On a day off from work during Christmas week, I visited several guitar stores in Manhattan, with my best experience of the day being at Sam Ash on 34th & 9th. They have, by far, the best selection of non-beginner new and custom shop-caliber instruments of any NYC shop (though the GC in Times Square boasts a better vintage selection).
Though mainly browsing for a Fender Mustang Bass and possibly a Johnny Marr Jaguar, I spied a beautiful Gibson Les Paul SG Custom VOS behind the counter, the blingy kind with three humbuckers and the long Maestro Vibrola. It was cherry Rrd, which was unusual - not the white these are most known for.
Sam Ash was asking a surprisingly low $1999, but with this caveat - a large note on the price tag that read "Manager Blowout. As-is. Needs neck reset".
I found this to be more than a little odd. It was clearly a new, or new-ish guitar - it had all the plastic & stickers still on it. As a longtime admirer of these guitars, neck issues or not, I had to check it out.
Oddly enough, it played pretty well. The action was a bit on the high side for my liking, but it was perfectly playable, and the bridge still had room to go down. Hmm.
The sound? Unbelievable. Through a stock Fender Deluxe Reverb with the volume low, the neck pickup was sweet and clear. The middle position was like a darker Strat 2nd position quack; very pleasing. The bridge pickup was a little on the thin side compared to my Les Paul R8 but more bitey.
I probably noodled around on this guitar for a half hour. I have no idea where the time went. Have you ever picked up a guitar that just made you play better? I swear, this was one of those. It was inspiring to play, and an absolutely joy to look at as well - I always thought I liked these in white, but MAN, the combo of the red with gold hardware and the white pickguard was just fantastic.
I've owned a ton of guitars and it takes something really cool to knock me out nowadays. I couldn't possibly take it home though, mostly because I was so confused. Why did a new Custom Shop Gibson need a neck reset? And why didn't Sam Ash just send it back to Gibson so they could take care of it under warranty?
I went back home to Astoria to mull it over and ponder a bit. Under any normal circumstances, my next step would have been to find a used one online and buy that instead, but I couldn't find a single red one for sale anywhere. There wasn't even one among the Completed Listings on eBay! It also appears that you can't buy these new any longer, even in the ubiquitous White.
I went back to Sam Ash a second time a few days later to investigate further. It was then that I hit on what the real issue was. It wasn't the neck at all, but the break angle over the Maestro Vibrola; there was essentially no angle over the bridge, which meant that the bridge couldn't be lowered because the strings would just float over the tailpiece. The action would have to stay relatively high.
I took another day to do some research on the matter and found that this is a totally common issue with recent Gibson Maestro Vibrolas. The spring is facing upwards instead of downward. I felt much better knowing that it was a hardware issue, not a wood issue.
I went back, negotiated a lower price, and took it home!
Though I've been absolutely tickled playing it at home through my rig (it is a gorgeous sounding guitar), I'm going to attempt to see if Gibson will replace the Vibrola under warranty. To be continued.
(Photos © John Biscuti, December 2014)