1962 Martin style-3 ukulele

When I bought my 1949 ES-300 I said it would be my last guitar purchase (at least for a while) as I’m running out of room for them all and frankly, they’re expensive and I’ve got real priorities like a mortgage and feeding a family. So I’ve started buying vintage ukuleles instead…

My first uke was purchased about 17 years ago for £5. I messed about with it for a few months, learned to knock out a tune or two and then put it away, thinking it more of a toy than a musical instrument. Fast forward to the present day and buying one for my daughter has got me back into them again, learning how to play them properly and on the vintage uke hunt.

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Which brings me to this, it’s a post 1962 (the ‘made in USA’ stamp gives that away) Martin style-3 ukulele – devoid of much of the ornamentation that adorned the versions of the 30s-40s, it’s subtler looking but still shows its high-end status. And whereas my old one and my daughter’s are basically toys, made from laminated woods, this is a real musical instrument – solid honduran mahogany body and a lovely piece of ebony for the fretboard.

The frets are perfectly polished, the celluloid binding is so fine and there’s so much of it, it’s just a beautiful little thing. It sounds good too – not as loud as the lower grade sopranos with the shorter fretboard (I’ve already tracked down one that I’m looking at buying soon) but still very musical, refined with warmth from the body wood and some snap from the ebony board.

I play it all the time and am loving learning a new instrument – it’s familiar but at the same time (due to the tuning), totally different to the guitar. Plus it’s great for travel and you can play it anywhere. I wish I’d payed more attention to them when I was younger…

The noise you don’t want to hear.

It’s the noise that strikes fear into your very heart. It’s a thud followed by a crack. The thud is the guitar falling over. The crack is its neck snapping. I’d managed to go 20 years without hearing it, only reading the stories of broken necks and buying guitars that had already been broken.

Well last week it finally happened – my 22 month old daughter accidentally knocked over my Les Paul Heritage 80 standard and there was that noise. I knew what it was immediately, walked into the room, saw the guitar on the floor, walked straight back out, sat in the other room and put my head in my hands. It was broken and it’s now the second break the guitar has, breaking just under the splines put in when it was first repaired.

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So now I need to get it fixed. I’ll probably be taking it to Ian Allerton who does amazing things with guitars, so I know it’ll be in safe hands. But even if it can be glued up it’s going to have two breaks within an inch of one another, so I’m considering just re-necking it (using the original fretboard and headstock inlay).

Whatever value it had has pretty much gone now anyway and I think if it’s glued I’ll be forever worried that it’ll break again – I’m not sure I’d be able to enjoy the guitar for worrying about it. So there are decisions to be made but let me tell you, I don’t want to hear that sound again in a hurry.

1962 Gibson ES-335TDC

I’ve said a couple of times here that providing you’re happy buying a guitar that’s been repaired, refinished or had its parts changed, you can find some get your hands on guitars you’d always thought out of your reach. And this guitar illustrates that point perfectly.

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This is my 1962 ES-335TDC. Yep, that’s C for cherry, which is still under the black paint it’s been refinished in. It also has a neck break, replaced neck binding and its PAF’s are long gone, as is the original trem (judging by the filled holes in, it originally had a sideways). When I bought it, it also had non-original machineheads, bridge, stoptail, M-69 pickup rings and truss rod cover. But it did have correct scratchplate, knobs, switch and tip and strap buttons.

So quite a lot wrong with it, but it cost less than a Historic block reissue. That’s a vintage 335 for less than a new one. And due to me mucking about with these things for years, I already had most of the vintage parts to put it right. So on went original rings, wireless ABR-1 bridge (with straight head screws and nylon saddles) and nickel PAT number pickup covers (over the WCR Goodwoods the guitar already had).

in addition to that is the early 90s Bigsby and original (and bloody hard to find) ‘Custom Made plaque’ to cover the stoptail holes, which it would have originally had – in fact this fits into the original pin holes that I found once I took the stop tail off. And it now has late 60s Kluson tuners too. I also had to tidy up the paintwork – carefully cutting some of it back and drop-filling the chips with black nitro to get it looking how it should.

Now it’s all done what I’ve got is a guitar that sounds and looks superb. It’s astonishingly good and I’d put up against anything, the playability of the wide/flat neck is excellent and it’s got tone for days. It’s also worth pointing out just how rare original factory black thinlines are – there’s only a handful of these things, so the only way I was ever going to get a black one was to find one like this.

This cost about a third of what it would have done if it was all straight. There aren’t many vintage guitar bargains out there any more but I’d definitely call this one of them.

1990s Les Paul Classic – ‘burst’ replica

The 1959 sunburst Les Paul needs little introduction, what with it being the most desirably electric guitar ever made. It’s been at the top of the electric guitar food chain since the 1960s and prices have always reflected this, although I don’t think anyone would have expected them to go as high as they have – I remember in the crazy days seeing one on Denmark Street for £450,000.

BurstClearly that kind of money is the preserve of rock stars, bankers and lottery winner so mere mortals need not apply, hell even a three legged dog’s going to cost you around £40,000. Which is why Gibson do a roaring trade with their historic series and there’s a huge ‘relic’ market of aged refinishes and vintage reproduction parts.

