The Gibson Les Paul is so dang ubiquitous, that’s it’s sometimes easy to forget the importance and greatness of Gibson’s semi-hollowbodies. Gibson’s ES–339, which married the semi-hollow construction of the legendary ES–335 with the smaller body size of a Les Paul is a great reminder of the of the guitars’ shared heritage, and not surprisingly, was an instant hit almost immediately upon its release several years ago. Unfortunately, the price tag of a USA-made Gibson kept it out of reach for some. For these budget-conscious guitar aficionados, Epiphone’s new Ultra-339 might just be the answer to their prayers.
More Than Meets the Eye
Like virtually all ES guitars, the Ultra-339 is built from a laminated maple body with a solid center block, and on the surface, it seems like a typical Gibson semi-hollow guitar. Look closely though and you’ll see where the Ultra designation comes into play. Discreetly planted at the end of the fretboard is a pickup called the NanoMag [engineered by Shadow Germany], a low-impedance magnetic pickup that uses 3 Samarium-Cobalt magnets, and on the side of the guitar, you’ll find two output jacks for mono or stereo routing options. There are four knobs that look like the conventional Gibson volume/tone/volume/tone configuration, but are actually much more. While the Ultra-339 does have individual volume controls for each pickup, in place of individual tone controls you’ll find a master tone control and a dual-function control consisting of a NanoMag volume knob and a push-button switch for choosing between the humbucking pickups, piezo pickup, or both. On the back of the guitar you’ll find a set of controls for the NanoMag —treble, bass, and gain—located next to the battery compartment cover (the NanoMag requires a 9V battery).
The Ultra-339 features an onboard tuner, which is activated by a miniscule on/off button, stealthily located on the bridge pickup ring alongside the tuning indicator lights. The pickup ring is also home to two LEDs (red and blue) that indicate the pickup configuration in use. One or both of these two LEDs remain illuminated when the guitar is plugged in so that you know which pickup is being used, but they shine discretely and looking at the guitar head on, you might not even notice it. That’s a good thing, given how traditionally minded Gibson fans can be.
While the piezo pickup and onboard tuner might not ruffle too many feathers, the Ultra-339’s USB jack—which is located next to the input jacks and allows direct connection to a computer, might raise a few purists’ eyebrows. If you don’t require any computer connectivity, you can easily ignore it. But it’s likely that very presence of a USB jack will likely be a point of contention for purists who might do well to consider the more bare bones Epiphone ES–339 Pro.
Puritanical concerns aside, the USB jack is well implemented here. When I connected the guitar to my Mac, GarageBand recognized it immediately. And the fact that I didn’t have to download drivers and spend a lot of time trying to configure the setup me made me much more inclined to make use of the feature, which is great in home studio situations.
Ne Plus Ultra
It took no time to get comfortable on the Ultra-339’s 22-fret neck. The guitar came out of the box with an excellent medium-action factory set up. While I generally prefer a lower action, the Ultra-339’s D-profile neck, which is comparable in size to the 30/60 neck option on the Gibson ES-339 [the fatter ’59 neck profile option is not currently offered by Epiphone] is a delight to play—with its 12” radius, 24.75” scale length, and medium jumbo frets.
Both acoustically and plugged-in, the Ultra-339 sounds remarkably alive. Playing through vintage Fender blackface Deluxe Reverb and Fender Super-Sonic amps and the guitar’s tone control up relatively high you can get a nice percussive-but-mellow Grant Green-style tones. Rolling the tone knob down further gets you a warmer, less biting tone perfect for chord melodies.
For comparison, I pulled out my Gibson ES–339 and A/B’d the two guitars. The Epiphone’s Alnico II ProBuckers were mellower, a tad warmer and less aggressive than the Alnico II ’57 Classic pickups in the Gibson. And while you won’t get the delicious bite and high-end detail of the ’57 Classic pickups, I certainly wouldn’t rush to swap out the Ultra-339’s pickups. It’s worth noting too that the Epiphone does not have the Gibson’s Memphis Tone Circuit, which helps retain high-end content when the volume knob is lowered.
Kicking in an overdrive, it was nice to hear how detailed the Ultra could be in higher gain situations. The guitar can easily get into that Carlton/Ford bluezak territory, but it can also go into full-on shred. With the gain set high on the Super-Sonic, the Ultra-339 bloomed with sustain while retaining note clarity. The Ultra’s semi-hollow construction helped tap into some beautifully musical feedback that wasn’t appreciably harder to control than that which you’d get from a solidbody.
The addition of the NanoMag pickup gives the Ultra-339 added versatility. While it might not convince you to ditch your full-bodied steel-string, it certainly is more than useable for the occasional “acoustic” part in a set. It sounds particularly convincing when strumming full open-position chords. Higher up, playing single-note runs, I initially encountered some overly bright and quacky piezo tones, but adjusting the NanoMag’s tone controls makes tempering the quack easy.
Where the magic really happens though is in blending in the NanoMag with the conventional pickups, which can yield some very three-dimensional tones that are simultaneously crisp, thick, and full. The effect is enhanced by the harmonic and resonant properties of the semi-hollowbody, and once you get used to the possibilities of the blended sounds, it’s hard to go back to a straight-ahead pickup sound. In musical contexts that depended less on the cutting qualities of the humbuckers, disengaging the NanoMag and using just the humbuckers, things sounded a little duller. And when you’re in a musical situation that benefits a fuller tone, the sound of the blended pickups sounds are sublime.
The fact that the Ultra-339, with a street price of around eight hundred bucks can hold its own against the Gibson ES-339, which costs more than twice as much, speaks volumes about Epiphone’s quality standards. But the Ultra does more than work as a budget equivalent of its Gibson twin—the NanoMag and tone-shaping options make it an instrument with its own unique voice and potential.