Gibson Firebird: Guitar History
Obscure and Gibson? Not usually in the same sentence, or even on the same page. However, there are many short-lived models, most of which are variants of popular models. There are also some that are just from outer space, and surely future “Obscure du Jour” features. Two examples are the Corvus (the Pac Man-looking guitar) and the U2 (Gibson’s hair metal super Strat).
The one model in particular that “perches” itself on Gibson’s more obscure and mystifying branches is the strange bird that constantly resurrects itself from its own sawdust. This is the case of the elusive, multi-colored flightless Phoenix of a guitar: the Gibson Firebird.
Are you ready to be confused? Me, too. Let’s start.
The story of the Firebird cannot be told with completeness without looking back just a few years before its inception. Step into the blue phone box with me and go back in time to the NAMM show in 1958. Not much going on at Gibson. Only the first Les Paul to sport the now infamous ‘Burst top, the ES-335 (the world’s first production thin-line semi hollow), and if that’s not enough, add the Korina futuristic models: the Flying V and Explorer. I will not discuss the Futura or the ultimate obscurity, the “Gumby-shaped” Gibson Moderne, here.
These ahead-of-their-time attempts were Gibson’s way of trying to create a less old-school, behind-the-times appearance so that they could compete with the hip, contemporary So-Cal West coast manufacturers like Fender and Rickenbacker. Because this subject has been covered over and over, we won’t dwell on this point. We’ll just state that very few of these were made and very few were sold. They were too hip, contemporary, and cool. In fact, Gibson overshot the target by about ten years. It would take the world over a decade to catch up with these designs. The Flying V and Explorer models caught on in the ‘70s, and have been in constant production ever since. Even if you never touched a guitar in your life, you’d have to be familiar with the silhouette of the Gibson Flying V and Explorer—they are truly iconic shapes. Often copied or stylized, these unmistakable guitars have been renamed and became popular models for countless guitar companies alongside Gibson’s original line. The Firebird is certainly at least a cousin, if not a brother, to the futuristic Flying V and Explorer. Though it is structurally independent from the Futuristic models, the Gibson Firebird takes its place alongside these slightly earlier offerings in its off-the-wall, ahead-of-its-time appearance.
Most guitar freaks and geeks know that Gibson enlisted the help of Chrysler/Packard designer extraordinaire Ray Dietrich to design the Firebird’s shape. If you take a good look at the Firebird’s original “reverse” shape, it’s pretty clear that the guitar is basically a neck with two tail fins glued on. We are going to dig in deeper because there is a lot going on with the ever-changing, multiple-model, divine, detestable, love-it-or-hate-it, top-heavy, ugly, beautiful, strange, and obscure flightless bird.
The mythical Phoenix rises from its own ashes and is reborn. A more appropriate name has never been given to a Gibson model guitar. The Firebird has been reinvented and rescued from death so many times that it becomes easy to mistake one model from another. It even generates questions such as, “What kind of Firebird is this?” or “Is that a Firebird?”
First offered in 1963, the Firebird may as well have come from outer space. If the Firebird’s radical appearance was a departure from the norm, its construction and appointments were even more radical. For starters, the scale length of the neck is 24-¾”, which is just a tad longer than Gibson’s 24-½” mainstay. The neck is not laminated into the body of the guitar—it’s actually all one piece in length. The neck starts at the headstock and ends at the rear end pin. A neck-through construction on a guitar is commonplace now, but as far as I can recall, the Firebird was the first. For added stability, Gibson used a 9-ply mahogany/walnut laminate neck/body. Mahogany “wings” are glued on to the Firebird to complete the body, adding both style and comfort. Without the “wings”, the Firebird would have looked more like a Steinberger. The headstock was also a far-and-away departure from the traditional 3-tuners-on-each-side design. The Firebird has a 6-on-one-side, lefty-style headstock. The headstock has the appearance of being upside down, which now is commonly called a “reverse” headstock. Its silhouette is streamlined by the clever use of Kluson-style banjo tuners, which go straight through and make the tuning buttons invisible from straight on. This form-over-function design makes the Firebird top heavy, so if you let go of the guitar and let the strap alone hold it up, the headstock will drop down until the guitar is almost straight up and down. It’s also very easy to turn the wrong tuner button, on account of its backwards nature. For some unknown reason (probably to be more Fender-like with the more narrow profile), Gibson chose to use their Epiphone Mini Humbucking pickups instead of the popular (and now standard on all non-student level guitars) patent number full-sized humbuckers.
