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Gibson ES 150 "Charlie Christian"
|Body||16 1/4" wide, solid spruce archtop, solid maple back and sides|
|Fretboard||Rosewood with pearl dot inlays, 24-3/4" scale|
|Bridge||Ebony archtop-style bridge adjustable for height|
|Pickup(s)||One steel magnet blade-type single coil in the neck position (Charlie Christian pickup)|
The Gibson Guitar Corporation's ES-150 guitar is generally recognized as the world's first commercially successful Spanish-style electric guitar. The ES stands for Electric Spanish, and it was designated 150 because it was priced (in an instrument/amplifier/cable bundle) around $150. The particular sound of the instrument was formed by a combination of the specific bar-style pickup and its placement, and became famous due in large part to its endorsement by notable guitar players including Charlie Christian.
After its introduction in 1936, it immediately became popular in jazz orchestras of the period. Unlike the usual acoustic guitars utilized in jazz, it was loud enough to take a more prominent position in ensembles. The guitar was produced with minor variations until 1940, when the ES-150 designation (the "V2") denoted a model with a different construction and a different pickup.
The ES-150 was developed and released in association with two US retailers, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel. It was preceded by Gibson adding ancillary piezo pickups to its regular acoustic guitars. The company had developed an electromagnetic pickup in 1935 (the now-famous "bar pickup", named for its shape), which was initially factory-installed only on lap steel guitar (EH) models, then offered as an accessory and finally installed on acoustic guitars (the L-00 and L-1 models).
Those elecrified guitars proved so successful that soon two retailers, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel May Stern, suggested Gibson build the ES model, in the summer of 1936. Montgomery Ward was the first to offer them for sale, as the 1270 model. It had Gibson's bar pickup (though with rounded bobbins, as opposed to the hexagonal pickup Gibson later installed on its own factory models), a volume control (no tone); like Spiegel's 34-S model (fist advertised in 1937) it lacked any Gibson identification. Spiegel received 42 of those instruments between January and August 1937 before it cut them from the catalog. The contract with Montgomery Ward ran until 1940; an estimated 900 instruments with the 1270 designation were made.
Gibson's "own" ES-150, a "more-upmarket ES model" compared to the Ward and Spiegel models, had minor changes from the contract models, such as a solid spruce top, maple back and sides, and an adjustable truss-rod. The first guitar was shipped to Bailey's House of Music on November 20, 1936. The instrument sold for $155 including cord, six-tube amplifier, and case. The pickup placement, closer to the instrument's neck than on Gibson's EH steel guitars and on guitars made by other manufacturers, produced a warmer, less "trebly" tone which suited the instrument well for jazz and blues. In 1937, the model's peak year, an average of forty guitars a month were shipped. In early 1937 Gibson also began shipping two other versions: a tenor guitar (the EST-150, with four strings and a 23" scale, renamed the ETG-150 in 1940) and a plectrum version (the EPG-150, with a 27" scale). Early players were Eddie Durham, Floyd Smith and the most famous of them, Charlie Christian, who received an ES-150 in September 1939, giving it "a near-mythical status" (aided by a feature in that year's December issue of Down Beat).
Gibson introduced a cheaper version in August 1938, the ES-100 (with a smaller body and a different pickup; $117.50 with case and amp), and a more upscale version, the ES-250 (with a different peg head, fancier inlays, and a pickup with individual pole pieces instead of a bar; starting at $253 with case and amp).
By 1940 sales had slumped, and Gibson's facelift for the model included new pickups, made with the new Alnico magnets, the forerunner of the P-90 which is still in production. The new pickups were installed on all Gibson's electric models, and first introduced in July 1940 (the ES-100 and 250 were renamed ES-125 and 300). On the ES-150, this pickup (with adjustable individual poles) were placed closer to the bridge, to produce a more "biting" sound for soloing. Still, Gibson installed bar-style pickups on request, on the (post-1940) models for Hank Garland, Barry Galbraith, and Barney Kessel. It reintroduced the bar pickup for the general audience in 1958 for an extra $60; it was announced with the question, "Remember the straight-bar pickup that was made famous by Charlie Christian?"
In the late 1960s, Gibson introduced the ES-150DC, which was a significantly different instrument, despite its similar model number. The ES-150DC was a hollowbody electric guitar with a double-cutaway body similar in appearance to the semi-hollow 335 guitars (except for a greater body thickness). It featured two humbuckers, a rosewood fingerboard with small block inlays, and a master volume knob on the lower cutaway. This model, however, was not particularly popular, and it was discontinued by Gibson in the mid-1970s.
Shipping numbers for the ES-150 in its first full year, 1937, were relatively strong at 464. Thirty-seven EST-150s and one single EPG-150 were shipped in 1937. Of the ES-250, 14 were shipped in 1939. By that year, sales of the ES-150 had dwindled to about 20 units on average per month.
- ES-150: 23 (1936); 464 (1937); 362 (1938); 252 (1939); 218 (1940); total 1,319
- EST-150: 37 (1937); 22 (1938); 15 (1939); 19 (1940); total 93
- EPG-150: 1 (1937)
"Charlie Christian pickup"
The "Charlie Christian pickup", as the bar-style pickup of the early ES-150 models came to be known, was a departure from previous pickups. Earlier pickups featured either a horseshoe magnet that arched over the strings (as found on the Rickenbacker A-22 "Frying Pan"), or a static coil through which a magnet passed, the magnet being vibrated by the guitar's bridge (a design used by former Gibson employee Lloyd Loar on his Vivi-Tone guitar). The Charlie Christian pickup consists of a coil of copper wire wound around a black plastic bobbin. The coil has a rectangular hole in its center, and the coil and bobbin fit around a chrome-plated steel blade polepiece. Attached at right angles to the bottom of the polepiece are a pair of five-inch-long (13 cm) steel bar magnets, which remain out of sight inside the instrument. These magnets are secured to the top of the ES-150 by the three bolts visible on the guitar's top.
There were three different varieties of Charlie Christian pickup produced by Gibson, and all three are distinguished by the polepiece:
- The first of these was produced from 1936 until mid-1938 and had a plain blade polepiece. The coil was wound to about 2.4 kΩ resistance using AWG 38 enameled wire.
- The second type was introduced on ES-150s built from mid-1938 onward, and featured a polepiece that had a notch cut out below the second (B) string. This modification was made to lower the volume of the B string, which sounded significantly louder than the other strings. At this time the coil was wound with a finer wire (AWG 42) resulting in more turns and an approximately 5.2 kΩ resistance, which gave the pickup a higher output.
- The third pickup was available on the Gibson ES-250, which was available beginning in 1939. The blade on this pickup had five notches, each located between the strings. This pickup also had a more compact internal design. It featured a cobalt steel slug that was small enough to sit directly under the pickup.
The sound this pickup produced is clear—thanks to the narrow string-sensing blade—and powerful because of the relatively high resistance of the coil. Uneven magnetic flux within the steel magnets could cause some distortion in the signal. Electromagnetic hum was a big problem with these pickups because of their large surface area and utter lack of shielding.