At Gibson in the early 60s, coming down from the high of 1958 having during that year released the futuristic Explorer and Flying V, as well as the innovative ES-335 and 355, dressed the Les Paul with Sunburst finish, made a double-cutaway out of the Les Paul Junior and Special, and offered its first double-neck electrics. In the early 1960’s Gibson began at its Kalamazoo factory with a revised line of Les Paul’s, a redesigning Junior, Standard and Custom with a modern, sculpted double-cutaway body.
In 1963, Gibson introduced its new Fender-rivalling solid-body, the Firebird. The design had strong links with the failed Explorer, which had already been discontinued.
Nonetheless, Gibson hoped that a new spirit of innovation would win the day. The company hired an outside designer to create the Firebird, someone who would not be limited by traditional approaches to guitar design and who would reconsider the way an electric could look and work.
Gibson Firebird V, 1963
Ray Dietrich had been a legendary car designer for 50 years. He started in the drawing office of a small company in 1913, and over the next few decades established the idea of the custom car- body designer.
At first this new guitar had no name as Ted McCarty recalled:
“I was sitting in my office one day with Ray and a couple of the other fellas and we were trying to come up with a name for this thing. He said, ‘Why don’t you call it Phoenix?’ I said, ‘Phoenix, that’s the firebird, the old story of rising from the ashes.’ So, that’s where the name Firebird came from. And Ray also designed the firebird logo that’s on the pick-guard.”
The new models appeared in Gibson’s 1963 catalogue, with the blurb insisting the Firebirds were a “revolutionary new series of solid-body guitars. Exciting in concept, exciting to play. You’ll find a whole new world of sound and performance potential... plus that sharpness in the treble and deep, biting bass... A completely new and exciting instrument that offers all the sound, response, fast action, and wide range that could be desired.”
There were four Firebirds for the 1963 launch – I, III, V, and VII – each with different appointments but following the same overall design and build. The missing numbers II and IV went to two complementary Thunderbird basses, but there was no VI.
Gibson announced the new line just before the July 1963 NAMM show in Chicago, and they first appeared on a July price list, with production starting about three months later.
The Firebirds were the first Gibsons solid-body guitars to use neck-through construction. All Gibsons until that moment in time had a glued-in set neck, and Fender used a screwed-on neck joint.
For the Firebirds, Dietrich introduced a neck made up of five plies of mahogany interspersed with four narrow strips of walnut for added strength running the length of the guitar, providing the 22-fret neck and the mid portion of the body in a single unit. Two slightly thinner mahogany ‘wings’ were glued on, completing the body, so the mid portion of the body was stepped a touch higher than the wings, forming a sort of central shelf, four inches wide, on which sat the pickups, bridge and tailpiece. The back of the body had a gentle contour at the top, a feature better known on Fenders and designed for player comfort.
The elongated body – something like an Explorer with curves – had a horn- less upper section that made the lower horn appear to stick out further than it really did. It made for an almost- unbalanced but quite pleasing look, which is why we call these original models the ‘reverse body’ or simply ‘reverse’ Firebirds. A thoughtful touch was the inclusion of three strap buttons, providing a choice between neck heel or top horn.
There were rosewood fingerboards for the I (1963 list price $189.50), III ($249.50) and V ($325), while the VII ($445) had ebony, with binding on the III, V and VII, and dot markers (I, III), trapezoid (V) or blocks (VII). There was a single mini-humbucker at the bridge on the I, two on the III and V, and three on the VII.
The I had a simple wraparound bridge-tailpiece; the III had a stud-style bridge and simple Gibson/Maestro Vibrola unit; and the V and VII came with a Tune-O-Matic bridge and a Deluxe Gibson/Maestro Vibrola, with a decorated cover. The metalwork was nickel-plated on the I, III and V, and gold-plated on the VII. The VII was Gibson’s most expensive single-neck solid-body electric, listing $20 higher than a Les Paul Custom. The least expensive Firebird I sat a touch below the $210 SG Special.
It got weird at the headstock, a kind of flipped-Fender shape. The low E string fed the furthest tuner, the opposite of how a Fender head worked.
The six Klusons were banjo-style tuners, with string-anchors on the treble side of the head and buttons protruding from the rear, hidden from a front view. You had to reach around in an unfamiliar way to tune the thing. Fender was having some success with its optional Custom Colors, so Gibson followed suit with the Firebirds.
Standard finish was Sunburst, but Dietrich and Gibson borrowed the Fender idea, even issuing a special colour chart, just like Fender. “The showmanship of custom colour is that finished, professional touch,” said the chart, “the extra drama and flair that sells a combo! There are 10 beautiful Gibson custom colours – one that suits you and your personality perfectly.”
The colours (Poly denoted a metallic finish) were Cardinal Red, Ember Red, Frost Blue, Golden Mist Poly, Heather Poly, Inverness Green Poly, Kerry Green, Pelham Blue Poly, Polaris White and Silver Mist Poly.
Gibson’s colours were similar (at least) to existing Fender colours, with Golden Mist Poly being identical to Fender’s Shoreline Gold Metallic. Pelham Blue and Cardinal Red were the two most requested Firebird colours, some way behind the much more popular regular Sunburst. A custom colour added just $15 on top of a regular Sunburst list price in 1963.
By the start of 1965, Gibson’s managers knew they had a problem. The Firebird was a difficult and expensive guitar to make, and the disadvantages of employing an outside designer who did not understand guitar production were becoming clear.
In the factory, if a neck were to develop a fault, then the through-neck design meant that a good portion of the body, too, was lost. The intricacies of the laminate through-neck, the carving, the tricky wiring – all added to production time and costs.
Out in the real world, Firebirds were prone to breakages at the fragile head/neck junction. Some of the breaks even happened while the guitar was still in its case, where the crucial intersection was unsupported.
Gibson wound down production of the original Firebirds and devised new versions with simpler construction and a different design.
It’s been said that Fender threatened to sue Gibson over the design of the original reverse Firebird, because of Fender’s existing offset-waist body on its Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and that this was the reason Gibson was forced to change the first Firebird design.
But this seems unlikely. Fender was certainly annoyed, publishing an ad showing the Jazzmaster and Jaguar below a headline that read: “The Most Imitated Guitars In The World.” But Fender had little scope for legal action.
It had only a simple design patent for the Jazzmaster, which was granted in December 1959; Fender described the Jazz and Jag’s Offset Contour Body as ‘patent pending’.
The most obvious change to the line of brand-new Firebirds that appeared in 1965 was a slightly more conventional body shape, looking as if the original had been flipped upwards and over.
As a result, we call these the ‘non-reverse’ Firebirds, in contrast to the earlier ‘reverse’ body. Gone was the through- neck and the body ‘shelf’, replaced with Gibson’s conventional glued-in neck. The pickups on the two cheaper models were regular P-90 single coils, and the headstock was more Fender-like and came with regular tuners.
The new Firebirds first appeared on the June 1965 price-list, with a sizeable price cut. The final reverse Firebirds had listed at $215 (I), $280 (III), $360 (V), and $500 (VII). The non-reverse line was notably cheaper: $189.50 (I), $239.50 (III), $289.50 (V), and $379.50 (VII).
Gibson briefly made a 12-string Firebird V, too, introduced in 1966. But the changes were not enough to stop a decline in sales of the non-reverse Firebird models during the 1960’s. At the end of the decade, the Firebirds were finally dropped.
Two short-lived reappearances were the limited-edition ‘Medallion’ model in 1972, and the Firebird 76, a sort of Firebird III with an unbound fingerboard and gold-plated metalwork.
This is a 1963 Gibson Firebird V Guitar.