GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
RSS

Headstock Variables ES-355

November 11th, 2018 • ES 3558 Comments »

I recently wrote a post talking about how the ES line is “upside down” which dealt with the real world fact that 335’s are more valuable than their upscale brethren, the 345 and the 355. I posted a photo of two 59 ES-355’s side by side and I received a comment about how one of the 355’s had a shorter headstock than the other and that this was a known characteristic of Les Paul Customs (which have the same headstock design). I was aware that there was some variation among headstocks in 335’s but never really dug too far into it. Back in 2014 I made note of the fact that the 1958 ES-335’s often had a slightly elongated headstock when compared to 59’s. You can read about it here. But I was never aware that there was a significant variation in the 355 headstocks as well. A little research reveals the reason (and I already covered that)

In 2017, I wrote a post called “Stinger Things” which revealed the reason for many, if not all stingers found on ES-355’s (the most common ES with a headstock stinger). You can read that post here. If you’re too lazy to read another post, I’ll give you the short version. Most 355’s with a stinger have necks that were converted from 335 or 345 necks. The headstock of a 355 is wider and longer than a 335 headstock. The discrepancy in 355 headstocks is in these conversions-all of which have a stinger. The two 355’s in the photo in the “Upside Down” post that was commented on by the sharp eyed reader shows two 59 ES-355’s. One has a bigger headstock than the other. Fortunately, I still had both of those 355’s in my shop and I took a closer look. Here’s the photo:

You can sort of see that the headstock on the left is a little smaller than the one on the right. Look at the truss cover-it is closer to the diamond inlay and closer to the nut on the one on the left. I know, the perspective is making it look greater than it is but that’s the photo I have.

As it turns out, the one on the left has a stinger and, as I showed you in the “Stinger Things” post, that stinger covers a veneer that covers a set of tuner holes that were spaced for a 335 or 345. Since the front of the headstock gets a different overlay and inlays, you don’t see the old tuner holes on the front. In order to cover them on the back, the veneer was placed there. To cover the veneer, they just painted on a stinger. But wait, the 355 headstock is a good bit wider than a 335 or 345 headstock. Easy fix. A 335 and 345 headstock is really three pieces-the middle piece is the neck itself but there are two wings on either side that give the headstock its width and shape. So, to make a 355 headstock, knock off the 335 wings and add a bigger set of 355 wings. The one thing they couldn’t change was the length of the headstock when converting a 335/345 to a 355. Thus, the discrepancy in headstock length on the two 59’s. I’ve seen it in 1960 as well but since I don’t see as many 61-64 ES-355’s, I’ve never measured a stinger version vs a non stinger on an example from those years. Feel free to help me out.

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

Upside Down

October 15th, 2018 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35511 Comments »

The thinline line. We could include the 330, the 225, the 125 but those are full hollow. These are the models with the center block semi hollow configuration. The 355 is a rare stop tail the 335 and the 345 are the more common stop tail sunbursts. All are 59’s. If we pretend, for the moment, that the 355 is the typical Bigsby version, then how far apart are the prices?

Gibson’s semi hollow body line of electric guitars was introduced to the public in the Spring of 1958 with the release of the ES-335T. The ES stood for electric Spanish (as opposed to EH which was electric Hawaiian) and the T stood for thin line. It was a revolutionary body design but a pretty basic guitar: Plywood body, single ply bindings on the body, no binding on the neck, dot markers and those newfangled hum bucker pickups. It had more in common with the low line ES-225 than it did with the high line ES-5. It seems to have slotted into the lineup as something of a workingman’s guitar. A no frills player that would check all the boxes for both the amateur and the starving artist. The guys with the recording contracts would likely choose something a little more upscale with a bit more flash.

The head of Gibson at the time was Ted McCarty. He is credited with the design of the 335 as well as a number of other innovations. He also played a major role in the development of the tune-o-matic bridge and the humbucking pickup. He’s also the man behind the Explorer and the Flying V. Important guy. The 335 was a success right out of the gate and by the end of 1958, Gibson added an upscale version called the ES-355 to appeal to the professional player and the high end market. The 355 was essentially the same as a 335 with some fancy bindings, real mother of pearl inlays in an ebony board, fancy headstock and gold plated hardware. It also was priced at nearly double the cost of a 335. I find it surprising that anybody spent the extra bucks for what is basically bling but the 355 was pretty successful on its own.

Shortly after the introduction of the ES-355, Gibson added stereo to the 355 as well as the notch filter called a Varitone to the circuit. Now, at least the 355 was set apart from its downscale brother but Gibson saw an opportunity to grab a bit more of the market by incorporating the stereo/Varitone element into the 335 without all that expensive ornamentation. Think of it as first class, second class and third class. The 345, introduced in the Spring of 1959 was intended to fill a gap between the well heeled buyers of the stereo 355 and the no frills buyers of the 335. It would have the stereo circuit and Varitone, a mid level binding treatment, gold hardware and fancier inlays (but still plastic). It was priced closer to the 335 than the 355 but it completed the line of semi hollow body electrics and, like its brethren, was a success.

