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This article was originally published in issue #2
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First offered in1963, the early Firebirds (produced up until ‘65) earned the nickname ‘reverse’ because the protruding bottom horn made them look as if the body had been put on upside down.
Gary Cooper sings the praises of a sometimes overlooked Gibson masterpiece.
By the late 1950s and early '60s those upstart Californians at Fender had made such inroads into the electric guitar market that even the mighty Gibson had begun to worry. Stratocasters and Telecasters were everywhere and Gibson's offerings were starting to look dated and expensive compared with the brightly coloured, easy to handle, affordable products of Leo Fender's team at Fullerton.
Gibson wasn’t about to take the challenge lying down, of course, so their legendary President Ted McCarty set about creating a new generation of Gibsons that would be, well, somehow a little more Fender-like, yet still recognisably Gibsons. His first attempts, the Moderne, Explorer and Flying V didn’t quite manage to do the trick, so McCarty thought again.
His masterstroke was to call in the doyenne of US car design, Ray Dietrich, who applied golden-age spaceship tail-fin styling to an Explorer, resulting in the Firebird - a guitar like no other before. And few since.
First offered in1963, the early Firebirds (produced up until ‘65) earned the nickname ‘reverse’ because the protruding bottom horn made them look as if the body had been put on upside down. But that was far from the extent of the Firebird’s uniqueness. Gone was the traditional Gibson glued neck-joint - dropped in favour of a through-neck design, featuring a neck fashioned from a luxurious sandwich of layers of mahogany and walnut.
Though the Firebird had a reassuring Gibson 24 3/4” scale, up at the curious headstock (an upside down Strat, perhaps?) for reasons never adequately explained, Gibson decided to fit banjo-style tuners, a decision which history suggests was a poor one. The pickups, though, were a happier choice - mini Alnico humbuckers.
There were four ‘reverse’ Firebird models numbered, I, III, V and VII - and they encompassed everything from a plain guitar with a basic stud/tailpiece bridge, a single pickup and an unbound neck, up to the fabulous VII, with gold plated hardware, four pickups, ebony fingerboard with inlays and a Maetsro ‘Lyre’ vibrola.
Though they were revolutionary instruments and later went on to be hailed as masterpieces, at the time, the Firebirds - though they sold better than Gibson’s Explorers and Flying Vs had done - still didn’t dent Fender’s onward march so, in 1965, Gibson thought again - possibly aided by the fact that Fender was making legal suggestions that the Firebird’s headstock design infringed its patents.
The answer was the ‘non-reverse’ Firebird, unveiled in 1965.
By any standards this was a different guitar. Gone was the through-neck, in favour of a return to Gibson’s standard glued joint. Gone, too, were the controversial ‘banjo’ tuners, and another positive feature was the inclusion of the superb P90 humbuckers of that era, on some models.
Pickups and tuners aside, however, the post-’65 Firebird was a cheaper, less revolutionary guitar and has never achieved the collectiblity of the original Ray Dietrich stroke of genius - flawed masterpiece though it was.
Firebird production staggered on until 1969, when the line was quietly dropped.
Only it rarely works that way with guitars. Though Gibson hadn’t sold enough to maintain production beyond the end of the decade, the invention of overdriven guitar sounds, which had began in that era, led to a complete revaluation of overlooked Gibsons by guitarists looking for the ‘new sound’. Suddenly, Vs and Firebirds were desirable again. Eventually Gibson noticed what was happening (it even missed the revival in the Les Paul’s fortunes during the early 1970s) and finally
to this day - latterly with contributions from the Ephiphone division, too - some of which are very highly regarded.
To many 1960s Pop music fans, the first time they would have seen a Gibson Firebird was in the hands of Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones guitarist who used both reverse and non-reverse versions. But for serious guitar players, the masterclass came from the Texan Blues/Rock genius, Johnny Winter, who made the reverse Firebird his hallmark guitar. Naturally, there’s a well-earned Gibson tribute model.
Winter wasn’t alone. Eric Clapton has been known to wield the occasional Firebird, as has Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, The Stones’ Ronnie Wood and Mick Taylor, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Dave Grohl (with the Foo Fighters and Them Crooked Vultures) and, iconically, Allen Collins, with Lynyrd