The White Stuff: ES-330, ES-345 and ES-355 from Gibson Memphis
If you like the new Alex Lifeson ES-Les Paul in Classic White, but fancy a more traditional guitar design, Gibson Memphis still delivers. Classic White is not an overly-common color for Gibsons, but there’s no question it’s in vogue right now: and it brilliantly suits some more traditional ES designs as well. Here’s a trio of classics delivering the white stuff...
Tamio Okuda 1959 ES-330
Tamio Okuda is a huge star in his native Japan, due to his work fronting the band Unicorn and on solo albums, plus as a songwriter/producer for the likes of Puffy and Kaela Kimura. But you may also know him from The Verbs, the rock band put led by drumming legend Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, Eric Clapton John Mayer et al). Okuda’s more usually seen with a Les Paul, but he’s a big ES-330 fan too and his own signature in Classic White.
The color aside – the 330 has looked like this before! – the Tamio Okuda ES-330 is a Gibson classic all the way. Its period-correct for a 1959 in its basic design (note dot, not block markers), with a fully hollow body and comes with the Bigbsy option as standard. The P-90 pickups are Memphis Historic Spec, the most accurate vintage-alikes Gibson makes, but you get a modern tweak with new tone capacitors changed to retain more high end. Low profile frets and rolled fingerboard binding makes for a modern playing feel, too.
The V.O.S. Classic White nitro finish is hand-sprayed too and offsets the black plastics (and intentionally darker rosewood fingerboard) and nickel Bigbsy B-7 brilliantly. It’s clearly a signature, but the branding is subtle with just the Tamio Okuda Signature emblem on the truss road cover. So, favorite artist or not, this is simply a stunning update to a sometimes forgotten Gibson design that ceased fulltime production in 1972. It’s a limited run – not quite as rare as a “real” unicorn, but with all the purity and grace of the mythical beast itself. A beauty.
Full spec of the Tamio Okuda 1959 ES-330.
Classic White ES-355 with Bigsby
Of the classic semi-hollow ES electrics (the 330, note, is all hollow) the ES-355 was top of the class. And this Classic White version with Bigbsy B-7 is all class – gold-plated Bigsby, gold-plated Tune-o-matic bridge, 18:1 gold-plated Grover rotomatic tuners and a genuine bone nut. The PAF-style 57 Classic humbuckers add a good dose of fat tone, and you get the Memphis Tone Circuit with the capacitors picked to give a rich range of classic 355 sounds.
Again, you’ll not have seen a regular-genuine production 355 in this colour and spec before: Alex Lifeson’s 1976 355 had a Maestro Vibrola and the Varitone switch. Keith Richards’ famous 1964 “Dwight” ES-345 had the Bigsby but also the Varitone. This one? It’s certainly got the vibe of those two, but is its own machine. Elegance personified.
Full spec of the ES-355 Classic White with Bigsby.
1964 ES-345 with Varitone
Finally, if you want true a historically accurate re-creation of middle model in the 335/345/355 range this dashing ES-345 keeps that Varitone and everything else authentic. The “new” is that it comes in a Classic White finish the ‘60s never got. With its split parallelogram fingerboard inlays, tulip-button Klusons, multiply binding on an accurate slim-taper horn ‘64 body it’s another pure beaut. Even the black/yellow hardcase is extra nice.
“Engine”-wise, you get MHS humbuckers, matched potentiometers and a mono Varitone. That’s right: rare, even back in the 345/355’s early years. It’s hard to describe the extra tones a Varitone offers, but this mono version means you don’t have to worry about special stereo cables nor necessarily running two amps. Just plug this one in, and play.
Full spec of the 1964 ES-345 with mono Varitone.
What is the Varitone?
The Varitone is another classic but often overlooked Gibson innovation. It’s not a tone pot – it doesn’t simply roll off higher frequencies in a progressive way, the Varitone switch jumps to predefined frequency scoops, preserving the lows and highs on either side of that scoop. Those settings don’t have names, though, just numbers. 1 is a pure bypass, 2 to 6 offer various other tones that only you can describe.
For some reason, some players seem to think it’s little more than a cosmetic switch that looks nice on some upmarket ES models. Huh?? It works! The tones have been described as “compressed”, “underwater” or even “like a transistor radio”, but B.B. King and Freddie King had the Varitone switch on their Gibsons because they used them. Listen to B.B’s “The Thrill Is Gone” (Varitone at 2 or 3) for proof, and it’s really hard to get that sound without a Varitone. B.B called the Varitone “the magic switch” which is good enough for us. Best way to hear what the