Fast forward 50 years or so and, strangely, the market for vintage ES models is “upside down.” That is, the third class ES-335 is worth as much as twice as much as the high line 355 stereo which initially cost nearly twice as much. The 335 is also more desirable (and therefore more valuable) than a 345 or a 355. There has been plenty of debate as to why this is the case. The general consensus is that folks appreciate the simplicity of the 335 design. There is some validity to that. The fancy Fender Jaguar is less popular than the simpler Stratocaster and the even simpler Telecaster. Similarly, the simple J-45 is more popular than the fancy J-200. The stereo circuitry of the 345 and the stereo 355 has long since been considered obsolete and the Varitone is largely and, somewhat undeservedly, reviled by lots of folks. Let’s leave it that the mono no Varitone 335 is more coveted than the stereo models all of which have the Varitone.

It is noteworthy that the blonde versions of all three models, custom colors and to an extent, the rare red versions of the 335 and 345 from 1959 don’t play by the same rules. A blonde 355 is about as rare as it gets.

But there a fly in the ointment of this logic and that is the mono ES-355. It is the same guitar as a 335 with the fancy bindings, inlays and gold hardware. It is notable that nearly all 355’s came with a vibrato (or tremolo if you prefer) tailpiece; Bigsby, sideways or Maestro. OK, let’s figure the vibrato into the mix and compare a mono 355 to a Bigsby 335. A 59 mono 355 is perhaps a $22,000 guitar today. A 59 Bigsby 335 is around $30,000. Big difference. So, it makes sense that the simplicity element is a factor. But let’s throw another curveball, shall we? There are a very small number of stop tail 355 monos. All were special orders and my latest count is that there are perhaps 8 of them from 58-64 and another 8 stereo stop tails. Maybe more, probably not less. SO, whaddya think…is a mono 59 stop tail 355 worth more than a sunburst 59 stop tail 335? There are hundreds of stop tail 59 335’s and maybe four or five stop tail 59 mono 355’s. Start the final Jeopardy theme music here.

OK, times up. The 355 is worth more than the 335. For once, rarity wins. A 59 335 is one of top collectible vintage guitars-certainly in the top five of everyone’s list. Expect to pay around $40K for a no issue one. But a mono stop tail 59 ES-355 will cost you another $8-$10,000. I know-I’ve sold three of them. But the stop tail mono 59 ES-355 is a special case. The ES market is still upside down and will likely stay that way. The good news is that you can simply convert your 345 or stereo 355 to mono and save yourself tens of thousands of dollars. A stop tail 59 345 will cost you $20K maybe a little more for an early “first rack”. A 59 335 will cost you $40K. For the record, my main player (at the moment) is a 59 ES-345 converted to mono.

A couple of super rare stop tail 355’s. One mono. One stereo.

 

The Space Between the Notes

October 6th, 2018 • Uncategorized7 Comments »

D’Angelico Style A from the 30’s. Not just a great looker but a wonderful player. I didn’t want to put it down. It wasn’t particularly loud but for some reason every note took on a life of its own. It was quite an eye (and ear) opener.

I’ve been playing more acoustics lately and one of the characteristics of a good acoustic has become clear to me as I play more and more really good ones. Some guitars have what I can only describe as more separation between the notes. Even when playing chords, it is apparent that some guitars are better than others at keeping the notes coming out of the guitar distinct and separate. I use the term “articulate” to describe this. With an electric guitar (plugged in) it can also be a factor but many electric players, especially those who like some dirt in their tone, want just the opposite. Part of the beauty of distortion is the fact that it fills the space between the notes making you sound perhaps a little more proficient than you actually are. I know that when I was playing gigs as a teenager, I relied heavily on the ol’ Fuzztone to make my solos sound a bit more coherent. I also learned that practicing  said solos playing clean made me a better player. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Most electric guitars are not terribly articulate when plugged in. It may have more to do with your ears and your amp than the guitar. Some amps seems to enhance note separation and some do the opposite. The 5F6-A tweed Bassman is famous for bringing out the individual notes from any guitar and is, because of this, considered an amp that forces you to be a better player. It is not forgiving until you get really loud. For an electric, a 335 is a fairly articulate guitar. Unplugged it always seemed pretty good to me until this week when I played a guitar that was in another league entirely when its comes to note separation. It was a 1936 D’Angelico Style A. I’ve seen plenty of D’Angelico’s but I had never played one for more than a strum or two. My good friend, Bob, traded his 68 Johnny Smith for this particular guitar and brought it to me to go through it.

