The ‘lowlier’ ES-175 has its own set of fans, across all genres. A hollowbody ES was an unusual choice for a future prog shredder, but Howe has remained faithful to the guitar that has supercharged his career. ‘The 175 is a brilliant guitar,’ Howe says. ‘The parallelogram inlays are beautiful, the whole guitar is beautiful.’ Back in the 1990s, even legendary guitar-collector Howe was having a clear-out. ‘I’ve bought a lot of guitars I didn’t need,’ Howe told G&B. ‘I’m selling 45 at the moment. But I’ve kept my ’63 ES-175, which was the first Gibson I bought. I played it continuously for 15 years.’
The ES-175 remains a classic. Yes, it was later eclipsed by other ES designs by Gibson, but it remains hugely popular. Continuously, from 1949 to 2013, the ES-175 has remained in Gibson’s extensive guitar range. It can feed back, it’s bulky to some, but the Gibson ES-175 boasts the longest unbroken production run of any electric guitar model.
Boom! The 335 era
By the mid-1950s, Gibson’s ES range was well-established and selling well. Gibson had noted Fender’s success with the Telecaster and had produced its own solidbody, the now legendary Les Paul Model (the outline of the Les Paul was simply a downsized copy of the ES-175). Yet early Les Pauls of ’52 weren’t initially massively popular – it seemed Gibson also needed to blend its archtop heritage with the new demand for more rock’n’roll guitars.
Gibson had already built ‘slimline’ designs – the ES-350T and the ES-225T – with a shallower body, but these were still essentially hollowbody ‘jazz’ guitars.
The ES-335 of 1958 was a breakthrough. With its double Venetian cutaways it looked less like a jazzer’s guitar – but it clearly wasn’t a ‘simple’ Fender, either. Here’s a debate: maybe Les Paul influenced the ES-335 more than he did the Gibson Les Paul? Les Paul built his electric guitar prototype, the Log, after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940. It was a 4″x4″ chunk of pine with strings and a pickup. At the time, Gibson rejected Les Paul’s vision. But the idea of a semi-acoustic – solid block middle, with f-holed side chambers – maybe eventually morphed into the ES-335?
The ES-335 (and 345 and 355) is now a bona fide guitar design classic. Its slim body made it easier to play for most guitarists, and it also happened to look stunning.’
The 335 also benefitted from Gibson’s mid-’50s design innovations: Seth Lover’s ground-breaking humbucking pickups and McCarty’s ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge. These were key in giving the 335 its unique blend of archtop classicism and cutting electric tones. Early after launch, Gibson nicknamed it as having a ‘wonder-thin’ body. The eventual 17-degree headstock angle increased string tension, too, giving a firmer feel and more attack to notes. At about 7.5lbs, it was easy on the shoulders. As a design, the Gibson ES-335 is arguably flawless.
Also released in 1958 was a high-end version, the ES-355, which came factory equipped with multiple binding, gold-plated hardware, an ebony (not rosewood) fingerboard, Vari-tone control, and an optional Bigsby vibrato (for $355 as opposed to $335). Only 10 were shipped in ’58. The Vari-tone is loved by some, dismissed by others: it added various combinations of coils and capacitors to the pickup circuitry of the guitar to add more tonal options to the sound, one with a distinct ‘honk’.
In 1959 the ES-355 was upgraded to stereo wiring, and at the same time Gibson debuted the stereo ES-345. This was an ‘intermediate’ model between the ES-335, and it also came with the Vari-tone. IBB King calls the Vari-tone ‘the magic switch.’ ES-355 fan Bernard Butler says positions 2 and 3 on a Vari-tone are ‘more Fender Strat or Jaguarlike.’ Also in ’59, there was also a fully-hollow version, the ES-330 (later echoed by the Gibson-built Epiphone Casino).
Early models, as seemingly with all guitars, can differ. George Gruhn says, ‘The ES-335, ES-345, and ES-355 remain very sought after by collectors as well as musicians. The fully-hollow ES-330 is less sought after, but it’s still a fine instrument.
‘To me, the true “golden age” most sought-after of these guitars were those made in 1959, with the jumbo-size frets and a good neck set angle. Those from 1958 are still very valuable, but have a shallow neck set angle and don’t play quite as well as the ’59 model. Those made from 1960 onward have a somewhat slimmer contour neck and don’t bring as much money as the ‘59 model.
‘But any made prior to mid-’65 with the 1 11/16″ nut and a stop tailpiece are still sought-after collectibles. One might consider the golden age to be subdivided into the best being from 1958-1961, when the ES-335 had dot inlays and all the humbuckers had PAF stickers… but all are still quite collectible and very fine instruments through mid-1965.’