I know a little bit about design. I designed graphics for TV and, while it doesn’t make me an industrial designer, it does give me some insight. The old “form follows function” adage has its limitations especially when appearance is taken into consideration. It’s easy to see the difference when design takes beauty into consideration and goes beyond current trends and pure functionality. There will always be something called “modern” design. A Gibson Explorer from 1958 might have been considered radical, futuristic or just plain bizarre by some. But that same year Cadillac Eldorado (and the 59 which took it even farther) might have elicited the same response. With the Caddy, fins became the “modern” trend and they disappeared as fast as they arrived (and haven’t come back). The Explorer was a resounding flop in 1958 only to find its footing in the 70’s when it appeared that everyone had run out of good ideas. But when we look back at objects that were designed many years ago that remain unchanged, the beauty and the functionality still shine.
Certainly the ES-335 and the Fender Stratocaster are great examples. While both have faded and returned to popularity, they never went away (unlike the Les Paul). Both guitars look as modern today as they did when they were designed in 1958 and 1954 respectively. During the ensuing 60 years or so, guitars have gone through nearly as many trends as the automobile. Pointy Superstrats, oddball shaped Voxes, headless Steinbergers, BC Riches and plenty of others but the ones that endure seem to be the classics. All have had a similar level of functionality but design is what made them distinctive and, in many cases, led to their demise. Let’s go back to the automotive examples. These cars will never come back–From the 50’s–The Edsel, the 60’s The Rambler, the 70’s The AMC Matador, Pacer and Gremlin and the 80’s, the Yugo. Every one of them an industrial design punch line that started as someone’s “modern” vision. So, when Ted McCarty designed the ES-335, was he going for beauty? Functionality? Modernity? Let’s take a critical look at all three.
There’s little to argue when it comes to beauty. The proportions and symmetry cannot really be improved upon. It is simply a beautiful instrument, the equal of any guitar design before or since. It doesn’t scream “futuristic” like his Flying Vee nor does it strive for stripped down functionality like Leo Fender’s Telecaster. It is simply what an electric guitar should look like. It is no surprise that it has been in production since the day it was debuted. You can probably argue some functionality issues but not many. The knobs and buttons are where they should be from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint. The bridge and tailpiece are fully functional although you could argue that the ABR-1 needed more travel for intonation with the advent of lighter gauge strings. I will certainly make the point that the harness was way too hard to install and remove through the f-holes. This was addressed later by cutting a big notch out of the center block. So, functionality gets a good score but not perfect. The Stratocaster has its own minor functionality issues but, like the 335, looks as fresh and contemporary as it did in 1954.
OK, so what about modernity? And what is modernity anyway? Look at the automobile at the top of this post. Is there any question in your mind that it wasn’t modern in 1976? Or look at an early cell phone or an 80’s laptop (especially a PC). I may not be able to describe modernity but I sure know it when I see it. You might argue that things like cell phones and laptops evolved to become modern and that this evolution is where we get our “modern” aesthetic from. Makes sense, I guess but not for guitars (or cars for that matter). Gibson has tried to evolve the electric guitar at least a dozen times in the past 60 years and yet they keep going back to the classic designs of the 50’s and 60’s. And, even when they try oh so hard to be cutting edge, they just seem to recycle those tried and true forms that are as old as I am. That self tuning, computer savvy Firebird X uses a 60’s design as its basis. Their largely ill conceived “Guitar of the Week” series showed some truly questionable aesthetics by doing dumb things like reversing the flying Vee and cutting holes in an Explorer. Truly, the Matador and Pacer of the era.
So, perhaps the guitar stands alone as the one bit of industrial design that cannot be improved on. Or maybe not. We won’t actually know until somebody actually improves on it.