GIBSON ES-335 ES-345 ES-355
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Something Completely Different

November 16th, 2019 • Uncategorized1 Comment »
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.

Wait. Weight (Don’t Tell Me)

October 29th, 2019 • Uncategorized3 Comments »

Early block neck 335’s (62-63) with the cut center block seem to be the lightest of the ES models (unless you count the full hollow 330). The lightest of them are just over 7 lbs. Thin top 58’s and 59’s can get pretty close to 7 lbs as well. By 64 and later, the body got thicker by a fraction of an inch and these guitars tend to hover around 8 to 8.5 pounds. There are always exceptions because the moisture content of the wood is a big factor and it varies wildly.

What’s the most frequent question I get about a guitar that I’m selling? Not just ES guitars but just about every guitar. Is it “How does it sound?” How does it play?” “Is the neck straight and does the truss rod work?” Nope. These are all very important questions but they aren’t the questions I get first. Maybe it’s because so many of my buyers are over 50. Maybe it’s because the Les Paul guys are so obsessed with it. It’s “How much does it weigh?” Seem odd to you? It sure seems odd to me. Yes, if your playing 4 hour gigs and you have a bad back or shoulder, a lighter guitar is going to make a difference. The question is one of balance. Not just the balance of the guitar (“does it dive?”) but of the qualities that make a guitar the right guitar for you.

I would argue that the weight of the guitar has very little to do with the tone with most guitars. After all, most electrics are a solid slab of wood with a neck attached. Some wood is more resonant than other wood but it isn’t directly tied to weight. I could argue that moisture content and weight are related and that moisture content and resonance are related but we’re talking ounces here. Most folks don’t care off the guitar is 8 lbs 2 ounces or 8 lbs 12 ounces. They care if it’s over 8 lbs or under 8 lbs. Or over 9 lbs or under 9 lbs. The round numbers seem to be the important ones with most buyers (especially the Les Paul guys). But, seeing as I’m not a Les Paul blog, I’m going to leave the Les Paul guys alone.

ES-335’s fall into a fairly narrow range as far as weight goes. We’ll leave the stereo guitars (345’s and some 355’s) out of the mix-the Varitone circuit weighs about 10 ounces. We’ll leave out Bigsby’s for the moment as well-they weigh around 13 ounces. A stop tail 335 will average around 7 lbs 12 ounces. Early ones tend to be a bit lighter and later ones bit heavier. There are variations in the specs that have an effect on this and those variations actually do affect the tone but it’s the design elements that make the difference and not the actual weight. Let me explain.

At some point in 1961, they started cutting a section out of the center block to make the installation of the harness easier. They did it on some guitars but not all of them. I’ve never figured out why. Most 61’s don’t have the cutout. Most 64’s do. Nearly all 65’s do. Maybe a third of the 62’s have the cut block. All 345’s have it to accommodate the VT choke. It knocks a few ounces off the weight but it also makes the guitar slightly more resonant. Whether that translates to better tone is questionable. The body depth is another factor. A 64 335 averages about 1.78″ deep. A 58 averages 1.6″ or so. A .2 difference will again be ounces but it does add up. The top on a 58 and some 59’s is thinner by 25% or so. That is a few ounces more. The body depth has very little effect on tone, if any. The thin top has quite a lot. My favorite 335’s have the thin top (and they also have the uncut center block).

The range, as I said earlier, is pretty narrow. The lightest 335 I’ve had weighed 7 lbs 1 ounce. I believe it was a 62 with a cut center block. The heaviest was just a hair under 9 lbs but that’s a bit of an outlier. The vast majority weigh between 7.5 lbs and 8 lbs. Nobody complains about the weight of a 335 if it falls at 8 lbs or below.

At the other end of the scale would be a Bigsby equipped ES-345 with its stereo Varitone circuit intact. Those two items add well over a pound to the overall weight. They still generally come in under 9 lbs but by the mid 60’s, a 9 lb plus 345 is certainly possible. You can always lighten the load by removing the Bigsby – usually around 13 ounces and the Varitone -around 10 ounces. Add back the weight of the stop tail and studs and you’re still saving nearly a pound and a quarter.

Not My Market

October 18th, 2019 • Uncategorized6 Comments »
The David Gilmour black Strat was bought at auction for $3.975 Million by a very wealthy fan and NFL team owner named Jim Irsay. Why would anyone pay nearly $4M for a modified 69 Stratocaster? Because he can.

