Gibson ES-355

Stunning workmanship guitar, made in June 1981 in the last days of Gibson’s old Kalamazoo, Michigan factory. Hollowbody guitars can seem fragile, but the ES-3X5 series are actually pretty tough with their substantial block of maple running down the centre. But when the electronics have problems, you can wish you’d bought a solidbody for those easy access control cavities! This one developed wiring issues (no signal from the jack plug), so out it all has to come, through the lower ‘f’ soundhole if you’re unlucky, or through the bridge pickup rout if there is a gap in the maple block there (only slightly less difficult). Of course it all does come out easier than it goes back in! This ES-355TDSV (to give it its full model designation – ‘Thinline Dual pickup Stereo Varitone’), and the similar ES-345 have the added delight of a large rotary 6 position 2 gang switch and a pair of box-packaged mounting-flanged chokes for the ‘Varitone’ circuitry (a 5 position notch filter to approximate a single coil sound) to deal with.

With the wiring harness, pots (3 of them mounted in large shielding canisters), pickups, pickup switch, chokes, jack and Varitone switch all out, any problems are then usually self evident. This one had lost one of its hot connections with the jackplug (it’s stereo so there are two), and had a partially severed neck pickup wire intermittently shorting to its ground shield. This was apparently caused by sweat corrosion (you do always wipe your guitar down after playing don’t you). More problematic was that the resistor and capacitor filter package chips (the blue items on pic above) that are attached underneath the rotary switch used by the Varitone circuit were disintegrating. And these are pretty much now unobtanium for any sensible money.

At this point, many would simply abandon the Varitone and stereo configuration and re-wire the guitar as per ES-335 (ie more like a Les Paul). Gibson introduced the stereo Varitone system at the tail end of the fifties when all things stereo was the rage, but the hassles and expense of a stereo signal chain have led many players to abandon either the wiring or the guitar. Too, many do not like the Varitone feature, claiming it muddies the tone because it cannot be fully bypassed properly.

However as this guitar was to be restored as built (it’s on the cusp of really being ‘vintage’, but that Kalamazoo factory closure is becoming a significant value point for Gibsons), I made up replacement filter packages using discrete resistors and polystyrene caps; these took up only a little more room than the originals, so I knew the whole switch assemby would just be able to go back in to the guitar. Everything went back inside smoothly at the second attempt (ideally for this having three hands is good, four would be better), and when tested all functioned as it should. When then playing the guitar it was obvious the Varitone had benefited from the better audio quality and precision value of the polystyrene caps than were the case in the original ceramic packages, and I wonder if that muddiness is some of the issue people have with the Varitone circuit. Position ‘1’ which should be true bypass of the Varitone circuitry, is much better too; I have heard there may be stray capacitance arising from the construction method of the original chip circuits which compromises the fully bypassed position ‘1’. Interestingly, when the Varitone circuit was originally introduced in 1959, it was at that time built with discrete resistors and caps; the ceramic chip packages were introduced later, in the mid sixties, making the guitars’ wiring much easier to produce.

A lovely guitar if you can get comfortable with the stereo aspect, which is a feature that does have practical uses to expand the sonic palette with two different amps or separate effects chains. Sometimes the factory installed a neck pickup out of phase with the bridge (a la Peter Green), which can be even more of a curve ball. You don’t really want to use a Y-cord with built in mixing resistors as electronics theory would dictate – it attenuates the signal too much for best tone. Two channel amps work fine with a reverse Y-cord though, and any four hole Marshall type amp is superb for this – I recall a film clip showing Chuck Berry ‘In Concert’ on the BBC playing his ES-355 through a Marshall Super Lead head (yeah, I know, bet you didn’t see that one coming). Sounds great, and the Varitone is definitely a usable feature (it’s a good approximation to a single coil sound compared to say coil tap splits), and works especially well as a way to clean up from the guitar without lowering the volume if the overdrive all gets too much. Bear in mind, with those ‘f’ holes you can get severe acoustical feedback leading to resonance; before you know it the guitar will start ‘breathing’ like Usain Bolt so it feels like it’s going to explode, but clicking in a couple of steps on the Varitone filter can remove just enough mid-lower frequency to stay in control. There are other approaches – B B King stuffed newspaper in to the ‘f’ holes of his ES-355, and ensured the signature ‘Lucille’ model based on it that Gibson builds doesn’t have them.

Being one of their top of the line models, Gibson were selecting some of their best pickups for these, and the ‘T Tops’ in this one are powerful while retaining the semi-hollowbody character well (and they kept the best woods for them too).

Here is some interesting research by Chris Wargo regarding Varitone discrete compared to chip based circuits, and much else Varitone besides:

Paper 1 ‘The Gibson Varitone – Where’s the Disconnect?’

Paper 2 ‘The Variable Varitone’