For fans of Gibson guitars, specifically ES-335s (and its family), there’s a new book out right now. Tony Bacon, the British author ofThe Gibson 335 Guitar Book, is not a Gibson employee but he is highly respected and also the author of The Gibson SG Book and The Gibson Les Paul Book. As such, he has his own independent thoughts and theories on why the Gibson ES-335 is so special. So Gibson.com asked him!
The Gibson 335 Guitar Book explores the genesis of the ES-335 semi-hollow/semi-solid design with a center block. To some, it seems likely that Les Paul’s “Log” was a forerunner of sorts, but you’re not able to pin down a specific inspiration from those you spoke to. Do you personally think the seeds of the ES-335 design were just more complicated than that?
Tony Bacon: “Yes, I think it was complicated. When I research the origins of an instrument design, I look hard at the context around it. In this case, I concluded that part of the motivation would have been commercial. Gibson knew sales of its solidbody models had slipped, that some players figured these newfangled solids weren’t for them. So, a guitar with the benefits of a solidbody in a hollowbody-like package might attract them.
“Another motivation probably came from inside Gibson, where they simply saw an opportunity, that it was possible to make this thing. Crucially, they had the budget to fund the process, and Kalamazoo [Gibson’s then-HQ] was good at taking elements of existing models, throwing in some new ideas, and making sure the result could be built efficiently, and economically.
“There was no precedent for exactly the design Gibson came up with for the 335, but others had toyed with the idea. Maybe someone at Gibson did make a mental note of Les’s ‘Log’, but it would have been around 10 years earlier. There were Bigsby and Rickenbacker guitars with hollowed out body sections, and there was Kay’s Thin Twin of 1953, with a pair of braces that Kay called a ‘solid bar’ inside the hollow body.
“However, Gibson’s design was unique, intentionally adding a full central block to an otherwise hollow laminated construction. It was, in my view, a masterstroke and one of the great guitar innovations of the fantastic ‘50s.”
It’s interesting how the ES-335’s launch wasn’t particularly pushed by Gibson in 1958, though the “Modernistic” series was – why do you think Gibson had doubts, if indeed it did, about a guitar that very much played to its archtop-building strengths and heritage?
TB: “Gibson never knew for sure how any new model would go down. It’s like the joke we have here at [publishers] Backbeat UK: let’s just publish best-sellers! If only we could know that. Gibson launched the Modernistic Flying V and Explorer, and the 335, hoping they would all do well. The V and the Explorer would take quite a while. In the short term, the 335 proved a better bet for Gibson, which is why they did what they always did with a success: they quickly added sister models to make a line, the 345 and the 355, and the related hollowbody 330.”
Examples of the 335, 345 and 355 in 2016. Click here for full range.
Seth Lover’s humbucker – in terms of purpose, if not tone – was almost perfect for the 335’s design. To what extent do you think the 335 series was an “outlet” for the new pickups?
TB: “If there was a new pickup available, Gibson would use it. The humbucker first appeared in 1957, just in time for the 335, and it took over from the P-90 as Gibson’s favored pickup (although the P-90 stayed put on the budget Les Pauls and other ‘lesser’ models). There was no way it wasn’t going to be on the 335, 345, and 355.”
If you had to describe the ES-335 to a new guitar player and what music it “suits”, what would you personally say?
TB: “I’d say look at the sheer variety of music where the 335 has been used and continues to be used. I hope my book will give you a good idea of that variety. I’d say don’t be put off if anyone tells you it’s a blues guitar, or a jazz guitar, or an anything-else guitar. Try one. It might surprise you. These are great guitars. They might well suit your great music.”
Do you think its name has held back the ES-335 (and 345, 355)? Classic Gibson archtop terminology, of course, but it’s not very evocative of... well, anything much?
TB: “Ha ha, well, it’s pretty boring, isn’t it? But no, I think the name is pretty irrelevant when it comes to the success of the 335. To be honest, I was surprised how much diversity and downright fun there was to be had when you devote some time to listening to some of the great players who’ve used these electric semi-solids through the years. ‘Let me at my 335!’ See how the name kind of rolls off the tongue if you let it?”
Of the numerous variations of the ES-335 over the years, are there are any (models, or years) that strike you as particularly covetable, and why?
TB: “It does seem that a ’59 335 is the aim of many a collector and player. And a ’64 has what for some is the all-important Eric Clapton connection. Talking of Mister God, I did uncover an interesting story about the origins of his ’64 [the story of the Cream/”Albert Hall” red ES-335 is detailed in The Gibson 335 Book].
“But to answer your question, I’d repeat what I said earlier. There’s every chance of turning up a special 335 – or 345, or 355, or 330, or all the other variants and sub-models I cover – from most eras of its long history. I hope The Gibson 335 Guitar Book will help people learn more about every period of that history, how it all came about, and some of the players who’ve discovered for themselves the special qualities of a solidbody that’s really a hollowbody that’s really a solidbody!”
The Gibson 335 Guitar Book is out now from Backbeat books/Hal Leonard