With a stable of acoustic guitars as good as Gibson's, there's always going to be fierce debate about the finest. They're all good – of course! – but among the lauded J-45s, Super Jumbos and “parlor” sizes et al, there's one Gibson acoustic you must try. The Hummingbird. A constant since 1960, it's taken flight in numerous guises and 2016 models are as colorful as their feathered namesake. Let's get flutterin'.
Origins of the Gibson Hummingbird
Unlike the other flat-top Gibson acoustics before it, the Hummingbird was Gibson's first square-shoulder dreadnought. It also stood out for being top-quality, being Gibson's second-most expensive acoustic guitar at the time behind the Gibson J-200. (The related Dove, a blend of the Hummingbird and the J-200, would sneak between the two from '62.)
Gibson was certainly proud, its catalog chirping about a “fabulous new acoustical guitar - one of the finest ever made for voice accompaniment. The sound is big, and round, and full with the deep rumbly bass so prized by guitar players.” Acoustical? That's right. Perfect for your six-stringular tunals, we guess. Note that '61 was the Gibson Hummingbird’s first official production year. Rare 1960 models are known in the trade as “R Birds”.
Those square shoulders were a departure for Gibson, and some players were at first unsure. Likewise, the Hummingbird's flowers, birds, and butterflies adornments seemed to be aimed at Nashville’s Nudie suit-clad country stars. As such, Vintage Hummingbirds can be less expensive than similar square shoulder and less fancy models of the same era. But many players (see below) got the attractions straight away: the Hummingbird is rightfully a Gibson classic. For whatever reason, it gradually became a staple as some sort of “cosmic rock” acoustic. Man.
There have been variations over the years, of course. Maple (not mahogany) backs and sides appeared on some '62s and '63s; bigger bracing in '69 arguably changed the tone; block inlays (replacing split parallelograms) can be found from '73-'84... None of these changes made the Hummingbird a bad guitar, but may affect vintage value. The thing is, with the range of improved Hummingbirds in 2016 (see below), there's no reason not to instead get the best right now.
The Hummingbird is still singing sweetly. When Acoustic Guitar magazine awarded it the Player's Choice Award for the Dreadnought Category, it was described thus: “The Hummingbird has a very wide range of sound, from gutsy and loud, to sweet and soft. Superb for all styles of playing, whether just chording or playing intricate solos.”
Keith Richards was a highly-visible champion of the Gibson Hummingbird, buying his in 1965. At various times, Rolling Stones classics “Play With Fire”, “As Tears Go By”, “The Last Time”, “Satisfaction”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Sympathy for the Devil” (as seen in the Jean-Luc Godard movie, One Plus One), “No Expectations”, “Angie”, “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” have all been claimed to have been written or partly recorded on Keith's 'Bird.
Richards has confirmed, to Guitar World, that “Jumpin' Jack Flash” was “a Gibson Hummingbird tuned to open D, six string [low to high: DADF#AD]. Open D or open E [low to high: EBEG#BE], which is the same thing – same intervals – but it would be slackened down some for D. Then there was a capo on it, to get that really tight sound.” Richards' original Hummingbird is certainly a keeper – it was used on tour as recently as 2013. Mick Taylor also played Hummingbirds, even Mick Jagger.
Keith's cosmic country-rock compadre Gram Parsons also played a Hummingbird in The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and solo.
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page played a Hummingbird on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Ramble On” on 1969’s Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, respectively, and “Gallows Pole” on III. In the glam corner, Marc Bolan used a 'Bird as the bedrock acoustic for his electric hits.
The craziest Hummingbird flight of the '70s was possibly in the hands of fusion pioneer John McLaughlin, leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Listen to his work with the Tony Williams Lifetime in 1969, where he plays a Hummingbird loaded with a pickup (the same modded 'Bird McLaughlin played on his jam with Jimi Hendrix, March 25 1969 – now that's cosmic).
Lenny Kravitz and Chris Cornell both play Hummingbirds for their acoustic tracks. Sheryl Crow has a Hummingbird, although her signature Country Western is actually a hybrid of her original '62 CW and a Hummingbird. (Hers has no 'Bird pickguard, for a start, likewise the “standard” Country Western.)
Hummingbirds in 2016
Choices abound in the Gibson Hummingbird stable (or should that be aviary?), with regular production of the Hummingbird Standard (heritage cherry) and Hummingbird Vintage (vintage cherry). Improvements include thermally aged spruce tops, softened fingerboard edges, PLEK technology setups and more. The Standard comes with an LR Baggs pickup system: the Vintage has all the vibe of strictly-acoustic '60s original, with those modern refinements.
Of 2016's Limited Runs, the Eric Church Hummingbird Dark comes in translucent Ebony Burst and with a more slender 4-inch body depth, plus LR Baggs VTC system. The country rock congregation is rejoicing. There's also a limited run solid Hummingbird Ebony version.
For other flavors of finish and spec, look at the stunning Hummingbird Red Spruce with VOS finish or the top-spec Hummingbird Koa Elite for new 'Bird tones and AAA-grade timbers. Gold tuners on both.
There's a Hummingbird Lefty, too. So, plenty of choice. Take your pick (or fingers) and take your pick!
Here's rising bluesman Marcus King playing the Allman Brothers' “Midnight Rider” on Duane Allman's own '61 Gibson Hummingbird, currently at The Big House museum, Macon, GA. King is signed to Evil Teen label of Allmans stalwart Warren Haynes. Cool version. Very cool Hummingbird.
Learn more about which Gibson acoustic is right for you ...