I don’t generally fall in love with a guitar. I don’t actually own any keepers. Anything I play, I have for sale in my shop. It’s a simple rule that keeps me from having 150 guitars in my rather small house. But this one could have broken the rule. What was so interesting and compelling was, of course, the great separation between the notes. While arch tops are not generally considered a finger pickers guitar, that’s how I usually play an acoustic and that’s how I played the D’Angelico. I do a lot of hammer on and pull off technique and a lot of grace notes when I play acoustic. Some of it always seems to get lost. My test song when I pick up an acoustic is usually “Anji” and it’s a great test of a guitars articulation. I’m not a particularly good player but somehow, I sounded really good on this guitar. The song is loaded with hammer ons and pull offs and every note just jumped out of the guitar. The double stops were clean and clear and the chords seemed more like three or more individual voices than a chord. Pretty cool.

I’m not going to start playing a D’Angelico and get rid of my 335’s. I’m an electric player most of the time and all that wonderful articulation isn’t necessary for most of what I play. I also generally play through a tweed Bassman or Bandmaster and both of them are pretty articulate, so I get some of it whether I like it or not. It’s a factor that I never paid that much attention to before but now I get it. I need to do a little more experimentation and research before I can figure out just what factors make this happen. It’s probably like figuring out what makes a Stradivarius sound like it does. They’ve been trying to figure that out for 300 years or so.

Science Project

September 26th, 2018 • ES 3356 Comments »

Basket case EB-2. The mad scientist in me says that this can be something pretty cool. Or two somethings.

When I was in seventh grade (there were dinosaurs then), my science project was to build a solid body guitar. The science part of it was how you didn’t need a resonant body to generate musical tones; you only needed strings and a pickup. I kind of cheated in that I didn’t make the neck (I took it from a junk Teisco) and I didn’t wind the pickup (I bought a used DeArmond) but, hey, I was 12 years old. I made the body in shop class (remember shop class?-for boys only-girls took home ec). It was a slab of poplar that I shaped into a Vox Phantom (easier than cutting out a Stratocaster). The guitar worked surprisingly well and I got an “A” on the project. Fast forward 55 years and I’m still doing projects. Here’s the latest.

About 18 months ago, I bought a blonde Gibson EB-2 bass that had completely fallen apart. The top was no longer connected to the sides and the back was off as well. The neck was still glued to the center block but the center block was completely detached from the body. The easy project would have been to put the EB-2 back together and replace the missing parts. But that’s too easy. I had a better idea. I have the great advantage of having a good relationship with the best 335 builder there is. So, I asked Ken McKay if he could take the back of the EB-2 and turn it into the front of a 335. I figured we would use the sides for my project 335 and Ken would make a new back. I wanted to use the EB2 center block but Ken thought it made more sense to make a new one and to use the original block and EB-2 neck to make an EB-2. We had the top already-he would just need to make a new back and sides. Two for the price of one. Ken would have to make a new neck for the 335 which would be made to my personal specs (kind of a 64 at the first fret but a 59 at the 12th). Let me back up a little.

I am a big believer in old wood. Even old plywood. You can’t really call plywood a tone wood but the age of the wood seems to make a difference in the tone of the guitar. I’ve played a few hundred vintage 335’s and at least 50 new ones. The new ones play great and sound good too but they don’t have the ability to vibrate and project like the old ones. I’ve put PAFs in a newer guitar and I’ve loaded up a newer 335 with all vintage parts but it still lacks the liveliness that the old guitars seem to have. I think it has to do with moisture content but I’m not a wood expert, so I’m shooting from the hip here. The old ones are more resonant, they have better sustain and they seem to generate more harmonics. So, my project should sound pretty good. The wood that Ken used to make the neck and center block for the 335 was carefully chosen and properly dried. The plywood for the back was sourced from the same folks who used to supply Gibson back in the Kalamazoo days. The fingerboard is from a big old slab of Brazilian which I sourced back in the 90’s. I sent it to Ken and I think we got around 15 fingerboards out of it.

So, a little over half of the project 335 is old wood. The project EB-2 is probably around half old wood. The EB-2 is still missing some parts so it isn’t complete yet but the 335 is done. All of the parts are vintage except for the pickups which are Wizz Clones. I may drop a set of PAFs into it if I get ambitious. The guitar feels exactly right which isn’t surprising. Ken’s new 335 builds feel like the real thing so there is no reason why this one wouldn’t. But feel is one thing. Tone is quite another.

Playing the 335 unplugged tells me a lot. It is resonant and loud. You can feel the vibration in a way you can’t in a new Gibson-they simply don’t respond like that-at least not yet. Maybe in another 50 years, they will do that. Plugged in, it sounds like a vintage 335 which proves to me that modern boutique PAFs have come a very long way. Will it sound better with a good set of PAFs? Probably. But the scientific conclusion here is that there is no substitute for old wood. They’ve been “roasting” wood lately in an attempt to duplicate the resonance of old wood and, apparently, the results are pretty good. I’m pretty sure nobody is doing it with plywood however. So, I’m sticking with old wood. The next question is what is this thing worth? It sure looks authentic (except the back looks too new but we can fix that by playing it). It plays great and sounds great but it’s only around 55% vintage. So, let’s see…a blonde 59 335 is worth around $95K and 95 times .55 is, uh, carry the two and move the decimal point…$35,750. OK, I’m not going to get $35K for it but I’ll be happy to listen to offers. The EB-2 needs a bridge-the ones from 66 onward won’t fit and nobody seems to make a repro that will fit a 59.

