Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Moving to New Domain

As of tomorrow, I hope, you'll be able to find me at much easier to remember location. Also, if I can figure out how to do it, you will be able to become a follower without having to establish a Google account.  I'll also figure out how to add more photos and generally make it a better looking more organized blog.  For some reason when I exported the blog to the new site, the followers didn't go with me, so you may need to sign up again. Please do.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Pickups: Part 1 PAF to Patent #

This is a pretty big topic, so I'll split into 3 or maybe 4 pieces. There are a lot of good articles that have already been written about Gibson's humbucking pickups, so instead of getting deeply into the evolution and technology, I'll just try to cover the basics to the ES. The PAF-which stands for "Patent Applied For" is the first incarnation of the Gibson Humbucking pickup invented by Seth Lover in the early 50's and in use on Gibson guitars since 1957. The PAF is considered by most to be the best sounding pickup ever made. Not all of them, though. Because they were largely made by hand, there as many different winding patterns as there are pickups. Some have more wire in the middle, some have more at the edges, some have more on one edge, some are evenly wound and every combination in between. Call the brilliant sounding ones "lucky accidents". As they added things like counters which counted how many times the wire was wrapped around the bobbins, they became more consistent. As better winders were introduced, a more even and consistent wind homogenized the sound-made more of them sound exactly alike. This, however, didn't occur until much later and so it is possible to get a great PAF, a good PAF and even a not so good PAF. I've never heard a bad one but they probably exist. The PAF had 2 separate coils and was wrapped with enamel coated wire that was a dark purplish color and from 1958 until they replaced it, the sticker on the back of the pickup said "Patent Applied For". When they finally got their patent, they switched (although it took them years and they put the wrong patent number on them) to a sticker that said "patent number 2737842" which is the patent number of a Gibson bridge. The new sticker was phased in from 1962 to 1963. It is typical to find 335s with one Patent number and one PAF in the 62 and 63 models as Gibson slowly used them up. the guitars which used gold plated pickups made the switch later because there were far fewer of them and the PAFs on hand lasted into the mid 60's-some say as late as 67.
Another change that occurred was a change in the alnico magnet in the pickup. In the early PAFS-through 1960 (or so-nothing happens overnight at Gibson) the magnet was around 2.5" long. These are called long magnet PAFs and are considered the most desirable type. In 1961, the magnet was shortened to 2.25" or so. These are called...wait for it...short magnet PAFs. The short magnet PAFs had the same windings as the long magnet but many say they sound different. I'm one of them. The difference between the short magnet PAF and the early Patent number pickup is the sticker. Period. Nothing else. Yet, a PAF equipped 1962 ES 335 can bring a few thousand dollars more than a Pat # equipped one. Same pickups. I would recommend if you're a player to buy an early 60's ES 335 with Patent number pickups and save some serious money-a few thousand dollars is not out of the question. If you're a collector or investor, buy the PAF equipped one because it will always be more valuable when you're ready to sell. The next change to occur was a change in the type of wire used to wrap the bobbins-a change which occurred in or around 1965. We'll cover those and the T-top type that followed in another post. Oh, and one other point...this will be considered sacrilege by many aficionados but I'll say it anyway. In my opinion, if you want to be assured of a great sounding pickup, get a guitar with short magnet PAFs or the early patent numbers. Almost all of them sound  excellent-they are more consistent and you are almost assured of a great sounding well balanced pickup.  Why not early PAFs? The problem is that there are hundreds if not thousands of PAFs that just don't sound alike due to winding differences. I've owned long magnet PAFs that sound exactly like short magnet PAFs. I've owned long magnet PAFs that have full resonant lows and screaming highs or dull, lifeless lows and screaming highs. Or compressed highs and dominant mids. Find one you like and keep it no matter what the label says.  But I believe you are most likely to get a great sounding pair of pickups if you get a guitar with either 2 short magnet PAFs or 2 early patent numbers or one of each. There are other changes to talk about-double whites, "zebras", no sticker PAFs, chrome covers, nickel covers in phase, out of phase and on and on. We'll get to all that and ways to identify the real deal among the many copies and fakes.
Above: PAF

                                         Above: Patent Number

Friday, April 30, 2010

Why Would I Buy an SG?

