Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Part 1

The guitar at the top is a very early (April) 1958 ES-335 and the bottom one is a later 58 but still no neck binding. Pointier ears are the obvious difference between these two. There are others.

This is going to be a pretty exhaustive set of posts and they will cover a lot of ground, most of which has been covered in the past but in a more piecemeal way. What I want to do here is create a kind of 335 time line that becomes a handy reference when you need to figure what year the guitar is you are looking at (or playing) or what parts are right and wrong or simply get a better sense of what happened when and why it matters or doesn’t matter.

Just about everybody who likes 335’s will acknowledge that the early ones are better than the new ones and plenty of smart folks have put in their two cents worth as to why that is. The most frequently heard comments are “better wood” and “better pickups”. And that makes a fair amount of sense but there were a lot of changes over the years and some seem to have made a big difference while others just seemed like change for the sake of change. They also didn’t happen at predictable times of the year like on January 1. There really weren’t “model years” like cars have. A 59 is a 59 because it was shipped in 59 or, you could argue, it was built in 59. A December 31, 1958 build is 100% identical to one built right after January 1 1959.


58’s are great but there were a lot of changes that occurred from 58 into 59. Remember, changes rarely happened overnight; they were phased in over time.  So, right off the bat, I have to say that early (April 58 was the release date) 58’s can be excellent guitars but, like with any new product, there were problems and they were addressed going forward. The neck angle on the new model was very shallow and required a lower profile bridge than the standard ABR-1 that had been in use for a few years. These bridges were prone to sagging and collapsing. Fix seems to have occurred around the 3rd quarter of 58. The thin bridges were replaced first with shaved full size ABR-1’s and later in 58, the neck angle was increased slightly to accommodate a full height ABR-1, although it would be increased again later. Whether these changes enhanced tone is questionable. They did improve playability by allowing more adjustment to the string height.

You can clearly ee the difference between a 1958 ABR-1 for a 335 and a later one. They tended to sag, then break and Gibson apparently got more than a few complaints about that.

In 1958, the tops were 3 ply maple plywood with a piece of poplar (usually) in the middle. These thin tops were quite resonant but also rather fragile. A good hard tug on the output cable (especially of you were using a straight plug, could cause serious cracks around the jack over time and, in extreme cases, pull the jack right out of the top sometimes taking a chunk of the top with it. Cracks elsewhere in the top were also common especially in the top layer of the plywood. Fix occurred in early 59. The problem was addressed  by adding a fourth layer to the plywood (another poplar, usually) which increased the thickness appreciably. There were a fair number of completed but unassembled bodies with thin tops that were put aside and were used later in 1959 probably because they got behind in their orders as popularity rose.

Three ply thin top 58. You can sort of see the plies here. A 59 and later 335’s will have four plies in the top.

The thing most folks notice about a 58 is a lack of binding on the neck. I’m not sure why some time in September of 1958, they started turning out 335’s with bound necks. The transition occurred over a period of around two months-I have documented bound necks as early as mid September but I’ve seen unbound necks shipped as late as late November or early December 58. I would assume it was a decision based on someone’s idea of where the 335 should fall in the Gibson guitar line. The downscale Gibsons had unbound necks while the upscale ones had binding. It may be that the brass at Gibson starting seeing the 335 as a bit more upscale than they had earlier perceived it.

There were some smaller changes that occurred in 1958 that were not really addressing an obvious shortcoming. The “ears” went from slightly pointy on the earliest 58’s to the well known “Mickey Mouse” ears that have become iconic. I’m guessing that was a matter of finalizing the tooling once they knew they had a success on their hands. The heel and tenon of the neck was actually two pieces early on and it eventually became one piece. That happened probably in June or July and was again a likely tooling or construction issue that was simplified. It had no effect on playability or tone. Finally, the Kluson tuners went from being designated “patent applied for” to displaying a patent number on the back. That happened over a period of weeks or even months in very late 58 into 59 and, at the same time, the formulation of the plastic changed and that caused some problems years later.

Patent Applied Kluson on the left, patent number on the right. The earlier ones used a different plastic formulation that is less prone to off gassing and shrinking and crumbling to dust. The transition from Patent Applied and patent number occurred in late 1958. You can see the shrinkage in the tip on the right, the patent number one. 

That’s a lot of changes to occur in a fairly short production year lasting only 9 months. Next, we’ll see what happens in 1959-the year that is generally regarded as the pinnacle year of the model.

2 Responses to “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Part 1”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, very cool stuff! I kinda like the sharp ears on the early ‘58 dotneck but would be happy with either git-tar! And I also like the primative look of the unbound fingerboard. Very V, Moderne or Explorer- like! I had a ‘62 block marker 335 that came stock with a shaved down bridge (on the treble side only). My current ‘62 Epiphone Riviera came with the identical shaved bridge! Fortunately there is sufficient neck angle to use a standard ABR-1 albeit close to the top!

  2. Unbound Dot Neck says:

    Excellent run down, can’t wait for Pt 2..

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