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Year Ender 2019, Part 2

January 19th, 2020 • ES 345, ES 3551 Comment »

The 59 ES-355 mono was the big winner in 2019. They were under $20K in 2018 and have jumped to the mid $20’s or even higher if equipped with double white PAFs (and lots of them are). Want a bargain? Buy a 60. It’s the same guitar. Most 59’s have a transitional neck, not the big one. If you find one with a stop tail, sell it to me, please.

So, 2019 was, in general, another pretty good year for some 335’s and a great year for others but what about the rest of the line? 2018 wasn’t so great for 345’s unless it had the number 1959 in front of it. 2019 was pretty much the same. If you are looking for a 59 ES-345 sunburst (reds are rare in 59) or a 59 ES-355 mono, you paid more in 2019 than you did in 2018. I expect that trend to continue into 2020. We can dig a little deeper into the 59 cachet in another post. Truth be told, I don’t know why a collector grade 59 335 sells for around $45,000 and a collector grade 59 345 sells for around half that. 355’s follow the same rules, although the mono version commands a bit more and that’s where we’ll begin.

The mono 355 market was really strong in 2019 and I believe will continue to be that way. One factor that keeps 355’s mono well below the same year 335 is the Bigsby, so keeping apples to apples, we’ll look at the mono 355 compared to a Bigsby 335. A collector grade Bigsby 59 335 will cost you around $32,000. The same year 355 mono will be in the mid $20’s. If you’re OK with a Bigsby, that’s a bargain. A year ago, mono 59’s were still under $20K, so that’s a pretty good uptick. Stop tail 355’s are so rare, they live in a world of their own. But anything from 59 seems to live in that rarefied place. Mono 355’s from 60 to 64 also were strong in 2019 although I sold very few of them. I think folks who use a Bigsby are getting the message that a mono 355 is a great alternative to the much higher priced 335’s.

The market for 60-64 345’s and stereo 355’s was not strong in 2019 and it surprised me. It was so weak in 2018 that I thought it had to come up in 2019. It didn’t. Asking prices have outpaced sale prices by 20% or more and folks just aren’t buying. It isn’t the dealers leading the charge here, it’s the individual sellers. I know, dealers ask stupid prices too but when you make your living moving guitars, you have to move guitars. 59’s are strong. First rack 345’s are incredibly strong-I can’t keep them for even a week and with good reason. They are great guitars. But once you get to 1960, it all goes a bit south. Of course, the thin necks are a factor although most players I speak to don’t mind the smaller profiles. I sold a 61 PAF equipped stop tail 345 last year (after months on the market) for $11500. Out of the ten or so 345’s I sold last year that weren’t 59’s, all went below $15K except for a double white PAF 60 ES-355 and a double white equipped 60 345. Again, these were mostly collector grade or, at the very least, no issue or very minor issue guitars. I used to be a purist about converting stereo guitars to mono but not any more. It’s reversible and it’s your guitar. Do what you want to make it a guitar you will play. A new harness will cost you $150-$200 and the labor should be under $200. Don’t forget to flip one of the magnets-stereo Gibsons have out of phase pickups.

I think, going forward, the sellers asking stupid prices for post 59 345’s and stereo 355’s will keep the market flat and even cause it to drop. Simply asking too high a price will affect the market negatively as the inventory soars and the demand stays the same or even falls. With 62-64 block neck 335’s so high, buyers might turn to same year 345’s which could strengthen that market. As I mentioned in Part 1, block necks are pushing through the mid $20K range and 345’s are just sitting there waiting for the smart buyer to jump in at $12K-$15K. Once you’ve converted your 345 or stereo 355 to mono, you are playing the same guitar that your friend with the 335 plays. The difference is that you have an extra $10,000 in your pocket that you can spend on that big tweed Bassman you have your eye on. Or, you can buy something nice for your wife who lets you indulge your childhood fantasy of being a rock star.

A 64 ES-345 is everything a 64 335 is. Don’t like the stereo circuit or the Varitone? Take it out (and flip one off the magnets). With 64 335’s pushing $25K, a 64 345 at $10K less looks like a bargain to me. All years from 60-64, if priced correctly for the market, are a great deal if original and well cared for.

Band of Brothers

January 13th, 2020 • Uncategorized1 Comment »

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for Rush died on Tuesday at the age of 66.

Every once in a while there is an event that compels me to write about something other than guitars. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, I pick up a pen (OK, a laptop) and start pecking away. The event that motivates me is the death of Rush drummer Neil Peart. The subject is neither music nor drummers (what do I know about drummers?). It’s brothers, a subject I can call myself an expert in.

