The Anatomy Of Gibson’s Reverse Firebirds

Gibson’s Firebird series comprises eight models, two body styles, and dozens of varying appointments. Their Thunderbird basses follow suit with two models, also in two different body styles and appointments. Confused? You’re not alone. Undoubtedly, these models elicit the most questions from customers in our showroom. These questions range from the differences between the body styles to the variations between each model. So, we’re here to break it down with this easy-to-access guide! Hopefully, this will make your vintage guitar shopping experience a bit easier. This particular blog post is set to outline Reverse Style Firebirds specifically – but don’t fret, we’ll dive into more soon!

Gibson launched the Firebird and Thunderbird models in 1963. These guitars and basses were designed by Ray Deitrich, an automobile designer of the era. It is theorized that his design sought to capture the essence of vehicles back then: sleek lines, exaggerated curves, and an iconic logo. Just the same, it is clear they also went for a modern and cutting-edge shape to compete with Fender. Eventually, Gibson landed on their first iteration of the model, now known as the “Reverse” style Firebird.

The Reverse Firebird is a solid mahogany guitar with a neck-through construction. It features two pieces of mahogany glued together to form the neck and center of the body, with two “wings” applied on either side to make up the outer curves. The body construction would later change to a 7 piece laminate by the end of 1963: a five-piece neck and center with two wings. This design offered more structural support for the neck and headstock. These models were available with varying features, referred to as the Firebird I, III, V, or VII. With each number, the appointments grow increasingly embellished, a system that Gibson also used in their thinline ES series. All of these guitars were available in Sunburst as well as various Custom Colors. You’ll also notice that some of the earliest examples lack the Firebird emblem on the pickguard.

The following further breaks down each model’s specs:

I: The Firebird I showcases one single mini-humbucker pickup, which evolved from Epiphone’s New Yorker pickup that Gibson adopted when they purchased the company. The model was available with a stop bar wrap-around tailpiece and a short vibrola with a “spoon handle” term arm. The standard models featured dot inlays on an unbound rosewood fretboard, a raised holly veneer or “step” area on the headstock, and banjo-style tuners. Due to their single pickup, there is only one volume and one tone control. The hardware on the Firebird I is nickel at this time.

III: The Firebird III features the same body construction as the Firebird I, including a bound rosewood fretboard, dot inlays, raised holly veneer on the headstock, and banjo-style tuners. Further than that, the appointments change. Most examples shipped exclusively with short vibratos and metal “spoon handle” trem arms. They feature two mini-humbucker pickups rather than one, along with a three-way selector switch. The four knobs allow for volume and tone controls on each pickup. All of this hardware is also nickel, and the fretboard on the III is bound.

V: With the same body construction as its more simplified variations, the Firebird V is the first in the lineup that begins to feature more upscale trimmings. These features include trapezoid fretboard inlays made of pearloid, along with a long maestro Lyre vibrola with a plastic handle. Even with these upgrades, the V still showcased two mini-humbuckers, a three-way selector switch, and four knobs – just the same as the III. The hardware remained nickel on the Firebird V.

VII: The VII equates to the ES-355 in the world of Firebirds – the top-of-the-line offering being produced for this series. With the same body construction, the VII stands out due to its appointments. It has a bound ebony fretboard, and genuine Mother Of Pearl block inlays, as opposed to the pearloid, trapezoid inlays that you saw on the V. You’ll also see an upgrade from nickel to gold plated hardware here, and a whopping three mini-humbuckers. These guitars were wired similarly to a Les Paul Custom and also had a three-way selector switch and four knobs. Lastly, it featured a gold Lyre Vibrola with a plastic handle.

When shopping for Reverse Gibson Firebirds between 1963 and 1965, be sure to keep these appointments in mind. And remember, there are exceptions to every rule! Gibson, like Fender, was no stranger to making things work for an order when necessary or customizing a guitar for a buyer. When in doubt, ask a specialist to make sure you are buying the best gear possible for you! In our next blog on Firebirds, we’ll look at what is now known as the “Non-Reverse” body style and the changes you see compared to the first iteration. Plus, we’ll dive into Gibson’s elusive Custom Colors!