Expectations of a brisk seller, Gibson offered 4 levels of appointments: the Firebird I, III, V and VII.
- The Firebird I was the most basic and inexpensive model at priced at $190.00 (USD) without the case. That’s $1,500.00 of today’s money with inflation. You have dot inlays, no binding, one pickup, and a wrap-around bridge. Appointment wise, you can think of it as a Les Paul Junior.
- The Firebird III gave you two pickups and a basic tone-robbing tremolo.
- The Firebird V gave you more of Les Paul and SG Standard specs. It featured crown inlays, binding, and the same tone-robbing tremolo as the III, but with a snazzy Lyre engraved tail cover.
- The super-expensive Firebird VII sported 3 pickups, binding, an ebony ‘board with block markers, a tone-robbing vibrato featuring a kitchen utensil handle and engraved Lyre cover, and a gold hardware package (think SG Custom). The Firebird VII featured a kick-in-the-kidneys price tag of about $450.00 (that’s about $3,500.00 in 2016). By 1964, the Phoenix icon was silkscreened onto the pickguard and the Firebird was complete.
Reissue Custom-Color Firebird VII
For the first time, Gibson offered each of these Firebird models in a choice of custom colors. Fender and Gibson’s standard finish was Sunburst. However, Fender also offered a lot custom color finishes, and even a few models like the Jazzmaster and Jaguar came standard in three different custom colors. In 1963, Gibson offered Sunburst, Cherry, Natural, and White on a few models. The Firebird was clearly designed to play catch-up with Fender’s sexy custom color availability. The Firebird came standard with a very Fender-like 2-Color Sunburst that was reminiscent of ‘50s Strats. A trip to the local Gibson dealer revealed a color chart poster that featured a rainbow of previously unavailable colors from Gibson. Wow, mom! I want one! Look! I’m so excited! It comes in Ember Red, Cardinal Red (two reds!), Polaris White (like an SG Custom), Gold Mist, Silver Mist, Heather Poly (burgundy), Pelham Blue, Frost Blue (two blues!), Kerry Green, and the hideous Inverness Green (well, at least they offered one good green). Truth be told, all of these colors were nearly the same as Fender’s custom colors. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and Ted McCarty’s 1963 Gibson Company).
The guitar itself feels a bit like an automotive designer that never touched a guitar built it. It has a very awkward feel until you get used to it. Though the scale length is only a bit longer, the neck feels like you could land an aircraft on it because of the fret access and the seamless neck-through construction. Take your left hand off the neck and she nose dives. Your strumming elbow is working against the end of the reverse tailfin or whatever it is. There is a 17 degree pitch to the headstock, but the tremolo versions (the III, V and VII) all have a very shallow string angle on the body side, so consequently, they do not sound like a typical Gibson. The result is a thick but bright (on the edge of shrill tone) from the bridge pickup and a thick, upper midrange honk from the neck. Doesn’t sound so appealing, does it? That’s the crazy part. It all somehow works. It’s not the classic Gibson tone we are accustomed to, but it rips, roars, and sings. You have to fight it a bit, but it’s worth the effort. The Firebird is not a filet mignon. It’s more like an on-the-bone rib-eye. More effort is required, but the goodness is in there. It’s just not giving it up without a bit more effort.
So, a lot of time and money was spent conceiving, engineering, building, and promoting the new-for-’63 Firebird. The Firebird hit the shops in October/November 1963, but by the middle of 1965 (just about a year and a half after its introduction); the Firebird as we knew it was gone. The original Firebirds did not go quietly.
Eric Clapton sported a Firebird I for a while. He may have chosen the most inexpensive model of the lot due to the wrap-around tail. After the loss of his “Beano” Les Paul, Clapton played almost any Gibson that featured a humbucker before converting to the Strat, which he did after seeing the great Jimi Hendrix coax sounds from a Strat that nobody knew was possible. Johnny Winter became the undisputed champion of the reverse Firebird, and played his converted to stoptail versions (yes, he replaced the “tone-robbing” tremolo with the more stable and sustain-giving stoptail) throughout nearly his entire astounding career. Free Bird? Recorded on a Firebird. Allen Collins used the still-obscure Gibson to record one of Rock and Roll’s greatest anthems. Brian Jones liked anything different. He ditched his Vox Teardrop for a luxurious custom color Firebird VII. Why not? It looked cool, modded, and futuristic. Being a founding member of The Rolling Stones, he could afford to have one for himself (more than he could say for Anita Pallenberg).
