Epiphone ES-339 Ultra Hands-on in-depth, experienced review
Update: I’ve since been able to find a few examples at my local guitar acquisition establishments… new pictures on-site and a few updated notes in this review…
I enjoy playing an electric guitar that has a piezo bridge in addition to one or more “traditional” magnetic pickups. I do enjoy acoustics with piezos, but an electric that has a choice of blendable magnetics and piezo(s) has sound qualities that are unique and a pleasure to the ear.
My first electric guitar with combined piezo and mag pickups was a Parker p-36. I’ve had a few of these and liked them very much. Of late, though, I’ve wanted something different, particularly something with a set neck and a different sound.
Imagine my happiness when Epiphone (Gibson) introduced a new Ultra guitar. The ES-339 Ultra was emblazoned across my email box in a drooly Gibson newsletter. I was hooked. I was due for a Christmas present for myself and decided to take the leap. I sold my current Parker P-26, added the funds from wonderful gifts from family members, and ordered a Pelham blue ES-339 Ultra from my favorite online retailer (none are available in stores yet, as I write this, some months later). Pelham blue, shaped like a small ES, anticipated Epiphone fit-and-finish, Shadow NanoMag, new series pickups from Epiphone, and vintage-looking appointments. Check. It couldn’t get here fast enough.
After I got the first ES-339 Ultra (the blue one), things went downhill…
Quick Opinion: I REALLY wanted to love this guitar and keep it in my sound library for a long time. I just couldn’t do it. And I tried more than once.
I’ll be waiting for the next version, or for one to come to a local guitar store where I can play it and handle it to be sure it is not like those I purchased.
Playability: For the purposes of this review and concerning playability, I’ll leave out the quality problems I had with my Ultras for the moment.
I loved the neck profile and the light weight of the guitar. I like the small-ES shape and the way the guitar feels on the knee and on the strap. I love the thin-ness of the guitar. It’s a nice difference from my Sheraton II (which I do love…)
The controls are usual and easy, and the pickup-type-selector (piezo, piezo+mag, mag) switch works fine and very noiselessly. Overall, I love this guitar from the standpoint of how an ES plays.
Sound: I enjoyed the sound of both of my ES-339 Ultras. Both had creamy and smooth humbucker pickups that did a good job emulating Gibson BurstBucker Pro pickups – albeit with a little less punch. They are good for most forms of rock and jazz, with OK sound for country and prog. I don’t think they’re strong enough for Metal or Alt Country, but I’m not sure that the ES-339 was really intended to be a Metal machine.
The Shadow-brand NanoMag pickup is pretty competent. It compares fairly well with a Fishman piezo – on the whole. I think the Fishman is more “acoustic” sounding and has a better louder warmer pre-amp, but the NanoMag is still a thrill to hear, particularly amplified in stereo…
I really like the blended sound of the magnetic and piezo pickups on this guitar. The warmth and breadth of the ProBucker pickups combined with the NanoMag pickup gives the guitar a unique sound that is excellent for songwriting and performing a wide array of music. I found that if I plug the magnetic output into my Bugera 55-watt tube head played through my Bugera 2×12 – and the piezo output through my Mustang V Fender head through my son’s Crate 4×12, I get a delightful blend of sounds that had me experimenting with all kinds of tweaking and combinations. It was inspiring to me – it led to some new music composed in my garage.
I do think both the ProBuckers and the NanoMag could have some more output strength. Not crunch, mind you, just more oompfh. I ended up using a tube preamp on both channels to make the guitar really stand out. I like the blended output (in the right-hand jack – take a look at the labels on the jack plate) for many recording situations, and the combined output sounded fine for play through all of my different amplifiers.
I can dig the new magnetic pickups. It’s a nice evolution of pickups that were pretty good from the start. In addition, I found the ES-339 Ultra to be a fit companion in front of 100 watts of tube power out of a 4×12 – no feedback or howling. The way this guitar was made and designed negated feedback in my garage. My Sheraton and Artcores all get some level of feedback in the same garage with the same amps.
Quality: I’m going to try to make this part of the review short. This is where my ES-339 Ultras broke my heart. If you read through this whole review, you can get an idea of my general feelings of “near miss” for this instrument.
Update 3.29.2012… I’ve since found a few at my local guitar stores, natural, cherry, and black… The quality issues were largely not present in the on-floor guitars. The paint, finish, and detail problems were non-evident in the local examples. One thing remains, however: the string buzz is still evident on every one I played. Magnetism plus neck design plus nut detail plus neck execution? Not sure. They still buzz A LOT.
I bought a Pelham blue one and returned it. I received a natural finish one (All the blues were gone! There was a 6-month backlog on order for them…) and I returned it too. I had to give up and wait for (hopefully) Epiphone to release version 2.0 of this guitar. So sad and sorry, Epiphone. I like to write about what’s best in a guitar (no matter how cheap or expensive it is) – I just can’t do that with these.
Instead of writing many paragraphs about what was wrong with my ES-339 Ultras, I’ll just do a list – note that these were NOT nit-pick issues. These were dramatic and disappointing things that shouldn’t be present in a $100 guitar, much less an $800 guitar:
* The paint wasn’t cured on the Pelham blue one. The guitar smelled like fresh paint and the paint was sticky around the F-hole.
* All but the top of the body was covered in over-spray and paint errors on the natural finish guitar. The neck, the horns, the back, and the whole front of the neck felt like sandpaper.
