gib­son mem­phis

Fred­die King 1960 eS-345, Tamio oKuda Sig­na­Ture 1959 eS-330 & alex liFeSon eS-leS Paul £3,999, £3,549 & £3,299

Guitarist - - Signatures -

Aside from be­ing a trio of sig­na­ture lim­ited edi­tions for 2017, in terms of con­struc­tion, our re­view mod­els also book-end Gib­son’s ES ‘thin­line’ mod­els from the orig­i­nal clas­sic, the ES-335, which spawned the ES-355 and ES-345, up to the lat­est, the ES Les Paul.

The Fred­die King 1960 ES-345 is based on the hugely in­flu­en­tial blues­man’s own gui­tar, Alex Lifeson’s lat­est sig­na­ture uses the iconog­ra­phy of the Les Paul Cus­tom but in semi-hol­low ES LP style, while the lesser known Tamio Okuda is clearly a man of taste, mix­ing the hol­low 1959 spec ES-330 with P-90s and a Bigsby. Both King and Lifeson mod­els are lim­ited runs of 200 pieces; the Okuda of 150. All three are what you see is what you get – there no op­tions.

While it’s hard to sec­ond guess the price-points and style of Gib­son’s of­ten for­ward-look­ing USA pro­duc­tion range, the Mem­phis di­vi­sion out­put has never failed to impress us with an eye firmly on the past. Yet these gui­tars are not just about repli­cat­ing the past: along with new designs (as the ES-LP ex­em­pli­fies along with oth­ers such as the ES-275 and the down­sized ES-339), Mem­phis is sur­pris­ingly cut­tingedge, too, em­ploy­ing ‘ther­mally en­gi­neered’ woods – aka tor­refi­ca­tion, a process for ‘age­ing’ woods and a grow­ing trend for both acous­tic and elec­tric mak­ers – as we’ve al­ready seen on the Pre­miere-level gui­tars such as the ES-335 Pre­miere Fig­ured and here in re­gard to the cen­tre block, on the Lifeson ES-LP. Ear­lier this year, di­vi­sion head Mike Voltz in­di­cated Mem­phis’s plans to use more of the same, sug­gest­ing tor­refied mahogany for necks, for ex­am­ple, once the pro­duc­tion process has been sorted, due to the more brit­tle na­ture of the tim­ber af­ter its heat treat­ment.

Iron­i­cally, this modernism is be­ing used to try to nail more closely the weights and sonic re­sponse of older vin­tage pieces. Gib­son’s cer­tainly cre­ated a more vin­tage­like ap­pear­ance with its VOS treat­ment where both the nitro-cel­lu­lose gloss

fin­ish is cut back to a lower-gloss lus­tre and hard­ware is aged – not dis­tressed – to match. It’s not meant to fool any­one into think­ing these are real old gui­tars, but they cer­tainly don’t look like those box-fresh ‘don’t touch me’ high-gloss pieces, ei­ther. The Lifeson does have a stan­dard gloss with shiny gold-plated parts, but even that looks slightly old with a creamy hue (we sus­pect it will yel­low more with time and use). The Okuda isn’t spec’d with a VOS fin­ish, but it ap­pears more dulled than the Lifeson, match­ing its aged nickel and alu­minium hard­ware, while the King goes for the full treat­ment on its bright ‘60s red’ body fin­ish, hard­ware, toned bind­ing and even aged­look­ing split par­al­lel­o­gram in­lays. If the sig­na­ture artist bit both­ers you, the King and Okuda would sim­ply need stan­dard truss rod cov­ers to hide their as­so­ci­a­tions. But you’d be stuck with the Rush man’s sig­na­ture be­low the pickup tog­gle switch.

Con­struc­tion-wise, there’s plenty of com­mon­al­ity such as the three-ply maple/ poplar/maple lam­i­nate tops, backs and sides of all three. The King uses a maple cen­tre block with spruce ‘brac­ing’ above and be­low to match the domed top and back plates. The ES-330, orig­i­nally con­ceived as a ‘stu­dent’ model ver­sion of the ES-335, is hol­low save for its two lon­gi­tu­di­nal spruce top braces, while the Lifeson uses a fairly eman­ci­pated cen­tre block made from that tor­refied mahogany and spruce brac­ing.

One un­wel­come trait was that the neck pickup on both the Lifeson and the Fred­die King weren’t work­ing when we went to plug in. The for­mer came back to life af­ter we had a fid­dle with the elec­tron­ics, but the lat­ter was res­o­lutely dead. Then we no­ticed, buried in Gib­son’s spec, a stereo jack socket, which means we have a his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate stereo out­put, un­like the last ES-345 we tested. Ob­vi­ously, we have a Vari­tone, too, but again, oddly, this isn’t men­tioned in Gib­son’s spec ei­ther.


With their big 16-inch-wide bod­ies and that sub­stan­tial cen­tre block, con­tem­po­rary gui­tars based on the ES-335 plat­form can be weighty, but the King, while sub­stan­tial, comes in at a clas­sic solid­body weight. The hol­low Okuda drops half a kilo (and that’s with a Bigsby), the Lifeson a shade more.

