Noteworthy guitars I had the chance to play pt. 6

I’m in the East Lansing with my wife for Thanksgiving, and I finally had a chance to go to Elderly Instruments. Of all the guitar store I’ve been to, I think this one was my favorite. I liked everything about it, from the outside of the building to the guitars and people who work in it. In fact, I liked the way it looked so much that I took a picture of the building.


However, what I liked the best is that they had a lot of interesting guitars there that I’ve never had the chance to play before. Since I was visiting the store, as opposed to just working on whatever guitars that needed a setup, I was seeking out guitars I thought would be exceptional. As a result, this post includes all the guitars I played.

Gibson ES-175 (1952). The link is to the Elderly page for this guitar, which may go bad after this guitar sells, so I’ll include the description and a picture.
VGC+, sunburst finish, double bound 16″ maple body, mahogany neck (screw hole in heel where strap button once was), bound rosewood fretboard, split parallelogram inlays, 20 frets, 1 P90 pickup, adjustable bridge (non-original top with nylon saddles, original in case), replacement trapeze tailpiece, newer b-w-b-w-b pickguard installed, headstock overlay features logo and crown inlays, replacement tuners with single ring keystone buttons (originals in case), great (BIG) sound, 1-11/16″ nut, 24-3/4″ scale, on consignment, with newer HSC (SN:A-9878)

Gibson es175 elderly

I think this was the first archtop I’ve ever played. It had nickel-wound strings (because of the pickup) which I don’t like as much for fingerpicking, but this guitar played like a dream. I pretty much just fingerpicked on it, at first with my fingers but then with some picks from the store. It sounded sort of mellow and relatively quiet (unplugged), and I liked that a lot. I was picking lightly because I was in the middle of the main room, so there a good chance it actually sounds pretty big, like the description says. Plugging it in would have made it sound more jazzy, I bet, but there wasn’t an amp nearby. The nut looked like it might be original, considering how yellowed out it was (practically orange). The description on the website doesn’t mention it, but I’m pretty sure the strap button on the butt wasn’t original. Perhaps that’s understood from the fact the tailpiece is non-original. Awesome guitar.

Collings D1A Wide Nut (New). Collings’ website lists all the specs, but very quickly: this was a dreadnaught with mahogany back, sides and neck, Adriondack spruce top, and ebony fretboard. Like all high-end guitars, it was well-made and comfortable to play (I like wide nuts!), but I wasn’t all that impressed with it, probably because it’s a dreadnaught. I think dreadnaughts are kind of imbalanced in the way they sound. They bass is really loud, but not deep, and the highs are always too piercing. I think that’s what makes them so great for flatpicking, but I really dislike them for fingerpicking. Of course, Fahey played a Gibson/Recording King Ray Whitely, which has the same shape and depth as a dreadnaught but with slopped shoulders, and later he played a Martin dreadnaught. So it’s definitely possible to get good sounds out of Dreadnaughts, I just don’t know how (yet?). And again, I don’t mean to say that a guitar made by a company that literally everyone likes isn’t good. I just found it to not be my thing, and that’s probably only because it’s a dreadnaught.

Gibson L-3 (1927). Again, the link is from Elderly’s website, so I’ll include a picture and their description.
grand concert size 16″ body, largest of the L-3 variations, sunburst finish on arched spruce top with oval soundhole (center seam has been splined and is completely oversprayed), bound soundhole, single ring mosaic rosette, dark natural finish on maple sides and back is oversprayed and there are several repaired and replaced areas of binding, 11-1/2 fret mahogany neck, bound ebony fretboard, dot inlays, 20 frets, adjustable ebony bridge, original trapeze tailpiece (string anchor has been replated), pearl script logo on headstock, original 3-on-a-plate tuners with white plastic buttons, missing pickguard, ~1-3/4″ nut, 24-3/4″ scale, on consignment, with period HSC (green lining) (SN:74054)  

Gibson L3 Elderly

This guitar was otherworldly. I don’t know if the L-3s what fall under the holy grail of Gibsons, but this guitar was made in 1927. It’s 87 years old, and it was in better shape than my Guild F-30, but forget its shape, it sounded like nothing else I’ve ever played. It was to the point where I’m not sure how to describe it even. I kind of want to say that the strings sounded like they might gut strings, even though I never played gut strings, and these definitely were acoustic’s strings. It just sounded really warm, had great bass and highs (it’s a grand orchestra) and was really comfortable and fun to play. It had a chunky mahogany V neck, maple back and sides, and spruce top. I’m not sure how it’s braced on the top, but I believe the back was carved and not laminated. Pretty cool guitar and I think it’s priced right at $2200.

