Sweet Spot

Right in the sweet spot for great tone (and cool pickups). A30183 has a thin top, reverse zebras, killer tone. Reverse zebras are crazy rare. I’ve seen 5 of them in twenty years.

I’ve been collecting a database of ES serial numbers and factory order numbers for a few years now, hoping for some new insight to leap out at me. Data is great stuff but without interpretation, it’s just a bunch of numbers. The database covers only 1958 up until early 1961 when they discontinued the use of factory order numbers (inked into the wood inside the treble side f-hole). What I’ve been looking for are patterns and transition points based on approximate dates of manufacture. For example, when are double white and zebra PAFs most prevalent? When do the thin tops end (and start again and end again)? When do the “first rack” 345’s start and end? Stuff like that. I’ve been able to answer a lot of those questions from the 200 or so guitars I’ve catalogued and many of which I’ve owned and played. But there is another question that has been much harder to answer. When were the best 335’s made?

I keep an informal mental list of the top ES guitars that have passed through my hands. It’s mostly about tone but playability is considered nearly equally. A great sounding guitar that doesn’t play well is not a great guitar (until you fix the problems). From that (mental) list of around 20 guitars, a general pattern has emerged and I’ve written about that. Most are 59’s. Not all are 335’s but most of them are. There are also 58’s, a couple from 60, a 62 and a 64. There’s a 355 and a few of 345’s but out of the twenty or so best ones, almost half of them are 59 ES-335’s. This is not a surprise.

58’s are great but there were some issues that keep them from being consistently excellent. The small frets are the obvious issue-easy to fix but nobody wants to do a fret job before it’s necessary. The shallow neck angle is not a bad thing. When the bridge sits right on the top, it can improve the tone. More mass in contact with the body means more sound being transmitted to the wood. Some 58’s have such a shallow neck angle-especially the earliest ones-that a low profile bridge was necessary. That bridge always collapses after a while and is usually replaced with a shaved full size ABR-1. The neck angle was fixed in 59. The little frets were fixed in 59. But one of the elements of the 58 that was a problem for Gibson was a factor in the great tone of so many 58’s. That was the thin top. Three plies instead of four. More resonance. More fragile. The tops were cracking around the output jack and folks were not happy about that. The four ply top fixed that but, in my opinion, affected the tone in a negative way. That doesn’t mean that thicker top 335’s sound bad. Many of the best 335’s in the database have the thicker top. It’s a small factor. So, by 59, all the problems appeared to have been addressed and many Gibson owners feel that 59 is THE year and I agree.

Early 59’s have a very large neck profile-.88″ to .93″ at the first fret and a full inch or more at the 12th. The profile gets progressively thinner (front to back-not the nut) as the year goes on. By the Summer, the neck has slimmed down on many 59’s but not by much. First fret down to .85 to .87″ and the 12th down to around .97″ By the Fall, the neck slimmed down a bit more to what we call a “transitional” neck. This is a wonderful profile- not too fat and not too thin for most folks. This profile continues well into 1960 and is very popular among players. First fret is usually around .83″ and the 12th around .94″.

So, where is this “sweet spot”. OK, it’s my opinion but seeing as I’ve played more 335’s than you have, it’s based on real experience. Beginning in late May of 1959, for reasons that are unclear to me, a fair number of thin top 59’s were shipped. Somewhere around serial number A30100, these thin top 335’s begin to appear. Many have a 58 FON (T prefix) but some have a 59 FON. They seem to continue until around serial number A30360. Not all the 335’s in this range have thin tops-probably less than half of them, so it’s not a lot of guitars. Wait. It gets better. Many of these have double white or zebra PAFs. These are often slightly overwound with readings from 8K to 9K (you can find my theory about this in an earlier post). These thin top 335’s line up almost perfectly with the period when double white and zebra PAFs were most prevalent on 335’s (gold hardware double whites last well into 1960).

