Wednesday, October 17, 2012

From the Bailey Brothers' VAULT: 1960 Gibson ES-355

You have heard of it happening.  Most guitar shops will have somewhere that they keep the "good stuff."  You are standing in your favorite local guitar shop.  You overhear another customer say something like "have you gotten in anything good lately?" while he is standing next to Custom Shop Les Pauls, Gretsch White Falcons or CS black guard Teles and what not.  As if those were not good.

This customer is talking about the stuff in the back room, upstairs, or maybe even right behind the counter and out of sight of the average dude walking in to for the sole reason of playing "Stairway To Heaven" for everyone to hear.

You might be asking yourself "what do they have back there?"  This is one of the things they might have.  But probably not.

1960 Gibson ES-355 with the original brown Lifton case.

The ES-355 was officially introduced in 1959 but supposedly a couple were shipped in '58.  It is constructed of a laminated Maple body with a solid block down the center and a neck of their standard, Mahogany.  It also features 2 humbucking pickups- just like a 335.  Where it differs from the 35 is in the fretboard (Ebony instead of Rosewood) and all that sexy bling, binding and gold hardware.  Oh, and the factory Grover tuners (the good ones) and Bisgby tailpiece.

This example made it out of the factory with some cool features.  The serial number says that it was manufactured in 1960 so it must have been early in 1960 because it has the longer pickguard as well as 19 frets to the body (instead of 20).  In 1960 they shortened the pickguard so that it would not go past the bridge pickup.

The best part of these 355s is that they featured gold plated hardware.  PAF pickups were made in nickel and gold finishes.  Gibson used nickel hardware on most of their guitars and saved the gold hardware for the really fancy ones.  As a result, the gold covered PAFs lasted well into the early 60s.  This one features PAFs.  They sound damn good too.

Most of the 355s came with a feature that Gibson called "Varitone."  This was a switchable notch filter that cut certain frequencies using a range of different capacitors.  Many players/collectors think that Varitone "kills tone" and therefore it makes a vintage 355 less valuable.  I haven't messed around with a Varitone switch enough to form my own opinion but I do like the simplicity of not having it.  This guitar was spared of that switch.

Here is a shot of a real M-69 pickup ring.  You may be wondering to yourself why this little piece of plastic matters at all.  They are commonly faked and sold for a good bit of money.  If you buy one of those $200k+ '59 Les Pauls you are probably going to want to have all original parts.  But, these pickup rings were prone to crack and break.  Many were replaced throughout the years.  Now you have a market for  little pieces of plastic that apparently go for $500 or so.  Go figure.

This guitar had a little surprise for us when we decided to take out the neck pickup to check out the PAF.  We removed the pickuard in order to get a good look at the PAF (the bridge pickup's lead was too short!).  We had been discussing what kind of person would have bought this instrument new in 1960.  I was thinking a big band guy or a jazz guitarist.  Probably not the standard country western kind of thing that was popular at the time.

When we set the pickguard aside we noticed a name stamped on the underside of the pickguard.  Max Williamson.  I couldn't find anything about him online but maybe you have some information about him?  Here's to you, Max, and your good taste in fine instruments.

This guitar is available from Bailey Brothers Music Company in Birmingham, AL.  Thanks to Clay and Keith for letting me snap a couple of quick pictures of it.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Just a good, southern late 50s Gibson J-45.. and a quick video of my 1964 Gibson B-25

Carl posted about this guitar in the comments section of the post of my 1953 J-45:

I love getting these emails.  You never know what you are going to come across.  This one has 20 frets to the body, larger pickguard and non-adjustable bridge.  That would put it between 1955 and 1961 (about).  I don't have a picture of the FON so I can't nail down the year.  I have an up close picture of the fretboard and it looks to be flat-sawn Rosewood instead of quarter-sawn.  My 1960 Gibson Melody Maker has that same kind of ugly flat sawn Rosewood.  Could be 1960?

This was Carl's dad's guitar that was bought second hand from an old lady who had listed in the local paper.  I won't tell you how much he paid but it was less than 3 digits.  Good deal!!  Carl's dad never learned to play so it hasn't seen much playing time.  Hold on to that one, Carl!!

On a separate note, here is a video I took today of a Gibson I am currently selling on eBay:

Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see some more videos of vintage guitars!  I'll be uploading some videos of my J-45s and other guit-fiddles soon (hopefully).