You might notice two pins coming out of the bottom side of the fingerboard extension. I have no idea what those are, but I’m set to find out!

Gibson L-50 (1934). Another pre-war Gibson, except this one seems to have been through the wringer with all its scratches and nicks. The most noticeable one was the pick wear on the bass side, as evidenced in the picture, but not to worry – it was lacquered over. The overspray is important for maintaining the longevity of the neck, but I wonder if someone like Frank Ford would have tried to match the rest of the finish. That would have been a hell of a job though. Another thing I noticed was that the fretwork was kind of iffy on the fretboard extension. The frets just weren’t all the way in. They didn’t seem to pop in and out, but still. Anyway, it was a nice guitar with nice action, but didn’t pull me in, and I feel like $1200 for a pre-war Gibson isn’t a bad price to pay. Here’s a picture of it and Elderly’s description, in case the link dies:

Gibson L50 Elderly

double bound 16″ body, sunburst finish, spruce top, a few repaired top and back cracks, repaired side / back seams near end block, f-holes, maple back and sides, mahogany neck, Brazilian rosewood fretboard, dot markers, 19 frets, trapeze tailpiece, adjustable rosewood bridge, tortoise plastic pickguard, non-original 3-on-a-plate tuners installed, instrument completely oversprayed, nice workhorse, 1-3/4″ nut, 24-3/4″ nut, with newer HSC (SN:802-41)  

I’m noticing that all these archtops have maple back and sides, and I wonder why. Contemporary (to these guitars) acoustics had mahogany and rosewood back and sides, so why maple? One reason can think of is that maple is/was cheaper than rosewood, and a bigger piece of wood is needed if one is going to carve the back, so it makes sense they’ll go with maple. I guess mahogany is more expensive than maple as well, but that still leaves the sides. Aren’t the sides on archtops the same thickness as on acoustics?

Santa Cruz OM (New). Santa Cruz again. Man, these guitars are something else. It’s hard to decide where to start with this guitar, since everything about it was awe inspiring, but I should start with the specs. Indian rosewood back and sides, Sitka spruce top, mahogany V neck with ebony board, and scalloped braces. The visual design of this guitar was very tasteful. SCGC seem to kind of dance the less is more line, with some features being very minimal, like the tiny pearl dot inlays and teardrop pickguard, and some being more intricate, like the rosette and binding on the top. Like other Santa Cruzes, I noticed that the top is a little thicker, but I had no way of taking meaningful measurements. It could also be that my mind is playing tricks on me, because a thicker top goes against everything I know about guitar tops and how these guitars sound. Ok, so playability and sound – holy mackerel! This is definitely the second best guitar I’ve ever played (ranked below the Santa Cruz prewar OM). It was incredibly well-balanced with thumping bass and detailed, but not harsh highs. It was definitely one of those guitars that made me keep wanting to play it and got me to play differently. I also noticed that I was picking louder than before (I try and be considerate in guitar stores), which I believe was a result of this guitar being awesome. The only thing I would have changed would be the action. It was a wee bit high at the nut and the saddle, probably the way it was set up in the factory, and was left like that so whoever buys it can decide if they like it like that or need it lowered. Lastly, the beautiful fret ends! This time I remembered to take a picture.

Santa Cruz fret ends
(Click it to see the fret ends more clearly)

Each fret end is just a perfect triangle. Here’s a link to Elderly’s page for this specific guitar I played. It has a bunch of pictures (and hopefully won’t go down when it’s sold). This guitar ranks second for the best guitar I’ve ever played. The first is the Santa Cruz pre war OM, and remember that the prewar was a few years old. This one will mature quite a bit after a few years of playing. Damn, I miss it already.

