Published On: Tue, Feb 4th, 2014

Spanish Armada – The Story Of Gibson’s ES-335

Gibson’s ‘Electric Spanish’ range eventually led to one of history’s greatest guitars ever: the ES-335. Michael Stephens discovers how Gibson’s ES-335 melded the best of archtop classicism with the new world of high-volume electric mayhem, and how a modern classic came to be…

gib cherry body



Ask any guitarist to name the most classic Gibson, and they’ll probably say the Les Paul. Acoustic players will likely laud the Jumbo series (be it a J-45 or J-200). In terms of longevity, however, Gibson’s ES range takes some beating. The ES range encompasses so many different models and styles, they don’t always seem like a ‘family’… but they are.

ES, as you’ll know, denotes ‘Electric Spanish’. It’s now a somewhat archaic name, but Gibson in the 1930s needed to differentiate designs from their EH (Electric Hawaiian) line of lap steel guitars, which were still highly popular. Gibson weren’t even the first with the Electric Spanish name: that was Rickenbacker, whose 1935 models included the Model B Electric Spanish. But ‘ES’ would soon become associated with Gibson.

For nearly 80 years, Gibson’s ES range has been in constant production and has inspired everything from the first guitar solos to blues legends to indie heroes. The ultimate ES probably remains Gibson’s ES-335, a contender – surely – for the world’s greatest-ever guitar. Here’s the story of Gibson’s ES magic…

Gibson’s ES series began with the ES-150 of 1936, generally recognised as the world’s first successful electric guitar. The ES-150’s name – like many Gibson models that preceded and followed – simply denotes price: in 1936, $150 bought you the guitar, an amplifier and a cable. Gibson had previously fitted pickups on acoustic guitars in 1935, but the ES-150 was the first specifically-designed electric guitar to make a real impact.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was two retail companies – Montgomery Ward and Spiegel May Stern – who pushed Gibson to design and build the ES-150. Early pickup-loaded L-00 and L-1 models were selling so well that the stores suggested Gibson should offer a new ‘proper’ electric model. Outside of the blues, jazz bands were still where you’d mostly hear guitar, but mostly as ‘comping’ chording and as a backup instrument.

The ES-150 changed all that. Gibson still built for Montgomery Ward and Spiegel, but their own-brand ES-150 was a cut above: it had a solid spruce top, maple back and sides, and an adjustable trussrod. In ’36-’37, Gibson shipped 40 ES-150s a month – heady stuff for what some then thought of as a gimmick. An electric guitar? Whoulda thunk it?

SONY DSC

Variations on a theme: a rare 335 Stereo prototype and ES-345s from ’65, ’67, and 1970



Count Basie’s guitarist Eddie Durham recorded one of the earliest amplified guitar solos, but it was when his friend and follower Charlie Christian picked up an ES-150 that showcase guitar soloing was truly born. Durham later remarked, ‘I never saw anyone learn so fast, nor have I seen anyone rise to the top so quickly.’

By 1939, the prodigious Christian was working with Benny Goodman’s bands – his work, with an ES-150, on Air Mail Special, Honeysuckle Rose and – in particular – the epic Solo Flight ushered in the era of the guitar solo. Before long, stores were advertising the ES-150 with the tag ‘as featured by Charlie Christian.’

Yet the ES-150 was still essentially a ‘jazz box’. It had the outline and deep body of many existing Gibson archtop acoustics, and no cutaway. Still, at the time, it was something of a revolution. Variations followed: the similar-looking ES-125 was a student model, but had a new pickup fitted which we now call the P90. The ES-250 (1938-’40) was higher spec’d, but didn’t last long; the USA was still recovering from the Great Depression, and $250 was the 2013 equivalent of $4000. The ES-300 (produced from ’40-’52 in limited numbers) was another variation, but odd; early models had a heavily slanted pickup which is interesting to guitar experts, yet the same experts almost uniformly agree that most ES-300 guitars sound poor.

Nevertheless, these early ES models were finely-built. Nashville guitar expert and dealer George Gruhn tells Guitar & Bass, ‘The original Charlie Christian model ES-150 guitar, built from 1936 through ’39, is a very fine instrument. The pre-war ES-250 is also highly sought after, and very rare. But the post-World War II non-cutaway electrics, such as the ES-125, while they play well and sound good, tend to bring relatively low prices. Most players want a cutaway.’

