Take two great Gibson elements, the centre-block ES-335 and the snarly P90, marry them together, and you’ve got one of the more compelling signature models of recent times. Review by Marcus Leadley
Description: Semi-hollow electric guitar. Made in USA
We tend to forget that many of Gibson’s classic designs of the 1950s were solutions to the real-world problem of feedback; bigger gigs, more powerful amps and the onset of rock’n’roll meant it was a serious issue for the jazz box designs of the 1930s and ’40s. Les Paul’s solidbody model of 1952 nailed the problem, but it was a radical solution, and for pro players used to a rich, warm hollowbody tone, Les Pauls were not the answer.
Midway though the ’50s, the thinline ES-225 was introduced. The theory was simple – enough body space to create a semi-acoustic character but with a smaller resonant chamber, giving less feedback potential. The idea worked to a degree, and it subsequently led to the slimline ES-330 design of 1958.
These were great in the studio and for mid-sized club gigs, but it was the ES-335, introduced in the same year, that delivered the right balance of tone, playability and control. It did this by combining hollow and solidbody characteristics with a solid maple block running all the way from the front of the guitar to the back, stiffening the top and dividing the body cavity into two smaller, unconnected chambers.
It was feedback control that initially drew Luther Dickinson to the ES-335; his North Mississippi Allstars play loud. He loved the ES-175 he inherited from his father Jim Dickinson, former guitarist with the Dixie Flyers, session musician and producer, but the 175 simply could not cope.
The solution was a Gibson Memphis ES-335 kitted out to look and sound like dad’s ES-175. This is one lovely-looking electric guitar. The nitrocellulose finish is a late ’50s vintage brown/tobaccoburst and the aged cream body binding frames it beautifully. Like all 335s the body is made from laminated maple, but the centre block is a single piece. The neck is quarter-sawn mahogany and the 22-fret rosewood fingerboard is bound to match the body. The dot position markers are period-correct to the late 1950s. Everything from the Klusons and the headstock inlay to the amber-top control knobs and the Bigsby vibrola tells you this is a class act.
At the same time, this guitar is not a normal 335 reissue. The basic 335 always has humbuckers; this one sports dogear P90s. This is Dickinson’s principal request, as the ES-175 was introduced soon after the end of WW2 with P90 single coils, the standard Gibson pickup until the introduction of the humbucker in 1957. P90s deliver a clean, bright tone and convey a good deal of the guitar’s natural acoustic character. The midrange is quite prominent, which works famously for biting lead tones, and there’s plenty of gutsy crunch on offer; however, they’re susceptible to mains hum and need to be paired with a good amp for their sound to be properly showcased.
The neck is a peach, copied directly from the vintage ES-175. It’s a little fuller than a ’60s slim taper, but not really chunky. Add a 12″ radius board, medium-gauge frets and the easy feel afforded by the 24.75″ Gibson scale and you’ve got a responsive, easy-playing guitar. It balances perfectly on a strap but, surprisingly, it’s unbalanced on the knee; there’s too much weight at the tail and gravity tends to carry it backwards.
The acoustic tone rings out nicely, with surprisingly forward mids and a dry honkiness to the sound that favours the pick edge. Dickinson says his playing style is based on translating acoustic technique to the electric (‘really loud electric guitar. Loud but clean’), and his go-to sound is the middle position with both pickups on – so let’s start there.
In this mode the pickups are noise-cancelling. The clean sound is rounded and warm and yes, it sounds a lot like the acoustic tone, but the lows are restrained and the top end is rounded out. It’s nothing like that quintessential out-of-phase Knopfler Strat quack, but some of the same characteristics are present and to my mind it has many more uses. Here the highs are sweet but not biting, while the neck pickup is where you go if you want to explore the deeper end of the guitar; for upper-mid honk, switch down to the bridge.
It soon becomes apparent that the best way to play this guitar is to turn everything on the amp up full, use the tone controls subtractively to get your basic sound right, and then control everything from the guitar in true vintage style. If it’s too loud, use a smaller amp! Backing off the volume cleans things up beautifully and you can really make the amp crunch and splutter as it starts to distort.
More gain brings out the rockier side of the blues. The guitar still has the underlying character of a 335 with a full, bassy twang but you won’t get that super-smooth Larry Carlton thing or the Alvin Lee or BB King tones without humbuckers. The P90s give the guitar a much more gnarly edge, something ideally suited to a heavy-handed playing style with elements of John Lee Hooker or Otis Rush thrown in. Playing on the neck pickup with the guitar’s tone fractionally wound off straight into a hot amp is fantastic fun that delivers a real sense of ’70s blues rock perfection.
Dickinson plays fingerstyle most of the time and he’s an aficionado of bottleneck and open tunings, so this 335 has to be able to cope with DADGAD, open C# and a bunch of other drop tunings.
While he’s essentially a blues player with many classic influences, there’s a contemporary eclectic thread that reflects his upbringing. He’s not afraid of weird-arse noise and cites the Cramps as a seminal influence – and this guitar can rise to the challenge. The feel is pretty loose to start with and the bass strings start flapping like rubber bands when you tune then down… and they sound seriously mean.
At the risk of overworking the term ‘authentic’, that’s the best way to describe the sound and feel when you get the bottleneck onto the strings, and if you want to push on through into feedback then the Bigsby really comes into its own because you can make the 335 rumble and wail. However, the bridge doesn’t have roller saddles – the whole bridge articulates on its posts – so too much whammy use can put you out of tune very quickly.
This is a really hard guitar to put down. It looks, feels and plays exactly like an instrument with an illustrious pedigree should; all the controls work brilliantly and you can work with them to sculpt great sounds as the P90s really bring out the acoustic character of the 335 platform. For controllable vintage blues it’s a winner – and it can handle folk, rock, jazz, country and sonic explorations too. If you want to use a semi-acoustic in anger but humbuckers don’t do it for you, it’s an obvious solution.
It’s not cheap, but I’d quite happily slim down the collection of lesser name-brand guitars if it meant I could add one of these to the stable. The absence of any obvious Luther Dickinson branding is another plus: without having to state its signature connection too loudly, this is simply a great guitar in its own right.