Noteworthy guitars I had the chance to play pt. 5

Unfortunately, I’m writing this post almost a month after I actually worked on these guitars and took notes on them.

Fender American Stratocaster (New). When I was a kid there were two types of Fenders. American and Japanese. And the American Fenders were regarded (maybe just by me?) as the best guitar anyone could get. Then came the Mexican Fenders, and then came all the custom shops, relics, vintage vibe, whatever models. What that meant is that now the American Fender wasn’t the top of the line. It was middle of the line and I stopped looking up to them. To be honest, this wasn’t just a prejudice, I would actually pick up “standard” made in the USA Fenders, and they would bum me out. This week (or rather, last month), I had the chance to work on a couple (in the same day) of American standard strats, and I was pleasantly surprised. They played nicely, I was able to get low action out of them, and they sounded like stratocasters. It’s just felt like Fender is putting some effort into these guitars again. The only thing that bothered me and truly perplexed me was the fact they didn’t have safety posts tuners. Why would Fender go back on these tuners? They’re the best! First, very small chances of getting your fingers poked by a string, but they also created a standard to stringing up Fenders. I’m really confused by why Fender would use through posts.

Fender CS Stratocaster (2013). No link because the Fender page is annoying. This one was finished in surf green and was lightly (and correctly) reliced, had jumbo frets, sounded like Hendrix (well, not really, but you get the idea), and the best thing about it – the neck (which was stamped April 2011) wasn’t twisted. To be honest, all I remember is that it was a really cool guitar, but the funny thing is that I played it right after the first American standard strat, and it blew it out of the water. And that goes back again to Fender’s marketing that I alluded to. Instead of having two or three “strands” of the same guitar, they make 10 of them, actually put it in decent effort into maybe two of those series (like the custom shop) and jack up the price on those. Oh well, at least they still make nice guitars, and this one had safety posts!

Gibson ES-339. I’ve never seen one of these before! It was like a baby ES-335 and I liked it. I like the 335s, but they are kind of awkward to play when sitting down, so the 339 is a perfect compromise. The one I worked on was finished in red/cherry, probably had maple top, had mahogany neck and rosewood board. It sounded great, but I have no idea what pickups it had.

That day I also worked on a 73 or 72 SG Standard that had a (repaired) broken headstock. It liked the way it played and sounded, but it’s been so long, I don’t remember too much about it, except for two things. 1) Whoever refreted it didn’t bother with the fret nibs, which made the guitar look weird. 2) It needed a fret dress. Otherwise, a totally solid guitar.  There was also a 2004 Les Paul Standard that sounded killer and weighed as much as an anvil, but I don’t remember too much about it, except that I might be turning into a Les Paul guy. One day I’ll buy a Les Paul with P90s (maybe a Gem?) and it might be my favorite guitar.

Noteworthy guitars I had the chance to play pt. 4

Only two guitars today, but both are pretty noteworthy.

Martin 000-4S Mark Knopfler. Spruce top, rosewood back and sides, slotted headstock, and Mark Konpfler’s signature! It was obviously a very well crafted guitar, and it sounded great too, but it didn’t blow my mind. Unfortunately, I think there was a superficial factor that went into it not devastating me, and that was the price. On one hand I was a little afraid to play it – the longer I hold it, the better chance I have of dropping and nicking it. On the other, I considering how much it cost, I expected to sound like John Fahey. Trying to be objective, I think the 000s are just not my bag. They’re good fingerpicking guitars, but it’s more like delicate, beautiful chords fingerpicking, not the aggressive, heavy alternating bass a-la the aforementioned Fahey fingerpicking. It didn’t have enough bass, and it just didn’t sound as good as the Santa Cruz Pre War OM from a couple of weeks ago. When I think about it, it’s exactly the kind of acoustic guitar I’d expect Mark Knopfler to play and endorse. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very fine guitar, and I felt quite fortunate to play a guitar of which only 155 were made.

