For a fan of vintage electric guitars and everything they stand for, the original Gibson ES-335 ‘Dot’ of 1958 to 1961 ticks just about every box there is to tick. Although totally overshadowed in the breathtaking pricetag stakes by the sunburst Gibson Les Paul of roughly the same era, the early Gibson ES-335 is (and always has been) considered preferable by some of the world’s most important and influential guitarists. True, because of the life-changing monetary value of a ’59 Les Paul, most guitarists would probably plump for one of those over and above a similarly aged ES-335 if they could choose anything they wanted for free. But as a player’s instrument, the ‘335 offers the Les Paul Standard’s marriage of old school craftsmanship, maturity and real PAF pickups, coupled with greater versatility, and a much broader musical credibility across the genres.
Multi Grammy winner Larry Carlton tells an anecdote about having to use three different guitars for his session work when getting started in the late 1960s (A Les Paul for rock and roll, a Telecaster for country, and an ES-175 for Jazz). Ideally wanting an instrument which would cover all the styles, he set off on a search. His search ended with the Gibson ES-335 – the guitar with which of course he became synonymous, to the extent that he was dubbed “Mr 335”.
The 1961 variant of the Gibson ES-335 had the early feature of dot position markers on the fretboard (hence the 'dot' nickanme), but the long scratchplate of the 1950s originals had been replaced with a shorter version. The all important PAF pickups and stud tailpiece were still features, however, making a '61 ES-335 a very highly prized musical instrument on today's market.
But the ‘335 can cover many more bases than just jazz, country and rock and roll. Eric Clapton’s use of a 1960s model with the early rock band Cream demonstrates the guitar’s aptitude for cranked up blues/rock, and the work of Alvin Lee showed how Gibson’s groundbreaking semi-solid could even imitate Hendrix’s Strat. Dave Edmunds was widely known in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for his routine use of ‘335s on new wave-tinged power pop tracks, in Rockpile. Then there was John Lee Hooker, who almost turned this particular guitar into a deep roots percussion instrument. More recently, the likes of Dave Grohl and Jamie Cook have given the ‘335 modern musical associations.
Whilst other guitarists have perhaps not been so closely associated with the instrument as some of those above, Eric Johnson heads a huge and varied list of famous names who’ve used Gibson ES-335s at one point or another. And if you open up the parameters to include guitarists who’ve extensively used the ES-335’s more opulent sisters – in particular the ES-355 – you start to see names such as BB King, Chuck Berry, Bernard Butler, Noel Gallagher, Johnny Marr, Alex Lifeson and Freddie King joining the list. Clearly, these are anything but one-sound guitars. They’re as expressive and as full of variety as the people who’ve played them.
The Gibson ES-335 was introduced in 1958, as a new concept. The idea was to maintain the personality of a hollow-bodied guitar, but to add in some of the benefits proving desirable in the solid-bodied guitars which had risen to prominence through the course of the decade. Dramatically reduced feedback at high volume, superior sustain and a purer tone, without losing the rich character and extra depth which could only be obtained through a level of natural, acoustic resonance. This ‘best of both worlds’ scenario was accomplished by literally combining a solid guitar with a hollow-body. The body comprised a central solid block onto which the bridge and tailpiece would be mounted for optimum sustain and harmonic control. And each side of that, an acoustic chamber imparting a natural depth and personality. Very simple in principle, but very effective in practice. A body entirely composed of maple, albeit semi-hollow, made for substantial weight, but a vibrant, clear tone. A mahogany neck with rosewood fretboard ensured things didn’t get too unGibsony – if that’s a word.
WHY ’58 TO ’61?
The first three years of production were special for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious one is the use of PAF (Patent Applied For) humbuckers rather than the later ‘patent number’ pickups, which are considered less exciting, more ‘hollow’ in tone, and lacking in renowned PAF ‘kick’. The rep of PAF pickups is currently so high, that Gibson could have mounted a set on a late ‘50s wheel barrow and it would now probably be worth ten grand.
