Back in the late 1950s, Gibson’s main rival, Fender, was advancing steadily with its own unique solid-bodied guitars, and, in the spirit of innovation, Gibson dived into the unknown. It was a time of great experimentation and after patenting the Flying V and Explorer in 1957, they were released in 1958 as the Kalamazoo factory continued to up the ante with other designs, including solidbody Epiphones, having acquired the brand in 1957. Along with the Melody Makers and various overhauls of the Les Paul range, things were beginning to look very different at Gibson by the early 60s.
Fender’s future was looking bright with its range of custom colours inspired by the USA’s car craze, and it wasn’t too long before Gibson president, Ted McCarty, began to think along the same lines. As a motorcar designer for Ford and Chrysler, Ray Dietrich had retired to Kalamazoo when Ted convinced him to try his hand at guitar design. Unveiled as a more curvaceous refinement of the Explorer and with a nod to classic car tailfins, the nonsymmetrical Gibson Firebird was released in 1963 in the guise of four models: I, III, V and VII (along with its bass counterparts, the Thunderbird II and IV). In keeping with the times, Firebirds were offered in a range of custom colours in addition to Sunburst, including Golden Mist, Silver Mist, Frost Blue, Ember Red, Cardinal Red, Kerry Green, Polaris White, Pelham Blue, Inverness Green and Heather.
The original Firebirds are often referred to as ‘reverse’, meaning the treble horn extends further than the bass horn, with the lower bass bout extending beyond the lower treble bout (as per the Explorer). Firebirds were the first Gibson solidbodies presenting a through-neck design that extended all the way to the bottom of the instrument, with the ‘wings’ of the body being glued onto the side. Although originally angled in the opposite direction, the headstocks were controversially similar in shape to that of Fender’s and had banjo-style tuners installed across the treble side with the highest string nearest the nut. Gibson had been manufacturing Epiphone-branded guitars using mini-humbuckers since the late 1950s, and the Firebird was the first Gibson guitar to receive this style of pickup, albeit with some unique differences (the most obvious being a solid metal cover and the absence of exposed polepieces).
The Firebird I was the more modest version in the range, displaying one pickup, no switch, two knobs (volume and tone), an unbound rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays and, rarely, a vibrato. Gibson didn’t stand still for very long, however, and, in 1965, while competing directly with Fender’s Jaguar and Jazzmaster offset body guitars, the Firebird I was relaunched with a ‘non-reverse’ body and headstock shape. It sported right-angled tuners along the bass side of the peghead, a glued-in neck replaced the through-neck and two P-90 pickups, plus four corresponding knobs and a selector switch were added, along with a vibrato as standard. It remained in production throughout the rest of the 1960s and was eventually discontinued in 1970. [RB]
In 1965, the Firebird was relaunched with a ‘nonreverse’ body and headstock shape