There’s just something about the classy-yet-funky Gibson ES-175 that works with virtually any style of music. Introduced in 1949, the ES-175 quickly became the instrument of choice for jazz legends like Joe Pass and Jim Hall, but you’ll also see these timeless archtops in the hands of pop-punker Billie Joe Armstrong, funker Leo Nocentelli, prog-er Steve Howe, and even G’NR’s Izzy Stradlin. Really the only thing not to like about an old ES-175 is that it’s old—so many 50+ year-old guitars have cracks, neck problems, loose braces, bad frets, etc. The Gibson Memphis 1959 ES-175 aims to recreate that vintage magic, but without the hassles.
Reissue guitars are nothing new, but rarely are the results this convincing. Other than some scratching on the beveled pickguard, there’s no simulated playing wear, yet the Custom ES-175 positively exudes “old.” The three-ply plain maple body is finished in a Vintage Burst with thin nitrocellulose lacquer, neatly buffed to a slightly distressed haze, and accented with Vintage Cream binding that looks authentically aged, not fake and yellowish as often seen on reissues. The nickel pickup covers on the ’57 PAF humbuckers are dulled to a similarly muted patina, as is the elegant “zig zag” trapeze tailpiece. A bound rosewood fretboard is dark and even-grained with deep burgundy figuring, inlaid with period-correct split parallelograms. Gold “top hat” knobs with dial pointers and TonePros tulip-style Kluson tuners complete the straight-from-1959 appearance. Gibson Memphis even went the extra mile to class up the inside with replica cotton stays and a Sprague reissue Bumble Bee capacitor.
Pick up the ES-175, and the vintage illusion continues. The guitar is extremely light, and the glued-in, quartersawn mahogany neck has a chunky rounded profile, smallish frets, and hand-rolled fingerboard edges. There’s a worn and slightly tacky feel to the neck lacquer—this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s exactly what a well-preserved ’50s-era Gibson feels like. In spite of the neck’s substantial girth, I found the Memphis ES-175 easy to play courtesy of an outstanding setup with rather low action. Some might choose to raise the adjustable floating rosewood bridge, but I found the factory setup ideal: Picked delicately, notes rang out with bell-like clarity up and down the neck, and played aggressively, the strings buzzed and compressed musically, with enough pompe to please a Django aficionado.
The fundamental tone of the Memphis ES-175 is dry, woody, and responsive, with a powerful combination of initial crack and snap, supported by body and warmth. It’s a classic vintage recipe, and an impressive achievement for a brand new instrument. The PAF-style neck humbucker fattens the acoustic tone, making this a natural for solo chord melody jazz or blazing bebop, especially with the well-voiced Tone control turned down. But thinking of this ES-175 solely as a jazz guitar really sells it short. The more I played the Memphis arch-top, the more I wondered if there were anything it couldn’t handle, as it quickly became a go-to studio guitar for everything from funk/soul scratching to dirty blues wailing and even Sabbath-inspired riffing. Basically, anytime I took the ES-175 out of its case, it ended up getting used for something, imparting an earthy, vintage flavor that blended perfectly with a surprising variety of styles.
My only complaints are minor: a slightly off-center bridge slot for the A string and a few small lacquer bumps at the neck joint. Otherwise the workmanship is stellar. Intonation is excellent for a vintage-style bridge, but it’s limited by the lack of adjustable saddles (a Peterson strobe showed the 12th fret 5 cents sharp on the G string, and 3 cents flat on the B string). The hollowbody ES-175 is reasonably resistant to feedback, but at higher stage volumes you’ll need to stick with clean-ish tones. And assuming your live use will venture beyond seated jazz, you’ll want to install a neck strap button.
The Gibson Memphis 1959 ES-175 is one of the best-sounding new plywood archtops I’ve ever played, and it captures the look, feel, and response of a vintage instrument as well as any reissue guitar I’ve encountered. It’s not cheap, but for authenticity, genre-crossing versatility, and sheer righteous tone, it earns an Editors’ Pick Award.
Custom 1959 ES-175
PRICE $4,699 street
NUT WIDTH 1.687" vintage-style nylon
SCALE Length 24.75"
NECK Glued-in quartersawn mahogany
FRETBOARD Dark rosewood with split parallelogram inlays, 12" radius
FRETS 20, Thin ’59 Style
TUNERS TonePros Kluson, 18:1 ratio
BODY 3-ply plain maple top and back with solid maple sides
BRIDGE Floating rosewood, height adjustable, with trapeze tailpiece
PICKUPS Gibson ’57 PAF humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone. 3-way switch
FACTORY STRINGS Gibson nickel, .012-.052
WEIGHT 5.9 lbs
KUDOS Spectacularly authentic vintage tone and looks.