Guitar Review: Gibson Custom ES-330

April 17th, 2013

Story by Tom Beaujour | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta

As the owner of a pair of original Gibson ES-330s, I opened the case containing a fresh Gibson Custom reissue of this classic thinline guitar with a healthy dose of skepticism. But with one glimpse of its deep-red finish, and a few preliminary strums, I was convinced that it not only exudes an unimpeachable old-school vibe but is also a superlative instrument by modern standards.

The ES-330 was introduced in 1959 and phased out by 1972. A fully hollow, double-cutaway guitar sporting either one or two single-coil P-90 pickups, it has always been less popular than its semihollow, humbucker-equipped counterpart, the ES-335, which was unveiled in 1958 and has been in continuous production since. This is perhaps because the ES-330 is a more challenging instrument to negotiate. It doesn’t sustain as well or reject feedback as aggressively as the ES-335, and its 16th-fret neck-to-body junction does not provide unfettered access to the uppermost registers.

But the ES-330, with its woody and bell-like timbre, has had some impressive devotees, including jazz players like Grant Green, bluesmen such as B.B. King, and rockers, including Keith Richards. Considering the attention that Gibson has given to other electrics from its golden era, it was high time for the exacting 1959 reissue that the company now offers.

Just like the earliest ES-330s, the new version is available in vintage sunburst, natural, or Cherry, a color first made available in 1960. The beautiful hand-rubbed Cherry finish on our review model was rendered with nitrocellulose lacquer and vintage correct—dark but faded, and transparent enough to reveal the wood’s swirling grains, a bird’s-eye figuration, and a hint of flame here and there on the maple body.

Our ES-330 faithfully captured so many of the other original details: the thinness of the binding, the tortoise side dots on the neck, the bevel of the pickguard, the edges of the f-holes (painted red as opposed to black), and a stamped serial number inside the guitar instead of an oval paper label. A small complaint: it’s odd that the Cherry reissue has tulip-tip Kluson tuners, while the sunburst and natural models are equipped with the vintage-correct Klusons with white buttons. The tulip tips just don’t look right on an ES-330.

Despite its Bigsby tailpiece, which adds a bit of mass, the ES-330 is nicely lightweight. It’s extremely well balanced, and it feels equally good when played in standing position, facilitated by a strap button at the heel—one of the few details other than the tuners that isn’t period correct on the guitar.

If the craftsmanship on the ES-330 is any indication, Gibson Memphis has never made finer guitars. The fretwork is meticulous, as are the nut slots, thanks to Gibson’s PLEK-system treatment. There’s not a hint of orange peel to be found in the finish, and all the binding is cleanly scraped. And the guitar’s VOS (Vintage Original Spec) treatment, in which the finish’s shine is tamed and the metal parts lightly tarnished, gives the instrument a convincingly vintage effect.

While the necks on some Fifties reissue guitars feature an exaggerated girth, the ES-330’s neck profile feels very similar to the ultra-comfortable neck on my original 1959 example, and it has the same smoothly rounded fretboard binding. The neck is neither too large nor too skimpy and is smoothly playable from the open position to the highest fret.

The ES-330 reissue is a true pleasure to play without an amplifier. The guitar is loud and resonant, with a pronounced natural reverb. The factory setup is perfect, with action just high enough to discourage buzzing and encourage speedy runs. A shortcoming found on some original ES-330s, my 1962 included, is that the neck can have dead spots where the notes sound muddled, but on our review model the notes at every fret on each string rang true and clear. As a bonus, it’s quite easy to do wide bends on the guitar—bends that stay perfectly in tune and don’t fret out.

The ES-330’s electronics include a pair of underwound P-90 (Alnico II) pickups, Sprague Black Beauty capacitors, and 500k audio taper pots. Plugged into a Fender Pro Junior amplifier, the ES-330 sounded excellent, with an overall warm and woody sound that was equally strong between the front and rear pickups. It was easy to channel Grant Green and George Harrison (who played an Epiphone Casino, essentially an ES-330).

Compared with the original 1959 article, the reissue sounds very similar, if just a touch less sweet and articulate. But then again the reissue hasn’t had more than 50 years for its sound to mature. And for fans of the ES-330, this impeccably built and eminently playable thinline—which costs half the price of an original (or a third in the case of the blonde version)—would be a no-brainer addition to one’s stable.

LIST PRICE: $5,528
Gibson, gibson.com

Chemical Brother: Mike Voltz of the Gibson Custom Shop talks about the ES-330 reissue.

Why did Gibson Custom decide to reissue the ES-330?

We have long given a lot of love to the ES-335 and currently offer the most historically accurate 1959 reissues of that guitar. We just thought it was the right time to give the same treatment to the ES-330, a very cool and underrated guitar.

How were you able to nail so many of the historical details?

I told my wife I’d have to buy some vintage Gibsons for the job. She didn’t exactly buy it, but I got a few and scraped some finish from the binding of a couple old ESs [to reveal the original binding color]. With the help of a chemist, I was able to match the color exactly for use in our ES reissues.

What distinguishes the P-90s in this guitar from other pickups?

We spend a lot of time experimenting with different values and windings. The pickups are scatter-wound as well as underwound, and this makes them sound aged, closer to vintage than other P-90s. We’re really doing the very best we can to make a guitar that sounds, looks, and plays as if it were made in 1959.

  • rick wessel

    not a fan of hollow bodies, but man this thing is a real beauty. love to take her for a ride!!!