For a quick reference, we’ve made the following images to aid in what to look for:

Gear Breakdown: The Rolling Stones’ First Ed Sullivan Appearance

Image Courtesy of Getty Images

Though it wasn’t always this way, The Rolling Stones are synonymous with American culture. Despite being from the UK, this iconic group’s music, dance moves, and logo are all instantly recognizable in the United States and around the globe. The Stones entered the US music scene in 1964, an era now commonly referred to as the “British Invasion”, alongside groups like The Beatles and Hermans’ Hermits. 

At that time, The Ed Sullivan Show was the go-to program for up-and-coming artists performing their latest releases. For many, it was their first exposure to true fame and success. The Stones first appeared on Sullivan’s show on October 25, 1964, just a few months after gaining momentum in the United Kingdom. Knowing just how impactful this international exposure could be for their careers, when the show’s production team invited them to perform on October 7, 1964, it was a no-brainer. The Stones performed two songs that evening, both Chuck Berry covers, of “Around and Around” and “Time Is On My Side”. The group fought to be heard over the audience’s screams. In fact, the crowd was so enthusiastic that after the final performance of the evening, the conversation between Mick Jagger and Ed Sullivan was barely audible! It was a smashing success, and though some viewers had found their relaxed and casual style unsettling, the numbers spoke for themselves. Their following Fall tour sold over $1M in tickets. 

Image Courtesy of Alamy Stock Photos

Aside from their talent, The Rolling Stones have played some of the most legendary instruments. In this particular Ed Sullivan performance, Brian Jones can be seen playing his prototype Vox MK III “Teardrop” guitar in White. This guitar is known for having a Stratocaster bridge and tremolo block that was cut specifically to fit the thickness of the body. The “Teardrop” was his go-to throughout 1964 and 1965, along with his shaggy haircut!

Bill Wyman’s German-made Framus Star Bass can be seen regularly in the group’s early days of performing, so much so that it is often lovingly referred to as a “Stone-Bass”.

And last, but certainly not least, Keith Richards is seen playing a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard with a Bigsby. Perhaps one of the most desired collectible instruments, the Les Paul had not yet become the holy grail it is today. Richards’ use of the “Burst” during this performance helped push these guitars into the forefront of desirability, where it has stayed for decades.

Though this is not Keith Richards’s 1959 “Burst”, this one is available at Well Strung Guitars!

This trio, along with drummer Charlie Watts, created the perfect background for frontman Mick Jagger. This perfect lineup catapulted them into American music royalty. In total, the group performed on The Ed Sullivan Show a total of six times, each appearance playing another massive hit with some of our favorite guitars and basses…but we’ll talk more about that later 😉

Guitar Highlights: Oscar Moore’s Fender Nocaster

It’s hard to find a guitar more incredible than this. Not only is it the first custom-color Fender made through their factory production line, but it is also the first Fender guitar to receive gold hardware – a true luxury next to Fender’s usual nickel. All of this feels unreal but yet, here it is! This 1951 Nocaster is painted in White. You might wonder why we’re not referring to it as Fender’s Olympic White, and that’s because it’s unlikely that this color existed under that name so early in Fender’s history.

As for this guitar’s owner: legendary jazz guitarist, Oscar Moore. He played alongside Nat “King” Cole in his trio for many years. While Moore had allegedly fallen out of touch with the group sometime around 1947, below he is pictured playing with Cole in 1951. Surely enough, he is using this very Nocaster, looking pristine in its brand-new condition. Though there was very little documentation of Moore playing Fender guitars at this time, this photo was taken by Mr. Leo Fender himself…a rare sighting indeed!

