Upside Down

The thinline line. We could include the 330, the 225, the 125 but those are full hollow. These are the models with the center block semi hollow configuration. The 355 is a rare stop tail the 335 and the 345 are the more common stop tail sunbursts. All are 59’s. If we pretend, for the moment, that the 355 is the typical Bigsby version, then how far apart are the prices?

Gibson’s semi hollow body line of electric guitars was introduced to the public in the Spring of 1958 with the release of the ES-335T. The ES stood for electric Spanish (as opposed to EH which was electric Hawaiian) and the T stood for thin line. It was a revolutionary body design but a pretty basic guitar: Plywood body, single ply bindings on the body, no binding on the neck, dot markers and those newfangled hum bucker pickups. It had more in common with the low line ES-225 than it did with the high line ES-5. It seems to have slotted into the lineup as something of a workingman’s guitar. A no frills player that would check all the boxes for both the amateur and the starving artist. The guys with the recording contracts would likely choose something a little more upscale with a bit more flash.

The head of Gibson at the time was Ted McCarty. He is credited with the design of the 335 as well as a number of other innovations. He also played a major role in the development of the tune-o-matic bridge and the humbucking pickup. He’s also the man behind the Explorer and the Flying V. Important guy. The 335 was a success right out of the gate and by the end of 1958, Gibson added an upscale version called the ES-355 to appeal to the professional player and the high end market. The 355 was essentially the same as a 335 with some fancy bindings, real mother of pearl inlays in an ebony board, fancy headstock and gold plated hardware. It also was priced at nearly double the cost of a 335. I find it surprising that anybody spent the extra bucks for what is basically bling but the 355 was pretty successful on its own.

Shortly after the introduction of the ES-355, Gibson added stereo to the 355 as well as the notch filter called a Varitone to the circuit. Now, at least the 355 was set apart from its downscale brother but Gibson saw an opportunity to grab a bit more of the market by incorporating the stereo/Varitone element into the 335 without all that expensive ornamentation. Think of it as first class, second class and third class. The 345, introduced in the Spring of 1959 was intended to fill a gap between the well heeled buyers of the stereo 355 and the no frills buyers of the 335. It would have the stereo circuit and Varitone, a mid level binding treatment, gold hardware and fancier inlays (but still plastic). It was priced closer to the 335 than the 355 but it completed the line of semi hollow body electrics and, like its brethren, was a success.

Fast forward 50 years or so and, strangely, the market for vintage ES models is “upside down.” That is, the third class ES-335 is worth as much as twice as much as the high line 355 stereo which initially cost nearly twice as much. The 335 is also more desirable (and therefore more valuable) than a 345 or a 355. There has been plenty of debate as to why this is the case. The general consensus is that folks appreciate the simplicity of the 335 design. There is some validity to that. The fancy Fender Jaguar is less popular than the simpler Stratocaster and the even simpler Telecaster. Similarly, the simple J-45 is more popular than the fancy J-200. The stereo circuitry of the 345 and the stereo 355 has long since been considered obsolete and the Varitone is largely and, somewhat undeservedly, reviled by lots of folks. Let’s leave it that the mono no Varitone 335 is more coveted than the stereo models all of which have the Varitone.

It is noteworthy that the blonde versions of all three models, custom colors and to an extent, the rare red versions of the 335 and 345 from 1959 don’t play by the same rules. A blonde 355 is about as rare as it gets.

But there a fly in the ointment of this logic and that is the mono ES-355. It is the same guitar as a 335 with the fancy bindings, inlays and gold hardware. It is notable that nearly all 355’s came with a vibrato (or tremolo if you prefer) tailpiece; Bigsby, sideways or Maestro. OK, let’s figure the vibrato into the mix and compare a mono 355 to a Bigsby 335. A 59 mono 355 is perhaps a $22,000 guitar today. A 59 Bigsby 335 is around $30,000. Big difference. So, it makes sense that the simplicity element is a factor. But let’s throw another curveball, shall we? There are a very small number of stop tail 355 monos. All were special orders and my latest count is that there are perhaps 8 of them from 58-64 and another 8 stereo stop tails. Maybe more, probably not less. SO, whaddya think…is a mono 59 stop tail 355 worth more than a sunburst 59 stop tail 335? There are hundreds of stop tail 59 335’s and maybe four or five stop tail 59 mono 355’s. Start the final Jeopardy theme music here.

OK, times up. The 355 is worth more than the 335. For once, rarity wins. A 59 335 is one of top collectible vintage guitars-certainly in the top five of everyone’s list. Expect to pay around $40K for a no issue one. But a mono stop tail 59 ES-355 will cost you another $8-$10,000. I know-I’ve sold three of them. But the stop tail mono 59 ES-355 is a special case. The ES market is still upside down and will likely stay that way. The good news is that you can simply convert your 345 or stereo 355 to mono and save yourself tens of thousands of dollars. A stop tail 59 345 will cost you $20K maybe a little more for an early “first rack”. A 59 335 will cost you $40K. For the record, my main player (at the moment) is a 59 ES-345 converted to mono.

A couple of super rare stop tail 355’s. One mono. One stereo.


11 Responses to “Upside Down”

  1. Rod says:

    But it is, of course, the same with Les Pauls. Standards command higher prices than Customs. Yet they too were made in greater quantities. Gibson made less 345s than 335s and even less 355s. So they are scarcer and should attract a premium. But as we all know, they don’t. Funny people, guitar players.

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, generally upside down for Gibson standard vs. custom models as you note! Other case in point the ‘59 LP Standard vs. Custom models. A price factor of several times! Same for a Blackface Twin Reverb, Fender’s highest list price combo amp vs, say, a same vintage Super Reverb!

  3. Frank says:

    I think it‘s why our heroes (in theit heydays) mostly played the cheaper models

  4. Jonathan Krogh says:

    How is it that F-hole binding occasionally shows up on 355’s?

  5. rob says:

    I have a 1962 ES 355 with bound f-holes. It is in sunburst and I assume was custom ordered. Back then Gibson would do some cool stuff. A guy I know just sold a black 1959 355 that was ordered with a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck position.

  6. RAB says:

    Wow, that’d be a rare bird for sure!

  7. Joe Campagna says:

    Notice the mono on the left has the short headstock too.Like the earliest LP Customs.Cool.

  8. RAB says:

    Wow, never realized there were two Custom headstock versions! Thanks for sharing!

  9. RAB says:

    Shorter and narrower too it appears?

  10. okguitars says:

    There is some variation to ES headstocks but I wasn’t aware of any disparity between 355 headstocks (and LP Custom headstocks). I will do some measuring and also include some information about 58 headstocks that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before. I’m not sure the early 58 I have now is the short headstock version but there definitely is a notable difference between the very early 58’s and the late ones. Always more minutia to talk about.

  11. RAB says:

    Love this blog!

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)