* The NanoMag on the natural one was dramatically quieter than the NanoMag on the blue one.
* Both of the guitars had a funny cut to the fretboard compound. There was a huge difference between the bass side at the body joint and the treble side at the body joint. At first, I thought the neck was twisted, then I got the second guitar and discovered that they were the same. The bass side strings were very high at the 20th fret in comparison to the treble side.
* Both guitars buzzed horribly up and down the entire fretboard on all strings. Even if the neck was adjusted properly (which neither were from the factory), the buzz was really and truly distressing, no matter how lightly one picked on the strings. Even if the action were raised significantly, the bass side still buzzed.
* The nut on both guitars wasn’t cut very well. The strings were very much too close to the first fret wire.
* The guitar would not allow sufficient adjustment in the TOM bridge to set the intonation any closer than 10-13 cents on five of the six strings.
* The lack of a CD with Guitar Rig on it caused me to spend more than two hours hunting the internet for where I could download the software – and a little while longer to find out where the serial number is (It’s on the inside of the battery door, NOT the control cavity plate). This was really frustrating. The information I needed was NOT in any documentation that came with the guitar in the box.
Then, there were nit-pick things. I’ll not list them here.
Needless to say, I was truly unhappy about having to go through the hassle of boxing and returning a couple of guitars and having to wait from before Christmas until well into January only to find out that both guitars were nearly unplayable.
Value: I have mixed feelings as to the value of this guitar. On the one hand, it is feature-rich for an Epiphone ES guitar. It has more features and flexibilities than any other Epi (other than the LP Ultra). On the whole, the features-per-dollar ratio is pretty good. As I’ve said in the “wishes” section of this review, I think the USB port is overkill, considering you have to use Guitar Rig to take advantage of this port, and it adds significant cost to the guitar.
I think the guitar should “street” for about $599 as it is. $649 at the most. At the time of this review, the street cost of an ES-339 Ultra is $799 – MORE than a Gibson USA faded SG, a few bucks less than a Gibson Les Paul faded studio or a Gibson 60s tribute LP or SG. Although the gadgets and very desirable pickups are great features, I don’t think this guitar feels like an $800 guitar.
With the quality issues I found on my ES-339 Ultras, I must admit I might be a bit jaded, but truly, it seemed like a lot before I even ordered the first one.
This is one of the first/few Epiphones I’ve ever played that I thought was too expensive (the others being the Prophecy line). Most Epiphones are great bargains!
Features: What’s not to like about the features? The ES-339 Ultra has a lot going for it.
* Two different pickup types on the same guitar (my reason for the season)
* Smaller, lighter ES-shaped guitar
* Semi-hollow that doesn’t howl in front of a loud amplifier
* New issue Epiphone magnetic pickups that have excellent sound qualities
* The excellent Shadow NanoMag piezo pickup
* A nice thin D-shaped neck, something like a big Telecaster neck, very similar to my Sheraton II
* EASY pickup switching with a simple momentary on-on switch built into one of the potentiometers
* The electronics are in a control cavity! Yay! No more fishing in the F-holes to fix or change the electronics!
* Simple, old-fashioned, high-quality Gibson Deluxe tuners (not Epis, but Gibbys)
* Nice general appointments and finish choices (LOVE the Pelham blue! Can’t these stay on for the long term?)
* Built-in USB port and a serial number for an older version of Native Instruments Guitar Rig
* Kudos to Epiphone for including a special stereo-capable guitar cable, a truss rod tool, and a USB cable…
This guitar is packed with features that, if executed well, make it a very interesting and fun-to-play instrument. On a scale of 1-10 for features, this guitar gets a clear and strong 10.
Wishes: I do wish I had taken great pictures of my 339 Ultras before I returned them. Perhaps later when they come out with version 2.0?
Really, the USB is more of an expensive gimmick than a real feature. Honestly, the guitar could have been more than $100 cheaper (in my opinion) without the USB port and NativeInstruments license… and the player would have better experiences with using the guitar through a more competent USB computer input from a manufacturer that does the job much better. The entire process of finding, downloading, hassling, fussing, and setting up the Guitar Rig software and trying to use it with my recording and playback software was very frustrating and did not give me nearly as good a set of results than a Line 6, M-Audio, (etc) USB interface to my computer.
The purchaser of the Ultra 339 should not have to start out with a version of Guitar Rig that is already eclipsed by its commercial cousin. The software should be on a CD in the guitar’s new box. The software should be EASY to find on Epiphone’s and NI’s sites. The Ultra-339’s quick start guide should have a clear picture as to where to find the guitar’s Guitar Rig license number.
My biggest wish for these are that Epiphone fixes the train wreck of unusually bad quality of these instruments. On another note, I think these would be great with the simple and inexpensive addition of coil-tapped magnetic pickups and tap pot. I like the whole idea of this guitar – I just wish they were keepers.
I have to say, I’ve never been a “fan boy” of any particular brand – I like pretty much any kind of gear, particularly guitars and basses… I will play an Epiphone just as enjoyably as I will a Gibson or Fender or Rickenbacker or… With that said, I wish I could sit with Epiphone engineers and QC management and have a hands-on session about the way the examples I played came out… It is going to hurt Epi until they get this guitar’s issues under control… While I was writing this review, ALL my favorite guitar online sites had “returned” ES-339 Ultra guitars for sale… lots of them. It makes me really sad.