Photo Credit: “A Modernist” Blog

Moore was primarily a Gibson arch top player, but Leo had this guitar made for him with custom appointments that included the White color, gold hardware, and a clear Lexan Pick guard painted with gold leaf on the underside. At the time, Leo was interested in attracting the jazz box crowd to play his guitars. Moore was very popular then and Don Randall, the President of Fender Sales, thought he would be the perfect fit to popularize their new, electric solid-body model. In a letter from 1953, Don Randall writes to Syd Heller of Columbia Music Company about how to attract more jazz players to Fender guitars and quotes Mr. Moore, who said it was the fastest guitar neck he had ever played!

Photo Credit: “A Modernist” Blog

This really is such a special piece with amazing provenance. Aside from its historical pedigree, the guitar has since been featured on the cover of Guitarist Magazine in the UK while it was at the Songbirds Guitar Museum. This spread includes pictures and a full feature on the story of this guitar as well!

Guitarist Magazine Cover from January of 2018 featuring Oscar Moore’s ’51 Nocaster

This history-filled Nocaster is available for sale now at Well Strung Guitars. Call us for more information – serious inquiries only, please. You can reach us at 516.221.0563 or

Guitar Highlights: George Fullerton’s 1954 Stratocaster

A few months ago, there we all stood; awestruck as we opened a mint tweed case and thrilled as we studied what was inside. We are honored to have this opportunity, and lucky to write about this very special instrument recently added to our inventory. This is George Fullerton’s 1954 Fender Stratocaster, a one-of-a-kind piece of history. 

George Fullerton was the Vice President of Production for Fender Musical Instruments. This Stratocaster was made as a gift for him, and it is truly like no other. The insane flame on this one-piece Ash body is coupled with an equally flamed maple neck and matching Sunburst headstock. Past its clear physical beauty, this guitar also features a few unique appointments. These pickup covers are original Black bakelite prototypes, and this special control plate positions the volume and tone knobs closer to the edge of the body than a standard production Strat. This plate is made of “camera case” plastic and was designed to allow easier playing for Mr. Fullerton, due to his larger hands. The guitar also features chrome instead of nickel-plated hardware, something that is completely unique to this Fender instrument.

As the story goes, Mr. Fullerton was gifted this guitar by Fender employees for creating the Stratocaster production line, therefore ensuring more hours of employment for those building the new model. Under the pickguard, you will find special markings including Mr. Fullerton’s initials and the production date of the guitar. This Stratocaster is virtually unplayed and still retains its original center pocket tweed case which is also in incredible condition. We are fortunate to have several books that show Mr. Fullerton with this guitar as well as a grainy video of Mr. Fullerton discussing it.

The price of ownership for this museum-quality guitar with bulletproof provenance is not for the faint of heart, but we promise that you will definitely be the only kid on your block that has one! For more information, give us a call at 516.221.0563.

Gibson’s Rare Birds

With the turn of a new decade, Gibson was looking to add a new solid-body electric guitar to their lineup in an effort to keep up with other large companies like Fender. Fender had been successfully targeting a younger generation of musicians; doing so with interesting body shapes, bold and bright custom colors, and a broad array of creative marketing techniques. In the early 60s, the only other solid-body electrics that Gibson produced were the SG and Melody Maker lines (after phasing out the Les Paul body style of course). These were not performing well enough to keep up with the demand being met by Gibson’s competitors. Additionally, the automobile industry of the 60s was booming, so many major manufacturers were pulling inspiration from popular cars. This was not only limited to their bold colors but was also mirrored in the shapes and curves of the 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 was 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 shows 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 brand’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. It was a radical change from Gibson’s typical guitar appearance. It was punchy, young, and above all, uniquely different. Firebirds and Thunderbirds were offered standard in a Sunburst finish, however, Ted McCarty also added an option of 10 custom color finishes. A lot of the custom colors that Gibson used closely mirrored those offered by Fender, some even being made by the same paint company. 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.