The 335 came out great. The jury is still out on the EB-2 since I don’t have all the parts yet but they both look like real 59’s because you see the top and the tops are the real deal. The top and sides of the 335 is the back and sides of the original EB-2. The top, center block and neck of the EB-2 are still the original. Brazilian boards. Two blondes for cheap (sort of)

A Tree Falls in the Woods

September 14th, 2018 • Gibson General7 Comments »

No sign of a sticker here. If the pickup has never been out of the guitar and it’s a 61 or earlier, you can call it a PAF. If it’s a 62 or later, it’s the tree in the woods. It may have once had a PAF sticker but you can’t ask someone to pay a premium for a PAF if it doesn’t have a sticker. How do you know it isn’t a patent number with a missing sticker? They are identical. Otherwise, I could buy a 62 with patent number stickers, take them off and call them PAFs and charge more.

You all know that age old question about the tree in the woods. I think it applies to pickups in a parallel way. If a PAF has no sticker, is it a PAF? The difference between the tree and the PAF is that I know the answer. Let’s take a critical look at a PAF. A late PAF is exactly the same as an early patent number except for the sticker. We can all agree on that. So, the sticker has fallen off your 62’s pickups and you insist they are PAFs. It’s in your listing and you price the guitar accordingly. Except that you shouldn’t. If the only difference is the sticker and there is no sticker, it can’t be a PAF whether it once had the sticker or it never had a sticker. Well now that doesn’t seem fair because a 62 can certainly have PAFs and how can I possibly know whether the sticker less pickup was a PAF or a patent? I can’t-it’s the tree in the woods.  No sticker means no PAF and the reason for that is very simple. If I can price my stickerless PAF as a PAF, the I can simply remove the stickers from all my early patent number pickups and make the same claim. From where I sit, any unstickered pickup from 62 on is a patent number or at least priced like one. You can speculate all you want but no sticker, no premium.

OK, supposing my guitar is a 61 and the stickers are gone? If the pickups have never been out of the guitar, you can assume with relative certainty that those no sticker pickups are PAFs but the way I see it, you still don’t get the entire premium for the sticker. The sticker itself, while it has no effect whatever on the tone of the pickup still has intrinsic value simply because it is your verification that it is what the sticker says it is. Of course there are fake stickers but none of them are perfect-at least not yet. Truthfully, I think none of us should care whether a pickup is a late PAF or an early patent because they are the same. But we do care. Just like we care about white and zebra bobbins and will pay stupid money for them even though they sound the same as a double black.

Granted this sticker thing is a really small point but every time I see a 62 or 63 for sale with stickerless “PAFS”, my blood pressure goes up. It’s all I can do to not write a nasty little note to the seller asking how he (or she) can possibly know. OK, I actually have done that. The answers? “I just know…” “It’s a 62 and all 62’s have PAFs” (they don’t). How about “it had stickers when I got it and they fell off…” “the guy I bought to from said they were PAFs…”or my favorite “wait until you hear them-you’ll know they can’t be anything else…”

I’m not the PAF police and you can list your guitar any way you like. It’s up to the buyer to call BS when necessary. My concern is that not every buyer has the necessary knowledge to make an informed decision about a vintage 335, 345 or 355. That’s why I write this stuff. I can’t tell you how many times someone wants to trade their vintage 335 to me for something else or another one and I have the unfortunate task of telling them they were sold something other than what they thought they were getting. And it isn’t just stickerless PAFs. It’s 68’s that are sold as 65’s. It’s undisclosed changed parts. It’s repro bridges, tailpieces, switch tips, knobs and any other part that can be reproduced convincingly. It’s undisclosed overspray and repairs. It’s sometimes deception and sometimes just ignorance. it doesn’t matter why, it only matters that it happens.

I get dozens of emails asking me to look over the 335 you’re about to buy from somebody other than me. I always answer, I always tell you what I see and I never try to sell you one of mine unless there is something drastically wrong with the one you are looking at and I have a similar guitar in stock. My goal is for you to get the guitar you want and to make sure the guitar you want is the guitar you think you’re getting. That’s a free service I’m happy to provide. So, a PAF sticker falls off a pickup out in the woods…

 

 

Last of the Really Good Ones

August 29th, 2018 • ES 33517 Comments »

68 saw the introduction of the less than wildly popular walnut finish. Just ‘cuz George played a brown guitar doesn’t make it a good marketing tool.

