Rarest Production 355

This is one of the ten ES-355’s built and shipped in 1958. The red is unusual (for a 355). The tuners are different from all the others and, like the other 58’s it has some distinctive “58 only” features. It’s also a killer player with a huge neck profile.

Gibson appeared to have a hit with the new ES-335 guitar introduced in April of 1958. They only sold a few hundred of them in 1958 but it was apparently enough for them to expand the line and take advantage of the positive PR they were getting from the 335. So, they developed the ES-355 to be introduced in 1959. But ten of them left Kalamazoo in late 1958 and instantly doubled the number of models in the line. The 345 was, I’m sure, already in the pipeline but the stereo/Varitone feature wasn’t ready yet. All of the 1958 ES-355’s are mono as are all of the early 59’s. But the 58 355 is an interesting story in itself.

Gibson changes features all the time and they don’t do it in a structured way. They make changes when they think they are necessary or desirable. There are no “model years” wherein all changes are made late in the year for introduction as the next year’s model. So, a late 58 ES-355 should be the same as an early 59. But the 58’s are different from nearly all of the 59’s I’ve seen. Now, I’ve only seen four of the ten 58 ES-355’s including the one touted as the first since it has the earliest serial number. The build order is more accurately reflected by the FON (factory order number). So, what features distinguish a 58 from a 59?

As I mentioned, I’ve only seen four of the ten and three of those are very similar. The fourth is a bit of an outlier and that’s the one in the photo above. I’ll get to that in a minute. 58 ES-355’s are all mono, all, I believe, red, all have gold bonnet knobs and all originally had a low profile ABR-1 (most of which collapsed). Like a 58 ES-335, the 355’s have a thin 3 ply top and a very shallow neck angle. All have Bigsby’s and none were factory drilled for stop tail bushings unlike many of the 58 ES-335’s. A 58 355 that I owned a few years ago was drilled for a stop tail but I believe it was done aftermarket. 58 ES-355’s tend to fade due to the use of a dye that is reactive to UV light. 58’s tend to go toward orange while 59’s go more pink (watermelon). I don’t know if they changed the formulation of the dye in 59. They did change it in late 60 to minimize the fading.

So, what’s the story on the one in the photo at the top? It’s different in a few ways. First off, it’s still red. It has faded a bit but it’s a different fade and a different red. I noticed that where the finish is chipped, there is bare wood. That’s not normal. Gibson’s see through red is generally done by dying the wood red and finishing in clear lacquer. So, when you look at a chip or buckle rash, the wood under the lacquer is red or pinkish. Not this one. This one was finished in a tinted lacquer. I thought, “ok, refinish…” but there is no sign anywhere that it was ever sanded or oversprayed. Red Gibsons are nearly impossible to strip because the dye sinks into the wood. Chemical strippers won’t get rid of it and sanding is always obvious on a 3×5 (that’s another topic altogether). I have seen this red finish on other Gibsons-I had a L5/Gobel with it and I’ve seen at least one Byrdland with it. It is almost wine red. But wait, there’s more.

All of the other early ES-355’s I’ve seen have Grover tuners. Later they switched to Kluson wafflebacks but that wasn’t until 63. This 58 has wafflebacks but they are not the metal button ones you see on later 355’s, they are the plastic tipped ones you see on early Les Paul Customs from the 50’s. There is no sign of any other tuner having been installed. So, why the unusual finish and the oddball tuners? I doubt it’s a custom order this early in a run of a new model. I don’t think Gibson even announced the existence of the 355 until 1959, although the employees would certainly know about it. It certainly wasn’t in the catalog in 58. Two more oddities as long as we’re looking closely. The headstock has a three ply binding whereas 355’s usually have a 5 ply headstock binding. Early rosewood J-200’s had the same binding on the headstock. Also, the factory order number is hand written in red pencil. I’ve never seen that before and I don’t know why that was done. My guess? This is a prototype or employee guitar and it was singled out from its rack for special treatment. The Byrdland below (for sale by my friends at Southside Guitars in Brooklyn) looks like the same red.

This is a 60 Byrdland and probably a custom order. The red looks to be identical to the red in the 58 ES-355 at the top of this post. This guitar is at Southside Guitars in Brooklyn, NY

8 Responses to “Rarest Production 355”

  1. Joe Campagna says:

    Cool guitar.Could you post a good closeup of the finish? Although it’s not,it almost looks like sparkling burgundy in the pic.No sign of grain at all.Thanks.

  2. okguitars says:

    It does look like SB but it is actually see through. The red finish in 59 is clear lacquer over dyed wood. The 58’s appear to be different-this one is red tinted lacquer over raw wood. The 59’s fade to watermelon red but the 58’s fade to orange and almost blonde. This one apparently never spent much time in the sun or it’s a different finish than the others. It’s original for sure though.

  3. Luigi says:

    Also the headstock has a different Multi-ply binding with a total of 3 and not 5 like others 355/Customs. It’s like a SJ200…Interesting!!

  4. G says:

    Also look at that headstock binding.. it’s not like a normal 355/LP Custom with’s rather like a SJ200 with 3 Multi-ply binding. Curious!

  5. okguitars says:

    Good eye. I missed that (and I don’t miss much). But most J-200’s have a single ply headstock binding. The only one I’ve seen with three ply is an early rosewood J from the 30’s.

  6. okguitars says:

    Good eye.

  7. Nelson Checkoway says:

    I’m curious – Any idea why Gibson switched over to Grover Rotomatics in the late 50s on some higher-end models like the ES-355 and Les Paul and SG Customs – only to switch back to the Kluson (wafflebacks) around ’63? I guess Rotos were new technology in late 50s. Were they trying to keep up with Martin that likewise switched to Grovers on its D28 line in ’57? I wonder if any catalog or dealer literature from Gibson during that period would shed light. It just seems like an odd move …

  8. chuckNC says:

    I am one of those people who saves a lot of guitar photos. I don’t remember where I got this one. My file name is “ES-355_’58 Mono, Bigsby, Interesting Cherry Finish.” It looks to have the same basic tint but it’s not the same guitar.

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)