The Byrdland: A Landmark Gibson

George Gruhn
"Rare Bird"
Guitar Player, August 1982 Like many important guitar designs, the mid-1955 Gibson Byrdland borrowed a number of concepts already found on existing models and combined them in a new way. It also introduced some innovations, and the result was a thoroughly fresh and original guitar, a landmark in Gibson's long and distinguished history that served as something of a stepping stone to the semi-solid thin-body guitars most popularly represented by the versatile ES-335 (Rare Bird, July '80).

The Byrdland introduced to jazz and country players an efficient, extra-narrow, short-scale neck, a thin-line body significantly thinner than traditional jazz boxes, and new Alnico V single coil pickups easily identified by their rectangular pole pieces. The guitar listed for $550.00 for the sunburst model, which proved to be more popular over the years, and $565.00 for the natural-finish version, or Byrdland N. Only three Byrdlands were shipped during the first year, 1955, but the following year 60 units were sold, compared to 41 electric Super 400s and 55 L-5CES (Cutaway Electric Spanish) models. Comparing prices, the Super 400CES listed in 1957 for $675.00 in sunburst, $700.00 in natural (blonde); the L-5CES was $600.00 in sunburst, $615.00 in natural. By 1957 the number of Byrdlands sold was nearly double the combined number of Super 400 and L-5 electrics sold.

The initial Gibson thin-lines also included the ES-350T ("T" stood for Thin) ES-225T, ES140T, and ES-125T. The design was intended to retain the guitar's acoustical properties and meet the needs of a new generation of electric players who were looking for a more comfortable, versatile, and contemporary instrument. Well-known guitarists Billy Byrd and Hank Garland were associated with the development of the guitar and a contraction of their last names provided the model's designation: Byrdland.

Players such as Garland and Byrd were experimenting with new voicings, which when transcribed from piano or sax lines made for difficult finger contortions. Gibson's solution was to both shorten the scale length-from 25-1/2" to 23-1/2" -and to narrow the width of the neck, thus making the finger gymnastics a bit more manageable. The neck width at the nut was 1.6" (compared to the L-5's 1.7"), while at the heel it was 1.9" (compared to the L-5's 2.3").

Although new for Gibson, the idea of combining a short scale neck with a full-size body was not without precedent. Elmer Stromberg, who died on December 11, 1955, had made some short-scale, full-body guitars prior to the Byrdland's introduction, and jazz great Tal Farlow had assembled for himself a similar hybrid instrument that enabled his large hands to accomplish extraordinary stretches when playing various piano lines or alto sax lines a la Charlie Parker.

Like that of the L-5, the Byrdland's body is a full 17" wide by 21" long. The depth of the rim, however, was reduced from the 3-3/8" dimension used on some of Gibson's full-sized bodies to 2-1/4" (with its arched top and back, the Byrdland is somewhat thicker in the center than at the rim). The guitar also features a solid spruce carved top, multiple (alternating black and white) binding on the back and sides, bound f-holes, Gibson's often copied tune-o-matic bridge, clear-top high-hat knobs, a 22-fret multiple-bound ebony fingerboard with pearl block inlays, a multiple-bound headstock with a bell-shaped truss rod cover trimmed in white, the flower pot headstock inlay of the sumptuous L-5, Kluson Seal Fast tuning gears, and gold plated hardware. Gibson installed its standard wiring and control assembly: one volume and one tone control per pickup with a three-way toggle pickup selector; the output jack is a standard 1/4" lateral mount. The three-piece laminated curly maple neck joins the body at the 14th fret, although the three-piece design was changed to a five-piece by the early 1960s.

The ES-350T and the Byrdland had the only 22-fret fingerboards available at the time on Gibson electric hollowbody guitars. Although the two models may appear at first glance to be very similar, all of the following features distinguish the early 350 from its considerably more fancy sister instrument: a pressed maple plywood top, a rosewood finger board with single white binding, double-parallelogram fingerboard markers, and twin P-90 pickups with conventional screw-type pole piece adjustments. The early Byrdlands with the single rounded cutaway (known as the Venetian or "soft" cutaway), which by the end of 1960 had changed to the sharp Florentine style. During 1968 the original Venetian contour was resumed.

The original Byrdland pickguard has a simulated marble surface (it was also used on the 1 950s Super 400CES). By late 1957, it was replaced by a darker, multiple-bound "tortoiseshell" version. The Byrdland's tailpiece was an original design specially created for the new model: a three loop, gold-plated unit engraved with BYRDLAND on the upper bar. From the front, the tailpiece readily distinguishes the guitar from the similarly appointed, thick-body L-5.

The original Byrdland's twin Alnico V pickups were designed in 1952 by engineers Seth Lover (who also designed the esteemed Patent Applied For humbucking) and Walt Fuller. Distinguished by its rectangular pole pieces and stronger magnets, the new unit succeeded the proven P-90 pickup used on several Gibsons, notably the 1952 Les Paul Standard. Each Alnico V pickup has one coil with 10,000 turns of 42-gauge wire and individual height-adjustment screws for each pole piece. This type was also used (in the rhythm position only) on the 1954 to mid-1957 Les Paul Custom, also known as the "Fretless Wonder" or "Black Beauty."

The new pickups marked an attempt by Gibson engineers to find a new sound. On the Byrdland they are spaced closer together than usual, due to both the 22-fret fingerboard and the short scale length; these two factors decrease the space between the upper end of the fingerboard and the bridge. The pickups' powerful Alnico V magnets and relatively close spacing contributed to the Byrdland's distinctive sound.

Despite the innovations, the pickups were not particularly well accepted. (Incidentally, Billy Byrd's own Byrdland was first equipped with a "Charlie Christian" bar pickup in the rhythm, or front, position and an Alnico V in the lead, or rear, position. After the humbucking's introduction, Byrd continued to use a Christian in front in conjunction with a humbucker at the bridge.) By mid-1957 the Byrdland's Alnico V pickups were replaced with the new PAF humbuckings, as were the ES-350T's two P-90s. The PAFs were twin-coil pickups with 5,000 turns of 42-gauge wire per coil, and either Alnico II or Alnico IV magnets. The most desired Byrdlands today are those equipped with PAFs.

The Byrdland manifested Gibson's commitment to providing the thinline series with a prestigious, top-of-the line guitar, and its continuing influence is reflected in the luxury thin-lines currently available from several manufacturers. Typical of the innovative landmark designs of Gibson's R&D teams, the Byrdland truly changed guitar history.