Make no mistake about it, I love 335s and 345s. I buy and sell a few dozen a year and try to enjoy every one of them for at least a month between buy and sell.  I also spend a lot of time with each guitar making sure everything is as it should be-sometimes dipping into the bottomless parts bin for an original pickguard bracket or something that's missing from the guitar and sometimes just setting the action, truss and intonation. Only then do I sell them.  So, why did I score a 65 SG off of Ebay yesterday?  SGs are terrific guitars-great tone-light weight-simple to work on (no pulling the harness required). Up until recently, however, they weren't terribly collectible.  It wasn't long ago that you could pick up a 64 or 65 for around $3000. At that same time, a good original stop tail 64 ES 335 was approaching $10000 on its way to around $22K at the peak. SGs, especially Les Paul SGs from 61 through 63 went through the roof and peaked at $20,000 or more. The very desirable late 63 through early 66s shot up too-well over $10K and as high as $15K for a good one. Well, they've dropped back to some pretty reasonable levels and I picked up an early 65 with all the 64 specs: nickel hardware-fat wide neck-short neck join-what the aficionados call the "Harrison" specs since George played one like this for a while.  I played an SG back in my late gigging days-in fact it was the last guitar I owned before giving up gigging and becoming a bedroom player. It was a late 68 or early 69 with a neck so big, I could hardly wrap my hand around it. the intonation, however, was awful and it wouldn't stay in tune. Friday afternoon example, no doubt. I had a couple of SG Customs since-a 63 and a 69 but neither spoke to me and they're long gone. But by next week, I'll have another one to play with while I wait for the 64 ES 335 I just bought that's only 23 serial numbers away from Eric Clapton's. How cool is that? Gibson confirms it was built AND shipped the same day as ECs. I'll let you know when that gets here. Why buy an SG? Because it's there?

Right: George's SG
Below: My SG

Thursday, April 29, 2010

To Bigsby or Not to Bigsby

In the collectors world, at least the 335 and 345 collectors world, the addition of a Bigsby means a drop in the value of your vintage piece. Most folks will tell you a Bigsby (or Maestro or Sideways) will lower the collector value by 25%. Some say more.  I think 25% is probably about right but why? Just about every Stratocaster ever made has a trem (really a vibrato since it changes pitch but that's another entry) and they are worth all kinds of stupid money-in fact a hardtail is worth less on a Strat. Go figure.  SG's all had Maestros and while they may not be quite as collectible as a 335, nobody gives it a second thought. But on a 335, well, that another matter.  What's wrong with a trem on a 335?  I don't use one so I don't see any reason to add an extra half pound to my guitar but if it saves me that much money maybe it makes some sense. If you're collecting as an investment, don't buy one with a Bigsby. The best investment is going to be the most desirable incarnation in the best most original condition possible.  Everybody likes to talk about the "mojo" of the guitar they're selling but we all know it just means wear and tear. Back to the Bigsby...sorry the ADD kicks in a lot-we'll cover mojo later.  If you use a Bigsby or other trem, then by all means, save some money and buy one with a trem.  Better yet buy a "convertible one" you know, the ones I wrote about a few days ago with the "Custom Made" plaque covering the stop tail studs.  This advice doesn't apply to the ES 355 because nearly all of them were factory equipped with one sort of trem or another.  I'll go a step further-if you're going to get a 335 or 345 with some kind of whammy bar, I would suggest you go with the Bigsby rather than the sideways or the Maestro.  First reason-the Bigsby leaves fewer holes in the top of the guitar should you want to remove it. Second, it just works better as a unit. The sideways version looks a lot cooler but the guitars just don't stay in tune very well and the thing is just about worthless as a tremolo.  The Maestro, to my eye, just looks wrong. It works OK and the simplicity of the design is kind of interesting but it looks like it belongs on an SG.  Even the Epiphone "trem-o-tone" looks better on a big guitar like a 335 (or a Sheraton or Riviera) than a Maestro. If you thought I was going to solve the mystery of why some guitars are worth more with a tremolo and some less, I can't. It makes no real sense. But a lot of guitar collecting makes no sense. Things like rarity are almost irrelevant, but I''ll discuss that another time.

Below: Bigsby on a 67


 Right: Sideways on a 62 ES 355

Below: Maestro on a 64

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The ABR-1 "Tune-o-matic" Bridge

