To the layman, Gibson is famed for its electric 6- and 12-string and acoustics, but aficionados know that the story of Gibson basses is just as fascinating. Gibson made its first bass, the EB (“Electric Bass”, of course) in 1953, just a year after the Les Paul 6-string debuted and for the last 69 years, numerous models have been favored by some of the best basses in rock, soul, jazz and beyond.
If you need a 101 on an often-unsung range of great Gibsons, start here:
1. The Gibson EB debuted in 1953 with a double-bass-outline mahogany body, mahogany neck, rosewood fingerboard and a single humbucker. To emphasize that double bass vibe, the EB even had fake f-holes painted onto its small body and had an extendable end-pin so you could play it horizontally like a standard electric bass or stand it upright like a double bass. Kooky! Hofner’s 500/1 (Paul McCartney’s “Beatle bass”) looks similar, yes? But it actually came later in 1956, though that made some sense as the German company were originally violin makers. Just 105 Gibson EBs were made in 1953.
2. After relatively modest sales, the EB (or EB-1 as it is commonly known) was replaced in the late ‘50s by a Les Paul Junior-shaped solidbody (slightly confusingly called the EB-0 even though it superceded the EB-1) and the 335-shaped semi-solid EB-2. In 1961, the EB-0 changed its shape again to that of the newly-launched twin-cutaway Les Paul SG.
3. The SG-alike EB became famed from the ‘60s onwards. It was briefly offered as the EB-0F (1962-‘65) with built-in fuzztone, but most notably as the dual-‘bucker EB-3 (from 1961). With a launch price of $285, the EB-3 was immensely popular with the British bands of the late 1960s. Jack Bruce (Cream), Bill Wyman (The Rolling Stones), Andy Fraser (Free), Trevor Bolder (David Bowie) and Chris White (Zombies) all played one, as did Phil Lesh (The Grateful Dead). Jared Followill (Kings of Leon) and Mike Watt (Iggy and the Stooges) are current users.
4. The large Gibson EB humbucking pickup became known in the bass community as the “mudbucker”. It was essentially the same design as on an EB-0, but the extra switching options of the EB-3’s Varitone control gave a super-bassy “muddy” sound. To some, the “mudbucker” name is an insult, to others it’s a reason to buy. It thuds!
5. Two variations of the EB-3 were the "split-head" (late 1969 to '72) and the Long Scale (a full 34-inches) in 1971.
6. The original run of EB-3s was one of Gibson’s most successful ever basses: almost 15,000 basses were shipped (before the model was initially discontinued in 1979) with 1969 to 1973 being peak sales years.
7. The bass designers at Gibson had not been idle, however. 1963 saw the launch of the full-scale Thunderbird, a high-end instrument that complemented the 6-string Firebird. Like the Firebird, its curves were outlined by U.S. auto designer Raymond H. Dietrich who had conceived classic cars for Chrysler and Lincoln.
8. The Thunderbirds boasted the feature of a one-piece neck and central body, with the body wings glued to the sides. There was no neck join. This sustain-enhacing idea was previously used on Rickenbacker’s 4000 basses, true. But it was also a design idea that Les Paul originally used on his prototype electric built at the Epiphone factory in 1940, “The Log”. Les Paul wins!
9. Original “reverse” Thunderbirds were made from 1963 to 1965, with little over 1,000 shipped. It originally retailed at $260 (the single pickup Thunderbird II) and $335 (the double pickup Thunderbird IV), the 2011 equivalent of $1,870 and $2,400.
10. One definite fan, though, was The Who’s John Entwistle who used both “reverse” and “non-reverse” Thunderbird IVs in the early ‘70s. He told Guitar Player magazine in 1975, “Once I realized the Thunderbird was the bass I was going to be playing for a few years, I panicked because [Gibson had] stopped making them. I went to Manny’s [NYC guitar store] and told them to buy up the whole stock, so consequently I got 10 two-pickup Thunderbirds.”