My shop (OK Guitars) is located in Kent, Connecticut; a little tourist centric town 85 miles from New York City. So, I get a lot of tourists who come in with no knowledge or interest in guitars. The most often asked question from this crowd? “Were any of these owned by somebody famous?” The answer is usually “no.” There has been a whole lot of interest in celebrity guitars lately. It must be the one percenters because the prices have been, frankly, insane. The Gilmour auction was a real good example. I get the allure of an instrument played by somebody famous, especially somebody you admire. Would I love to have one of George’s guitars (I’ll take the 345 if anybody knows where it is)? You bet I would but I’m pretty sure I won’t be paying a million (or $4 million) for it. It’s out of my league for sure and I think it’s a little excessive.

When Clapton’s ’64 335 sold for $800K and change, we were all a bit surprised that provenance alone could thrust a $14,000 guitar (at the time) to that lofty figure. I thought, “oh, it’s the Guitar Center guys-they’re going to replicate it and sell copies…” which they did (and they were great by the way). Then, I attended the next Clapton auction and saw crappy little $200 Fender practice amps-that he may or may not have actually used-sell for thousands of dollars. It became clear to me that this was a market that had some real potential. But it’s not my market.

My market is players and player/collectors. Most are amateur players, many are well heeled professional people-doctors and lawyers and Wall Street types and a few rock stars and more than a few lesser known pro players. One thing it isn’t is billionaire fans. My wealthier clients are not buying million dollar guitars. I don’t think a lot of rock stars are buying them either. That $3.975 million black Strat is probably not going to get played much (if at all). It’s simply a different crowd of buyers.

I would wager that someone who can easily afford to spend a million or four million bucks on a guitar probably doesn’t much care about the potential investment value. He simply wants to own it and its attached bragging rights. (I’d love to put Lennon’s J160-E in a big ol’ glass case in my shop but I didn’t have $1.2M on hand that day). I would also wager that it isn’t an investment at all. I’m going to take some heat for this but in 20 years, who, in the next generation of billionaires, is going to care that much about Pink Floyd (and I like Pink Floyd). Most kids don’t know who David Gilmour is. They know who the Beatles are and kids a dozen generations from now will know who the Beatles were but Pink Floyd? Maybe not so much.

So, what’s my point here? Go back and look at the title of the post. I deal in instruments, not memorabilia. I deal in nostalgia for sure but not in hero worship (unless you’re a Beatle). If you can afford the price of admission, knock yourself out. Buy cool stuff that was owned by famous people. I recently bid on Don Everly’s black ’63 Gibson J-180 “Everly Brothers” guitar. I bailed out at $25K because, much as I like Phil and Don, I don’t like them that much. I think it sold for around $26K, so it was me and one other bidder. I wish I had gotten it but it didn’t break my heart either. I’m bidding on a couple of Walter Becker’s guitars this week. I like Steely Dan a lot but I won’t be spending $4 million. I don’t have $4 million and I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to clone a rock star from the DNA left on the frets. But if I could, I’d trade you two David Gilmours for a Walter Becker.

Phil and Don with their signature guitars. I’m not sure why this one (or one like it) is worth $26K while the Gilmour black Strat is worth $4M. I’d rather have Don’s guitar.

In•to•na•tion (and the Little Holes You Can’t See)

September 24th, 2019 • Uncategorized8 Comments »

Looks like a near mint 62 that will fetch top dollar from the most discriminating collector, right? Nope. It seems there was a problem with the intonation and a small but unfortunate mod was done. Can’t see it, can you.

Intonation is one of those technical things that a lot of guitar players are aware of but don’t entirely understand. To be truthful, I don’t entirely understand the physics behind it but I do understand how to deal with it. Rather than explain the physics (after all, this isn’t a blog for guitar techs), I’ll try to explain how to deal with it on your ES guitar and warn you about some of the idiosyncrasies regarding intonation of early 335’s.

So, you tune your guitar perfectly with open strings using your handy little clip on tuner or your phone app. It’s dead on. But when you play a chord at the the 8th fret, something doesn’t sound right. Probably your intonation isn’t properly set up. Unlike a violin where you put your finger anywhere on the string to get the note you want to play, the guitar was frets which dictate where the note you’re trying play is located on the fingerboard. The trouble is that not all strings act the same way due to differences in thickness and other factors. The actual length of the vibrating string dictates what note (and whether its in tune or flat or sharp) will play at any given fret. So, if your string length isn’t exactly right, your guitar will be out of tune in some places but not in others. Yikes.

