Our good friend Alejandro recently fell in love with the venerable Gibson ES-355, having spent some quality time with my personal guitar. He was smitten with the tonal versatility and retro-cool looks of the model and as luck would have it, we stumbled upon a Craigslist ad that suited his tastes perfectly. Lo and behold, the guitar for sale was one year younger than my own- and the same color, too!
Alejandro was in constant contact with us as he mulled over his decision, and when he finally took the plunge, we were able to assuage any possible buyer’s remorse with assurances of his acquiring a supremely sweet axe at a supremely sweet price.
Once in his possession, Alejandro immediately left the guitar in our care, with explicit instructions to make it rock, and hard. Challenge accepted.
If you’ve ever played one of these, you may note that the original stereo wiring sucks tone. We took care of that with some deft re-wiring. Alejandro was quite partial to the Varitone (as am I) so it was decided that since the original was replaced years ago, there was no harm in re-purposing the unit.
With John’s help interpreting the schematic, I was not only able to re-wire the Varitone for mono operation, but also track down the source of “tone-suck.” (Hint: control placement) We also went a head and upgraded his harness to high-quality Bourns potentiometers, vintage paper and oil caps and vintage cloth wiring harvested from an old Hammond organ.
I performed a quick test-run with the electronics exposed, and was pleasantly greeted by the sound of victory. No high-end loss, and better yet: no volume drop when engaging the Varitone!
One caveat to re-wiring from stereo to mono: when using the original stereo option with a 2-channel amp, the pickups needed to be out of phase in order to avoid any strange frequency canceling. When switching to mono, it’s necessary to re-position the magnet of one of the pickups to put them back in phase with one another, unless of course, out-of-phase tones are preferred. In Alejandro’s case, it wasn’t. It’s an easy but delicate operation! One false move and your pickup is toast.
Once everything was back in its right place, I strung the guitar with DR Pure Blues 10-46 gauge strings. Alejandro seemed quite pleased with the set-up, and I have to admit that I was as well. I also performed my “secret” tricks for him, thus ensuring that the guitar stays in tune even with heavy vibrato use. This operation was sort of a labor of love for me, involving an instrument of which I am quite fond. I can’t get enough of this particular Electric Spanish model!
On a note of comparison, I’ll share my thoughts about how similar/different these two beauties really were:
1) Most notably, Alejandro’s ’78 had a much, much wider neck than my ’77. I don’t know if that’s a spec change or just a result of the natural inconsistencies of production, but where I’ve found my slimmer, faster neck to be comfortable, Alejandro seemed to appreciate the extra string spacing and slightly chunkier neck carve. His guitar felt more like a Les Paul in that respect, but that’s not a bad thing. (Look closely at the straight-on photograph of our guitars; it’s easy to see how big a difference there is between our necks by paying special attention to the first fret inlay.)
2) Alejandro’s pickguard, which isn’t pictured, hadn’t deteriorated quite as much as mine had, yet both of our hardware had pitted and corroded with exposure to the gases of decomposition. We’ll both be on the lookout for legit replacements, but I’m really not in any hurry. Both of our instruments did show the characteristic cracking of the finish usually hidden by the pickguard.
3) It’s a subjective matter, but I actually preferred the look of Alejandro’s binding to that of my own instrument. His guitar had been around cigarettes for a period of its life, and although it smelled nothing of the sort, the yellowed binding certainly alluded to dimly lit bars and sultry music. Very cool.
4) Alejandro’s guitar top also had quite a bit of flame to it; interesting, given that it wasn’t exactly a feature of the model per se, but of course different woods used had different aesthetic characteristics. I’m more of a plain-top guy myself, but I have to admit that there was a certain 3-dimensional allure to the ’78. Maybe just a little jealous…
5) Alejandro’s guitar had a center block of maple, but not a solid block. Upon closer interior inspection, it was obvious that there was a seam down the middle of his guitar’s block. My ’77 shows no such sign of gluing, but there were no notable differences in tone or playability.
6) I love pearl block inlays, and I’m particularly fond of my guitar’s iridescent embellishments. In normal light, the inlays on my guitar tend to show a lot of green and pink, but blue only under certain conditions. Alejandro’s guitar has a particularly gorgeous, liquid 3rd fret inlay. No matter which way I turned the guitar, blues and reds shot out at me as if I were witnessing a private display of Forth of July fireworks. Absolutely mesmerizing.
7) Alejandro’s guitar was stamped “Made in USA” on the back of the headstock. My instrument has no such stamp. Addendum: Yes, it does. It’s barely there, as if the process of pressing in that mark only faintly gouged the surface of the paint. It took a good, hard look to even see the outlines.