The Big Review: Gibson’s new made-in-Nashville ES models

It may only take three hours to drive from Memphis to Nashville but for Gibson, moving the production of its ES models 200 miles across Tennessee wasn’t an easy task. Let’s find out how the firm’s latest semis stack up.

Gibson’s Memphis facility shuttered in early 2019, which meant that thinline semi and hollowbody guitar production was relocated northeast to the company’s main USA manufacturing plant in Nashville. Along with some of the Memphis factory’s hugely experienced staff, all of the equipment and tooling made the journey too, including some laminate presses that date back to Gibson’s Kalamazoo era.

Bringing everything under one roof has enabled Gibson to give the ES range an overhaul and bring it up to speed with the updates and improvements made recently to the solidbody line. Here, in order to find out how things are working out, we’re checking out a cross section of Nashville-made ES models from the Original and Modern Collections and the Custom Shop’s Murphy Lab. And what better way to kick things off than with the most compact and accessible member of our fab foursome.

Modern Collection ES-339

There are few guitarists who don’t enjoy the tone of a vintage-style Gibson semi. But there are those players – and this should be whispered in hushed tones when our editor is within earshot – who suggest that the ES-335 isn’t, in fact, the perfect electric guitar design. Some might even describe it as a little unwieldy. Highly subjective such notions may be, but the ES-339 was designed to appeal to those looking for a more compact take on the ES-335 – and the fact that it has been in continual production since its introduction in 2007 demonstrates that that Gibson’s instincts were on the money.

2021’s ES-339 immediately brings the phrase ‘small but perfectly formed’ to mind. All the regular ES-335 construction characteristics are present, from the three-ply maple/poplar front and back to the spruce braces and mahogany centre block. The pickguard shape and control layout are also identical, but Gibson wisely chose to shift the jack socket away from the top to the body rim. Consequently, the control spacing is more like that of a regular ES model, or perhaps a Les Paul, than that of a cluttered SG or Firebird. And if you can’t imagine enjoying all the goodness a Gibson semi has to offer without a whammy bar, you’ll be pleased to discover that the ES-339’s body may only be about an inch wider than a Les Paul’s but there’s still ample room for a Bigsby retrofit.

Gibson Modern Collection ES-339
Perfectly formed: the ES-339’s body may be downsized but its control layout doesn’t feel cramped

Given the dimensions, dots rather than blocks seem like the right choice, and they combine well with the reflector knobs. Hardware includes Grover die-cast tuners with kidney buttons, a wireless ABR-1 bridge and an aluminium stopbar tailpiece. The ES-339 packs a pair of Gibson’s 57 Classic humbuckers, with a regular model in the neck and a Classic Plus in the bridge. The gloss nitrocellulose finish comes in two colours – Cherry Red and Trans Black – and the guitar ships in a velour-lined hard case.

Original Collection ES-335

Although it has several old-school features, this latest version of the production-line ES-335 is intended to be more ‘in the spirit of’ than painstaking reissue. Essentially a very well-made modern interpretation of a classic guitar, the ES-335 illustrates that the new management team at Gibson is now very much on top of the issues that had been bugging customers for way too long. The finish quality is noticeably better – flat rather than fish-eyed – and the binding is back to being an attractive shade of off-white.

This ES-335’s body has ‘Micky Mouse’ ears to go with the early-style acrylic dot inlays and keystone tuner buttons. The binding on the rosewood fretboard is a bit thicker than vintage spec, and that thickness is more noticeable because there’s no rollover. However, if that bothers you, most luthiers would be able to roll the edges. The binding nibs, meanwhile, have been expertly done.

Gibson Original Collection ES-335
Spirit level: the Original Collection ES-335 aims to capture a vibe rather than a specific model year

The impressive Vintage Burst finish follows Gibson’s classic teardrop shape. The outer layer of maple on the top is plain in appearance, but on the back there’s a subtle flame. The colours match our 1956 ES-225 closely but, golden era or not, we have to admit that the transition areas are much more refined on this new guitar.

A wireless ABR-1 bridge and aluminium stopbar tailpiece combine with hand-wired controls and a set of Gibson’s Calibrated T-Type humbucking pickups, more information on which can be found in our sidebar interview with Gibson’s Mat Koehler. Other details include medium-jumbo fretwire, and the instrument comes with a hard case and a Gibson accessory kit that includes a multi-tool and a polishing cloth. A black leather strap is also among the case candy.