Indeed, WWII had a bigger impact on guitar makers than you may think. Timber was highly valued and the best wood was used by the US government to build for the war effort. Gibson mainly concentrated on their acoustics with the limited supplies they had. It would be peace time before Gibson really moved its ES range forward.

A Cherry red ES-335 from 1960 with the typical block fingerboard markers, split-diamond headstock inlay, gold hardware, extra binding and a Vari-tine control



Post-War Revolution
The ES-175 debuted in 1949, and remains a highly significant model in Gibson history. Alongside the pricier ES-350, it was also the first Gibson electric to feature a Florentine (sharp) cutaway. The same year’s ES-5 had a round cutaway, and some had three pickups: build-wise, though, it was essentially a variation of the carved-topped L-5 acoustic.

Although the ES-175’s first incarnation had only a single P90 in the neck position, later models (the ES-175D, from ’53) came with two pickups. The ES-175 employed a laminated top to keep the price down – so even though it was still ‘jazz sized’, the 175 was clearly pointing the way to more affordable yet grandly spec’d ‘archtop’ electrics.

Fender’s Broadcaster (later called the Esquire and the Telecaster) also debuted in ’49, and it remains fascinating how the two guitar makers’ ethos contrasted. Fender’s model was genius design, for sure, but arguably utilitarian and an ‘easy’ build of slab wood and wire. The ES-175 exuded Gibson’s archtop heritage craft and it looked stunning.

gibson ES-295 1954 Alexis Korner

The ES-175′s flashy sister, the ES-295.



The ES-175 also eventually spawned a variation in a flashy all-gold livery, the ES-295. This one boasted a multi-bound maple top, a white pickguard with etched
flowers, pearl parallelogram neck inlays and more. And one happened to be in the hands, from 1953-’55, of a guitar player backing the hottest new artist in rock’n’roll, Elvis Presley. Interesting fact? Elvis’s Scotty Moore traded in his only-just-bought Fender Telecaster for his famed ES-295: ‘It might have something to do with it being a feminine shape, but I couldn’t get on with the Fender,’ Moore once recalled. ‘So I got a Gibson, a gold ES-295, and that was the one I used on the first things we cut.’

$250 was the 2013 equivalent of $4000. The ES-300 (produced from ’40-’52 in limited numbers) was another variation, but odd; early models had a heavily slanted pickup which is interesting to guitar experts, yet the same experts almost uniformly agree that most ES-300 guitars sound poor.

Nevertheless, these early ES models were finely-built. Nashville guitar expert and dealer George Gruhn tells Guitar & Bass, ‘The original Charlie Christian model ES-150 guitar, built from 1936 through ’39, is a very fine instrument. The pre-war ES-250 is also highly sought after, and very rare. But the post-World War II non-cutaway electrics, such as the ES-125, while they play well and sound good, tend to bring relatively low prices. Most players want a cutaway.’

Indeed, WWII had a bigger impact on guitar makers than you may think. Timber was highly valued and the best wood was used by the US government to build for the war effort. Gibson mainly concentrated on their acoustics with the limited supplies they had. It would be peace time before Gibson really moved its ES range forward.

Gibson es-330 1960

This ’60 ES-330 lacks the 335′s centre block; the neck meets the body at a different point, and the pickups are P90s.



Post-War Revolution
The ES-175 debuted in 1949, and remains a highly significant model in Gibson history. Alongside the pricier ES-350, it was also the first Gibson electric to feature a Florentine (sharp) cutaway. The same year’s ES-5 had a round cutaway, and some had three pickups: build-wise, though, it was essentially a variation of the carved-topped L-5 acoustic.

Although the ES-175’s first incarnation had only a single P90 in the neck position, later models (the ES-175D, from ’53) came with two pickups. The ES-175 employed a laminated top to keep the price down – so even though it was still ‘jazz sized’, the 175 was clearly pointing the way to more affordable yet grandly spec’d ‘archtop’ electrics.

Fender’s Broadcaster (later called the Esquire and the Telecaster) also debuted in ’49, and it remains fascinating how the two guitar makers’ ethos contrasted. Fender’s model was genius design, for sure, but arguably utilitarian and an ‘easy’ build of slab wood and wire. The ES-175 exuded Gibson’s archtop heritage craft and it looked stunning.

