The Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster was truly a guitar ahead of its time. First introduced in 1949, the ES-5 Switchmaster was the first ES guitar to be fitted with three pickups, and was initially intended solely for jazz players. It was dubbed the “supreme electronic version” of Gibson’s L-5 and offered a unique four-knob control circuitry that allowed players to manage pickup selection by adjusting the volume of each pickup, thus eliminating the pickup selector switch. Yet despite its pioneering circuitry and three-pickup layout, the ES-5 Switchmaster was not immediately embraced by jazz players while competing guitar manufacturers rushed to introduce their own similar models, including the Epiphone Zephyr Emperor of the early 1950s and the Fender Stratocaster in 1954.
In spite of this, Gibson continued its efforts to improve the model by modifying its circuitry again in 1955 to take full advantage of all possible pickup combinations. The new circuitry was labeled by Gibson as “a new high in versatility,” and featured a total of six control knobs – one volume and one tone control for each pickup. With the addition of the pickups and a new four-way toggle switch, players had complete tonal control of each pickup and could select whether to play one, two, or all three at one time – or any combination of the three – simply by turning down the volume of the unwanted pickup(s). The new circuitry also elicited the model’s new moniker, the Switchmaster. Other than the addition of Gibson’s Tune-o-matic bridge and a new multi-loop tailpiece in 1955, the model remained virtually untouched until late 1957 when Gibson added its new humbucker pickups. In later years, the ES-5’s level of versatility would eventually extend beyond jazz to blues and rock, putting the model into the hands of such famed guitarists as T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons and Frank Zappa, who used his Switchmaster to record the classic album Freak Out!
Even though the ES-5 Switchmaster would undergo several smaller changes in the early 1960s, it is the mid-1950s model that is painstakingly recreated today by Gibson Custom. The first ES-5 reissues were crafted in the late 1990s, as Gibson Custom increased its dedication to producing a greater variety of historic Gibson guitars. Today’s ES-5 Switchmaster has a high-grade maple top, back and rims and its signature full proportioned body: 17-inches wide, 21-inches long, and 3 3/8-inches deep. Multi-ply white and black binding accents the guitar’s top and back, with single-ply white binding on the f-holes for a distinctive touch. The gold hardware, including an ABR-1 bridge, is also eye catching – especially the artistically designed trapeze-style loop tailpiece. The ES-5 Switchmaster’s neck is high-grade maple and walnut supporting a 20-fret rosewood fingerboard with large pearl block inlays and multi-ply white and black binding. The scale length is 25 1/2-inches with a 1 11/16-inch nut and kidney bean tuners on the headstock. The Switchmaster’s signature electronics starts with three of Gibson’s ’57 Classic humbucking pickups. Three volume and three tone pots and the guitar’s distinctive four-way pickup selector switch complete the package. The ES-5 Switchmaster comes with a Custom Shop case and certificate of authenticity. And like all the Gibson Custom guitars, the Switchmaster is examined and dressed by one of Gibson’s state-of-the-art Plek machines to ensure that it’s ready for any playing situation when it leaves the factory. It is available in a Vintage Sunburst finish.