Taylor K-22 Koa. This one was made in 1998, and is a different than Taylor current offering of K22s, hence the lack of a link. The top, sides, and back of this guitar were made of Koa. The neck I believe was mahogany with Ebony fretboard. The coolest thing about this guitar’s cosmetics was the tortoise binding, which worked really well with the Koa. Anyway, what made this guitar stand out among other Taylors is that it didn’t have a cutaway nor electronics. I’m not a fan of cutaways on acoustics because I rarely ever need to play there, and they always make the guitar look cheap. The electronics I can take or leave, because I don’t need to use it, but I’m always sad when holes were drilled in the guitar’s side to accommodate for knobs. Beyond that, the guitar had a comfortable setup with action measuring 3/32″ on the bass side and 2/32″ on the treble side. This guitar made me want to keep playing it, and it sounded spectacular – with plenty of bass and clear highs. I actually liked it better than the Martin.

This is unrelated to these two guitars, but the more time I spend working on guitars, the more weary I become of buying guitars online. For instance, so many guitars have twisted necks! It’s crazy. Some of them are new, some are old, but pretty much anything with a strat-like neck is twisted and that’s a bummer. No online seller will say the neck is twisted, some probably don’t even realize it, and it’s impossible to see it from the usual pictures you see in an auction. Honestly, I think most people don’t notice the twist when playing the guitar, but the more time I spend setting up guitars, the more I realize that the twist is one of those things that prevent a guitar from having a perfect setup. On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s healthy to fall into the vortex that is finding the right guitar. I have friends who buy and sell guitars almost every week in a hunt for the right guitar, and it’s a bit of an entitled approach. Did Skip James have the best guitar he could lay his hands on? Doesn’t Ash Bowie from Polvo play cheap Strat knock-offs? A friend of mine told me once that “if a guitar looks cool and the pickups work, then it’s a good guitar”. I try to balance these two approaches and I think it works. Even though they don’t make it to this blog, I found that I’m quite welcoming of cheap guitars.

Noteworthy guitars I had the chance to play pt. 3

This post is going to be a little different from the previous two. None of these guitars knocked me off my feet completely, but they were very good guitars nonetheless. What makes them noteworthy is that I found them to be peculiar for one reason or another.

Gibson ES-335 (1988). Ok, so this one isn’t really peculiar, but it did feel quite heavy for a semi-hollow guitar.  It was cherry red with a nicely worn fretboard (I really liked it when it has shallow divots), and played really well. The pickups were alright, but I don’t honestly remember exactly. It was the best guitar I played yesterday, so it makes it to the list.

Santa Cruz F model (Fingerstyle, made very early in 1994). The F model is Santa Cruz’s Grand Orchestra model, or mini Jumbo. I’m talking about a guitar that is deep like a dreadnaught, but with a narrower waist. In fact, it looks a lot like a 70s-80s Guild F30. Anyway, this guitar was a weird bird. It had a cutaway, which always bums me out, and its top was really thick. I’m talking twice the thickness of a “regular” acoustic, but I had no calipers with me to take any meaningful measurements. Then, to top that off, it didn’t have a truss rod! I’m sure the folks at SCGC had good reasons to not put a truss rod in, but it could have used a little less relief to make playing easier. The fretboard had some intricate inlays that now I regret not taking a picture of. Anyway, this guitar played well and sounded good, but it didn’t leave the same impression on me like the Pre-War OM model I’ve had the chance to play last week.

Then, by coincidence, a new F model fell in my lap. I didn’t really work on it, but just got to play it for a minute. This one sounded and played a little better, but it too had a thick top and no truss rod. This F model didn’t have a cutaway, and also, its top was made of Sitka Spruce, were the Fingerstyle F model had Cedar top.

The thick top business is very intriguing to me. These two tops are made of different woods, yet both are the same thickness. Do they just pick pieces of wood that aren’t as dense or strong? And if so, why? I might have to pick up the phone and call them to find out.