If the Firebird was Gibson’s sneaky way to capture some of the Fender market, the only folks who noticed were people at Fender. Sales were poor and Fender objected to the 6-on-a-side Fender-esque headstock. Only approximately 3,000 of all different variations and colors of the original Firebirds were ever produced. There were some oddball transitional models towards the end of the short run. Some reverse Firebirds were produced with black soap bar pickups, and there was also a model known to collectors as the “Firebird Platypus”, which had the banjo tuner headstock but turned upside-down. Now it was upside-down reversed. Maybe it was even over, under, sideways, down. Trying to imagine it is migraine inducing.
Well. What was Gibson to do? Off to the drawing board. Re-design the darn thing! 1965/66 brings the Firebird reborn from its own ashes. The Firebird was now unrecognizable, except for the fact that they saved the Phoenix icon and they somehow built much of its awkwardness into the new models.
If you have never seen a “non-reverse” Firebird, just picture a reverse Firebird with the top “tailfin” turned around, the “platypus” headstock without its contour, and standard right angle tuners instead of the super-cool banjo pegs.
Pictured below is a vintage 1965 “non-reverse” Firebird V.
Structurally, the new Firebirds were a return to more conventional Gibson manufacturing. They were easier and cheaper to produce, and they were offered with a less ambitious price tag. The neck was no longer the groundbreaking neck-through style—the design was changed to a standard laminated neck joint, like an SG, kind of. It also had the thinner 1-5/8” nut width that most Gibson models changed to. While still an oddly handsome guitar, it no longer looks as sexy or as in motion as the “non-reverse” models. In fact, if Gibson chose to rename the new Firebird line, nobody would have batted an eye. They are that different. The custom colors and the neck appointments are still the same as the old models, but the Firebird I now had two pickups (black soap bar P-90s). The Firebird III had three black soap bars and the Firebird V had two mini hums. The Firebird VII sported three mini hums and a gold hardware package, but gone was the ebony ‘board with block inlays. Sales dropped year by year until 1969, and the Firebird descended from the sky for what seemed like that last time.
It is called the Firebird. The legend of the fiery Phoenix is its constant rebirth. Resurrection came from a Norlin-era executive’s decision to bring back some of Gibson’s forgotten models following the rebirth of the discontinued Les Paul in 1968 (remember, there were no Les Paul guitars offered from the end of 1960 to 1968, not counting the short-lived SG/Les Paul models). The re-introduction of the Les Paul model is what likely saved Gibson from extinction. Why not test the waters with some other ahead of their time models? It was high time to create a new model from dust, or resurrect some older models. Gibson was down to basically the SG as the only solid body humbucker-equipped model, not counting the reintroduced Flying V (VERY few were produced, starting in ’66).
SO… the “Medallion” Series was born. The Flying V and the original-design Firebird were re-introduced in limited edition offerings.
The Flying V was introduced just ahead of the Firebird in 1971. Production was decided to be 350 units, but it is said that 353 Flying V models were produced. The Flying V was decked out in its new for 1966 appointments, plus it included a gold medallion (coin with Gibson logo and numbered from 1 to 353 in order of production) inlaid in the rear fin, or upper-bout, or rocket exhaust… whatever you want to call it.
The Firebird took to the skies (the sales floor) in 1972. It returned in all its reverse body and headstock glory. This bird came decked out in Firebird V appointments, with a numbered medallion inlaid on the upper wing above the neck pickup. This Firebird was produced from 1972 to the end of ’73, and production ceased at 366 guitars. In nearly a two-year time span, 366 shipped, which was not exactly brisk sales, even by 1972 standards. The Firebird crashed and burned again (yes, I am going to beat the “Firebird” theme to death in this article).
Still being seen on album covers and in concerts, the Firebird was never completely forgotten. In the ‘70s, Johnny Winter could be seen ripping a Firebird to shreds, and with Allen Collins on his 1964 Firebird III, Lynyrd Skynyrd filled arenas with riffs with that would become part of every young guitarist’s vocabulary.
I have never heard a story, or even a theory, as to why the consistently poor selling and nearly ignored Firebird was chosen to rise again, but it did.
In 1976, the Firebird returned as Gibson’s special bicentennial celebration featured guitar. My best guess is that the Firebird actually did what the legend says, and willed itself back into existence. The Firebird was sent back into production at the newer Nashville plant, and was decked out in its original reverse form with model III appointments, with the exception of borrowing the gold hardware from the Firebird VII. Also featured is a patriotic red, white, and blue Phoenix icon, with a field of stars on its chest.
