Original Gibson Firebirds were only in production from 1963-'65, but they soon gained a cult-like status among players desiring superb sustain, searing tones and a striking visual statement. They've been back in the Gibson family for years, of course, but there's no better time to grab yourself one of Gibson's most underrated electrics ever...
Origins of the Gibson Firebird
When it launched in 1963, the Gibson Firebird was radical. It even seemed a bit crazy. It had notionally replaced the Explorer as Gibson's angular big-bodied electric. But the Explorer had initially stalled in sales, so it seemed strange to some observers that Gibson might be repeating a “mistake” (the Explorer eventually proved to be anything but a mistake, of course).
The Firebird's outline wasn't even designed by a guitarist: it was by legendary car designer Ray Dietrich. When based in New York City, Dietrich designed luxury car bodies and worked for brands such as Lincoln, Packard, Duesenberg and Ford; he also designed the striking Chrysler Airstream and early Checker taxicabs.
Dietrich had retired to Kalamazoo, where Gibson boss Ted McCarty happened to go along to one of his talks on car design; McCarty asked if Dietrich would be interested in designing a guitar. Heck why not?
“I was sitting in my office one day with Ray and a couple of the other fellas,” Ted McCarty later recalled, “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 pickguard.”
Gibson's 1963 catalog announced the birth of a “revolutionary new series of solidbody 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.”
To Dietrich's credit, he'd nailed the while space-age/Jetsons vibe of the day for aesthetes of futurism; to Gibson's credit, the Firebirds offered the company's first thru-neck construction for added sustain and top-fret access, and a new mini humbucker design that added extra treble bite to the already lauded full-size PAFs.
Who Nixed 'VI'? The Numbers of the 'Bird
So far, so hot. But the model numbers took a little learning. In short:
The Firebird I had a single pickup and was built for straight-ahead rocking. The Firebird version of the Les Paul Junior, it had no neck binding or other fancy cosmetics.
The number II was reserved for its bass brethren, the Thunderbird (one pickup).
Firebird IIIs sported two pickups along with a stud bridge and tailpiece and Gibson Vibrola.
IV was, again, used for a Thunderbird bass (two pickups)
The Firebird V was fancier with trapezoid inlays, a Maestro Lyre Vibrola and Tune-O-Matic bridge. But still just two pickups. (You keeping up with this?)
Firebird VII added an extra pickup – so that's three p'ups on the VII - as well as gold hardware. It’s a Firebird “tuxedo-style” if you like, much like three-pickup Les Paul Customs.
So where was VI? Maybe it got burned...?
These original-shaped Firebirds only lasted until mid-'65 before being reintroduced in 1972. Long story – and another story! – but this first Firebird shape is now referred to as “reverse” while Gibson's second shape is known as “non-reverse.” You still keeping up?
Early 'Birds still became famed for their tonal capabilities, playability and stunning looks and they've found favor with plenty of stars for over half a century. Perhaps the most renowned Firebird player was the late Johnny Winter (1963 Firebird V).
Winter explained, “I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked, and when I played it I discovered I liked the way it sounded, too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. I was never a big fan of humbucking pickups, but the mini-humbuckers on the Firebird have a little more bite and treble.”
Eric Clapton strapped on '60s Firebirds in Cream and Blind Faith (Is and Vs) and went for a 1990 reissue on his '94-’95 From the Cradle tour. Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Brian Jones all used reverse Firebirds with the Rolling Stones: according to Andy Babiuk's book Rolling Stones Gear, “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” was Richards on his '63 Firebird VII through his also-recently-acquired Gibson Maestro Fuzz pedal. Keith's Firebird was later gifted to engineer Dave Hassinger, but later stolen. Gah!
Warren Haynes often plays a 1964 Firebird III but in Southern rock circles, its king was Lynyrd Skynyrd's Allen Collins (he had pairs of 1964 Firebird Is and IIIs). Collins modded and trashed them – replacement necks, P-90s instead of mini-'buckers, stuffed pot holes, et cetera – but that “Free Bird” recorded solo is a Firebird, even if he played a Gibson Explorer more live.
Howlin' Wolf sometimes chugged a Firebird V, and Stephen Stills loves his 'Birds (“Clapton got me into Firebirds. I found two that were just absolutely magnificent...”). Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera loves his red so much he named a solo album Firebird VII. Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Joe Perry, Gary Moore , Damon Johnson (Alice Cooper, Black Star Riders), Billy Gibbons (early on) have all fired-up 'Birds, while among the new guard of rockers, Rival Sons' Scott Holiday is a big fan of his Pelham Blue 'Bird.
“It's a 1999 Custom Historic Firebird VII. It's a beast. It's got a big neck, but great to play. The shape, the sound of the Firebird – I just fell in love with it. You gotta wrestle Firebirds a little bit, but I love that. It makes you attack the guitar differently, move it around differently. It's become my #1 guitar.”
2016 Gibson Firebirds
Firebird are definitely back in the Gibson fold, with a cool choice of traditional and radical.
2016 Firebird V T
This T (“traditional”) is close to an early '60s Vibrola-less Firebird III with mini 'buckers and Historic neck profile, but with modern appointments such as a Tektoid nut and Steinberger Gearless tuners. At around $1000, it's an absolute bargain, too, and many stores have sold-out quick. 2015's Firebird V, if you can find one, differs slightly (hardshell case, adjustable zero fret nut) but still sings tradition in a Vintage Sunburst finish.
Not just a modern Firebird VII, the 7 has full-sized PAF-style '57 Classic Humbuckers for fatter tone, but otherwise retains the original thru-neck 9-ply body construction. Steinberger tuners again, plus a block inlays, a Gibson Lyre vibrato and Blue Mist finish make for one beautiful 'Bird.
Skunk Baxter Firebird
This is all about new sounds within tried and trusted design. The new Firebird mini-humbuckers are co-designed by sessions legend Baxter and Gibson Custom's Jim DeCola to be hotter than ever, and with on/off fully independent coil-splitting for all three, you have an almost limitless array of tones. Wrapped up in a Copper Metallic finish, this 'Bird flies higher than ever. Under $2000 for the most versatile Firebird ever born.
Elliot Easton “Tikibird” Firebird
The Cars' maestro’s signature mixes it up with full-size '57 Classic Humbuckers with coil-splitting and reverse-phase wiring options and a genuine Bigsby. The Gold Mist Poly finish makes for a unique Firebird.
An all-gold 50th Anniversary Firebird may still be in some stores, as well. Well loved for slide playing – check out Sonny Landreth's Firebird-played tribute to Johnny Winter, “Firebird Blues” – the Firebird remains one of Gibson's most underestimated electrics ever. Don't miss the flight.
Who out there has a non-reverse Gibson Firebird? Please share your pics and stories below, or on the Gibson forum.