Gibson's Firebird Line: A '60s Era Radical

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Rare Bird, October 1983
WHEN THE COUNTRY swung from the '50s era into the '60s, Gibson found itself in need of a design for the times. The company's ultra-radical offerings--the original Flying V and Explorer solidbody electric models--had been commercial failures, while various conflicts with Les Paul led to the temporary discontinuation of the famous line that had helped establish Gibson as a leader in the solidbody field. Meanwhile, Fender was doing a flourishing trade in flashy guitars. The indications were that Gibson needed something new, progressive, and colorful in their product line.

Thus the stage was set for the appearance of the Gibson Firebird, one of the most interesting and radical guitars produced by any manufacturer at the time. The Firebird models appear to combine elements of the Explorer and the Fender instruments, and yet they can not be considered a copy of anything else -- the Firebirds are unique in style and construction.

Most new Gibson guitar models are the result of a cooperative effort on the part of the company research and development staff. But in the case of the Firebirds, Gibson president Ted McCarty took the unusual step of enlisting the aid of a Detroit auto designer, Ray Dietrich. The body shape, Firebird logo, and the name Firebird are of his invention, although he worked closely with the Gibson staff to ensure that the final result would be practical and marketable.

The early Firebirds (1963-'65) are structurally as well as aesthetically unique. The neck and center piece of the body are constructed as a single unit with two side pieces, or urgings, glued on to form the contour of the body. Thus the raised center section of the body is structurally integrated with the neck. Prior to the Firebird, all Gibson necks were glued on, and therefore separated from the body by a seam.

In theory, the stability of the neck-through-body construction should result in excellent sustain, since string vibration presumably would not be damped by a neck joint. Many modern makers use the neck-through-body design, claiming that it enhances tone, although I personally am not convinced that this design makes a significant tonal difference. The tone and sustain of Explorers and Les Paul models, for example, is virtually unsurpassed--yet both of these guitars have glued-in necks.

The early Firebirds' headstock shape resembles a mirror image of a Fender headstock, but they are fitted with 12:1 ratio, straight-through Kluson banjo tuners. The tuners are situated far enough in on the headstock that right-angled pegs would not have had enough clearance for the tuner button. Due to this mirror-imaging, the tuner for the high E string is located closest to the nut. During 1965 the headstock shape was reversed. This can result in some confusion for the player who has more than one Firebird, since the later instruments will, in effect, tune backwards in relation to the earlier ones.

Since the early Firebirds have a body shape which is roughly like a mirror image of a Fender guitar, they have come to be called "reverse body" models, although this is not official Gibson terminology. Because of their rarity, aesthetic appeal, and fine quality, the reverse-body models are sought after by musicians and collectors.

The reverse-body guitars were introduced in mid 1963 and discontinued after May 1965. Gibson produced a line of "non-reverse" body shape Firebirds in the years 1966-'69. These guitars are quite different from the reverse-body models and are not generally sought by collectors. The non-reverse models have glued-in necks, standard-style guitar tuners, a body shape roughly like a mirror image of the reverse-body model, and many other structural differences. Since the early 1970s, there have been a number of Gibson reissue Firebirds featuring the reverse-body type construction.

The radical electrics were produced in four models: I, III, V, and VII, which listed at $189.50, $249.50, $325.00, and $445.00, respectively, when introduced. There was a matching line of Thunderbird basses produced in styles II and IV (there does not appear to have been any style Vl). The Firebird models were much more successful in the marketplace than the earlier Flying V and Explorer, which were simply too radical for public tastes at the time. But 1963-'65 production totals for reverse-body Firebirds reveal that the line could at best be considered only moderately successful: Firebird I, 1,377; Firebird III: 2,546; Firebird V, 925; and Firebird VII, 303.

The Firebird I, III, V, and Vll share the same mahogany body construction and banjo-style tuners, and all are fitted with the same distinctive Firebird-type double-coil pickups with metal covers and concealed polepieces. The standard finish is a brown and black sunburst, although a variety of custom colors were available for an extra $15.00 charge. The vast majority are standard sunburst. The pickguards are made from white/black/white plastic with a beveled edge. All but the earliest ones have an embossed Firebird logo on the pickguard.

The reverse models' basic specifications are as follows:
Firebird I. One pickup in the lead position; combination bridge/ tailpiece; unbound rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays; nickel plating.
Firebird III. Two pickups; the same bridge as on the Firebird I, but set up with a simple Gibson Vibrola screwed into the top; a rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays and white binding; nickel plating.
Firebird V. Two pickups; a tune-o-matic bridge; same type of vibrato tailpiece as an SG Standard, has long panel with an engraved Gibson logo and lyre; a rosewood fingerboard with white binding and trapezoidal pearloid inlays; nickel plating.
Firebird VII. Three pickups; a tune-o-matic bridge; same type tailpiece as Firebird V; ebony fingerboard with white binding and block inlays of mother-of-pearl: gold-plated metal parts.

During 1965, a limited number of reverse-body Firebirds were made with single-coil, black plastic-covered P-90 pickups. These transitional models are very scarce and do not appear in any Gibson catalogs.

Although the original Firebirds were produced in relatively limited quantities over a short period of time, they have had a significant impact on later guitar designs. The neck-through-body construction concept has been adopted by many modern manufacturers and has come to be widely accepted, although a considerable period of time elapsed between the discontinuation of the reverse-body Firebirds and the reintroduction of neck-through-body construction by makers such as Alembic.

Since a well-made guitar can last 100 years or more with good care, an instrument that receives only minimal acceptance when new can lie dormant and be rediscovered at a later time. Some of today's most sought-after instruments (such as the Gibson F-5 mandolin. Gibson Explorer, Gibson Flying V, and the original sunburst Les Paul Standard) were market failures when new. From the manufacturer's point of view, success must be judged by sales of new instruments, but some instruments, such as the Firebirds, ultimately prove to be more influential than would be indicated by original production totals. (For an in-depth account of the Firebird line, see the three-part Rare Bird series in the Sept., Oct., and Nov. '78 issues of Guitar Player.)