ES Artist in Captivity

1980 ES Artist. Good points and bad points abound. Good points? It’s black and the neck is pretty nice. Bad? Read on.


I don’t do re-runs (OK, I posted the Christmas poem twice but I warned you) but this one is different. I wrote about the much maligned ES Artist a while back but I had never owned one and had never played one plugged in. So, in that post, I could only wax theoretical about active electronics and on board gimmickry. But now I own one and I’ve had my electronics tech go through it and make sure everything was working right. It needed a few capacitors changed and some general maintenance but I’m pretty sure it sounds like it was meant to back in the day.

In order to not bury the lede, I have to say right off the bat that this thing sounds pretty god awful with the active electronics engaged. I don’t recall ever hearing sounds like the Artist puts out-even in the 80’s which, in my memory, were a bit of a cultural wasteland. C’mon, the biggest hit of the Summer of 82 was “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by the (where are they now) Human League. Synth pop. Wasteland indeed. And they were nominated for best new artist at the ’83 Grammys fortunately losing to the much more talented Men at Work whom I kind of liked. Anyway, it’s the late 70’s and Gibson/Norlin is trying to be innovative by hiring on Robert Moog (Dr. Bob) to design a circuit for their new “Artist” series. Actually, Norlin owned Moog at the time and it was probably more like they drafted him. The RD Artist was first and flopped pretty badly. Then came the Les Paul and ES Artists which did much better but can’t exactly be called a rousing success. The line died a quiet death in 1985. So lets listen to this thing.

So, with no on board effects engaged, the guitar sounds like a slightly strident 335. The active tone controls which have a center detente and are boost and cut controls work pretty well. The one I have doesn’t have the detents going up or down-just in the flat or middle position. Apparently some had 5 detents in both directions. Different concept from the usual tone controls but perfectly functional once you get used to them.

Then we get to the three on board effects. There is a compressor, an expander-whatever that is and a treble boost. In general, they are way too strident and artificial sounding. The compressor is the best of the effects but you have to dial it back using the little pot inside the control cavity. Dimed, it’s a horror. Sounds like cats being tortured. The expander has a level control and a delay control inside there and that too needs to be tamed a bit to have any use at all. I couldn’t figure out exactly what the delay pot did. The level pot turned up made a kind of swirly, trebly slightly atonal mess that was worse than cats being tortured. Turn it down and you have the cats being tortured with a blanket thrown over them. The treble boost did just that but the guitar is plenty bright without it and it just gets overly glassy. Sorry, Dr. Bob, this is not your best work. The guitar in normal mode is pretty much like a normal 70’s 335 with active tone controls. The neck profile is OK. The nut is 1 11/16″ and the neck has some meat to it. The pickups are, I believe, Shaws which sometimes need a little treble boost (but not these). Output seems a little low but tone wise, you can get some decent music out of it. Just don’t touch the miniswitches.

ES-Artists are relatively cheap and you can ignore the effects and have a decent guitar. Or you can use the effects and scare small animals and children. My Artist is a 1980 and it’s factory black. And yes, you can buy it from me for cheap.

This is the heart of the Artist. A couple of stacked circuit boards with three little mini pots to control the amount of animal torture you want to add to your 335 tone. Takes a 9V battery and a lot of getting used to.

10 Responses to “ES Artist in Captivity”

  1. chuckNC says:

    Charlie, I am pretty sure Vintage Guitar Magazine won’t be drafting you for their New Product Reviews section. The candor is definitely enjoyed here, though.

    Just hoping PETA doesn’t get wind of this article. The ES Artist would soon be on the endangered guitar species list.

  2. James says:

    Never trust an ES without any F holes.

  3. Rod says:

    I know this sort of thing was all the rage at the time with the manufacturers. But the buying public didn’t want to know then and, as I see it, doesn’t really want to know now either. A curio that will appeal to some as nostalgia but as a player’s instrument, not so useful.

  4. RAB says:

    Hideous example of some of Gibson’s worst work. On par with the abysmal Corvus though I would guess the Corvus sounds better!

  5. Larry says:

    I would play it, but keep the active electronics bypassed/off. Having no F holes can be pretty cool for reducing feedback, plus you have a control cavity cover to remove for much easier access to the wiring and controls. No F holes seems to work fine for the BB King Lucille version of a 355. In the 90’s I had a nice (sort of) economy model of a Lucille. It was a black Gibson ES-335 Studio. No F holes, and stock uncovered humbuckers.

  6. Rob says:

    You could do what I did to a guitar crammed with numerous circuit boards, switches and pots..a 1978 Roland GR500 synth controller made by Ibanez and shaped like a Lester. In a fit of winter boredom, I pulled all that crap out intending to turn it into a normal electric. Luckily I saved all the parts because I sold it to a dealer for decent money along with the synth and cable. The dealer sold it to a guy who said he was going to put it back together. Good luck with that.

  7. okguitars says:

    I’ve seen worse. Some mid to late 70’s 335’s are just awful-they don’t sound like a 335 because they eliminated half of the center block. This Artist has a real nice neck profile and decent pickups. It’s heavy but maybe once that Moog circuit is gone, it’ll be lighter and sound better. I wonder if you can keep the active tone controls. They work pretty well. And its black and you all know how much I like black guitars. I like the ebony board too. And they’re cheap. You might even be able to sell the Moog boards to the one guy out there who needs them.

  8. RAB says:

    Or drive a big spike through the face of the git and put it up on the wall of your man cave!

  9. Steve Newman says:

    Very Lucille-esque, with the fancy binding, ebony board, gold hardware, and artful headstock inlay. I kinda like the offset fret markers, too, for some reason. There are several aftermarket companies that currently make much better sounding and improved active tone circuitry these days, but my vote would be to put a vintage style passive wiring harness in it and play the crap out of it. BTW, there is a highly figured blonde, LEFTY version, that lives in Jackson. MS.

  10. okguitars says:

    Really? I’m shocked. SHOCKED. And no, they haven’t asked me but probably because I don’t buy ads from them.

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