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. One thing to note, Gibson actually has their red colors flipped on their official color chart. Meaning, in the image above it is clearly printed that Ember is a darker color than Cardinal. However, in reality, Ember is lighter and brighter (think Fender’s Fiesta Red) and Cardinal is deeper and darker (think Fender’s Dakota Red).

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 Ember Red. This was the most expensive option available

Unfortunately, sales of 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 the odd, transitional guitars we’ve seen even features banjo-style tuners like you would find on the “Reverse” headstock, but the headstock is actually “Non Reverse” in shape. The most well-known feature of these transitional guitars is dubbed 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, this new headstock was flat, like the bill of a Platypus. The Platypus-style Firebird also features 6 in-line tuners rather than banjo-style.

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 in Ember Red
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 almost unrecognizable from the original, as the design was adapted according to the demand of most players, who said the original was 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 SG. It also lost its banjo-style tuners, replacing them with the standard Kluson 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 ones, 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-90s, the V had two mini humbuckers, and the VII featured three mini humbuckers as well as a suite of gold hardware. This guitar remained in production through 1969 until it took its final (but with the reissues and custom shops 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 origin of the Fender Telecaster dates back to 1951. Leo Fender revolutionized guitar building and music with the introduction of the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar ever. Flash forward to the summer of 1967: The Summer of Love; where the colors were bright and the styles were psychedelic. CBS-era Fender guitars were bold to begin with, but in 1968 they did the unimaginable…

After its founding in 1857, The Borden Company introduced its brand mascot, Elsie the Cow, in 1936. Elsie was an American icon, who gained mass recognition in advertising campaigns throughout the nation. While The Borden Company was predominantly known for its production of food products such as processed snacks and dairy, the company later expanded as Borden Chemicals to include some industrial products – plastics, resins, and wallpapers. They were also known for their production of Elmer’s & Krazy Glue. All the while and aside from their seemingly exponential growth, Borden Chemicals was about to be written into Fender’s musical instrument history without even knowing it.

You might think that there is no correlation between Borden 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 by the later years of the decade. 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.

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 original 1968 flyer introducing the “Paisley Red” finish options for the Telecaster and Telecaster Bass

The unexpected tie between these two manufacturing giants came in the form of this self-stick, decorative “Cling-Foil”. Fender applied this sparkling aluminum to the front and back of Telecasters and Telecaster Basses before finishing them with a coordinating “sunburst” color (pink for the Paisley Red and Blue for the Blue Flower). Lastly, each body was sprayed with a clear polyester lacquer. Originally, this product was advertised as being able to be used on furniture or appliances, but Fender sought out a more creative approach.

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

Above: The 1968 Telecaster in Paisley Red 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 traditional and simple. These foiled patterns were only available on the Telecaster & Telecaster Bass models, as the solid planks of wood used for the bodies took to the contact paper better, due to their lack of contours. 

While some players of the time (namely James Burton) played the model, 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 very 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, especially in pristine condition. There were only an estimated 75 of each color Telecaster made and only 25 of each Telecaster Bass made. 

We have been lucky enough over the years to procure original Paisley and Floral Telecasters. Since then, Fender has reissued the Telecaster in both Paisley Red & Blue Flower. With modern ambassadors like Brad Paisley playing these instruments regularly on tour, there was no doubt they would become a hit in today’s music scene.

Enjoy a few photos of this stunning Telecaster!

1968 Fender Telecaster in Paisley Red, with factory Bigsby
A close-up of the front of the body, showing the controls and clear acrylic pickguard
The back of the body, showing a better view of the Cling-Foil pattern and “bursted” edges
Our 1968 Telecaster’s headstock, with this new-old-stock Cling-Foil roll
Fender Red Paisley cling foil pattern detail
A close-up of Borden Chemicals’ Paisley Red Cling-Foil
Borden Chemical Red Paisley Cling Foil detail