RSS

Honey, I Shrunk the 335

The Gibson CS-356. Nice guitar and not just a shrunken 335. It was something new when it debuted. Or was it?

To me, a new 335 is one made after 1985. It’s hard enough to learn everything there is to know about 58-69’s and most of what there is to know about 1970-1985’s but after that, I’m a little fuzzy. My knowledge comes from observation and I simply don’t see very many more recent 335’s and the rest of the ES line. When I take in a consignment from the past 30 odd years, I go through it the same as I go through a 59. An ES guitar came in this week that I’ve never had in my hands before. It’s sort of like a 355 at first glance but on closer inspection, it’s not like a 355 at all. It’s a CS-356 from 2002.

The first thing you will notice is that its smaller. A lot smaller. One of the complaints I hear about 335’s is that they are too big. I don’t feel that way but, similarly,  a lot of Les Paul players don’t complain that they are too heavy (which they are). You like what you like. But is it a really a downsized 355 or something else entirely? It’s the latter. A 356 (and a 336) is more like a Rickenbacker than it is a 335 in the way that its built. You want a downsized 335? That would be the ES-339 which shares its construction with the 3335. But that didn’t come out until 2007, eleven years after the 336 debuted.

A 335 and its close brethren are, essentially, thin bodied arch tops with a block glued in the middle. End of story. Take out the block and it’s a 330, more or less-the neck set is different as a re the pickups. But the diminutive 356, 336 and 339 are a totally different species. Why compare it to a Rickenbacker? Because the construction is nearly the same and Rickenbacker has been using the design for a lot longer than Gibson. It dates to the late 50’s. Here’s how it’s done. Take a big old slab of wood that would be perfectly appropriate to use to make a solid body but instead of routing away only enough wood to accommodate the pickups, control cavity and the neck join, rout away all the wood that isn’t necessary to accommodate these things. Rickenbacker routs the top and glues on the back. Gibson did the opposite routing the back and gluing the top. Fender’s thin line Telecaster was similarly constructed and designed by the same guy as the Ricky (Roger Rossmeisl)

This is the top of a Rickenbacker seen from the back. The excess wood was carved away and the flat back was glued on. Not quite the same as the 356 but similar.

 

The larger point is that the 336 and 356 don’t sound any more like a 335 than a Les Paul does. In fact, it seems to lie somewhere between these two icons of electric guitardom. And it’s a perfectly nice guitar and it sounds quite good. It’s closer to a solid body in tone and feel to me and it isn’t particularly lightweight, so I would conclude that the only really new thing about it is that it gets you the 335 aesthetic while delivering solid body tone. So, I would further conclude that it’s an invention that nobody was clamoring for because it neither delivers a lighter weight Les Paul (the chambered version does that) nor does it deliver a smaller bodied 335 (the 339 does that). Gibson, after all, is the company that gives you the innovations you didn’t know you wanted or needed. Like robot tuners. And reverse flying vees.

All that said, it’s a pretty nice guitar. I’ve always liked the Rickenbacker 360 from a design standpoint. There is no way you will confuse it with anything else. The rounded top edge and the squared back edge is unique and clever in its way. I remember thinking “how did they do that?” when I first encountered one back in the mid 60’s, thinking it was a conventional semi hollow. The 336 and 356 don’t have a distinctive look. They don’t have a particularly distinctive tone but that probably isn’t the point. It’s a good design. It has good tone. But Gibson already had all that in the LP and 335. I don’t know how successful the line has been but given the missteps of the nice folks who run Gibson, I’m not surprised they went back to the future to make yet another guitar you never knew you had to have. And here’s an afterthought, isn’t the Johnny A (debuted in 2003) basically the same guitar as the 336/356 with a slightly different shape? Correct me if I’m wrong.

This isn’t an actual 336/356 but it’s pretty much the same concept. I couldn’t find a photo of the real thing. Just add a neck, some electronics and a pretty top and your done.

3 Responses to “Honey, I Shrunk the 335”

  1. RAB says:

    Interesting description. The 356 looks like a nice fiddle but I’ll stick with my FR (First Rack) 345!

  2. davek says:

    I got a new sunburst 356 in 2004. Serious QC issues (which I won’t bore you with) which I had sorted out myself as the deal had been good. Attractive guitar if you want a bit of bling (which I usually don’t!) and it plays and sounds good.

    But I’ve only been playing vintage Gibsons and Fenders for a few years, so its been sitting in its case for too long.

    Time to move it on – thanks Charlie for prompting me to think about it agin!!

  3. Steve Newman says:

    Charlie, you are correct that the 356 and Johnny A. Signature models have similar construction, if slightly different dimensions, and The Johnny A. may be slightly more “hollow” from a standpoint of how much of the total area of the back is routed away…it is not a significant difference, anyway. The main difference is that the Johnny A. has a Fender scale (25 1/2″ scale length) VS the 356’s normal Gibson 24 3/4 “. Both have similar appointments and ebony fretboards. Having handled. played and compared several examples side by side, IMHO the 356 is more in the middle of the Les Paul/335 spectrum of traditional feel and tone; with the Johnny A. more in the PRS camp, rather than Fender. Both guitars feel and play well, like a premium Gibson should and the workmanship I saw was excellent, with no noticeable finish or fitment issues. The Johnny A. also reminds me a little of the Gretsch vibe, with it’s standard Bigsby. The Bigsby is an option on the 356.

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)