The bond between brothers is different than any other. It’s not the same as your bond with your spouse or partner but it can be no less deeply felt. It can be diluted (or intensified) if you have multiple brothers. I have 8 of them, which is what makes me an expert. With brothers, there is love, affection and respect. Brothers, however, don’t usually express their mutual love with words. They just don’t. Action speaks instead. That action can be almost anything-In my family, a nine way text on the phone, a weekend visit, even a loan or a punch in the arm. Brothers express affection in some unusual ways. But here’s the thing…the shared experience of growing up in the same house, under the same circumstances with the same parents forges an almost unbreakable (whether you like it or not) bond that endures. Until death do you part, indeed. You cannot divorce your brothers. They are yours forever and you are theirs. In the best case, they will do anything for you and you will do anything for them with no second thoughts. It’s been easy for me-we all get along and we’re all still healthy. It will break my heart to lose one.

Military guys will tell you about the brotherhood bond between members of their unit. Enduring life threatening danger will make you very close, as I understand it. I have never been in combat but I have spent time in a war zone (and I’ve been shot at) during my years in the TV news business. The bond must be similar but highly compressed-the bond that takes years for siblings to form likely forms in a fraction of the time. Losing your military brother in combat is one of the most gut wrenching stories any veteran will tell. Even without a genetic component, your brother is a part of you and to lose that can be devastating.

You spend maybe 18 years at most living with your genetic brothers. Imagine this. Three guys have worked together almost daily and in very close proximity for more than 40 years doing something that requires trust and respect for each of the others. It also requires enormous concentration, integrity and talent. Do it live on a lighted stage 200 or more times some years and you become pretty close. Bands that don’t, usually don’t endure. Stories of animosity in a rock band are abundant. The death of Neil Peart this week must feel like the loss of a brother to Alex and Geddy. Both are clients of mine and I am saddened by their loss. Making music together and doing it as well as Rush is an incredible gift far beyond the fan adulation, the money and the excitement of live performance. My meager experience as a band member from 1964 to around 1974 is nothing compared to theirs. The band changed members like most of us change their underwear. But my band that stayed together the longest forged bonds of the brotherly type. Tom, the keyboardist and Dave, the drummer and I stayed in touch over all these years. Dave and I grew up on the same street in Scotia, NY. Every time we saw each other over the years, the conversation always went to our few years as a band. That was our bonding experience. I have often referred to live performing as the scariest, most exciting thing a guy can do. Dave passed away in 2019 and I felt the loss in a way that can only give me the slightest inkling of what Geddy and Alex must be feeling today.

Neil Peart was a drummer’s drummer in a monster band. And a lyricist. Drummers don’t write lyrics, do they? Neil did and while I never saw them perform live, I so appreciate their work and talent (and, as a suburban kid, I love “Subdivisions”). I spent much of today on You Tube listening to Rush concert performances and I’m awestruck by how much wonderful noise these three guys made. I’m privileged to know Geddy and to do business with Alex. I send them my deepest condolences for the loss of their brother.

Alex, Neil and Geddy after their final show. So long, Neil. Thanks for the joyful noise.

Year Ender 2019, Part 1

January 2nd, 2020 • ES 3351 Comment »

Top Performer

Blondes went to the moon this past year as they did the year before and the year before that. With only 211 335’s and 50 345’s out there, it’s no wonder that these keep shooting up in value year after year. There are still a couple of these left if you’re looking for the best investment of all the ES guitars. Even the blonde 330’s have seen record prices with a two pickup 59 selling for nearly $20K.

Contrary to popular belief, guitar dealers actually talk to one another once in a while. And, to have heard them talk last Summer and Fall,  you would have thought the bottom had fallen out of the market. There was all kinds of moaning and complaining going on. “Nothing is selling.” “Seller are asking stupid prices.” “The are too many Strats on the market…” and so on.

That could be the opening sentence of this year’s market wrap up but I actually copied it from my 2017 post. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. There are still too many Stratocasters on the market and the dealers still complained about nothing selling over the Summer and sellers asking stupid prices. The big difference this year is the stupid prices. Last year it was dot necks trying to reach new highs with $50,000 asking prices for 59 sunbursts. This year it’s 62-64 block necks with asking prices in the high $20K’s to well over $30K. I don’t know of anyone actually getting that much for a 62-64 but the fact that the asks have gone nuts tells me the market is strong. The real world price for a collector grade 62-64 is up nicely into the mid $20K range but anything over $25K is wishful thinking, IMO. Still, that’s about 10% higher than last year and that’s a very nice rise with red PAF guitars leading the way.

If any ES-335 deserves a mention for 2019, it’s the blondes. It’s a pretty rarefied market and it’s up in a big way (again). You could buy a good stop tail blonde three years ago for $65-70,000. I sold 5 this year with prices ranging from $85K for a 60 in very good condition to $120K for a near mint 59. Even blondes with major issues (headstock repair and Bigsby holes) were strong at $30K. It’s a tough market to quantify with so few for sale and so few that have changed hands in the past year. I know of only two sales besides the 5 I sold. It’s my opinion that there is plenty of room for appreciation. They only made 211 of them and they don’t come on the market very often.

