Picture the scene: you're one of the biggest guitar companies in the world, with nearly every one of your products regarded as an iconic classic.
The problem is that your guitars were all designed 40 or 50 years ago, and no one seems to be demanding anything new. How do you remain an innovative company and yet break boundaries and build some new classics?
Well, what about stripping down your best-selling model, giving it barely a lick of paint, hollowing it out, and swapping the pickups? Done it: the Les Paul BFG.
Okay, what about a guitar with digital outputs for each individual string? Done it: the H6. Ah – a self-tuning guitar with little motors and an onboard computer! Been there, done it: the Robot models.
So rather than building a solar-powered SG, Gibson have simply shrunk an ES-335 body down to make the ES-339, which sits neatly in size between a Les Paul and the aforementioned ES-335. Brilliant in its simplicity, but does it work?
On opening up the plush Gibson hardcase, the first thing that leaps to mind is 'wow'. The ES-339 is a looker, and no mistake. The next thought is probably to wonder whether the case is in fact a Tardis and that this is simply a 335 that's further away than you thought.
Reach out with your hands, though, and you'll discover no temporal shifts, simply a smaller-bodied semi that feels more at home to a solidbody player like myself.
Whereas most players wouldn't dare challenge the beauty and majesty of the ES-335, it certainly can be a handful – or even an armful, with that big old body. The ES-339 is 13.75" wide, not 16", has been designed to appeal to those who want that semi-solid sound without the width, and I think it's safe to say that Gibson may well have struck gold.
Shapewise it looks very much like an ES-335, with a fat round bottom, skinny waist, and double cutaways – although the ES-339's ears seem a bit more pointy than the rounded Mickey Mouse ears found on the late '50s and Dot reissues of its bigger brother.
Construction-wise the ES-339 features a laminated maple top, back and rims built around a maple centre-block – the cornerstone of the Gibson semi-solid tone.
These are all bound together with a single-ply cream binding, as is the mahogany neck with its 22-fret rosewood fingerboard. The work is tidy, and gives the guitar a definite vintage vibe.
The '59 profile neck is chunky and a little alien in the hand at first, especially if
you're used to playing a modern rock guitar, but it soon becomes second nature and plays very well indeed.
String bending is effortless, and the feel of the neck makes vibrato easier than on many others I've played recently. Sadly the dreaded variable Gibson quality control crops up as some of the frets are a little sharp in places, and those with a heavy-handed playing style may find the high E string slipping off the frets – so definitely try to play one before you buy.
Humbuckers are of course the order of the day, and the two fitted here are '57 Classics, controlled via twin volume and tone pots that feature the Memphis tone circuit which stops the high end dropping off as you turn down the volume. It works well, too.
Strapped on the 339 feels well-balanced. It’s certainly not light, but the weight is reasonable. Strummed acoustically the ES-339 rings out as you'd expect, so let's see what it sounds like with a bit of oomph.