Some Semis are More Semi than Others

You can see where the kerfed spruce meets the laminated top in this photo. There is no space there at all which was the intent of the inventor. If you tap around the area over the center block you'll find areas that seem to be a bit looser

I have a client who is always interested in how resonant these guitars are. He’s a jazz player and he prefers the instrument to have some acoustic qualities which was the intent of the inventor, Ted McCarty (with a nod to Les Paul). Anyone who has played more than a few ES-335s and their brethren will notice that, from a resonance standpoint, they are not created equal. There are a few reasons for this. I’ve covered the first reason before but I’ll summarize. Some 335s, all 345s and most 355s have part of the center block removed to make assembly easier and to accomodate the varitone choke in stereo models. More airspace in there means more resonance. The difference is not all that great and I don’t think it makes all that much difference. I’ve had folks insist on uncut center blocks in their 62-64 ES-335s and most of them have that feature. Certainly there are more cut blocks by 64 but it’s by no means consistent. Now the other reason is a little more speculative. Because the top of the guitar is arched and the center block is flat, there is a space between the top and the block. Gibson’s solution was to place a piece of kerfed spruce in there to fill the gap. Perhaps they felt the spruce would add some resonance as well since it is not as dense as maple and is typically used for acoustic guitar tops. Recently, I’ve noticed that some 335s have a better fit than others or there has been some shrinkage or separation in there over the years. If you own a 335, 345 or 355, do a tap test. Tap on the top in the area where you know the center block is and listen to where it resonates and where it doesn’t. It really shouldn’t resonate anywhere except by the bridge pickup if the block is cut. What I’ve found is that the guitars that have the greatest acoustic qualities tend to have some air space between the top and the block, particularly between the bridge and the endpin. I’ve also found some with air space in the area between the pickups, which is where I kind of expected to find it since the arch in the top is a little more pronounced there. I have two 65s right now-one is a Bigsby and one is a traptail. Both are early 65 big necks but one rings out like an ES-175 and the other is as quiet as a typical Les Paul when unplugged. When I tap the resonant 65 on the lower part of the body over the block, it sounds hollow. When I tap the Bigsby equipped, it sounds solid. Part of this could be related to the fact that the Bigsby version has two screws through the top, essentially screwing the top to the spruce pieces. That would make sense if traptails were consistently more resonant. But they aren’t. They are actually, slightly less resonant, in general, than a stoptail. Interestingly, the difference doesn’t really translate to the amplified sound of the guitars all that much. The two guitars don’t sound that different once you crank ’em up. Neither feeds back. So, does it matter how much resonance you semi has? Probably not, if you like the way it sounds when it’s plugged in. I play my guitars unplugged a lot and I kind of like being able to really hear my 335 when I sit on the couch while I watch a ballgame and practice at the same time. Would I go out of my way to find a really resonant one? Again, probably not. What I really should do is to buy myself a 330 for the couch.

maybe the two screws in the top of the guitar from the Bigsby have kept the wood from separating and causing an air pocket between the top and the block. Then again, maybe not.

6 Responses to “Some Semis are More Semi than Others”

  1. RAB says:

    The most resonant golden era ES I had was an early 1959 ES-345. My current ES (’63 mono, stop tail 355) isn’t particularly resonant, more like a solid body. However it relatively lightweight and that adds some degree of resonance IMHO!

  2. RAB says:

    P.S. The ’62 Epi Riviera I just scored is VERY resonant!

  3. RAB says:

    P.S. one reason the ’62 Riv sounds so good (the best of the 4 short headstock Epi ES models I’ve had (now 3 early Rivs and a blonde 1962 Sheraton)) is it has the Epi “Tremotone” E-Vibrola tailpiece as opposed to the Frequensator. The Tremotone represents some hefty weight (metal and rosewood!) to add sustain compared to the relatively flimsy, mostly “wire” Frequensator! A possible theory anyway!

  4. Paul S says:

    I’ve always wondered about weight vs resonance, if lighter weight in a semi corresponds at all with more resonance. I have a 60’s 335 that’s pretty light and resonant, a ’72 that’s medium weight but really resonant–sounds almost like a banjo acoustically–and of course there’s always the 330, that’s both.

    Any thoughts Charlie? What’s the lightest 3xx you’ve come across (with a block) and how was the acoustic sound?

    Seems like these days, most people want lighter weight very resonant guitars. PRS archtops and hollowbodies and the Gibson Johnny A both come to mind.


  5. Steve Newman says:

    Just my opinion, but I think there are more factors relating to “resonance” than just body weight in ES 3xx type guitars. It seems to me that there are a combination of different elements, such as string break angle over both the nut and bridge saddles, the actual neck to body angle set when the guitar was assembled, the total mass of the headstock (including tuners) and the efficiency of the tailpiece at transfering string energy into the body itself, whether it be a stoptail, trapeze, Frequensator, or any one the various tremolo types. Also, as Charlie has pointed out before, how efficient the actual nut and bridge string slots are cut, so that they don’t “pinch” the string themselves and let the strings vibrate and decay to their optimum. There is no doubt that how solid the center block is coupled with the rest of the body has some effect on the tonal “resonance”, as is addressed in the original post. By the way BAB, I’m also a big fan of the Epiphone variants of the ES line, and have owned two Sheratons and a Riviera from the Golden period (pre-’66). Interestingly, the most resonant example was a ’63 sunburst Sheraton with Frequensator and the center block cutout. Many of my long term musical friends say it was the best sounding ES style guitar that I have owned.

  6. RAB says:

    That 63 Sheraton sounds nice! My 62 Riv has no center block cut-out

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