You’ll note that most electric guitars have bridges that have some degree of adjustment forward and back-some for each string, like an ABR-1 and some more generally like a wrap tail. Setting the intonation is really easy on an ABR-1, so I’ll give you the two sentence “how to” and then talk about the weird stuff that goes on with 335’s which is why you’re reading this in the first place. Play the open string. Tune it. Play the string at the 12th fret. If it’s flat turn the little screw that moves the saddles so that the saddle moves toward the nut, shortening the string. Move it until it’s in tune at the twelfth fret (and still in tune when played open). If it’s sharp, turn the screw so the saddle moves away from the nut, lengthening the string. Once its in tune at both the 12th fret and open, you’re done with that string. Do that for all six strings and you’re done.

But there’s sometimes a problem. What if you run out of room to move the saddle and the string is still sharp (or flat) at the 12th fret? This is a really common problem on 335’s and it’s almost always the G string. Why is that? Well, if you’re as old as I am and you were playing guitar back in the early to mid 60’s, you might remember that, back then, the G string was always wound. Now, on electrics, it’s nearly always plain. So, when these wonderful “Golden Era” guitars were made, they were designed to use a wound G string. Remember, I mentioned that the differences in string thickness affect intonation? A plain G is way thinner than a wound G and the bridge placement and saddle travel of a 50’s or 60’s 335 didn’t anticipate the plain G and often, that string simply won’t intonate. There are solutions. Look at the saddle itself. Usually the flat side of the saddle faces the fingerboard but that limits the rearward travel of the saddle (the issue is always that the G is sharp at the 12th fret). Take the saddle out and flip it around so the flat side faces away from the fingerboard. That will allow you to jam the saddle flat up against the back side of the bridge getting you that last bit of string length you need to intonate that G string. Probably 90% of the 335’s in my shop have the G saddle all the way back and turned around. It works. But this brings up an issue that comes up pretty frequently.

A reasonable solution to the intonation problem was to simply move the bridge posts back. By drilling a couple of new holes for the posts maybe an eighth of an inch back from where they are, you could fix the problem forever. In the era of multi thousand dollar vintage guitars, that’s a terrible idea even if the extra holes are hidden by the thumbwheels. Extra holes are worth as much $1000 each off the value of your vintage 335. But back when a 59 335 was just an old guitar, it made perfect sense and there are quite a few vintage 335’s with this mod. The thing is, you can’t see the holes unless you take the thumbwheel off or at least unscrew it part way. It’s the issue that almost never gets disclosed because nobody notices it until long after the approval period has ended. Like years after. After all, who takes off the thumbwheels? There’s no reason to for regular maintenance and adjustment. Well, I’ll tell you who takes off thumbwheels…I do and now you do. You don’t want to discover two holes in the top of your $40,000 vintage ’59 years after you bought it. Worse, you don’t want the guy who you just sold it to for $40,000 to discover it and send it back to you. This just happened to a client of mine who bought a 62 335 from a very reputable dealer. The client checked but the dealer didn’t. He, of course, returned the guitar and the dealer was embarrassed by the error of omission. If he had discovered it a year later, would the dealer have taken it back? If I missed it, I would but I can’t speak for other dealers. Bottom line. Look under the thumbwheels when you get the guitar. It takes a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did.

They don’t show when the bridge is in place and they don’t show when the bridge is off. You have to take off the thumbwheels to see them. No big deal? If you’re paying top dollar for a mint or near mint guitar, just knowing the holes are there will drive you batty. Still was a great guitar but a couple of grand came off the price. Intonated real well too.

Build Your Collection II

September 9th, 2019 • Uncategorized10 Comments »

The Nigel Tufnel collection goes to eleven (that’s one louder than ten). Note which guitar seems to have an elevated position among the others. Sure looks like a blonde dot neck.

OK, so the idea of a guitar collection appeals to you and you’d like to get started. So, let’s get started. There are lot of approaches to collecting and each has its charms. A good place to start is to look at what you already have. Got a nice old Stratocaster from, say, 1961? Well, you could start filling the years or filling in the finishes or filling in the types. A nice Strat collection would have to include a maple board and a slab board, maybe a later curve board with grey bottom pickups and maybe a custom color or two. If you really have a Strat obsession, maybe one from each year from 54 to 65. Build slowly and look for great examples. That’s a dozen good years and with a bit of patience, you could build a wonderful collection that is manageable and impressive. Not cheap but vintage collecting of any kind seldom is. Strats too expensive? Collect Jazzmasters or Jaguars.

