So, I've been planning the successor to my Faux-Gibson, Franken-ES150 for a while now. While I've always been a bit amazed at how much it got the "Charlie Chirstian"-vibe, especially for such a humble guitar (modern, asian factory made, all laminate construction, thin bodied), I could tell there was something missing in the tone. I thought the biggest element it lacked was the fullness which I associated with the resonance of a full-depth body. Given the going rate for a real ES-150 with a Charlie Christian pickup, I thought the only thing I could do would be to make a better fake.
I've had a spare UK-made, notched-blade pickup sitting in a basket beside the couch for over 7 years, just waiting to be put into a guitar. First, I decided it would have to be an old guitar. There was something about the mojo of old wood that something like a modern guitar would just not have. Secondly, because the geometry of the Charlie Christian pick is so specific, I knew there were only a few models that history has proven as viable transplant candidates: L48's and L50's. I've seen many a tale of woe regarding a guitar whose top is caving in because somebody nicked one of the braces one carving the hole for the pickup.
Constructionally, the closest thing to a 1937-40 Gibson ES-150 is a similar era L50. Aside from the pickup and pickguard, which I assumed I'd have to supply, there are three differences between the two models, 1) ES150's had bound fingerboards, 2) ES150's had a very specific and rare combination tailpiece and jack/combo (although the tailpiece was itself the same), and 3) ES150's had a flat, and not arched, back. I've definitely come across some L50's with flat backs, so there were some made, but they are mostly arched back guitars. I knew the first two were something I'd have to live with, but I was really set on finding a flat backed L50. Since I was going to dig a hole in the top anyway, condition was not that important - a full or partial refinish would be small in comparison to irreparably scarring the top. I had doubts about post-war L50's, partially because I wasn't sure which bracing pattern they had and whether it would be compatible, and partially because the post-war ornamentation on them just looked too much like a 50's Gibson to me (the trapezoid inlays combined with the later headstock shape and logo just screams "Les Paul" to me). I've heard great things about L48's being great candidates, but again, there was something about the later cosmetics that gave me pause. If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it as well as possible.
Through most of 2013 I watched and let go, any number of suitable L48's and 50's. I even bid on a couple, only to see them sell for tiny amounts more that I'd been willing to spend. By November, I'd really gotten pissed about being burned so many times, and for letting several really excellent candidates slip through my fingers. At one point, I passed on a really excellent playing and sounding L48, only to have one of the guys in the store, who'd been listening to me play it, whip out $1000 in cash and buy it right there and then.
Even then, once I bought a suitable transplant, there would be the measure of the surgery. Who would do it, how much would it cost, and how quickly would it happen? My friend Joe at www.archtop.com said he could do it, and he even put one together for a friend of mine. It occurs to me now that I hadn't though through a bunch of the details, like what kind of pots I would need (what values were they historically?), what about the fingerboard extension (should the fingerboard be elevated or flush?), should I go for an endpin jack or a side jack? If I'd had Joe do it, I'm guessing he probably could've spotted the issues, and given the appropriate advice. However, the fact remains, I'd be spending a bunch of money, waiting a while, and risking the whole thing - it could turn out mediocre, or bad. There would be no guarantees. It stresses me out just thinking of it.
Then the unthinkable happened - I found a real one, at a price I could actually afford. I work on-site at my day job, so I never go into the office, but I got called in for a meeting. Since I was in the neighborhood, I happened upon a music store I hadn't been in for years. My recollection was that they carried mostly 60's-80's vintage stuff, with a touch of weird stuff thrown in for novelty, although the owner definitely had a penchant for vintage drums, which I thought would be the real interest in the store. As I was parking I saw somebody leave the store, and drive away. When I got to the door, I see a note that they'll be right back in 10 minutes or, but they left a number if it was an emergency. I waited about 5 minutes, and took a look through the window. I could see a random arch tops, but nothing that jumped at me. Since I had nothing to loose, I texted the number, and just said that I could hang out for about 20 minutes, but just wanted to know if it was going to be longer than that. The guy responded that he'd be right there and he was less than a mile away. I felt bad making the guy run back, because it's not like I was seriously going to buy anything….
As soon as I walked in and looked at the wall where the random arch tops were, I saw it - an ES-150. As soon as I saw, I realized that I'd never actually played one myself. A friend had lent me a 90's Gibson Custom Shop Reissue for a couple weeks, but I'd never actually gotten to mess around with real one. Well, this one played pretty bad - but like most vintage guitars found in the wild, it seemed like it was due to a bad setup and stupidly light gauge strings. Plugging it in, though, and the unique magic of the Charlie Christian pickup was apparent. I must've played the guitar for 20 minutes, really trying to take in the unique quality of the tone.
The price on the tag was well below market rate, or at least the advertised prices of the couple that were currently for sale online. The owner piped up at one point quoting me a price $200 below the sticker - it seemed that since it was nearing Christmas he probably was extra interested in moving some merchandise. After that, he told me that if I paid in cash he would take 20% because he wouldn't have to pay a credit card processing fee. After a little haggling it came down to a figure that I could actually reach. I offered to put some money down so that I could hold it for a couple of days - after all, I'd just had something sold out from under me - and the owner said it'd been sitting there for months, and it wasn't going anywhere. He said he would hold it for me for a couple days anyway.
After checking with the wife, I checked with several other guitar players who've owned one, or have a ton of experience buying vintage guitars, to make sure I wasn't getting taken. After going over some of the important things to look out for, I knew I had to go back the next day. I started off going through all of the key features, which checked out. I even sent some pics to one of the guitar players, who wrote back immediately to buy it. I knew I was going to have to try adjusting the action to get a better idea, and it definitely made some improvement.
I left to go the bank, and when I came back, I brought in my EH-185 for the final test. Putting the two together it was immediately clear the special magic that comes from combining the two. I took a picture of the pair, and handed the man my money. Each an every time I've played the guitar since, it's been confirmed that I made the right call.
After a couple days, I was able to take it over to Westwood Music, where Dave Rutchinsky set it up beautifully. For consistency's sake, I went with D'Addario pure nickel 13's rather than the Martin Tony Rice Monel Strings. Since the gauging on the Martins is a little odd, I wanted to go with the more conventional D'Addario's. I'll be trying the Monel Martins soon enough.
I ended up recording a couple videos with the new guitar, using my EH-160, which really came alive with the ES-150. I posted them to facebook, but for some reason they were having some trouble uploading to youtube. One of them worked fine, so I'll post it now and hopefully I'll get the rest uploaded soon. Several friends suggested doing a weekly video blog, so I may do that as soon as I get the webcam/audio situation settled. (Also, I quickly figured out that shooting video in portrait mode is not something to do agian)