I can’t do a year ender without a look at sunburst dot necks. Last year, the market was tested by a lot of sellers and the market spoke and said “slow down”. As with block necks this year, you can ask any price you want but asking prices don’t mean anything. Selling price is the only thing that counts. Dot necks from late 58 and 59 have been strong over the past few years and continue that trend. The interesting development this year is the strength of the early 60 dots-those with the late 59 features. Unless you absolutely must have a 59, an early 60 is the same guitar and will often cost you 20% less. While the preference for big neck 59’s is still dominant, the more manageable “transitional” neck has become very popular and has driven up early 60 335’s over the past year. Expect to pay around $40K for a clean 59 with no issues and a few thousand more for a near mint one. You can still find clean stop tail 60’s for around $30K but don’t snooze. The early ones are going up. The wild card is the unbound 58. Big collectors have to have one to complete the set but players are often scared off by the shallow neck angle. Don’t be. They are wonderful guitars when set up correctly. Finally, the laggard is the 61. The thin neck profile is the issue. 61’s can be unstable, so check the neck for truss rod cracks and distortion. A good 61 is as good as any 335. A bad one is trouble. A good one should cost you around $25K. Note that a late 60 (around A34000 or later) generally has the same neck profile as a 61 and the 61 will cost you a fair bit less. The 60 gets you the long guard and sometimes long magnet PAFs whereas a 61 will almost always have a short guard and short magnet PAFs. Nothing wrong with either of those features. Just make sure the neck is straight and has no hairline crack down the middle.

OK, I’m running long but I do want to mention one other interesting trend. Red dot necks. Red 59’s are too rare to even discuss (there are 6 of them known). Red 60’s are almost in that category with only 21 built. A clean red 60 is approaching $50K (I sold two last year). A red 61 is half that. The reason is simple. Red 61’s are pretty common with over 400 built. So, why spend big bucks on a 60? Yes, the long guard is nice but not $25K nice. It’s the finish. Most red 60 335’s will have the faded watermelon finish. It’s rare, it’s beautiful and you can’t fake it. There aren’t many out there but if you are looking for one let me know and I’ll find it for you.

Block necks, especially red ones with PAFs were stronger this year than they have been in the past. There was considerable resistance at around $20K but that’s in the rearview now. Asking prices have gone nuts and selling prices aren’t too far behind. $25K is still a lot for all but the mint ones but until this year, $25K was in the fat chance category. Sunburst blocks are up as well but they take a bit of a back seat to the red ones.

Stradivari v Les Paul

December 28th, 2019 • Gibson General, Uncategorized7 Comments »

This is the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius. Built in 1727 and formerly owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, it sold at auction for just under $16 million. Nice fiddle but out of my price range.

This post is meant to get you thinking, not to educate you as to the astonishing value of an iconic musical instrument. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to assess how much any violin is worth but I have done some research into what makes violins made by Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and a few others worth as much as $20 million. Can you compare a 300 year old handmade violin to what is essentially a mass produced guitar? I think you can and the conclusions might surprise (or at least entertain) you.

There have been a fair number of blind comparison tests between these iconic violins and the violins of the best of contemporary builders. The results are mixed but, not infrequently, the modern violins come out on top, even when judged by the worlds top players. So, the idea that a Stradivarius or Guarneri is simply the best sounding violin ever made is put to rest. Fast forward 259 years or so. Is the Les Paul standard the best sounding guitar ever made? It could be but the value can’t be due to that factor because a 58 gold top can be had for less than half the cost of a sunburst 58. I’m pretty sure you won’t argue that a sunburst and a gold top will sound any different. So, what other factors can we look at?

Well, if a 58 gold top is a $125,000 guitar and a 58 sunburst is a $250,000 guitar (I’m using averages here), and the only difference is the top, then can we conclude that the top is the reason a sunburst is worth so much more? Possibly but the we have to consider the huge differences between tops on Les Pauls. Clearly, the figuring is a huge factor. The fancier the top, the more valuable they are. Originality is also a big factor. I currently have two mostly original Les Pauls in my shop with beautiful tops. The refinish probably takes $100,000 off the value of each. One is renecked as well. Knock off another, what, $50K? So, the top alone can’t be the biggest factor. It is worth noting that nobody really cares about what the top of a Stradivari built violin looks like. They also don’t care nearly as much about originality.

Nearly every 300 year old violin has been re-necked. The necks made before around 1715 are rather different than modern necks and few players play the “baroque” neck. Stradivari was the builder who modernized the baroque violin by making the neck angle steeper and made structural changes that made the violin louder and more aggressive. Beyond the change in neck design, it is common to re-neck a concert violin periodically. Many multimillion dollar violins have been refinished and repaired as well. While there has been a lot of speculation about the varnish used on these violins, it has been generally accepted that the original varnish is not the the main factor in their tone. It is, by many accounts, the wood harvested during what is called the “Little Ice Age” lasting from 1300 to 1870 that makes these violins so special. That makes sense but tens of thousands of other violins were made during that period and, I’m sure, many others from the wood grown during that period and they aren’t worth many millions of dollars.