There are lots of amazing 59’s that don’t fall into this period (from early late May to mid June). In fact, the best 335 I’ve ever played is a very late 58 but in this small cluster of 59’s, there are two of my top ten and four of my top twenty. If that ain’t a sweet spot, I don’t know what is. As always, tone is really subjective so your impressions may not line up with mine. To be honest, I’ve never played a bad 59 and the difference between a good vintage 335 and a great one is pretty small. Hair splitting, really. And to make a further point, there are a few 60 335’s that have thin tops (I’ve had two and I know of two more). One of them in in my top ten as well.

The takeaway here should be twofold. First, 59 335’s are consistently excellent but so are most 58’s and many 60’s. There are killer 61-64’s too. Second, if you have the opportunity to buy a 59 in the A30100 to A30360 range, ask the seller to look at the top. If it’s three plies rather than four, it just might be the best guitar you ever played. The double whites are just a bonus if you’re lucky.

A30248. Double whites, thin top. The FON for this 1959 ES-335 is from 1958. No idea what the guitar was doing from late 58 when construction began until mid 59 when it finally shipped. The parts are from 59, so it must have sat somewhere as an uncompleted husk. This is in the top ten.

7 Responses to “Sweet Spot”

  1. Michael McLester says:

    Great info Charlie. I had no idea the reverse zebras were that rare. My 345 has reverse in the neck. cheers!

  2. RAB says:

    And my ’59 First Rack 345 has a reverse zebra in the bridge. Still as Charlie notes crazy rare and cool!

  3. thorne says:

    Charlie – Can you put into words the parameters of what you consider to be the best sounding guitars? Examples might be sustain, tone, resonance. I consider the ’62 345 I got from you to be excellent. Maybe we can come up with a ranking system of 1 to 5 or 10. If you remember, how would you rank that ’62? I’d give it an 8/10. It has all the components I mention. Also I’d be interested to read what you think the fixes are to make a poor-sounding guitar into a better one (note I didn’t say a “good” one). The tailpiece right against the top is an obvious “fix.” Thorne

  4. okguitars says:

    Tone is so subjective that it can only reflect my opinion. I like a guitar with very strong mids that often seem to come from higher DCR pickups. A lot of folks like the screaming biting highs. Nobody likes a muddy bottom but over all, it’s going to be in the ears of the beholder. I would also note that I would rate pre 65 335’s on a scale of 8 to 10. I’ve owned 600 of them and only a few (less than five) didn’t reach an 8 on a scale from 1-10. If I made up a 1-10 scale for 335’s, I’d spend a lot of time scratching my head. It’s tough enough to keep track of my top twenty. BTW, 62’s are the sleeper year. If I had to rate the tone of 3×5’s in a general way by year it would go 59, 58, 60, 62, 61, 63-64 (tie). If I broke it down further, I would say late 58 is tied with early to mid 59. Late 59 is tied with early 60. Late 60 is tied with 62 and barely ahead of 61. Like I said. I’d spend a lot of time scratching my head.

  5. thorne says:

    Charlie – Fair enough. But I bet when all is said and done, when you pick up a guitar and play it, you know in 10 seconds if the guitar rates in your 8-10 or not. It’s definitely a head-scratcher trying to rate a guitar into finer increments than “rockin” versus “eh.”

    I’ve been playing my ’60 335 almost exclusively, but I always miss playing the ’62 345 and HAVE TO take it out at least once a week and let my fingers have their way. The 62 sounds wonderful acoustically which is one reason I rank it so high. But that 60 played through my Headrush pedalboard is going to be so rockin’ when I finally get a band and start gigging. It is definitely subjective and I love it that way. Thorne

  6. RAB says:

    In my experience (over the past 51 years of playing, sheesh!) an electric guitar that sounds good acoustically very often sounds GREAT plugged in!

  7. Steve Newman says:

    + 1 on the electric guitar that sounds good acoustically, RAB. If a guitar won’t sustain, sounds thin, or won’t speak out across all registers, no amp made is going to fix it. Larry Carlton tells the story of purchasing his famous ’69 ES335 (with ’68 features, including a one piece mahogany neck instead of the usual laminated 3 piece ones of that year). He tried three different models, sitting in a corner, unplugged, and found the one that sounded best. One of the most heard/recorded guitar of the 20th century.

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