Gibson’s R&D departments in Kalamazoo in the 1950s and ’60s, and in Nashville in the ’70s and beyond, have turned out some of the most celebrated electric guitars of all time. But even the creators of iconic designs such as the ES-175 and the Les Paul Standard are allowed a false start now and then.

As often as not, these models had plenty of creative new features and bags of design integrity, but just didn’t take off with players. In earlier decades these guitars were often just ahead of their time, too radical for players of them to take to heart (see Part One: Gibson’s 5 Freakiest Electric Guitar Designs of the ’50s and ’60s.)

In the ’70s and early ’80s, however, these hit-or-miss ventures were far more miss, and have yet to be celebrated with the high vintage values and Custom Shop reissues that have brought many underappreciated early experiments back to life. Some of these even sold in very respectable numbers in their day — far more than the legendary Flying V and Explorer, certainly — but somehow remain products of their time, somewhat dated perhaps, and arguably less appealing to today’s players than other more timeless Gibson models.

1969 Les Paul Personal

We’re actually starting with a model from the very end of the ’60s, and that’s because the general failure of the Les Paul Personal — and the Les Paul Professional and Les Paul Recording that followed it — represent a certain irony of guitar design and endorsement. Les Paul, a jazz and pop artist of the 1940s and ’50s, was Gibson’s first major endorsement, and the Les Paul Model to which he both gave his name and an element of design consultation is arguably the most iconic electric guitar of all time. Shortly after putting his John Hancock on this legendary instrument in the ’50s, however, Paul — an inveterate inventor and tinkerer — further developed his own ideas about the form this model should take. Paul had long been a fan of low-impedance pickups, which do offer certain advantages of fidelity and clarity but which have never superceded traditional passive, high-impedance pickups with the majority of players. He was also fond of adding extra gadgets and preamps and switches to his own guitars. In 1969, shortly after the return of two more traditional Les Paul models to the fold, the Les Paul Personal appeared, with a wider mahogany body, oblong low-impedance pickups, phase switching, and 11-position Decade control, and even a microphone socket on the upper bout of the guitar (with its own output and level control!). Needless to say the model never really took off, and only 370 were ever produced.

 

1975 Marauder

The numbers reveal the Marauder to be an unmitigated success, with more than 7,000 sold between its introduction in 1975 and its deletion in 1981, but its adventurously un-Gibsonesque character lands it on our oddballs list. This solidbody had a narrow, 12.5-inch wide single-cutaway body made of either maple or mahogany, and, most uncharacteristically, a bolt-on neck with pointed headstock. Its pickups were also unusual for Gibson: a humbucker in the neck position, and an epoxy-encased single-coil blade pickup in the bridge position. The stripped-down nature of the Marauder’s construction allowed it to carry a price tag well below the point of many upscale Gibson’s, however, and that no doubt contributed to its popularity, while it also offered a rival to many other makers’ designs of the day. Marauders toward the end of the model’s production run had maple fingerboards and pickups with black plastic covers.

 

1976 S-1

Essentially the fully single-coil version of the Marauder, the S-1 had three epoxy blade pickups and two switches to enable a variety of selections, but was otherwise built with the body and neck of its predecessor. Even less “Gibson-like” than the Marauder, it achieved only about half the sales figures, a still-respectable 3,089 in its four-year run.

 

1977 RD Custom

With a body shape much like a slightly melted version of the reverse-body Firebird of the early ’60s, the RD Custom was billed as Gibson’s guitar for the future. It had two standard chrome-covered humbucking pickups, but they were routed through active electronics. The neck was glued in, in accordance with Gibson tradition, but was made to a 25.5-inch scale length, and carried a maple fingerboard. Body and neck were also both made of maple, all elements intended to contribute to a brighter, snappier tone. It was a clever and well-though-out piece of guitar design, and won a few devoted fans, but fewer than 1,500 were sold in its three-year run. The passive-electronics RD Standard also helped to fly the flag from 1977-’78, but both models were gone before 1980.

 

1980 Sonex-180

Pre-Jack White, plastic-bodied guitars always had a rough row to hoe, but major guitar makers seemed to give it a shot every decade or so. The Sonex-180 wasn’t entirely plastic, to be fair, but had what Gibson billed as a “Multi-Phonic body”, something made with a wood core and outer layer of composite resin, shaped to approximate a thinner Les Paul. Like the similarly cost-effective Marauder and S-1, the Sonex-180 had a bolt-on maple neck, but it carried a pair of somewhat more traditional humbucking pickups, Gibson’s higher-gain Velvet Brick units in this case. The Sonex-180 lasted until 1983, and was joined by a Sonex-180 Custom in 1980-’81, which featured a coil-tap switch and an ebony fingerboard.

These are all odd ducks, for sure, but plenty of players have rediscovered them over the years, and found them to be eminently playable instruments, and often good value on the used market. If you’re still searching for your quota of quirk, check them out if you ever get the chance.