Gibson ES-335 history and innovations.
There are many guitars I’ve dreamed of owning but the first electric guitar I wished for was the Gibson ES-355. When I was in high school the music store nearest my home had the ES-345 and ES-355 models in cherry red finish and for some reason let me try them out (repeatedly) in their demo room. I would plug in and play through an Ampeg tube amp. I’ve never actually owned any Gibson guitar from the 335 family but I once owned an Ibanez copy. (I currently own an Epiphone Casino which although great, isn’t really from the same family).
The ES-355 was the guitar Chuck Berry played. It was the guitar B.B. King played before Gibson made him a custom model with no f-holes. Guitars in the 335 family have been played by Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Freddie King, Justin Hayward, T-Bone Walker and Eric Clapton.
The Gibson ES-335 design is credited to the president of Gibson at the time, Ted McCarty.
The innovations that made it a great blues, rock and jazz guitar are:
- Semi-hollow design with a block of wood joining the top and back and hollow wings in a thinline, double cutaway. This made the guitar lighter than many solid body guitars (such as the Les Paul), yet reduced feedback due to the solid block under the pickups.
- A stop tail piece fastened to the top instead of a trapeze tailpiece (except for a period during the mid 1960s to the early 1970s).
- A 19 fret neck joint allowing great access to the upper frets.
- PAF Humbucker pickups. These guitars started with humbuckers and stayed with them.
Gibson ES-335 family
The original 335 had dot position markers and a mahogany neck. The ES-345 had double parallelogram position markers and the ES-355 had rectangular block makers on an ebony fretboard. Although I can’t verify this, I am fairly sure the ES-355 (and maybe the ES-345) had maple necks instead of mahogany. The 345 and 355 also had a multi-position Varitone switch. B.B. King liked this but most reviewers don’t think much of it.
More recent additions (and subtractions – models come and go) include the 336 and 339 variants. These are styled like a 335 but with smaller body dimensions – more along the line of a Les Paul.
The Gibson ES-330 and the Epiphone Casino are not true members of the 335 family even though there is a resemblance. These guitars are fully hollow – no solid maple block of wood beneath the pickups. The original specs also had the neck join the body at the 15th fret instead of the 335’s 19th neck join. Finally, these have always had P90 pickups – never humbuckers.
Epiphone Guitars similar to the ES-335 line.
Epiphone developed their own variations on the ES-335 after Gibson purchased the company. The Sheraton was a high-end model comparable to the ES-355. Block inlays for position markers. The original had mini-humbuckers and the Epiphone Frequensator trapeze tailpiece. These were later changed to standard humbuckers and stop tailpiece on the Sheraton II. Epiphone is currently making a 1962 re-issue of the Sheraton with the original specs including the tailpiece and the mini humbuckers. The Sheraton II is still available too.
The Riviera was another 335-like guitar. This model was less fancy than the Sheraton. It also started with mini humbuckers and a Frequensator trapeze tailpiece. But overall it wasn’t as fancy as the Sheraton. The position marker inlays were single parallelograms similar to those on the Epiphone Casino. The current model isn’t much like the orignal. It now has three P90 pickups and a Bigsby Vibrato.
Epiphone electric guitar designs after Gibson purchased the company tended to be inspired by Gibson models but with unique features and their own identity. But eventually they realized musicians on a budget wanted copies of the Gibson designs and were willing to buy them from competitors if Epiphone wouldn’t make them. In answer to this demand, Epiphone now makes ES-335 copies (The Dot and ES-335 Pro) as well as ES-339 copies. These are made overseas and don’t have genuine PAF pickups but they are a great deal for someone wanting an inexpensive 335 style guitar.
335 Style Guitars from other Makers
Guild Starfire IV. The Guild Starfire IV had been a long-time alternative to the 335 design from a wel-known American company. Fender discontinued (or maybe suspended is a better description) the entire Guild electric guitar line after they acquired the company. But they recently re-introduced selected electric models based on their classic designs and one of these is the Starfire IV. It is part of what they are calling their Newark St. collection.
Washburn HB35. Washburn has several 335 style guitars listed on their website. The classic is the HB35 although there is now a Vintage model named the HB36. There are also some other lower-priced HB3x models. I can’t find any of the large, online music stores that currently sell the HB35 model. The late blues guitarist Son Seals played an HB35 for part of his career.
Yamaha SA2200. Yamaha has made some excellent 335 style guitars. Unfortunately they are not widely distributed in the US. Their website indicates the SA2200 (below) and the less expensive SA500 are still in production. I notice jazz guitarists playing these occasionally. The SA2200 has a gorgeous flamed maple guitar and the series got good reviews back when they were more widely distributed.
Ibanez. Ibanez has a number of semi-hollow double-cutaway thinline guitars that could be alternatives to a Gibson ES-335. The Artstar AS153 is one of their top-line instruments. The AM93 and AS93 are less expensive models.
The Ibanez 335 copy I once owned had more of the traditional Gibson 335 shape than the current Ibanez line. It had a brown walnut finish and a trapeze tailpiece making it similar to the late 1960s 335s. I’ve been trying to remember why I traded that guitar in. It may have been because something was loose inside – easily fixed. Only, I wanted a Strat – which is what I traded it for. My loss. Wish I still had it now.
Eastman. Eastman makes an excellent line of 335 style guitars. Like everything else they do, these are good, quality instruments, made overseas but to very high standards. They are priced and fit in the middle range – less expensive than a genuine Gibson ES-335 but more expensive than most of the imported competitors. The T486 model has double parallelogram position markers like the Gibson ES-345. The T386 has a dot neck and is comparable to a Gibson ES-335 with laminated maple top for just a bit over $1000. That price includes a hardshell case.
Eastman also has a higher end series with carved maple tops and carved mahogany backs and sides. They have 3 models, all with dot neck position markers. They vary in lower bout width. The T186MX has a traditional 16″ width while the 185MX and T184MX models have 15″ and 14″ widths. These are between (approximately) $2000 and and $2250 – so still a lot less than most Gibsons.
I have a 2010 Gibson 335 in Vintage Sunburst, which I love very much. There are many copies of this 335, which are very excellent guitars, but there is something about an original that is hard, if not impossible to beat. The resonance and tone of a 335 is superb! I also have an Epiphone 339, which I like very much. I change the pickups to a Semour Duncan Jazz in the neck and a JB4 at the bridge. What a difference that made. I also have an Eastman t486 in cherry. What a fantastic guitar. It has a Semour Jazz and and a ’59 on it. Terrific sound.
T-Bone Walker *never* played an ES335
T-Bone Walker is probably best known for playing an ES-5. He played other guitars in his career and several sources agree he played an ES-335 in the 1970s.