The Snake Rears its Ugly Head

The most distinctive element of the short-lived ES-369 is the distinctive (and relatively functional) snake head headstock with its very cool red binding.

OK, now that I have your attention, it isn’t actually that ugly but it is pretty rare. The reference is to the headstock of the fairly rare and not too terribly popular ES-369. I’ve never owned one but based on the fact that they only made it for about a year (late 81 into ’82) it’s seems almost redundant with the more popular ES-347.  I’ve never owned a 369 but I can tell you a little about it.  The ES-369 is an odd one. The headstock is not shaped like any other ES-it has the “snakehead” shape that has the useful function of pulling the strings very straight. A Mr. Paul Reed Smith apparently thought it was a good idea as well along with a number of other builders. It still had the  3 piece maple neck of the 70’s, the neck volute and the generally mediocre build quality (and wood) we associate with the 70’s. The Norlin Corp. (beer, concrete) wanted profits and making more guitars for less money was the name of the game. So, why the ES-369?George Gruhn has a theory. It seems that Gibson was trying to use up some spare parts (a page from the Fender playbook-see Fender Maverick).  Maybe they had an overstock of trapezoid markers (This is the only ES to use them to my knowledge) or TP-6 tailpieces. But, to be honest, the guitar looks pretty good to me, particularly in black.   It has “dirty fingers” pickups which are overwound ceramic magnet pickups which I’ve played and I kind of like even if they’re a bit limited in range. I would prefer that they were covered but they aren’t-it was that era where everybody uncovered their pickups and Gibson probably figured they could save a few bucks by leaving them off. I like the red binding on the headstock and the retro logo.  They saved a couple bucks on the pickguard too-one ply white plastic has to be cheaper than the laminated ones we’ve all come to expect on a 335 type guitar. There’s a coil tap but it’s a little more ergonomic and little less intrusive than the earlier ones which were on the treble horn. This one is a mini toggle above the 3 way. It’s still got that pinched looking odd variant that would finally go away with the ES-335 dot reissue. This was probably the last of them-again, use up the old parts. Even the earlier ES-347s had a more traditional body shape by this time. I’ve only held one in my hands and it played well and sounded pretty darn good. It was a bit on the heavy side. OK, really heavy, like 11 lbs heavy. They made them in sunburst and black. They may have made a red one or two but I’ve never seen one. If I saw one in the $1500 range, I would consider it but given that you can snare an early 80’s ES-335 dot for $1800 (if you don’t want a blondie), I would think twice about spending any more for one. I’ve seen black 80’s dot necks for around $2000, so if the black paint job floats your boat, I’d go for the 335. But, if ya gotta gotta have a snakehead headstock, this is your fiddle.

I kind of like the trapezoid markers. I don't like the pinched body shape but the one I played sounded good. My back still hurts though.

Spelling errors aside, here's Alex Lifeson-who usually played a 355 with a 369. A very young Alex Lifeson. Is it me or is his head way too big for his body? Looks to me like whoever did the ad had some kid from the mailroom stand there with the guitar and then they stuck Alex's head on it. Remind me to do a rockstar before and after showing how poorly most of them age.

5 Responses to “The Snake Rears its Ugly Head”

  1. Rob Bulkley says:

    I’ve been enjoying reading your posts over the last week or so as I have been fitting the carcass of a 1974 ES335 with old parts (klusons, ABR-1) that I had along with a brand new set of Jason Lollar Imperials and a new wiring harness. Not the most beautiful guitar but the overall result makes me overlook the skinny neck. It is really, really fun to play!

    About this Alex Lifeson thing:
    That’s how the English spell “swapped”.
    It’s not an ad, it’s a one page feature from some English equivalent of “Guitar Player.”
    Back when you and I were young & skinny and we had hair, our heads looked bigger, too.
    Minor points, but if I’m going to trust your opinions on the main subject…

    I f you’re ever in Seattle, drop by Dusty Strings and say hi.

    All the best-
    Rob Bulkley

  2. Johnny B. Hall says:

    I happen to own a sunburet Es-369 I got on eBay. This is a nice guitar, perhaps a little heavy, but it has the sound that I would be after in this type of guitar. It has an unusual smell; not unpleasant, just different; kind of a woody, vairnishy aroma. One of the things that I find interesting is the contrast between the light and dark areas of the sunburst shading. There appears to be a lot more dark area, and it is darker than I have seen on other sunburst instrurments.

  3. OK Guitars says:

    Lots of old guitars have that smell. It’s usually mildew from the case. After you’ve smelled it for 20 years or so, it really isn’t, as you point out, particularly unpleasant. However, if you made a perfume that smelled like that, I don’t think I’d ask my wife to wear it.

  4. Karl says:

    Lifeson best solo (so he says and i agree) played on a Strat (Limelight) Stairway to Heaven solo Tele. Comfortably Numb played on a Strat ect ect.

  5. Craig says:

    I’ve had my ES 369 since the early 1980’s. I absolutely love it. Bought and sold a lot of guitars since then, but the 369 will be with me for life. Interestingly, I’ve found over the years I prefer ceramic magnet pickups. Both my Strat and Tele now have Fralin SP42’s in them, which are ceramic magnet single coils. Slightly warmer sound.

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