So, when you are out to buy a multimillion dollar Italian violin from the 1700’s, you don’t have to worry so much about re-necks, refinishes or repairs. You do worry about provenance, authenticity (there are thousands of copies) and tone. When you are about to buy a six figure electric guitar from 1958-1960, you look for great tone but it simply isn’t the main factor. I’ve heard equally great tone from more than one 1959 ES 345 which is a $20,000 guitar. What so many focus on is the appearance, mainly the figured top. Next, you pay attention to the finish-it must be original. With the violin, the finish is likely to have been redone or at least repaired. With the LP, you make sure the neck is original. With the violin, it is almost a certainty that it is not. Clearly, they are judged by only one common factor but do I therefore conclude that tone rules in both cases? Nope. It’s a big factor but while a refinish knocks $100K (40-50%) off the value of a Les Paul, a good but not great sounding all original Les Paul might be priced less than a great one. But, if the top of the just OK sounding Les Paul is heavily figured, and the one with the superior tone is plain, the ok sounding one will cost you more.

The violin’s provenance is a big factor in determining whether the tone is good. If it has been played on the concert stage by a big name player, you can be reasonably assured that it is a great sounding violin. The same can certainly be true of that Les Paul you have your eye on. In fact, if a big name player has previously owned your burst, you can bet the price will go up by a lot. But, and it’s a big but, most of the 1500 or so Les Pauls built weren’t played or owned by anybody famous and yet they will still set you back six figures worth of your hard earned money.

This is a lot to process. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. There are so many logical reasons for these instruments NOT to be priced this high. Rarity (they aren’t all that rare), tone (I’ve played plenty of non Les Pauls that sound as good as any Les Paul), provenance (most weren’t played by anybody famous) and appearance (lots of R9’s look as good as any 58-60 burst). I’ve never bought a burst but I’ve spent six figures on more than a few guitars and I can safely conclude that there is one big factor that will keep bursts selling at high prices for years to come. Bragging rights. Guys love bragging rights. Just ask any Ferrari driver. Or Stradivarius player.

What’s this one worth? This is Pearly gates, one of the most famous bursts out there. A million bucks? With the sale of the Gilmour Strat at close to $4M, I would guess that some billionaire would spend that much and more. Does that make provenance the most important factor? Maybe but it’s got a nice top too, so maybe add on an extra million.

TTNBC (at OK Guitars)

December 18th, 2019 • Uncategorized4 Comments »
OK Guitars (not at Christmas) but this is the place where it all happened

Eventually, re-running the same Christmas post year after year no longer looks like utter sloth and starts looking like a quaint tradition. My wife and I wrote this on vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in 2015 and, while it was a crappy vacation (except for the food), we did manage to knock this Christmas poem out. It would be cool to say we knocked off a bottle of tequila, too while we wrote it but that didn’t happen. I may have had a Dos Equis and she might have had a glass of Pinot Grigio but that’s not much of a story. So, for the fourth time (first time if you’re new to the site this year) here is “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas at OK Guitars”

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the pad

I was playing my Gibson- not great, but not bad.

I remembered a blues lick and played it with flair

Just like in the days when I had all my hair.

The block necks were hung not too tight or too loose,

As I waited for Santa inside my caboose.

I had them all tuned and I played every one.

The truss rods were perfect, the strings tightly strung.

All of a sudden on the roof of my shop,

I spied an old fat dude just reeking of pot.

He fell off the roof and into the snow.

I asked him right in. Why he came, I don’t know.

There was ice in his beard and mud on his boot,

And I thought only rock stars could wear such a suit.

He took down a red one, just like Eric C.

His fingers flew faster than old Alvin Lee.

It was wailing and screaming all over the town.

I could hear my Dad yelling, “Turn that damn thing down!”

Who knew this weird guy, such a flash with a pick

And a love of guitars, would be old Saint Nick?

I couldn’t believe all the sounds in my ear.

He said, “You get good working one day a year.”

Now Jimi, Now BB, Now John, George and Paul

Would bow to this master, the best of them all.

“You remember that Christmas back in ’63?

When you found a new six string left under your tree?

You started to doubt that I was the truth,

But my gift to you then was a link to your youth.

So for all of the years that would come in between,

Way deep down inside, you’d still feel like sixteen.”

He picked up some cases by Lifton and Stone,

Some old Kluson tuners and a worn out Fuzztone.

“Now, Charlie Gelber you must hear my pitch,

‘Cause this is my time and payback’s a bitch.

The 335 please, the red 59.

I gave you your first one, now this ax is mine”.

And quick as a flash it was stuffed in his sack,

And he waved a goodbye as he snuck out the back.

He jumped in his sled and sparked up a j,

Flew into the sky and was off on his way.