We covered 66 and 67, so let’s look at 68. Why am I calling 68 the last of the good ones? Weren’t 69’s pre Norlin and pretty much the same as a 68? Yes, the earliest ones are but most of them aren’t, so the last good full year for the 335 is 1968. There were a lot of changes in 69 and none of them were good. But 68 saw some changes as well and some weirdness too.

I’m really not sure why Gibson didn’t leave well enough alone sometimes. They must never had heard the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, axiom. Interestingly, some of the changes in 68 were improvements-most, however, were not. The cutaways got more rounded again-not exactly Mickey Mouse ears but still, a good step towards that. There were some other, less obvious changes as well. The f-holes got bigger and they look a little strange to my eye. They also used two different logos over the course of the year. The usual logo-same a 67 and the one they call a “pantograph” logo which has a more streamlined look and is actually pretty rare but you do see them on occasion. 68 saw the addition of the “boob” logo (I have to stop calling it that-someone is going to complain, I just know it) to the guard. Also, a pretty rare sight but always, it seems, on a 68.

A new color was introduced called “walnut”. I’m guessing they were responding to the massive sales of the walnut colored Gretsch Country Gentleman but apparently didn’t realize that the reason Gretsch sold so many wasn’t because it was brown but because George played one. I don’t know exactly how well the walnut 335’s sold but I can tell you this: You can’t give ’em away now. It is, by some margin, the hardest 335 to sell. Perfectly good guitar but I don’t want them and, unless you plan to keep it forever, you don’t want them. There was also “sparkling burgundy” which was Gibson’s version of candy apple red. It didn’t look bad when it was new but it fades to a pretty awful pinkish copper color. 68 was big year for it though.

Some things were transitioned in. Surprisingly, a lot of 68’s still have pre T-tops. Everybody thinks t-tops were the norm from 65 on but they absolutely were not. You can still find pre T’s as late as 69 but not very often. But a 68 with pre t-tops is pretty typical. Of course, all the nickel parts were gone by 68. You might find a nickel pickguard bracket on a 68 but most were chrome. The tuners didn’t change-still Kluson double line double ring but the “Gibson Deluxe” version seems to have started showing up in late 68 or maybe early 69. It was virtually the same tuner with a different name, so it isn’t a big deal either way. The knobs, guard and truss cover were the same as 67.

I do have to point out a pet peeve of mine when it comes to 68’s. The guitarhq website which is incredibly detailed and informative (and I learned a whole lot from) still says that Gibson went back to the 1 11/16″ nut in 68. They increased the profile to a chunkier depth but the nut width, alas, stayed at 1 9/16″. I still get emails from readers who insist they want a 68 because of the nut width and I have to explain that they will be looking for a wide nut 68 for a very long time because there simply aren’t any. OK, you can buy a 68 Johnny Smith and it will have a wide nut but not a 335, 345 or 355.

At the end of the day, a 68 is a really well made, excellent sounding guitar. Yes, Gibson was still cranking them out much faster than in earlier years but the build quality was still good and the tone was as well. Pre T tops and t-tops are very decent sounding pickups. You might find them a little bright and a little thin compared to a PAF or early patent but they really can be good (and consistent). The hardest thing for me to deal with is the narrow nut and, to be honest, that’s the only reason I don’t buy them. I do take them in trade as long as they aren’t walnut.

I should stop calling this the “boob” logo and come up with another name although that’s what it looks like, so excuuuuse me. This is a 335 -12 string which was still a pretty popular seller in 68.

 

Rare and then Some

August 20th, 2018 • ES 3553 Comments »

This ledger page from April of 59 shows two special order 355’s-A29538 (which I owned) and A29540 which hasn’t surfaced as far as I know.

The ES-355 is an interesting bit of old school marketing. Unlike the auto industry, the guitar business didn’t offer a lot of options to jack up the sticker price. In Gibson’s case, they offered a range of models which added features and jacked up the price. The ES line had a lot of models but the 335, 345 and 355 were really a line of their own. They were, essentially, the same guitar with high priced, mostly cosmetic upgrades. And the price increase was heart stopping. The sticker price of a 59 ES-335 was $335 including a hard case. An ES-345 was $415 and added gold hardware, stereo/Varitone circuitry and some fancier appointments like parallelogram inlays and multiply binding on the front. That’s not just an $80 increase which seems insignificant. That’s a 25% increase. But wait. There’s more. The ES-355 added a Bigsby as standard, a fancy inlaid headstock, ebony fingerboard, real mother of pearl block inlays, Grover tuners. It was available in mono or stereo. The stereo version was a whopping $645. That’s a 95% increase over a 335. Talk about sticker shock. Want a stop tail 355? Well, you’ll have to wait because it isn’t an option. It’s a special order.

This is the stereo 355 stop tail I just got. Nice watermelon fade and some pretty unusual features. Read on.

