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.
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.
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.
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.
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.