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A Guitar Geek's Guide to Gibson ES Models

Michael Leonard

Many guitar series in Gibson's renowned history are classics – Jumbo and L-series for acoustics: Les Paul and SG electrics for solidbodies. Of semi-solid guitars, Gibson's ES range is the big daddy. The don. The chief.

Gibson ES guitars encompass a huge range of models and choices, and from the 1930s to 2014 innovation keeps coming.

It can be confusing. So if you want a quick-fire guitar geek guide to some of the best guitars in music history, here we go!

1. The ‘ES’ means ‘Electric Spanish.’ Yep. In the 1930s Gibson needed to differentiate designs from their EH (Electric Hawaiian) line of lap steel guitars. At the time, lap-steel guitars were very popular.

2. Gibson’s first 'Electric Spanish,' the ES-150, was launched in 1936, and made famous by Charlie Christian, argued by many to be the first electric guitar soloist. Learn about Charlie Christian.

3. Those numbers? Gibson usually used them to denote price. So the Gibson ES-150 was originally $150. 1958's ES-335, ES-345 and ES-355 required the same bucks. But, duh, Gibson weren't thinking of inflation. Needless to say, you can't make 2014's ES-390 for 390 bucks. Unless it was built of paper! The numbers/name now differentiate design attributes and variations.

4. Even so, the 3-pickup ES-5 was introduced way back in 1949. And, no, it didn't cost five bucks!

5. Most ES guitars are semi-solid - a center-block of wood with hollow “wings.” But there are exceptions – read on.

6. The ES-335 is an enduring classic. Gibson design legend Ted McCarty felt it was close to the Les Paul solidbody as Gibson's most important body design. “I came up with the idea of putting a solid block of maple in an acoustic model. It would get some of the same tone as a regular solidbody, plus the instrument's hollow wings would vibrate and we'd get a combination of an electric solidbody and a hollowbody guitar.” All guitar players owe a debt to Ted McCarty’s vision.

7. Early on, the ES-335 was nicknamed the “wonder-thin” body, as the ES-335 claimed to eliminate the feedback that sometimes plagued pure hollowbodies. ES-335s have a solid maple block running through the center of the body.

8. That said, ES designs can still be prone to feedback at high volumes. Blues legend B.B. King used to stuff rags into his ES-335's f-holes to eliminate feedback. When King co-designed his own signature Lucille model with Gibson, he asked for no f-holes. More on B.B. King's Gibson guitars.

9. The single-cutaway ES-175 was introduced in 1949 and is still made to this day. It's the longest production run of any electric guitar ever.

Gibson ES-175

10. Gibson ES guitars can be highly versatile across a range of styles. Prog guitar legend Steve Howe uses an ES-175, bought in 1964, for most of his recording with Yes. “The parallelogram inlays are beautiful, the whole guitar is beautiful.”

11. Chuck Berry was one of the ES-335’s earliest champions. Keith Richards says seeing Chuck with a red ES-335 “knocked me out” and he immediately “wanted to become a guitar player.”

12. More names! What's a Gibson ES-335TD? It means Electric Spanish 335 Thinline Double-pickup. Bit of a mouthful. But a fantastic guitar.

13. The ES-175 (and others) have a 'Florentine' cutaway. Florentine cutaways are the “sharper” type. The rounder type you see on an ES-335, for example, is known as a “Venetian” cutaway. Trivia? There's no proven evidence this had anything to do with historic instrument making in the Italian cities of Florence or Venice. It seems to be something Gibson just came up with. But it's now standard guitar terminology for cutaway styles.

14. Mo' money! The most expensive Gibson ES-335 sold remains the one auctioned by Eric Clapton in 2004. His Cherry Red 1964 Gibson ES-335 TDC (bought by EC that year and played extensively in Cream) sold for $847,500 at Christie’s. $335 – yeah, right.

15. The Gibson ES-295 – a blinging gold finish upgrade on the ES-175 - was made famous by Elvis Presley's guitarist Scotty Moore. Brian Setzer (The Stray Cats, solo guitar star) has referred to the ES-295 as “the ultimate rockabilly guitar.”

16. ES-335s were originally only produced in Natural and Sunburst finishes. By the 1960s, Gibson was also producing ES-335s in Pelham Blue, Burgundy Red and Cherry Red. In 2014, color options abound. All are hand-sprayed.

17. The ES-345 and ES-355 were launched in 1958 with a “Varitone” rotary dial for extra tonal options and subtle tweaks to your sound (including then-pioneering stereo wiring). B.B. King calls Gibson's Varitone “the Magic Switch.”

18. ES-355's were factory-fitted with Bigsby vibratos (for just $20 more than a standard ES-335) yet some vintage dealers think they reduce value. Madness! Bigbsy-loaded ES fans include Noel Gallagher, Bernard Butler, Rich Robinson, Luther Dickinson and many more.

19. The Gibson ES-330 was/is different to many other current ES models, as it's fully hollow with no center-block

20. Gibson's sister company, Epiphone, has long produced variations on Gibson's classic ES designs. The “equivalent” of an ES-335 is the Epiphone Sheraton (I and II). Of an ES-330, the Epiphone Casino. The Beatles used Epiphone Casinos massively in their mid-to-final career. Blues legend John Lee Hooker liked Epiphone Sheratons, as did Noel Gallagher in early Oasis days.

21. New for 2014 is the Gibson ES-Les Paul, a unique hybrid of two classic Gibson designs. Just a few features include ES-style laminated maple tops, semi-acoustic construction (including a mahogany central block and f-holes) with Les Paul-style shapes and appointments. Learn more about the Gibson ES-Les Paul.

Gibson ES Les Paul

22. The 335 S is another new variation. All solid, but looking quite like an ES-335.

Gibson ES-335-S

23. There are many artist-specified signature models of ES guitars. There's the Black Crowes' Rich Robinson ES-335 – a red retro beauty with a factory-fitted Bigsby. Then there's the Luther Dickinson ES-335 with P-90 pickups and a tobacco burst finish.

Gibson Rich Robinson ES-335

Luther Dickinson ES-335

Or there's the Chris Cornell ES-335 with extra tones and a stunning green finish.

24. The new Billie Joe Armstrong ES-137 is a stunning-looking twist on '50s ES models. Kinda glam-punk and classic at the same time?

25. And if you can't get on with a full-size ES design, try the Gibson ES-390. This is fully hollow, like an ES-330, but with a reduced body size for playing comfort and with newly-designed P-90 pickups.

Gibson ES-390

With their huge history, Gibson ES models cover all bases for guitarists of all styles. Add your own geeky ES opinions below, please do! And if you can't find a Gibson ES you like? Maybe make table tennis your new hobby...

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