The Okuda’s more com­pact neck joins the body at the 16th fret, not the 19th fret of the ES-335 de­sign, and makes it feel al­most big­ger in the hand than it is. Ei­ther way, its big and rounded ‘Tra­di­tional C’ pro­file neck

feels huge. The ad­di­tional length, not to men­tion its darker cherry colour, sug­gests the King’s neck is slim­mer, but there’s very lit­tle in it. The Lifeson is slim­mer by a whisker and, in lower po­si­tions, feels less rounded with more ta­pered shoul­ders.

Strapped on, the gui­tars each have their own feel. The ES-345 feels like home. The ES-330 does feel a lit­tle cramped in the higher po­si­tions, while the very slightly neck-heavy ES-Les Paul feels quite unique, al­beit it in a good way, and al­to­gether less ‘jazzbox’ than the oth­ers. Sup­plied set­ups are pretty manly – they feel like proper gui­tars, for sure. They also feel like old gui­tars that have been played, es­pe­cially the Okuda and even the slightly shiner Lifeson.

It’s no sur­prise that the ‘jazz­i­est’ gui­tar is the ES-330 and its thrummy hol­low­ness is a perfect bed for the clean MHS P-90s. We just can’t get a duff sound out of this gui­tar. On one hand, it’s a jazz/blues ma­chine that sounds way more au­then­tic than any other semi to hand, but the way it han­dles light gains is an equal as­set. Watch the vol­ume (it is hol­low), but learn to work it and here’s a mod­ern gui­tar that pulls back the decades, not to men­tion its wide stylis­tic use.

If you’re not fa­mil­iar with a stereo gui­tar such as the King, then be warned: it re­ally isn’t for ev­ery­one. It re­ally needs two amps to max­imise its po­ten­tial for a start – one for the neck pickup, the other for the bridge. But if a thin­line semi such as this isn’t ver­sa­tile enough, this stereo setup kicks us into a dif­fer­ent league. For ex­am­ple, run the neck pickup into a clean jazz/blues combo and add a lit­tle hair or grit to some­thing Vox-y for the bridge pickup. There are all man­ner of set­ups you can con­sider, and in cen­tre po­si­tion (both pick­ups on) it’s like run­ning two gui­tars in one with none of the in­ter­ac­tion you get on a mono gui­tar in the same pickup po­si­tion. Sum­ming the out­puts into mono (pas­sive), things can get a lit­tle weird, but we used a pas­sive Tay­lor ABY box (in re­verse) and that worked fine, but TheGigRig’s Three­2One box proved su­perb to sum both out­puts via their own true by­pass chan­nels or via a level-ad­justable preamp. An­other op­tion is Yamaha’s THR Dual head, which again re­ally max­imises the fun.

Then we have the Vari­tone with its scooped voices that get pro­gres­sively ‘odder’ as you move from po­si­tion one (by­pass) through to six. That said, for those BB or Fred­die tones, well, you’ll hear them here and adding some grit and crunch pro­duces numer­ous tonal shades that might not be your num­ber one sound but have plenty of ap­peal, not least for over­dubs or work­ing with an­other player. As ever – and cer­tainly com­pared with the other pair – it’s the most solid­body-sound­ing of our trio, with that lovely power if you need it. To be hon­est, we only scratched the sur­face. Okay, to some a Vari­tone is a no-go ‘tone sucker’, not to men­tion in stereo. In the set­ups we’ve de­scribed, that wasn’t our ex­pe­ri­ence.

An­other odd­ity here is the non-stan­dard re­versed bridge pickup, which wasn’t stan­dard spec. It has no ef­fect on the phase of the mixed pick­ups and will in the­ory sub­tly change the re­sponse due to the mis­matched coils and the screw/slug pole­piece

The only one of our trio with the artist’s sig­na­ture, the Lifeson re­mains a classy piece with its Les Paul Cus­tom style In their au­then­ti­cally aged cov­ers, these MHS (Mem­phis His­toric Spec) hum­buck­ers, with an Al­nico II mag­net for the bridge and Al­nico III for the neck, have mis­matched scat­ter­wound coils and are classed by Gib­son as its “most ac­cu­rate PAF clones yet” These split, or dou­ble, par­al­lel­o­gram in­lays on the King are an easy iden­ti­fier of the ES-345: the cheaper ES-335 used dots then small blocks and the ‘deluxe’ ES-355 used large block in­lays 3



5 Each of our re­view mod­els is very lim­ited: the Lifeson (pic­tured here) and King mod­els run to 200 pieces; the Okuda, just 150 As per its his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate spec, the ES-345 comes with a stereo out­put and the ‘Mar­mite’ Vari­tone cir­cuit. It also comes with a stereo ‘Y’ lead


The MHS ‘dog-ear’ P-90s use Al­nico III mag­nets and they sound su­perb on the hol­low plat­form of this Tamio sig­na­ture Along with the el­e­gant sim­plic­ity of the head­stock, the nut on the King is vin­tagestyle ny­lon, like the Okuda; the Lifeson shoots for bone The Bigsby on the Tamio, like the rest of the hard­ware, is nicely aged to match what ap­pears to be its VOS fin­ish, although that’s not in the Gib­son spec 6



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