I think there’s a lot more to be said about 355’s. Outside of being under appreciated, they are also a very interesting sub group in the ES family that is set apart from the rest of the crowd in more than a few aspects. You could argue that the body is identical to a 335 and that it’s basically a tarted up 345 with some fancy bindings and inlays and an ebony fingerboard. But somehow, Gibson was able to get more than twice the price of a 335 for a top of the line 355. As I said in my last post, a 355 in 1960 was a $675 guitar and a 335 was a $335 guitar. Translated to 2014 dollars, a 335 would be the equivalent of $2655. That’s a lot of money even today for a base model but, clearly, Gibson gets that and more at retail. You can pick up a Memphis dot for around $3000 new. A new 355 would still have the same upgrades as a 1960 but it sure doesn’t cost twice as much. A 1960 ES-355 in todays dollars would be $5350. If you use the simple logic approach, Gibson should be getting $6000 for todays ES-355 (double the 335 price). I’m pretty sure Gibson isn’t even making a 355 any more other than the “Lucille”. Custom Shop ES-355’s which they made until recently had all the bells and whistles of the early ones (except the stereo/Varitone) and they cost about the same as a Custom Shop 335. So, why did it cost twice as much in 1960 and it costs about the same now? Or is there more to a 355 than just some fancy window dressing. I contend that there is more than just cosmetics here. And it’s all about the build quality.
A short detour, if you don’t mind…When I was in college, I worked at an upscale(ish) bicycle shop assembling the racing bikes that came in. We got base model Schwinns and Peugeots but we also got Cinellis, Colnagos and Masis and other exquisite hand made European bikes. Yeah, I put together the $80 Schwinns competently and the $125 Peugeots all worked adequately when I got them ready to sell but I was so much more meticulous with those $1000 exotics (this was 1971, so that’s almost $6000 today). Even though they went together more easily (more precise parts-the same as why it’s easier to set up a Gibson than it is a Teisco), I spent more time with them. Why? Because I respected the fact that someone was going to shell out some seriously big bucks and I wanted that person to get a seriously well assembled and tuned machine. The Schwinn guy? Hey, whaddya want for 80 bucks?
Well, I think that applies to the factory workers at Gibson as well. Pride in one’s workmanship is pretty universal among people who build stuff. Or at least it used to be. If you get the chance, look inside a 335. There’s usually glue squirting out along the kerfing and the center block. The routs are sometimes less than neat and the tuners don’t quite line up right on occasion. Then look inside an early 355. Neat as a pin, usually. It’s simply a higher build quality. Whether the better builders were assigned the higher end guitars or whether pride in workmanship was the reason, it is something worth your consideration. And I don’t mean to diminish the superior materials used either. The inlays in a 345 and 345 are cheap celluloid and they get pretty crapped up over 50 years and they shrink and fall out-especially block 335’s. The inlays in a 355 are real mother of pearl and they never fall out and they never shrink. Ebony used to cost a lot more than Brazilian rosewood and was considered superior (it certainly wears better). The quality of the plywood was often better too. Nicer grain, better figure, fewer flaws.
All that said, a 355 doesn’t sound any better than a 335. Some sound better, some sound worse and most sound pretty much the same. Some would contend that an ebony board sounds different but I can’t hear it. I can feel it but I can’t hear it. But damned if 355’s don’t seem to be better cared for and generally in better shape than 335’s. It’s like the guy with the $80 Schwinn. He probably tossed the bike in the dumpster in 1986 after it got left out in the rain for three years and rusted. The guy with the $1000 Colnago probably kept it in his living room and it treated like his baby. And when he was done with it in 1986, he gave it to his nephew who rode it in the Tour de France.