Bad industrial design is notorious for going out of style. This 76 AMC Matador screams 70's. But does a 335 or a Strat scream 50's?

Bad industrial design is notorious for going out of style. This 76 AMC Matador screams 70’s. But does a 335 or a Strat scream 50’s?

This 1958 Ford Edsel might be an even better example because it was designed at the same time as the ES-335. Hmm...which one has held up better all these years.

This 1958 Ford Edsel might be an even better example because it was designed at the same time as the ES-335. Hmm…which one has held up better all these years.

I know a little bit about design. I designed graphics for TV and, while it doesn’t make me an industrial designer, it does give me some insight. The old “form follows function” adage has its limitations especially when appearance is taken into consideration. It’s easy to see the difference when design takes beauty into consideration and goes beyond current trends and pure functionality. There will always be something called “modern” design. A Gibson Explorer from 1958 might have been considered radical, futuristic or just plain bizarre by some. But that same year Cadillac Eldorado (and the 59 which took it even farther) might have elicited the same response. With the Caddy, fins became the “modern” trend and they disappeared as fast as they arrived (and haven’t come back). The Explorer was a resounding flop in 1958 only to find its footing in the 70’s when it appeared that everyone had run out of good ideas. But when we look back at objects that were designed many years ago that remain unchanged, the beauty and the functionality still shine.

Certainly the ES-335 and the Fender Stratocaster are great examples. While both have faded and returned to popularity, they never went away (unlike the Les Paul). Both guitars look as modern today as they did when they were designed in 1958 and 1954 respectively. During the ensuing 60 years or so, guitars have gone through nearly as many trends as the automobile. Pointy Superstrats, oddball shaped Voxes, headless Steinbergers, BC Riches and plenty of others but the ones that endure seem to be the classics. All have had a similar level of functionality but design is what made them distinctive and, in many cases, led to their demise. Let’s go back to the automotive examples. These cars will never come back–From the 50’s–The Edsel, the 60’s The Rambler, the 70’s The AMC Matador, Pacer and Gremlin and the 80’s, the Yugo. Every one of them an industrial design punch line that started as someone’s “modern”  vision. So, when Ted McCarty designed the ES-335, was he going for beauty? Functionality? Modernity? Let’s take a critical look at all three.

There’s little to argue when it comes to beauty. The proportions and symmetry cannot really be improved upon. It is simply a beautiful instrument, the equal of any guitar design before or since. It doesn’t scream “futuristic” like his Flying Vee nor does it strive for stripped down functionality like Leo Fender’s Telecaster.  It is simply what an electric guitar should look like. It is no surprise that it has been in production since the day it was debuted. You can probably argue some functionality issues but not many. The knobs and buttons are where they should be from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint. The bridge and tailpiece are fully functional although you could argue that the ABR-1 needed more travel for intonation with the advent of lighter gauge strings. I will certainly make the point that the harness was way too hard to install and remove through the f-holes. This was addressed later by cutting a big notch out of the center block. So, functionality gets a good score but not perfect. The Stratocaster has its own minor functionality issues but, like the 335, looks as fresh and contemporary as it did in 1954.

OK, so what about modernity? And what is modernity anyway? Look at the automobile at the top of this post. Is there any question in your mind  that it wasn’t modern in 1976? Or look at an early cell phone or an 80’s laptop (especially a PC). I may not be able to describe modernity but I sure know it when I see it. You might argue that things like cell phones and laptops evolved to become modern and that this evolution is where we get our “modern” aesthetic from. Makes sense, I guess but not for guitars (or cars for that matter). Gibson has tried to evolve the electric guitar at least a dozen times in the past 60 years and yet they keep going back to the classic designs of the 50’s and 60’s. And, even when they try oh so hard to be cutting edge, they just seem to recycle those tried and true forms that are as old as I am. That self tuning, computer savvy Firebird X uses a 60’s design as its basis. Their largely ill conceived “Guitar of the Week” series showed some truly questionable aesthetics by doing dumb things like reversing the flying Vee and cutting holes in an Explorer. Truly, the Matador and Pacer of the era.

So, perhaps the guitar stands alone as the one bit of industrial design that cannot be improved on. Or maybe not. We won’t actually know until somebody actually improves on it.

Is this the Gibson equivalent of the AMC Matador? I think its worse because it takes a successful design and ruins it.