Original Collection ES-345

Despite their names, there are very few differences between the ES-335 and ES-345 models featured here. The body shapes follow the same template, though the ES-345’s multi-ply body binding means that its ears look a little pointier. Aside from that, body construction is identical, with three-ply maple/poplar/maple for the front and back, and spruce bracing with a maple centre-block – though the official specifications describe the ES-345’s bracing as ‘quartersawn Adirondack spruce’ rather than the generic ‘spruce’ of the ES-335.

Gibson Original Collection ES-345
Cherry picker: the Sixties Cherry finish looks sumptuous on Gibson’s Original Collection ES-345

Another point of difference is provided by the split parallelogram inlays set into the rosewood fingerboard. It’s a defining ES-345 feature, but perhaps the most famous ES-345 feature of all has been dropped altogether as the Varitone circuit is conspicuously absent. ES-345s traditionally have an extra control in the form of a rotary switch with a chickenhead knob wired to a network of capacitors, resistors and a choke. This provides five notch filters set at different frequencies, as well as a bypass mode. Here you only get the bypass mode, because the controls are wired like the stock ES-335.

Murphy Lab 1959 ES-335 Ultra Light Aged

Coming from the Murphy Lab in Gibson’s Custom Shop, this ES-335 is the most expensive guitar of our quartet by a considerable margin. Brazilian rosewood aside, it’s pretty much a no-holds-barred vintage replica that has undergone some light finish distress but is by no means beaten up. Rather than the wear patches and gouges you’ll find elsewhere in the range, ageing is confined to finish checking, and the vintage-style lacquer formula and thermal shock treatment have resulted in elegant, widely spaced lines – exactly as we’d expect to see on a well-cared-for vintage model. The lines travel laterally across the back of the neck, which is also a feature characteristic of vintage Gibson semis.

Black is undoubtedly one of the coolest but also one of the scarcest of all ES-335 finishes. Originals do exist but they are vanishingly rare, so this is a nice opportunity to get hold of an ES-335 in a colourway that would usually be reserved for rockstars and hedge fund managers. Its vintage-style features are not merely cosmetic; the neck has a long tenon joint and it’s set into the body with hot hide glue. It also has the sublime late 1950s neck profile that Gibson is now using on its top-end vintage reissues. The Indian rosewood fretboard is also attached with hide glue and the thin binding and fret nibs look superb. Better still, Gibson has rolled the edges of the neck binding so it feels as sumptuous as it looks.

Gibson Custom Murphy Lab 1959 ES-335 Ultra Light Aged
Black magic: vintage ES-335s with black finishes do exist but they are extremely rare

Other features include vintage-spec tuners with single-line buttons, a nylon nut and a long five-ply pickguard. There’s also a vintage-style truss-rod embedded in the one-piece mahogany neck, and Bumble Bee paper-in-oil capacitors are visible through the treble-side f-hole. The control knobs are the earlier-style bonnet type moulded from butyrate plastic, and Custombucker pickups with alnico III magnets and no wax-potting combine with Switchcraft components and CTS potentiometers. Coming from the Ultra Light end of the Murphy Lab ageing spectrum, the hardware has minimal distress and the plastics have none at all.

In use

Despite the ES-339’s pint-sized body, its neck is anything but dainty. This one has real heft and, in vintage terms, it’s somewhere between a 1958 and 1959 C-profile. Although rolling the binding might improve things further, straight out of the box this ES-339 is lightweight, well balanced and very comfortable to play.

Unplugged, it sounds remarkably similar to the larger-bodied Original Collection instruments. There’s not as much air in the tone and the big bodies provide a touch more depth, but the ES-339 has tighter lows with extra focus – and a bit more sustain. Plugged into our test amps – a tweed Fender Deluxe and a Rift Princeton Reverb clone – the ES-339’s 57 Classics have a bright, clear and fairly punchy character. For heavier blues and blues-rock tones, they work very well, but at the expense of breezier semi-solid tonality. We also find they muddy up a little when we attempt to clean things up with the volume controls. With more vintage-toned humbuckers (such as the Custombuckers we’re about to try in the Murphy Lab model), we suspect it would be possible to shift the ES-339’s sonic characteristics further towards those of a vintage ES-335 – if that’s what you want, of course.

