Stereo Wars


Good old ES-345 stereo. Relatively simple and straight forward. One output, two pickups going to two channels or two amps. Occasionally useful and always fun to play with. And hugely unpopular today.

I like stereo guitars. They are like driving a car with tail fins. They are decidedly out of fashion but still plenty cool. Most of you are aware of the Gibson stereo models and how they work. In case you aren’t, here’s a short tutorial:

The Gibson ES-345, released in mid 59 is always made with stereo electronics. The ES-355 could be had with the stereo circuit or with the 335 (mono) circuit. Other models occasionally were made into stereo guitars as special orders. There are stereo 335’s, Byrdlands, ES-350’s and probably a few others that I haven’t seen.  But Gibson wasn’t the first to release a stereo guitar. I believe that distinction goes to Gretsch and their Project-o-Sonic circuit, I believe.  The concept was similar but the execution was very different.

The Gibson stereo circuit splits the neck pickup and bridge pickups to a stereo output, allowing each pickup to be amplified separately. Simply put, the bridge pickup goes to channel one (or amp one) and the neck pickup to channel (or amp) two. But the Gretsch “Project-o-Sonic” was completely different and, frankly, somewhat baffling. I recently purchased a Gretsch White Falcon stereo guitar. It’s an early 62 and is the first of the double cuts and the last of the “second” stereo version which is way too complicated to explain but mostly has to do with the switches and where they are located. In all versions, the Grestch stereo system splits each pickup into two separate units sending the high (G-B-E) strings and the low (E-A-D) strings to different outputs. There are five separate three way switches that allow 54 different combinations (according to the Gretsch hype).  So, to be clear, you can have the top three strings picked up by the bridge, the lower three picked up by the neck and each sent to a different amp. Or, how about the high strings coming from both pickups and the lower strings turned off completely? It’s all a little silly but there are some pretty interesting combinations that sound pretty good.

A good thing about the Gretsch system is that you can simply override the stereo effect by using a mix down cable (stereo on one end and mono on the other). You can still get the odd combinations but they aren’t split between channels. On a Gibson stereo, if you simply use a mix down cable, you get great tone out of the individual pickups but when you want to use both pickups, they are out of phase, so they tend to cancel each other out. You can get around this by flipping over one of the magnets, which requires you to unsolder the cover or you can back off one of the volume controls and limit the “phase cancellation” that occurs at full output from both pickups. Of course, Gibson also put their “Varitone” switch into the circuit which has caused more debate (and consternation) than just about any other guitar feature. The Varitone is, essentially, a fairly primitive notch filter that removes certain frequencies from the signal. Useful? Maybe. Necessary? Not hardly. It can give you some honky, quacky tones not usually associated with a Gibson but how often do you use honky, quacky tones? If I wanted honky and quacky, I’d play a Stratocaster.

Ultimately, nobody won the stereo wars because nobody really wants stereo guitars. I’m not sure anybody ever really wanted stereo guitars but sales hype sometimes sways buyers looking for the next big thing. Gibson sold a lot of them. Gretsch, not so many. And while the Project-o-Sonic White Falcon I now own is a pretty cool guitar in its pimpmobile kind of way, the functionality of the circuit is more than a little arcane. It sounds pretty great but what am I going to do with 54 different tonal possibilities? I don’t even know 54 songs.

So you like a lot of switches on your guitar and plenty of tonal possibilities? According to Gretsch, there were 54 varieties available on the stereo White Falcon-the top of the Gretsch line from the mid 50's and beyond. It's a cool retro guitar but definitely not for everybody.

So you like a lot of switches on your guitar and plenty of tonal possibilities? According to Gretsch, there were 54 varieties available on the stereo White Falcon-the top of the Gretsch line from the mid 50’s and beyond. It’s a cool retro guitar but definitely not for everybody.

