Classic Guitars, part 8: Gibson Firebird
This piece could also have been titled ”The Firebird: A famous enigma”, as the Gibson Firebird is the least well-known of the company’s classic solid body electrics. The reason for this relative lack in interest is down to the short production run of the original series, as well as the fact that only a few famous guitarists have used a Firebird as their main axe.
The Firebird/Thunderbird-line of guitars and basses was the 1963-version of the ”Let’s beat Fender”-game that Gibson started in 1958 with the Flying V and the Explorer. Gibson’s then-president Ted McCarty wanted to come out with a snazzy guitar that proved that a) Gibson wasn’t a behind-the-times, old-fashioned company of old farts, and b) could compete with Fender’s current glitzy offerings (the Jazzmaster and the Jaguar) in the looks stakes.
This time McCarty looked for help from outside the guitar industry. He hired renowned car designer Ray Dietrich to design a guitar purely from a designer’s viewpoint. What Dietrich finally came up with is now known as the ”reverse-body” Firebird-line (see picture above). These guitars (and their Thunderbird bass-brethren) are called ”reverse”, because, contrary to tradition (and ergonomical logic), the bass side of the body leans away from the neck, while the treble side is longer on the neck-facing side.
Gibson decided on a novel way (for them) of building the guitar: reverse Firebirds feature a through-neck construction, with the neck and the body’s central section being crafted from the same laminated mahogany/walnut blank. The body wings are made from mahogany, while the tuners are very interesting back-facing machines.
The original run (1963–’65) of reverse Firebird-guitars comprised four models:
• Firebird I: one mini-humbucker in bridge position, unbound rosewood fretboard, dot inlays, wraparound bridge
• Firebird III: two mini-humbuckers, bound rosewood fretboard, dot inlays, dot inlays, wraparound bridge, simple vibrato
• Firebird V: two mini-humbuckers, bound rosewood fretboard, trapezoid (crown) inlays, long engraved Gibson Vibrola
• Firebird VII: three mini-humbuckers, bound ebony fretboard, pearl block inlays, long engraved Gibson Vibrola, gold-coloured hardware
The standard finish was sunburst, but as as a Gibson-first, the Firebirds were also offered in a range of custom finishes, which weren’t very popular with the dealers, though.
Sadly, the reverse Firebirds weren’t selling very well. And then, when Fender started claiming Gibson had infringed on their ”offset waist”-patent and threatened a law suit, McCarty’s team decided on a swift redesign, which looked like this:
The non-reverse Firebirds (1965–’69) looked even more like a Fender-design, and abandoned the through-neck in favor of Gibson’s conventional set neck-joint. The Firebird I and III now sported P-90-pickups – two on the I and three on the III – while the Firebird V and VII stuck to their mini-humbuckers. All non-reverse models featured unbound rosewood fingerboards with dot inlays.
The non-reverse ’Birds didn’t set the guitar-playing world on fire either, so the company axed the series in 1969.
Since the mid-70s there have been plenty of reissues, as well as updated Firebird-models, but these clear-sounding guitars still tend to find favour with only a small clientele, compared to the rest of Gibson’s classics.
The best known users of Gibson Firebirds were/are Johnny Winter, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Clarence ”Gatemouth” Brown and Allen Collins (Lynyrd Skynyrd).