Freddie King’s ’73 ES-355

Thinline Crown
Freddie King’s ’73 ES-355
King onstage with the 355 in 1975.
Freddie King 1975: Trombert/DAPR via Zuma Press.

Influenced by Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others including jump-blues saxophonist Louis Jordan, Freddie King was an integral piece of Chicago’s blues scene in the 1960s.

King and his mother lived in Gilmer, Texas, where at age six he started learning country-blues on a general-store Roy Rogers “stencil” guitar with help from her and an uncle. In 1949, they moved to the Windy City, where 16-year-old Freddie quickly endeared himself to Otis Rush, “Magic Sam” Maghett, Buddy Guy, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Hound Dog Taylor, and Muddy Waters. By the mid ’50s, he was a session guitarist for local record labels Parrott and Chess while also playing with Earlee Payton’s Blues Cats and the Little Sonny Cooper Band. In ’56, he recorded a single on El-Bee Records, then began fronting his own combo and developing his guitar-driven blues style in clubs on the West Side.

For the two decades that followed, King mixed rural and urban musical influences while helping blaze the trail to blues-rock. Noted in guitar history for his string bends, vocalesque vibrato, he scored with both vocal and instrumental albums, Freddy King Sings and Let’s Hide Away And Dance Away With Freddy King (both 1961) and Gives You A Bonanza Of Instrumentals (’65). His music was praised and his style emulated by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jeff Beck, Lonnie Brooks, Billy Gibbons, Luther and Bernard Allison, Johnny Winter, and Eric Clapton, who covered “Hide Away” on the 1966 John Mayall Blues Breakers album.

Early in his career, King played the ’54 Les Paul goldtop pictured on the cover of Freddy King Sings; it inspired Clapton to buy a Les Paul, though he inadvertently got a ’Burst. King moved to Gibson semi-hollows in the mid ’60s, then through the late ’60s and early ’70s was most often seen on a ’68 ES-345 (VG, January ’18), furthering his right-hand technique with a plastic thumbpick and metal pick on his index finger.

Freddie King ES-355: Keith Cypert, courtesy of Carter Vintage.

Riding high through the early ’70s, King’s three albums for Shelter Records, Getting Ready…, Texas Cannonball, and Woman Across the River, sold well as his performances drew impressive crowds of blues and rock fans. In ’73, he stepped up from the 345 to a new 355 before signing with RSO Records and recording Burglar with an all-star cast of backing players including Clapton and his band on “Sugar Sweet.” In ’75 came Larger Than Life, a mostly-live album compiled from three performances at Armadillo World Headquarters.

King toured the U.S. through ’76, even as heart disease began to noticeably wear him down. He died that December 29, just 42 years old. In 1993, Texas Governor Ann Richards declared September 3 “Freddie King Day,” and in 2012 he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This ES-355 was King’s main guitar in his final years. It resurfaced in March after the widow of its owner, John Beudel, brokered it through Carter Vintage, in Nashville.

“She had no documentation,” said Jon Roncolato, the shop’s general manger at the time. “So we went on a search for provenance.”

Given the guitar’s distinct wear – especially on the neck since King’s guitars are known for the damage caused by the jewerly on his fingers – and ample video from the period, “We were pretty confident it was, in fact, his guitar,” Roncolato said. “But we needed more proof, and as we continued to put together the story, the guitar gods got to meddling.”

That “meddling” happened on March 21, when an employee, not knowing the guitar’s history, listed it for sale on the store’s website.

Late that evening, managing partner Kim Sherman was manning the website chat when someone posted a message.

“They were asking for a serial number of a listing,” Sherman said. “I looked at what they were viewing and suddenly realized that the ES-355 had gone live on the site for $9,500. I shared the serial number, then put it on hold.”

The poster was Tom Van Hoose, who has been part of the archtop/jazz-guitar scene since the ’70s, along the way amassing more than 400 vintage instruments and authoring The Gibson Super 400: Art of the Fine Guitar. In ’91, he opened Van Hoose Vintage Instruments, in Dallas.

The back of the neck indicates use by an active lead player.

“I check the Carter Vintage website regularly because I’ve bought some nice guitars from them,” he said. And while any 355 would’ve piqued his interest, once he saw this one, he said, “I quickly went to my archives.”

Chatting with Sherman the next day, Van Hoose confirmed what Beudel’s widow told staff at Carter’s, including how, after King’s passing, the guitar had been purchased from his family by Charley Wirz, owner of the renowned Charley’s Guitar Shop and a legend among Texas players and guitarheads; together with John Brinkman and Danny Thorpe, he staged the first Greater Southwest Vintage Guitar Show (a.k.a. the “Dallas guitar show”) in 1978.


Wirz died unexpectedly during the NAMM show in February, 1985. Being a close friend, Van Hoose helped his widow, Carol, determine the fate of the store and Charley’s guitar collection. The process involved recording all serial numbers.

“About a year before Charley died, I’d visited their home and he showed me his thinline collection; he had 41 – all vintage 335s, 45s, 55s, and a blond Sheraton,” he said. “The Freddie King guitar was there, and I remember tinkering with it. It was rough, but it was cool, and Charley told me the stor y about how he got it from Freddie’s family.”

An indicator of Freddie King’s ownership – heavy wear anywhere his fret hand had to travel. His style – using a thumbpick and fingerpick on his index – meant wear not normally seen under the strings at the top of the pickguard.

Beudel, a blues enthusiast and guitar collector in Ohio, acquired the 355 from Wirz’s estate in the ’80s. He died in December of 2021.

After Van Hoose helped her gain full confidence in the guitar’s provenance, Sherman sold it with one call to a longtime customer (going back to her days at Cotten Music) who is a devout Freddie King fan.

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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