After the revolutionary yet radically ahead-of-their-time Explorer and Flying V of the late ’50s were stricken from the catalog in the wake of disappointing sales, Gibson enlisted a highly acclaimed outside designer for its next adventure in modernity, and the results remain iconic to this day. Tapping the dangerous curves and tailfins of the Detroit auto industry, Gibson hired Ray Dietrich—designer of the Dusenberg car, among other things—to draw up an entirely new look for a solidbody electric guitar. The results hit the market in 1963 in a range of new Firebird models, known forever after as the “reverse-body” Firebirds for the way their shape flipped the approximate outline of the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar upside-down.
Just as revolutionary as the Flying V and Explorer before it, the Firebird was also nearly as far ahead of its time, and only lasted until 1965 in this guise before the body was flipped back right-side-up to create the somewhat more conventional looking “non-reverse” Firebird. The originals have been highly collectible ever since, and their build and appointments give them a sound that’s just as cutting-edge as their looks.
The guitar’s foundation was assembled in an entirely new way for Gibson. It comprised a nine-ply neck of mahogany and walnut, which extended right through the body’s central core all the way to the tail pin, with glued-on body wings of mahogany, in what has come to be known as “neck-through-body” construction. The practice afforded a lot of stability, good resonance and sustain, and excellent upper-fret access. For electronics, Gibson loaded in its new Firebird Mini-humbucking pickups: one of them on the Firebird I, two on the III and V, and three on the Firebird VII.
Although they looked like the mini-humbuckers Gibson had inherited from Epiphone, but with fully enclosed covers (renditions of which would appear on the Les Paul Deluxe in the ’70s), the Epis had their magnet mounted beneath the dual side-by-side coils, much like a traditional PAF-style humbucker, whereas the new Firebird pickups had coils wound directly around two alnico bar magnets. The result was a bright, cutting tone with a lot of bite and definition, which arguably represented Gibson’s effort to attack the Fender market sonically as well as visually. Put it all together, and the Firebird was capable of a truly eviscerating sound through a cranked amp, as heard in much of Johnny Winter’s and Allen Collins’ playing, while Ray Manzanera and Brian Jones gave us some of the ’Bird’s janglier moments.
In addition to the reverse-body looks, plenty of other deft design touches help this guitar to stand out, such as the reversed-six-a-side headstock, which carries in-line “banjo” tuners to avoid spoiling its “phoenix head” profile. The VII model seen here was the top of the line, and, in addition to its gold-plated hardware, it featured an ebony fretboard with pearloid block inlays, a deluxe Lyre tailpiece cover decorating its Maestro vibrato, and a red Firebird graphic on the pickguard. Going one notch down to the Firebird V got you nickel-plated hardware, the Lyre cover and Firebird pickguard, and Les Paul-style trapezoid inlays on a rosewood ’board.
Gibson continues to offer several renditions of the reverse-body Firebird. The Studio model from Gibson USA is the most accessible, while the 2017 Firebird T appears to be the most vintage-correct at the moment, with no ’60s-spec Firebird being currently available from Gibson Custom.
> Nine-ply neck-through-body construction with mahogany body wings
> Iconic “reverse-body” styling
> Maestro vibrato with Lyre tailpiece cover
> ABR-1 “Tune-o-matic” bridge
> Firebird graphic on pickguard
> Three Firebird mini-humbucking pickups