Gibson’s ES series began with the ES-150 of 1936, generally recognised as the world’s first successful electric guitar. The ES-150’s name – like many Gibson models that preceded and followed – simply denotes price: in 1936, $150 bought you the guitar, an amplifier and a cable. Gibson had previously fitted pickups on acoustic guitars in 1935, but the ES-150 was the first specifically-designed electric guitar to make a real impact.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was two retail companies – Montgomery Ward and Spiegel May Stern – who pushed Gibson to design and build the ES-150. Early pickup-loaded L-00 and L-1 models were selling so well that the stores suggested Gibson should offer a new ‘proper’ electric model. Outside of the blues, jazz bands were still where you’d mostly hear guitar, but mostly as ‘comping’ chording and as a backup instrument.
The ES-150 changed all that. Gibson still built for Montgomery Ward and Spiegel, but their own-brand ES-150 was a cut above: it had a solid spruce top, maple back and sides, and an adjustable trussrod. In ’36-’37, Gibson shipped 40 ES-150s a month – heady stuff for what some then thought of as a gimmick. An electric guitar? Whoulda thunk it?
Count Basie’s guitarist Eddie Durham recorded one of the earliest amplified guitar solos, but it was when his friend and follower Charlie Christian picked up an ES-150 that showcase guitar soloing was truly born. Durham later remarked, ‘I never saw anyone learn so fast, nor have I seen anyone rise to the top so quickly.’
By 1939, the prodigious Christian was working with Benny Goodman’s bands – his work, with an ES-150, on Air Mail Special, Honeysuckle Rose and – in particular – the epic Solo Flight ushered in the era of the guitar solo. Before long, stores were advertising the ES-150 with the tag ‘as featured by Charlie Christian.’
Yet the ES-150 was still essentially a ‘jazz box’. It had the outline and deep body of many existing Gibson archtop acoustics, and no cutaway. Still, at the time, it was something of a revolution. Variations followed: the similar-looking ES-125 was a student model, but had a new pickup fitted which we now call the P90. The ES-250 (1938-’40) was higher spec’d, but didn’t last long; the USA was still recovering from the Great Depression, and $250 was the 2013 equivalent of $4000. The ES-300 (produced from ’40-’52 in limited numbers) was another variation, but odd; early models had a heavily slanted pickup which is interesting to guitar experts, yet the same experts almost uniformly agree that most ES-300 guitars sound poor.
Nevertheless, these early ES models were finely-built. Nashville guitar expert and dealer George Gruhn tells Guitar & Bass, ‘The original Charlie Christian model ES-150 guitar, built from 1936 through ’39, is a very fine instrument. The pre-war ES-250 is also highly sought after, and very rare. But the post-World War II non-cutaway electrics, such as the ES-125, while they play well and sound good, tend to bring relatively low prices. Most players want a cutaway.’
Indeed, WWII had a bigger impact on guitar makers than you may think. Timber was highly valued and the best wood was used by the US government to build for the war effort. Gibson mainly concentrated on their acoustics with the limited supplies they had. It would be peace time before Gibson really moved its ES range forward.
The ES-175 debuted in 1949, and remains a highly significant model in Gibson history. Alongside the pricier ES-350, it was also the first Gibson electric to feature a Florentine (sharp) cutaway. The same year’s ES-5 had a round cutaway, and some had three pickups: build-wise, though, it was essentially a variation of the carved-topped L-5 acoustic.
Although the ES-175’s first incarnation had only a single P90 in the neck position, later models (the ES-175D, from ’53) came with two pickups. The ES-175 employed a laminated top to keep the price down – so even though it was still ‘jazz sized’, the 175 was clearly pointing the way to more affordable yet grandly spec’d ‘archtop’ electrics.
Fender’s Broadcaster (later called the Esquire and the Telecaster) also debuted in ’49, and it remains fascinating how the two guitar makers’ ethos contrasted. Fender’s model was genius design, for sure, but arguably utilitarian and an ‘easy’ build of slab wood and wire. The ES-175 exuded Gibson’s archtop heritage craft and it looked stunning.
The ES-175 also eventually spawned a variation in a flashy all-gold livery, the ES-295. This one boasted a multi-bound maple top, a white pickguard with etched flowers, pearl parallelogram neck inlays and more. And one happened to be in the hands, from 1953-’55, of a guitar player backing the hottest new artist in rock’n’roll, Elvis Presley. Interesting fact? Elvis’s Scotty Moore traded in his only-justbought Fender Telecaster for his famed ES-295: ‘It might have something to do with it being a feminine shape, but I couldn’t get on with the Fender,’ Moore once recalled. ‘So I got a Gibson, a gold ES-295, and that was the one I used on the first things we cut.’