But maybe you feel like your collection only needs one Stratocaster. So, instead of collecting just one model, collect the classics. Most folks would want a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, a Telecaster or Esquire, a 335, a Martin acoustic and maybe a great 12 string like a Ricky and a Fender bass. Once you’ve done that, you can build on that adding perhaps variations of your chosen “classics”. A Les Paul Custom to go with your Standard. A slab board Strat to go with your maple board. A white guard Esquire to go with your black guard Tele. A 345 or 355 to match your 335 and so on. And you don’t have to stop there. A Junior and a Special. A hard tail and a custom color. There is no end to how you can expand your “classics” collection. It will, as long as you have space and can afford it (and your wife or husband doesn’t divorce you), take on a life of its own.

Or maybe a different approach. Folks born in the 50’s and 60’s love to do birth year guitars. It’s not terribly appealing to me since I pre-date most of the good stuff. My ’52 collection would be awfully dull. I’d have a nice Telecaster and maybe an L5. But if you were lucky enough to be born in a truly golden year like 59 or 60, you could do a spectacular collection. But I’m being a bit of a snob. I know of a collector who has a wonderful collection of 60’s Japanese imports. Teiscos, St. Georges, Kents and Guyatones make for an interesting and fun collection. Collecting a single brand can be rewarding as well especially if your favorite is something from Gretsch or Guild. These can be great guitars and there’s a great deal of diversity within the brand. Neither brand fetches prices at the Fender and Gibson levels and you can build a very comprehensive collection for relatively little money. Of course, if one of your goals is investment, you might want to reconsider your Guild collection. They have not shown much appreciation over the years.

How about oddball European guitars? Geddy Lee’s wonderful bass collection has a load of Italian Wandres which are as weird as they come. Or the British Burns’ or even the Czech Futuramas (Resonet). I think a collection of 60’s Vox guitars would be great-they made about a zillion models-some English, some Italian (Eko). Or maybe you’re a bit younger and have a thing for 80’s guitars. There are some seriously collectible 80’s guitars that haven’t quite reached vintage status. BC Rich, Hamer, all those “Superstrats” and even 80’s Gibson and Fenders are all still very affordable. They don’t have to be great guitars. They just have to be interesting and appealing (to you).

Bottom line: Buy what appeals to you. Don’t try to anticipate which guitar will be the next burst. There probably isn’t a “next burst”. And don’t get too caught up in the investment aspect. That’s not where the fun is. If you buy guitars that you love (and will play) then even if you break even after many years, you will have had all the positive feelings that go along with creating and owning a personal collection. Collecting is an active hobby and active hobbies keep you engaged and will make you a happier person. Even though I’m not a collector, I still feel like it’s Christmas morning every time a new guitar shows up for me to unpack. It simply never gets old.

Joe Bonamassa has a pretty serious collection and perhaps no one has been more vocal about the joys of collecting than Joe. You can see that he leans toward the classics and seems to like Les Pauls a lot. Collecting amps is almost as much fun as collecting guitars.

Build Your Collection I

September 2nd, 2019 • Uncategorized4 Comments »

Scott Chinery’s collection was broad, diverse and famous. Just goes to show you don’t have to be a rock star to curate a great collection. Having deep pockets helps, however and Mr. Chinery was not a poor man. His collection consisted of over 1000 guitars including a collection of blue guitars that he had built by well known luthiers. His death in 2000 broke up one of the finest collections in the world. I’ve owned three of them (so far). He also owned the Batmobile.

I’ve been asked to sell most of a very important guitar collection. I was struck by the breadth and depth of the collected guitars and I took the time to talk to the owner about how a major collection like this gets put together. As a dealer, I do something similar. I don’t simply buy guitars that will turn a profit. I buy guitars that fill the broad needs of my clientele. But buying a guitar that is to be your main player is not the same as starting (or building) a collection.

