It’s 1959 and cars look a lot like this.

It’s 1959. I’m seven years old. Cars have huge fins and the Yankees, after winning pennants in 55, 56, 57 and 58 stunk up the place in 59 finishing in third place. Lots of news in 59 but, as a seven year old, who cares. In music, Elvis is a hunka hunka burnin’ love, Dion is a teenager in love and a rodent named Alvin was outselling them all (12 million sold). Gibson has been making guitars for around 57 years. Some might say it was downhill from there, especially for electrics.

I love 59 Gibsons. I play one (a 345). I’ve owned dozens of ES guitars from every year from 58 to 68. Most are good, some are great and a few are nearly magical. If I am judging years based on how many magical ones I’ve owned, 59 comes out on top. The three best I’ve ever had were all 59’s. Out of my top twenty, 15 or so are 59’s. You might ask, “what makes a 59 so different from a 58 or a 60 or a 64?-all good years. And “are all 59’s the same?” Good questions. Not so easy answers.

A few observations…guitars aren’t automobiles. In the fifties, cars were redesigned every year. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to see the new models. The local newspaper would publish a photo of the latest car to be released to the public. My Dad would take me and my brothers around to the local dealers on a Saturday, usually in October, to see the new models. It was a day to look forward to. My Dad, being a locally prominent doctor, was probably seen as a hot prospect so we were treated very well by the dealers. Guitars didn’t really have model years. That’s something we collectors and players assigned to them as we are a species that needs narrow definitions and parameters. Gibson made changes to a model when it was necessary-not based on model years. A late 58 is exactly the same as an early 59. A late 59 is not the same as an early 59 and an early 60 is the same as a late 59. There were often some big changes made during a given year-some practical, some cosmetic some baffling.

I can make a strong argument for late 58 ES guitars being the best but if we’re looking at the guitars from a single year on average, the best have to be 59. The thin top of the 58 is a compelling argument for 58’s but the small frets and the shallow neck angle kind of negate that. And there are thin top 59’s with a good neck angle and big frets -the best of the best, in my opinion. Gibson changed the neck profile many, many times through the life of the instrument but two of the best neck carves were from 59…the early one is huge up to .94″ at the first fret but more typically .88″. The twelfth fret measurement is a full inch or more. The late 59 “transitional” neck is also very desirable at around .85″ at the first and .95″ at the 12th. That neck continued well into 1960 so you could probably make an argument for early to mid 60 335’s being up there as well. After that though, the neck got very slim and, for most folks, too thin. Not only is it uncomfortable for many players but that “blade” neck is prone to truss rod cracks and back bows. It stayed thin until late 63 with only slight changes in 62 and early 63. By late 63, it was still fairly thin at the first fret but shoulder had increased and the taper to the 12th fret was considerable-back to an inch or more. Lots of players find the 64 neck to be the best ever.

Then, we can look at the pickups. a 59 will always have long magnet PAFs and that’s pretty much enough said. 58’s had them as well as did most 335’s from 1960. Short magnet PAFs and early patents (at least through 64) were great pickups as well and are much more consistent than long magnet PAFs. I’ve said, more than once, that the average short magnet PAF is as good or better than the average long magnet but the best long magnet PAF is better than anything.

Here’s something that perhaps you didn’t know…the body depth of the 335 goes through a number of changes. In 58 and 59, the average body depth is just over 1.6″ (some early 355’s are actually less than 1.6″). By 1964, the average body depth had increased to 1.77″ or so. That’s a big change. I don’t think it affects anything tone-wise but it makes for a somewhat heavier guitar.

Many other components were changed during the “golden years” but I don’t think they had much of an effect on tone or playability. Tuners went from single ring to double ring and from single line to double line. No real difference. The bridge went from no wire to wire in 63. That’s an improvement when you break a string and the saddle doesn’t go flying across the stage but there is no improvement otherwise. Knobs changed, fret markers changed, body shape changed but these were all cosmetic changes. Perhaps the biggest (and dumbest) change was the nut width. In 65, it went from 1 11/16″ to 1 5/8″ to 1 9/16″. That’s the main reason 65’s are so much less expensive than 64’s. The other dumb (in my opinion) change was the change from the stop tailpiece to the trapeze, also in 65. That was strictly a cheaper way to build the guitar and it didn’t help anything but that. 65 to 68 ES-335’s could have been great guitars if those two changes hadn’t occurred. Instead, they are a lower cost alternative that has, arguably, compromised playability.

So, taking all the features into consideration and trying to define a single year with the best 335’s, I come to the conclusion that it has to be 59. If all 58’s were like the late ones, it would be a tossup but early 58’s simply don’t play as well as the average 59 because of the neck angle. A good argument can be made for 64’s. An excellent year with consistently great pickups. But a 59 might have those absolutely magical long magnet PAFs which weren’t available in 1964. It is no wonder that the price of a 59 has broken away from the pack. I don’t think they will catch the venerable 59 Les Paul but the gap is closing for sure. There is a way to get yourself a 59 and not pay the huge premium that 59 ES-335’s command. Buy a 59 ES-345 or, better yet, a mono 59 ES-355. They are currently selling for less than half the price of a 335 but you’ll have to deal with the stereo circuit and Varitone in the 345 and the Bigsby on a 355.

Can’t afford the $80K plus price tag of a 59 ES-335? The best alternative is a 59 mono ES-355. Half the price and worth every nickel.

2 Responses to “1959”

  1. Collin says:

    Some of us don’t even have to “deal” with the stereo varitone and/or Bigsby because we prefer them. I know I do…

    Stoptails are practical for blues rock but I find them quite limiting for other styles of music that make good use of a vibrato. The sounds of a Varitone are also a joy.

    (I agree with early ’59 as the sweet spot. Corrected neck angle, thin top and bigger necks. It’s the best combination).

  2. okguitars says:

    I was once a purist about 345’s. I refused to convert them and took a lot of heat from folks who told me that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Then I learned a little more about the circuit and found out these folks were half right (and half wrong). The “tone sucking” Varitone does exist. It is the fault of the multi value caps used from 62 and later. They drifted and caused the “bypass” position to sound thinner and honky. The 59-61’s (and some 62’s) didn’t have those caps and they don’t drift. I’ll convert a 345 if the buyer insists but I will advise folks who are buying one with the early Varitone switch to play it for a while and then decide. I found that the Varitone was fun for a week or so but not that useful for the music I play. The stereo was interesting as well and, I thought, more useful than the Varitone itself. My main player is a 59 ES-345. It has been converted to 335 but not by me. I’d probably rewire it for stereo if I had nothing else to do but I’m prefectly happy with it as it is now.

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