So if feeling sixteen is what sets you right,

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

By Charlie and Victoria Gelber

With apologies to Clement Clark Moore

Sweet Spot

December 2nd, 2019 • Uncategorized7 Comments »

Right in the sweet spot for great tone (and cool pickups). A30183 has a thin top, reverse zebras, killer tone. Reverse zebras are crazy rare. I’ve seen 5 of them in twenty years.

I’ve been collecting a database of ES serial numbers and factory order numbers for a few years now, hoping for some new insight to leap out at me. Data is great stuff but without interpretation, it’s just a bunch of numbers. The database covers only 1958 up until early 1961 when they discontinued the use of factory order numbers (inked into the wood inside the treble side f-hole). What I’ve been looking for are patterns and transition points based on approximate dates of manufacture. For example, when are double white and zebra PAFs most prevalent? When do the thin tops end (and start again and end again)? When do the “first rack” 345’s start and end? Stuff like that. I’ve been able to answer a lot of those questions from the 200 or so guitars I’ve catalogued and many of which I’ve owned and played. But there is another question that has been much harder to answer. When were the best 335’s made?

I keep an informal mental list of the top ES guitars that have passed through my hands. It’s mostly about tone but playability is considered nearly equally. A great sounding guitar that doesn’t play well is not a great guitar (until you fix the problems). From that (mental) list of around 20 guitars, a general pattern has emerged and I’ve written about that. Most are 59’s. Not all are 335’s but most of them are. There are also 58’s, a couple from 60, a 62 and a 64. There’s a 355 and a few of 345’s but out of the twenty or so best ones, almost half of them are 59 ES-335’s. This is not a surprise.

58’s are great but there were some issues that keep them from being consistently excellent. The small frets are the obvious issue-easy to fix but nobody wants to do a fret job before it’s necessary. The shallow neck angle is not a bad thing. When the bridge sits right on the top, it can improve the tone. More mass in contact with the body means more sound being transmitted to the wood. Some 58’s have such a shallow neck angle-especially the earliest ones-that a low profile bridge was necessary. That bridge always collapses after a while and is usually replaced with a shaved full size ABR-1. The neck angle was fixed in 59. The little frets were fixed in 59. But one of the elements of the 58 that was a problem for Gibson was a factor in the great tone of so many 58’s. That was the thin top. Three plies instead of four. More resonance. More fragile. The tops were cracking around the output jack and folks were not happy about that. The four ply top fixed that but, in my opinion, affected the tone in a negative way. That doesn’t mean that thicker top 335’s sound bad. Many of the best 335’s in the database have the thicker top. It’s a small factor. So, by 59, all the problems appeared to have been addressed and many Gibson owners feel that 59 is THE year and I agree.

Early 59’s have a very large neck profile-.88″ to .93″ at the first fret and a full inch or more at the 12th. The profile gets progressively thinner (front to back-not the nut) as the year goes on. By the Summer, the neck has slimmed down on many 59’s but not by much. First fret down to .85 to .87″ and the 12th down to around .97″ By the Fall, the neck slimmed down a bit more to what we call a “transitional” neck. This is a wonderful profile- not too fat and not too thin for most folks. This profile continues well into 1960 and is very popular among players. First fret is usually around .83″ and the 12th around .94″.

So, where is this “sweet spot”. OK, it’s my opinion but seeing as I’ve played more 335’s than you have, it’s based on real experience. Beginning in late May of 1959, for reasons that are unclear to me, a fair number of thin top 59’s were shipped. Somewhere around serial number A30100, these thin top 335’s begin to appear. Many have a 58 FON (T prefix) but some have a 59 FON. They seem to continue until around serial number A30360. Not all the 335’s in this range have thin tops-probably less than half of them, so it’s not a lot of guitars. Wait. It gets better. Many of these have double white or zebra PAFs. These are often slightly overwound with readings from 8K to 9K (you can find my theory about this in an earlier post). These thin top 335’s line up almost perfectly with the period when double white and zebra PAFs were most prevalent on 335’s (gold hardware double whites last well into 1960).

There are lots of amazing 59’s that don’t fall into this period (from early late May to mid June). In fact, the best 335 I’ve ever played is a very late 58 but in this small cluster of 59’s, there are two of my top ten and four of my top twenty. If that ain’t a sweet spot, I don’t know what is. As always, tone is really subjective so your impressions may not line up with mine. To be honest, I’ve never played a bad 59 and the difference between a good vintage 335 and a great one is pretty small. Hair splitting, really. And to make a further point, there are a few 60 335’s that have thin tops (I’ve had two and I know of two more). One of them in in my top ten as well.

The takeaway here should be twofold. First, 59 335’s are consistently excellent but so are most 58’s and many 60’s. There are killer 61-64’s too. Second, if you have the opportunity to buy a 59 in the A30100 to A30360 range, ask the seller to look at the top. If it’s three plies rather than four, it just might be the best guitar you ever played. The double whites are just a bonus if you’re lucky.

