Vintage 335 on a Budget

335’s from 1981 (not the block necks) to 1985 are generally really good players. Yes, it’s the dreaded Norlin Era but they mostly got these right. The blondes have gotten a bit pricey ($4,000 or so) but non blondes, including, if you’re lucky enough to find one, black ones, are hovering in the $2500-$3000 range. This is a 1984.

A typical email to me contains the following: “I have around $3000-$4000 to spend and I want a 335 but I’d rather have a vintage one than a new one. What should I buy?” It always puts me on the spot a bit to answer that inquiry because there are a lot of good choices vintage and not vintage. Now I guess I have to define vintage. Not new. Not recent. Not crap. I was resistant to calling 70’s 335’s vintage for a long time because so many of them were not any good. But, in recognition of the good ones, 70’s counts as vintage. 80’s as well. Don’t think so? C’mon, 1985 was 35 years ago. If you had bought a 59 dot neck in 1994, you would have considered it vintage back then, so don’t give me a hard time about that. I would go so far as to say we’re getting to where the 90’s are worth consideration as vintage but I’m not quite there yet. So, what are you gonna do with that $3000 you can’t wait to spend?

Unless you’re OK with some big issues, you can skip the 60’s. If you’re OK with a decently repaired headstock crack, you can get yourself into an otherwise original late 65 to 68 in the $3K-$4K range. They are wonderful guitars as long as you can comfortably play a guitar with a very narrow fingerboard (1 9/16″). You might grab an early 65 with a big neck for around $4K but expect issues beyond that busted headstock. The pre T-top pickups are around for a lot longer than most of you think. I see them as late as 68 pretty frequently. T-tops are not a bad pickup either, so don’t fret over the pickups. And if you don’t like them, buy a set of Throbaks. Brazilian rosewood is gone by late 66 or 67 but Indian sounds the same no matter what folks say. A stop tail conversion is a good mod if the luthier or tech puts it in the right position. Too low and it will work fine, it will just look wrong. There are some small differences between 65 and 68 but none of them are all that significant when it comes to tone and playability.

Most of you who read my posts know that I draw a line at 1969. The necks lost the long tenon, the necks became maple or three piece, the quality of the wood and the build started to decline and, while you could still get a good one, you’ll have to play more than a few to find it. Don’t agree? Then go ahead and buy one from the 70’s. Just don’t ask to trade it to me when you’re ready to upgrade. The pickups are still pretty good (T-tops) and the design hasn’t changed much until around 72 when they start shortening the center block and in 75 when they do the seemingly impossible…they make the prettiest body in the guitar world ugly by nipping in the waist and narrowing the cutaways. You can get 70’s 335’s in that price range although they have risen significantly in the past year or so. Most are still under $3K but they have been creeping up along with almost everything else. Don’t confuse the asking price with the selling price. I would look for a 69-71.

That brings us to what I think is the best vintage choice in the range…a 335 “dot reissue” from 1981 to 1985. The earlier ones have a three piece neck so if that bothers you, look for an 83-85. I don’t really mind it. You can still find sunbursts and reds in the $2500 range or even lower if you’re patient and quick on the trigger. Blacks are rare but are very cool and don’t seem to command much of a premium. Blondes, however, do. You can still find them in the low threes or even less but you also see them in the $4K range. They haven’t run up much in price so I think they are still a pretty good deal. The neck tenon is a little wimpy but they seem to be perfectly stable and the nut is as wide as a 59. Profile can be fat or slim. The pickups are Tim Shaws which can be a little dark but tend to come alive if you get rid of the 300K pots and put in 500K pots like 335’s always had before that. I’d just buy a new harness and toss the old one in the case. Creamtone makes a really good one. The tailpiece is usually the heavy zinc one. Buy an aluminum repro for 75 bucks and save a couple of ounces in weight. A repro long guard looks great on them too. Then there’s the Nashville bridge. Perfectly functional design but it looks wrong on a 335. Faber makes an ABR-1 copy that fits the Nashville post spread. Do all that and you’ll have a pretty nice guitar that looks a lot like a real dot neck from 58-62. I can tell but from 20 feet away on a dimly lit stage, it will look pretty authentic and will sound pretty good too.

Next, I’ll take a look at the more recent (1986-2010) 335’s that fall into this same price range and see what you can get for your hard earned buck.

The late 70’s ES-335’s had an extra switch (coiltap), a narrower waist, giant f-holes, Nashville bridge (or harmonica bridge in the mid 70’s) and pointy horns. I think it looks misshapen and out of proportion next to a Mickey Mouse ear 58-63. Not too crazy about some of the colors either. Wine red and walnut finishes will be harder to sell down the road. 335 folks are pretty traditional. Look for a sunburst or a red one. Blondes and Blacks are cool too but not common.

7 Responses to “Vintage 335 on a Budget”

  1. RAB says:

    Gulp! Or raid the kid’s education fund and buy that Golden Era ES. They’ll appreciate that college degree more if they pay for it themselves!

  2. DaveK says:

    My first 335 was a sunburst early 80s dot neck. Bought it second hand in 86 – it had the 3 piece neck so I presume it was 81-83 from Charlie’s description.

    Very cool looking guitar as I remember which sounded very good if a bit dark. My only issues were binding cracks and the plating peeling off the tailpiece. I think it had factory Grovers too which didn’t look great. Crap case I remember.

    I sold it a couple of years later when I had enough for a 64 cherry stop tail and have never looked back………….

    If early 80s dot necks are around for about $2,500 that sounds like a good deal to me.

  3. okguitars says:

    The dark pickups can be improved by changing the harness to one with 500K pots rather than the 300K pots that are in there.
    I’m not an electrical engineer so I don’t know why that works or what the science is behind that change.

  4. Graham Heath says:


    Have you tried the new figured premiere 335’s. Every review I’ve seen raves about them. I think there’s a certain amount of BS hype “thermally engineered centre block” Hide glue” etc. I’d love your opinion

    Thank you


  5. okguitars says:

    I haven’t tried any of the new Gibsons yet. There is no dealer near me and nobody is doing much traveling these days

  6. RalphK says:

    Hi Charlie,

    you’re drawing the line at 83 because of the three part neck 81 – 83, right? But why are you drawing another line at 85? Did the quality go down when the production moved to Nashville?

    Thanks a lot,

  7. okguitars says:

    read the post again. I don’t draw a line at 83. What I say is that 81-85 are good guitars especially in that price range and that if a three piece neck bothers you, then get an 84 or 85 as they went back to one piece. I do note in another post that some 335’s during that era had oddly shaped cutaway horns-mostly 84 and 85 but that is not a build quality issue. They just look funny. Are 81-85 335’s great guitars? No, they are not. They are good guitars and fairly consistent. They are, on average, better than most 70’s ES models. And, in general, they are a lot better than 70’s. You can find a good 70’s ES-335 but it will take playing a whole lot of them to find one. The 81-85’s are mostly quite good. The 70-80 are mostly not so good. My opinion.

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)