Guitar Review: Gibson Custom ES-330 - GuitarPlayer.com
Guitar Aficionado

Guitar Review: Gibson Custom ES-330

As the owner of a pair of original Gibson ES-330s, I opened the case containing a fresh Gibson Custom reissue of this classic thinline guitar with a healthy dose of skepticism. But with one glimpse of its deep-red finish, and a few preliminary strums, I was convinced that it not only exudes an unimpeachable old-school vibe but is also a superlative instrument by modern standards.
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Story by Tom Beaujour | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta

As the owner of a pair of original Gibson ES-330s, I opened the case containing a fresh Gibson Custom reissue of this classic thinline guitar with a healthy dose of skepticism. But with one glimpse of its deep-red finish, and a few preliminary strums, I was convinced that it not only exudes an unimpeachable old-school vibe but is also a superlative instrument by modern standards.

The ES-330 was introduced in 1959 and phased out by 1972. A fully hollow, double-cutaway guitar sporting either one or two single-coil P-90 pickups, it has always been less popular than its semihollow, humbucker-equipped counterpart, the ES-335, which was unveiled in 1958 and has been in continuous production since. This is perhaps because the ES-330 is a more challenging instrument to negotiate. It doesn’t sustain as well or reject feedback as aggressively as the ES-335, and its 16th-fret neck-to-body junction does not provide unfettered access to the uppermost registers.

But the ES-330, with its woody and bell-like timbre, has had some impressive devotees, including jazz players like Grant Green, bluesmen such as B.B. King, and rockers, including Keith Richards. Considering the attention that Gibson has given to other electrics from its golden era, it was high time for the exacting 1959 reissue that the company now offers.

Just like the earliest ES-330s, the new version is available in vintage sunburst, natural, or Cherry, a color first made available in 1960. The beautiful hand-rubbed Cherry finish on our review model was rendered with nitrocellulose lacquer and vintage correct—dark but faded, and transparent enough to reveal the wood’s swirling grains, a bird’s-eye figuration, and a hint of flame here and there on the maple body.

Our ES-330 faithfully captured so many of the other original details: the thinness of the binding, the tortoise side dots on the neck, the bevel of the pickguard, the edges of the f-holes (painted red as opposed to black), and a stamped serial number inside the guitar instead of an oval paper label. A small complaint: it’s odd that the Cherry reissue has tulip-tip Kluson tuners, while the sunburst and natural models are equipped with the vintage-correct Klusons with white buttons. The tulip tips just don’t look right on an ES-330.

Despite its Bigsby tailpiece, which adds a bit of mass, the ES-330 is nicely lightweight. It’s extremely well balanced, and it feels equally good when played in standing position, facilitated by a strap button at the heel—one of the few details other than the tuners that isn’t period correct on the guitar.

If the craftsmanship on the ES-330 is any indication, Gibson Memphis has never made finer guitars. The fretwork is meticulous, as are the nut slots, thanks to Gibson’s PLEK-system treatment. There’s not a hint of orange peel to be found in the finish, and all the binding is cleanly scraped. And the guitar’s VOS (Vintage Original Spec) treatment, in which the finish’s shine is tamed and the metal parts lightly tarnished, gives the instrument a convincingly vintage effect.

While the necks on some Fifties reissue guitars feature an exaggerated girth, the ES-330’s neck profile feels very similar to the ultra-comfortable neck on my original 1959 example, and it has the same smoothly rounded fretboard binding. The neck is neither too large nor too skimpy and is smoothly playable from the open position to the highest fret.

The ES-330 reissue is a true pleasure to play without an amplifier. The guitar is loud and resonant, with a pronounced natural reverb. The factory setup is perfect, with action just high enough to discourage buzzing and encourage speedy runs. A shortcoming found on some original ES-330s, my 1962 included, is that the neck can have dead spots where the notes sound muddled, but on our review model the notes at every fret on each string rang true and clear. As a bonus, it’s quite easy to do wide bends on the guitar—bends that stay perfectly in tune and don’t fret out.

The ES-330’s electronics include a pair of underwound P-90 (Alnico II) pickups, Sprague Black Beauty capacitors, and 500k audio taper pots. Plugged into a Fender Pro Junior amplifier, the ES-330 sounded excellent, with an overall warm and woody sound that was equally strong between the front and rear pickups. It was easy to channel Grant Green and George Harrison (who played an Epiphone Casino, essentially an ES-330).

Compared with the original 1959 article, the reissue sounds very similar, if just a touch less sweet and articulate. But then again the reissue hasn’t had more than 50 years for its sound to mature. And for fans of the ES-330, this impeccably built and eminently playable thinline—which costs half the price of an original (or a third in the case of the blonde version)—would be a no-brainer addition to one’s stable.

LIST PRICE: $5,528
Gibson, gibson.com

Chemical Brother: Mike Voltz of the Gibson Custom Shop talks about the ES-330 reissue.

Why did Gibson Custom decide to reissue the ES-330?

We have long given a lot of love to the ES-335 and currently offer the most historically accurate 1959 reissues of that guitar. We just thought it was the right time to give the same treatment to the ES-330, a very cool and underrated guitar.

How were you able to nail so many of the historical details?

I told my wife I’d have to buy some vintage Gibsons for the job. She didn’t exactly buy it, but I got a few and scraped some finish from the binding of a couple old ESs [to reveal the original binding color]. With the help of a chemist, I was able to match the color exactly for use in our ES reissues.

What distinguishes the P-90s in this guitar from other pickups?

We spend a lot of time experimenting with different values and windings. The pickups are scatter-wound as well as underwound, and this makes them sound aged, closer to vintage than other P-90s. We’re really doing the very best we can to make a guitar that sounds, looks, and plays as if it were made in 1959.

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