The ES-175 also eventually spawned a variation in a flashy all-gold livery, the ES-295. This one boasted a multi-bound maple top, a white pickguard with etched flowers, pearl parallelogram neck inlays and more. And one happened to be in the hands, from 1953-’55, of a guitar player backing the hottest new artist in rock’n’roll, Elvis Presley. Interesting fact? Elvis’s Scotty Moore traded in his only-just-bought Fender Telecaster for his famed ES-295: ‘It might have something to do with it being a feminine shape, but I couldn’t get on with the Fender,’ Moore once recalled. ‘So I got a Gibson, a gold ES-295, and that was the one I used on the first things we cut.’

Gibson ES-335 1969 PH cut

A ’69 ES-336 with small ‘block’ markers and the Gibson pickup covers of the period



Alongside Elvis, Moore moved on to other Gibson models soon enough (notably the Super 400) but just the image of Moore with an ES-295 seared eyeballs: Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats has referred to the ES-295 as ‘the ultimate rockabilly guitar.’

The ‘lowlier’ ES-175 has its own set of fans, across all genres. In 1964, a 17-year-old guitarist named Steve Howe walked into the Selmer music store in London and bought a Gibson ES-175. A hollowbody ES was an unusual choice for a future prog shredder, but Howe has remained faithful to the guitar that has supercharged his career. ‘The 175 is a brilliant guitar,’ Howe says. ‘The parallelogram inlays are beautiful, the whole guitar is beautiful.’ Back in the 1990s, even legendary guitar-collector Howe was having a clear-out. ‘I’ve bought a lot of guitars I didn’t need,’ Howe told G&B. ‘I’m selling 45 at the moment. But I’ve kept my ’63 ES-175, which was the first Gibson I bought. I played it continuously for 15 years.’

The ES-175 remains a classic. Yes, it was later eclipsed by other ES designs by Gibson, but it remains hugely popular. Continuously, from 1949 to 2013, the ES-175 has remained in Gibson’s extensive guitar range. It can feed back, it’s bulky to some, but the Gibson ES-175 boasts the longest unbroken production run of any electric guitar model.

 This reissue’s specs would be right for a short period in 1960, with a ‘long’ pickguard and mirror-top knobs.



Boom! The 335 Era
By the mid-1950s, Gibson’s ES range was well-established and selling well. Gibson had noted Fender’s success with the Telecaster and had produced its own solidbody, the now legendary Les Paul Model (the outline of the Les Paul was simply a downsized copy of the ES-175). Yet early Les Pauls of ’52 weren’t initially massively popular – it seemed Gibson also needed to blend its archtop heritage with the new demand for more rock’n’roll guitars.

Gibson had already built ‘slimline’ designs – the ES-350T and the ES-225T – with a shallower body, but these were still essentially hollowbody ‘jazz’ guitars. Gibson design legend Ted McCarty recalled of the now legendary ES-335: ‘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.’

The ES-335 of 1958 was a breakthrough. With its double Venetian cutaways it looked less like a jazzer’s guitar – but it clearly wasn’t a ‘simple’ Fender, either. Here’s a debate: maybe Les Paul influenced the ES-335 more than he did the Gibson Les Paul? Les Paul built his electric guitar prototype, the Log, after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940. It was a 4″x4″ chunk of pine with strings and a pickup. He sawed a conventional hollow-body guitar in half and attached each curved side to his ‘Log’ to make it more acceptable to a traditionalist’s eye. At the time, Gibson rejected Les Paul’s vision. But the idea of a semi-acoustic – solid block middle, with f-holed side chambers – maybe eventually morphed into the ES-335?

The ES-335 (and 345 and 355) is now a bona fide guitar design classic. Its slim body made it easier to play for most guitarists, and it also happened to look stunning. BB King says, ‘I knew I liked the 335 from the first time I played one. The first one I had was a brown sunburst, and the main thing about that guitar was that the neck was so thin and the body was so shallow, so it was comfortable to play… even back then when I was somewhat slimmer than I am now!’

gibson-selmer 1967



The 335 also benefitted from Gibson’s mid-’50s design innovations: Seth Lover’s ground-breaking humbucking pickups and McCarty’s ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge.

