplish to brown and poly coated wire is orange to red. You would expect poly in 65 and that's what most 65's have. But, if you get lucky, you might find the enamel windings on your 65. That, but for the decal, is a PAF. There is no way to know for sure without pulling the cover.

Enamel coated wire is purplish to brown and poly coated wire is orange to red. You would expect poly in 65 and that’s what most 65’s have. But, if you get lucky, you might find the enamel windings on your 65. That, but for the decal, is a PAF. There is no way to know for sure without pulling the cover.

CITES in the Real World

April 26th, 2017 • Gibson General3 Comments »
If any of these guitars are going out of the USA, they need to be certified by US Fish and Wildlife as "pre-convention" rosewood. That means built before 1992 for Brazilian and pre 2017 for Indian or other rosewood.

If any of these guitars is going out of the USA, it needs to be certified by US Fish and Wildlife as “pre-convention” rosewood. That means built before 1992 for Brazilian and pre 2017 for Indian or other rosewood. It’s time consuming, costs $75  and I’m complying.

CITES or The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has changed the rules. As a vintage dealer, I’ve had to jump through hoops for the US Government for quite some time. Up until January 1 of this year, only guitars with Brazilian rosewood needed to be certified by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and the Dept. of Agriculture. If your guitar was built before 1992, it was legal to ship (with certification). Nobody seemed to pay that much attention to the regulations mostly because everybody knew that the Customs agents had better things to do and they couldn’t tell Brazilian from East Indian from Honduran anyway. So, some dealers and most individuals ignored the regulations and guitars flowed across borders pretty much unscathed. In fact the only time I encountered any trouble was with a guitar coming into the US from Italy. They questioned me about the wood and the year and I explained that it was Indian rosewood and that was the end of it. I did have a guitar come from Mexico a number of years ago that was stopped for having mahogany and I had to explain to the agent that mahogany was legal-he had misunderstood the regulations that applied to raw wood but not finished products. It’s a sad state of affairs when the general public has to explain the rules to the government.

But all that has changed, at least for now. For all the Trump White House talk of deregulation and improved conditions for international trade, it has become a lot more of a pain to ship guitars out of the country and many governments are actively looking for proper documentation. They solved the problem of agents not knowing Indian from Brazilian by making all rosewood fall under CITES regulations. Lucky us. I’m all for conserving the world’s supply of rosewood but it isn’t the musical instrument companies that are responsible for the demise of the trees. The amount of rosewood used in guitar making is only a small fraction of the rosewood being used for furniture. Furniture? Who buys rosewood furniture? The Chinese, that’s who. There is a traditional furniture called “hongmu” after the wood itself.  Here is what I gathered from the independent environmental website, Mongabay:

China is the largest global consumer of rosewood and skyrocketing demand over the past decade and a half is having serious repercussions for some of the world’s most endangered old-growth forests and local forest communities. Rosewood imports into China increased some 1,250 percent since 2000 and were worth an estimated $2.6 billion between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to a new report from Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Forest Trends. Several species of rosewood, collectively known as hongmu, are prized by Chinese furniture manufacturers who use them to make products that are highly coveted status symbols. The majority of rosewood imports into China traditionally come from Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. But in 2014, when imports were at an all-time high, nearly half came from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries, whereas those countries supplied just 10 percent of Chinese rosewood imports a decade ago, per the report.

So, the problem isn’t us, the guitar playing universe, it’s the Chinese consumers who are making it harder for the rest of us. To make matters worse, much of the rosewood is cut illegally and imported illegally. So, we are bound by laws that cover 183 countries (including China) to prove that our guitars were made from legally harvested wood. And I, for one, am happy to comply but we are a drop in the bucket in the fight to preserve the rosewood trees. Considering the sheer number of guitars shipped all over the world that contain small amounts of rosewood, the time spent certifying and inspecting guitars could be better utilized by going after the criminals who are causing the problem. Confiscating a ’59 335 does nothing at all to solve or even ameliorate the problem. I don’t know what they do with confiscated guitars or even if they have actually confiscated any but they are allowed to do so if the guitar isn’t properly certified. I don’t want to find out first hand so I’m crossing all the T’s and dotting the i’s and doing it by the book. So, if you are in Europe or Asia or even Canada and I ask you for an extra week or two to get  your guitar to you, please understand that if I don’t, your guitar could be tied up for a lot longer by Customs and may never get to you.

This is the real problem. It's Chinese "hongmu" rosewood furniture. The Chinese people love this stuff. I suppose it's like Americans and stainless steel appliances.

