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Chris Cornell and the Gibson ES-335

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell

The Late Great Chris Cornell

I am what is referred to as a Generation X person. I'm on the younger end of that, and I became an adult right as the whole grunge music scene took off. For me, one of the most painful things of the year 2017 was the death of Chris Cornell.

At least I wasn't alone in being shocked by his suicide. It seemed like everyone else was. It just goes to show how having tons of money and massive amounts of public adoration can't sustain someone's happiness indefinitely. At the time of his passing, Chris Cornell's net worth was in excess of sixty million dollars.

Chris Cornell certainly made a huge impression on a lot of people. Guitar World had a poll where Chris was ranked as rock music's single greatest singer. Rolling Stone had him ranked as the ninth greatest singer of all time for any style of music.

So, what made Chris Cornell such a great singer? Listen, this is something one need not even be a fan to discern. Cornell's ability isn't a matter of opinion. His near four-octave range can objectively show how he was far more talented than most persons singing into a microphone.

Who can compare to the late, great Chris Cornell? To my mind, the closest vocalists to Chris in style and substance are Axl Rose, for the gigantic vocal range, and Robert Plant because Cornell often channeled him in terms of visual and musical style. He is missed already.

Chris Cornell with one of each of his two Gibson ES-335 guitars.

Chris Cornell with one of each of his two Gibson ES-335 guitars.


I was excited about Soundgarden even before I'd ever heard them. I had purchased a popular music magazine, and inside was an article about the group. I read about how they were a very heavy band and were influenced by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I was hungry for new music.

That particular magazine article was in support of the album Louder Than Love. It is a fine album, but it would be several years still before Soundgarden reached the apex of their trajectory. Things did heat up considerably with the next album, Badmotorfinger, and Cornell would become as admired for his songwriting as he was for his vocal prowess.

In 1994 the album Superunknown would debut. All bets were off for just how far Soundgarden would go. The album was a massive success, and I recall myself and many of my friends listening to the thing nearly non-stop for a long time.

Now besides the Zeppelin and the Sabbath influence, with Superunknown, we could clearly hear a lot of psychedelic work which reminds the astute listener of The Beatles. Smash MTV and radio hits like Black Hole Sun ruled the day. It was really a good time to listen to radio. Nine million copies were sold worldwide.


Chris Cornell's Unique Songwriting Style

As we all know, Soundgarden went on for a bit, fizzled out, and regrouped. During the downtime, Chris Cornell just kept on trucking. He seemed to be one of those persons who was just driven to create music, and thank God for that. Audioslave was fantastic, and so were the solo albums and collaborations with other artists.

Anything involving Chris Cornell was about music. Sometimes it seems like the persons controlling who and what gets promoted in the music industry don't care about things like talent. It is fortunate we got to hear Chris at all, but grunge was then riding a wave the media masters could not deny.

Chris was born to two extremely intelligent parents, and his mother was Jewish. Chris had a two-fold talent: His singing style seemed to be something physical, as few persons can sing in four octaves. The songwriting style of Chris Cornell was something that was purely intellectual.

There's no contesting how Cornell's lyrical content often referenced the Judeo-Christian ethos. Using such imagery in songs allows for nearly everyone in the western world to relate. There was another great songwriter known for using such imagery in his lyrics, and Bob Dylan isn't a songwriter to sneeze at.

Jesus Christ Pose was the first big sensation from Soundgarden, and somehow the song was controversial. Folks were angry, and threats were issued, and yet it is so easy to relate to the anger and to feel it yourself when confronted with false piety. You wonder if folks who were mad about Jesus Christ Pose had much to say about the great song, Hunger Strike, from Temple of the Dog.

If you've ever thought there was something atypical about songs Chris wrote besides lyrical greatness, well, you were always right. Very odd chord progressions were one of the mainstays of the Cornell style. His melodies would not often conform with one diatonic scale. Maybe the fact that Chris could span four octaves caused him to be less conventional. He had no reason to limit himself with his vocals, so why would he with chord progressions?


Writing Songs With Guitar

Cornell had taken both piano and guitar lessons as a child. Both instruments are fabulous for someone who is primarily a songwriter to create music with, but with a guitar, you've got something you can a thousand times more easily carry around with you. Chris, spending huge amounts of time touring the entire world, would retire to solitude with a guitar with which to write the songs which would come to him.

I try to personally stay far away from celebrity gossip; however, in this instance, there is a thing that I find relevant enough to include. Chris had started dating Susan Silver in 1985. Susan became his wife and was the manager of not only Soundgarden but another behemoth grunge band, Alice In Chains. Chris and Susan got married in 1990, but they would go on to divorce in 2004.

