Contemporary ES-335s are put together at Gibson's Memphis Custom Shop facility, and can cost a pretty penny. We've seen ES-335s available for £1,699 online, and even less than that if you fancy buying blind from overseas, but as internet prices rise to around £2,249 for a genuine '59 reissue, the market for guitars that are close to the equivalent in spec, yet much lower in price, has always been fertile.
Washburn's HB Series has been in business for quite a while now, and this version of the flagship HB36 features the same faux-aged antique brown finish that gave the Washburn J600 archtop a serious dollop of inherent vibe.
That je ne sais quoi is also present here, and the impact of the ageing has been improved by the utilisation of off-white binding, much more in-keeping with how a genuine 1950s semi would discolour than the bright white strips used on the J600.
The hardware is more mottled than anything else, and the distressed gold plating of the bridge, tailpiece, pickup covers and tuners gives, if anything, a steampunk flavour. However, it looks the part and, if you feel sufficiently brave, you could even break out the wire wool to age the metal still further.
Woods used include a top of laminated spruce rather than the traditional maple, plus a solid-maple centre block and laminated flamed maple for the back and sides. The grain and figuring is subtly apparent throughout, especially on the rear of the body.
Washburn states that both the scratchplate and knobs themselves are ebony, but on closer inspection, we'd wager that the material used is actually wood that has been stained; the front face of the guard has certainly been artificially blackened. This isn't a major concern, especially considering how rare the wood is these days, and we're satisfied that the fingerboard at least is made from ebony.
With a shallow D profile, the feel of the maple neck isn't quite as full as Gibson's current take on the 'slim taper' of the early 60s. It's more modern than that, and the low action of this review model makes it extremely comfortable to play.
It's certainly not as full and rounded as the Gibson ES-335 we had on hand for direct comparison, but there is enough wood in the tone of the HB36 to make it suitable for the majority of semi-acoustic styles; 60s popsters, for example, will be very pleased with the brightness on offer.
Full-throated chords on the bridge pickup cut through well when used with gain, as do single notes for solos. The neck humbucker offers a lively account of that position when compared with the Gibson ES-335, which can be a real boon for making notes articulate fully in jazzier styles.
The guitar is balanced and comfortable when strapped on, and minor details such as the convenient side-mounted jack socket and efficient tuners more than make up for niggles concerning the somewhat dry fingerboard and patchy fretwork. Overall, we're very happy to report that it does sound as good as it looks.
With prices of Gibsons lying well north of the £2,000 mark, we'd assume that for many, the desire for a well-priced and nicely made classic-style semi, with a decent range of tones means they'll be happy to consider candidates bereft of that much-lauded marque.
At £499, the HB36 Vintage is a contender, and one that has the - admittedly less pricey - Epiphone Dot squarely beaten; less so the better-spec'd Sheraton, perhaps. This is an impressive semi with added visual mojo that's well worth seeking out if you're in the market for lots of semi-hollow fun for not much cash.