The Gibson ES-335 made its debut in 1958 and immediately began making history. As the first thin-line, semi-hollowbody guitar in production, it gave players interested in exploring the warmer tones of hollow-body guitars and the joy and power of loud amplification a license to kill on stage and in the studio. And they took it. Almost immediately Chuck Berry, B.B. King and a host of other hard-working musicians began brandishing the ES-335, and, later, its sisters, the ES-345, which one-upped the ES-335 with the E.Q.-savvy Vari-Tone switch, and the ES-355, which flashed up the ES-345 with gold hardware and other appealing trimmings.
Today there’s a litany of great musicians who’ve employed the ES-335 and its siblings to make truly historic music — a continuum that starts with Berry and King plus T-Bone Walker and continues with such stellar six-stringers as the Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson and jazz man Lee Ritenour. But when it comes to the 10 most influential ES-335 players of all time, we’re putting our money on:
10. Larry Carlton
During the late ’70s and ’80s his performances on tunes like Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me,” the theme from TV’s Hill Street Blues and many more made him the most emulated living jazz-based guitarist on the planet. His pure, buttery Holy Grail tone has been built around a few judicious effects and, most important, the Gibson ES-335. In fact, his close association with that model has earned him the nickname “Mr. 335.”
9. Eric Clapton
Sure, early-career Clapton is best known for his famed “Bluesbreakers” 1960 sunburst Gibson Les Paul and the psychedelic painted Gibson SG dubbed “the Fool,” but a cherry red Gibson ES-335 he bought in 1964 was also part of his strategy during his Cream-era and beyond. Clapton began using the guitar in 1968 and took it on the road for Cream’s farewell U.S. tour. By legend, the axe was used on “Badge.” He brandishes it in the Rolling Stone’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus film and also played the instrument occasionally in Blind Faith. Other more recent appearances include the guitar tracks for “Hard Times” from 1989’s Journeyman and at the stops on his 1994-’95 Blues tour. In 2004 Clapton auctioned the historic ES-335 to benefit his Crossroads rehab facility. It sold to Guitar Center for $847,500.
8. Chuck Berry
The granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll had been playing other Gibson models – hollow-bodies like the ES-350T – until the ES-335 was issued in 1958, the same year as Berry’s classic “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Since then, Berry has remained a torchbearer for ES model guitars, including the Vari-Tone-equipped ES-345 and the gold-trimmed ES-355.
7. Otis Rush
This Chicago blues giant is also a proponent of the entire ES family. Although he’s recorded and toured with other guitars, his favorites are red ES-345s and ES-335s, which seem perfectly designed for his powerful hands. As a southpaw, Rush developed a magical approach to bending strings akin to Albert King’s, pulling down on the fat wound strings for maximum tone and pinning them hard to his mahogany fretboards. And bending down, instead of pushing up, gives him superior strength for making moves like two-whole-step bands a snap — at least for Otis Rush.
6. Warren Haynes
Although Haynes has mostly been a Les Paul man, to the extent that the Gibson Custom Shop builds a Warren Haynes Les Paul Standard, he used a 1961 ES-335 for much of his current solo album Man in Motion. As Haynes explains it, the instrument is more appropriate to the soul and blues grooves at the disc’s foundation. And the truth is, Haynes sounds like a giant no matter what Gibson model he’s playing, including the SGs and Explorers he also takes on the road and into the studio.
5. Dave Grohl
Semi-hollow-body guitars aren’t usually the stuff of hard rock, but Dave Grohl’s Gibson-created DG-335 was inspired by the Foo Fighting ES-335 fan. Grohl’s signature model is closer to a Gibson Trini Lopez, with its tuners on one side of the headstock and trapezoid shaped f-holes, but still boasting classic ES-335 construction. It is a ferocious rock machine tricked up with Gibson Burstbucker pickups to provide a just the right blend of snarling and clean tones – a killer six-string.
4. Eric Johnson
The Texas tune-slinger’s black-shaded 1961 ES-335 is s video star, featuring prominently in the short flick for his tune “Zap,” where it takes center stage for the epic lead lines that Johnson endlessly spirals out. But Johnson’s played ES-335’s since he was 12 years old, including a cherry red ’62 he’s brandished on stage. He also employed a 335 for his most famous track, “Cliffs of Dover.” To find out how he gets his gorgeous ES-335 tone, check out this video filmed at Gibson’s New York City showroom.
3. B.B. King
These days King depends on Gibson’s Lucille model, the ES-355-based sweet thang made in his honor. But before those guitars went into production, he’d played Gibson ES-335s and ES-345s as well, and before that various Gibson hollow-bodies and even an early 1950s Gold Top, making the 86-year-old King of the Blues a die-hard Gibson man.
2. Roy Orbison
This early rock deity with a voice suited to Olympus was known for playing acoustic guitar in the studio and even writing on his Epiphone 12-string. But on stage his instrument of choice was always an ES-335, as black as the clothes and sunglasses that were among his signatures as a performer.
1. Alvin Lee
As frontman for Ten Years After, Lee was the original King of Shred, dispensing more notes from the heavily customized ES-335 he named “Big Red” than the grains of smelling salts the medical tents gave out at Woodstock and the other historic concerts Ten Years After played in the late ’60s and early ’70s.