A30248. Double whites, thin top. The FON for this 1959 ES-335 is from 1958. No idea what the guitar was doing from late 58 when construction began until mid 59 when it finally shipped. The parts are from 59, so it must have sat somewhere as an uncompleted husk. This is in the top ten.

Dots and Blocks and Parallelograms (Oh my)

November 25th, 2019 • Uncategorized2 Comments »

Block inlays on a 335 will curl up, turn brown and fall out eventually. Most replacement pre cut inlays are very white and won’t match the ones that aren’t damaged. You can still get real celluloid but I’ve only seen it pre cut for Les Pauls.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that I’ve written very little about the inlays in the ES line. I’m not sure how interesting a little piece of plastic (or other material) is to most of you but if it’s stuck into the fingerboard of an old Gibson, it’s pretty interesting to me. I find it noteworthy that this teeny little detail is the primary descriptor for 335’s. Most folks, if you ask about their vintage 335 will tell you what they have by describing the inlays. “I have 59 dot neck…” “I have a 62 block neck…” I can’t think of another guitar that is described in that manner. On the other hand, nobody says “I have a parallelogram 345…” perhaps because all of them are that way.

Typically, dot markers were used for the least expensive guitars by most manufacturers. Fender was notorious for taking the cheap way out and used dot markers in all of their guitars in the 50’s and well into the 60’s. Lower line builders like Harmony and Hagström used dots on nearly their entire lines as well. When Gibson introduced the 335 in 1958, it was considered (by Gibson) to be the bottom of a new line of semi hollow guitars. True to form, the 1958 335 got dots. The 1958 355 was next and got large block markers and when the 345 was launched in the Spring of 1959, it got something in between-the twin parallelograms that it still features. But, the 335 was not an inexpensive guitar by anyone’s calculations at the time. It was actually a rather expensive guitar when compared to its closest competitors. A 58 Stratocaster was around $200. A 58 335 was more than half again higher at $335. Apparently, there were complaints by consumers. I have no hard evidence of this; it’s one of those things that everyone seems to know. By the Spring of 62, the dots were gone, replaced by the small block markers we are all familiar with.

Another interesting aspect of the inlays in the ES line is the material. The dots, small blocks and parallelograms were all made out of the same celluloid material that was imported from Italy. The 355 markers were real mother of pearl (nacre) usually made from oyster shells. If you research other Gibsons from the era, you will find that the celluloid (plastic) inlays were ubiquitous from the Melody Makers to the Les Paul Standard. Mother of pearl was found only in the really high line stuff like Les Paul Customs and the pricey arch tops. Abalone shows up in Gibson/Epiphone Sheratons.

The problem with celluloid is that it deteriorates, especially in an oxygen starved environment (like a closed case). Shrinkage is the usual issue with inlays. The dots don’t really shrink much but the blocks (on a 335, not a 355) can curl up and fall out. They will also turn a pretty ugly brown color. The only solution to shrunken, curled inlays is to replace them. You can glue them back down if they aren’t too bad but they will eventually come back up. Celluloid doesn’t stick very well to modern glues. Gibson changed the formula for the plastic blocks in the mid 60’s and the problem, to a large extent, went away. The later blocks are brighter, smoother and more “toilet seat” looking. The 345 parallelograms will also shrink and fall out but they seem a bit more stable than the small blocks. The 355 inlays, being natural mother of pearl, don’t shrink, curl or come undone. I’ve never seen a 355 with a damaged inlay.

If you have a 335 with damaged, discolored or shrunken inlays, you can still get the proper material from Historic Makeovers (Retrospec) but they only sell Les Paul inlays, so you may need to do a little surgery. I suggest only replacing the inlays that are damaged or curled. You can get 335 inlays that are pre-cut but they won’t be the same plastic as the ones that are there now. Even if you get the real celluloid plastic, there is a pretty good chance that it won’t match the vintage ones due to decades of wear, oxidation and sweat. If your inlays are your biggest issue, then you don’t have big issues.

355 inlays stay the same and will do so over the course of the next few thousand years. Mother of Pearl is about as stable as anything on earth. 345 inlays are the same material as 335 blocks and they will shrink and turn brown but they don’t generally fall out. No idea why.

When is a Gibson not a Gibson?

November 20th, 2019 • Uncategorized7 Comments »

Not a Gibson but still, a Gibson. This is a 59 Sheraton-one of only 3 made. NY pickups, big vee neck, Frequensator tailpiece and the coolest guitar I’ve ever owned.

There are two answers to this question. The obvious one is “when it’s a Chinese fake.” The other one, if you know your guitar history isn’t that hard either-when it’s an 59-69 Epiphone. OK, go ahead and argue that the post ’69 Epiphone are still Gibsons but we all know they really aren’t. Gibson owns Epiphone but the folks who make modern Gibsons don’t make Epiphones. They are made all over Asia. They can be very nice guitars but that’s a different post. From 59-69 (more or less), Epiphone were made in Kalamazoo by the same folks, on the same assembly line, from mostly the same materials as your favorite Gibson models of the day. And they are wonderful guitars.