8 Responses to “Stereo Wars”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, thanks for the primer/refresher on Gibson Stereo guitars. I also found your comments on Gretsch to be interesting but I’ve always found the number of switches and knobs on those beasts to be intimidating! It seems there is less hype going around vintage sites these days about the “tone sucking” nature of Gibson’s Varitone…unfortunately I fell victim to the hype years ago and convinced myself I had to dump my first rack ’59 345 (number 20 in the first rack of 345 models) in favor of a 1961 dot 335. The 335 was a good guitar, the 345 was truly special…so much for believing the hype! :>(

  2. Rob says:

    Memory’s a bit foggy but in the early 1960’s when I was a wee teenager, I remember my father’s stereo 345 that he had before he bought the 355. He also had one of those Gibson amps like you have for sale on your site. He sounded real good in stereo through that amp but I could never quite figure it out. I guess he decided to convert the 355 because one day the Gibson amp was gone and in its place was a Twin Reverb. He gave me the 345 and a 1951 Tele he bought new but I had to sell them to pay the dreaded Taxman in the late ’80’s. As Fleetwood Mac would say, “Oh well.”

  3. Jonne says:

    The out of phase sound in middle position playing stereo Gibson with mix down cable is not a problem at all. You can get really cool Peter Green or T-Bone Walker tone with that. The bigger problem is (especially if you flip the magnet) that mix down cable will half the value of the volume pots (from 500K to 250K) in middle postion and that makes the sound much darker than it should.

    And Magic Sam played cherry red Epiphone Riviera with varitone and stereo. He used two Twin Reverbs on stage – must’ve been hell of a sound!

  4. Steve Newman says:

    I always liked the Varitone, especially when used in conjunction with modern effects such as a compressor/boost to compensate for the drop in output as you go into the higher numbered positions. No, it won’t sound EXACTLY like a Tele or Strat, but gives a good basis to create your own unique tone. And the phase cancellation when running both pickups on, if you use a mix down cable, is easily mitigated by simply rolling either volume knob down slightly. The stronger output pickup will then color the 2 pickup tone (either more treble for bridge, or more mid/bass for the neck). It is pretty intuitive and easily becomes second nature; and you can get countless shades of the Peter Green out of phase sound, if you prefer. Love the 345!

  5. Graham says:

    The split coil idea was also taken up pretty early on by Jim Burns, GB’s answer for Leo Fender

    I’m not absolutely sure that he was running the 3 EAD bass strings from the neck alongside the top three GBE picked up from the bridge pickup but he was doing it fairly often in the early 60’s using the “split sound” name

    You might recall my mint short scale Jazz with its Split Sound and highly attractive “Wild Dog” setting when you & V came over. Think that was a ’62 as well

    Of course there were other links between Burns and other US builders with Ampeg eventually buying him out

    The one thing about those early Burns models was the complexity of their wiring making getting the same precise sound – every time – all but impossible. I’ve never had a 60’s Gretsch but they sound like they gave the same problem.

    Incidentally that first blonde 345 you sold me is still going strong – like you I’m inclined to say it’s amongst the prettiest guitar going – and I’ve plenty of blondes to compare to….

    Incidentally any original stereo lead would be very welcome…

    Best G

  6. cgelber says:

    I remember you showing me the Burns when I visited but I don’t think we plugged it in in stereo mode. I do recall that the pickups split the outputs the same as the Gretsch. What surprises me about the Gretsch is that there is virtually no crosstalk when one side is hot and the other off. I would have expected the “off” side to bleed through but it doesn’t. As soon as I find another split stereo cord in a 345 case, I’ll send it along.

  7. Rod says:

    I have clear memories of ES345s in the UK in the 1960s. They were known usually as a ‘Gibson Stereo’, rather than a 345 as we didn’t get 355s in the UK at that time, or even know of their existance. They had a reputation for ‘weak pickups’, the pickups being of course identical to those on other Gibson models at that time. I think this is probably because of the out-of-phase pickups which were not understood over here really at that time. In addition, it seemed to me that there was no true bypass in the varitone. You may well correct me on that! With a true bypass and the pickups in phase they should, of course, sound pretty much like a 335.

  8. James says:

    In the late 70’s to mid 80’s Carvin made some solid-body guitars that had stereo capabilities. Most were all rock maple and looked very much like a Gibson melody maker double-cut. Instead of a single output jack, there were two side by side. I believe one jack was for use when the stereo was bypassed, and both when using the stereo mode. Nice guitars, but quite heavy.

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