Launched 55 years ago, in 1958, the ES-335 is undoubtedly a classic, not only of Gibson’s but of all electric guitar designs. What the Les Paul model is to solidbodies, the ES-335 is to semis – beautiful, versatile and coveted by players across all genres.
The “basic” design has been ever changing, though. If you don’t know your 335s from 345s, 355s, Lucilles, Trini Lopez and Dave Grohl models and more, here’s a quick-fire guide.
President/chief designer for Gibson in the ‘50s, the legendary Ted McCarty, believed the ES-335 was right behind the Les Paul solidbody as the company’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,” he recalled. In many ways, the ES-335 recalled Les Paul’s own “Log” guitar he built at Epiphone. But the ES-335 was much more sophisticated.
The ES-335 was the first “slimline” archtop guitar the world had seen – its thin body (just 1.75"), double cutaway, semi-hollow body with (solid maple block down center) made it easier to handle than bigger “jazz” hollowbody electrics that preceded it. The ES-335 originally came with single tan binding, unbound f-holes, and in Sunburst or Natural colors.
Many have modded it themselves: Alvin Lee’s “Big Red” 335 added a single-coil pickup between the buckers with its own volume control, and a different bridge.
The ES-345 was also launched in 1958 as an uptown version of the ES-335. The design is near-identical to the 335, but the 345 featured a multi-position "Varitone" switch – this added various combination of coils and capacitors to the pickup circuitry of guitar to add more tonal “color” to the sound. The ES-345 also featured an optional Stereophonic output jack, gold-plated hardware, large, parallelogram fingerboard inlays, and a thicker edge binding than that of the ES-335. A notable 345 user was legendary bluesman Freddie King, a major influence on Eric Clapton.
Here’s King tearing it up on “Boogie Funk” from 1973.
The 355 was the “penthouse” model, if you like of the ’58 line. Cherry finish was usually the standard, though other colors do were made. ES-355s have usually included either a Bigsby or a Gibson tremolo unit and a Stereo Varitone. Ebony fingerboard with large block inlays and a bound, custom-style peghead were standard. Like the ES-335 and ES-345, was named because of its original dollar price. Cheap? Well, $355 in 1958 equals circa $2800 in 2013 – an ES-355 is similarly priced right now.
The ES-355 has also found its way into many hands. The best-known player is probably B.B. King, whose trademark guitar, “Lucille,” was the basis for a 1981 signature model (see below). But the ES-355, in white, has also been played often by Rush’s Alex Lifeson. “I got the 355 in 1976, and that became my main guitar probably until ’81 or so.” Another white 355 has been back in Lifeson’s gigging armory in recent years.
In the U.K the ES-355 has become, perhaps surprisingly, something of an indie/alt rock guitar of choice. Johnny Marr played one regularly in The Smiths’ brief career in the ‘80s, and Bernard Butler (Suede) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis/solo) admit to buying red Bigsby-loaded 355s solely because they were Marr fans.
Watch these Lifeson and Gallagher clips that tell you the guitars can be good for prog virtuosity or stadium anthems.
You may think an ES-330TD (from 1959) is just a lower-spec 335. Wrong. It has the same body shape, but is fully hollow. Its warmer tones found favour with jazz greats Wes Montgomery and Emily Remler, but don’t think a hollowbody can’t also rock. In its Epiphone-brand cousin the Casino, this hollowbody 335-alike was also a favorite of Beatles John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.
For 2013, the ES-330TD is back. The ES-330TD (Vintage Burst) is classic-correct with two Vintage Wound P-90 pickups and a trapeze tailpiece. Then there is the smaller-bodied ES-390 from the Gibson Custom Memphis – still hollow, but with mini humbuckers and a lustrous cherry, Vintage Sunburst or Ebony finish. The ES-390 is essentially a “new” guitar, but shows the 335 shape and template is adaptable.
Gibson Trini Lopez
From 1964 (to ’71 at first), Gibson made Trini Lopez models. Lopez was a huge star at the time, and The Standard was a swerve on the 335’s original design, modded with diamond/slash “f-holes”, diamond neck inlays and a “hockey-stick” headstock reminiscent of the Gibson Firebird.
“I gave Gibson all the ideas I liked – the diamond fret-markers, the diamond f-holes, the headstock, plus buttons here-and-there to make it easier for me to switch from rhythm to lead,” says Lopez. Noel Gallagher was a fan of this one too – he played a ‘60s Trini Lopez often in the early 2000s with Oasis: see it in the video for “Lyla.” The Gibson Trini Lopez has been back in production since, but originals and reissues are now a rare find.
That said, it’s the basis for the signature 335-alike of another fan – Dave Grohl (keep reading!)
Gibson B.B. King Lucille
King’s Lucille from Gibson Custom is a variation on an ES-355. King’s signature model has a body with no f-holes and a fine-tuner TP-6 tailpiece. It is available in King’s traditional Ebony finish and Cherry – but for that B.B vibe, it’s got to be the sumptuous Ebony or Cherry finish.
In previous years, King liked a 355. You can hear the “honk” of the Varitone’s capabilities on King’s 1969 classic “The Thrill is Gone.” King has played ES-335s and ES-345s too, but the lavish 355 was the one fit for a King… and became the basis of signature Lucilles (from 1980).
In earlier years, King would often stuff his regular ES-355’s f-holes with cloth to inhibit feedback, so the no-f-hole Lucille was a much-needed mod for the bluesman.
Gibson CS-336 and other variations
A “standard”-size 335 too big for you? Enter the 336, a scaled-down version. With a body 13-inches wide and 16 inches long it’s easier on smaller frames but still looks like a classic ES-335. (See also the 390, above.)
And there is also the 339 (and the better-appointed 359). All differ slightly, in woods and build, but if you find a “regular” ES-335 size unwieldy, look at these size variations.
So, plenty of choice there. And there are more. Any favorites of yours from the Gibson ES-335’s extended family?
And before we end, here is “Mr 335” himself – Larry Carlton – playing his own tune “Room 335.” Carlton has his own interactive instruction website at mr335.tv.
To its fans, the ES-335 (and its cousins) is the ultimate electric guitar – full of tone, versatile, and damn good looking too. Please, add your thoughts and favorite players in the comments!