Clas­sic Gear

Guitarist - - Contents -

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

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