11. Other renowned Thunderbird fans are Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), Jared Followill (Kings Of Leon), Pete Way (UFO), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Leon Wilkerson (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Allen Woody (Allman Brothers), Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith), Simon Gallup (The Cure), Mike Watt, Frankie Poullain (The Darkness), Krist Novoselic (Nirvana), Jackie Fox (The Runaways), Nikki Monninger (Silversun Pickups), Brian Wheat (Tesla), Jerry Flowers (Keith Urban) and Nikki Sixx (Mötley Crüe), who now has his own signature Blackbird model. That’s some line-up for a bass some mistakenly say was “unpopular”.
12. The “non-reverse” Thunderbird continued in production until 1979, though the “reverse” made a comeback in 1976-’79 as the 76 Bicentenniel T-Bird IV. If you have a ’76 Bicentennial in ebony finish, it is super-rare: just 91 were made. 228 were made in tobacco sunburst, but these can still go for $4,000-plus.
13. The original Les Paul bass (from 1969) was unique. A companion model to the Les Paul Personal and Les Paul Professional 6-strings, it was fitted with low impedance electronics and pickups: as such, it required a low impedance amp (such as Gibson’s LP1 preamp and LP2 cabinet, simultaneously launched). Infamously heavy, Brit rocker Suzie Quatro used one (“this weighs more than I do” she joked), but it was eventually replaced by the Les Paul Triumph bass, which added a Hi-Lo impedance selector switch to allow for easier use with a conventional amp. Well-known Les Paul Triumph players include Gary Valentine from Blondie, Alex James from Blur, and Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan from Oasis.
14. 1973 brought two bold new Gibson basses, The Ripper and The Grabber. They boasted an all-new body shape (by Bill Lawrence, who worked for Gibson at the time) and on The Grabber, a Flying V-style headstock. Both were excellent quality basses, but had no fancy inlays or finishes, with controls and pickups mounted on the scratchplate. The mahogany of the EB’s era was gone, and maple and alder was in, which made them very affordable. Chicago’s Peter Cetera appeared in print advertising for The Ripper.
15. The Grabber was Gibson’s first bolt-on neck bass, and had a single sliding pickup that could move between neck and bridge tonalities. Kiss’s Gene Simmons was a fan of both The Ripper and The Grabber, the latter being a regular gigging bass.
16. Gibson basses were the sound of Nirvana. Krist Novoselic put his Rippers (he had one natural, one ebony) through an Ampeg SVT 400 amp to record Nevermind, then through a 200-watt Hiwatt head for In Utero. Novoselic also liked Thunderbird IVs, playing them on the latter stages of the Nevermind tour (pictured on the sleeve of From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah) and RD basses.
17. The twin-pickup RD basses were introduced in 1978, in Standard and Artist versions. The Artist was Gibson’s first active-electronics bass and consultants on its design included the Moog company and The Who’s John Entwistle.
18. Gibson sister-brand Epiphone has always produced its share of great basses. Epiphone did not manufacture electric basses until the company was acquired by Gibson in 1958. Desirable examples for collectors include the Newport (from 1961), and the semi-acoustic Rivoli.
19. The signature bass of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna’s Jack Casady is also an Epiphone. The hollow-bodied Epiphone Jack Casady Signature is based on the Les Paul Signature bass of the ‘70s, an instrument that doesn’t look like a Les Paul at all (unlike the original Les Paul basses and the Triumphs). The JC is certainly versatile; it’s also the favorite squeeze of Anvil bassist G5.
20. The Les Paul Junior DC Bass is the latest melange of many past Gibson classics. It has an LP Junior-style body (you guessed that, right?) like the original EB-0, a short scale of 30.5 inches, a pair of TB humbuckers (that are similar to the EB-3 originals) and it comes in Pelham Blue (an early ‘60s Gibson color derived from a Cadillac car color of the same name). Oh, and despite the LP Junior DC’s two ‘buckers, it has no pickup selector: it’s always double-on!