So, I just bought an early 59 stereo ES-355 stop tail. The ES-355 is a pretty rare guitar to begin with given the price (and the relative value). In 1959, Gibson sold 592 335’s, 478 ES-345’s and just 300 ES-355’s. No surprises there. But how many of those 355’s were ordered with a stop tail? It’s hard to know for sure but I know of four from 59, four from 60 and one from 63. I’m sure there are others but I think around a dozen known is probably accurate. Of the 6 that I’ve owned, only two have had the big 59 neck including the one I now have. Four have been mono. But this one is different than all the others. Those of you who read this page know about the desirable “first rack” 345’s. It always seemed odd to me that these very early 345’s unique features (short leg PAF, shallow rout for the choke and sometimes wax potting) never showed up in the early stereo 355’s. I’ve had at least 7 or 8 early stereo 355’s and all had the fully cut center block. Most of the monos had it as well although some had the solid center block. I believe that the first stereo ES’s were 345’s the earliest pre-date the first racks and may have been prototypes but there are 3 or 4 of those. They date from February and have 58 FONs so it would make sense that the earliest 355’s would have the same features. This stop tail is the very first one I’ve seen like this.

The FON of the first 345’s from February is T7303. The earliest of the “first rack” 345’s is S8537-months later. The FON of the earliest 355 stereo in my database is S7624 which is one of the earliest in 1959. I just went through my archives and found another 355 with a short leg PAF but not the shallow rout. That was from the next rack S7625. The others (5 of them) from S7624 that I’ve had were all monos. So this might be the only rack with 355’s with these features. I think I can assume there are others like this, a rack is 35 guitars and I only have 6 from this rack and this is the only stereo and one of two stop tails in the rack. I can assume there are more stereos like this but probably not another stop tail stereo. That likely makes this one a unique example. Geeky stuff for sure. Geeky is what I do.

So why spend a whole bunch of extra money for a stop tail 355 when you can buy a stop tail 59 345 for much less? Because red stop tail 59 345’s are just as rare. You can get a red 60 345 for reasonable money but the neck will be slim. How about a red 335 from 59? Red stop tail 59 335’s are crazy rare-I think there are three. Red stop tail 59 345’s are stupid rare (3 or 4) and red stop tail 355’s are rare and then some (4). It’s a pretty exclusive club-only 11 members, although I know one collector with at least one of each. Maybe sunburst doesn’t look so bad after all.

This is the usual stereo bridge pickup rout. The choke is in the space between the pickups not under the bridge pickup like it is in a first rack. Note the size of the rout.

Like a first rack 345, this 355 has the choke right under the pickup which requires the short leg PAF for clearance on the right side. This one is wax potted which is a feature of some, but not all, first racks.

 

1967. More changes. More Guitars

August 13th, 2018 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 3552 Comments »

Most 67’s look pretty much like a 66 except for the knobs and the pickguard. This is a 335 12 string in the very unpopular sparkling burgundy. But some have different ears. See below

The great guitar boom started slowly in 64 but, arguably, peaked in 67. You can thank the British Invasion (and all that followed) for that. By 67, it seemed that most teenage boys wanted to be a guitar player (me included, I was 15 in 67). That meant a lot of guitar sales. And 335’s were only the tip of the iceberg as they were generally too expensive for teenaged players. 335/345/355’s went from sales of around 2000 in 1964 to 3300 in 1966 to 8300 in 1967. But when you add in the number of Melody Makers, SG’s, Firebirds and acoustics (folk rock was huge by then), keeping up with the demand must have been more than daunting for the folks at Gibson. I don’t have accurate totals for all of the models but if 335’s are any indication, the increases were massive. Gibson probably added workers and shifts but they also had to work faster and more efficiently and that usually means a few things…like diminished quality, higher prices and changes.

The good news is that the quality, while perhaps diminished somewhat is still very good. I don’t see nearly as many 67’s as I do early 335’s but those I have seen show overall good work. The glue is a little sloppier on the inside, the fit and finish can be inconsistent but the guitars still play well and sound good. I can’t speak for the lower line models like the Melody Maker because I rarely see them. I can tell you the high end stuff (L-5 CES, Johnny Smith et al) was still built to a very high standard judging from the few I’ve played. So, what changed in 67 on the 335?

The nut width was still the very slim 1 9/16″ but the depth seems to have increased again after having gotten extremely thin in 66. Most 67’s I’ve played are pretty deep at the first fret and show a fair amount of increase to the 12th. More like a 64 with a narrow nut. While the conventional wisdom says 67’s had t-top pickups, I find that to be misleading. There are certainly 67’s with t-tops but most of the ones I’ve inspected have pre T top patents with the poly coated windings. Fingerboards were all Indian rosewood by 67 although I’m sure a few pieces of Brazilian are out there. The knobs went from reflectors to “witch hats” in late 66 and the pickguard bevel went from wide to narrow at around the same time. The hardware was chrome by 67 except for the occasional pickguard bracket (they must have had a lot of nickel ones on hand). The tuners never went to chrome. The cutaway shape was changed a bit as well and I have a theory about that. Some of the 67’s look exactly like a 64-66…pointy ears as you would expect. But some of them (especially Trinis) have these short stubby ears some call “fox ears”. I’ll wager a guess that they needed additional forms to keep up with the demand and made some new ones at some point in 67. It’s subtle but not that subtle. It’s interesting that the shape would change again in 68. The important point here is that most of the changes were cosmetic and perhaps reflected decreased costs-Indian rosewood was cheaper and the narrow bevel guard probably saved some pennies.