A collection of any kind whether it’s guitars, classic automobiles, watches, art or any of a thousand other things serves a few purposes. Some are practical or at least relatively so. You can get to the grocery store in your 1937 Bugatti Type 57 but thank god you don’t have to. You can tell time with your rose gold Patek Nautilus. You can play your 59 Les Paul burst. But the limiting factor is usually that you can only use one at a time. OK, you could wear a dozen watches at once and keep track of time in twelve different time zones but I think you might be better served to just do the math. You get the point. But a collection goes way beyond practicality.

A collection is, often, an investment. I have made the point that you can’t play a song on your stock certificates. Guitars have been a generally good performer over the past two decades with only one real correction in 2008 when Wall Street greed broke the economy. There are ups and downs for sure but the general trend has been up. A collection also is a leisure activity that can border on obsession. Call it that or call it passion-it’s the same thing and that makes us happier than we might be without it. And it doesn’t matter if your collection is worth $5000 or $5 million. You get a high level of enjoyment simply knowing you have it and by spending time looking for the next acquisition. That is where being a dealer intersects with being a collector. While I don’t have a permanent collection, I seek out guitars the same way a collector does. I want the best possible examples and I want the best years and models.

That goes to the heart of collecting. I don’t know a single collector who seeks out the least expensive player grade guitars he can find. Players do that but serious collectors are much more discriminating. Playability and tone are everything to a player but just two elements of many to a collector. Originality, condition, rarity, provenance and beauty each play a significant role. The price does too but to a much lesser extent than those previously mentioned. Nobody wants to overpay but most collectors don’t want to have to explain the issues when it comes time to sell. And they don’t want to open the case and see those issues every time they do so. Put simply, most collectors want a great example of a great guitar. And once they have that, they want another great example perhaps in a different finish or a different year. That’s where the collection building process becomes important. Building a great collection isn’t randomly buying cool guitars that you like. An important collection is focussed, thematic and reflects the personality of its owner. The next post will address the various ways to curate a great collection that will make you happy (or at least happier), proud, wealthier (maybe) and probably drive your wife (or husband) nuts.

On the other hand, being a rock star doesn’t hurt either. Some of the largest collections belong to well known rockers. Keith Richards, Rick Nielson, Jimmy Page and, of course, Nigel Tufnel all have large important collections. Geddy Lee has perhaps the most important bass collection in the world. It is wildly diverse and yet focussed. Here is Geddy and me and 10 per cent of the red 60 ES-335’s ever made. Do yourself a favor and buy his bass book. It is beautifully done and worth the money.

Don’t Get No Respect. The ES-345

August 25th, 2019 • Uncategorized8 Comments »
Here’s a photo you won’t find anywhere else. All 59 ES-345’s. In 59, they shipped 446 sunbursts, 32 blondes, 9 reds and 5 blacks. There could be more reds and blacks but they haven’t surfaced yet. There are at least two Argentine Gray ones (two tone sunburst).

It was 1959, arguably the pinnacle of Gibson’s guitar making empire. The ES (Electric Spanish) line had been well established and the thin bodied semi hollow entrants into the line had already established a respectable level of popularity. The ES-335 hit the scene in April of 1958 and, while not wildly successful out of the starting blocks, certainly merited note among the top brass at Gibson as a moderate success. The gilded ES-355, then only available in mono, showed signs of becoming a success as well as the calendar turned over and 1959 began.

It seems that when there are three models in a lineup, the middle one suffers. Automobile lines are a good indicator. The top of the line is great, the bottom of the line is you get what you pay for and the middle is neither. Same with middle children (I am one-4th out of 9). I remember an old aphorism that said “go first class or third class. Never go second class.” I think it was the author John Barth who came up with that and I actually took it to heart as a twenty something and have followed the wisdom of that statement ever since. I could get into why but it’s actually kind of irrelevant here. This is about the middle child in the ES semi hollow lineup, my old favorite, the ES-345.

If the 335 and the 355 didn’t exist, the 345 would be positively revered by guitarists. OK, the stereo wiring has become an anachronism and the technologically archaic Varitone circuit is beyond quaint but the rest of the package is everything I want in a guitar. My main player is a blonde 59 ES-345 with a couple of repaired holes and a new neck. Why a 345? I can have any 335 I want (one of the perks of being a dealer) or maybe a 59 mono 355. It’s pretty simple. I like the way the 345 looks. The parallelogram inlays are much more interesting than the dots or the blocks. The simple but not too simple body bindings are appropriate for a guitar of the caliber. The simple headstock of the 345 and 335 seems to show a little more class than the somewhat tarted up 355 headstock. The wood is often a little fancier than the 335 gets. I like a rosewood board over the ebony of a 355 and while I don’t care one way or the other about gold hardware, I really like the fact that you can buy a ’59 345 for about half the price of a same year 335.

