Subscribe to our blog
The Gibson ES-335: An Attainable Dream Guitar

1.21 gigawatts.

That's how much energy is needed to trigger the flux capacitor in a DeLorean doubling as a time machine.

There are only two ways to generate that level of power: plutonium or a bolt of lightning.

Considering the consumer rarity of transuranic radioactive chemical elements, especially in 1955, a young man named Marty McFly and his mad scientist ally Doc Brown had to settle for lightning to send Marty back to 1985.

How they did it is a different story, but here's why it matters: none of this happens before Marty lights up the stage at Hill Valley High's Under the Sea dance with what could be considered the most cinematic guitar solo in history—

A blistering sonic screed that burned one guitar model into the minds of movie-goers and musicians forever: the Gibson ES-335.

To the same degree that Back to the Future is considered a kind of fever-dream, the ES-335 is considered a dream guitar—the only model that could have held the spotlight in a scene with such epic stakes.

Many guitar greats have since sited Marty's triumph as the reason they first picked up a guitar. The guy who wrote the song that inspired Walt Grace Vintage itself, John Mayer, has explicitly stated that he began playing after seeing the scene as a kid in Connecticut.

Interestingly enough, at the center of the scene is an anachronism: Back to the Future takes place in 1955. Gibson didn't introduce the ES-335 until 1958. But hey, that's Hollywood.

As the first commercially produced hollow-body guitar, the ES-335 had immediate significance, but it's not really the model's history that makes it so sought after by collectors and salivated over by players.

Gibson Custom Shop 1964 ES-335 Reissue Electric Guitar - VOS Sixties Cherry

The ES-335 is the girl next door of guitars, somehow capturing in its graceful curvature a beauty that seems unattainable, as if it could turn to ash at the touch. Lucky for us, it doesn't, and with the ES-335 in hand, guitar greats have blessed the world time and again.

Wielding an ES-335, Chuck Berry changed the world with searing, revolutionary leads and songwriting that remain the standard of rock & roll to this day. (And the inspiration for Back to the Future.)

With his lovely Lucille, BB King found a sound as recognizable as rainfall to the ear of the blues junkie. His subtle licks are legend.

Another King, Freddie, also found his sonic soulmate in an ES-335. It was, frankly, the only model capable of matching his enormous stage presence, earth-shaking voice, and slash-and-burn style of fingerpicking leads.

We could go on—Eric Clapton. Otis Rush. Alvin Lee. The ES-335 has travelled through time, finding its way into the hands of the most epic names in six-string history.

In the Gibson catalog, the ES-335 plays a kind of angel to the SG's devil. If we're to see the sharpened cutaways of the SG as horns, the elegantly curved cutaways of the ES look like wings in comparison.

The ES's generous, hollow body generates a resilient tone that never seems to get lost, no matter the rest of the player's rig. Pedal stacks can't obscure the depth and richness that seem to resonate in every note that comes from an ES-335.

Yet, despite its buxom body, the ES is adorned with a thin, rounded C-shaped neck that enables and welcomes rapid, aggressive styles of play—which is one of the reasons she eventually received a tantalizing modification that capitalizes on these qualities: the Trini Lopez.

The Trini Lopes ES swaps the traditional f-holes for sleek diamond-shaped resonators, the traditional headstock for a Firebird headstock, and the traditional tailpiece for a sexy "trapeze" tail. Today, most recognize the Trini Lopez model as being Dave Grohl's weapon of choice as he sprints the runways at Foo Fighters arena shows.

Here's another curio: while most electric guitars eventually shed their alpha-numeric model name to take on more marketable monikers (think Stratocaster, Firebird, Mustang, Electromatic, etc.) the ES-335 resisted doing the same. Why? It's hard to explain, but doesn't "ES-335" just ring? Where most technical model names sound jagged and inhuman, ES-335 is somehow a combination of letters and numbers that's... hot.

It all comes back to the ES's hallmark: it never tries too hard. It's a marvel of sonic engineering, craft and artistry, and it seems to be aware of that fact. Usually sighted in one of three simple finishes—cherry, ebony, or burst—the ES-335 is never gimmicky, never garish.

And yet, for all these qualities, the ES-335 is a dream guitar that remains remarkably attainable. Not quite ubiquitous but not quite not ubiquitous, you shouldn't have a hard time finding one when you're interested. However, there is one ES-335 that will forever remain out of reach: the one that lies with Chuck Berry in Bellerive Heritage Gardens Cemetery.

Unfortunately, 1.21 gigawatt amps don't exist... yet. But you won't need one to send a bolt of lightning to the heart with a Gibson ES-335. She's pure, timeless power.

Oh, and one last thing—DeLorean sold separately
May 07, 2021 — Bill Goldstein
Tags: ES-335 Gibson