Under the Scratchplate: Late 1960s Gibson Melody Maker

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 21 May 2020 |

Yesterday, I was discussing tight manufacturing budgets on low-priced 1970s guitars. Today I want to stay with that theme, but delve even further back in time to the 1960s, when most manufacturers still saw a need to go through slow and labour-intensive processes like the multi-coat nitro-cellulose finish. I'll be focusing on some of the normally hidden areas of a cut-cost instrument from the flower power era, to see how guitar makers made their savings. I've chosen a Gibson guitar, made alongside the top-line instruments at Kalamazoo, but to a much lower budget, in 1967.

During 1966, the Melody Maker shifted away from its Les Paul Junior-derivative body profile to follow the styling of Gibson's more modern SG. And we can assume from the obligatory solid colour finishes on these models that Gibson was palming them off with the least attractive pieces of mahogany. The SG-style body was slim by default, so there wouldn't have been too much concern about the raw material cost. The finishing process, however, was another matter...

Perhaps one of the most interesting indications of budget manufacture appears before you even remove a screw. Look the the edges of the scratchplate, where the screws hold it down, and you find tell-tale signs that when this guitar was assembled, that Pelham Blue finish was far from hard-dry. You can clearly see bulges in the lacquer where the tightness of the screws squeezed it outward.

Having refinished guitars myself, I know that nitro-cellulose can remain in that soft state for a good run of days, so the bulges don't necessarily mean the plate was affixed within hours of the finish becoming touch-dry. It does, however, show that Gibson were not prepared to dedicate storage space to these budget models while they languished in the factory luxuriously forming a rock-hard exterior like a Les Paul Custom or an ES-355.

Going under the scratchplate, we see the expected simplicity. The pickups are enclosed from the bottom as well as from the top, and they have a very un-technological trait under those plastic bottom plates, which we'll see in a moment.

The switch is a 'sixties archetype, similar in design to those on Fender Jaguars, but in this guitar offering three selections rather than the Jaguar switch's two. It's wired to select the bridge pickup in the down position, the neck pickup in the up position, and both pickups together in the middle. You wouldn't know it today, but these functional yet rather awkward switches helped bring a revolution in electric guitar making - especially in the budget arena where manufacturers might want to save wood by slimming down the bodies.

In the 1950s, finding compact electrical components to use within relatively shallow guitar body cavities had been a major challenge. The size or depth of an available switch could essentially force builders to maintain a relatively thick body. Leo Fender was once asked in an interview why he didn't fit a 5-way switch to a Stratocaster when he invented it, and he stressed that basically, the cavities just weren't deep enough to take a 5-way, which in 1953/4 was a large component. He explained...

"It wasn't a matter of what we would like so much as it was a matter of what we could get to work with. It was a young industry then - they didn't have these guitar specialty suppliers like they do now. We were limited to the thickness of the body, and this was before all the miniaturization, so we couldn't fit a lot of things in there."

The full interview appears in Amercian Guitars by Tom Wheeler, and it covers a lot of ground. But in the context of this post it raises the very important issue of how limited the methods of cheapening electric guitars would have been in the early days of the genre. The inexpensive, shallow 3-way switch in this Melody Maker was one of the early charters for manufacturers to really start working with smaller cavities without prohibitive hardware overheads. At one time, the shallow 3-way was a dream not just for budget guitar builders, but anyone who wanted to fit a lot of gadgets into a slim-bodied guitar.

Before we move away from the basic assembly, note, in the picture above, the classic Gibson metal-shielded pickup wire, which is fairly crudely hooked up to the very thin plastic wire extending out of the pickups.

Remove the plastic bottom plates from the pickups, and you find yourself confronted with... er, a block of wood. This is just to fill out the depth of the encasement and ensure that the actual pickup can't drop down into the base of the chamber, losing proximity to the strings and probably not doing the pickup a fat lot of good either. But the fact the space is filled with wood rather than some kind of self-moulding gunk, which would doubtless have appeared on a 1980s assembly, shows just how primitive things still were in the 'sixties. You have to remind yourself that this guitar was built in an age when most people still had a coal man battling his way through the smog to deliver solid fuel.

Behind the little block of mahogany you get a view of the pickup underside, revealing a bar magnet set into a plastic bobbin. It looks modern for its time. If you place a metal object onto the magnet, you get an instant sense of just how weak it is. How much magnetism the bars have lost since the birth of the guitar I don't know, but the sound the pickups produce today is very warm for slim single coils. They're not wound hot, so the output is only in the territory of a beefy Fender Jag. But those weak magnets really round off the top end for a magical, beautifully balanced tone. If you've ever been led to believe that bar magnets won't sound 'vintage', I can confirm that they absolutely will if they're weak enough.

And in case you're wondering if you could feasibly bung a couple of staggered Strat pickups into this guitar in place of the original units, the answer is no. These Gibson pickups are considerably wider than Strat units, and the screw holes don't even vaguely line up. What you could do to change the sound, is insert more powerful magnets where the wood blocks go, That would strengthen the pull of the bars and brighten the tone. But I can assure you I will NOT be doing that.

Prizing the control plate off the rear of the body, we can see that the whole cavity is shielded, and there's a reassuring set of high quality pots. Compare these with some of the junk found in late 1980s budget guitars and you're in a different world. You could argue that the late 1980s guitars with cheapo mini-pots were made to a much lower budget than this Melody Maker, and it's true that electric guitar budget-cutting did get more extreme over time. But some of the late '80s guitars with really crappy electrics were no cheaper than this Melody Maker was in its day - even after adjustment for inflation.

The pots have a 500K max resistance, which is double that of the traditional Fender max. The main noticeable difference this makes is in the amount high treble the pots will allow to pass through them. And that goes for the volume pots as well as the tones. 500K pots give a brighter sound, so with a 250K circuit like the one you'd find in a trad Telecaster, the compound effect of two pots is removing quite a bit of zing. This Gibbo's 500K circuit will allow a higher level of fidelity. Whether you actually want that fidelity is another matter, but I'd guess that with low-magnetism pickups like the ones in this guitar, you probably would.

The tone roll-off capacitors are valued at 0.022 microfarads, which again differs from the common Fender standard of 0.05. The Gibson's 0.022s will filter out less lower midrange, meaning the tone-full-down sound is less inherently bassy than that of the trad Fender setup.

The 1960s was a time when manufacturing low-priced electric guitars without them basically ending up in a skip within six months of purchase, was exceedingly tough. The market leaders did not outsource labour, and that in itself limited the kind of retail price points they could hit. They were applying expensive finishes (even if they weren't exactly letting them dry properly before assembly), the idea of plywood bodies was just too great a compromise for serious operations to entertain at that stage, and "Christmas cracker electricals", as we knew them in the 'eighties, just didn't exist.

So the money was saved by simplifying the design, then fitting cheap pickups with no polepiece control, non-adjustable bridges, plastic-pegged tuners, etc. Keep everything simple. Take the 3-ply plastic plates down to 1-ply, slim the headstock and save more wood. And then simply speed up the manufacturing process.

By continuing to use a glued neck join on guitars like this, Gibson arguably left open the door for early copyists to come in with cheaper bolt-on models and do them out of sales. But that just shows there was a line in the sand on acceptable practice, which steadily evaporated over the years. In the 1960s it was very much: "We will do anything for sales, but we won't do that". By the 1980s, nearly all large-scale builders definitely would do that, and indeed, if they wanted to stay competitive, had no choice but to do that.