The history of the Gibson Electric Spanish (ES) Semi-Acoustic Guitars
The Gibson ES-335 is one of the most beloved and enduring instruments of all time, and generations of guitarists – from Jazz to Blues to Indie Rock – have embraced this versatile guitar.
It was 1958 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Gibson was about to explode into a legendary Golden Age, fueled by relentless innovations and inspired designs that would define the electric guitar for generations. In a year that saw the release of revolutionary Gibson guitars like the Explorer, Flying V, and Double Neck, one guitar stood out as the most innovative and brilliant of all. Driven by a passion to innovate, Gibson president Ted McCarty sought to do the impossible—combine the best features of a hollowbody and a solidbody guitar. At McCarty’s urging, Gibson builders got to work on a design that could offer players the rich, singing tone of beautiful jazz boxes like the Byrdland and the ES-350, as well as the unequaled power of the roaring Les Paul Standard.
The result was one of the most beloved and enduring instruments of all time, the Gibson ES-335. The “ES” stood for Electric Spanish, as opposed to the EH line of lap steels, which stood for Electric Hawaiian. The number that followed referred to the instrument’s price. At the time, an original 1958 ES-335 would set players back a whopping $335. Nicknamed the “wonder-thin” body, the ES-335 eliminated the howling feedback that plagued hollowbodies. In a stroke of Gibson genius, Gibson luthiers constructed the new model with a solid maple block running through the center of the body.
Not only was feedback nearly eliminated, but the bright tone of the maple block packed a punch to the warmth of the traditional hollowbody sound.The guitar became an instant classic as it was embraced by jazz guitarists, and its expressive, responsive attack also gave a definitive tone to blues guitar. As the first wave of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution crashed out of transistor radios all over the world, more often than not the power of the 335 was behind it. Chuck Berry—the poet laureate of revved-up guitar boogie—made the 335 a cultural icon. And over the years, the ES-335 has forged a bold trail through classic rock, country, jazz, and punk. It is truly one of the world’s finest guitars.
Though the essential genius of the ES-335 design never wavered, over the years subtle changes in its details have endeared every incarnation to generations of players. Released from 1958 to1962 as a “dot neck,” the original ES-335’s inlaid pearl dots were replaced in 1962 with block-shaped pearl inlays. Another small modification was the introduction of a shorter pickguard in 1960, but the most significant change came in 1964 when the original stop tailpiece was replaced with a trapeze tailpiece.Released the same year as the original ES-335 was a higher-end version—the ES-355, which came factory-equipped with multiple binding, gold-plated hardware, an ebony fingerboard, and an optional Bigsby vibrato, all for an extra $20.
The king of the ES line, it was only fitting that the ES-355 became the signature instrument of B.B. King, the undisputed, uptown king of the blues. The following year, in 1959, Gibson announced the release of the ES-345. Pitched as an intermediate model, both sonically and cosmetically, between the 335 and the 355, the 345 came with an added Varitone control and stereo wiring. In 1982, Gibson honored King with a signature Lucille that combined the elegant appointments of the ES-355, with the electronic enhancements of the ES-345, adding fine tuners and removing the f-holes in the process.
In recent years, the Gibson Custom Shop has produced a number of popular replicas—painstaking re-creations of the original ES-335s, ES-345s, and ES-355s, as well as innovative new designs like the single cutaway ES-137 models. The 1959 ES-335 Dot Reissue features a rounded neck profile and pearl dot inlays consistent with the original model, and the 1963 ES-335 Block Reissue includes the thinner neck profile and block inlays of later models.
Gibson also released several signature models, including the Eric Clapton Crossroads ES-335, the Larry Carlton ES-335, and the Alvin Lee “Big Red” ES-335, and the stripped-down, one-pickup Tom DeLonge model.Never off the Gibson production line, the extraordinary ES-335 family has withstood the test of time for nearly 50 years. The instrument that started as an eye-popping anomaly of Gibson innovation has gone on to set a standard for form, function, and style. From gritty blues, to swinging jazz, to roaring rock ‘n’ roll and punk, the ES-335 can do it all.
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