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: