Gibson’s Rare Birds

In the Early 1960s, Gibson was in need of a new solid body electric guitar in their lineup of instruments to keep up with other large companies like Fender. Fender had been successfully targeting and reaching a younger generation of musicians, and doing so with interesting body shapes, bold and bright custom colors and an extremely broad array of marketing techniques. At this time, the only other solid body electric that Gibson produced was the SG line of guitars, which was not performing well enough to keep up with the demand being met by Gibson’s competitors. In the 1960s, the automobile industry was booming, so many major manufacturers were pulling inspiration from modern cars. This was not only limited to the bold colors, but was also mirrored in the shapes and curves of automobiles.

Gibson’s Ted McCarty hoped to create an entirely new line of guitars whose curves and custom colors would rival Fender and emulate the aesthetics of the auto industry. This led Gibson to hire a man named Ray Dietrich, an automobile designer, in 1962. Ray was best known for his contemporary automobile designs as the head of design at Chrysler. He was asked to aid in the creation of a guitar that would not be limited by the traditional ways of design and engineering on an electric guitar. The result would be four “Reverse” style Gibson Firebirds, as well as two Gibson Thunderbird models in their bass line. The Firebird line consisted of the Firebird I, III, V, and VII. Each model showing more intricate appointments than the previous. The Thunderbird Bass was offered as the Thunderbird II and IV, where the II featured one pickup and the IV featured two.

1964 Gibson Thunderbird II and 1964 Thunderbird IV in Sunburst
Above: A 1964 Thunderbird II and 1964 Thunderbird IV in Sunburst

The series debuted in 1963 and was the manufacturer’s first neck-through-body design. It featured an asymmetrical shape and a mahogany neck that ran all the way through the body, with two “wings” on either side. Firebirds and Thunderbirds were offered standard in a Sunburst finish, however, Ted McCarty decided to also added the option of 10 custom color finishes. A lot of the custom colors that Gibson used had closely mirrored those offered by Fender, some even having been made by the same paint company.

The 1963 Gibson Firebird and Thunderbird brochure featuring the 10 custom color options
The 1963 Gibson Firebird and Thunderbird brochure featuring the 10 custom color options

Finding an all original Gibson “Reverse” Firebird in a custom color is an extremely challenging feat. So much so that we’ve only seen some of these colors in person at Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, TN!

Sadly, the original Firebird’s sales were not particularly successful. It was a radical change from Gibson’s typical guitar appearance. It was punchy, young and above all, uniquely different. Gibson debuted the series with a starting price on the Firebird I of $189.50, all the way to $445 for the Firebird VII. This pricing was for the standard finish. If you wanted to add a custom finish, you automatically added a $15 increase to your total.

A 1963 Gibson Firebird I in Sunburst. This was the least expensive model in the series.
A 1964 Gibson Firebird VII in custom color Cardinal Red. This was the most expensive option available
A 1964 Gibson Firebird VII in custom color Cardinal Red. This was the most expensive option available

Unfortunately, sales on this guitar were poor and only about 3,000 variations of the original Firebird were produced from 1963 to early 1965. In early 1965, the original Firebird design began to transition. These transitional models are rare but several different types exist. One of these models features the original banjo style tuners like the original “Reverse” style Firebirds but the headstock is not reversed like the original models. The most well known of these transitional models is known as the “Platypus”. The name was coined due to the headstock. Unlike the original reverse headstock design, which featured a two-layered headstock with a holy veneer, the new headstock was flat, like the bill of a Platypus. The Platypus-style firebird also featured 2 P-90 pickups instead of mini humbuckers.

The flat "Platypus" style headstock of a transitional model 1965 Gibson Firebird I
The flat “Platypus” style headstock of a transitional model 1965 Gibson Firebird I
A 1965 Firebird I in custom color Ember Red. This model is known as the "Platypus". Notice the 2 P-90 pickups and the reverse style body design
A 1965 Firebird I in custom color Ember Red. This model is known as the “Platypus”. Notice the 2 P-90 pickups and the reverse style body design

There are a very limited number of these unique pieces floating around in the vintage guitar world, making them not only hard to find, but also highly valuable pieces for collectors and players alike. This short run of “Platypus” Firebirds eventually transitioned fully into the redesigned “Non-Reverse” Firebird by 1965/66. It was essentially unrecognizable as it adapted to the demand by most players to be less awkward and imbalanced. It no longer featured the neck-through body design, rather, it had a solid body and a set neck, much like the Gibson SG. It also lost its banjo style tuners, replacing them with the standard tuner seen on most electric guitars at the time. While most appointments on the guitars remained the same from the old models to the new, they did make some adjustments to better suit the instrument. These appointments included adding an additional P-90 to the Firebird I, the III had three black P-90’s, the V had two mini hum buckers and the VII featured three mini hum buckers as well as suite of gold hardware. This guitar remained in production through 1969 until it took its final (not so final) bow from the Gibson line.

The non-reverse Firebird I in custom color Ember Red
The non-reverse Firebird I in custom color Ember Red 

Fender’s Summer of Love

As many of you know, the history of the Fender Telecaster dates back to 1951 when Leo Fender revolutionized guitar building and music with the introduction of the first-ever mass produced solid-body electric. Over the years, these guitars sold so well that they exist in essentially the same form to date. Flash back to the summer of 1967: The Summer of Love, where the colors were bright and the styles were simply psychedelic. CBS era Fender guitars were bold to begin with, but in 1968 they did the unimaginable…

The Borden Company, founded in the 1857, introduced their brand mascot, Elsie the Cow, in 1936. Elsie was an American icon who’s recognition through advertising campaigns stole the hearts of the nation. The Borden Company was predominantly known for the production of their consumer products such as processed snacks and dairy. Later in the company’s life, they expanded to include some industrial products such as plastics, resins, and wallpapers. Most famously, they introduced Elmer’s & Crazy Glue to the market during these years. All the while, the company was going to be written into Fender’s musical instrument history without even knowing it.

You might think that there is no correlation between the Borden Chemical Company and Fender, but in this case you thought wrong. During the 1960s, the world was going through a major cultural change. The Summer of Love and the “flower power” trend was taking over the pop culture scene. During this time, the political climate was dark and the music scene was rebelling, albeit peacefully. People ached for something bright and Fender was looking to put something new and exciting out on the market. It was then, in July of 1968, that Fender officially announced their newly available “Blue Flower” and “Paisley Red” Telecasters & Telecaster Basses in their price list.

Fender Blue Flower ad scan
The original 1968 flyer introducing the “Blue Flower” finish options on the Telecaster and Telecaster Bass
Fender "Red Paisley" ad scan
The 1968 flyer introducing the “Red Paisley” finish options for the Telecaster and Telecaster Bass

The unexpected tie between the Borden Chemical Company and Fender came in the form of a sparkling self-stick decorative foil that was applied to the front and back of Telecasters and Telecaster Basses before they were finished with a coordinating “sunburst” color and sprayed with a clear finishing polyester lacquer. The name of this mystery product was Cling-Foil and it was advertised as being able to be used on furniture, appliances, and more.

We were lucky enough to come across a new-old stock roll of the Paisley finish Cling-Foil from an old shop in California. Seeing this material in its natural state with a true silver background just goes to show the age on these guitars where the silver has turned to gold under the yellowing of the clear coat. 

Fender Red Paisley Telecaster Bass detail with Cling Foil
Above: The 1968 Telecaster Bass in Red Paisley next to the NOS roll of Cling Foil. Notice the yellowing of the clear coat.

These extraordinary prints were nothing short of unique, especially on a guitar that was so traditionally simple. They were only available on the Telecaster & Telecaster Bass as they were solid planks of wood and took to the contact paper well due to their lack of contours. 

While some players of the time, including James Burton, played them, the overall success of this finish was less than Fender had hoped. The texture and thickness of the Cling-Foil unfortunately did not maintain the clear finish easily as the material didn’t have a stable hold on the paint. Due to these issues, the production of these pieces only lasted about a year. These instruments have become increasingly difficult to come across today in pristine condition as there was only an estimated 75 of each color Telecaster made and only 25 of each Telecaster Bass made. 

We have been lucky enough to have procured an original Paisley and Floral Telecaster along with a mint Paisley Telecaster Bass for the Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since then, Fender has reissued the Telecaster in both the Paisley & Floral finishes. With ambassadors like Brad Paisley playing these instruments regularly on tour, there was no doubt they would become a hit in the modern day.

Enjoy a few photos of this stunning bass!

Fender Red Paisley Telecaster bass detail
Fender Red Paisley Telecaster Bass detail
Fender Red Paisley Telecaster Bass
Fender Red Paisley Telecaster Bass head stock with original Cling Foil in background
Fender Red Paisley cling foil pattern detail
Borden Chemical Red Paisley Cling Foil detail