The ES Paradox

This is a 59 ES-355-the very top of the ES semi hollow line. But, lucky you, you can buy one of these for less than half the price of the bottom of the line ES-335. What do you get for spending half? PAFs, an ebony fingerboard, 7 ply top binding as opposed to 1 ply, a tortoise guard some fancy inlay work on the headstock. Take advantage of the ES paradox and buy one. They are great guitars. Hate the stereo and the Varitone? Take out the harness and put in a Dr. Vintage. It'll cost you a couple of hundred bucks plus installation. Put the stereo harness and Varitone circuit in the case for the next buyer.

Most of you are aware there are three models in the ES semi hollow line: The ES -335, ES-345 and ES-355. There are other ES models (ES stands for electric Spanish) but only these three are semi hollow. The paradox here is, of course, that the most desirable and expensive ES model-as a vintage piece-is the bottom of the line, the ES-335. The conventional wisdom is that collectors appreciate the simplicity of the 335 and are willing to pay a premium for them.  You could argue that “simplicity” includes simplicity of the circuit and that begins to get to the heart of the matter. The 335 is a very simple mono 3 way switched 2 pickup arrangement whereas the 345 and most 355’s are stereo wired with the controversial Varitone in the circuit. But consider that the difference in price can be as high as 300% especially in the older examples. An average stop tail 59 ES-345 can be had for around $12,000. An average stereo 355 from the same year will command around the same price-perhaps a bit less since they are virtually all Bigsby or Maestro equipped. A stop tail 59 ES 335 will cost at least twice that amount and even three times that amount. It’s a little dangerous to make generalizations about price since there are about a zillion variables in the equation. But there has to be more to it than circuitry because the mono wired ES-355 doesn’t seem to command much more than the stereo version. Maybe 10-15%. But there are also compelling reasons to go for the fancier models. There is the quality of the wood and the quality of the construction. There is certainly a difference in the wood-the most figured examples tend to be 345s and 355s but figuring isn’t that important to 335 buyers. Not like the Les Paul folks. I’ve also found that the quality of the workmanship can be somewhat different on the higher end guitars-a little less glue slop, at least. Did Gibson have their senior guys work on the higher end guitars while leaving the lower end models to the “new guy?”  I don’t know but it’s a pretty common practice. When I worked in a bike shop when I was in college, I was the senior mechanic and I built all the Colnagos and Masis that came in while the guys with less experience built the Schwinns. The point here is that the 345s and 355s are now the better deal by enough to sit up and take some notice. With the huge drop in the market, the guitars that have taken the smallest drop (in my world) are the most desirable guitars-the dot necks. This is significant. The block neck 335s have taken a huge hit and the 345s and 355s have taken an even bigger hit. If you’re OK with a Bigsby or “Custom Made” model, a PAF or early patent number equipped 345 or 355 can now be had for under $10,000 and sometimes well under. And that’s not a beater with big issues, that’s a solid 9.0 or better guitar with no major issues. So, how come, when you go to Gbase, they are mostly in the high teens and $20,000 range? Do yourself a favor and pick out a couple of them and watch to see if they sell. Month after month, the same guitars are there at the same prices. Same with Ebay. There are always 59-64 ES 345s for stupid money and, if you go to the “completed listings” you can see that they have been listed week in and week out. If you’ve always wanted a “Golden Era” Gibson, this is the time to be a buyer. Don’t be afraid to make what you think is a “lowball” offer. All the dealer can say is no. And while there are dealers out there with very fair and reasonable prices-I like to think I’m leading the charge-there are also dealers who post high but will sell low. Right now, I think a 345 or a 355 is a better investment than the stock market which is sinking or gold which is making new highs. If you’ve got $10,000 you can pull from the stock market and put into a vintage guitar, I’m betting that in five years it will have outperformed the stock you sold. Also, have you ever tried to play a stock certificate? No tone at all.

Can't deal with a Bigsby? OK, there are plenty of stop tail 345s made until early 65. This is a nice 64 that'll cost you many thousands less than a same year stop tail 335. Same big fat 64 neck. Same pickups. Cooler inlays and, often, prettier wood. Want to save even more? Find a "Custom Made" version, take off the Bigsby and put on a lightweight stop. OK, so you'll have a few extra holes. You'll also have $5000 to as much as $10000 extra in your wallet than the guy who bought the stop tail '64 335.

5 Responses to “The ES Paradox”

  1. RB says:

    One of the coolest ES guitars ever is the ES-355 factory mono, with PAF’s, in cherry finish. The elegance and bling level does not distract to most … but man it’s hard to find one that’s original. If you find yourself playing the Beacon Theatre some Saturday night … this is the guitar to bring along.

  2. Mel says:

    Just picked up an 66 ES 355 and it’s a beautiful guitar. Hope somebody can help. The seller stated the guitar was 100% and therefore stereo. I ordered a stereo jack – two mono jacks lead for this guitar. When I plugged it into two different amps I only get volume out of one amp, the other amp when turned right up hums and you can hear a very faint sound (v.faint) However if I use one amp and a mono cable plugged right in I can use all 3 positions on the selector switch and the varitone works. I understood I should only get on pickup if a mono cable is plugged all the way in. Has this guitar been wired to Mono?? Any help is much appreciated


  3. OK Guitars says:

    I had the EXACT same experience with a 65 that I just bought. The seller said that everything was stock and the Varitone worked and all that. I have the same stereo split cable and I plugged it into my tweed Bassman and it sounded great until I tried to switch to the bridge pickup and…nothing. I thought it was the cable. Then I thought it was amp. Then I thought, OK, maybe the guitar was rewired for mono. I looked inside and saw that the pot cans were there and everything looked undisturbed. But no. It was mono.

  4. Mel says:

    Many thanks for the response. Yep, mine has the pot cans, stereo truss rod cover and looks all original without pulling it all apart. I guess I can live with this one in Mono, just trying to get used to the interactive volume controls and narrow nut,slowly getting there!!! Only other criticism is the vibrola creates a very shallow angle over the saddles so getting a low action without lots of rattles and the bottom E slipping off the saddle is proving very hard to achieve. Would love to convert it to a stop piece but don´t want to damage the future value of this guitar (not that i intend to sell) May try to obtain a 345 trapeze tailpiece & mount it via the strap button, hopefully this may give me the desired action without any mods.

    Finally wanted to say that i really enjoy reading your site, very entertainting view at these beautiful instruments. I´m learning lots about my new instrument, PAF spec PAT sticker gold hardware pickups, earlier ABR1 bridge, pointy horns etc etc…All the best…..

  5. OK Guitars says:

    Thank you for the kind words.

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