As someone that spent a long time obsessed with Les Paul’s I’ve been down this route, but on a cheaper level than most with my Les Paul Classic – when I bought it, it had been fully refinished by RS guitarworks to their ‘Road Warrior’ spec and had some aged repro parts on it. At the time I was lusting after a Murphy aged LP but couldn’t afford one, so this was the next best thing.

Since buying it I’ve done a few more things to it too – all the hardware is now swapped out for a selection of Vintage Clone rings, knobs, bridge, scratchplate and bracket, DMC pickup covers and stoptail and Fake 58 ‘shrunken’ tuners. I’ve had the inlays changed to vintage spec Cellulose Nitrate ones from Historic Makeovers and they also supplied the rolled 1950s spec TRC.

I’ll admit that the aging does look a bit fake compared to all my vintage pieces (but when I bought this in 2006 it was all the rage), but it’s still a very cool guitar in its own right and thanks to the Shed PAFs in it, sounds great. Perfect for when I’m pretending to be Jimmy Page…

1962 Gibson Melody Maker

This was the first vintage Gibson electric guitar I ever bought, back in 2000 for the sum of £400, which when I’d only just moved to London, had £1000 to my name and no job was somewhat reckless. But as an introduction to vintage guitars the humble Melody Maker is a great place to start.

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Firstly, even though prices have risen, they’re still affordable and easily cost a third of the next model up, the Les Paul Junior. The fact that it was Gibson’s lowest in the line beginners model belies the fact that these are fantastic guitars – you’re still getting Honduran mahogany,  Brazillian rosewood and golden era build quality.

Secondly, they sound good too, with a tone like a fat Tele, especially the early single cutaway ones with the wider pickup. They’re also lightweight and resonant with great playability meaning you can play one on a strap for hours on end without getting a sore shoulder and they have great shaped necks, almost without exception.

Mine’s been Grover’d (with late 60s Rotomatics) and is heavily used but I love it to bits and it still gets played often, acoustically it just rings like a tuning fork and is really rewarding when you really start digging in and playing it hard. Lots of these get robbed of parts and abused, so finding a really cheap one isn’t that hard – and you really can’t beat a great Melody Maker.

The search for vintage parts

Buying players grade guitars is a great way to get the instruments you never thought you’d own, at a fraction of their good condition cost. And providing you’re willing to put up with things like repairs, refinishes and changed parts, you can easily save yourself thousands of pounds. Plus thanks to the high quality reproduction parts available nowadays, getting things as close to original spec as possible is easier than ever.

Having said that, sometimes reproduction parts just don’t cut it and in those instances the only way to go is to the  vintage parts dealers on ebay. Vintage parts aren’t cheap anymore and getting all original bits can end of costing you more than the guitar’s worth but there are some things where I think vintage is best – namely original machineheads and reflector knobs, neither of which I think anyone does 100% right.

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And it’s these that I recently bought – a set of Klusons for my 1962 ES-335 (I’ll feature that guitar soon) and a set of reflector knobs for my 1967 ES-345. Now’s the point where I say I’ve taken liberties with both of them – the Klusons are actually double line ‘Gibson Deluxe’ versions from the late 60′s as opposed to the single line ‘deluxe’ ones from earlier in the decade. The reason was of course cost, as they were less than half the price of the ‘correct’ ones, but it’s the buttons and their colour/consistency that the reproductions can’t seem to get right.

Next up are the reflectors, again these aren’t actually period correct for 1967 but I hate witch hat knobs and the original set from the 345 are in the case. These are the correct gold body, gold reflector for a guitar with gold hardware but aren’t quite a matched set (again they were half the price of a mint set), but by the time I’ve finished with them, they should all match perfectly and the visual difference is huge.

I’m really happy with these and they do make a difference over new, aged parts, both in look and in ‘mojo’ – they look old and feel old because they are, just like the guitars they’re going on.

1952 Gibson ES-175N

The other big blonde in my collection is this, an ES-175N from 1952. It’s a thing of simple beauty and it’s one of my favourite pieces in the collection. It’s in very good condition, sounds fantastic and is perfect for a bit of jazz on a Sunday afternoon.

Admittedly she was an impulse buy, I was actually looking at another 175 at the time (1962 but with a couple of ‘issues’) when I saw this, gave it a play and took it home. The fact it was blonde made a big difference as they don’t come up that often and I’ve only seen a couple of others for sale in the UK since I bought this six years ago (Gibson made 192 natural finished 175′s in 1952, compared to 818 Sunburst examples so they’re not that common although way more plentiful than my ’49 ES-300N).

The joined ‘i’ dot to the ‘G’ in the logo points to very early ’52 and it’s totally original apart from the thumb wheels which should be brass but these are nickel (and old) so they could have been changed early on in her life, who knows? The P90 is more versatile than many give it credit for and can do pretty much anything from trad jazz to proper rock (fans of Killing Joke will be aware of how much crunch you can get out of one of these, as Geordie uses a 50′s ES-295 to great effect).

A wonderful guitar and one that’s a pleasure to own.