I really should write about the solid bodies at some point but since this blog is really about semi hollows, I’ll stick to them for now. Today, since I just got another one, I’ll talk about the Sheraton. The top of the Epiphone semi hollow line and the equivalent of the ES-355 (again, more or less). The Sheraton model didn’t exist before the sale of the Epiphone company to Gibson in, I believe, late 1957. In fact, nearly every “Gibson Epiphone” was a new model derived from an existing Gibson model. Epiphone was meant to be a lower line of guitars from the Gibsons but you would barely know that-the prices were pretty close and the specs were, other than the pickups, nearly identical. 

The Sheraton is a very fancy guitar. The inlay are much more intricate than the big blocks of a 355. The headstock inlay is pretty fancy as well. While nearly all 355’s were shipped with a Bigsby, the Sheraton was shipped with either a “Frequensator” trapeze or a “Trem-o-tone” vibrato tailpiece. The former is quite good, although the concept is a little weird. The Trem-o-tone looks pretty cool but it really doesn’t work very well. So, look for the frequensator if you are buying.

The Sheraton went through, essentially, three iterations before Epiphone was moved to Japan. The first is my favorite but all three are really great guitars if you can find them. The production numbers were really low. The first version had the best neck I’ve ever played on any guitar, ever. It’s a 5 piece with a fairly hard vee with good depth and a width close to 1 3/4″. These necks were leftovers from the old Epiphone NY factory and Gibson used them until they were gone (by 1961 or so). The fancy abalone and MOP inlays stayed for the duration however. The 59’s and most of the 60’s had what are known as NY pickups which were also a leftover part from Epiphone. They are, contrary to what you might read elsewhere, single coils, not mini hums. Great pickups but not real screamers. They are relatively low output and very sweet and musical.

1962 was a year of considerable change for the Sheraton. While the “short” headstock was yet to be extended, the neck lost 5 piece construction (the vee profile was gone by 61) and was contoured, more or less, like the Gibsons of the era-fairly wide (1 11/16″) and fairly slim (.82 or so). The NY pickup was gone and replaced by PAF mini hum buckers. These are excellent pickups but are more aggressive than the old ones and the guitar is rather a different animal. There are a few out there that were routed for the NY pickups but were fitted with mini hums and goof rings. Always plan ahead.

By 64, the Sheraton had acquired the long headstock that is still associated with the brand. The necks became slimmer still and the nut width was slimmed down to 1 9/16″. There are 64’s and 65’s and maybe even some 66’s with wider nuts-the Sheraton was such a low volume guitar that a 64 build could have been shipped as late as 66. Still fancy though right up to the end of the line in late 68. You might find one shipped as a 69 but that’s the year the brand was shipped off to Asia to become what it is today.

Vintage Sheratons are priced much lower than Gibson and are a real bargain in a market where bargains are rare. There aren’t a lot of them, so it might take some time for one to pop up for sale. I prefer the early ones but I’ve never played one I didn’t like. Blondes are stupid rare-you can count the 59’s and 60’s on one hand. You can count the 61-63’s on two hands and a foot. But even the rarest of the blondes can be had for under $30K. Compare that to a blonde 335 for as much as 4 times that. Or compare it to a blonde 355 which is early nonexistent. I’ve owned one. I know of just three more. The price of a blonde 355 can break into 6 figures with ease. Can’t find a blonde? A sunburst Sheraton is more common and usually priced around 30% lower than a blonde. Red ones are rare. 

61 and 62 Sheratons.

Something Completely Different

November 16th, 2019 • Uncategorized2 Comments »
My favorite single would be something like this. An early Gibson made Epiphone Coronet with a P90. The earlier ones with the slab body and the NY single coils are really good too,

I’ve been writing about Gibson’s ES guitars for more than ten years now. That’s a long time to write about one pretty narrow topic, so it’s often a struggle to come up with new and interesting material. Usually, I get my inspiration from a particular guitar that I’ve bought or taken in trade that has something unusual about it. For this post, I will stay with that and write about something completely different.

I recently bought a bunch of gear from the estate of Walter Becker. While I’m not in the business of selling celebrity guitars, I was a big Steely Dan fan and I’m happy to own some of his gear. I was bidding on one of his Epiphone Coronets and was outbid, so I bid on something very similar. It is a guitar called a Frye and it’s, essentially, a copy of a late 50’s Epiphone Coronet with a single hum bucker at the bridge. And that brings me to my topic. One pickup guitars.

