Gibson ES 335 - The Most Versatile Guitar Ever?
Published on 13 September 2019
Ask any guitarist out there about what the most versatile electric guitar is, odds are they’ll say the Fender Stratocaster. It’s a fair shout, for sure: the faithful Strat can apply itself gamely to pretty much every genre of music with success. People swear by them.
But there is more to this subject than that.
Discerning players out there may know that that, whilst the Strat is undoubtedly a versatile beast, it always sounds ‘stratty’. It’s never anything other than itself, much like the Gibson Les Paul. Great guitars, both, but very specific guitars.
Yes, clued-up players will undoubtedly nod their heads instead toward the Gibson ES-335 (and its similar counterparts the 345 and 355) as being perhaps the most versatile electric of them all! The Gibson ES-335 (ES stands for Electric Spanish) was introduced in 1958. It was designed in order to bridge to divide between Gibson’s beautifully traditional hollow body archtops and their harder sounding, feedback-free Les Paul model.
It has, unlike the Les Paul, never been out of production and is employed in every main genre of music that uses guitars. We think, in terms of versatility, it’s a match for the Strat.
Let’s have a deeper look...
Most guitarists associate the 335 with the Blues. From BB King to Cream-era Clapton, the smoother, more open voice of the 335 is the perfect choice. Its physical size denotes status and increases stage presence, something that was a major factor with authentic 20th Century electric Blues artists.
One of the design goals with the 335 was to give players more sustain. The semi-hollow build with its elegant f-holes were part of Gibson’s jazz-box heritage, but the solid centre block was a new innovation. The result was a sound that mellowed slightly after the initial attack, before delivering a luxurious sustain. This type of sound is what BB King excelled at. His particular problem was feedback and so his signature Lucille models did away with the f-holes in favour of sealed-off chambers. BB must have played loud.
Clapton’s Blues playing is decidedly more Rock, as is the most iconic 335 player of them all (well, ES-355), Chuck Berry! Chuck’s red Gibson probably did more to put Gibson’s ES on the map than any other. The charismatic hitmaker used his bling’d-up 355 throughout his entire career, inspiring the likes of Keith Richards to pick up a guitar. His Rock ‘n’ Roll licks are the seed form which all Rock star licks grew. Chuck Berry is beyond iconic, and he did it all on a Gibson ES.
Staying on the subject of classic 50s and 60s Rock ‘n’ Roll, one visible 335 lover was the ineffably great Roy Orbison, who’s preferred choice of colour was not difficult to guess!
Jazz players generally require a smooth sound with subtle articulations and lots of detail. The main gift of the 335 to guitarists is just such a warm sound, with the added bonus of an attack that ‘jazz boxes’ don’t tend to have. Larry Carlton is of course the pre-eminent ES Jazz man, who’s dedication to his ’69 ES-335 has earned him the moniker ‘Mr 335’!
Eric Johnson’s jazzier moments have seen him leave his beloved Strats in favour of a Cherry 335. His magician-like skills translate through everything he does and every guitar he uses, but his 335 tone in particular is simply to die for.
The fact that the Gibson ES-335 is one of the best-looking electric guitars in the world helps things along when it’s time for Rock stars to play ‘em. Rush’s Alex Lifeson has a particularly gorgeous white 355, whilst Dave Grohl’s signature model is essentially a 335 with the Trini Lopez model headstock and ‘diamond’ f-holes. These guys crank the gain and the volume, proving that a 335 can easily rock as hard as a Les Paul!
Queens of the Stone Age’s frontman Josh Homme is also a fan, but his preference is actually for Epiphone’s affordable Dot model! As a famous musician and a respected guitarist, his decision to opt for the Dot is notable.
Another Epiphone ES fan is industrial legend Trent Reznor. Given his propensity for guitar smashing, there could be fiscal reasons for picking Epiphone over Gibson, but we’ve never seen him smash his beloved Sheraton!
His bandmate Robin Finck frequently uses a Gibson ES-335 for his monster gain tones, too. Nine Inch Nails’ use of digital guitar equipment may prove to be useful for them in excluding unwanted feedback when using high gain and heavy fuzz sounds.
Inspiring guitar-mangler Joey Santiago from the Pixies is another Rock player who prefers Gibson ES guitars. Though on records he has mainly opted for Les Pauls (to contrast with Black Francis’ omnipresent Telecasters), you’ll more often than not see him opting for a delicious Cherry ES-345. Given the ferocity of some of his sounds, this is ample proof that, in the right hands, Gibson's semi-hollow ES models can easily ‘do’ gain!
Swans’ Michael Gira takes this further, using a Gibson Lucille to make earth-shattering noises of intensity and great volume.
The Britpop days of the mid 90s were awash with 335’s. Of course, Noel Gallagher is the obvious reference point, but the quality playing was being performed by Suede’s Bernard Butler. His ES-335/Vox AC30/Rat pedal combo was an electrifying sound that is still proving influential. His is also a very visible fan of the Bigsby tremolo, a device that wins approval often for its visual triumphs over its practical ones! In the hands of a player like Butler, though, it’s an effective addition to some explosive playing.
Before all this, Smiths guitarist and sonic painter Johnny Marr was a confirmed fan of the 355, using it on the Smith’s Top of the Pops performance of How Soon is Now? On 1985. Warning: this video cantains large amounts of Morrissey...
So, what do you reckon now? We’ve seen how the Gibson ES-335 and its slightly fancy brethren the 345 and 355 have been successfully called into duty on every major genre of guitar music excluding perhaps Country & Western. As polite as you want, as expressive and nuanced as any guitar, right through to legitimately roaring industrial noise: the Gibson ‘Electric Spanish’ can bring it in spades.
This is without requiring any modificaitons, too! We'd venture that a Strat can only really give a satisfying Heavy Rock sound (not vintage/classic/Hendrix so stop right there!) with the help of a bridge position humbucker, something the original design simply does not have! Right out of the case, the Gibson ES-335 is ready to for all tours of duty! Hopefully this article provides ample proof that, more than any other electric guitar, the Gibson ES-335 is the one guitar that can do it all.