1941 Gibson ES-125

The ES-125 was Gibson’s stalwart, affordable archtop electric model from the late ‘40s through the end of the ‘60s. It sported a 16” laminated maple body and a single P-90 pickup, though in the ‘60s it diversified into its own mini-lineup of models featuring every combination of cutaway/non-cut, thin/thick body and single/double pickup imaginable (plus a ¾-sized version). However, the 125’s origins date back to 1938 when Gibson introduced the ES-100 as a more budget-friendly alternative to its standard ES-150 electric guitar. The ES-100 featured a solid, carved top and the same “Charlie Christian” bar pickup as its more expensive sibling, but it was made more affordable by a smaller 14.5” body, a flat back and a less ornate pickup cover.

In 1940, both the 100 and 150 were overhauled with the new P-13 pickups. While these look somewhat like P-90s with silver covers, they are actually completely different inside. The pickup location was also changed, and the P-13s were mounted near the bridge for a sharper sound. A year later, in 1941, the ES-100 was renamed the ES-125; this mainly reflected the rise in price with inflation, but Gibson also took the opportunity to enlarge the guitar’s f-holes to a larger, more modern design. This first incarnation of the 125 was only produced for two years, as material shortages due to World War II caused Gibson to cease production of all electric instruments in 1943. When production resumed in 1946, the 125 had been redesigned with the “classic” features that it would retain for the next fourteen years.

Gibson’s early 1940s electric guitars have slipped under many vintage enthusiasts’ radar. They have neither the iconic Charlie Christian pickup nor the familiar P-90, and the bridge-mounted P-13 is a very different tone from the classic jazz box sound. (One exception is the first-generation ES-300, which is desirable mainly for the novelty of its enormous oblong pickup). The early ES-125s, therefore, are sought neither by jazz nor by rock players. That’s a shame, but also a boon to those of us seeking high-quality vintage archtops without astronomical prices.

This guitar has an interesting sound: a dark-sounding pickup in a bright-sounding spot, it’s pretty far removed from anything you’re likely to come across today. It’s great for dirty blues, though roll off the tone a bit and it can still do a good jazz tone. Clean, it’s great for fingerpicking. The neck is big but not enormous, with a wide C shape. The narrow body is easy to play, since I don’t have to reach my arm around a huge box o’ wood.

The guitar has survived in fairly clean and remarkably playable condition; all parts are original except for the tuners and the nut (though I did find the original nut inside the case). There are some dings on the body and headstock, particularly a gouge in the veneer through the Gibson logo, but no cracks, splits or other damage. It’s one of the best-playing instruments I’ve come across from its time, with a perfectly straight fretboard, nearly untouched frets and a perfect neck angle. The original case is in similarly clean condition, and it contained a nifty surprise: hang tags from when the guitar was sold, indicating what each of the knobs does. In 1941, electric guitars were still new enough that either Gibson or the retailer felt the need to instruct players on how to use them.