Hello all, and thanks to those who kindly fed back after my first column in V1E2. I really appreciate your comments and support.
I know I’d intimated that I might talk next about my ’58 Gibson Les Paul ‘Burst’, and I promise that will be soon, but I thought it a bit too obvious for my first deep dive.
Instead, I’m going to talk about my favourite guitar—the Gibson ES-330T—of which I have three.
First, some designations. T stands for thinline and applies to all such models. D is for double pickup, making it redundant for all but 330s. C indicates a cherry finish and N means natural or blonde.
So, here’s the back story… Courtesy of my dear dad, my very first Gibson was a ’72 SG Deluxe. Let’s just say that the SG Deluxe was not Norlin-owned Gibson’s finest hour.
No wonder, then, that I part exchanged it for a pretty ’65 teaburst (mellowed cherry sunburst) 330TD, courtesy of Sid Bishop, store manager of London’s Chappell Music at the time and author of some of the very first books on vintage Gibsons and Fenders.
I owned it for quite a while. It had previously belonged to Huw Lloyd-Langton, the original guitarist in space rockers Hawkwind. But I didn’t bond with it—the mint orange to yellow teaburst front and walnut back and sides and the twin chrome P90 pickups shone but the neck was skinny and the sound lacked personality.
I spent much of that period playing contemporary makes like PRS, Tom Anderson, Brian Moore and Steinberger and flipped the ’65 330 for a ’56 Gretsch Duo Jet (which I still cherish and will feature in future).
Later, several friends ventured that I should have a 330 as I played a lot of blues. Still do. When I explained I’d ditched one, they suggested it hadn’t been an early enough example.
The seed was sown…
Here come the 50s…
The 50s were a time of exceptional creativity and enterprise, not least for guitar makers seeking to satisfy the boom which popular music was experiencing. The most popular guitars of today owe so much to those of that era. Same for hardware—pickups, bridges, tailpieces, trems, tuners, frets…
Gibson introduced its radical thinline series—the ES-335, 345 and 355—in ‘58 and the visually similar ES330 followed shortly afterwards in ‘59.
The higher-priced models had a block under the top to hold the humbucker pickups, tune-o-matic bridge, and stop tailpiece and to prevent string tension from collapsing the top.
By contrast, the ‘entry level’ 330 was fully hollow and had a trapeze tailpiece and the older P90 single-coil pickups. These had black plastic covers until ’62, then metal covers form ’62, first with nickel plate and then in ’64, chrome. I much prefer the sound with plastic covers.
All 330s and 335s had dot neck inlays until ’62, then came blocks. Bigsby and Vibrola tremolos were available on all models and were usual on the high-end 355.
That was until ’68 when it was brought into line with its senior siblings. The 330’s neck also joined the body some three frets earlier (16th vs 19th), making the guitar about an inch shorter, though the active scale length is the same.
My ‘61 ES-330TC
One day a dealer friend brought me a very clean ’61 ES-330TC. Rich cherry red with a single pickup—and I loved it. Other than some marks on the headstock edge from a previous owner’s carelessness with a string winder, it’s in great shape.
And it was cheap. The bridge was period-correct but wrong as it was the rocking type with rounded bases that came with vibrolas. Highly sought after by the parts vultures, so easily traded for an original flat-bottomed one.
Some 330s came with two thumbwheels for height adjustment, others including mine have another two which helps stabilize the delicate bridge posts.
(Collecting note: unless it’s from the original owner—and even then you only have their word—a part may be authentic but there is simply no way of telling if it was the one the instrument was sold with. Even pickups, as there are ways of treating solder to look like it’s never been dismantled… ask the guys who restore stained glass windows. Just saying!)
The neck is typical of the period, shallow and feels quite flat. Necks up to ‘59 are beefier and have slightly more resonance and tone (I think a lot of the sound of great old guitars comes from the necks). But the flatter ones from ‘60 play like the wind—witness Les Paul SG Standards.
There was considerable variation in neck profiles at this time as they were still hand-shaped and finished—and guitars were assembled from whatever parts had been made. Gibson necks got fatter again in late ‘62—think Eric Clapton’s feted cherry 335 from ’63—and stayed that way until they narrowed, fatally in my view, around ’65.
The middle position single pickup is just right—warm and bright. I’ve now played many double-pickup 330s and I find the neck pickups too dark and the bridge ones too thin and bright. It might have worked for Grant Green and Slim Harpo but sadly not for me!
Some really don’t like this middle pickup position as it falls directly beneath their picking spot. It doesn’t bother me as I use my fingers quite a lot but can also simply move my pick, usually slightly towards the neck, to avoid the pickup. It’s not a problem.
A single pickup preference
Truth is, I have preferred the sound of every single pickup example I have now played over every double pickup variant. Analogous to single-pickup Les Paul Juniors being more desirable—and more famous—than the equivalent double-pickup Specials.
But, fortunately for us lovers of the single pickup, the collecting and playing market disagreed and left us to snap up single-pickup 330s at great prices.
