News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

Question: Can I determine when my guitar was made by the serial number?

That's a question we are often asked at Guitar Emporium. Generally speaking, the answer is no. In other words, there is no hidden or cryptic message in the guitar's serial number. There are some exceptions to this rule, and we will discuss them later. But serial numbers along with other information can certainly help date a guitar.

Let's start with two of America's great guitar manufacturers, Martin and Gibson. Martin, a family-run company since its inception in 1833, has always used the simplest approach. Their serial numbers run in chronological order. The numbers themselves won't tell you anything, except that a guitar with a smaller number was made before a guitar with a larger number. But Martin keeps good records, and between the reference books and the manufacturer, it's very easy to find out when a Martin guitar was made. However, there are some exceptions to this, since Martin didn't begin using serial numbers until the late 1800's, and they also maintain a separate listing for their mandolins.

Gibson, on the other hand, has created a tangled web with their inconsistent serial numbers and poor record keeping. The company has also changed ownership several times since it began in 1893, which further complicates the matter. Every decade seemed to have its very own scheme, and at times the numbers seem to overlap. For example, a six digit serial number beginning with a 1, such as 101,323, could either be a '63 or a '73. Therefore it requires more thorough investigation into other details such as component parts, finishes, etc.

I could not begin to tell you how many times someone has refused to believe me when discussing how old their guitar was. Some people just want to believe what they want to believe. I've never seen a 1948 Gibson Les Paul, but I've sure talked to a lot of people who have one at home in the closet:

By golly, it was Uncle Jack's, and they know they got it when cousin Ray got married to Farmer John's daughter Thelma right before the big snow in January of '49, and ol' Jack, why they remember he was playing it at the wedding reception. So it had to have been made in at least 1948!"

Gibson and Les Paul would beg to differ, and support the fact that Les Paul guitars were first made in 1952, but then again, who are we to spit against the wind? Memories fade, so remember, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Back to the exceptions. Gibson, Gretsch, and Rickenbacker have all, at one time or another, used numbering schemes which identify their guitars. A 50s Gibson solid body uses a 5- or 6-digit number. The first digit is the year. Therefore serial #5 4234 would be for a guitar made in 1955. A guitar with serial #716233 would be made in late '57 with no gap between the 1st and 2nd digits. To further complicate the matter, 8-digit numbers used between '76 and the present (on certain models) indicate the year. This is done by putting the 1st and 5th digits together. Serial #81325232 would be a 1985, with the 8 and 5 being the determining numbers.

Gretsch used a sequence on the back of the headstock where the 1st digit is the month, and the 2nd digit is the year. Serial number 68321 would mean the 6th month of 1968. However number 116321 would be the 11th month of '66, not the 1st month of '61. Whew! It does get confusing. And this scheme only applies to stamped numbers on the back of the headstock in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beginning in 1961, Rickenbacker used a code where the two letters of the serial number indicated the month and year. Starting with AA, meaning January of 1961, a number such as BC 1234 would mean the guitar was made in the 3rd month of 1962. It is uncertain what the four numbers refer to.

Perhaps you can see why whole books are written on this subject, for it is complicated, yet very intriguing. There are several good reference books that contain serial number listings of most major guitar manufacturers. The one we use the most is Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars by Walter Carter, published by Miller Freeman, Inc. It's a handy pocket guide filled with great technical data. There are many other books available. Just check out any good book store.

The neck is bowed on my guitar. Can it be fixed?

Well, before we send it to the fireplace, let's try to determine if there is a solution to your problem. First, if your guitar has an adjustable truss rod, chances are good that your guitar can be easily fixed. If it doesn't have an adjustable truss rod, don't fret – there is still hope. Many guitar necks respond to being heat pressed. I don't recommend doing this on your own. Seek a qualified repair person instead

Most often, however, guitars do have adjustable truss rods and the bow in your neck can be adjusted to your preference. The rule of thumb is righty-tighty and lefty-loosey. Clockwise tightens the rod, and counterclockwise loosens the rod. Most guitar necks bow like a banana, making your guitar harder to fret. Sometimes, they have a reverse bow, making the strings buzz against the frets, especially in the middle of the neck. A normal bow needs the rod tightened, a reverse bow needs the rod loosened. It's a simple procedure, requiring an Allen wrench, screwdriver, or nut driver, usually. If you are not comfortable attempting this on your own, then seek out a qualified repair person. It's a quick and simple job.

Jimmy Brown is the owner of The Guitar Emporium, a leading vintage guitar shop with a national and international clientele.