Mid 1960s Gibson ES345 Guitar

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 30 October 2011 |

When I bought this Gibson ES345 semi over two decades ago, it was the most expensive guitar I’d ever owned, and I had to borrow a fair amount of cash from my Grandmother to make the purchase possible. That feeling you get when you’ve drastically overspent and will basically be confined to buying nothing but bare essentials for the foreseeable future, is pretty powerfully negative, but I’d probably have suffered much deeper regrets had I left the guitar for someone else to buy.

The ES345 sat between the plainer ES335 and the more lavish ES355 in the Gibson range of semi-solid guitars. Effectively, these instruments have solid bodies behind the pickups and bridge, but feature an acoustic chamber each side of the solid block, which has its own effect on the sound. The semi-solids can’t realistically be used acoustically – amplification is a must if you want to be properly heard, but they are a little louder than a typical full solid bodied guitar when not plugged in. Some of the differences between these three popular Gibson semi-solid models will become apparent in the ensuing text, but visually, it was generally just a matter of the binding and inlays getting more elaborate as you moved up the range. Additionally, the ‘335 featured chrome-plated parts, whereas the ‘345 and ‘355 had gold plating. The ‘355 came as standard with a vibrato unit – the ‘335 and ‘345 didn’t.

In the mid ‘60s, Gibson switched from the original ES345 design with a stop tailpiece just behind the bridge, to a new version with a trapeze tailpiece – anchored around the strap button and stretching across the bodywork to meet the strings where the stop tailpiece previously sat. The consensus was, however, that the trapeze tailpiece had a negative impact on the sound and sustain. Accordingly, some guitars had their trapeze tailpieces removed and replaced with a stop. This is one such guitar. I have to admit I didn’t realise straight away that this was a conversion job. I was young and pretty naïve when I bought the guitar, and because the conversion was probably done fairly early in the guitar’s life, the stop tailpiece didn’t look in any way alien. The gold plating was worn away from the stop bar just as it was from the pickup covers etc. So everything looked sufficiently ‘period’, and unless you were specifically looking for evidence of a tailpiece conversion, it wouldn’t jump out at you.

I realised after getting the guitar home that it had been modified, and I did consider my options. Knowing the shop I got it from, they’d have credited me the full amount against any other piece of gear, but since they’d never sold the guitar as ‘all-original’, I doubt they’d have considered a refund. Besides which, I loved the guitar, and despite its expense as perceived by me personally, it was still much cheaper than a near mint all-original example would be expected to sell for. I was disappointed that the shop didn’t specifically tell me about the conversion, but in some ways it was good that they didn’t. It might have stopped me from buying, and I’d have been missing out on a sensational guitar. The condition is absolutely amazing, and yes, that is the original finish.

In common with some ES355s, the ‘345 had a Varitone. This can be seen in the photo. It’s the black knob on a large round gold-coloured dial, just to the right of the output jack socket. I couldn’t get on with this at all, and within a couple of months I’d bypassed it. You probably shouldn’t be performing wiring mods on an instrument of this quality and vintage, but the Varitone really did degrade the tone, and in any case the guitar had already been modified (with the fitting of the stop tailpiece), so my decision was made a lot easier.

The premise with the Varitone is that it routes the signal from the pickups through a variety of different capacitor arrangements. Each selection on the notched rotation of the knob brings in a different value of capacitor, and this greatly increases the range of available tones. The problem is, to my ears at least, most if not all of these capacitor-filtered tones are crap. You can’t remove the filtering, either. Even the ‘fundamental’ tone is a degradation of the original pickup output. Once you bypass the Varitone circuitry, and swap the stereo output socket for a standard one (which I also did) the ES345 operates as an ES335. After my rewiring, then, I had the sound and simplicity of a ‘335 (highly desirable), and the look of a ‘345 – a virtually mint one, from the mid 1960s. Was this enough? Not quite…

After using the ‘345 for six months or so (and falling in love with it, obviously), I wondered if there was anything else I could do to improve it. The prospect of a pickup change had been creeping into my thoughts for a while, and I’d got a spare Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker, which I’d had in a Les Paul, but removed and replaced with the original when I sold the guitar. I considered I’d got nothing to lose in trying the ’59 in the ES345, so I went for it. I was truly shocked at how much better the Seymour Duncan was than the original ‘60s Gibson pickup. Rather than leave the Seymour there in the bridge position, in its ‘test state’, I decided to make a proper job of it… I’d move the Seymour ’59 to the neck position, get a Seymour JB for the bridge, and carefully switch the new pickups’ screw ‘polepieces’ with the originals, add the old pickup covers, etc, so the new pickups looked exactly as the originals had looked on the guitar. I didn’t change the magnets – only the non-magnetic screw-poles.

Without any question, the disengagement of the Varitone and the pickup change dramatically improved the sound. I wonder how many people are using vintage guitars with poor pickups, not realising how much better their instruments could sound? I’m certainly not advocating the idea that everyone rips apart their all-original historic instruments and slaps in the latest wizz-bang turbocharged pickup set, but as I’ve said before, vintage guitars are not wonderful by default. They’re steeped in hype, and with £thousands often at stake, no dealer is gonna tell you that the majority of vintage guitars they sell offer an active guitarist (as opposed to a collector) poor value for money.

As the years have passed I believe this instrument has continued to improve. It has a very rich and attractive tone, which overdrives phenomenally well to produce a distortion I can't imagine any guitarist disliking. People say Strats are versatile, and they are, but there are very few bases you can't cover with this guitar. Anything from jazz, through kick-ass rock to indie comes naturally, and even funk works well. A Gibson semi-solid won't do funk the way a Strat does it, but let it do things its own way, and you may be surprised at the reward you get back. As it was when I bought it, this guitar was probably a 7 out of 10. Today, after modifications and two more decades of use, it is, in the finest traditions of Spinal Tap, an 11.

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