Offered in a traditional 2-Color Sunburst, Natural, Ebony, and Polaris White, the ’76 Firebird had one feature never before seen: Gibson’s secret weapon for sustain and brilliance—the stop tailpiece/Tune-o-Matic combination. It’s the same set up that gave the Les Paul, the SG, and the ES-335 such envied sustain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. This was a modification that Johnny Winter retro-fitted his ‘60s models with, and this combo vastly improved performance.
Gone is the sexy, but utterly useless (very sorry, Gibson—you know I love you guys) Deluxe Lyre tail/Tune-o-Matic set-up. The ironically-named ’76 Firebird was in production in 1976, 1977, and a few in 1978. Once again the odd looking, aerodynamically, and ergonomically-challenged goony bird was locked in the cage with a blanket over it.
The 1980s: a decade as strange and as decadent as the ‘70s, but with more hairspray and music videos. Something was in the air besides smog, pollution, and potentially ICBMs. Why not make a redesigned Firebird? Someone at Gibson must have said “let’s reinvent the Firebird… again! And that they did. This time, it led to a new design and a new model: the seldom seen, rarely played Firebird II. The basic shape is of the reverse body Firebird. A reverse headstock was also featured, but this time, it came with standard right angle tuners instead of the cool but awkward banjo pegs. The way-ahead-of-its-time reverse headstock concept first seen on the Firebird was about to help define a signature look of the ‘80s. Becoming greatly popular, companies like Jackson (among many other guitar manufacturers) would soon employ the reverse headstock. Time was catching up to the 1963 Firebird design. A bound body and curly maple top on a rich Antique Sunburst looks like a freshly poured Guinness stout. It’s a beautifully-dressed version of the tired old bird of fire, but the RD Bob Moog circuitry was not a hit. Production ended almost as soon as it started, and only a couple hundred of these versions of Firebird were ever produced. Around this time, a few left over ’76 Firebirds were sold, and a dozen or so reissues of the original ‘60s design were manufactured for Guitar Trader, a store that also commissioned Gibson to make one of the first 1959 Les Paul reissues.
In the decades to follow, a few small commemorative runs were produced including the Celebrity and Centennial. Reborn a half dozen times since its inception in ‘63 and having undergone more face lifts than Michael Jackson, Liz Taylor, and Phyllis Diller combined, the Firebird was not done popping up out of thin air.
Gibson learned that there was a lot of interest in so-called “Golden Era” electrics. Slowly but surely, the old school versions of current as well as long ago discontinued models grew into the Historic Series… a simply great idea.
Imagine walking into a Chevy dealer and being able to by a brand new 1969 Stingray, or a ‘63 split window Corvette alongside the modern versions?
With this concept in mind, the late ‘90s hosted the return of the vintage-style Firebird I, III, and V models in their original specifications. It’s all strange but true. It took about 37 years from the first time anyone ever laid eyes on the awkward, top heavy, screaming, flaming, flightless bird from hell to do it, but it was back. Risen from its own blueprints, the Firebird V was added to Gibson USA’s core models. Never would it enjoy the popularity of the Les Paul, SG, ES-335, or even the Flying V or Explorer, but the world caught up to the way-ahead-of-its-time guitar. Two popular signature models were even created. The exact-to-spec weathered Johnny Winter model (pictured below) was faithful to Johnny’s well-worn, stoptail modded 1964 Firebird V, and the Elliot Easton “corrected model” (pictured after the Johnny Winter model). The Easton Firebird sported the more popular full-sized humbuckers, Steinberger lightweight tuners up top, and a Bigsby to help balance the guitar out. Had Elliot Easton’s model come out in 1963, the Firebird may have never been discontinued in the first place.
Johnny Winter Firebird with Modified Tune-o-Matic/Stopbar Tailpiece
Elliot Easton “Tikibird”
So… now it’s time to put the long, strange story of the Firebird to bed. Its awkward nature, constant resurrection, and many forms are puzzling, interesting, and unique. More than enough of a journey for any guitar, right?
In August of 2010 my phone rings. I was asked to go up to the Gibson show room on 54th Street, and was told that there was a revolutionary new guitar that Gibson was beta testing. Apparently, this groundbreaking guitar was the most advanced electric guitar the word has ever seen! I thought, “Wow, how exciting!” I asked what it was called, and you want to know the response I got? … the Firebird X!
Here we go again!
Editor’s Note: Right after this article was submitted, Gibson introduced the budget model “Firebird 1”. The road goes on forever, and the story never ends…