This is a 1964 Gibson B-25.  Despite the total refinish, it really is a nice guitar.  I haven't played many Gibsons with ADJ bridges and I had always been told how bad they sound.  Maybe my expectations were low but I really like the way it sounds.  The high "e" string really rings true and loud.  It still has that little percussive "thump" in the body when you strike a string.

I am also very fond of this tune called "Murder In the City" by the Avett Brothers.  I did you the favor of not singing it in the video.  You're welcome.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why this is probably not a 1961 Gibson ES-125- what do you think?

Gibson is consistent in only one thing: inconsistency.  As a result it can be very difficult to date some vintage Gibsons.  When I say Gibson here, I mean Kalamazoo era Gibson (up until about 1977 give or take).  Dating vintage Gibsons is sometimes an art rather than a science.  Take for instance this guitar from the Music City Pickers out of Nashville, TN.  I have met these guys and they are top notch.  They always have great guitars coming and going and it is a joy to see.  That being said, this one may deserve a second opinion: "1961 ES-125" at Music City Pickers.

Silver covered P-90s?

Straight sides, script logo

Why is this not an ES-125??  We know that this is at least something odd right off the bat because of the combination of the headstock and the P-90s.  The headstock pictured has straight sides and a pearl script logo (as opposed to block logo- see picture below).  This headstock was discontinued in 1941 and was never used again in the Kalamazoo factory.  As per the write up on their website, it also have a V shaped neck.  This was not popular in the 60s.  The P-90 pickups it has were not produced until 1946.  The math does't add up.

This is what the headstock should look like.  See the sides how they are bent in?  See the block logo?

Gibson is known for inconsistency so why couldn't this have been a old neck laying around that was put on a 125 body?  It could have been, but I doubt it.  Here is why.

This picture shows the top of the instrument.  See those vertical lines?  Classic evidence of a carved Spruce top.  So what did ES-125s have?
Here is the best shot I can come up with.  ES-125s all had laminated Maple tops.  This is cheaper to make.  Why would you make a student model guitar out of expensive solid Spruce?  Also, electric guitars with solid Spruce tops tend to feed back more. This guitar does not show nice straight vertical lines.  That is because it is an ES-125 and they are made of Maple- not Spruce.

We know the neck is not from 1961.  It looks bad for the body to be for an ES-125.  The Pickers said that they think that it was original and from the factory in 1961 because the body and the neck both have the same serial number.  Here is a shot of that serial number:

The number is "613."  This one is very strange and also not correct for 1961.  It needs at least one more digit to be in the ballpark.  

This picture gives us another piece of evidence- the Grover Sta-Tite tuners.  These were used in the 30s but not in the 60s.  If  a random neck was found in the factory left over from the 30s it would not have had tuners.  It would have been unfinished.  Therefore probably no tuners.

So what is this thing?

In my opinion, this guitar was produced in the mid to late 30s by Gibson in their Kalamazoo, MI. factory.   By the time the 60s came around this was just an old guitar.  There was no real value to "vintage" guitars.  Few people cared about vintage.  The first vintage guitar stores started in the late 70s (Gruhn).  After 30 years of playing this thing looked kind of rough compared to the shiny new electrics that Gibson was producing.  The owner sent the guitar back to the factory where the finish was stripped, body was drilled for modern electronics then a new finish was applied.  The electronics were reinstalled and the guitar was sent back to its owner.

We can even make a good guess as to when the guitar was rebuilt/refinished.  The Picker's advertisement for this guitar says that the potentiometers date to 1967.  And the truth shall set you free!  In my opinion, this is a mid to late thirties Gibson acoustic archtop that was sent back to the factory in 1967/8 and refinished/fitted with modern electronics.

But- Joe Glaser (Glaser Instruments), Todd Money (Gibson repair) and Gibson Customer Service all agree that this is a 1961!  Joe Glaser is unrivaled in what he does- repair.  Todd Money is right up there with Joe (in repair).  Gibson Customer Service is well, they try.  My point is that these guys are great but why should they be experts in dating Gibsons?  Why should they care about someone else's guitar when they have thousands of others they need to attend to?

Dating vintage Gibson guitars is often an art.  It is open for discussion.  There are things in this article that are potentially incorrect.  I welcome your opinions.  


Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Holy Grail of vintage guitar amplifiers: 1956 Fender Deluxe

I used to have a couple of tweed fenders and one was the Deluxe.  It was a '59.  The speaker had been changed a couple of times.  The capacitors were recent and who knows where the output transformer came from.  The tweed was ripped and covered in candle wax from a couple of different recording sessions.  And it sounded, in a word, like a small piece of rock heaven.

The amplifier pictured is clearly not my old tweed Deluxe.  This one led a completely different life than the one from the recording studio.  This one was bought used in 1964 by guy who just liked guitars.  He wasn't a great player but neither were most of the people who bought these amps new.  They were not holy grails then.  They were small, cheap amps that distorted when cranked up.  People in the 50s didn't really think that was "good."  High quality amplifiers weren't supposed to sound distorted at any volume.

So it was bought used by the second owner and played very little for most of its life.  He said he had a couple of guitars he would play through it -like his Gibson Les Paul Jr. - but mostly he played a Gretsch Chet Atkins.  Eventually, he sold those guitars but had little motivation to sell the amp because nobody cared.  As a result this amplifier sat in his closet with the cover on for years.

A friend mentioned to him recently that it was a fine amplifier and there were people out there that would pay good money for it.

Would I like to buy a near mint condition tweed deluxe?  Why yes, yes I would.  It didn't matter to me that it was 5 hours away.

When I got there I didn't even plug the thing in.  He had pawned it a few weeks before so I had to pay the pawn price and give the rest in cash.  I was happy to do so.  

The Fender Deluxe (model 5e3) was introduced in 1955 lasted until 1960.  According to the Fender Amp Field Guide this one has about 15 watts of all tube output through a 12" speaker, usually a Jensen.  A pair of 6v6gt vacuum tubes make up the power section with two 12ax7s in the preamp.  The original tubes were probably RCA but these are General Electric.  The amplifier and speaker are housed in a fingerjointed pine cabinet covered in diagonal tweed.

 Living in an apartment has its disadvantages.  One of them is not being able to crank up an amp to get that sweet, sweet tube saturation.  I took it to my buddy (who helped me find it- thanks man!) at the local music shop and we put it through its paces.  With a brand new Gibson R8 Les Paul it started distorting with the chicken head knob pointing at 3.  3!  From there to about 9 it had that beautiful overdrive these tweed fenders are known for.  9 to 12 got a little piercing with the harmonic overtones and that just wasn't what I was going for.

Then he brought out a 1960 Gibson ES-330 and let me have a go with it.  That was the combo I was looking for.  I had the 330's volume and tone pots dimed on the neck pickup with the Deluxe on about 3 and a half.  The tone.  I was just doing a little blues noodling around the 7th fret and it was everything I had hoped for.  The P-90 was thick and nuanced.  The Deluxe's pair of GE 6v6s were lightly distorting and absolutely growled when I dug in deep.  It was very responsive. The lightest touch produced sparkly cleans that darkened substantially with a little right hand heat.  I was sold.

After the tone expedition we decided do do a little research into the originality of this amp.  The capacitors, transformers, potentiometers and switches all seemed original and in good shape.  The GE tubes were probably replacements but I am still not convinced on the speaker.  It should be a Jensen but there were some exceptions.  Oxford and Rola seem to come to mind.  In all likelihood the original Jensen was changed by the first owner.  The second owner said he did not change the speaker and I believe him.  The music he was playing did not require loud or distorted tone so it is unlikely he pushed the speaker to its breaking point.  If you have any more information or theories then please feel free to comment!

Fender amps are easily dated by their tube charts.  They usually have a stamp with two letters for a year and a month.  This one bears the letters FJ meaning 1956 and October.

They also usually have a little piece of masking tape bearing the initials of the person who wired the amplifier.  This one is a bit obscured by time but the name on the tape is Lily.  The other popular names that show up are: Lupe (most popular), Lily, Eileen, Margaret, Rachel, Maybell, Lydia and Julia.

Hope you enjoyed a look at this amp.  Maybe I can get a real guitar player to help me out with a video of it.

My buddy Chris at Bailey Brothers Music in Birmingham was kind enough to shred on this amp after I got it all cleaned up.  He also let me take a few videos of it.  Check them out:

Thanks Chris!  Nice playing!