Top Ten List

58's are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58's.

58’s are tricky because of the neck angle but the chances of getting a great guitar a pretty good. Two of my top five are 58’s.

I keep a mental top ten list of the best ES guitars to pass through my hands and, while the list is pretty diverse, there are some factors that are becoming meaningful. As I get to play more and more of them, I re-evaluate the things that make some of them simply good, others great and a few simply extraordinary.

It’s interesting that the current top ten (or maybe top 12) includes guitars from 58, 59, 60, 62 and 64. I try to keep personal preference out of the equation-like the fact that I like guitars with necks that start medium and get really big by the 12th fret. I’m really talking about tone. And that’s personal preference too,  I suppose,  but we all like a guitar that has great sustain and that singing almost vocal quality that some 3×5’s have and some don’t. Some of that is setup but some of it is simply the wood, the strings and the electronics and the relationship between them. I can’t totally explain why this 335 sounds better than that one but there are some common denominators that I can quantify and only because I’ve played (and set up) so many.

Common denominators: All are 58-64 which doesn’t tell you much. All are stop tails. All have PAFs or early patents. Nearly all were re-fretted at some point. But there have been dozens and dozens that fit that description so there must be something more to these standouts. Four of the top ten have thin tops. If you aren’t a regular reader, you should be aware that all 58’s and some 59’s have a three ply top that is 25% thinner than the four ply tops that were used from 59 on. Of course, that means that 6 of the top ten had the thicker tops. But wait. There’s more. If we go to the top five, three of the top five have the thinner tops which tells us something. The top five are as follows–#1 late 58 335, #2 thin top 59 335, #3 refinished 62 dot neck, #4 59 first rack 345 and #5 is another thin top 59 335. So, I’m going out on a limb and saying the thin top early 335’s seem to have an edge when it comes to great tone. Looking at the next five on the hit list #6 is a first rack 59 345, #7 is a 59 355 stop tail, #8 is a 64 335, #9 is a 59 335 and #10 is an early 60 335. This is out of perhaps 500-600 that I’ve owned. There are perhaps another 75 that I would call contenders-an extraordinary one isn’t that much better than a great one. Most 58-64 3×5’s are simply excellent guitars. We’re talking microns here.

This list is rather fluid and I’m always replacing one with another as I play more of them. It is tricky to compare a guitar I have today to one I had five years ago (or more) but I consider the top ten to be kind of interchangeable. I’m sure that if I had all of them in a room, I would put them in a different order but they would all still be great. What would be really useful is if I could predict which ones would be the standouts before I even picked them up and played them. It would be nice to be able to tell folks to look for a particular factory order number or group of features that make for great tone but, alas, no such information exists. I’ve had 59 dot necks that are uninspiring. I’ve had trap tail 65’s that would give any of the top ten a good run for their money. There are a lot of variables and too many aren’t easily quantified.

There are a few consistencies that have occurred to me, however. First rack ES-345’s are generally excellent. What’s a first rack? Read this. It’s actually three racks but they all share certain characteristics and these characteristics seem to translate to great tone. Late 58’s and early 59’s are also fertile ground for great tone-again, the thin top is a possible factor. The shallow but not too shallow neck angle could also be in play here. The big neck? Maybe but there’s a 62 in the top 5 that had a skinny neck (and a refinish). Here’s another factor that throws a monkey wrench into the mix: On a given day, a particular guitar can sound great and on another day, it doesn’t sound so great. Humidity is a big factor and probably the state of my playing ability is another.

So, what can you take away from this? Well, mostly that you should play a guitar before you buy it. Just buying a 59 dot neck that you like the looks of will probably get you a great guitar but it may not be an extraordinary one. Buying a beat up refinished 62 could get you one of the best players you ever had. But you can’t know for sure until it’s properly set up and you sit down and play it.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES's. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

This Candy Apple Red refinished 62 dot neck is in my top five ES’s. Not my favorite color but my oh my did this baby sing.

16 Responses to “Top Ten List”

  1. Chris Haines says:

    Charlie, is your evaluation based on playing a mix of plugged in and unplugged or do you spend more time playing one way than the other?

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, wow, lots of good commentary as usual. Many factors as you note. I’ve found that the initial feel of the guitar is a good predictor. Does the guitar immediately feel good, comfortable in your hands? Does it resonate acoustically? Beyond that a lot can be tweaked (pickup height, etc) once a proper setup has been accomplished…RAB

  3. cgelber says:

    While there is a big range of how these guitars sound acoustically, it doesn’t always translate into the amplified world. I base my findings on how the guitars sound plugged in. While a very resonant 335 often sounds really good plugged in, it isn’t a sure thing. Some of the best sound ordinary until you crank it up.

