A Quick History of the Gibson ES-335
In the 1950s, guitarists had a problem.
With the advent of amplification and the first electric guitars, the instruments were for the first time able to play above the rest of a band in a live performance. This changed the way guitars were played: the instruments could now be featured front and center. The lead guitar was born.
Wanted: the best of both worlds
Solid-body guitars like the new Fender Stratocaster or Gibson’s Les Paul were well suited for playing lead guitar. The fact that their bodies were solid wood allowed them to be turned up loud without on-stage issues cropping up. The tone, however, was brighter with more treble than other guitars of the day.
Hollow-body guitars like Gibson’s ES-330, on the other hand, had large, resonate bodies that gave the instruments a desirable, warm tone. But that increased resonance lead to feedback problems when amped up. (This was, of course, well before people like Jimi Hendrix learned use feedback as a musical technique.)
Guitar players at that time wanted the best of both worlds: a dark, warm tone without feedback during live performances.
Enter Ted McCarty.
Ted McCarty, problem solver
Ted McCarty was the CEO of Gibson. McCarty was one of the truly great guitar innovators and came up with such great Gibson guitars as the Les Paul, the SG, the Flying V, and the Explorer. He had a knack for problem solving when it came to guitar design.
McCarty listened to guitarists’ complaints and began work. He came up with an idea to find a middle ground. To do this, he created a guitar that was neither totally hollow nor totally solid.
The ES-335, which debuted in 1958, became the world’s first semi-hollow-body guitar. McCarty’s design called for a solid block of maple to run through the center of the body, with hollow, resonate “wings” attached to either side. He also incorporated cutouts in the upper bouts to allow for access to higher frets and F-holes.
The guitar was an instant success, as it delivered on the need of a warmer tone with very little feedback. It quickly became one of Gibson’s top-selling guitars, and in fact it has been in continuous production since its debut over 60 years ago.
Famous ES-335 players
Over the years, the Gibson ES-335 has been used by many famous musicians. Chuck Berry was one of the first big stars to use the guitar to great effect with his new “rock and roll” style. (An additional tie-in with Chuck Berry can be found in the movie Back to the Future, where Marty McFly plays — you guessed it — an ES-335 at the dance with Chuck’s cousin’s band.)
Perhaps the most famous ES-335 player was B.B. King, whose trademark guitar, Lucille, was a version of the guitar that featured a maple neck instead of the standard mahogany and lacked F-holes.
Almost as famous is Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who plays a beautiful blue variation of the guitar that has a Firebird headstock and diamond-shaped holes.
The ES-335 has had enormous appeal to guitar players over the decades, and Gibson currently has over 25 different 335s in production.
Imitation — still the highest form of flattery
McCarty’s revolutionary semi-hollow-body design, of course, has been copied many times. Notable brands with their own versions include:
- Fender (Thinline Telecaster)
- Ibanez (Artcore series)
- Rickenbacker 330 (the brand’s top-selling guitar)
Success is being in the right place at the right time
The Gibson ES-335, which occupies a special place in the history of guitar and rock and roll, was a needed advancement in the electric guitar that came about at the right time. The fact that the design has endured and been copied many times over is a testament to how amazing this guitar actually is.