This is the real problem. It’s Chinese “hongmu” rosewood furniture. The Chinese people love this stuff. I suppose it’s like Americans and stainless steel appliances.

 

Misinformation

April 17th, 2017 • ES 3358 Comments »
And nobody knows if you know anything about guitars but it doesn't stop some folks from acting like they do.

And nobody knows if you know anything about guitars but it doesn’t stop some folks from acting like they do.

The internet is a funny place. Sometime ha-ha funny, sometimes peculiar funny. I don’t, as a rule, spend too much time in places like forums or social media but I will occasionally nose around to see what folks are talking about. Mostly, it’s current events or politics but sometimes, it’s guitar related stuff. I shouldn’t be surprised and I shouldn’t be annoyed or upset but sometimes it’s surprising, annoying and upsetting. There was once a cartoon of two dogs at a computer and one says to the other “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”.  True enough. But it is also true that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a complete idiot. Except when they do.

There is an incredible amount of simply wrong information about guitars in general and ES-335’s are well represented here. Here’s what I found in 15 minutes of surfing:

They switched to block markers in 1961. Wire ABR-1’s came in in 1963. The nut width went back to 1 11/16″ in 1968. All 60’s 335’s have “Union Made” on the orange label. T-tops were standard starting in 1965. All 335’s before 1964 have a solid center block.

All of the above “facts” are wrong and were stated by someone as true. The problem is that you don’t generally know who posts this stuff  and you it’s hard to ascertain what’s true and what isn’t. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t use internet forums as a learning center. Fortunately, folks who know the facts often call out the poster of “alternative facts” as not knowing what they’re talking about. But, too often, nobody says anything, so Joe Neophyte, who’s trying to learn about 335’s takes it as fact. I have had dozens of emails disputing my claim that the nut width didn’t go back to 1 11/16″ in 1968. This is kind of a special case since this “information” was posted on a very accurate and very useful website about vintage guitars. It is where I got a lot of my non 335 knowledge from. But it’s wrong. My 335 (and 345 and 355) knowledge comes from looking at real guitars over a period of many years. And I’m not always right because, on occasion, I’ll see something in a real 335 in my possession that breaks a rule and I have to amend my “facts”.

To make matters worse, the misinformation gets repeated by folks who read it somewhere and didn’t question it. So, eventually, it pops up in enough places that you figure it must be true because you’ve seen it ten different times in ten different places. Unfortunately, the wrong “facts” get repeated just as often as the true ones. So, why don’t I call out the purveyors of alternative facts? The truth is that I used to but eventually I got a little tired of being the internet 335 police. I remember, early on, seeing Ebay listings that had the year wrong and a completely inaccurate description and I would diligently write to the seller and set them straight. The response was, occasionally, “oh, thank you so much. I had no idea that the 12 holes in the back weren’t factory.” More often, it was, …”who the hell are you and what makes you think you know more than I do?” That gets pretty old. So, I stopped correcting those who are in need of correction. Much as I’d like to be, it’s simply too much work to be the 335 police, so be careful where you get your information and, more importantly, be careful who you buy from. There are literally 100 things that can be wrong with an electric guitar. I don’t expect anyone to know everything but if you want to know the important stuff, I’ve probably covered it in a post. Use the search function and if that doesn’t find you what you’re looking for, send me an email and I’ll tell you the truth, assuming I know it.

Oh, and the switch to block markers was early 62, wire ABR-1’s were also 62, the nut width didn’t go back to 1 11/16″ in 68, 335’s from 64 until some time in 68 had “Union Made” on them and cut center blocks first appeared in 61 but weren’t the rule until 65.  T-tops seem to have shown up in 66. I’ve never had a 65 with them but I haven’t owned every 65 either (and I don’t open sealed covers).  I’m sure one of the experts out there has seen them in a 65. The trouble is that half the 65’s out there are actually 68’s. There’s a lot of serial number overlap between those two years and, for some reason, nearly everybody simply picks the earlier year, presumably so they can ask more money.  But that’s a different post.

You do get to the point where you can tell the nut width by eye. No calipers required. This is a 68. Does that look like 1 11/16" to you. I didn't think so.

You do get to the point where you can tell the nut width by eye. No calipers required. This is a 68. Does that look like 1 11/16″ to you. I didn’t think so.

 

Another Holy Grail in the House

March 31st, 2017 • ES 3558 Comments »
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?

 

 

Shootout

March 27th, 2017 • ES 3356 Comments »
Here's the lineup. That's the 2014 in front with the 69 behind it. Then the 64, 65 trap. 58, 65 stop, the 62 and the 60.  A 345 and a couple of 355's are lurking in the back.

