Archive for October, 2023

Les Paul vs ES-335

Thursday, October 12th, 2023

I used this mid to late 59 ES-335 as my test case for 335 tone. It has a set of very hot pickups (8.5K for both) and has been played a lot. It is not the best sounding 335 I’ve ever owned but it’s in the top twenty and maybe the top ten.

I’ve thought about writing about this subject since I started this blog back in 2010. I’ve held off because I simply hadn’t owned enough vintage Les Pauls (with humbuckers) to make a fair evaluation. I could have compoared modern LP’s to modern 335’s (or even vintage 335’s) but I held off until I gained more experience with Gold tops and bursts made from 1957 to 1960. I’ve owned hundreds of ES-335’s built during this period but only about a dozen Les Pauls but I think that’s enough to speak intelligently about these two Gibson icons.

This is my reference Les Paul. It’s an early (ish) 60 with excellent tone. To keep it apples to apples, I put a set of covers on the pickups for the comparision. I didn’t solder them, however.

The first problem I encounter is having to generalize about a subject that has a lot of variation. Finding two 335’s that are exactly the same is tough enough but at least I’m working from a huge sample. The dozen Les Pauls I’ve owned have a lot in common but they certainly aren’t anywhere near identical. The biggest area of variation seems to be the pickups. Even comparing a 335 with, say, an 8K PAF in the bridge and a 7.75K PAF in the neck to another one with the same DCR doesn’t yield identical results. The wood will always be a little different-no two trees are identical and the build might have significant variation as well. Big neck profile vs small profile will also affect tone (and playability). Perhaps the biggest factor in the level of variation between two presumably identical guitars will be the setup. Flat neck or minor relief? Properly cut saddles and nut or cut too deep? Even different string brands will make a difference. I could go on-drift in the values of the electronics-pots and caps will have a small effect on tone. All this and trying to compare two very different build types makes the task difficult if not impossible.

Let’s go even further. How do you describe tone. We have all kinds of good adjectives but they don’t always mean the same thing to all readers. A Les Paul is often described as “woody”. I think I know what that means but I couldn’t really describe it. A 335 often gets the term “airy” which is different than woody but I couldn’t really describe that either. I think my best bet is to first talk about what is similar about the two guitars. The circuit is pretty much identical-only the ground circuit is different. Same pots, same caps, same jack, same three way. There is more wire in a Les Paul but I doubt that makes much difference. The pickups are the same but the variation among early PAFs is pretty glaring (and DCR alone doesn’t really tell us much about the tone or the output for that matter). I’ve had 335’s that sound like Les Pauls and vice versa. So, how do I make a general statement about these two guitars that a consumer can use to decide which one to buy? I can’t. I don’t think anybody can. We can talk about investment value-that’s easy. A burst will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A gold top with humbuckers will be around half. A 335 with early PAFs can be bought for under $50K. A high quality collector grade guitar has been a very good investment but even the best 335 hasn’t kept up with the appreciation of a burst.

I’ve had a few conversations with musicians who have better ears than I have about this. Some have pointed out, correctly, that they don’t sound alike when played acoustically. True enough but at that point, I have to remind them that pickups aren’t microphones. They are not simply reproducing the acoustic tone of the body. If that were the case, they would sound very different. A pickup works by the vibrating string affecting a magnetic field and that disturbance being translated into sound. You can yell into a pickup and you won’t hear it through your amp (unless there’s something wrong with the pickup. So, forget about the difference in unplugged tone. It isn’t that relevant.

So, I will give you my very basic and non scientific comparison of a great 335 and an excellent burst. The burst seems to have a very slight edge in sustain. There is an element that I call “musicality” which is kind of a combination of note separation and the manner in which the notes interact with each other. 335 has the edge in musicality. I can’t tell you why. The Les Paul tends to have a cleaner (less muddy) sounding neck pickup although that’s a gross generalization…I can adjust most muddiness away by lowering the pickup. On the bridge pickup, I’m damned if I can hear any difference at all. Both guitars seem to be the same tonal range. If I dropped in a different pickup-say, a T-top, I’m sure they would sound different. Note bloom (or harmonics) are a big part of why these guitars are so desirable. Both guitars can have this in spades but, in general, I find 335’s to be superior. Maybe it’s that “airy” thing.

My conclusion…the guitars are nearly interchangeable. I could write a 100 page post comparing these guitars but the more I played them, the less I had to say. Both are at the pinnacle of humbucker equipped guitars. I love SG’s but they don’t do everything a burst, gold top or 335 will do. Feel free to disagree as loudly as you want. This is subjective stuff and your ears are different than mine (mine are old). My takeaway is that you can achieve great tone without spending $400,000 on a burst but if you can afford it, why wouldn’t you own one?