How does a 67 sound in relation to, say, a 64? Not so far off,  in my opinion. The poly wound pre T tops can be a little bright compared to the enamel coat wound 64 patents. The trapeze tailpiece can affect sustain a bit (but not as much as you think). They are also very consistent probably because the winders (so I’m told) had a stop function when they hit 5000 turns or so. That doesn’t eliminate all variation but it would eliminate some of it. In 64 and earlier, the workers doing the winding just filled the bobbins by eye. You can argue with me that a Brazilian board sounds better than an Indian board but I’ll tell you that you are delusional. A Brazilian might look better but I’m not buying the tone argument.

If I put a 67 up against a brand new high end Memphis built 335, I’ll still take the 67 for tone. Call it old wood, call it mojo or call it snobbery. The new one will probably be a little easier to play with the wider nut and maybe look a little better in the fit and finish but I think the 67 is going to smoke it when it comes to your ears. Finally, a 67 can be had for as little as $3500 if you’re lucky. I see them priced as high as $8000 or even a little more but I think the sellers are dreaming as they so often do. Check the neck for twists or back bow before you buy. 67’s are no more likely to have neck problems than any other year but it’s something you should check on any guitar new or vintage.

OK, its a Trini but lots of 335’s have the same shape “ears”. Compare these to the 67 at the top of this post. These are shorter, pointier and at a wider angle from the neck. Some call them “fox” ears. These are only found in 67-maybe very late 66 and very early 68 but, for the most part, it’s a 67 thing.

 

 

Mid Sixties. Good Guitars. Small Necks.

July 30th, 2018 • ES 335, ES 345, ES 35516 Comments »

If you can live with the narrow nut and the trap tailpiece, a 66 is a pretty good choice. Vintage pedigree without the sticker shock.

I must come off as a little bit of a vintage snob. I pay a lot of attention to the ES line from 58 to 65 but I pretty much ignore the rest of the sixties and that really isn’t fair. Most vintage aficionados draw a line somewhere and I drew mine at the moment they switched from wide nuts to narrow nuts (insert joke here). The guitar boom that occurred during the mid 60’s caused some major changes in the guitar industry. In 1959, they sold around 1500 guitars from the ES thin line series. That would include 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. By 1967, that number was closer to 10,000. That huge increase must have caused all kinds of headaches with the corporate suits. You can thank John, Paul, George and Ringo for a lot of that. I was 11 when I first heard The Beatles and I wanted to be a rock star (along with a zillion other kids my age). I couldn’t afford a 335 but that didn’t stop me. I never got there but had a lot of fun trying for about ten years. So, let’s take a look at the mid 60’s in the next few posts and see where the changes occurred and why these years don’t command the big bucks and maybe why they should. And we’ll blow away a myth or two along the way.

I’ve owned a bunch of 66’s, so that’s the year we’ll start with. If I had to point out the shortcomings of 66’s, it would be a pretty short list. Narrow nut. End of list. The nut went from 1 11/16″ in early 65 to 1 5/8″ to 1 9/16″ by the early Summer of 65. That’s pretty narrow even for a guy with small hands like me. I find that I’m clumsy and get in my own way on the limited real estate of the lower frets. I simply can’t play them very well. But beyond that, 66’s are not all that different from the well regarded 64’s. They went to the trapeze but (myth buster #1) I don’t find that it makes all that much difference in tone and sustain. You’d think it would but I’ve played lots of 66’s with great sustain and tone. Well, what about the pickups? You can’t really compare a t-top to a PAF can you? Here’s myth buster #2-they didn’t use t-tops in 66-at least not in any of the 66’s I’ve had or inspected. The pickups are pre t-tops which are, essentially, PAFs with poly coated windings. They are different than PAFs and early patents but they are very good pickups. I find them a little brighter and a little more tame than a PAF but still a really good sounding pickup. However, if you’re buying a 345 or 355, you still have a shot at a set of early patents which are the same as a late PAF. Early patents are not common on gold hardware guitars by 66 but they are out there.

