Pick of the Month - November 2002
1964 Gibson Firebird I

Of all the design and manufacturing failures endemic throughout the history of the electric guitar, none was more heroic than Gibson's Firebird project. In 1963, their giant leap into the future would cost the company dearly as their ambitious gamble failed to convert into sales, forcing them to completely re-think the concept after less than two years of production.

There's a book waiting to be written about the whole sorry saga, but a brief synopsis runs thus:- Gibson called on the services of a Detroit automobile engineer, Roy Deitrich, to dream up a new design for a solid-bodied guitar to compete with Fender, whose twangy ash- and alder-bodied instruments were "the sound" of the early sixties. Deitrich took as his model an earlier failed Gibson instrument, the 1958 Explorer, rounding off its sharp edges, broadening the waist, yet retaining its "upside down" appearance, its right-hand upper bout extending forward. The head-stock outline was carved to resemble a roosting bird, and heavy-duty banjo-style tuning machines with keys protruding from the rear were fitted in-line, like a left-handed Fender head. Four versions were offered: no-nonsense, entry-level I (single pickup, un-bound fingerboard with dot inlays); user-friendly III (2 pickups, bound fingerboard, flat-handle tremolo system); deluxe V (2 pickups, crown finger-board inlays, fancy bone-handle leaf-and-lyre tremolo with Tune-O-Matic bridge); and top-of-the-range VII (3 pickups, bound ebony fingerboard with pearl block inlays, deluxe tremolo system, all gold-plated). In addition, two companion basses were added to the range, the Thunderbird II and IV. Like all Gibson solids, they were made from choice British Honduras mahogany, but utilised a construction idea borrowed from Rickenbacker, a two-piece neck and centre body section that ran the whole length of the guitar.

It's worth pointing out here that one reason we players and collectors love old Gibsons is for their sound - a rich, warm timbre characteristic of their mahogany mainframes. What they don't do, however, is twang (with the possible exception of the SG Junior). In an attempt to get in line with current music trends, a new humbucking pickup was designed specifically for the Firebird. Treble being the order of the day, a strong magnet was fitted at the centre of the windings, with a special "reflector" to boost it further at its base. And lo, treble was delivered. In spades. With volume and tone at 10, the bridge pickup produced the sonic equivalent of a blizzard of nails (thank you, Ritchie Fliegler) - loud, piercing, fractured, terrifying - but closer to Fender's Telecaster than anything Gibson had produced to date.

Production problems began almost immediately. The centre body/neck section was re-designed, and from late 1963 featured a laminate of 9 strips of wood! Quite why this was done is a mystery, though one reason may have been to reduce waste. Bearing in mind how the wood was sawn, this must have been considerable, and the new construction would have allowed the company to use up more scrap timber. At around the same time, a red bird emblem was stamped into the pick-guard, identifying the range as a unique sub-species. A small, specially-designed moulded jack socket was ordered from Carter Electronics to better fit the thin, 1¼" body thickness (1½" on Firebird I), but it was so flimsy it generally failed within a few years of normal use. The big, modern-as-tomorrow tuning machines added a hefty 12 oz. to the weight of the neck, which was already thrown out beyond comfortable playing range by the position of the bridge. The neck assumed gigantic proportions as it morphed into the body, requiring a tyre-fitter's grip to gain access to its upper frets. Its radical, eye-catching looks notwithstanding, Gibson had produced a heavy, uncomfortable guitar with a horrible sound. Dealers were not amused. By the early spring of 1965, Firebird I's were being shipped with tremolo units in an attempt to boost sales, P90 pickups were added to a few III's, and the heavy head-stocks were already being re-thought, a few prototypes emerging with smaller Kluson tuners. In the summer of 1965, production ceased.

Fast-forward three years: Eric Clapton returns home from a U.S. tour to perform a final concert with Cream, which is filmed for posterity. He's playing a Gibson Firebird I, which few people in England have ever seen. He gets a great sound out of it, and looks as cool ever. Suddenly, like his Les Paul before it, everybody wants to know about the "reverse" Firebird. Gibson made that? By this time, the range had been completely overhauled (see Miss April 2000), so second-hand examples were all that were available. They became the seventies guitar "look", have inspired features and looks in many of today's guitars, and originals are highly-prized by their owners. Damn, it took me 27 years to find this one; I paid more for it than for any other guitar I own, and was the only price ticket I was unable to walk away from, period. Do I regret it? I do not! The pick-guard is shrinking, and I've removed all but two screws to prevent them tearing the holes open (common Firebirditis). The guitar is part of a batch from late 1964 where the left-hand bridge stud was inadvertently moved forward half an inch, making accurate intonation impossible. D'oh!! And the pickup…well, roll the tone back to 3 or 4, it sounds fine, with a wicked honk. The neck? Great for practising on, builds up those shoulder muscles in no time. Of all the Firebirds, reverse I is my absolute favourite. It has a fundamental minimalist beauty, uncluttered by hardware or fancy appointments. You just know it does.

Once again, Gibson were ahead of their time. After a few "limited edition" runs in the seventies, the company is producing a hybrid Firebird again and I'm told they're really good. I'll bet it doesn't twang, though…