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ES-355: Top of the Line or Poor Stepchild?

The Annie Leibovitz (please don’t sue me) photo of Keef with his black 355 in the Louis Vitton ad he probably took so much heat for from his bandmates. What was their name again? How much for that LV case? And what’s in that teacup anyway-certainly not tea.

I seem to neglect the 355 when I write and it isn’t because I don’t like them. It’s more likely because fewer players seem to like them-the 335 is way more popular. That said, there are a lot of big names who have preferred the 355. Names like, uh, BB King, Keith Richards, Alex Lifeson and Chuck Berry. Big enough? But this post isn’t about the players. I’ll do that later. Rather, we’ll take a look at what makes a 355 so different than a 335 or 345. The concept of the 355 is exactly the same as the 335-a pressed (not carved) plywood body with a big ol’ maple block down the middle and 2 pickups. The rest is pretty much decoration. The 355 had only one real option beyond special order options. It only came standard in red. It always came with a Bigsby or Vibrola or Sideways trem (except for a few special orders with a stop tail that have emerged-some questionable). The option was the stereo Varitone which was designated on the label-usually as SV-as in ES-335TDSV. Actually the SV was more the norm and the mono version was more the option since there are so many more SV versions. While the 335 was a basic no frills workingman’s guitar, the 355 was a showman’s. It is not a subtle piece of work. It’s fancy. Big fat pearl block markers set elegantly into a deep black ebony board, split diamond headstock inlay and a 7 ply white-black-white-black-white-black-white binding. The 345 binding only had 3 plies and the 335 just one. All the hardware is gold and the rumor is that the 355s got the best wood. They weren’t fooling around-this is one pimped out guitar. I have to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that I’ve never owned a 355. I’ve played a number of them but somehow never bought one. I won’t get into the Varitone debate in this post (but I will eventually). Electronically, a mono 355 is a 335 dressed up and the SV is a 345 more dressed up. There have been discussions about ebony boards being brighter but either I don’t have the ears for it or it’s a myth-I just don’t hear it. If I close my eyes and play, I won’t know whether I’m playing a 335 or a 355 mono. The 355 might be a bit heavier but my ears won’t know. So why are they so much less popular? Why do they command so much less money in the collector market? I think the fact that they all have trems is a negative-after all, a Bigsby will knock as much as 25% off the price of a 335 and a Maestro makes it a very tough sell. The sideways is cool looking but rare and impossible to use. The ostentation seems a factor-just like in the Les Paul Custom but it goes counter to American tastes. American males like ostentation-look at what people do to their Harleys (and what musicians do to attract attention). So, it’s a bit of a paradox but I’ll just accept it and move on. You have to admit, it looks mighty snazzy up there on the bandstand. The only negative I can really come up with-other than the trem (since I don’t use one) is the often thin necks that Gibson put on them. I think this was Fender’s fault. Sometime around 1959, the concept of the “fast” neck came about and the manufacturers were falling all over themselves trying to provide the thinnest “fastest” neck possible and which Gibson model should be all that? The most expensive one. So 355s by mid 59 have thin profiles. I don’t play as well on a thin neck so I avoid them. That limits the number of 355s I would consider owning to the 58 and early 59 model years. If someone comes up with a nice fat necked mono 355 from 58 or 59, then I might become an owner. The 355 is the best deal out there right now. A 64 went for around $4500 recently IIRC and a 66 didn’t get any bids a $4000. A nice well played 59 SV with PAFs just sold for a shade under $12K. There’s a stunning 60 SV that’s been listed in the $14K range for a while that would look good in any collection. Offer him $12K-maybe he’ll take it. If you’re jonesing for a 335 and you see a 355 that catches your eye, don’t rule it out-they are excellent guitars and worth the money if you pay attention to their few limitations.

This is the first ES 355 to leave the factory in 1958 and it’s a MONO. Owned by Les Paul Forum member Mac Daddy 355 who was at my house a while back when his friend Russ bought my 62 335 and I can’t remember his name. He brought along the most incredible 58 ES 335.

How about this spectacular ’61 TDSV with the “Flash Gordon” sideways trem. Also owned by a LPF member-MikeG59. Why aren’t these popular again?

2 Responses to “ES-355: Top of the Line or Poor Stepchild?”

  1. TonyF says:

    Hey:
    I enjoy your blog about my 335 Gibson guitars. One
    story I’ve heard about the smaller nut width on Gibsons
    after 64 is that with the post Beatle guitar boom more guitars were being purchased by and for younger players
    that were formally bought and used by adult/pro , semi pro
    players (ie 335’s,SG’s ect). Thus young players and
    students found the smaller nut width’s easier to cope width.
    A market move by Gibson? Back in the 70’s (I’m in my 50’s)
    I remember a friend loaning me a nice 60’s Cherry 355.
    Although memory’s a tricky thing I don’t recall that guitar
    having the narrow nut width Also had a fuller back profile.
    I don’t think it was a 59/60 and had the Maestro vibrato
    (equally useless IMO). I guess anythings possible with
    Gibsons:). Sweet Guitars but the Varitones a pain in the Ass IMO.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    Fender underpriced Gibson in the mid 60’s by quite a lot. I remember coming to NYC to but a Stratocaster at Manny’s in early ’65. They were $200 in the city. I lived in Schenectady NY and the local music store there wanted $375. Gibsons were even worse in terms of “local” markup. Gibson was getting killed by Fender in terms of sales and appeal to younger players and Gibson probably felt that narrowing the fingerboard to make it “faster” for those upstart rock and rollers was a good marketing strategy. Their lower priced guitars (Melody Makers and Epiphones weren’t popular at all where I lived. There must have been 10 garage bands in my high school and out 20 or so guitarists in 65, I would say that 15 played Fenders. I had the only Gibson of anyone I knew when I bought my ’63 ES 330.

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