Gibson is no stranger to signature guitars. After all, the Gibson Les Paul is undoubtedly the most fabled signature guitar ever. But some players may not know that the archtop Gibson Byrdland is not only a signature model, but a double-signature. So how did a “jazz” guitar become most famous in the hyper-amped hands of Ted Nugent?
The Byrdland is notable as the first of Gibson's Thinline series. It debuted in 1955, three years before the better-known ES-335. Jazz was still popular, but many players found the full-depth of a traditional archtop, such as Gibson’s L-5, extravagant though it was.
With an overall depth of 2¼-inches, the Byrdland was considerably shallower than the L-5’s 3⅜-inch depth. Gibson’s renowned president of the era, Ted McCarty, was always seeking opinions and ideas about new instruments, and for this project he went for advice to two revered players of the day, Billy Byrd and Hank Garland. Neither is mentioned in hallowed tones anymore, but both Byrd and Garland were massively successful in their era.
South Carolina’s Hank Garland was a prodigious talent – he began playing guitar at the age of six. He was a guest player on local radio shows by the age of 12 and moved to Nashville at age 16. By 19, he had a million-selling hit single, “Sugarfoot Rag,” and an instrumental version was the opening theme for ABC TV’s Ozark Jubilee from 1955-60. “Sugarfoot Rag” lives on – John 5 recorded a shred-version only a few years ago.
Garland is best known for his work on Elvis Presley’s recordings from 1957 to 1961 which produced such rock hits as “Little Sister,” “I Need Your Love Tonight” and “A Big Hunk O’ Love.” Yet he also shared his talents with numerous stars of the late ’50s and early ’60s – Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Marty Robbins, the Everly Brothers, Boots Randolph, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty were just some of his employers. Some have claimed that Garland even “invented” the power chord (two notes only, across three strings.)
Here’s Garland in his prime, albeit playing a Gibson ES-355.
But ill-fortune followed. In September 1961, Garland was playing on the soundtrack of Elvis Presley’s movie Follow That Dream when he had a major car accident. It left him in a coma for a week, and although he re-learned how to walk, talk, and play guitar, Garland’s recording career was over. He died in 2004.
Byrd was perhaps best known for playing in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. A Nashville native, he was acclaimed for simple yet highly melodic leads for Tubb, but he also had jazz chops. Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt were big influences, and he tutored many a Nashville session great, including Hank Garland himself and Harold Bradley.
“Without him coming along and showing us that jazz stuff, we never would have been able to do what we did,” remembered Bradley on Byrd’s death in 2001. “When I was 14, Billy was dating a girl down the street from me, and he’d come over with two guitars and show me jazz licks. At one time he was the best pop-jazz player in town, and he had a great influence on me and Hank [Garland] and a lot of people, both as a friend and as a guitar player.”
The Byrdland Gets Mauled by the Motor City Madman
With the input of Byrd and Garland, Ted McCarty developed the Gibson Byrdland. It’s essentially a thinner L-5CES, but the two jazz-loving players later specified a short scale neck (23½ inches) which enabled them to more-comfortably play intricate single-note patterns and stretched chord voicings.
Of the early models, you will see different types. From 1955 to 1960 the Byrdland was made with a Venetian (rounded) cutaway on the body. From ’61 to ’68, it was built with a Florentine (pointed) cutaway. It returned to the Venetian in ’69. The model was in production from 1955 through 1969, and B.B. King played one for a while.
But the Byrdland was reintroduced as a limited run in 1977, 1978 and 1992. Why the new interest? Because the Gibson Byrdland became most famous in the hands of “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent who became hugely popular in the ’70s and ’80s.
Nugent is a big Chuck Berry fan, and noted how Chuck played a Gibson ES-350 – a Byrdland was close enough. Plus there was the influence of Ted’s favourite-ever band, The Detroit Wheels.
Typically enthusiastic, “The Nuge” told Guitar World. “The mighty Gibson Byrdland guitar is a magical piece of American craftsman artwork that has a musical voice all its own. A beast of an instrument that was created to provide a limitless pallet for creative sonic bombast and musical adventure that called my name from the very first time I witnessed its power in the hands of Jimmy McCarty of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels way back around 1961.
“This custom guitar is capable of more sounds than a normal human being is capable of dreaming of. But since I am not a normal human being, our love affair continues to produce soul-cleansing and crotch-inspiring sounds and love songs for the masses.”
We’re pretty sure this wasn’t what McCarty, Byrd and Garland had in mind… but who cares? The Byrdland surely remains one of Gibson’s finest-looking guitars ever – and as Nugent has proved, it’s not just for jazz.
Nugent even makes the most of the Byrdland’s “hard rock” unsuitability: with a long string length between the bridge and trapezoid tailpiece, Nugent got outrageous sounds by pressing on the strings behind the bridge – a favorite trick is the pick an open low E string and then push down on the string behind the bridge bending the note up to G. Coupled with his favored feedback, “Uncle Ted”s Byrdland was roaring like a big ol’ buffalo.
Here’s Nugent playing “Great White Buffalo” on his black Byrd’ from 1976.
More Gibson Archtops:
20 Essential Facts About Gibson “Jazz” Archtops
Gibson ES-335: 26 Essential Facts
Gibson Byrdland: the Details