It’s 1959 and my Dad (The Doc) and five of the seven Gelber brothers are at the beach in Cape May. That’s me on the left at the age of seven. Nice haircut (thanks, Dad).

I remember a lot about 1959. I was six, then seven in May. My Mom and Dad and the seven Gelber brothers piled into our ’58 DeSoto wagon and drove the (interminable) five hours from upstate NY to Cape May, NJ on vacation for two weeks. In ’59, Castro took over Cuba and the USA added a couple of new stars to the flag. We went to the movies and saw North by Northwest, Ben Hur (the lepers scared the crap out of me) and Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Yankees lost the pennant for the first time in my short memory and Gibson built the best guitars ever made on planet Earth.

We could talk about which ones were the best but you have your own opinion about that. I’ll just write about the 335. It was only the second year of its very long run but they had already made a few improvements and maybe took a small step backward as well. The first ’58’s were less than perfect. The unbound board was a little déclassé, the neck angle was too shallow, the frets were too small (for modern players anyway) and the bridge was prone to collapsing. But they sounded magnificent. The thin top had nearly all the resonance of an archtop but the center block kept it all under control. There has never been a more brilliant design; so what did Gibson do in 59? Apparently there were a number of customer complaints about that thin top. Most players used a straight plug and the leverage of that plug, when pulled hard would nearly rip the jack right out of the top. A 90 degree plug would have kept that from happening. Moving the jack to the rim would have kept that from happening. But Gibson chose to make the top thicker and while it didn’t ruin the design by any means, didn’t help the tone.

There were so many changes to the 59 ES-335 that it’s almost like there were five or six different models. A very early 59 will still have the little frets and very often the thin top and the shallow neck angle. The unbound neck was gone after a few months in 58. In 59 the little frets were the first thing to go, followed by the shallow neck angle. By making the neck angle steeper, Gibson was able to utilize a full height ABR-1 which took care of the collapsing bridge problem. They distributed shaved full height bridges to customers who complained about sagging bridges.

Gibson still had a lot of 58 thin top bodies in stock and the complaints really hadn’t had an effect on the top brass in early 59. In fact, the thicker four ply tops really didn’t arrive until around May. After that, they still show up with some frequency probably when the orders outpaced the ability to build the thicker topped bodies. they must have figured that most folks wouldn’t notice. After all, how many players were actual performers who would have the opportunity to strut to the end of their lead and yank the jack out of the guitar? The thin tops show up as late as July 1960 (SN A33765 has a 58 FON and a thin top). I’ve owned three thin top 60’s.

So, you can have a 59 with a shallow neck angle, shaved ABR-1, small frets and a thin top. You can find them with a good neck angle, full ABR-1, small frets and a thin top. Good angle, big frets and a thin top. Good angle, big frets and a thicker top. Then there’s the 59 neck profile. Early 59’s had the same profile as a 58. The depth at the first fret was usually around .88″ but could be as large as .95″ (the necks were carved by hand and could vary a lot). The 12th fret depth was typically a full inch or slightly more. That’s a big honkin’ neck. By sometime around September, the neck starts to get a slimmer profile. Still has the wide nut but the depth at the first fret now seems to fall between .83″ and .86″ while the twelfth fret is usually around .96″ to .98″. It’s a very comfortable neck and while the big neck aficionados still brag about theirs, the “transitional” neck has become very popular.

Oh, and the pickups. All were PAFs but there were four varieties of those too. Most of the early 59’s had double black PAFs. The zebra PAF showed up sometime in February but wasn’t common in 335’s until April. Double whites and zebras are fairly common in 335’s from April until perhaps late July. They continued intermittently in 345’s and 355’s through 1960 and occasionally into 61 on 355’s. The fourth iteration, the reverse zebra rarely shows up in 335’s. They are less rare in 345’s but I’ve only seen two 335’s with them. You want are rare 59? Find a thin top with a pair of reverse zebra PAFs. There is at least one…it’s A30183 and I currently own it.

So, when you tell me you have a 59 for sale, which one is it? Fortunately, they are consistently good guitars. I’ve never had a bad 59. I’ve had some average ones but seven out of ten of the best ES guitars I’ve owned (over 600) are 59’s. Four are 335’s, two are first rack 345’s, one is a stop tail 355. All are thin tops. The others in my top ten are two late 58’s and a refinished 62 dot neck. In case you were wondering. The price of a 59 ES-335 has risen sharply in the past few years but still pales when compared to the same year Les Paul. That tells me that even at $85,000 (The current record for a sunburst 59, I believe), a 1959 ES-335 is still worth every last nickel.

1959 ES-335 SN A30183 with a pair of reverse zebras, thin top, big neck and probably the rarest iteration of the many, many different varieties of 59 ES 335’s. The pickup covers are back on but those backwards zebras are still in there.

One Response to “1959”

  1. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Hey Charlie – Similar story except mine was a 1959 Rambler station wagon heading to Salisbury Beach on the Massachusetts north shore. (DeSotos? Ramblers? What’s with our dads buying those “off-the-big-3″ vehicles?)

    Serious question. I’ve noted that late 60’s necks tend to be chunky – in a similar 1st and 12th fret comfort zone to that which you describe for a 1959 – but, of course, the nut is uncomfortably narrower by 1/8”. Beyond getting used to wrapping your hand around a thinner neck, its seems that the major disadvantage of a 1/9/16″ nut in my experience is narrower string spacing, especially on open chords where fingertips tend to mute adjacent strings.

    I think most Gibson ES necks – narrower and wider – allow about 1/8″ from either E string to the edge of the fingerboard. Have you ever encountered (or tried) a replacement nut that is cut to “cheat” on this distance by moving the E strings closer by 1/32″ to each edge and distributing the 1/16″ savings across the between string spacing? It should result in a spacing equivalent to an intact transitional 1-5/8″ nut–not ideal but more playable-and which also happens to be the width and spacing that every Strat player loves.

    Risking that the E’s could “fall” off the edge might be a concern. But here’s smoe small sample size data: I checked the string spacing on my two late 50s Gibson flattops (1958 and 1959) and both have the E’s already at 3/32″ from the edge and playability is no problem. And I can confirm from my 2 late 60s ES models (1967 and 1968) that they indeed have a full 1/8″ on each side. I believe that by the 12th fret the neck width is pretty standard (guided by bridge saddle and pole piece spacing) so the shift shouldn’t be noticeable too far up the neck (and the E margins could be moderated slightly at the bridge saddles to coordinate with the adjusted nut spacing). There may be even a bit more room to shave (every 64th or 128th counts!)

    I probably wouldn’t try this on an all original collector grade guitar. But if a post ’65 trap tail already has the stoptail mod, what’s the big deal over a replaced nut if it brings the guitar a little closer to pre ’65 playability?

    What are your thoughts on this strategy to help solve the narrow nut/string spacing issue on late 60s ES guitars?

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