What Can Brown do for You?


The guy in the middle is playing a brown guitar on TV. Suddenly everybody wanted this very model. And it wasn't a Gibson. But it was brown.

The guy in the middle is playing a brown guitar on TV. Suddenly everybody wanted this very model. And it wasn’t a Gibson. But it was brown.

Have I mentioned that vintage guitar folks are a little nutty? I think I have. I’m referring to the almost universal dislike of the “walnut” finish that Gibson started offering in 1968. It’s pretty clear why the folks at Gibson added the brown stained walnut finish to the line. In 1968, perhaps the most coveted guitar on earth was the Gretsch Country Gentleman. George played one, so any Beatles obsessed kid had to play one. And the color? Well, you know the answer to that one. Walnut. Of course the guitars weren’t made from walnut, they were maple laminate stained brown and walnut is what they called it. So, Gibson saw the opportunity to perhaps grab a piece of that market and added the finish to the line and it proved relatively popular. They didn’t keep track of what was eventually called the ES-335TDW until 1970 and by 1971, it was the most popular color for 335’s outselling red and sunburst. In 1973, they sold 2012 TDWs as compared to 1793 reds and only 540 in sunburst. ┬áIt was also cheap to produce. Probably even cheaper (and easier) than the red ones. Dark brown can hide a lot of flaws and allows a lot of room for error. In fact, Gibson used the same stain for the backs of the ES-330 sunbursts because they were too cheap to paint both the front and back in the more time consuming sunburst finish. Still, both the Gent and a walnut 335 were expensive guitars back then so it wasn’t the kids who were buying them (it was probably the parents). I wanted a Gent back in the 60’s and actually had a Gretsch Tennessean for a short time. I didn’t particularly like it and went back to my SG pretty quickly. I couldn’t afford a 335 or a Country Gentleman and my parents weren’t buying guitars for me as long as I was making money playing in a band (yeah, $100 a night for six of us). They also had eight other kids to buy stuff for but that’s a different story. Fast forward to the present and there are plenty of brown 335s out there from the 60’s and 70’s. They are cheap and some of them are probably quite good. There is nothing wrong with a 68 or early 69 335 if you can handle the narrow nut. Many 68’s still have pre T-top pickups and are quite well made. By mid 69, they had started cutting some corners and the neck tenon pretty much disappeared making the mid 69’s and later guitars less stable at the heel. 68’s sell pretty well and for decent prices especially for red and sunburst finishes. The brown ones? Not so much. Vintage folks don’t seem to like them very much, myself included. I see 335’s being sunburst, red or natural. I like them in black and my Pelham blue Trini was pretty awesome. But brown? Well, it’s so, I dunno, brown. I don’t buy a lot of later 60’s 335’s but I’ve played enough of them to know that they can really sound great. The same goes for the early 70’s-just try to play before you buy-there are some real dogs among the gems. So, if you can handle the brown, you can probably save yourself $1000 or more. You can always have it refinished.

Other than the fact it's brown, it's still a pretty nice '68. These tend to sell for less than the same year sunbursts and reds.

Other than the fact it’s brown, it’s still a pretty nice ’68. These tend to sell for less than the same year sunbursts and reds.


11 Responses to “What Can Brown do for You?”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, thanks for the interesting feature. I’d never made the Beatles connection re the Gibson walnut finishes but it is convincing! I don’t mind the brown too much and, as you note, a git-slinger can get a great deal on a potentially great 335 so shouldn’t necessarily overlook these walnut-wonders…RAB

  2. Rod says:

    By 68 George had gone through an ES345, an SG and was by then playing a refinished cherry Les Paul. Maybe this was Gibson, as usual, being four years behind the times, I don’t think George played his Country Gent much after it was smashed in late 65! In the UK at least, in 68 the most wanted guitar was a Les Paul and had been since 66 when the Beano album appeared.

  3. Steve Newman says:

    A famous modern player closely associated with a modified (stop added) walnut finished 335 is the extremely talented Drew Zingg (Donald Fagen, New York Rock and Soul Review, Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, numerous Broadway musicals, etc.) He seems to consistently get great tone from a circa 1970? model that has all the less than desirable traits (pickups, neck tenon, hardware, nut width) that we covet in vintage “golden era” instruments. Just goes to show it ain’t the arrow, it’s the Indian.

  4. chuckNC says:

    BB King seemed to favor Walnut 355’s back when they first came out. I think the walnut finish was aimed at an older market looking for a more low-key kind of elegance. Sort of the same thinking that led Chet to prefer the Country Gent to the orange 6120 with the western doodads. The Beatle thing may have been part of the picture but not the whole thing. At that time, sedate brown stain was almost a reaction away from the wild colors of psychadelia.

  5. cgelber says:

    And it was dirt cheap to produce. On the other hand Gibson didn’t really get very psychedelic in the 60’s. They tried with the Firebirds but they never quite reached the lofty heights of the Fender paisley and flower series. Rickenbacker, on the other hand, nailed it with the lightshow model. Now that’s innovation.

  6. chuckNC says:

    Sorry, I seem to have misspelled ‘psychedelia.’ You know what they say, If you can still spell it you really weren’t there….

    The Beatles actually did have a hand in the backlash against psych.. you know. When they got out of it (between the Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album) they went the other way. No pretense, no sugarcoating, just really REAL, man. I blame them for the dreaded “hippy refin.” You know, the sanding down of guitars and then staining them THAT COLOR. George Gruhn called it Shit/Yuck Brown when describing a ’57 strat for me. Guess he’d seen more than enough of that. Sort of like the blonde and tweed Fender amps that got spray painted black because some group from England played black amps.

    I actually do like the Beatles. They couldn’t help it the world went bonkers for them.

  7. RAB says:

    The dreaded Hippie natural finish was responsible for ruining many a custom color Fender guitar! And don’t forget Alembic and the craze for brass hardware and active electronics that abused many a classic Gibson electric!

  8. TonyF says:


    Keith Richards used a Walnut ES355 on the Stones 1969
    US tour. That had to impact the interest in Walnut ES models
    as well. He’s pictured playing it on the back of the
    “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out” Live album.

  9. cgelber says:

    Nope. No impact at all. They remain a tough sell. Keith has played a lot of guitars over the years and the brown 355 was not really associated with him like the Micawber tele or his black ’59 ES-355. He’s probably done more to increase the value of Fender tweed Twins than anyone, however.

  10. Kevin says:

    Man. You rag on the walnut ones, Tony Bacon makes snide comments about them in his new book….
    I really like the walnut ones. They look warm and classy to me.

  11. okguitars says:

    Yes, I do. It was Gibson trying to do a finish that was cheap. Slap on some brown stain and you have a Country Gentleman-also, fairly ugly in its brownness. The other problem is that they are impossible to sell. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like them, I guess. If you like them, then more power to you-you can get a 335 you like for cheap. If you must have a walnut (it’s about as walnut as a cashew. It’s brown.) get a 68. Best year for them.

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