An oral history of the Gibson ES-335

Although it arrived during the same year as the sunburst Les Paul, Flying V and Explorer, the ES-335 may be the greatest and most versatile electric guitar ever crafted within the hallowed walls of 225 Parsons St, Kalamazoo. Here, iconic figures such as Ted McCarty, Seth Lover, Mark Knopfler and Larry Carlton recount the tale of the model’s revolutionary development and enduring influence.

Gibson ES-335 Natural finish

This is the oral history of the ES-335, the revolutionary semi-solid electric that Gibson introduced in 1958. The 335’s new construction placed a solid maple block in an otherwise hollow laminated-maple body, which had double cutaways for good access to the upper frets, and the guitar had a pair of Gibson’s new humbucking pickups.

Three associated models appeared following the success of the 335: the stereo ES-345, the high-end ES-355, and the fully hollow ES-330. This 335 family of guitars would find favour with many players through the years, including BB King, Eric Clapton, Grant Green, Jorma Kaukonen, Alvin Lee, Lee Ritenour, Andy Summers, Noel Gallagher and JD Simo.

The voices here come from interviews I’ve conducted for my various books about Gibson. The people you’ll hear from are Larry Carlton, the session guitarist who’s worked with Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, The Crusaders and more; Luther Dickinson, guitarist with North Mississippi Allstars; Don Felder, guitarist with the Eagles between 1974 and 2001; Mark Knopfler, ex-Dire Straits guitarist and solo artist; Seth Lover, who at Gibson (1952-67) devised the firm’s humbucking pickup; Phil Manzanera, guitarist with Roxy Music (1971-83 and recent reunions); Ted McCarty, who joined Gibson in 1948 and later became its president (1950-66); Eddie Phillips, guitarist with The Mark Four (1963–66) and The Creation (1966-68 and recent reunions); and Mike Voltz, who joined Gibson in 1984 and has overseen much of the company’s ES-series production in recent years.

Origins of the 335

Ted McCarty

“The idea for the 335 was primarily one I came up with to make a solidbody guitar in sound, but looking like a regular acoustic guitar. And we never patented that. I patented some [Moderne, Flying V, Explorer] because I knew what Leo would do. So if I had a patent, he wouldn’t dare. A lot of the others, I never bothered with patenting. It costs money to patent a guitar shape or whatnot.

Gibson ES vintage catalogue thinline

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“Now, the difference between the 335 and the instruments that followed it, the 345 and 355, was primarily a matter of dressing them up. The 355 I think had gold parts on it, the 335 was the cheaper one: they went up the line. We put more inlays in the 345 and 355. You could dress these things up with binding – make it thicker, black-and-white, cream-like for the Les Paul.”

Seth Lover

“Walt Fuller was the chief engineer at Gibson, the guy in charge, and I did a lot of design work for him, I was in his department. Ted McCarty just wanted me to build a new pickup and I thought, Well, why don’t we get an improvement? Because every time you got a regular guitar near an amplifier, you had to twist yourself to get away from the hum.

“So I thought, Gosh, there are humbucking choke coils, so why can’t we build a humbucking pickup? A choke coil is where they have two coils wound, one on one leg, one on the other, and since they were wound and connected just right, they would eliminate any hum pick-up. We used it in audio amplifiers at Gibson in the early 50s, the GA-90 I think it was, which had a tone choke. If you put an ordinary coil, single-coil, in there, it would pick up hum from the power transformer. I didn’t want that, so I had them make me a humbucking choke coil.”

Ted McCarty

“I came up with that idea of putting the block of wood down the middle of the 335. All I could think of was like a solidbody guitar with wings, instead of wood out there. Les Paul was probably right with his plank, but the thing is, that looked funny. So what we did was to make one that looked like a guitar, only it was hollow out here and solid down here. But it had a fine tone.

Ted McCarty and the singlecut
Ted McCarty would later work closely with Paul Reed Smith [Image: PRS Guitars]
“The centre block as I remember was maple, good hard-rock maple. On top of that was spruce, because we kerfed it so that you could put the top on it and it would bend a little bit. I guess maybe that was top and bottom, because the block of wood was just plain flat sides. We had to fill the space between the block and the top and back. We started out with an idea of making one with a solid block down the middle and then, hey, wait a minute, we got to have something to fill it. So then we used spruce, and we may have even used some other soft wood. The block made the guitar stiffer, so it had a brighter tone than an acoustic. But it was a fake [laughs]. It looked like an acoustic, but it wasn’t an acoustic, it was an electric.”

Seth Lover

“I had in mind that if we can make humbucking chokes for amps, why can’t we make humbucking pickups? So I designed the pickup. I think I had started work on it in ’55, and it was in ’57 I think they first started building them, they put them in the 175, a Les Paul, the 335, some other models. I gave it that humbucking name – it was bucking the hum that you pick up.