Now why is that? Why is the bottom of the line twice as expensive as the middle and top of the line? Simplicity? Is a 335 a better guitar? No. Is it simply because a 335 isn’t stereo and it doesn’t have the Varitone? That’s part of it but not the whole story. If that was the reason then a mono 355 would be the equal of a 335 in value and desirability and it isn’t. I always thought the players were a big part of it. Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Alvin Lee and lots more. But wait. What about the 345 players? Freddie King, Elvin Bishop, Jorma Kaukonen and don’t forget Marty McFly who played one years before it was even invented. My conclusion? Guitar people are quirky. The LP Standard is way more desirable than a Custom. A Strat or Telecaster is more desirable than a Jaguar or Jazzmaster. A Firebird I is about equal in price to a V or a VII. I’m a pretty logical guy and logic doesn’t really come into play here. All that said, I still prefer a 345. Mine is now converted to 335 specs. The stereo and the weight were big considerations. Who wants to haul two amps to a gig on the second floor of a walkup building. And the Varitone? It’s an old school notch filter. It has some interesting tones that you might use for one song out of twenty. Or not. It weighs nearly a pound and you can find a pedal that does the same thing and doesn’t hang off your old, tired shoulder. But take the original circuit out or leave it in, the ES-345 is a wonderful guitar and perhaps among the best deals in vintage. You can take that to the bank.

This is my current main player. It’s an original finish blonde 1959 ES-345. It has had the neck replaced and a couple of holes filled. It has been converted to mono and the Varitone removed.

Gibson Custom Shop ca. 1959

August 1st, 2019 • Uncategorized3 Comments »

Custom Shop logo on an 84 ES-335. Nothing “custom” about it.

Custom Shop. Sounds great, right? The idea of the factory custom shop is not new. Gibson first started using the term in 1984. Fender in 1987. But the idea was more of a marketing ploy than an actual shop that made custom instruments. How custom can it be if they make 100 or more of each model and none are made to actual customers specifications?  I think guitar players are particularly susceptible to marketing gambits that use the word “custom”. A Les Paul Custom is no more “custom” than a Les Paul Standard. Let’s take a quick look at Webster’s dictionary.

cus·​tom | \ ˈkə-stəm adjective. 1: made or performed according to personal order. Well, that’s pretty clear. And it also isn’t really what the Custom Shop actually does. The “Custom Made” plate used to cover the stud bushings on an early 60’s ES-335 (and others) is a good example. There are probably more than 1000 of them out there. They certainly could have continued to use the more attractive pearl dots that they used in 59 or the black plastic dots or the cut down studs. Or even a blank plate. They all would have served their purpose. But putting the words “Custom Made” on the plate somehow made your guitar (and you) special. It was so successful that folks were sending their guitars back to Gibson for the plate even if there were no stud holes to cover. In early 65, the Bigsby models still had the plate even though there were no stop tail studs under it. Eventually, they stopped doing that probably because it cost more to put a plate over nothing than it did to put nothing over nothing. I’m sure it saved them less than a quarter per guitar.

Long before there was something called the Custom Shop, you could order a true custom made guitar from Gibson. For a price, they were happy to do just about anything you wanted. Inlays that spelled your name were popular with artists big name and not so big name. Custom fingerboards, added switches, custom colors, custom neck profiles, non standard hardware and a host of other personal preferences were all available if you had the money and the time. Some custom orders might be as simple as putting nickel hardware on a guitar that usually has gold. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you could order a double neck with any two necks you wanted and your name on one fingerboard and your wife’s (or your dog’s) name on the other.

If you were a big name artist, you might ask Gibson to make a special guitar for you and if they liked your idea enough, they might make a limited run of them. The Everly Brothers model comes to mind. It was a black J-185 acoustic with two big tortoise guards and star inlays. Of course, the Les Paul model is perhaps the best example although Les himself was an incurable tinker and modded his own guitars pretty regularly making the Les Paul model more of an artist endorsed model than a true custom.

