Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #46
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
It may not be a genuine Gibson T'bird and very probably a vintage Kalamazoo made '63 would sound better but just look at the typical selling price of these Epiphone replicas and such considerations fall rapidly by the wayside.
What’s not to want in that classic outline!
Passive but big toned
That infamous neck dive on a strap!
The time was when owning a Thunderbird was a very serious proposition. For many years the only ones available were expensive antiques. Then Gibson began making them again – at a price. Finally, along came Gibson's sister brand, Epiphone, with its versions of Gibson instruments and the price has plummeted. But has the quality followed suit? Dan Veall finds out.
It was a long time coming, but here we have it, the Thunderbird bass, originally designed in 1963 by Ray Dietrich – the legendary automotive designer responsible for all those tail fins on US cars of that era and who created the equally outrageous lines of Gibson's Firebird guitars and Thunderbird basses.
Under this glorious white body (yup my next bass needs to be black and white now!) is a set of mahogany wings. This neck through body design bass features a seven-piece laminate neck of mahogany and walnut. Acoustically, our review example was warm in the low mids and not necessarily brimming with top end sparkle. That's not necessarily a bad thing and is pretty much what you would expect from this wood and styling combination
The neck itself is akin to a Jazz bass's in profile - a 34” scale with a 38mm nut is of course familiar, slim and easy to navigate for the left hand. Epiphone advertise this as a '60’s profile and I’ll go with that - it feels nice. The fretwork on our one was tidy with no sharp edges. Thankfully these days that’s the norm more often than not. Up at the headstock end of business, enclosed tuners keep things in tune. I love the headstock shape, it’s that word again - iconic.
The dark wood of the rosewood fretboard looks great again the white and the black hardware stands out too. Thunderbird features a three point mounting bridge with quick release string guides. Our sample, kindly loaned to us by major retailer dv247, was really nice to play.
In keeping with the original. The bass's electronics are about as simple as you can get, comprising two master volume controls, one for each pickup and a master tone control.
To get a feel of this idiosyncratic bass, as I always say, make sure you listen through decent earphones - laptop speakers and little ‘free’ earbuds aren’t going to give you the full ‘picture’ when it comes to sharing the tone of this bass in particular! Incidentally I reviewed plugged directly in to the Bergantino B-Amp we recently reviewed. You are hearing the DI signal direct from the amplifier.
The Thunderbird features two Gibson TB-Plus humbuckers featuring ceramic magnets. The combined tone of each point you in the direction of Thunderbird bass tone with low-mid tone punch. Very enjoyable. I should also add that I cited Paul Gray in my video as one of my favourite Thunderbird players. UK's Gray is best known for his work with Eddie And The Hotrods, The Damned and UFO. (Editor's note: Our Dan may be a bit young to recall that probably the definitive Thunderbird user was Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash, who was the inspiration of, among others, Iron Maiden's Steve Harris. If you want to hear a Thunderbird growling and rasping, check out any classic era Wishbone Ash album).
Aside from its extravagant looks, possibly the best known thing about the T'bird is its infamous neck-dive, but I have to say that this model, featuring the light(er) weight keys instead of hefty vintage style models of yesteryear, was more behaved than I was expecting. I’d probably choose a wide 4” bass strap anyway.
That aside, it’s a classic isn’t it? I’d love to own one and maybe one day I will, however I certainly would need to get used to the body styling, as my playing style has always been with the usual ‘big three’ and thus my right arm position suffered due to the large upper body wing. You’ll notice I mentioned this in my Ibanez Destroyer review too. Don’t let that stop you getting your hands on one though. I’m offering my experiences.
It is, though, simply amazing value for a through-necked bass with such an image! It may not be a genuine Gibson T'bird and very probably a vintage Kalamazoo made '63 would sound better but just look at the typical selling price of these Epiphone replicas and such considerations fall rapidly by the wayside. If you've always wanted one of these basses, surely there can't have been a better time to grab one when they are going for such silly money?