When I was just getting started as a player (age 11 in 1964), one pickup guitars were low priced beginner guitars. Real guitars had at least two and, better still, three pickups. I had a number of friends growing up that were a bit less well off than I was and couldn’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a guitar. My first electric was a Duo Sonic costing my father $159 with the amp (64 Princeton-no reverb). My friends were playing one pickup Supros, Teiscos, Musicmasters and hoping to make enough money for a Stratocaster. A Stratocaster was $200 (at Manny’s in NYC) at the time and a gig paid $50 (for 4 or 5 guys). So that Strat took awhile to acquire.

Fast forward 55 years and I’ve come to really appreciate single pickup guitars. There are a few reasons to consider a single pickup guitar as part of your arsenal. Simplicity is certainly a factor. I tend to stay on the bridge pickup most of the time anyway, so it was easy for me to pick up a Coronet and do most of what I do on a two pickup guitar. Granted, the rhythm playing tones are a bit limited-there’s only so much you can do with the tone control and the amp but on certain one pickup guitars, I can manage quite well. But wait, there’s more. A big part of what guitar players look for in a guitar is sustain. The longer your strings vibrate, the better the sustain, right? So, what makes the string stop vibrating? Well part of it is the pull of the magnets on the strings. With two pickups, you have two magnets affecting string vibration. With one pickup, that force is cut in half. And it makes a difference.

If you can, play an Esquire side by side with a Telecaster with the bridge pickup engaged. They are not the same. Close but not the same. It’s subtle but it’s there. I’ve done the same thing with an Epiphone Coronet and an early Epiphone Wilshire (both P90 guitars). You get just a little more sustain. With an Esquire, you get an added bonus-the lead position on an Esquire bypasses the tone control and goes straight to the jack, bypassing a pots worth of resistance which, again, is subtle but it’s there. I’m not an engineer so I can’t tell why this gets you a little extra oomph but it does.

There are lots of really great single pickup guitars out there both vintage and contemporary. I think an important factor is the position of the pickup. The single pickup 330 has it in the middle which is strange. A Musicmaster has it at the neck which is, I think, a negative. Go for one with a single bridge pickup. Firebird I, Esquire, Coronet, LP Jr are my favorites. The Walter Becker guitar has a single hum bucker at the bridge and is a monster guitar. I couldn’t put it down. If there was ever two pickup snobbery afoot, it is gone now. I’d happily bring a Coronet or an Esquire on a gig (and I never gigged with more than one 6 string on stage).

The Walter Becker Frye Coronet with another great single-a ’55 Esquire.

Halloween 2019

October 31st, 2019 • Gibson General19 Comments »
Zoubi rocks out for Halloween. She doesn't always remember the lyrics and not having opposable thumbs makes it hard for a dog to be a lead player but she manages to hold up her end. The set list includes "Walkin' the Dog", "Hound Dog", "The Boxer" and "Nashville Cats".

Zoubi rocks out for Halloween. She doesn’t always remember the lyrics and not having opposable thumbs makes it hard for a dog to be a lead player but she manages to hold up her end. The set list includes “Walkin’ the Dog”, “Hound Dog”, “The Boxer”, “Nashville Cats” and “Stay”.

Guitar players are tinkerers. I’m always surprised when I get a 60 year old guitar that hasn’t been messed with in any way. I’m pretty sure I modded every guitar I owned from the time I was 12 until I started appreciating vintage in the early 90’s. Some mods are pretty benign-especially when they are reversible but some are simply scary (you getting a theme here?)

Changing the tone knob on a 345 is simply sacrilege. OK, just kidding, it’s the Varitone switch that is so scary. No, it isn’t, it’s the Kahler (is that a Kahler?). Now that’s scary.

There are a lot of mods that I can deal with but I think the absolute worst one is the rear access panel. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. Maybe because it is born of laziness. “Oh, it’s just too hard to install a harness in a 335. I’ll just cut a big fat hole on the back and put it in that way. Nobody will ever notice.” That mod is the dealbreaker of all dealbreakers for me. In fact, any hole cut into a 335 put there to make harness installation easier simply drives me over the edge.

There are plenty of mods you can do that aren’t scary. If you have to make your guitar “better”, do something that doesn’t require drilling any holes or cutting any wood. That way, when it gets sold to me, I can put it back to the way it was when it left the factory. Go, ahead, put on knobs that look like dice or a truss rod cover with your name on it or even swap out the pickups. Just don’t cut a big access hole in the back of the guitar because you can’t get the harness back in. Call your luthier and have him do it. Call me and have me do it. Consider this-and this will scare you plenty-every extra little hole will knock up to $1000 off the value of your vintage guitar. And, while I’ve never bought a 335 with an access panel cut into it, I did buy a ’60 335 with a big notch cut out of the f-hole (under the guard) because they couldn’t get the harness back in. It was competently repaired and it wasn’t visible with the guard on but it also knocked around $7000 off the value. What was a $29000 guitar became a $22,000 guitar. You could have had your local luthier reinstall that harness for $100. Let’s see…that’s a savings of $6,900.

This is actually an ES-333 which has a factory access panel but you get the idea. Don’t do this to your 335. Or 345. Or 355.