Gibson’s first “semi-acoustic” thinline, the ES-335, was in essence a combination of features borrowed from earlier Gibsons. In an attempt to produce an instrument that was neither solid nor fully acoustic, Ted McCarty and the Gibson design team took inspiration from one of Les Paul’s earlier experiments. In the late ’30s, Paul built a prototype 335 aptly named the Log. His initial attempts to produce a solidbody guitar inadvertently resulted in the first known example of a semi-acoustic guitar. This, of course, had never been Paul’s intentions; his objective was to demonstrate the viability of solidbody guitars.
Because of prejudice and resistance, Paul decided to give his “solid” guitar a more conventional appearance by clipping the shaped sides of a regular non-cutaway acoustic Epiphone to his “electrified” Log. In doing so, he demonstrated the viability of the solidbody guitar, and unwittingly provided a blueprint for the semi-acoustic.
Attaching pickups to a block of wood onto which two hollow sound chambers were appended produced an instrument with all of the advantages of a solid guitar and none of the disadvantages of an electro-acoustic. The chambers gave the instrument an acoustic resonance and sustain unlike any other guitar. In 1957-’58, McCarty’s team designed a truly innovative guitar around this principle.
The first semi-solid (or more accurately, “semi-acoustic”) guitar manufactured by Gibson was the ES-335TD. It made an auspicious debut April of ’58. The Gibson ES-335TD shown here is one of the first, with a long pickguard, dot markers, and an unbound fingerboard. By 1959, the rosewood fingerboard was bound, and in the autumn of 1960, a shorter pickguard was introduced and fitted standard to Gibson semi-hollow guitars.
The team knew an instrument with a central wooden block had to be thin to keep the weight down. An unprecedented 12¾” x 17¼” x 1¾” had already been used for the solidbody Les Pauls for this reason. It was also decided that the semi-acoustic should have a feel and appearance closer to Gibson’s hollow thinlines such as the Byrdland, ES-350T, and ES-225T. While the log furnished the basic concept, a suitable shape and size had yet to be found. Existing models were scrutinized for suitable dimensions, construction, and hardware, and many of the features incorporated into the 335’s final design can be traced back through a long line of predecessors.
Precedent for the 335’s double cutaways go back to the ’20s. More contemporaneous with the 335 were the double-cutaway solidbodies from competitors such as Fender and Rickenbacker. The 335’s upper treble-bout cutaway was not far removed from the rounded Venetian cutaways of the Byrdland and ES-350T from 1955. Another cutaway on the bass side of the neck resulted in a symmetrical design that was both aesthetically satisfying and practical.
The double cutaways provided an almost semi-circular recess at the neck joint which, combined with the shallow body, allowed easy access to every fret. Players accustomed to fretting bass strings with their thumb could do so along the length of the fingerboard.
Unlike Paul’s Log, which as designed to show its central block, the 335 was closer in appearance to a conventional archtop. A central block of solid maple, 4″ wide by 1″ deep, was discreetly sandwiched between its pressed-maple top and back, contoured to the body’s arch by kerfed spruce buffers.
From a distance, the 335 looked like an acoustic thinline, albeit with a new and novel cutaway. Apart from its weight, the only way to detect its semi-solid construction was to look inside the sound holes.
The 335’s laminated top was pressed from a sheet of poplar or basswood (depending on supply) sandwiched between the outer sheets of maple. As with the company’s other laminated guitars, the plywood was pressed for eight minutes under 200 pounds of pressure.
The 335’s one-piece Honduras mahogany neck joined the body at the 19th fret, though this was erroneously noted in Gibson’s 1958 and ’60 catalogs as the 20th. While the earliest 335 had unbound Brazilian rosewood fingerboards, single binding was standard from mid ’58 onward. The dot markers and 24¾” scale length can be traced through a succession of Gibson electrics. The headstock was unbound and capped with a painted (black) wood veneer, into which the logo was inlaid. The “crown” motif from the 350T, 175, ES-5, 295, and various acoustics was inlaid between the tuning posts of the fifth and second strings.
Like several other guitars such as the Les Paul Custom and Standard, L-5, and Super 400 CES, the 335 was fitted with the humbucking introduced midway through ’57 (on the ES-175). The body of the pickup was suspended from a black-plastic surround and hung free from the body, as opposed to being screwed to it. This reduced feedback and meant the neck could be set nearly flush with the body, resulting in an extremely low playing action. The humbucker’s patent was registered in 1955, but full rights were not granted until ’59. Consequently, the majority of early humbuckers had “Patent Applied For” stickers on their underside.
Both the Tune-O-Matic bridge and stop tailpiece were perfected by McCarty in 1952. Many early 335s were shipped with Bisgby vibrato arms, and the holes for the stop tailpiece’s twin posts were concealed by a laminated plastic plaque (black on white) engraved with the words “Custom Made.” The 335’s pickguard was made from five-ply black-and-white laminated plastic, screwed to the top of the instrument rather than pinned to the side of the neck.
The remaining hardware consisted of six individual Kluson DeLuxe machine heads, two nickel-plated strap buttons, four controls, and the usual pickup selector. The nickel-plated machine heads had the same tulip-shaped pearloid buttons as the ES-175 and Les Paul Standard. Similar pegs had, in fact, been used on a variety of Gibsons since the 1940s.
By 1958, the configuration of separate Tone and Volume controls for each pickup was standard. Prior to the 335, the toggle switch had been positioned away from the Tone and Volume controls, usually on one of the upper bouts. On the 335, however, it was grouped with the Tone and Volume controls, primarily to ease production; fitting the wiring harness through the narrow sound holes and a small cavity inside the recess for the bridge pickup was already a fiddly and time-consuming procedure. Furthermore, the proximity of the toggle switch to the player’s hand was advantageous for quick pickup selection and thus very well-received.
The elegant simplicity and workmanlike design of the 335 was so successful that Gibson extended the range by slotting models above it (the ES-335TD and 345-TD) and below it (the ES-330). While the ES-335 has undergone dozens of so-called “improvements” during its long life, Gibson has never bettered the original design.
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This article originally appeared in VG Classics No. 4 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.