As a player and collector, I love the custom orders. My idea of a great find isn’t a mint 335 from under the bed but a one off that makes you scratch your head and say “what were they thinking?” It would never occur to me to order an ES-355 with a Super 400 fingerboard and a Byrdland tailpiece. I’m not sure a green burst 335 would be on my radar either. On the other hand, something as basic as a blonde 335 in 1963 was a custom order. As a dealer, the one of a kind custom orders pose all kinds of challenges. Pricing a unique guitar is difficult-it can be worth many times what a non custom is worth or it can be worth considerably less. For example, a guitar with someone else’s name inlaid in the fingerboard doesn’t compel many buyers to come running with their credit cards waving unless the name is something like “Elvis Presley” in which case, the guitar’s price goes from 5 figures to 7. But a black 59 ES-335 would sell in a minute or less

Some customs are pretty simple-an engraved guard and truss cover and an extra guard. Hey, Del…You’re not using that old double guard 64 anymore, are you? So, it’s got a coupla extra holes-I’ll still take it off your hands. Hey, I’m a walkin’ in the rain…just to get your 335.
How’s this for rare? The 1964 Greenburst from Rumble Seat Music’s collection. I’m guessing there isn’t another like it.
Rare as they come. Certainly a custom order. The fact that it has the “custom” trc acctually helps authenticate it and the fact that its a lefty helps too. Who would fake a lefty? It’s a stunning and important find. Too bad I’m not the one who found it.

Verities and Rarities

July 27th, 2019 • Uncategorized11 Comments »
This guitar is crazy rare but not crazy expensive. It’s a 60 Epiphone Sheraton and you could probably buy one (if you could find one) for under $30K.
Two rare stop tail 355’s. They only made around a dozen. These are expensive because you want one.

One of the great truths about vintage guitars is the fact that rarity usually doesn’t count for much. We all know how valuable a 58-60 Les Paul is but there were more than 1600 of them made so it’s not exactly rare. A blonde 58-60 ES-335 can be had for less than half the price (still a lot of money) even though they made about 1/8 as many. Wait. It gets worse. Look at a less popular guitar like a blonde Epiphone Sheraton. A great, great guitar made right alongside the very pricey blonde 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. Some of those Gibson badged blondies have reached the $125,000 mark but a Sheraton? Not even close.

Let’s look at some raw numbers. There are only perhaps ten 59-64 blonde 355’s. They will sell in the $75K-$125K range depending on year. There are only 12 Sheratons from 59-60 (NY pickups) and 29 from 61-63. A 59 or 60 will cost you perhaps $28K if you can find one which I assure you, you probably can’t. A 61-62 blonde Sheraton will cost you maybe $22K. Need a

Anyway, you get the idea. Rare doesn’t count much especially in models that aren’t very popular. But there’s a whole ‘nother kind of rarity that needs a little sunlight. Take a very, very popular model like a 335. Within every year, there are rarities that you simply don’t see. The factory customs and one offs that you may not even be aware of. The blonde block neck is one of those. I know of two of them. A 63 and a lefty 64. There are probably a couple more out there but, believe me, you won’t see many of them. A red 59 dot neck (or a red 58) is another. I know of 6 red 59’s- most of which have Bigsby’s and, famously, one 58. There are around 10 red 59 345’s. There are 5 black 59 345’s and, as far as I know, 3 black 59 355’s, one of which belongs to Keith Richards. Here’s the reality. There is no logic to the values.

But a blonde block neck is rarer and impossible to set a fair value on. I’d rather have the more common blonde dot neck just because I like the earlier 335’s and they are so much easier to find. 211 blonde dot necks . 2 blocks. Do the math. A blonde block neck should be outrageously expensive. Block necks from 62-64 are wildly popular and not cheap-$20K plus for a good stop tail. So, where does that put a blonde 62-64 ES-335? Conventional wisdom used to be double the price of a common color. OK, the a blonde 63 should be $42K or so. Then why is a collector grade sunburst 59 dot neck $40K but a similar blonde is three times that (and 100 times more common than a blonde block)? Like I said, there is no logic.

There is an easily understood explanation to the seemingly random and illogical valuation of rare vintage guitars (this is the “verities” part of the post). It’s simple. Do you want one really badly? Yes? Then expect to pay some very serious money for it. That’s how it works.

How about a 60 355 with a Super 400 board and a Byrdland tailpiece? Probably one of a kind but not particularly valuable. Probably because it never occurred to you to want one.
They didn’t make any block neck 335’s in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. As rare as they come but not six figure expensive. I want one. Do you?