Here’s the lineup. That’s the 2014 in front with the 69 behind it. Then the 64, 65 trap. 58, 65 stop, the 62 and the 60. A 345 and a couple of 355’s are lurking in the back.

Things get a little slow at OK Guitars during the month of March in Kent, CT. Kent is a tourist town and it appeals mostly to outdoorsy types who hike the Appalachian Trail which passes along the ridge a mile or so from my shop. It also appeals to families who visit Kent Falls to the North of me. So, given how terrible the weather usually is around here in March and the snow that still covers most everything and the mud and the depressing lack of sunshine, it’s no wonder things have been a little slow at OK Guitars. What to do on a rainy, windy Saturday? Play some guitars.

Tone is subjective. What I like isn’t necessarily going to be what you like. So, if I play every 335 in my shop and rank them according to tone, I’m really just giving you my opinion. But certain aspects of an electric guitar are pretty universal. Most everyone wants a guitar that is balanced, that sustains well, that has a decent tonal range and is comfortable to play. Well, if they’re all 335’s, how much variation is there going to be? I kind of expected quite a lot.  I was surprised.

Here’s what’s on the wall in 335’s. We’ve got a 58, a 60, a 62, a 64, two 65’s, a 69 and a 2014. All stop tails except the 64 (Bigsby), one of the 65’s (trap) and the 69 (trap). All of them are set up to my preferred specs. Pickups close to the strings, action medium, 11’s and, for the stop tail, the tailpiece screwed 80-85% of the way down so the break angle is fairly steep. Obviously, I can’t do that with the Bigsby and the traps. But we’ll let the chips fall where they may.

First up was the 58. Big fat neck, shallow neck angle, thin top and a killer set of PAFs. It’s no wonder this bad boy performed at the top of the pack. Singing sustain, searing highs, tons of harmonics, no fretting out and big range. This is as good as a 335 gets. But then, because I expected something wildly different, I picked up the 65 trap tail. Big neck but later patents (chrome covers usually indicate poly windings), fairly steep neck angle and the thicker top of a post 58 335. If I rate the 58 a 99, this guitar, trap tail and all gets a 96. It was a little heavy for a 335 at around 8.5 lbs (the 58 was a pound lighter) but this guitar performed brilliantly. Lots of tonal range, great sustain, easy playability and great tonal and volume balance between the pickups. As I’ve said before, the stop tail makes a difference but not a huge difference. Right there with the trap 65 was the stop 65, the 60 and the 62. 62’s are vastly underrated mostly because of the thinner neck profile but most of the 62’s I’ve had are wonderful players. The major difference between the 60 and the 62 and the stop tail 65 was neck profile. The pickups (nickel covers in this 65) are the same, although the 60 and the 62 had PAFs and the 65 patents and the configuration is the same except the 65 had nylon saddles and the 60 and 62 had metal. Almost no difference in sustain between the three. I think the 62, on the subjective side, had a sweeter sounding neck pickup but the 65 had that chainsaw of a bridge pickup that I like so much.  The 60 was the best balanced but the 65 and the 62 were really close. Still, these five guitars were just killer. I’d play any one of them for the rest of my life and be happy.

Next up was the 64 Bigsby which was tonally awesome but didn’t have the crispness and touch articulation of the stops or the 65 trap. I think the Bigsby could be the culprit. The good news is that it has stop tail bushings and had I more time, I would have strung it up with a stop to see how much of  difference it makes. So, that’ll be another post. Still, excellent balance, great sounding pickups with lots of harmonics and great range. You gotta love the neck on a 64/early 65. Fairly slim at the first fret, these necks get real big real fast. No wonder 64’s are the most popular 335 out there.

So that leaves two more to play…the 69 (which is rewired 340) and the 2014 Memphis VOS 59 reissue.  The 69 has a maple neck with a huge profile but a narrow nut. The narrow nut is a generally playability problem for me but after 10 minutes, I found it fairly comfortable and I wasn’t falling all over myself trying to play it.  The maple neck and Indian rosewood board make no discernible difference. The pickups are late patent numbers but are likely pre T-tops. Unusual for a 69 but not unheard of. The sustain was quite good as was the tonal range. The balance was lacking but I could probably  dial it in-the neck pickup was too loud and a little muddy. A pretty nice guitar especially for the price. And a good looker too in blonde. Yes, it’s birch rather than maple and looks a little like your kitchen cabinets but they’re nice kitchen cabinets.

