It’s 1958. Duck and Cover!
Most readers aren’t going to remember 1958. Or “air raid drills”. Or “Duck and Cover”. I was 6 in 1958 and there was a cold war going on and people worried about the bomb. In some grade schools, they had you hide under your desk for the air raid drill. I guess they thought an atom bomb couldn’t penetrate an oak desk. In my school-New Lincoln Elementary (there was actually an “old” Lincoln) in Scotia, New York, an air raid drill meant going out into the hallway and standing by your locker with your coat over your head. I remember, at the age of six, asking the teacher why we had our coats over our heads. She said “to protect you from flying glass.” So I asked why we were in the hallway. She said “because there’s no glass out here.” The next question was obvious. “OK, then why do we have our coats over our heads?” The answer? “Shut up and put your coat over your head”. The nice folks at Gibson weren’t worried about the bomb. They were innovating like there was no tomorrow and, what with the bomb and all, there might actually not be a tomorrow. 1958 saw the introduction of the Flying V, The Explorer, The ES-335, the ES-355 and probably a few other cool things I’m forgetting about. If Ted McCarty, the president of Gibson and their über designer was worried about the bomb, it didn’t show, although you could argue that the V and the Explorer bombed at the time but that’s another story. I’ve had a few hundred ES-335s over the years but I’ve only had three 58’s. 58’s are different. There is no other year that is like them. The ears are different, the top is different, the headstock inlay is placed differently and the first ones don’t have a neck binding. The 58 I bought this week is one of the very first ones off the line and it gives me an opportunity to do a real close inspection. What strikes me first is how thin the top is. There’s some cracking around the jack which is really common. With only three plies instead of four, the plywood top is pretty fragile except where it has the center block running under it. That’s why you see all kinds of vertical cracks in so many 58’s that you just don’t see in other years. That’s the downside to a thinner top. The upside is a more resonant guitar. It takes less sonic energy to get the top moving and it gives the guitar that “woody” tone that is sometimes missing in later 335s. Many have a kind of banjo-ish tone when played unplugged. They still sound great plugged in but they have more in common with a solid body than a hollow body. And therein lies the paradox. The 335 was supposed to have the advantages of both but, in my opinion, the semi hollows have much more in common with a solid guitar than with a hollow body. I’ve had SG’s that sound like 335s but I’ve never had a 350 or a Byrdland that sounds like one. The 58 gets closer but still the balance tips toward the solid body when it comes to tone. The neck angle, which I’ve covered in detail, also comes into play. The angle was so shallow on the 58 that a special “low profile” ABR-1 was developed to get the action low enough. Many feel the shallow neck angle is why so many dot necks have the “magic” that block necks don’t. While I agree that the shallower angle guitars seem to be consistently better, there seem to be plenty of shallow angle block necks too. This has never been consistent-the neck angles are all over the place from 62-64. But there was a problem with the “low profile” ABR-1. Every single one I’ve ever seen has collapsed in the middle. It was just too thin to support the normal forces exerted by a set of medium gauge strings. Remember 10’s and 11’s didn’t even exist back then and G strings were wound (and were .26 gauge). So, they were swapped out once they collapsed. If you’re lucky, it’s still in the case but I can pretty much guarantee it isn’t on the guitar. I had a mint lefty 58 in the house a few months ago that looked like it had never been played but the original bridge was in the case looking like a rope bridge from an Indiana Jones movie. More to come.