Every ES 335 ever sold from 1958 until now has had one of two bridge types. The ABR-1 (also called Tune-o-matic) from 1958 to 1975 or so and the Nashville from 1976 until 1989 or so. Then it was back to the ABR-1. ABR-1 bridges came in a few varieties and that can be helpful when trying to get a handle on the date of your ES 335/345/355. The earliest variety was nickel plated (or gold plated for 345 and 355) and had no little retaining wire to keep the saddles in place. the saddles were plated brass. This type had the designation "Gibson ABR-1" on the underside and a trademark from the company who manufactured them. These were used from 58 until sometime around 1962. Gibson never makes a change over night-they begin to use new designs while they still are using the older design to transition into a new configuration. the next ABR-1 had the same markings, same saddles but had a small retaining wire which held the saddles in place so when you broke a string on stage you didn't have to crawl around looking for it before you could restring. Drag.  Then, in 63 sometime, they decided to change the saddles from metal to plastic (nylon, apparently). Some felt this helped eliminate string breakage while others felt (and still feel) that it made the guitars dull sounding.
Clapton's 335 had nylon saddles and it didn't sound dull to me.  The bridge continued to have nylon saddles well into the 70s. During 64-65 they phased in 2 new elements. We start seeing a different inscription on the underside with smaller writing which said "Gibson Pat# 2,760,313" in late 64. We also start seeing the use of chrome plating rather than nickel. The overlap is such that you can have a chrome bridge with the old inscription (i had that on my 66) or a nickel bridge with the new inscription (which was on my 64). It's this transition that makes it difficult to use the bridge for dating a 335 from mid 64 until late 66. There were just too many combinations. The change in inscription also changed on the gold plated version found on the 345 and 355 at around the same time. The ABR-1 remained chrome throughout the period until the Nashville bridge with its longer travel and screwed in saddles replaced it in 1976 or so.  We'll talk about that in another post.
This is a no wire ABR-1
Below it is the underside which is the same
for the wired type until mid 64-65
Below that a wired type
and below that, the "patent #" type in gold

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Am I Uncool? I Like Skinny Neck Guitars.

Somewhere along the way, the trend in neck profiles has gone toward larger and larger profiles. I spend some time on a few of the guitar forums (fora?) and discussion often runs to neck profiles. This is more a Gibson player phenomenon than a Fender players. Maybe because Fenders have usually had skinnier necks. Anyway, the folks on the Les Paul Forum love their big fat boat necks-the bigger the better.  There's a bit of "mines bigger than yours" going on but its mostly good natured as the folks on LPF tend to be-unlike some other forums who shall remain nameless.  Gibson started the 335 with a big fat neck with a
1 11/16" wide nut. That remained fairly constant until early 1960 when the profile (not the nut width) started getting thinner. The depth of the neck at the first fret averaged in the range of .90 or a bit more for 58 until early 60 and then it creeped down to .86 (my 60 ES 345) to .83 (my 61 dot) to .81 (my '62 block). I found all of these necks extremely comfortable to play even though they are very different. It seems that nut width is more important to me. I have small hands and fairly stubby fingers. My 62 was one of the most comfortable guitars I ever played. As I read posting after posting extolling the virtues of fat necks, I started to try some of them. I had a 69 Les Paul Goldtop that was huge-1 3/4" at the nut and close to 1" in depth at the first fret. I found I could play it just fine but I lost some velocity but gained some accuracy-maybe more room to put my stubby fingers.  I find a really large neck wards off some fatigue as well-maybe because my hand has more area to "lean" on. When I had the opportunity to play some of the later Gibson 335s (65-66-67-68), the nut had shrunk to 1 9/16". One eighth of an inch makes all the difference in the world. I found I was sloppy and my hands got tired. After about an hour of playing, that wasn't the case any more. I was playing with accuracy and speed. When all is said and done, I think neck size is a bit overrated. If you find a guitar that you can play that has the tone you want, then don't listen to fat neck guys. So your buddy has a 59 dot neck that's twice the size of your 67.  That doesn't make you uncool, just perhaps a bit more flexible. I took guitar lessons for a year when I was 12 from an old jazz guy (Mr. Orsini in Schenectady) who insisted that I get a guitar with a wide fingerboard and a thin neck. I took that to heart and bought a 62 ES 330 that was just that and played it in my band throughout the 60's until I became enamored of the SG that Clapton played and switched to an SG Standard in 1969 which I bought new (at Manny's in NYC). It had a huge neck and I thought I had made a big mistake. But no, in a few hours I was comfortable and playing SWLABR and sounding just like EC (well, almost).  I still love the 64 profile best but I've done some of my best playing on that 62 ES 330 and the 62 335 I got much later. I sold the 62 ES 335 a couple of years ago to, what else, a wide flat neck playing jazz guy. The skinny neck 335's are a relative bargain that you shouldn't dismiss out of hand. Just play one and see if it works for you. If it does, you can save yourself anywhere from a couple hundred to many thousands of dollars.

That's me in 1968 (age 16) playing my 62 330 at Scotia High School in Scotia, NY. Note the Vox Royal Guardsman with the head turned around. How cool was I?

And below, at age 15-same guitar
different gig. Dig the sideburns on a 15 year old