Fender Telecaster 52 Reissue (2007).  This Tele could probably go head to head with the Cherry ES-335. It played really well, felt very solid (like what I’d imagine the originals to be), and the bridge pickup was on fire. The first thing to really stick out and be news to me was the screws. They were all flat heads! And apparently, the originals also employed flat heads only. To be honest, I like it better this way. The other cool thing was the pickguard. I don’t know if it was bakelite or even cellulose, but it was much thicker than the newer guards. What I really came to appreciate though was the design – Leo Fender really nailed it with the Telecasters. These guitars were made to be easily serviceable. The best thing is that you can remove the pickguard without having to slacken the strings or carry the pickup with you. Just a few screws and it can be moved aside. Then there’s access to the truss rod nut from under the pickguard, so it’s not necessary to remove the neck from the body. Then there’s the thickness of the neck, and I don’t know if this was a fluke or by design, but the neck wasn’t twisted. I think every Strat neck I looked at had some amount of twist (and by that I mean more relief on the treble side than the bass side, the wood itself might not actually be twisted), but not the Telecasters. I think that’s because the Strat necks are usually thinner than the Telecaster’s, but maybe also because the neck is one piece of maple vs. maple with rosewood fretboard. Lastly, this guitar provided some insight as to how Fender finished their necks. I’ve been wondering for a while if they stained the necks or sprayed tinted lacquer, or a combination of both. This guitar had tinted lacquer on the sides of the frets, so now I know that at least with the reissues Fender sprayed tinted lacquer, possibly in addition to staining, but who knows.

Noteworty guitars I had the chance to play pt. 2

The more guitars I play, the more I realize that to me, nice guitars are ones that are easy and fun to play. It’s guitars that make me want to play them rather than just check them to make sure everything is working right and move to the next. Hopefully, as I work on more guitars, the definition of a nice guitar will get more precise – what does it mean in terms of action, neck profile, radius, relief, fret condition, etc., and what I can do to a guitar to make it nice.

Here are the guitars that left an impression on me today:
Fender American Vintage 1958 Precision Bass. Obviously a reissue of a 58 P-Bass. It had a black body, maple neck, and gold anodized pickguard, and I must say, the gold and black combination is killer. This bass felt really solid and was well put together. No oversized neck pocket shenanigans or anything like that. Quality hardware too. The best thing was that the bass played really well all over the neck, including the high frets. Fender seem to file some fallaway into the frets of the tongue, so I believe that’s what made it play so nicely after the 12th fret. The pickups were pretty good with a lot of low end and the P-Bass bite (whatever it means, but everyone knows what it means). That bass felt like it was worn in, like someone played it for a few years and it “settled in”. No, I don’t mean it was reliced. It just felt like it’s been played a lot, while looking and being brand new. That’s pretty cool and not something you see often. Also, the guitar was well setup when it got in my hands. I just lowered the action a little bit (3/32nd on the E string, I think 2.5/32nd on the G string). I think it can be had for less than $2000 like it’s advertised, so if I were to buy a new bass, I’d be all over those reissues.

Gibson Les Paul Custom (1980). Ooh boy. This one was something else. Maple neck with Ebony fingerboard, both headstock and neck were bound. Body was Mahogany (did they ever make a non-mahogany LP?) with maple top (also the standard, I believe) that was left natural, and both top and back were bound. The frets were quite low but had no divots, and the nut was original (and well made, too). This guitar felt amazing. It had really low action to begin with, but I managed to bring it down a little more and got no buzz. What a nice guitar. I would have kept playing it for hours.

Also, this is a good spot to point out that I’m really starting to dig Les Pauls and SGs. I’m not a fan of humbuckers, and the shorter scale is a bummer, but so many of these guitars feel so nice. I don’t know what it is. The radius? The profile? I used to be a total Fender guy and I still like them, but I feel like the good ones are hard to come by.

Fano RB6. This one was a Gibson scale (24.75″), with two Fralin P90s, a Bigsby, rosewood fingerboard, and a very reliced Olympic white finish. I was totally prejudiced towards this guitar because of the dumb finish, but really liked it once stringed up. Again, it’s so goofy to talk in terms of what a guitar brings out of you, but I was playing differently on it. Different style, different riffs, and more confidence. Ooh, another cool feature was the safety post tuners. Usually those three-and-three headstocks have through post (is this what they’re actually called?) tuners, so this was a surprise. I get that the more traditional Gibson tuner posts are a look that people aren’t going to give up on, but it’s really nice to string up a guitar in a minute and not cut your fingers on any strings.