Is this the Gibson equivalent of the AMC Matador? I think its worse because it takes a successful design and ruins it.


Some people just get it. And he can play too.

Some people just get it. And he can play too.

11 Responses to “Timeless”

  1. Rob says:

    Great shot of the Matador. The company’s ’60’s gem, the Marlin, is perhaps the worst looking auto I can recall. As far as guitar designs, the Telecaster and Les Paul are the icons. There must be millions of clones and copies in circulation. As for auto designs, the Porsche 911 introduced around 1965 is my favorite.

  2. Brian says:

    From a design standpoint, in my opinion, the Telecaster is brilliant. Simple, interchangeable replaceable parts, like a model T Ford. Leo Fender got it right from the start on this one. The Strat would be great, too, except for the well documented problems with the pickup selector and knob positioning. The ES-335 is an odd derivative of a Spanish/classical guitar and a violin (f-holes) which, to use the auto analogy, are like the fins on a ’50’s Caddy. As you note, from a functionality standpoint, everything is placed correctly but it’s not a fresh design like the Tele, which, whatever you think of those guitars and their sound, is a great design! Nonetheless, I love my 335 as much as any of my other “children”.

  3. RAB says:

    The Firebird was another Gibson design adventure turning to a automotive designer for inspiration…Gibson was likely desperate for a new design and hoping for increased sales, getting their “clocks cleaned” by Fender circa 1963! The S.G. also seems to be a Stratocaster wannabe with its slinky body contours…

  4. cgelber says:

    I agree about the simplicity of the Telecaster. Not sure I would equate f-holes with fins though. A Stradivarius has f-holes and I don’t think it’s gone out of style after 300 plus years. Fins arrived in a big way in 55 and were gone from everything but a Cadillac within a few years. The Caddy stuck with the fins for a good ten years but they shrunk every year from their 59 peak. F-holes are a classic design and will be here for a while. So will 335’s (and Teles) I think.

  5. Brian says:

    Ah, but f-holes on violins have a purpose beyond decoration, which is why they are relevant and not out of style. In the same way, fins on airplanes have a purpose, they help the plane to fly. The f-holes on 335 have no acoustical purpose, they are decorative. The fins on a Caddy also don’t help them fly! My point is that the f-holes and the fins function as a kind of style-reference, they are not tied in to function. This is not to say that the shape of the f-hole won’t in some very small way effect the sound, and the fin on the Caddy will effect some change in the aero-dynamics of the car!

  6. Rod says:

    I may be wrong on this but I seem to remember that the archtop acoustic was a Gibson invention. Certainly in pre-electric days Gibson marketed their archtops with f-holes as having ‘cutting power’ to make the guitars heard in the overall mix. I have always understood that 335s et al were styled the way they were to appeal to more traditional players who would not accept the concept of a solid guitar. I am not at all convinced that the presence, or absence, of f-holes has any affect on the amplified sound of a Gibson thinline. But I am sure that their presence gave the guitars an ‘air of respectability’.

  7. RAB says:

    Rod, good point about the functionality or lack thereof of f-holes on ES models…it would be a cooler look (IMHO) if ES models didn’t have f-holes! I recall the Epi Al Caiola models didn’t have f-holes (and they were full hollowbodies)…RAB

  8. stefan says:

    Interesting point. I never thought about the F-holes that way.

  9. rob says:

    Gibson has made an ES 355 without F-holes for some years. Her name is Lucille.

  10. Rod says:

    Sorry if it seems to be stating the obvious but guitar players are an inherently conservative lot. They don’t really like change. This has been proved time and again by both Gibson and Fender who have repeatedly produced ‘new’ designs. ALL have been turkeys so Gibson have reverted to being principally ‘The Les Paul Guitar Company’ and Fender for years wee ‘The Stratocaster Guitar Company’ although in the last few years the wheels have pretty much come off that wagon. However, the basic fact remains that certain sizes and proportions work well with the human body and after you’ve got those settled, the guitars pretty much design themselves with only peripheral things like pickguard shapes and control layout showing much variation. If people actually wanted to buy different guitars the market would produce them!

  11. chuckNC says:

    My 355 is more willing to feed back at higher volumes than any full-on solidbody I’ve ever played. Same experience with several other ES models. A small point, admittedly, but I’ll add it just the same.

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