  • guitarboy

    I’ve always loved P-90s. especially the underwound types, and have had my eye on a 330 for a long time. It’s good to know the Gibson boys decided to bring this to life. It looks like a beauty!

  • Dutch

    Love that Gibson has re-issued this classic AS a 330 rather than yet-another Epiphone Casino re-issue. I also love that, in true ES330 style, it has a hodge-podge of period characteristics like the classic “62 1/2” guitars that define this model. What do I mean? The catalog version 62 ES330 had a trapeze tailpiece, a dot inlay neck and black pickup covers. But shop around for 62s and you’ll find many combinations of square inlay necks and nickel plated pickup covers among them. This is due to 1962 being a transition year (from the black covers/dot inlays to the chrome covers/square inlays). Gibson mixed and matched parts throughout 1962 giving rise to the “62 1/2” nickname for the late year models featuring random combinations of 62 and 63 parts. Furthermore, Gibson never made an ES-330 with a dot inlay neck and Bigsby bridge, but it was a common modification. So its nifty that Gibson re-issued them this way, with a little of the old mix-and-match that still defines them today.

    I have one such “62 1/2” ES330, and it is bar none the smoothest playing guitar I’ve ever touched. And the P-90 sound in this guitar is absolutely unmatched. I’d have to hear one to believe that the re-issue P-90s can match the character of the originals, but if they do, then Gibson has hit a grand slam home run with this. But best I can tell they’ve done a fine job anyway. If you think you need this guitar, trust me you DO!!

  • Jools

    Ordered one just today ! Will arrive in about 2 months, as I’m left handed.
    Can’t wait to play with it ! That’s adream to me that’s come true now.
    What a change will it be compared with my Patrick Eggle NY Std.
    The sound I always looked for, but couldn’t afford to get for more than 20 years now !

  • I’ve owned an ES-330TDC for about 25 years and have always loved the feel and sound of it. I run it through a 1964 Falcon which makes for a great combination. I was never able to precisely date the guitar. Looks like it’s a “62 1/2”. Many thanks to Tom & Dutch for providing interesting historical facts on this underrated beauty.

  • Alex Garnett

    Interesting post…
    How does the vintage 62 330 neck compare to the 59 vos?

  • Alex Garnett

    I’m getting my lefty blonde tomorrow!

  • John Desmond

    I have a beautiful ES-330 VOS Vintage Cherry Reissue dated 5/10/2013 on its warranty card. Sounds & plays beautifully. It has a 2 piece back and I have only seen them with 1 piece backs in all finishes. Do you have any info about this? Thanks in advance for any info you can provide. Sincerely, John

    • Paul Rodriguez

      John,

      In 2013 Gibson decided to do 2 piece front and backs on these because many of the vintage ones were done like that. If you take a look at a site like Gbase you can see for yourself that many original ES-330s had two piece tops and backs. I think all the 2012s were 1 piece and most of the 2013s were two piece. You should look closely at your top, it’s likely two pieces also. Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s anything wrong or abnormal about the 2 pieces, these tops and backs are laminates and as I said, there are LOTS of examples of vintage ES-330s made like that. I’ve got a cherry one too, they’re so sweet. Best wishes!

      -paul

  • geoff menzer

    I played in a trio for many year,just two guitars. We had a full and complete sound playing stsandatds/jazz/pops of the day/Latin etc all clean sound
    For the Best rhythm sound with a 330:use a fender super reverb amp(or super six).Plug into clean first channel, with brite switch on.Use neck pick up only with volume at 8 and tone on 4.Set amp volume to 3 to 4…
    Set treble to around 8 and bass to just around 4…experiment with exact bass setting as it is very sensitive. This is due to the effect of 4or6ten inch speakers, You will get a sound with good bass and top with a hole in the middle for the vocal to sit,people asdk where is the bass coming from,Even in a marquee or out of doors.A 335or 355 will work,but the 330 has more attack and less sustain so is better. Using metal insert sadd!es on Bridge is also better. We used this for many years in huge basllrooms like Grosvenor House Park Lane London.They were essentoiallly dancing to one guitar for rhythm bass and harmony. No bass or drums.
    To hear this sound find Led Sans Mom cruising with Cunard first track Marie Isobel.

  • geoff menzer

    Should be Les Sans Mom cruising with Cunard ,1977 Vacation101

  • geoff menzer

    Les Sans Mo . Sorry for typos

  • geoff menzer

    Les Sans Nom
    This is correct

  • Tom Acomb

    These guitars howl like a dog, short necks,budget tuners. In the 8O’s these were going for under a grand.

  • John LeDuc

    I’ve had a 1962-3 Gibson 330TDC since 1968 and I’m in love. John L

  • Dustin Burton

    I have a 1959 ES-330TDN, Natural Finish, if anyone is interested in buying. Shoot me an email at DustinEBurton@yahoo.com

  • Some of us actually love a short neck (this particular person, also loves the long neck of an original Firebird!) because it is really fun to play leads on. As far as “howling like a dog”, you can actually use that to your benefit, the more you get to know the instrument … it is a very alive guitar and lots of fun to work with. However, a few pieces of properly placed foam rubber inside the “f” hole will tone it down. These are fabulous guitars for those who are glad to accept the challenges … and who want something other than the run-of-the-mill LPauls and Strats.

  • Jacek

    I have Epi Casio Gary Clark with gibson P90s and play it through american fender pro junior. It sound amazing. Better than Gibson LP Traditional 2015. I am going to change electronics to 50s wirnik and top poły finish to nitro. Then I guess it will sound even better.