Asked about his devotion to the ES-335, six-string great Larry Carlton once said the instrument allowed him “to go between blues, and jazz, and rock, with the same guitar.”
It’s that sort of versatility that’s made the ES-335 a favorite among some of the world’s finest players. Since its introduction in 1958, the semi-hollow-body, semi-acoustic classic has earned lavish praise for its warm sound, terrific sustain, resistance to feedback, and great playability. That praise has continued with the recent release of the much-anticipated 50th Anniversary 1960 ES-335TD.
Through the years, a Who’s Who of rock, jazz, and blues players have turned to the 335 at some point in their careers. Young guns such as Jason Wade of Lifehouse and Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother are increasingly turning to the ES-335, as well.
Below, we profile ten guitar greats whose careers were built around this remarkable instrument.
The sight of Roy Orbison cradling his ES-335 is one of rock’s most iconic images. As anyone who’s watched the landmark concert film A Black and White Night knows, Orbison performed (and recorded) such classics as “In Dreams,” “Crying,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” with his beloved Gibson. No less a figure than U2’s Bono once said, “As I become more interested in songwriting, you hit a wall where Roy Orbison is standing.”
John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” How true. Taking his cue from T-Bone Walker, Berry used his ES-335 to create a virtual Bible of six-string classics, including “Maybelline,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and, of course, “Johnny B. Goode.” No guitarist has had a greater influence on his peers.
As a key figure in the development of the ’50s “West Side Chicago” blues sound, Otis Rush had a profound effect on such players as Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Michael Bloomfield. A left-hander who played his ES-335 upside-down, Rush was known for his long-bend notes and piercing runs. “You learn from listening to any guitar player,” Rush once told Guitar.com. “If you’re interested in learning about music, you pick things up from everyone.”
When Alvin Lee delivered his incendiary solo on “I’m Going Home,” at the original Woodstock Festival, he forever enshrined his wildly-decorated 1959 ES-335 as one of rock’s most visually striking instruments. Early on, with Ten Years After, Lee helped forge the template for every guitarist who aspired toward dazzling virtuosity without losing sight of rock and roll’s ragged spirit. Such legends as Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and the late George Harrison all jumped at the chance to work with Lee.
Every bluesman who’s picked up an electric guitar owes an incalculable debt to T-Bone Walker, whose amplified solos were among the first of their kind to be recorded for posterity. Jimi Hendrix once cited Walker as his childhood hero, B.B. King has called him a primary influence, and Chuck Berry has said his stage act was developed from watching Walker’s performances. Walker used “ES” models almost exclusively, with the early ’70s being the period he settled on the ES-335.
Larry Carlton’s session work alone would be enough to assure him an honored spot in guitar-player history. Nicknamed “Mr. 335,” Carlton has used his ever-present ’68 model to create a body of work – both solo and as a sideman – that runs a remarkable stylistic gamut. His solo on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” is often cited as one of the best-ever solos in contemporary music.
Following his tenure as a founding member of Yes, Peter Banks formed a tight-knit prog-rock ensemble called Flash that showcased his (till then) underappreciated six-string skills. On Flash’s three brilliant albums, Banks used his ES-335 to craft a small but dazzling body of work. Asked about his 335, Banks said recently: “It was like wearing the same suit every day, but a suit that was always clean, neat and pressed ? and always reliable. I knew what that guitar could do, and I never fiddled around with that.”
A “fusion” artist in the broadest sense of the word, Lee Ritenour has proven adept at an array of styles, including jazz, rock, blues, classical, and Brazilian music. Citing Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, and John McLaughlin as influences, the man known as “Captain Fingers” has earned ten Grammy nominations for his work. Not surprisingly, the versatile 335 has been Ritenour’s go-to guitar for most of his projects.
Like Otis Rush, Freddie King had a profound impact on ‘60s British blues revivalists such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green. Mixing Texas blues with the West Side Chicago sound, King used a conventional plastic thumb-pick, combined with a metal index-finger pick, to help him achieve an aggressive sound on his ES-335. Like his namesake B.B. King, the “Texas Cannonball” could make his guitar sing in a way that evoked the human voice.
In an interview included on his 2005 concert DVD, Lovely to See You, Moody Blues guitarist Justin Hayward pointed out that his beloved ES-335 has been with him since 1967. Fans of the Moody Blues should be grateful. From “Tuesday Afternoon” to “Isn’t Life Strange” to “I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band),” the group’s singles have been powered, in large measure, by subtle textures coaxed by Hayward from his 335.