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Back to Basics

One of my favorites-a 59 ES-335 blonde (natural) played to death and still rockin'. That's the bottom of the line but, ironically, the top of the price heap. Go figure.

One of my favorites-a 59 ES-335 blonde (natural) played to death and still rockin’. That’s the bottom of the line but, ironically, the top of the price heap. Go figure.

OK, all the regular readers are going to groan but don’t. You didn’t always know everything there was to know about these guitars either (nor did I). I get asked this a lot and while it’s as basic as can be, I can understand all the confusion when you first begin to learn about these guitars. The question is, simply, what’s the difference between a 335, a 345 and a 355? The answer, while it seems second nature to many of us, isn’t really so simple. Lets start with the 335. It was the bottom of the ES semi hollow line. What about the 330, you ask. The 330, while also an ES, was fully hollow. So was the 350. A 335 has a rosewood fingerboard (until sometime in 65), dot markers until early 62 and then small blocks, single ply white bindings front and back, nickel plated hardware (until Spring of 65), Kluson tuners and a mono circuit with a three way pickup selector switch.

The ES-345 is the middle of the lineup. All ES-345’s have a stereo circuit with a three way switch like the 335 but also a 6 way Varitone switch which is, essentially, a notch filter. The fingerboard is also rosewood but the markers are “split parallelograms”. Both 335 and 345 have the same “crown” headstock inlay, although some say it’s a leaf or a flowerpot. I don’t know what it is. The 345 has gold plated hardware and the pickups are out of phase which, although I don’t entirely understand why, works better with the stereo circuit which sends one pickup to the right and the other to the left into two channels or two amps. A cool setup but not terribly popular these days. Many 345 owners remove the stereo circuit and the Varitone and wire the guitar the same as a 335. The binding on a 345 is three ply (white-black -white) on the front and single ply white on the back.

That brings us to the top of the line. The ES-355. The 355 was available in mono like a 335 or stereo with the Varitone switch like a 345. It was different in more than a few aspects. The headstock is larger and the inlay is different. It is called a split diamond and the headstock is also bound around the edges. The fretboard inlays are different too. Not just in shape but in the material. Whereas the 335 and 345 are celluloid plastic, the 355 has real mother of pearl inlays in the shape of large blocks (and has a first fret marker which 335’s and almost all 345’s don’t have). The fingerboard itself is ebony rather than rosewood and the hardware, like the 345, is gold plated. The tuners are not Klusons but Grovers until late 1963 when they switched to Kluson “waffle backs”. The top binding is seven plies (w-b-w-b-w-b-w) and the back binding is 3 plies. Until early 1965, you could get a 335 or 345 with a stop tail or a tremolo tailpiece (Bigsby, then sideways, then Maestro in 63). In 65, they switched to a trapeze to replace the stop tail. A Bigsby was always available even after they switched to the other tremolo tailpieces. However, an ES-355 only came with a tremolo tailpiece unless specially ordered with a stop tail. Stop 355s are über rare and worth loads of dough. As I said, you could always get a Bigsby but the factory stock unit was Bigsby for 58-60, sideways in 61-62 and Maestro from 63 on. 335s and 345s were available in sunburst, red (rare until 61 on 335s), an odd sunburst called Argentine Grey which was neither Argentine nor grey and natural (through 1960). ES-355’s were, unless special ordered, always red. I’ve seen a few black ones, a few naturals, two sunbursts and a white one now and then but 99+% are red. There were custom colors for 335s and 345s as well but they are very rare and quite desirable except for a sort of deep candy apple red that came into being in 65 or 66 called Sparkling Burgundy. I don’t mind it if it isn’t faded but most everyone else doesn’t like it much. There were a lot of changes to all three models over the years and I can’t cover them here-go back and read some old posts and you’ll find all of them .

Of course, the three models shared many aspects as well. The construction is the same for all three and the electronics:  The pickups, pots and control layout are the same, although the stereo guitars have the extra 6 way switch and a stereo jack and circuit. In terms of the tonal aspects, there really isn’t much difference. A mono ES-355 sounds pretty much like a mono ES-335. Some would argue that the ebony board adds a bit of “snap” to the tone but my ears aren’t good enough to hear it and I have pretty good ears. A stereo 345 sounds like a stereo 355. I won’t get into the differences in tone between mono and stereo because it’s a can of worms. Don’t ask. Look up Varitone controversy either on this site or Google. So pick your fave and buy one. Buy it from me or buy it from somebody else. But I’m telling you, you won’t find a better designed and conceived electric guitar anywhere on Earth.

Here's a bunch of 345's. The middle one isn't the usual sunburst, it's called Argentine Grey although I have no idea why. That switch with the chicken head knob is the 6 way Varitone which causes controversy everywhere it goes.

Here’s a bunch of 345’s. The middle one isn’t the usual sunburst, it’s called Argentine Grey although I have no idea why. That switch with the chicken head knob is the 6 way Varitone which causes controversy everywhere it goes.

Here's the top dog (back then). This is a 59 ES-355 mono-note-no Varitone switch. Also note that it has a Bigsby. 99+% of them have some sort of trem tailpiece. If you find one with a stop tail, sell it to me please. Note the different headstock.

Here’s the top dog (back then). This is a 59 ES-355 mono-note-no Varitone switch. Also note that it has a Bigsby. 99+% of them have some sort of trem tailpiece. If you find one with a stop tail, sell it to me please. Note the different headstock.

 

3 Responses to “Back to Basics”

  1. Rob says:

    Gibson could have been following along the lines of the Big Three auto makers in 1958. GM featured three Chevrolet models. From bottom to top, Delray, Biscayne and Bel Air. Or if you remember the Sears catalogs, “Good, Better and Best”.

  2. Josh says:

    Thanks Charly,
    As usual, an essential and informative post.

  3. RAB says:

    Charlie, no groans here…always a good thing to get back to basics once in awhile! And while I was aware the 355 headstock is wider it never really struck me that it was wider not only due to the binding…I.E. it isn’t merely a bound 335/345 headstock…”generous it is” (as Yoda would say!) Maybe contributes a tad to a nice fat sound, but maybe not…anyway, as the Cadillac of the line, it looks mighty fine (hey, that rhymes!) Thanks for your on-going efforts to educate, inform and amuse on all things “ES-335!” RAB

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