These were key in giving the 335 its unique blend of archtop classicism and cutting electric tones. Early after launch, Gibson nicknamed it as having a ‘wonder-thin’ body. The eventual 17-degree headstock angle increased string tension, too, giving a firmer feel and more attack to notes. At about 7.5lbs, it was easy on the shoulders. As a design, the Gibson ES-335 is arguably flawless.

Also released in 1958 was a high-end version, the ES-355, which came factory-equipped with multiple binding, gold-plated hardware, an ebony (not rosewood) fingerboard, Vari-tone control, and an optional Bigsby vibrato (for $355 as opposed to $335). Only 10 were shipped in ’58. The Vari-tone is loved by some, dismissed by others: it added various combinations of coils and capacitors to the pickup circuitry of the guitar to add more tonal options to the sound, one with a distinct ‘honk’.

In 1959 the ES-355 was upgraded to stereo wiring, and at the same time Gibson debuted the stereo ES-345. This was an ‘intermediate’ model between the ES-335, and it also came with the Vari-tone. IBB King calls the Vari-tone ‘the magic switch.’ ES-355 fan Bernard Butler says positions 2 and 3 on a Vari-tone are ‘more Fender Strat or Jaguar-like.’ Also in ’59, there was also a fully-hollow version, the ES-330 (later echoed by the Gibson-built Epiphone Casino).

Early models, as seemingly with all guitars, can differ. George Gruhn says, ‘The ES-335, ES-345, and ES-355 remain very sought after by collectors as well as musicians. The fully-hollow ES-330 is less sought after, but it’s still a fine instrument.
‘To me, the true “golden age” most sought-after of these guitars were those made in 1959, with the jumbo-size frets and a good neck set angle. Those from 1958 are still very valuable, but have a shallow neck set angle and don’t play quite as well as the ’59 model. Those made from 1960 onward have a somewhat slimmer contour neck and don’t bring as much money as the ‘59 model.

‘But any made prior to mid-’65 with the 1 11/16″ nut and a stop tailpiece are still sought-after collectibles. One might consider the golden age to be subdivided into the best being from 1958-1961, when the ES-335 had dot inlays and all the humbuckers had PAF stickers… but all are still quite collectible and very fine instruments through mid-1965.’

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Variations on a Theme
The ES-335 soon became the basis of other models. An early 335-style signature was the Trini Lopez, built from 1964. Lopez was a big star back then, and had been playing a Gibson Barney Kessel – a double Florentine cutaway akin to the ES-175. When approached by Gibson, Lopez suggested diamond fret-markers, diamond f-holes, the Firebird-style ‘hockey stick’ headstock and more.

The Trini Lopez is an ES-335 in all but name, and has its own fans: Noel Gallagher has a mint ’60s tobacco-finish one. Gibson’s DG-335 of the 2000s, a Dave Grohl signature, is essentially a Trini Lopez revamped with hotter pickups. It’s now Grohl’s main guitar… and they all lead back to the original ES-335 design. ‘Many younger players like my guitar,’ says Lopez, now 75. ‘Maroon 5’s guitarist plays my guitar, the Edge plays my guitar, Paul McCartney’s guitarist plays my guitar, Dave Grohl, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac played my guitar, Sting’s guitar player plays my guitar. The Edge auctioned his Trini Lopez for $280,000. It’s amazing.’

The ES-335 design has certainly proved an inspiration to many, and it remains massively versatile. Jazz/fusion player Larry Carlton – who has added his guitar skills to artists diverse as Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, the Crusaders and Michael Jackson – is known as ‘Mr 335’ and his own record label is 335 Records. ‘I didn’t own a 335 until 1969,’ Carlton says. ‘I had been playing a Les Paul or an ES-175. As I got busier in the studio scene, I really wanted to start carrying one guitar as opposed to carrying three or four. And the 335 was the most versatile, and I was a very versatile player. I could depend on that guitar for the majority of sessions I was doing. It’s a great blues guitar, a great jazz guitar also, and I played all of that. And it’s a great rock’n’roll guitar… if you crank it.’

