Vintage Vault: 1959 Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster
One of the finest electric archtops inspired by the L-5.
By the late 1940s, after the factory slowdowns of World War II, Gibson was once again expanding its electric guitar line. The ES-5 was introduced in 1949 as “the supreme electronic version of the famed Gibson L-5.” While the ES-5 shared the L-5’s dimensions and block fingerboard inlays, it was constructed with a laminated top, back and sides, like other Gibson electric guitars available at the time. Not until the introduction of the Super 400CES and L-5CES in 1951 would solid carved-wood archtop electrics be available as regular models.
The existing ES-300 and ES-350 models had been recently upgraded to two P-90 pickups, but the upscale ES-5 had three. Individual volume controls for each pickup let players dial in their desired blend.
Falling sales after 1952 prompted Gibson to upgrade the ES-5’s switching. The ES-5 Switchmaster was launched at the July 1955 NAMM show. By 1958 the guitar was improved once again, this time with three “Patent Applied For” humbuckers replacing the P-90s.
The March 1959 Gibson catalog describes the features: “Arched top and back of highly figured, curly maple with matching curly maple rims – alternate black and white ivoroid binding – modern cutaway design – three-piece curly maple neck with Gibson Adjustable Truss Rod – bound rosewood fingerboard with block pearly inlays – Tune-O-Matic bridge – three powerful, humbucking pickups with individually adjustable pole pieces – separate tone and volume controls which can be preset – four-way toggle switch to activate each of the three pickups separately, in combination of any two, or all three simultaneously – gold-plated metal parts – exclusive new tailpiece design – laminated pickguard with attractive border – individual machine heads with deluxe buttons.”
An enhanced pickup selector let players choose individual pickups, or use all three simultaneously.
This pristine 1959 Switchmaster matches the original catalog description except for its Grover Rotomatic tuners, which replaced the Kluson Super tuners seen in previous years. The 1959 list price was $450. A plush-lined No. 600 Faultless case was available for an additional $52.50. The current value for this all-original-condition guitar is $12,500.
Sources for this article include Gibson Electrics: The Classic Years by A.R. Duchossoir, and the March 1959 Gibson Electric Catalog.