What does that have to do with anything? Susan, for reasons I can only think to be malevolent, managed to keep Cornell's collection of fifteen favorite guitars for the next four years following the divorce. Chris would finally get his instruments back in 2008. A musician really bonds to their guitars. I get upset just thinking about someone holding guitars hostage like that.

Back to being a great songwriter, and one of the best singers the world of rock and roll and metal music ever knew, if it is easier to write songs on a guitar than a piano, then we must say further that it is easier still to carry about an acoustic guitar to write with, instead of an electric one where one needs also an amplifier and a cord. Well, Chris found a great solution to that conundrum with the semi-hollow body Gibson ES-335.

Gibson Chris Cornell ES-335 in flat black, with hard tail.

Gibson Chris Cornell ES-335 in flat black, with hard tail.

Gibson Chris Cornell ES-335 in olive drab with Bigsby tailpiece

Gibson Chris Cornell ES-335 in olive drab with Bigsby tailpiece

The Two Chris Cornell Gibson ES-335s

It is perfectly clear that in the last few years of his life, Chris Cornell fell completely in love with the Gibson ES-335 model of guitar. Almost every image of Chris from his final years where he is holding a guitar is of him and one of his two Gibson ES-335s. The only others you see him playing are acoustic instruments.

Chris Cornell knew as well as anyone that he wasn't known for being a guitarist. He certainly wasn't what we'd think of as a virtuoso player. He was 'merely' one of the greatest vocalists and songwriters alive and actively working. Gibson got with Chris to see what, if anything, they could do to please him, and the collaboration between them produced the two Chris Cornell model ES-335s.

Chris really had the looks of these guitars downplayed. They don't have the fanciest Gibson cosmetics at all. Are these signature guitars? Well, I guess so. Chris has his signature inside the soundhole, not on the head-stock. He was certainly not trying to draw attention to himself with these.

Satin finishes on Gibson guitars usually suggest a studio model. These were, in fact, less expensive than standard model Gibson ES-335s. I say were because now all bets are completely off. There were only 500 produced. That's 250 of each, and Chris owned at least one of each; possibly, he owned more. You may find a Chris Cornell ES-335 for sale, but buddy, you'd better count on paying top dollar for it.

Gibson Memphis Chris Cornell ES-335 Semi-hollowbody Electric Guitar Features

  • Signature ES-335 for Chris Cornell, frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave
  • Classic ES playability and tone, with a custom look and VOS hardware
  • LollarTron humbucking pickups are voiced to sound similar to vintage '60s models but with a much wider tonal range
  • Custom-made clear knobs with no dial indicators enhance the distinct look
  • American-made in Memphis, TN
  • Hardshell case included

Most Distinguishing Characteristics

Either of the Chris Cornell model ES-335s have one particular distinction about them. We're talking, of course, about the pickups. Jason Lollar has built a well-deserved high reputation for his custom pickups, and his are what are in use. The pickups are modeled after what are often used on Gretsch semi-hollow body guitars.

Jason Lollar Lollartrons are made in the style of the original FilterTron humbuckers of the late '50s and early '60s for a distinctively twangy tone but sized for a Gibson PAF-style humbucker mounting. The result is plenty of tonal depth and warmth from the semi-hollow design, but with a new clarity and crispness from the Lollartron pickups, with excellent hum rejection. The pickups are routed through the traditional three-way switch and individual volume and tone controls and topped with clear knobs for a distinctive look.

The olive drab 335, of course, has the Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece. If you dig a bit of vibrato with your crunch and twang, then the great and long in the tooth Bigsby has a lot to love. Again, to use the Bigsby requires one to be more involved with its use than with something like a Floyd Rose, or even the Stratocaster synchronized tremolo bar bridge. The Bigsby offers a lot of stability, can be easily removed and re-installed, and really shines when one wishes to bend not just single notes, but entire chords.

I've often felt like the only way to be a more retro-cool fella with the hardware is to pair a Bigsby with P-90s, but no mistake, the Lollartrons are terrific. Jason Lollar is a truly artisanal man in the custom pickup industry. If you ever purchase Lollar products or Bigsby products, you could only be dissatisfied if you didn't know what you were purchasing to begin with. Persons with prior experience with these pieces of hardware always get what they want from a purchase.

Friends, Chris is long gone, but great music and great guitars are both works of art that can last a longer time than a human's life. Let's enjoy as much of it as we can before a black hole sun drains us all into the superunknown. Thanks for reading.

© 2018 Wesman Todd Shaw