Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In Search Of The Way Out -- The Gibson Firebird

In the mid-50's, hot on the heels of its successful Les Paul model, Gibson decided to create a trio of radically shaped guitars -- the Flying V, the Explorer and the Moderne.

As Gibson's president Ted McCarty explained it, "We developed these models because we wanted to be way out." These new designs were intended to break the company out of the mold of producing only conventional, aesthetically unchallenging instruments.

Of the three, the Moderne was produced in such a small quantity that it has become the holy grail of solidbody guitars. In fact whether any were made at all remains a point of contention -- none of the originals from the 50's are known to exist today.

The market, however, was not prepared for such 'way out' guitars. Sales flopped.

In a bold move, the ever forward-thinking McCarty hired Detroit car designer Ray Dietrich to come up with a guitar that would both shake up the guitar industry and be embraced by the marketplace.

A tall order indeed.

His new design, dubbed the 'Firebird' was released in mid-1963.

The Firebird featured all-mahogany body wings glued to a multi-laminate mahogany and walnut through-neck/centrepiece which extended the entire length of the instrument. Outfitted with proprietary Firebird humbucking pickups, it also featured a reverse peghead design with perpendicularly mounted 'banjo' tuners.

Some have observed that the Firebird's design was actually the Explorer shape with its points rounded off.

Because of the extended lower horn on the Firebird's treble side as well as the upside-down reversed headstock, these came to commonly be referred to as 'reverse Firebirds'.

Available in sunburst as a standard finish, the customer could also order the guitar in custom Duco automobile colors such as Polaris white, Pelham blue, Kerry green, frost blue and silver mist, golden mist and cardinal red -- true to the Firebird's automotive origins.

Four Firebird models were produced:

Firebird I -- one pickup, two knobs (tone and volume), wrap-around bridge, unbound rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays

Firebird III -- two pickups, 3-way selector switch, wrap-around bridge with Vibrola spring vibrato, single-bound rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays

Firebird V -- two pickups, 3-way selector switch, tune-o-matic bridge, Deluxe Vibrola vibrato with a metal tailpiece cover engraved with the Gibson 'leaf and lyre' logo, single-bound rosewood fingerboard with trapezoid inlays

Firebird VII -- three pickups, 3-way selector switch, tune-o-matic bridge, Deluxe vibrato with a metal tailpiece cover engraved with the Gibson 'leaf and lyre' logo, single bound ebony fingerboard, block inlays from the first fret and with gold-plated hardware

The Firebird was only a little more successful than its Explorer and Flying V predecessors -- it didn't take off to the extent that Gibson had hoped. The reverse-body Firebird line was discontinued in 1965, to be replaced by the redesigned 'non-reverse' model in that same year.

Along with the early, commercially unsuccessful Explorers and Flying V's, the 1963-65 reverse Firebirds are very much sought after by collectors today, fetching exorbitant prices.

Some things are just way out ahead of their time.

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