The Gibson ES-5 is widely regarded as the first commercially available electric guitar with three pickups.
By the 1950s Gibson’s reputation as a jazz guitar manufacturer was founded on traditional lutherie skills and understated style. But when the mood took them, they could certainly bling it out with the best of them.
This ES-5 Switchmaster is a prime example, with gold hardware, fancy multi-ply fingerboard binding and no less than six knobs to go with three humbuckers.
But it should be noted that the original PAF pickups in this guitar are long gone. They have been replaced with a set of three sweet sounding Seth Lover designed Seymour Duncan humbuckers.
The ‘Switchmaster’ name comes from the four-way switch mounted on the Venetian cutaway with an accompanying plate engraved to denote settings for each individual pickup or ‘all’ three.
The ES-5 model was introduced in 1949 with a rosewood bridge, a gold-plated version of the ES-175 parallelogram tailpiece and three P-90 pickups. The triple pickup compliment is considered an industry first and pre-dates the Epiphone Zephyr Emperor Regent by a year.
Some players found having three individual volume controls and a master tone mounted on the cutaway somewhat impractical. So, the Switchmaster specs were introduced in 1955, along with a gold-plated ABR-1 bridge on a rosewood base. The double-loop tailpiece followed in 1956 and by 1957, humbuckers had replaced P-90 single-coils.
In 1961, a Florentine cutaway was introduced and cherry sunburst became the standard finish before the model was discontinued the following year. While the Switchmaster might easily fall into the jazzbox category, it wasn’t such a hit with jazz players. But that’s fine because plenty of blues, country and rockabilly players love them.
- Hollowbody electric guitar, made in the USA 1958
- Maple ply body with maple/rosewood/maple laminate neck
- Bound Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, 20 frets
- Kluson ‘waffle back’ tuners
- Tune-o-matic bridge on floating rosewood base, double loop tailpiece
- 3 x Duncan humbucking pickups, 3 x volume, 3 x tone, 4-way switch
- Sunburst nitrocellulose finish
- Scale length 25 1/4″
- Weight 7.2 lbs
This particular ES-5 from 1958 is in stunning condition, with no discernible play wear on the body or neck. There is a small lacquer chip just above the neck pickup, and a small depression on the bottom side – see pics.
Apart from that this lovely old Switchmaster is in excellent cosmetic and structural condition. The finish has some lovely very fine checking – the beauty of ageing in its finest form. The gold plating is in great shape. There is some light tarnishing at the top of the tailpiece, but the elegant waffle back tuners retain their original gleam.
The neck and fingerboard are in very clean. There is some light fret wear on the first four, but this does not affect playability in any way. A retainer wire reveals the tune-o-matic bridge here is an old one, but probably a later replacement.
Switchmasters are considerably more upmarket than ES-175s. Although laminated, Gibson tended to use more figured maple, and both the body and neck have five-ply binding. Single-ply binding adorns the headstock and f-holes, with genuine pearl marker blocks along the dark Brazilian rosewood.
The neck is a laminated construction with a thin rosewood centre strip flanked by two pieces of maple. Headstock ‘ears’ are added but you can only tell by looking at the end of the headstock because the rear is sprayed black. A ‘stinger’ gracefully transitions into the centre strip with a lovely precision.
The neck is fairly rounded and full, even by mid-50s Gibson standards, but we love it, and the playability and tuning stability cannot be faulted.
The Switchmaster makes a lovely acoustic sound. It’s reasonably loud for a laminate construction, the treble is mellow but clear and there’s a considerable thump to the low mids.
The middle pickup does the best job of capturing the Switchmaster’s acoustic tone, with the correct bass and treble balance and a wiry, yet slightly hollow, snarl through the midrange. The neck setting is no less clear, but it fattens and refines the tone to a more fluid and vocal sweetness.
Meanwhile, the bridge pickup’s quacky chime and woody twang provides all the tonal power to cut through if that’s what you need.
There’s certainly a ton of tonal options offered by the three pickup settings, plus the “all together” position. But it is also possible to position the switch between the individual pickup settings – Stratocaster style – and discover two more sounds. Placing the switch between the bridge and middle positions should be the same as selecting ‘all’ with the neck volume set to zero. But as it turns out, the in between setting is brighter, spankier and bizarrely Fender-like.
Although the pickups aren’t out of phase, it’s not unlike a T-Bone Walker or Peter Green tone – and it might turn out to be your favourite Switchmaster sound.
This really is a beautiful and fascinating instrument. If you like jazz, blues, 50s style rock ’n’ roll and jump blues, the Switchmaster has it all covered.
Comes in its original (yes !) brown Gibson branded hard shell case in very good condition.