Classic Gear: The 1959 Gibson Flying V

The 1959 Gibson Flying V was out of its dimension, let alone ahead of its time.
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The Gibson Flying V is such a prominent symbol of rock warriordom today that it’s hard to imagine a music scene without it. Yet there was a time when it did not exist, and that pre-V world was a very different place indeed. Born in 1958 and refined in ’59, this iconic guitar arrived when the Cold War was raging, a gallon of gas cost 25 cents, and the first US passenger jet flights were just beginning. Amid all of this, and with rock ’n’ roll still in its infancy, one of America’s more traditional guitar manufacturers busts out with the most ferocious and thrusting electric design imaginable—a veritable hormone-fueled rocket of pure teen rebellion. Ahead of its time? The Flying V was totally out of its dimension.

Alongside the equally radical Explorer, the Flying V was part of Gibson’s Modernist series of ’58, a two-guitar lineup that exploded all previous notions of what an electric guitar could be. Not only was the Flying V’s shape wildly original, it was also made from solid korina wood (also known as African white limba), a variety that hadn’t been commonly seen in solidbody guitar making before this time, but had been used in Gibson’s Consolette and Skylark Hawaiian steel guitars. A relative of mahogany, korina is a light, fine-grained wood with a slightly golden hue, and excellent resonance and sustain. When crafted into a good design it can make for a rich, singing solidbody guitar with a particularly lively and detailed midrange response. Partnered with a pair of PAF humbuckers, the Flying V and Explorer constituted a force to be reckoned with in the tonal stakes.

Never mind that it’s almost impossible to play a Flying V sitting down (despite the token gesture of a ribbed rubber pad attached to the body’s bottom edge to provide a little traction in your lap). When you strap on one of these bad boys you really need to be standing, pant-legs flapping in the spotlight as a full-stack rages at your back. In order to make that wildly high neck/body joint stable, Gibson used an unusually long neck tenon in a pocket that extends well beyond the neck-pickup route, while saving real estate at the body’s back end by using a stylish “V” bridge plate and through-body stringing into ferules at the rear of the guitar. Combined, these constructional features worked toward a meaty, sustaining response. Filter that through the most revered humbucking pickups ever made, and most original Flying Vs are absolute tone monsters.

Early adopters of the Flying V included Albert King and Lonnie Mack, while Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Dave Davies of the Kinks picked up first-run examples some years after their extinction. Yet it’s no surprise that this outlandish, space-aged guitar was just too much for most musicians of the late ’50s and early ’60s. The original release vanished from the Gibson catalog post-1960, after fewer than 100 had been made. It would be revived later in the decade—and remained a rock staple forever after—but the original korina Flying Vs are among the rarest of rare birds. Gibson’s Custom Shop released a highly regarded 1959 Flying V reissue in the late ’00s, and several other makers have paid homage to the design, but the originals changed the concept of what you could do with a solidbody electric guitar, and confirmed that it could be a sculpture, a statement of intent, and a powerful musical instrument all at the same time.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

> V-shaped body made from solid korina (aka white limba)
> Glued-in korina neck, unbound rosewood fretboard with dot inlays
> ABR-1 “Tune-o-matic” bridge
> “V” tailpiece with through-body stringing
> Gold-plated hardware
> “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickups

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