Here’s a piece of rock & roll history which now approaches the age of forty, and has certainly worn a lot better than I have over the years. Perhaps best associated with Messers Chuck Berry and BB King, the Gibson ES-355 semi-solid guitar sat at the high end of the Gibson range, featuring luxury appointments such as generous binding and purfling, gold plating, and pearl block inlays. This one has a striking cherry red finish, lacquered with Gibson’s obligatory nitro-cellulose, and gives away its era of construction courtesy of a volute behind the headstock. The volute was simply an extra thickness of wood at what was considered the weakest point of the neck – to prevent breakage.
Despite its semi-solid construction, this ‘355 is very heavy. In fact, it’s not noticeably lighter than either of my Les Pauls. I shudder to think what the weight would be like if the entire body was solid! However, the weight is tolerable, given the general balance of the guitar, and of course its mitigating desirabilities. I have gigged the instrument, and it’s one of those rare beasts which is such a thrilling experience to play on stage, that the last thing on your mind is how much it weighs.
The pickups are regular-output Gibson humbuckers, similar to the PAF design, and there’s a Gibson vibrato unit fitted. Some ‘355s had Bigsby vibratos instead. There were versions of this model with or without the six-position Varitone circuit. This one has it, along with the stereo output jack which was an intergrated feature with the Varitone. That makes this particulal model variant an ES-355TD-SV. The serial number, 619110, dates the guitar to either 1970, 1971 or 1972, but it was sold to me as a ’72, and I’ve no reason to doubt that.
The sound is quite different from that of a stop tailpiece ES-335. The feel is different too. The strings are looser on this guitar, and everything somehow feels more chilled and laid back. It’s tempting to play nothing but Chuck Berry lines, because they sound so authentic it’s almost like a fairytale. It’s not the sound on his 1950s records – it’s the sound he’d have on stage through the ‘70s and onward. There’s a really good 1987 movie encompassing Chuck’s 60th birthday performance, with Keith Richards as musical director. If you’ve seen that, you’ll know exactly what this guitar sounds like. A lot of the character is added by the presence of the vibrato unit. Technically it detracts from the resonance and sustain, but the slightly flappy, rich and full twang perfectly suits those choppy rock & roll riffs.
Of course, the ES-355 isn’t just suited to rock & roll. It’s great for many different styles, but I do regard it predominantly as a rhythm guitar. It’s not that you can’t use it for two-handed tapping and churn out blazing metal solos. The neck is highly accomodating so any style is comfortable to play. But a guitar’s sound and personality tends to draw you down certain avenues. Or course, BB King fans would doubtless argue that the ES-355 was an ideal lead guitar, but BB's lead breaks have always been highly rhythmic, centering around the percussive attack of the instrument rather than the legato smoothness employed by players more typically associated with 'lead guitar'. Country picking works very well on this guitar, as does James Brown era soul and R&B, traditional blues (obviously), retro pop including most 1960s stuff, etc…
Another thing this guitar does brilliantly, is those sleazy ‘70s chicka-wah-wah funk backings. If you’ve ever tried playing one of those parts with a Strat through a Cry Baby pedal and felt something wasn’t quite right, try it again with one of these. In a ‘seventies, street level, cool-dude-with-matchstick-in-the-mouth-and-extreme-flares sense, the Gibson ES-355 is one of the funkiest guitars you can get. If there’s one thing wrong with TV drama today, it’s that not enough Gibson ES-355s are used to soundtrack car chase scenes. In all seriousness, though, the ES-355 does have proper mojo, and (in this case at least) as a lovingly crafted child of the ‘70s, it excels with material from its native decade.
‘Seventies Gibsons don’t have the highest repuation within the fullness of the company’s illustrious history, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with this one. The inlay work and binding is perfect, the finish is up to the usual Gibson level of superiorty, and the build is obviously in keeping with the kind of price point these were pitched at – exceptionally good, basically. And in the end, the playing experience is what defines a guitar. That’s really one of those things you have to do for yourself to really appreciate. But every aspect of gigging this guitar is a buzz. From the expressions on other guitarists’ faces when you produce it from its case, to that amazing feeling you get when truly classic guitar tones float off the instrument, fill the venue with the very aura of live, vital, floor-quaking, ass-kicking rock and roll, and you suddenly see an entire audience captivated and enraptured. At that point, the lack of 'PAF' stickers on the bottom of the pickups or whatever couldn’t matter less. Such a great shame these things cost so much these days, because every guitarist should be able to live that experience. It’s one of the best life has to offer.
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