  4. RAB says:

    Good points, after all, it is an electric guitar, nein?

  5. RAB says:

    My general observations, and without Charlie’s numerically superior sample size (!) but based on decent personal experience are the early ES models (say pre-62) seem to have an airier sound. 1962-64 and later seem to have a fatter sound…so much for trying to make some generalized characterization!

  6. RAB says:

    I only meant to comment on Classic year (1958-64) ES models…

  7. CB Smith says:

    Charlie (and everyone else),

    What are the best qualities of the 335’s tone that you look for? What separates the average from the world-beaters?

    It’s tough shopping for these guitars because there seems to be so much variability and individual preferences. It seems to be that a heavier or more solid-feeling 335 edges closer to the LP sound, while a lighter 335 brings out a lot more of the acoustic/airiness sounds. I’m pretty new at this, so take those comments for what they are worth.

    What do you all think?

  8. cgelber says:

    Use your ears. There are few generalizations that hold true over a large sample. In general, weight has little to do with tone. In pre 65 ES-335’s, there isn’t a huge range of tone. Almost all are quite good. The most consistent will be 62-64. That probably has more to do with the pickups than anything else. Late (short magnet) PAFs and early patent numbers are remarkably consistent tone wise. Individual preference will always trump physical characteristics. Tone and playability come first. Tone doesn’t matter if you can’t play it. Playability doesn’t matter if it sounds like crap. Everything else is secondary (weight, appearance, mods, issues, etc)

  9. RAB says:

    Good points Charlie as usual. I think my sunburst ’63 335 (one PAF, one PAT #) is the best sounding and playing Classic Year ES I’ve owned and I’ve owned a bunch of them over the last 5 decades…best, RAB

  10. Rod says:

    I think what you are demonstrating very well is that there are good and bad guitars out there regardless of age/make/country of origin although you can remove a lot of the variables by opting for, usually, older, ‘golden era’, guitars but even that is not a guarantee. It saddens, but also amuses, me that some people will pay an absolute fortune for a certain year guitar (‘must have flame’) regardless of what it plays and sounds like. Surely we are missing the point somewhat here aren’t we?

  11. RAB says:

    Rod, good points. We need to remind ourselves these are musical instruments and were made to be played. I had to remind myself of that last night when I took my near mint ’63 335 to a club gig. The venue’s stage is small, dark and crowded, greatly increasing the probability the guitar could get dinged. The guitar plays and sounds so good I had to risk it! No damage fortunately!

  12. James says:

    I think it’s just the icing on the cake if you have an ES that plays fantastic AND looks so pretty! We’ve all done it, and you know what I’m talking about. Sitting completely motionless in a trance, gazing at the flame and how it changes with the light hitting the contours of the top. Just don’t be afraid to pick it up and play it. If we don’t, after we’re gone, someone else will.

  13. RAB says:

    James, right on comments. That’s one of the reasons we own vintage guitars; the quality, the history, the beauty, the mojo. But, they are, at the end of the day, musical instruments that were made to be played. Create some joyous music with them y’all! RAB

  14. Rod says:

    Personally I don’t care what a guitar looks like, it is how it feels, sounds and plays that matter to me. I tend to prefer plainer looking guitars over highly decorative ones. But each to his own. If it speaks to you….

  15. Leeds says:

    As always, lots of excellent info. Visual preferences may be easier than tone and feel. I heartily concur with the “play them” advice. When I bought my burst I got lucky in the sense that I played it by itself but it ended up sounding great. When I bought it I focused on originality and condition (and, I must confess the double whites and the highly flamed top). But when I bought my PAF goldtop I played a good sample of nice bursts through the same amp during the same hours. To my ears, the GT’s sound crushed the (excellent) bursts. So I was delighted to buy the guitar that didn’t look as good. Make it simple if you’re the ES guy I am: at the risk of sounding like I’m a shill just pimping Charlie’s shop ( I’m not) go to CT and spend some time in Charlie’s playing a bunch of guitars through the same amp(s) on the same day and decide for yourself. New high-end bikes, skis and cars are easily found and you still have to do same day comparisons. But if one wants to be sure about a “Golden-Age” Gibson, it’s well worth the extra effort and expense if one wants to be sure.

  16. RAB says:

    Yes, my ’57 dark back Goldtop sounded and played better than any of the 5 Bursts I’ve owned over the decades. The uber rare 2 pickup ’59 LP Custom I had for years also gave any of the PAF Les Paul Standards a run for their money…my ’56 LP Standard all cherry red conversion comes close to the original PAF LP Standards…maybe 90% of the way for considerably less coin. Also I gig it regularly at venues where I’d be reluctant to bring a $250-300K guitar…

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