Classic Gear: The 1956 1961 Gibson ES-335

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Gibson introduced a would-be classic electric guitar or two in the 1950s and early ’60s. But of all the models we lust after today—including the Les Paul, the Flying V and Explorer in the Modernist series, the reverse-bodied Firebird, and the SG—the only top-tier electric that was truly an overnight success was the ES-335. The others were undoubtedly ahead of their time, but the ES-335 was entirely of it, while also hitting the ground running with the kind of versatility that would render it timeless. Players grabbed them up in a big way as a result, and Gibson’s seminal semi has never really slipped out of style.

Introduced in 1958, the ES-335 was conceived as a guitar to sell to forward-looking jazzers who were still conservative enough to want an arched top, but who yearned for many of the benefits of the new solidbody models, now that those were in general acceptance. Since it was an electric guitar first and foremost, and acoustic resonance was really a down-ticket consideration, the new design was achieved with a laminated maple top, back and sides, as first used on the ES-175 nearly a decade before. A thinline body further aided rigidity, eased playing comfort, and helped to minimize feedback, while a solid maple center block did more of the same, adding solidbody-like sustain and clarity in the process, qualities that fully-hollow arch-top electrics lacked.

Given the ambition of Gibson’s agenda for the model—the perfect hybrid of two popular guitar styles—the ES-335 was an impressive success, and it truly embodied more than the sum of its parts. The guitar admirably achieved a best-of-both-worlds performance, while establishing a new voice that was also something all its own. This impressive flexibility quickly put it in the hands of leading rock, jazz, country, blues, and pop performers the world over.

The very first ES-335s had unbound rosewood fingerboards with simple dot inlays, and more elegant horns extending from the double cutaways. Midway through ’58 Gibson added binding to the necks, and beefed up the horns to the style that has become known as “Mickey Mouse ears,” for obvious reasons. These features remained through 1961, as seen in our example here, which carries the appealing cherry finish that was only officially introduced late in 1959 (earlier ES-335s came in sunburst and natural only). Through the course of these stylistic transitions, the ES-335 also evolved from the rounded, full-figured neck profile that we find on ’58 and ’59 Les Pauls, to the slim, so-called “fast” profile of the early ’60s. In 1962 the model picked up small-block inlays, while other early features transitioned out of the original template.

Although ES-335s are built very differently from Les Pauls, examples from this era carry the same PAF humbucking pickups, which are a big part of what helps them cover some of the same sonic territory, albeit with their own semi-enhanced twist. Despite the air inside its body, a good ES-335 can do much of what a Les Paul can do for gutsy, sustaining rock and blues lead work. Even so, their general lack of flamey tops and the laws of supply and demand render a ’59 ES-335, for example, just a fraction of the price of a ’59 ’burst. Unsurprisingly, they can also sound warm and jazzy in the neck position while, conversely, playing against type to deliver surprising amounts of snap and clarity, often with more high-end jangle than a fully solid Les Paul. Call the ES-335 a jack of all trades, and a master of all, too—evoking a chameleon-esque nature that has helped to make them a studio player’s favorite for several decades, and will likely keep them a best seller for many more.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

> Semi-hollow body with laminated maple top and back
> Solid maple center block
> Glued-in mahogany neck, bound rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays
> ABR-1 “Tune-o-Matic” bridge and aluminum stopbar tailpiece
> Cherry finish
> Dual PAF humbucking pickups

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