What to Look for in an ES-335/345/355

The area in the black mark is a delamination-the plywood is coming apart. It looks like a bubble under the wood. Generally the problem is cosmetic and not worth losing sleep over unless it keeps getting worse.

OK, the title is a little misleading-you should look for a guitar you love the sound of and that is comfortable to play. I’m going to talk about things to look for that might (but perhaps shouldn’t) keep you from buying that guitar. I’m talking about the things that can be wrong (or go wrong) with these guitars. Every guitar has strong points and weak points. Les Pauls can be overly heavy, SGs have weak neck joins, Firebirds can be neck heavy and on and on. One of the reasons I like 335s and their brethren so much is that they don’t have a lot of weak points. There are things to look for however. The weakest point actually is more Gibson related than specific to ES’s and that is the ABR-1 bridge. Nothing will sink your tone faster than worn or over notched saddles or a collapsed bridge. The good news is that its a really easy fix. To check an ABR-1 to see if it has collapsed, remove the saddles and turn in upside down on a flat surface, If there’s any space between the top of the bridge and the flat surface, it’s collapsed. Get a new one or replacement. If the strings are more than halfway under the top of the saddles, get new saddles or file down the tops of the saddles until that is no longer the case.  The weakest point on just about any Gibson guitar is the headstock. Think it’s easy to spot a crack? Well, usually it’s pretty obvious but don’t take anybody’s word for it. Get out a magnifying glass and a blacklight if you have one. I know of a 63 that was sold at auction recently to a dealer who has more experience with 335’s than I do. He had it for weeks before finding the crack and may never have found it had he not been tipped off by another expert who noticed it at the auction and told me about it. Next, take a look down the fingerboard. There are a lot of dips and rises that can be adjusted out with the truss but there is one that is common that can’t be. ES’s seem to be prone to a slight rise at the area where the fingerboard meets the body. That’s an area in which most of us don’t  play much and it may make no difference at all for you but you should be aware of it. The fix for this is pretty easy as well-a fret level will usually take care of the problem-the rise will still be there but as long as the frets are level, it won’t adversely affect playability. Another weak point is the ground wire on a stoptail version. The ground wire is an uninsulated single heavy gauge strand of wire than goes from the stoptail bushing through the center block and attaches to the braid on the neck pickup lead. What often happens is that when the harness is pulled for any reason, the wire gets broken. It’s kind of brittle and doesn’t improve with age. If it breaks at the pickup end, its no big deal but if you break it off at the stud end, it is a somewhat involved process to replace it-often requiring the removal of the stud bushing-something best left to a repair shop. You could run a thin wire from the pickup lead to the bridge post under the pickguard and it will work fine but it won’t be correct and you’ll see it if you look closely. The last thing to look for are cracks and delamination in the top or back. It’s no secret that ES’s are made of plywood and plywood is held together with glue and glue can give up over time. A delamination will usually be raised and will look like a “bubble” in the wood. You can sometimes move the wood by pushing down on it as there is usually air beneath it where the glue gave way (or never existed).  There is also often a crack at the delamination point. Don’t confuse finish checks for cracks in the wood. It’s easy to do so. A check usually can’t be felt with a fingernail, although that isn’t always true. If the line appears to go beneath the finish to the wood (and follows the grain), it’s probably a crack. There is good news here as well. Because cracks and delaminations generally only affect the top ply, they are neither structural nor do they affect tone. They don’t look that great but they shouldn’t deter you from buying if you like the guitar. Just be aware that they will diminish the value somewhat-not unlike a major ding or scrape.

Note the last few frets (and the binding) are going slightly uphill. This is pretty common and not too hard to fix as long as it isn't to severe.. It requires a fret level.


6 Responses to “What to Look for in an ES-335/345/355”

  1. RAB says:

    Thanks Charlie for more great “ES” facts! Another potential issue to inspect for, not necessarily limited to ES models is possible delamination of the “wings” on the peghead (Gibson would glue on small pieces of wood to widen the peghead over the width of the neck blank)…that problem can also be repaired by a skilled luthier though it will affect the git-tar’s value!

  2. OK Guitars says:

    That would have been my next thing to look for but I like to keep the posts to a certain maximum length. It’s pretty rare for the wings to come off but its really common for them to crack beneath the tuners from replacement screws that are overtightened or too big. True, an easy fix but a lot of folks mistake a wing separation for a headstock break. I sold an ES recently that had that and the buyer was ready to return it due to an “undisclosed headstock crack”. Once I pointed out the seam, he understood that it was neither structural or cause for alarm.

  3. Mike M says:

    Thanks Charlie,
    My ABR-1 bridge has some sinking in it. Is there anyway to repair that or correct that? I would hate to think the bridge is just useless now.

  4. RAB says:

    Sagging is common on old ABR-1 bridges which were essentially made out of “pot metal!” If the sagging isn’t severe, a skilled luthier may be able to gently bend the bridge back towards the original contour…

  5. OK Guitars says:

    I’ve had some success straightening them but it never lasts. Once the cheap “potmetal” has fatigued, it won’t hold its shape for long. Put it in the case and get a Gibson repro or a Tone Pros.

  6. Steve Newman says:

    Great post, Charlie! One other issue that goes hand-in-hand with the sagging bridge is that many of the ES 3xx series have bent ABR-1 bridge studs; usually bent towards the neck. The combination of long term string tension, having the bridge itself adjusted slightly too high and accidental impacts in or out of the case can cause this. As long as the integrity of the wood itself is not compromised (no cracking or splitting of the top veneer where the actual holes are drilled) it is a simple matter to buy and install new replacements. Worse case the holes can be drilled oversize, hard maple dowels can be glued in, and the correct mounting holes re-drilled. Some players will install double stacked height adjusting wheels on the threaded studs to try to help prevent this.

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