Gibson Firebird Guitar

Nov 16, 2013

This might be a guy-thing, but:  If girls' interests tend toward fashion, design, color and things floral, then guys lean toward sports, cars 

As 2013 nears an end, it must be told that this is the 50th Anniversary of the Gibson Firebird guitar. While that might be near meaningless to the larger world, or even to many who pick, strum or shred, the Firebird remains a milestone in guitar history, and a still-futuristic beauty to the eye.  The battle between Gibson and Fender manufacturers was testy in the '50s and '60s, as Fender's modern contour solid-bodies in stunning colors proved harsh competition to Gibson's more staid products, despite their outstanding Les Paul models. Buying out Epiphone and introducing the daringly wild "Flying V" and zig-zag shaped "Explorer" in 1958 did not help Gibson compete with Fender at the time. 

So Gibson took the unprecented step of hiring a Detroit car designer named Ray Dietrich, with no connection to guitar building, to design a solid-body guitar to compete against Fender's Stratocaster.  In July 1963 the Firebird appeared, a somewhat rounded-out version of the Explorer, slanted rather upside-down, head and tuners included.  The nickname "reverse" has stuck to this day, still a bit controversial & often dismissed.   But to those who fell in love with it, the Firebird revealed its enduring secrets.

The one-piece full-length "neck-through" mahogany laminate design means there's no join of the neck and body; adherents claim the guitar resonates something special as a result.  That long piece of four-inch-wide wood then has "wings" glued on to spread out the body shape, same as Mr Les Paul's prototype "log" in the early '40s.

The little mini-humbuck pickups are another secret in the arsenal, with a huge bluesy boom near the neck and stinging treble bite at the bridge.  The Firebird's famous players include Eric Clapton in his Cream days, Brian Jones of the Stones, with Ron Wood now continuing the legacy, Stevie Winwood and Gatemouth Brown on non-reverse Birds, with Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music letting some of the secret out in saying the sound of the Bird is huge yet "contained", not spreading out to interfering frequencies - a great studio guitar.  Perhaps the most-identified user with the big Bird is Johnny Winter, awarded his own Signature model.

The reverse Firebird was a commercial failure by 1965, too expensive to build.  A more conventional "non-reverse" with glued-in two-piece construction quickly followed, soon identified with Winwood, adopted by Brian Jones and later Gem Archer of Oasis among others.

Brought back to life in a series of reissues, the Firebirds are back in production at Gibson; not bad in a world of me-too reverse and zig-zag Jacksons, Hamers, Ibanez and other copycats emblazoned with flames and lightning bolt graphics. 

But true fans, and a few snobs such as yours-truly, who maintain the Firebird is most dignified in it's original modest brown sunburst woodgrain, hold the Firebird high and let it sing loud.

My Dad bought me a brand-new reverse in '65, broken in transit.  The shipped replacement was among the first numbered non-reverse. As a kid I played that until swapping for another reverse, which got lost in the haze of the '70s.  But this year I ordered up a shiny new reverse in woodgrain sunburst.  It was like going home to an old friend. This time I will never leave.

Meet a good friend:


Category: General