The quality of mid 60’s ES models suffered during the mid 60’s almost certainly because of the wildly increased sales volume. I’m sure the pressure to crank out more guitars in less time was intense and when that happens, quality is the loser. But 66’s are generally good as far as fit and finish are concerned. To me, a 66 is very close to a “Golden Era” 335 for less than half the price. I had a 66 ES-345 a few years ago that I would put up against any year except maybe an early 59. It was a monster guitar. The 66 still has a lot of the same components of the earlier ones. The nickel had changed to chrome on 335’s by late 65 but the 66 was the last year for the wide bevel guard, the reflector knobs and Brazilian rosewood fingerboards. I think that if Gibson had kept the wider nut and the beefier neck (66’s are pretty thin front to back-like a 61), the prices would be a lot higher. Just look at early 65’s. A big neck 65 is pretty close to a 66 except for the neck profile. And yet, the price of the 65 is 50% more on average. So, I consider the 66’s a bargain. You can pick up a ’66 345 for about the same price as a new high end 335. You can always take off the trapeze and do a stop tail conversion. I find that if its done right, it doesn’t diminish the value significantly, if at all. There are always buyers for stop tails (done right by somebody else). And, much as I like some of the newer 335’s, I’d still rather have a 66 even with that narrow nut.

This 66 345 was pretty unusual. Full Mickey Mouse ears and early patents made it look and sound like an earlier one. Keep your eyes open, there are some excellent mid 60’s guitars out there for less than you might pay for a new one.

Honey, I Shrunk the 335

July 22nd, 2018 • Gibson General3 Comments »

The Gibson CS-356. Nice guitar and not just a shrunken 335. It was something new when it debuted. Or was it?

To me, a new 335 is one made after 1985. It’s hard enough to learn everything there is to know about 58-69’s and most of what there is to know about 1970-1985’s but after that, I’m a little fuzzy. My knowledge comes from observation and I simply don’t see very many more recent 335’s and the rest of the ES line. When I take in a consignment from the past 30 odd years, I go through it the same as I go through a 59. An ES guitar came in this week that I’ve never had in my hands before. It’s sort of like a 355 at first glance but on closer inspection, it’s not like a 355 at all. It’s a CS-356 from 2002.

The first thing you will notice is that its smaller. A lot smaller. One of the complaints I hear about 335’s is that they are too big. I don’t feel that way but, similarly,  a lot of Les Paul players don’t complain that they are too heavy (which they are). You like what you like. But is it a really a downsized 355 or something else entirely? It’s the latter. A 356 (and a 336) is more like a Rickenbacker than it is a 335 in the way that its built. You want a downsized 335? That would be the ES-339 which shares its construction with the 3335. But that didn’t come out until 2007, eleven years after the 336 debuted.

A 335 and its close brethren are, essentially, thin bodied arch tops with a block glued in the middle. End of story. Take out the block and it’s a 330, more or less-the neck set is different as a re the pickups. But the diminutive 356, 336 and 339 are a totally different species. Why compare it to a Rickenbacker? Because the construction is nearly the same and Rickenbacker has been using the design for a lot longer than Gibson. It dates to the late 50’s. Here’s how it’s done. Take a big old slab of wood that would be perfectly appropriate to use to make a solid body but instead of routing away only enough wood to accommodate the pickups, control cavity and the neck join, rout away all the wood that isn’t necessary to accommodate these things. Rickenbacker routs the top and glues on the back. Gibson did the opposite routing the back and gluing the top. Fender’s thin line Telecaster was similarly constructed and designed by the same guy as the Ricky (Roger Rossmeisl)

This is the top of a Rickenbacker seen from the back. The excess wood was carved away and the flat back was glued on. Not quite the same as the 356 but similar.

 

The larger point is that the 336 and 356 don’t sound any more like a 335 than a Les Paul does. In fact, it seems to lie somewhere between these two icons of electric guitardom. And it’s a perfectly nice guitar and it sounds quite good. It’s closer to a solid body in tone and feel to me and it isn’t particularly lightweight, so I would conclude that the only really new thing about it is that it gets you the 335 aesthetic while delivering solid body tone. So, I would further conclude that it’s an invention that nobody was clamoring for because it neither delivers a lighter weight Les Paul (the chambered version does that) nor does it deliver a smaller bodied 335 (the 339 does that). Gibson, after all, is the company that gives you the innovations you didn’t know you wanted or needed. Like robot tuners. And reverse flying vees.

All that said, it’s a pretty nice guitar. I’ve always liked the Rickenbacker 360 from a design standpoint. There is no way you will confuse it with anything else. The rounded top edge and the squared back edge is unique and clever in its way. I remember thinking “how did they do that?” when I first encountered one back in the mid 60’s, thinking it was a conventional semi hollow. The 336 and 356 don’t have a distinctive look. They don’t have a particularly distinctive tone but that probably isn’t the point. It’s a good design. It has good tone. But Gibson already had all that in the LP and 335. I don’t know how successful the line has been but given the missteps of the nice folks who run Gibson, I’m not surprised they went back to the future to make yet another guitar you never knew you had to have. And here’s an afterthought, isn’t the Johnny A (debuted in 2003) basically the same guitar as the 336/356 with a slightly different shape? Correct me if I’m wrong.

This isn’t an actual 336/356 but it’s pretty much the same concept. I couldn’t find a photo of the real thing. Just add a neck, some electronics and a pretty top and your done.