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