“When the sales force over in Chicago saw it, they said they didn’t have anything to talk about. So [laughs] they wanted adjusting screws and that’s why we brought it out with the adjusting screws. Also, I set the pickups in the guitar with the screws towards the bridge and towards the fingerboard. People wanted to know: why did I do that? For decorative purposes! [laughs]

seth lover and seymour duncan
Seth Lover with Seymour Duncan (left) 

“The reason for the different-colour bobbins? We used to buy our pickup bobbins and covers from a company over in South Haven, Michigan, called Hughes Plastics. Anyway, they ran out of black material, but they had white. We were not gonna stop production just for that. So we got white bobbins and I couldn’t see any difference one from the other. And I think white was a better colour for winding the pickups, because you could see the wire in there a lot easier than you could with the black.

“They put the PAF label on the base because they started making them before they actually got the patent for it, so the patent was ‘applied for’. Gibson didn’t want to give [competitors] any information as to what patent to look up to make copies. I think that was the reason for it, because they carried on for quite a while.”

Gibson ES vintage catalogue cover

Feedback and violin bows

Eddie Phillips

“I was in The Mark Four playing a Futurama and I think it must have been the end of 1963 when I saw a 335 in a local shop window. It was the look that made me buy it, the colour, the shine – such a nice guitar. I’d never seen one before. And it was a fantastic lot of money, I think it was a 150-something guineas, which was a colossal amount to pay for a guitar. I part-exchanged my Futurama and paid the rest on HP. Forever at one-and-six a week!

“What I did notice about the 335, straight away, was this feedback that I’d never experienced with the Futurama. I thought, Oh, it’s making this noise, what am I going to do? And then I figured out you could use it. The 335 was great for feedback. It was a guitar just made for that sort of thing. It’s almost like a dance with your amp. You have to position yourself right – and even then, you could position yourself in exactly the same place another night and it wouldn’t work. But I’d got to a point where I could use feedback quite effectively.

“Also, I was trying to figure out a way to play something on the E string to keep it going, like a drone, while I hammered on some kind of solo with my left hand on the other strings. First I tried a hacksaw – I took out the blade and put a guitar string in, tried sawing across the E string, but that only resulted in me wearing three or four massive grooves in the bottom horn of my 335 from the ends of the saw [laughs]. So that obviously wasn’t going to work.

Gibson ES-335 sunburst portrait 1

“Next, I got a violin bow and tried that, and to my surprise it actually worked. Okay, it didn’t do the guitar a great deal of good – but it didn’t wreck it. It did the job.

“The Mark Four had sort of gone into The Creation, and we came out of that mid-60s mod raving explosion on the London scene, just a mad, mad time. When I picked up the bow, you’d see the audience going oh, what’s going on here? And you’ll notice now in the online videos of the band that I removed the pickguard from my 335, because I had to make room for that downward stroke of the bow.

“Anyway, it was all part of this big fantastic thing that was going on. I tried to give it what I thought it needed. I suppose it was lucky that I found the 335. Some things you just don’t realise at the time.”

Mister 335

Larry Carlton

“A friend of mine worked at the Mr B’s For Music store in Palos Verdes, California. They had three different 335s hanging on the wall and I didn’t plug them in, I just played them acoustically and chose the one that I ended up with. That was late 1969, first thing 1970. My decision was a very practical decision in the beginning, because I could cover many different sounds and things with that one guitar.

“The [’68] 335 I chose that evening was very special, tone-wise. After doing sessions for a couple of years, ’70 to ’71, obviously my guitar sound was becoming part of the LA recording scene, and many of the other guitarists wanted to buy a 335 so that they would have that sound in their arsenal. They would ask me to go with them to help them pick one out. Like I said, I never plugged mine in, so when I would go with them to choose or to at least look at a few different 335s, we didn’t plug them in, we just listened acoustically. Dennis Budimir, my good buddy, I helped him pick his – either that or I loaned him mine to take with him as a comparison.

Pair of Gibson ES-335 side by side

“About 2009, a fan from the Midwest in the states contacted me through my office, said you’re my favourite guitar player, said I have this 1968 335 that’s been in my grandmother’s closet or something, and I would like to donate it to you as a backup, if you like it. Can I send it? So I had him send it, and it was killer. Just almost mint, you know? So I accepted that gift from that gentleman.

“It’s a tobacco sunburst, doesn’t have the red like mine has on the finish. So I bought a matching pair of old PAF pickups and put those in that guitar, just so I could experience what that tone would be like sometimes. It’s so rich and big. And those are the only two 335s I own: my original ’68 and that gift.

“One day, I was between sessions, walking down the street to have lunch with Louie Shelton, the great session player. I said: ‘Louie, when you play on a record, I hear it on the radio and your guitar is right there by the vocalist. When I play, I’m just kinda in the background. What’s up?’ He had a great answer that changed my whole focus on studio playing. He said: ‘I try to think like an arranger.’ And I was thinking like a guitar player. The lightbulb went on. Think like an arranger! That’s when I became definitely a better session player.”