Gibson Original Collection ES-335
Gibson Original Collection ES-335

In stock form, the ES-339 is a fun and functional guitar that has solid midrange grind, impressive feedback resistance and nails a very specific niche in the market. And if you’re somewhat short in stature, another benefit of playing an ES-339 is that you’ll look like a giant. Or maybe just like your guitar is further away…

We assess the Original Collection ES-335 and ES-345 together because the differences are almost entirely cosmetic. Unplugged, both guitars are bright, clear and exhibit plenty of sustain. Like the ES-339, these necks are fairly chunky but stop short of being club-like. It’s an appealing profile that feels like a 1959/1964 hybrid but again the unrolled binding edges feel like they could do with some breaking in.

Gibson Custom Murphy Lab 1959 ES-335 Ultra Light Aged
Gibson Custom Murphy Lab 1959 ES-335 Ultra Light Aged

The Calibrated T-Type pickups provide plenty of output, with a strong midrange emphasis. They’re not as bright as some PAF replicas, and the wound strings can sound a bit woolly and indistinct in comparison, but the bridge snarls and the neck has a thick and creamy quality. Clean-up clarity is pretty decent, but touch sensitivity is in slightly short supply compared to a vintage or Custom Shop example.

Next, we plug in the Murphy Lab ES-335. It’s absolutely not a fair fight, but it’s immediately obvious what we’ve been missing. The production-line models posses that soft and airy ES-335 chime and the iconic design’s familiar attack and sustain qualities, but they don’t reach the woody depths of this Custom Shop guitar. The slightly hollow and nasal midrange that characterises vintage Gibsons and the best reissues is also here in spades – and the Murphy Lab model has such a superb weight and such a freed up, dynamic response that it’s just like playing a really well-sorted vintage guitar.

Gibson Original Collection ES-345
Gibson Original Collection ES-345

Having previously reviewed a brace of Murphy Lab Les Pauls, we’d argue that the alnico III Custombuckers are even better suited to this ES-335. Our review guitar is clear without being too bright and exhibits a creamy sustain and a complex midrange. A great ES-335 should cover everything from funk to heavy rock and all points in between – this ticks all of those boxes. We would strongly advise against trying a Murphy Lab instrument if your budget won’t stretch to it.

There’s no doubt, then, that Gibson Custom is building great ES guitars in Nashville. But the new Gibson Original and Modern Collection instruments are worthy successors to their made-in-Memphis predecessors, and they certainly improve upon the slightly excessive flame and less pronounced top contours of Gibson USA’s slightly inelegant Nashville-made ES-335 reissue of the nineties and early 2000s.

There’s a £300 price difference between the Original Collection ES-335 and ES-345 models, and all you’re really getting for the upcharge is an extra layer of binding on the front and some fancier fretboard inlays, so you’d have to love the aesthetic to consider it. But all three of our standard-line models are well built and nicely finished modern takes on a classic electric guitar design that, in its own way, was even more revolutionary than the Flying V and Explorer that were also launched the same year. The Murphy Lab ES-335 is the one we’d take to a desert island but, when it comes to our next pub gig, we’d happily throw any of the other three guitars here into the back of the van.

Gibson Modern Collection ES-339
Gibson Modern Collection ES-339

Key Features

Gibson Modern Collection ES-339 – 8/10

  • PRICE £2,049 (inc hard case)
  • DESCRIPTION Semi-hollow electric guitar, made in the USA
  • BUILD Laminated maple/poplar body, spruce bracing with maple centre-block, single-ply cream body binding, set mahogany neck, bound rosewood fretboard, acrylic dot inlays, 22 medium-jumbo frets, Graph Tech nut
  • HARDWARE ABR-1 bridge, aluminium stop bar tailpiece, Grover Rotomatic tuners
  • ELECTRONICS 57 Classic (neck) and 57 Classic Plus (bridge) humbuckers, 2x volume, 2x tone, 3-way toggle pickup selector switch
  • SCALE LENGTH 24.57”/624mm
  • NECK WIDTH 43.1mm at nut, 52.9mm at 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 22.3mm at first fret, 24.7mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 35.5mm at nut, 51.5mm at bridge
  • WEIGHT 7.09lb/3.22kg
  • LEFT-HANDERS No
  • FINISH Cherry (as reviewed) and Trans Ebony gloss nitrocellulose
  • VERDICT A smartly scaled-down design combining solidbody characteristics with hints of semi-solid tone

