Sunday, December 26, 2010

2003 Gibson ES-135 Guitar


We are looking at another of life’s disappointments today: a 2003 Gibson ES-135 semi-hollowbody guitar.

It is a bit rare, and this is the only one I have seen in this configuration and color. It is a typical Gibson ES-135, with a few noticeable differences. 1. There are no F holes. 2. It has a non-trapeze bridge and tailpiece (as used on Les Paul models). 3. There is a mahogany block inside the guitar, not chromite (balsa) as you will find on the standard ES-135 models. I have to take this last point on faith, as I cannot see it. Well, there are no F holes, you know…

It is attractive, and has nice bits on it. It is finished in non-metallic glossy red, and the body is double-bound. The hardware and electronics are first-class, with Grover tuners and 57 classic pickups. The pickups sound very good, without a lot of unwanted hum.

The ES-135 is a cheaper model, so it has simple dot fret markers and a rosewood fretboard (instead of ebony.

This guitar is all original, and has not been modified, with the exception of a repaired surface crack at the top volume knob.

It is pretty light, coming in at exactly 8 pounds, and it arrived with a really nice Gibson hard case.

This all sounds very good on paper, so you must be wondering what is so disappointing to me about this guitar. It plays horribly. My tech worked on it quite a bit and got it a little better, but the fretboard and fretwork were abysmal. The fretboard is not even close to true, and the frets are not capable of being leveled with the condition of the fretboard. It was not worth the money and effort it would take to make it right, so I ended up selling it.

Sadly, this is not unusual for modern Gibson products, even their Custom Shop models. It seems like the factory is cranking out guitars as quickly as possible with little regard to quality. It is sad to see an American music icon going so far off track.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this, it is to not buy any latter-day Gibson products without having a chance to try them out first.



  1. A sad story, and all too common.


  2. These 135's are some sort of limited edition. There is not alot of information out there about them but they seem to only come like this in 2003. I have a 2003 with the same configuration with a blueburst matte finish and it plays incredible. But you are correct its the luck of the draw with modern Gibsons, a dry run is a must.

  3. I purchased a blueburst model in 2003. It's frets and fretboard are excellent. It took me a while to find strings that I liked, but once that was settled, the guitar sounds great. I believe that it was in 2004 that Gibson discontinued the es-135 and began producing the es-137 which is an upgraded 135 with f holes and fancy inlays and polish.

  4. I also have a 2003 es135. It's just like yours except with a natural blond maple finish, and it is one of my best-playing guitars. The center block is most definitely mahogany, because there's no way you could anchor that tailpiece into chromite. It's a shorter scale length than most Gibsons, so I had to move up one string gauge. These guitars are hard to find, but they are better than earlier es 135's and modern es 137's in my opinion. The 57 classics are the right pickup. The 490s in the modern es 137s suck.

  5. Just went mad and bought a 2003 135 off eBay even after reading the wise cautionary admonitions above and... I'm having a bit of a problem with setup so far. It's playing tantalizingly well and I could get through a gig with it but I need to consult a tech with the right tools to fine tune the action. The G string appears to ride a bit too much higher than the B, causing a painful invasion of the G string under my fingernail when bending the B, maybe file the saddle groove a little deeper and do some fret work so I can lower the action just a bit more. It's a great looking axe with the F Holes in the trans blonde finish, definitely a working man's axe with dot markers and no headstock inlay, plain unbound neck with the stop tailpiece, body double bound in simple white with black speed knobs and pick guard. I'll update this after I take it to the luthier. Stay tuned!

  6. Insane Purchase Pt 2: Alright, after a total of 4 round trips to my luthier's workshop in San Gabriel, CA, the blonde beast with the neck problems described directly above has finally been tamed! Seems the B String was coming off the bridge saddle lower than the E String and too low relative to the G String, causing the above-referenced bending problem. The solution was to file a new, higher saddle slot for the B string and also do a whole lot of fret leveling. Since I bought it second hand I do not know if it came out of the factory like that or someone messed it up by ill-advised tinkering, but it was well worth the trouble to get things professionally adjusted, and now my beast roars unhindered by fretting out on bends or making bar chords sound as if it were strung with rubber bands. Long live the ES 135!

  7. This grueling guitar ordeal described directly above went to Pt 3 because, while the luthier made it more playable than it was originally, it was still infected with some fret-outs and buzzing on the high E, and the low E was obviously still out of whack. So I searched luthiers and found Eric's Guitar Shop in Van Nuys, CA. Eric adjusted the truss rod as I suggested to the first luthier to no avail, but Eric moved it in the opposite direction I guessed it needed. He also filed some of the nut slots a bit and put a new bridge on (a Fishman piezo tune-0-matic) and set up the action to a very satisfactory height while eliminating almost all of the buzzing, though I found there was still a bit on the high E and have raised the bridge a bit to compensate. The guitar now plays almost as flawlessly as any Gibson I've owned (3 Les Pauls and a 355) and I can finally say I'm happy enough with it to take it onstage. The Fishman sounds very acoustic. There was no drilling necessary as I did not install the preamp, which I find I don't really need because the signal is strong and I can use outboard preamps and EQ while controlling the mix with separate volume pedals for the piezos and magnetics. That's the last update - I promise!

  8. Wow, that was a lot of work! Better you than me...

  9. Yes, it was too much and had I known beforehand I would never have bought it. But I figured whatever the other guys were complaining about was reparable. I think it was just the victim of neglect and ignorance by its former owner and it is now one of my favorite guitars of all time. I put a pair of double cream Dimarzio Nortons on it. So now I'm looking for a 2003 tobacco burst.

  10. I am glad it all worked out in the end! Those Dimarzios are fabulous, too.

  11. I have a red one, and it plays and sounds great. I also have a custom shop Les Paul, A ES 175, 335, a firebird, and a cusotm shop La Grande, the 135 sounds as good as the others though not as pretty.