The one that got away

Phil Manzanera

“When I joined Roxy Music in 1971, I had a 335. And they sort of laughed and said that doesn’t really go with the Roxy image: you’ll have to get a Strat. Eno’s milkman sold him a Strat for £30 and he sold it to me for £70, showing what a great businessman he is. I then had a white Strat, and I used my 335 Gibson for feedback and stuff in the studio – but it wasn’t really allowed to be seen on stage because of the image.

Gibson ES-335 sunburst portrait 2

“Some guitars, you lend it to someone and you never see it again. There’s been a whole bunch of those. But my 335 got stolen, in the days of the Transit van, somewhere in Plymouth. It was the days of greater innocence: the roadies would go in and be packing the van and leave the doors open at the back and so the thieves just helped themselves. I got back to my mother’s place and they handed me my equipment and I said: ‘Where’s the 335? Oh sugar.’ Really annoying.”

The BB King effect

Mark Knopfler

“I heard Live At The Regal, BB King, when I was 15 and that was a really big record for me. The 335 had entered my life with a bang! The magnificent 335. I never thought when I was that age that one day I would own the nicest 335 in the world and the nicest Les Paul in the world – I couldn’t conceive of that. My blonde ’59 335 is just unreal to play, a fantastic instrument, a dream of a guitar, just like my ’58 Les Paul. They’re both really something other.

“It wasn’t really until comparatively late that I got hold of them and it was then that I realised what I’d been missing all those years. The slim necks are beautiful in their way, perhaps better for a jazz player or an orchestral kind of player who puts the ball of his thumb in the back of the middle of the neck. But if you hold it like a plumber, which I do, then the fat neck seems to suit my big mitts. It feels more comfortable and faster to me.

bb king lucille ringo starr
BB King with Lucille during the recording of his album BB King In London. And, yes, that’s Ringo Starr in the background. Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“I can get up a fair old lick on any Gibson neck and the slim ones have their own charm, definitely, but my own personal preference is for a fat neck. That combination – fat neck, big frets – to me is killer. I have a very nice ’59 Les Paul too, which is very similar to the ’58, and a couple of other 335s, but there’s just something about my ’58 Les Paul and ’59 335. It’s like my ’53 Super 400 – there are certain things that just do it. A guitar will just suit you. I can’t really explain it better than that.”

Don Felder

“Back in the 60s, the sound of the day was that kind of sustaining blues. Clapton had a lot to do with that, but I remember seeing BB King when I was 14 or something and he had his Lucille at the time. It wasn’t the Lucille model – of course it hadn’t come out – but he had either a 335 or 355, whatever it was, I think it was red in those days, not black. And he had a Super Reverb amp. I went up to the stage and looked at his amp, and the volume was 10, the treble was on 10, the mid and the bass, everything was just turned up to 10 and he would turn up the guitar. And it would sound great!

“You don’t need any pedals if you’ve got the right guitar and amp. I think a lot of tone is in your hands, how you fret the instrument, how you pluck the string, the kind of pick you use. It’s all in the hands of the beholder. Joe Walsh could pick up the same guitar that I have, and it sounds totally different to when I play it. It’s in the hands of the beholder. Unlike piano, where you press a key and it sounds the same no matter who’s playing it.”

A bright elusive cherry

Mike Voltz, Gibson Memphis

“One of the big things that people are really looking for in reissue 335s today is a colour-correct cherry. We have that colour now, and it’s thanks to Warren Haynes. We were going to reproduce his ’61 335. I thought it would be simple. I used to do colour repair, and I thought, Okay: this’ll be a piece of cake. Well, it took us three months. We stained at least 50 samples of wood.

Gibson ES-335 cherry finish with bigsby

“I was two months into it, and I went to [guitar ageing expert] Tom Murphy and talked to him. I said: ‘Tom, I’m dying.’ He says: ‘Oh yeah, you can’t match that colour, I’ve got about…’ and he puts his fingers out like he had maybe half an inch of stain left. He says: ’That’s all I know that exists.’ I felt better, because I was just feeling like an idiot.

“But the guy who was running our finish department never gave up. He’d say: I’m done, it’s perfect! And everyone would look at it and say, well… it’s closer. But he persisted, and he came up with the colour. He brought in the chemist from the outfit that supplies all of our finishes and lacquers and they just kept at it until they finally got it. It took three months of solid work. But we have that colour now.”

The revolutionary instrument

Gibson catalogue, 1958

“The newest star in a long list of Gibson favorites, this revolutionary new double-cutaway, thin electric Spanish guitar meets today’s needs for individual performance, large or small ensembles, recording, television and radio. Engineered after consultation with leading players, the ES-335T presents a striking appearance and sensational response. New body construction, with solid fitting neck, pickups and adjustable bridge, provides the solidity essential for clear, sparkling, sustaining tone.”

Gibson ES vintage catalogue spanish guitars

Luther Dickinson

“I think the 335 is the last great invention of the electric guitar. They already had invented the electric solidbody; they already had the electric hollowbody. And then right at the apex of the whole generation, they put the two together. And there it was, you know?”

Read an oral history of the Gibson Les Paul here.

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