Last up was the 2014. It looks great and feels really good to play. The shoulders on the 59 sized neck are big and it makes me feel a little clumsy (actually I am a little clumsy but this was worse than usual).  You might like that. I don’t. Sustain wasn’t quite there and I really don’t know why. I can only blame the wood. Too wet? Too new? The frets were good-it’s essentially a new guitar. This has been my complaint about new Gibsons. They’ve got the look pretty close to vintage (except the guard and the pickup covers), they’ve got the feel pretty close to vintage but they simply don’t sound vintage. My thought is that the 58 probably sounded a lot like the 2014 when it was new. I will re-do the test in around 60 years and see how the 2014 does. I’ll be 124 but by then I should be a pretty decent player by then if I keep practicing.

Things I Don’t Care About, Part 2

March 11th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3554 Comments »
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

February 26th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3557 Comments »
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.

Renecks Revisited

February 6th, 2017 • ES 335, ES 3452 Comments »

 

This was re-necked at Gibson back in 2007 or so. They did a great job using the neck from a Clapton reissue and charging me $4000. Sure played great though.

This was re-necked at Gibson back in 2010 or so. They did a great job using the neck from a Clapton reissue and charging me $4000. I wish I still had the detail shots. Sure played great though.

About 6 and a half years ago, back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a post called “Renecks, not Rednecks”. You can find it here. The post dealt with how to spot a renecked ES model (and how to tell a redneck from a reneck which, by the way is the default spelling the stupid spellchecker decides I really want to write when I write the term reneck without a dash). Well, since I wrote that post in October of 2010, I’ve come to look at renecked 3x5s a little differently. They still aren’t collector grade stuff but there is a lot to be said for bringing a great sounding guitar back into the realm of real playability and personal preference.

I’ve had a few done since that post and will talk about my experiences. The first was a red 335 that I bought off Ebay with all of its parts but no neck. I was told it was a 65 but in 20/20 hindsight, I think it was a 68-no headstock inlay to tip me off and I didn’t notice whether the f-holes were big or small. I wrote to the repair folks at Gibson and they told me that there weren’t any necks that would fit a 65/68 except for the recently released necks from the Eric Clapton “Crossroads” reissue. I was thrilled (until they told me how much it would cost). The estimate was $4000 (and six months). I had paid around $1500 for the body and hardware so I thought it might make a nice player for me. The market was pretty weak in 2011 but I went ahead and they did a truly excellent job except that the G string wouldn’t intonate-they must have mis-measured the scale by a fraction of an inch. I was able to to find a luthier who worked some magic on the nut and the problem was solved. It turned out to be a great player with a great neck and I eventually sold it and didn’t make a dime on it. Why? Probably because it had been re-necked. I swore off projects for a while.

A number of years later I bought a 61 dot neck that sounded absolutely glorious but had a badly broken and badly repaired headstock. I also didn’t like the flat neck profile much. I sold the guitar to a dealer in Toronto who had it renecked by Gord Barry who, I believe, works (or worked) at the well known 12th Fret guitar shop there. He used an old growth piece of mahogany, the original fingerboard, binding and truss rod and carved a very 59ish profile. I can’t remember if he used the headstock inlay or not on this one. The work cost around $3500 which, when you’re talking about a dot neck isn’t so much, really. especially when it goes from being a great sounding busted 61 with a so-so neck to being a great sounding intact 61 with a custom neck profile. Not long after the work was done, the guitar was offered back to me and I remembered what a great sounding guitar it was. The work was spectacular. If the seller hadn’t disclosed the reneck, I don’t think anyone would have known-not even me. It was not an easy guitar to sell. The purists scoffed at it but the logic was pretty sound. You were basically getting a player grade 61 with a 59 neck. The only way to get a big 59 neck is to buy a 59 (or a 58) and that would set you back $30K or so even for a player grade. So, I sold it for around $15K and didn’t exactly get rich off of it.  Upside? The buyer still has it and tells me how much he loves it every time I speak to him. Lucky guy.

That's what the re-neck looks like on that 61. Looks pretty original to me

That’s what the re-neck looks like on that 61. Looks pretty original to me

Not long ago, I bought a 60 335 with a 66 block neck on it. I called Gord Barry and asked if he could do the same work on this one. We couldn’t use the fingerboard (it had block markers) but I had a piece of beautiful Brazilian I’d been saving for decades. He used the original truss rod and the headstock overlay in all its checked and yellowed glory. The result was stunning. Another ruined dot neck brought back to life. Again, I didn’t make a dime on it but sold it to a regular client who has owned no less than a dozen dot necks (4 of which he bought from me). The reneck is his favorite. Same deal-a great sounding guitar turned from an uncollectible marginal player to an uncollectible great player. That’s a good return but not particularly good business. It is good PR though. There are some very happy players out there who bought themselves killer dot neck players with the neck profile they really wanted and saved $10000 or more.

