Gibson’s “Original Custom Shop”: 1964 Tenor SG

In the early ’60s, a teenage Charlie Wood wrote a letter to Gibson. In 2011, the same Charlie Wood, a little older and far wiser, wrote another letter. With the former letter, he ordered an instrument, and with the latter, he sold it. Upon ordering, the instrument Wood received wasn’t a standard catalog guitar but a peculiar amalgamation of Gibson hardware and specs. This instrument in hand, combined with the letter Wood wrote in 2011 upon selling it, paints a picture that explains the origins of many of our custom vintage instruments: Gibson’s original custom shop.

A New York native and bluegrass fanatic, Wood, like most kids, idolized musicians like the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. So, you see… no typical, corn-fed tenor would do. Wood was on the hunt for an electric tenor guitar with specific features. Wood’s brother had a Fender Jaguar, and to him, that was as cool as it got. In his own words, “It had to be a Fender.” However, when Wood wrote to Fender asking if they would build him a tenor guitar, he received no response. Disappointed but not deterred, Wood penned another letter, this time to Gibson. To his surprise, Gibson responded, “They were happy to make anything [he] could pay for.” Wood was confident, knowing that the $40 a week he made working at his father’s sawmill was enough to finance a custom instrument of his choosing. He was particular that his tenor guitar should have the following:

“All tuning pegs on the topside of the peg head a la Fender, dual pickups, dual volume and treble controls, vibrato tailpiece, and a guarantee that I would be swarmed with girls.”

Charlie Wood, an excerpt from his letter to Gibson

Gibson was able to remedy all of his requests personally, except for the last. The music magnates quoted him $500, including a hardshell case. After a deal was made, Wood received his new tenor guitar in early 1964. The 1964 Gibson Tenor SG pictured below was the result of his specifications. 

As a sign of Gibson’s times, this is an SG-style body in their standard Cherry finish. However, inline-tuning pegs on one side of the headstock were not something that Gibson was well known for. Luckily, Gibson launched their Firebird series in 1963, and along with it, a new headstock design featuring just this. So, this Tenor received a mini Firebird-style headstock complete with four single-line Deluxe Klusons and double-ringed buttons. These dual pickups are humbuckers with four-pole covers, accompanied by dual volume and tone controls, as Wood requested. The strings feed into a four-saddle tune-o-matic bridge, and a horseshoe Bigsby serves as the “vibrato tailpiece.” This instrument is fitted with a thin tenor neck and, as a final touch, Gibson’s “Custom” truss-rod plaque. 

In Charlie Wood’s case, his first-person perspective about this Tenor SG from its beginning allows us to contextualize Gibson’s original custom shop as part of this story. For many of our other custom instruments, this same history was (unfortunately) not recorded. So, how can we determine how Gibson handled custom-ordered guitars? Aside from inference based on our existing evidence, we can’t. However, Gibson themselves are more than capable. 

Below is a video Gibson posted to their social media channels on March 17, 2022. This never-before-seen footage was uncovered while digging through their vault archive in 2020. The team discovered an unmarked reel of film, and once it was produced and digitally remastered, they released it: a promotional video filmed at Gibson’s Factory in 1967. The 20-minute-long video is an incredible piece of music history that we highly recommend watching in full. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on the section starting at (15:34). 

In this section, the narrator states:

“Performers grow to know the sole of their instrument and demand very individualized custom craftsmanship. In the Gibson Custom Shop, the individual requirements of the musician find expression. Working almost entirely by hand, these artisans give personalized service to musicians throughout the world.”

1967 Gibson Factory Tour

This video gives a first-hand perspective into Gibson’s factory of the late ’60s and, for a brief moment, specifically highlights their custom build capabilities. As Wood alluded to in his original letter, the possibilities were (reasonably) endless as long as you could fund it. We believe that all of our Gibson oddities are a direct result of this. From the simplest custom inlays, colors, and spec changes to fully imagined custom instruments, each one probably began like Charlie Wood’s Tenor SG. He was a passionate musician who knew exactly what he wanted but couldn’t find it on the market. Wood’s dream tenor was made possible thanks to Gibson’s original custom shop. And now, we all have the privilege of appreciating this instrument and other custom Gibsons for years to come.

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