Up close and personal with Mel Bay’s very own 1958 Gibson ES-335

1958 Gibson ES-335 that was once owned by Mel Bay
(Image credit: Future / Paige Davidson)

Well Strung Guitars – one of New York's standout vintage guitar establishments – has been the custodian of countless historic guitars since its inception as We Buy Guitars back in 1968. David Davidson, in turn, has authenticated, purchased, and sold thousands of vintage guitars during his career.

Simply put, it means he's seen his fair share of guitar history – including this 1958 Gibson ES-335, built to order for guitar educator par excellence Mel Bay.

“You’ll notice this guitar has, most unusually, a side jack – as opposed to a front-mounted jack – and it’s thinner than a regular 335: it’s 1/8-inch thinner than the standard depth of 1 3/4 inches. It’s also got a crazy figured Brazilian rosewood fretboard. I’ve never seen such figuring on a ’board. It’s got a black streak that runs down the treble side, starting off on the 6th fret and getting wider towards the bass side. 

“The ledger says that it was made specially for Mel Bay and was shipped to Mel Bay Music in Kirkwood, Missouri. At the same time, he ordered an EB-2 bass, also with a side jack. I don’t have that bass, unfortunately, but Mel ordered them together, which is pretty cool. The EB-2 is essentially a 335 bass. 

“He ordered them with side jacks, probably thinking, ‘If I step on the cable, I’ll break the guitar if the jack is in the front.’ Who knows? To him, it probably sounded feasible. But as much it was made specifically for Mel Bay, you could say Gibson was experimenting with specs – that it was a prototype. Nevertheless, it’s got some really amazing PAFs, the neck angle is great and it plays fantastic.

“I had a conversation with Gibson about this guitar and that was the first time I was told they actually had a custom shop all those years ago in Kalamazoo. They didn’t call it the ‘Custom Shop’, but on the third floor of the old building they had a custom division. A few years ago, I was very fortunate to be given a private tour that included viewing a room they called ‘the sawdust room’. 

“It’s a big room where all the sawdust from the milling gets blown into and they empty it out periodically. But in there is something truly special – a drafting cabinet. In this drafting cabinet there are many drawers, and in those drawers is virtually every hand-drawing of every custom guitar they ever made for anyone.

1958 Gibson ES-335 that was once owned by Mel Bay

(Image credit: Future / Paige Davidson)

“They have things like Ted McCarty’s own drawings for the [Maestro Vibrola] Lyre tailpiece, Firebird-style headstocks and other things he would dream up. Apparently, he liked to doodle. Some of those became actual models or parts for models like, say, a pickguard for a Hummingbird or Dove. Although that cabinet exists, our friends at Gibson don’t tend to talk about it much. 

“It was saved by a secretary at the Kalamazoo plant. Henry Juszkiewicz [ex-chairman and CEO of Gibson] had told her to throw it out, and that it was just a bunch of old trash. But she saved it by hiding it up in the sawdust room. Now, the cabinet has supposedly got a bunch of brown recluse spiders living in it, so nobody dares go near it. Those little suckers will bite you and hurt you!

“Some of the coolest Gibson things I ever saw were from there. Years ago, I bought a guitar that belonged to a country guitar player called Bernie Smith. If you Google him, you’ll see pictures of him playing a very unique custom ES-355. It was made for him and has his name inlaid in pearl along the fingerboard. There’s also a plaque down by the stop tailpiece that says, ‘Custom made for Bernie Smith, 1960.’

“After Bernie passed away, I acquired his 355, and when I asked my friends at Gibson if they knew anything about it, it couldn’t have been more than 45 minutes later when I got pictures of the original drawings – sketches of the guitar. I was like, ‘Where the heck did you get these?’ And they told me, ‘Well, the next time you come out here we’ve got something to show you.’

“I found that not only did they have these sketches but if they actually became finalised guitars they were marked as such. I’m talking about crazy one-offs like this 335 they made for Mel Bay. There are crazy custom guitars out there – things I’ve never even seen. But they made ’em! They know they made them because they have the proof.

“So, with respect to Mel Bay’s ES-335, Gibson were well aware that it had been made on the third floor in Kalamazoo. It’s a really, really neat piece. Like a lot of people growing up, I went through Mel Bay’s books – I learned how to play guitar that way. Back then, we didn’t have YouTube. We didn’t even have VHS tapes. There was no tablature. We learned how to read music.

“When you got a teacher, they would teach you how to read music, not just how to physically play guitar. That’s the way we grew up. But it’s one of those things: if you don’t practise it, you lose it. These days, with tab and YouTube, it’s so much easier to learn guitar. The Mel Bay thing simply wouldn’t happen in today’s world.”

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Rod Brakes

Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar WorldGuitar Player and MusicRadar in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.