The other major defining features of the pre-1962 ES-335 were mainly, but not exclusively, cosmetic. The fingerboard was inlaid with dot position markers rather than the subsequent pearloid blocks - hence the model's 'Dot' nickname. Exactly why it is that guitarists have preferred a more basic appointment set to the ‘bells and whistles’ over the years I’m not sure, but it’s often been the case. It’s the same with Fender Jaguars, Jazzmasters, Jazz Basses, etc. The dot neck versions have gained a much bigger fanbase than the more upmarket block marker examples. Broadly, the ’58 to ’61 ES-335 has single binding around the body, and a single bound neck. However, the very first examples made (extremely limited in quantity) had an unbound neck. Up until 1960, the scratchplate on the ‘335 was very noticeably longer than on subsequent models. Whereas the post 1960 plate terminates at the back end of the bridge pickup mount, the earier version stretches right out beyond the bridge. The combination of these early trappings came to be considered the cosmetic epitome of the ES-335.
As the 1960s progressed, another change in spec disappointed a lot more players. The abandonment of the stud tailpiece and its replacement with a trapeze arrangement robbed the guitar of some sustain and, in the eyes of some, compromised the string tension. In actual fact the trapeze tailpiece wasn’t as serious a problem musically as you might think. You do lose some sustain, but the difference isn’t that pronounced, and the string tension doesn’t flap out into 'elastic band' territory. It’s not like trying to play a Fender Jaguar or anything along those lines. In a blindfold test I doubt many guitarists would definitively distinguish a trapeze fitted ‘335 from a stud version. The trapeze looks worse than it performs and the perception of the concept is worse than the reality. But that was still a massive problem. Purely in image terms, the trapeze tailpiece of 1965 seriously detracted from the '335's desirability. Realistically, the damage was done before the player even picked up the guitar.
Perhaps the most impressive thing of all about the early ES-335s, is their quality. Gibson guitars have always been well made, but these initial ‘335s were just breathtaking. From the grade of the wood used, to the precision of the inlay work, they were true works of art. Gibson were not building these instruments in any serious volume at the time. Between 1958 and 1960, just over 1,300 ES-335s were manufactured – that’s not even two a day. With production totals like that, Gibson could easily keep tabs on what was leaving the factory, and that definitely shows.
There was a head-in-the-sand disregard for the proclivities of guitarists at both Gibson and Fender through the latter ‘60s and the 1970s. Throughout that period, guitarists had been removing the trapeze tailpieces from their ‘335s and fitting studs in place. You can see one of the converted guitars in my Gibson ES-345 article. It's astonishing, looking back, that this continued for over a decade and a half before Gibson realised they might actually sell more guitars if they returned to the most desirable feature set. But that's what guitar manufacture was like in the '70s. The companies knew best - or thought they did - and if players didn't like something, it was they who were stupid, not the guy who came up with the feature. But finally, in 1981, Gibson did concede to common sense, reintroducing an ES-335 with a stud tailpiece and a dot marker fingerboard. The new Gibson 335 Dot, as it was called, was advertised in the hands of endorsee Dave Edmunds. It wasn’t an accurate vintage reissue, but it was a step in the right direction, paving the way for more authentic replicas to follow later. Today, some Gibson ES-335s have dot markers, and some have blocks, but the company doesn't list a model with a trapeze tailpiece.
Obviously, a PAF-period Gibson '335 is not going to suit every player. It doesn't have divebomb trem capabilities, it doesn't have a coil tap and I think it's basically illegal these days to remove the bridge position PAF from a '50s Gibson and put in the latest 25K crashbangwallop-bucker or whatever. But you'll never get the feeling these old beauties conjure up from playing a new SuperStrat. The 1958 to 1961 ES-335 was crafted in harness with nature, and with real consideration for the individual player who would be lucky enough to end up with the specific guitar being made. Since there were so few units ever outshopped in this golden phase of the '335's history, getting hold of one in fine, original condition today is likely to require a lot of effort, not to mention a mortgage. But even so, you'll still almost surely be getting much better value for money than with a Strat of the same era - let alone a Les Paul.