Gibson Firebird: The Birth of a Tone Machine
The Space Age began in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite. At that point the United States and the Russia-based empire began a race of technology, primarily competing to be first to send man to the stars. The spirit of challenge and invention behind that competition — the idea that a new dawn of invention had ignited — inspired Space Age design and technology in many other fields as well, including furniture, automobiles and, most important, of course, guitars!
Thus the Gibson Firebird was born in 1963, following the introduction of the Flying V and the Explorer five years earlier. Drawing on the radical industrial design of the period’s auto industry, where accentuated tailfins, bullet-like headlight enclosures and chrome trim set in smooth flowing lines — not unlike H.R. Giger’s surrealist designs for the early Alien films – had become the norm, Gibson’s president Ted McCarty hired Ray Dietrich, a famed industrial designer whose work had already produced four-wheeled works of art for Lincoln, Ford, Packard and Studebaker.
Inspired by the beautiful fin lines of those gas-guzzling beauties, Dietrich envisioned the body of the Firebird on his drafting table, taking the shape of the Explorer and rounding the edges. The guitar he designed pushed the envelopes of the solid-body six-string as art by creating a right-hand or lower horn much longer than the top, but respecting ergonomics by allowing access to every fret right down to the neck pickup.
The new guitar was the first Gibson to use a neck-through-body design, and the neck was forged in the company’s original plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan from five plies of mahogany layered with four strips of walnut for added strength and rigidity. It was also the first Gibson with a reverse headstock, sporting banjo-style tuners, to add to its distinctive, modern look. While the first generation Firebirds to come off the production line were built with mini-humbuckers, in 1965 some were made with P-90s. Nonetheless, the humbucking design is what stuck and accounted to the dark, punchy tone of the players who brought the guitar to fame. These include bluesmen Johnny Winter, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Eric Clapton, and rockers ranging from Brian Jones to Warren Haynes to Dave Grohl.
The first Firebirds had just one pickup, chrome hardware and no neck binding. Options for two-pickups and a Vibrola tailpiece came quickly.
History has obscured exactly how the Firebird got its name. Perhaps it was the audacious notion that it rose from the ranks of the electric guitar like a Phoenix, from the ashes of a presumably tired school of designs. Or that it was like the Firebird of Russian folklore, an elemental creature with a subtle will of its own. Certainly it was not named after the Pontiac car, which debuted in 1967, four years after the Gibson Firebird was already in the hands of players.
The early Firebird got the moniker “reverse” added before its name because of its distinctive body shape, with the horn located exactly opposite of where such fillips usually came. Hence when somebody talks about a “reverse Firebird,” they simply mean a Firebird with the guitar’s original body shape. Today vintage 1963 Firebirds sell for between $9,000 and $11,000 in the open market.
Despite the Firebird’s incendiary name, it failed to burn up the marketplace. Like the Flying V and Explorer, the model got off to a slow start and took some time to become popular. Gibson even flipped the horn from the bottom to the top, making “non-reverse” Firebirds initially from 1965 to 1969, to see if that nod to convention would increase sales. The non-reverse model also had a glued-in set neck, rather than the neck-through-body design. These less daring vintage ’Birds actually command a higher price than the original run of ’63 to ’65 models, since they’re perceived as being more player friendly. By 1969 the Firebird’s poor fortunes were turned around by the emergence of Johnny Winter, and by then even Eric Clapton was playing a Firebird on stage.
In character with Gibson’s other enduring guitar models, the Firebird has undergone a series of variations and evolutions over the years, culminating in the super-robotic Firebird X. Gibson’s sister company Epiphone has also produced several models of Firebird. Particularly notable Firebirds include the Firebird V, which features a Maestro Vibrola tailpiece, trapezoid inlays, two pickups, neck binding and the option of a stop-bar tailpiece. The three-pickup Firebird VII is also popular, with its tune-o-matic bridge and Maestro Vibrola and block inlays plus neck binding — a handsome beast. The Firebird II Artist has two full-size humbuckers, as does the Firebird Studio. And the Firebird XII is a 12-string, non-reversed version of the guitar. The wild card in the Firebird family, and, indeed, in the Gibson catalog, is the ultra-tricked out Firebird X, which comes in special finishes, sports three pickups, robot tuners, dot inlays and a versatile coterie of built-in digital effects and output options.