Gibson Original Collection ES-335 – 8/10

  • PRICE £2,599 (inc hard case)
  • DESCRIPTION Semi-hollow electric guitar, made in the USA
  • BUILD Laminated maple/poplar body, spruce bracing with maple centre block, single-ply cream body binding, set mahogany neck, bound rosewood fretboard, acrylic dot inlays, 22 medium-jumbo frets, Graph Tech nut
  • HARDWARE ABR-1 bridge, aluminium stop bar tailpiece, Gibson Vintage Deluxe tuners
  • ELECTRONICS Calibrated T-Type Rhythm & Lead humbuckers, handwired control assembly with orange drop capacitors, 2x volume, 2x tone, 3-way toggle pickup selector switch
  • SCALE LENGTH 24.57”/624mm
  • NECK WIDTH 43.2mm at nut, 53.4mm at 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 22.5mm at first fret, 24.9mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 36.9mm at nut, 51.5mm at bridge
  • LEFT-HANDERS Yes
  • WEIGHT 8.62lb/3.91kg
  • FINISH Vintage Burst (as reviewed), Sixties Cherry, Vintage Ebony gloss nitrocellulose
  • VERDICT A well-made modern interpretation of the classic ES-335 theme but vintage fans may crave more light and shade

Gibson Original Collection ES-345 – 8/10

  • PRICE £2,899 (inc hard case)
  • DESCRIPTION Semi-hollow electric guitar, made in the USA
  • BUILD Laminated maple/poplar body, quartersawn Adirondack spruce bracing with maple centre block, 3-ply body binding, set mahogany neck, bound rosewood fretboard, acrylic split parallelogram inlays, 22 medium-jumbo frets, Graph Tech nut
  • HARDWARE ABR-1 bridge, aluminium stopbar tailpiece, Gibson Vintage Deluxe tuners
  • ELECTRONICS Calibrated T-Type Rhythm & Lead humbuckers, handwired control assembly with orange drop capacitors, 2x volume, 2x tone, 3-way toggle pickup selector switch
  • SCALE LENGTH 24.57”/624mm
  • NECK WIDTH 42.9mm at nut, 53.3mm at 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 22.1mm at first fret, 24.9mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 35.9mm at nut, 51.9mm at bridge
  • WEIGHT 8.84lb/4.01kg
  • LEFT-HANDERS Yes
  • FINISH Sixties Cherry (as reviewed), Vintage Burst gloss nitrocellulose
  • VERDICT Ditto the ES-335 but it’s debatable whether the largely aesthetic upgrades here are worth the upcharge

Gibson Custom Murphy Lab 1959 ES-335 Ultra Light Aged – 9/10 (Editors’s Choice)

  • PRICE £5,099 (inc hard case)
  • DESCRIPTION Semi-hollow electric guitar, made in the USA
  • BUILD Laminated maple/poplar body, spruce bracing with maple centre block, single-ply cream body binding, long tenon mahogany neck set with hot hide glue, vintage-style truss-rod, bound Indian rosewood fretboard, pearloid dot inlays, 22 authentic medium-jumbo frets, nylon nut
  • HARDWARE ABR-1 bridge, aluminium stopbar tailpiece, Kluson single line, single ring tuners
  • ELECTRONICS Custombucker Alnico 3 humbuckers (unpotted), 2x volume, 2x tone, 3-way toggle pickup selector, paper-in-oil tone capacitors
  • SCALE LENGTH 24.57”/624mm
  • NECK WIDTH 42.8mm at nut, 52.5mm at 12th fret
  • NECK DEPTH 22.45mm at first fret, 24mm at 12th fret
  • STRING SPACING 36.5mm at nut, 52.1mm at bridge
  • WEIGHT 7.74lb/3.51kg
  • LEFT-HANDERS No
  • FINISH Ebony Ultra Light Aged gloss nitrocellulose (as reviewed), Vintage Natural (also available Ultra Heavy Aged)
  • VERDICT Another triumph from the Murphy Lab that’s a joy to play – but it comes at a price
  • CONTACT gibson.com

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