Gibson339 2009

The Gibson ES-339: all the tone with a little less size



The 335 as Indie Icon
Looking back over more than five decades, 335s to 355s can be found across all genres. Blues legend Freddie King cut his classic Hideaway on his ES-345. Eric Clapton played a 335 in Cream (see Famous Thinlines on page 28). The thinline is still a staple of many jazz players, but the glorious design reaches way beyond ‘archtop’ excellence. It’s surely not what Gibson intended, but the ES-335 has also become something of an indie guitar icon.

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In the 1980s, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr often played a vintage cherry red ES-355, and that same guitar caused some future stars to embrace the design. Noel Gallagher claims that after seeing the Smiths on Top Of The Pops, he went out and bought a red 335 the very next day. ‘That’s what I want to look like! My 1960s Gibson 355 – that’s the basis for everything,’ Gallagher said in 2011. ‘I’ve got so many guitars, and people just throw things at me. But the guitars I bring on tour are either 355s or 345s. Those are what I play.’

Bernard Butler was another swayed by Johnny Marr’s use of a 355. Influenced by his teen hero, Butler bought his ’64 Bigsby-fitted 355 in New York on Suede’s first US tour. Tellingly, the name of Butler’s own studio these days is Studio 355. Bigsby vibrato-loaded 355s aren’t widely coveted, however. George Gruhn says, ‘All of the hollow and semi-hollow models bring more money in a non-tremolo [sic] version. Those with the tremolo simply don’t stay in tune as well.’
Today, the ES-335-style endures as an indie icon. The Cribs’ Ryan Jarman plays a Gibson Memphis ES-335 Dot, while Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig favours the closely-related Epiphone Sheraton II.

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The 335 influence
From 1936’s ES-150 to the ES-335 is a big journey, but it hasn’t stopped. The 335 shape is now part of guitar culture. Epiphone, Gibson’s sister brand, has its own variations. The fully-hollow Casino (much like an ES-330) was a favourite of the Beatles. John Lennon played one regularly: when Paul McCartney played Beatles guitar solos (Ticket To Ride, Drive My Car, Taxman) it was on a Casino. The Edge of U2 likes a Casino, and also its more 335-alike (solid-centre) Sheraton. John Lee Hooker was a Sheraton player for much of his later career. Epiphone’s Casinos and Sheratons are all essentially 335-style designs, but with subtle variations.

Gary Clark Jr, the most-lauded young blues singer of 2013, prefers to play a genuine ES-335 or his own custom finish Epi Casinos. ‘The Gibson ES-125 changed my world as far as introducing me to the hollowbody sound,’ says Clark. ‘And then from there, I had my eyeballs on Casinos until I finally got one. I just recently got two Blak and Blu Casinos which I’m so stuck on at the moment. They’re all so amazing. Blak and Blu with a Bigsby! They’re a dream.’

The ES-347 of the 1980s added a coil-tap switch – creating the option of a Beatles-esque Casino-like tone. Today’s ES-336 is a scaled-down version. With a body 13″ wide and 16″ long it’s easier on smaller frames but still looks like a classic ES-335. The same goes for the ES-390. There’s also the 339 (and the posher 359). All differ in some respects, but if you find a ‘regular’ ES-335 unwieldy, look at these variations.

Signature spin-offs abound. For a unique example, the Epiphone-branded Tom Delonge (Blink-182) ES-333 has just one pickup and one volume control – it seems under-specified and ‘wrong’, but it’s been very popular. There was also a Gibson Custom ‘Inspired By’ ES-336 for Kiefer Sutherland. Yep, the actor. Maybe it was only in production for 24 hours?

But ultimately, there is no other semi-solid guitar design that has spawned such a long lineage as Gibson’s ultimate Electro Spanish guitar, the ES-335. Eric Clapton may have sold his most famous one, but he still loves them. ‘The ES-335 is beautiful, and I loved it, says Clapton. ‘It was played regularly over the years. It got on albums, it never really changed. It never got old, it never wore down. It never lost anything. I’d play it now

‘Anything that’s been that long in my life and is still functional – there aren’t too many things that can command that kind of respect. I’ve had no cars that long, for instance. There are no other tools in my life that have been as long-serving. After I sold the red ES-335, I immediately bought a sunburst one. It’s a great guitar… and it’s so loud. I’d forgotten how loud they were!’

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