REVIEW: Gibson 50th Anniversary 1963 ES-335

ES63SBNH1-Finish-ShotGibson unveiled the ES-335 in 1958 and it was an instant success, but even so the model underwent a few changes in 1963 which led to it becoming a bona fide icon. Those changes are often referred to as ‘Clapton-spec’ in tribute to this variant’s most famous proponent (have a guess who. Hint: it’s not Richard Clapton), and the most obvious change is the move from dot inlays to big chunky blocks. Gibson Memphis pays tribute to this revision with the 50th Anniversary ES-335. This version of the ES-335 is available in two period-correct finishes: ‘60s Cherry or Historic Burst, each of which is finished in hand-sprayed nitrocellulose lacquer and given Gibson’s VOS treatment for a gently aged look. This isn’t a ‘relic’ guitar by any means: rather it looks like it’s accumulated a few decades’ worth of natural ageing while being kept totally safe from dings and scratches. But it does feel nicely weathered. 

The 50th Anniversary ES-335 features a semi-hollow arch-top body made of laminated maple with a solid, lightweight maple centre block, along with spruce braces and cedar rim liners. The neck is carved from a single solid chunk of quarter-sawn mahogany with vintage-style binding and cool tortoiseshell side dots which almost catch the light like little gems – an illusion which is further sold with the tinted lacquer that covers the vintage-style binding. It’s cut to an authentic ’63 profile, which to my hands seems not quite as chunky as a ‘50s-style neck but also not quite as slim as the ‘60s necks we’re familiar with on current Gibson models. There are 22 frets on the dark rosewood fingerboard, featuring those iconic pearloid block inlays. The fretboard radius is 12” and the nut is made of nylon. The nut and frets are treated with Gibson’s PLEK system.

335Electronics consist of the traditional Gibson twin volume and tone controls and a three-position pickup selector switch controlling a pair of Alnico 2-loaded Gibson pickups: a Burstbucker 1 in the neck position and a slightly hotter Burstbucker 2 at the bridge. Theonly flaw to be found anywhere at all on the entire guitar is that the treble side of the nut feels a little sharp if you jam into it too hard. And calling that a flaw is really stretching it. Basically, this is a really beautiful guitar with great fretwork and authentic  workmanship and features.

There’s a certain magic that’s invoked when you plug this guitar in. It sounds smooth and round, and is extremely responsive to picking and fretting dynamics. Whatever you do seems to be enhanced: pick loud and it seems really loud; pick soft and it seems really soft. The bridge pickup has a buttery, bright, sunny edge to it, not too sharp but with enough of a treble kick to cut through a raging band. The neck pickup is smooth and mellow, although it too can be coaxed into a little more edge when you dig in with the pick. And the middle setting gives you all those great nuanced tones that happen when you balance the two volume controls and set the tones just right. All three pickup selections complement each other and yet are sufficiently different to each other, and the guitar sounds equally great through a clean or overdriven tone. You probably wouldn’t want to ping it through a high gain amp – at least not at stage volume – because that semi-hollow body would risk feeding back. But if you play blues-rock, alternative, alternative country, classic rock, jazz, country… there are all sorts of genres that can work with this guitar. It’s a true pleasure to play and it really feels like a part of you.

There’s a reason why the ES-335 is considered a true classic. It might not always be easy to pinpoint what those reasons are… is it the tone? The feel? The responsiveness? The looks? The smell? Yes! It’s all those things and more. I strongly urge you to seek one of these bad boys out and give it a try for yourself, because then it’ll all become clear.