A few weeks ago I bought a fairly well trashed ES-345 TDN-yes, a blonde. It had two holes drilled in the top, all the wrong parts, a heavily shaved neck and two repaired headstock breaks. The finish was in very good shape though and the wood was quite stunning. The solution was obvious. It was, after all, an original finish blonde 345 and they only made 50 of them. So off it goes. We will use the original fingerboard, bindings and truss rod and hopefully the headstock overlay. It will get a proper 59 neck carve using a old growth piece of mahogany. We’ll fill the two holes and have a killer player. Add a couple of uncovered double white PAFs and we’ll have something so cool I won’t be able to let it go. What’s it worth? Beats me.

What makes me OK with doing this is that as long as the luthier can get the good old wood, I don’t really care if the neck was made by a skilled factory worker in 1959 or an accomplished luthier in 2017. If one is better at it than the other, I certainly can’t tell. It will take a long time to get that blondie done-guys like this are always booked well in advance, so I expect to have it completed by September. I’m totally stoked.

Add an old growth mahogany 59 profile new neck, the original board, bindings and frets, a correct long guard, the right knobs  and fill those nasty holes and I'll have a keeper. If not for me then for somebody.

Add an old growth mahogany 59 profile new neck, the original board, bindings and frets, a correct long guard, the right knobs and fill those nasty holes and I’ll have a keeper. If not for me then for somebody.

Rosewood Ban

January 30th, 2017 • Uncategorized3 Comments »
It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it's all rosewood.

It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it’s all rosewood.

I’m a big environmentalist and I understand fully the actions taken by governments to protect endangered species. Protecting elephants by making trafficking in ivory illegal is laudable and necessary. Prohibiting the cutting of dalbergia nigra trees is important as well. So is acknowledging and acting on climate change. The problem is not in the acknowledgement of the crises. The problem is in the methodology undertaken by governments to address these crises.

It doesn’t save any elephants to strip the ivory off an antique piano. I wrote a post about this a few years ago when a client told the story of her antique French Erard piano being refused entry into the USA. Find that post here. The government approach to preserving Brazilian rosewood has been flawed and unwieldy but made some sense. It took too long (up to 90 days) to get certification and was fairly expensive ($100 per guitar). But the exemption of pre ban guitars (1992 and earlier) was reasonable. All you had to do was prove the guitar was made before that date. All of this was a pain in the ass but conservation of endangered species is important. I don’t know what the countries where Dalbergia Nigra grows have been doing to keep poachers from illegally cutting the trees that remain. Once the wood is cut, all the regulations in the world won’t bring back that tree. You have to keep it from being cut. This is where the time, money and effort should be going. I hope the government is taking the money collected for certification is spending it to keep the remaining trees from being poached. But the game has changed.

CITES has banned ALL rosewood. You can thank the Chinese for this since the bulk of the rosewood being cut is going to China as furniture. Apparently, the supply of Indian rosewood and a few other species has been affected in a detrimental way  (Vietnam was cited as a prime example). There is still, apparently, plenty of Indian rosewood left but trying to fix the problem before it becomes a crisis is good management . There was, however, another reason for doing this as I understand it. The Customs officials couldn’t tell Brazilian rosewood from Indian rosewood, so the solution was to ban it all. It’s a little like saying that since your doctor doesn’t know your spleen from your appendix, he should just remove both of them. You didn’t need them anyway. That adds a ton of paperwork and a not insignificant amount of dollars to the cost of all guitars-not just vintage ones. I don’t know all the details yet but if the wheels of the bureaucracy turn as slowly as they have in the past, you aren’t going to get your guitar anytime soon. And you’ll end up paying an additional fee for the certification. Once the guitar is certified, it’s certified so when you go to sell it, you will have the correct documentation in hand.

Note that this only affects international shipments. All types of rosewood can still be shipped domestically. I’m taking a wait and see approach to the new rules. I don’t ship many pre ’92 guitars anyway, the changes probably won’t affect me much. Also, the fact that they weren’t all that diligent in seeking out rosewood made it pretty manageable. I only had two guitars stopped by Customs for “illegal” woods. In both cases, they were wrong but it did hold up my shipment. Mostly, it seemed that they didn’t pay much attention-certification or not. That is likely to change. Without the proper certification, Customs can take your 59 ES-335 and confiscate it. You have no recourse. So, if you’re a big exporter, get your “Master File” in order. If not, be ready to wait 60-90 days to get your guitar certified