330s are perfect for playing on the couch as they are hollow and therefore somewhat acoustic. However, this also makes them hard to control at high volumes and/or with higher amp gain.
I was fortunate enough to tech for one of Eric Clapton’s guests at the 2019 Crossroads festival and while there I got to meet many heroes and fine musicians, one of whom was the great Gary Clark Jr.
At one point he played Epiphone Casinos which are mechanically identical to 330s and he plays loud. I asked him how he managed feedback and he suggested stuffing the body with fabric.
Later, a tech suggested inserting and inflating long thin balloons that kids’ entertainers twist into animal shapes. Clever, as the balloons tend not to get as snagged by the electronics within the body. Not fool proof, but it helps to break up the resonant howls, so if you want to gig a 330 (or a Casino) at volume, now you know how.
The 330TC was my first ‘proper’ as opposed to ‘decorative’ 330 and something about its acoustic and electric tone and great playability makes it my favourite guitar to this day.
A ‘60 blonde 330TN
I tend not to collect multiple examples of the same guitar but my 330s are the exception. I liked the cherry one so much that when I saw a good blonde, I went for that too. It was a few years later and cost three times as much from one of the top US dealers, Gary Dick, who has great straight stuff, albeit at a price.
The blonde 330TN is a ’60 and mechanically almost identical to the cherry. A little more finish checking in the beautiful ambered top and earlier top hat knobs (the cherry has period-correct reflectors which came in during ’60) is all that sets them apart.
Here comes the sun…
I then decided to complete the set with a sunburst, the commonest of the finishes so not too challenging to find, even in single-pickup form.
I got lucky. I found one on eBay from a store in Philadelphia that seemed to focus on pointy and seven-stringed guitars. Perhaps granddad had brought their kid in one day and part exchanged it for something more modern. I made a low but sensible offer just before bidding closed and by the time I returned to my desk with a sandwich, I’d won it.
Better still, the guitar is an Epiphone, not a Gibson, which makes it a Casino, designation ES-230T.
(Gibson had bought Epi in about ’57 and for several years the additional brand enabled the company to expand its distribution in territories where it had previously entered into exclusive dealership agreements. The two product lines kept some individual traits but closely mirrored each other and were manufactured side-by-side).
Even better, this single-pickup ’62 Casino ES-230T is very early as it has the metal ‘bikini’ logo plate on the headstock face (which has recently been resurrected on modern reissues like Epiphone’s Les Paul Junior equivalent, the Coronet).
It also has dot fret markers like the 330s (and highly prized 335s) of the period and other than a different tailpiece, headstock shape, pickguard and logos, it’s a 330.
The Casino first appeared in the April ’62 Epiphone catalogue, by which time the brand name was inlaid in mother of pearl in the headstock like mid- to higher-spec Gibsons.
Gibson guitars were made in production batches of about three dozen and it’s likely that no more than one of these ‘boats’ of Casinos was made before the logo change for launch. Fret marker inlays also changed to the trademark parallelograms. Given that two-pickup Casinos were much more desirable and are much more common these days, I figure only about ten or a dozen ‘bikini’ plate ES-230Ts were made.
I’ve only seen pictures of one other ever, also in sunburst. Nor have two good friends in UK who are a serious and long-time collectors of rare Epiphones. And if anybody has a cherry or blonde one, it’s likely unique…
It’s also in near-mint condition. Like my mint ’56 Gibson ES-225TN, it’s never had a strap button on the heel. I’m not about to install one, so it’s a sitting down guitar. (Unless you want to tie a string around the nut like a folkie, which I don’t like as it prevents the neck from moving under the fretting hand.)
All three have original cases, if not perhaps the originals they sold with.
You could pick these things up for comparatively little until quite recently. But the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns prompted many to adopt or rekindle hobbies and guitar sales went vertical. Rising prices of modern gear neared those of lower-end vintage gear like Juniors, Specials and 330s so their prices then rocketed too. But they always were and remain really good guitars.
So that’s it for my beloved, if humble, 330s. Something more exotic next time, I promise!
Search for a Blackguard Telecaster
I also mentioned that I might be chronicling my ongoing search for an early ‘Blackguard’ Telecaster in this column. I consider it the only big missing in my collection.
The market is seriously overheated right now. Many are hoarding unless offered a silly price—almost double natural, realistic values. Everyone looks at the highest asking price and instantly believes that’s what they’ll get.
And the usual behaviours abound. Unreturned emails and phone calls from dealers which just offend and diminish them in my eyes as a former businessman. I already know what I want and what I can afford to spend, so it’s not going to make me want anything more or pay more for it.
Rather, I’m looking for somebody, perhaps a little older than me, who feels it’s time to sell a beautiful, cherished instrument to the next person who will look after it with care and love. And use it.
If anybody knows someone like that, do please put them in touch. Until next time, cheers!
You can find out more about Bob at his website: www.rockbeareguitars.com
If you’re looking to buy (or sell!) the finest pre-owned and vintage guitars, The North American Guitar Exchange is the place to do it. Find out more by clicking here.