Gibson Looks to the Future

Gibson's top brass tells GP about how the storied company is investing in improving the quality of its guitars, and how it plans on moving into 2020 and beyond.
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The Eric Clapton 1964 Firebird I, Gibson’s re-creation of the guitarist’s long-lost instrument.

The Eric Clapton 1964 Firebird I, Gibson’s re-creation of the guitarist’s long-lost instrument.

This has been a landmark year for Gibson as the company moves forward under new leadership to rebuild its business and reclaim its place as one of the most revered brands in guitar history. Gibson was clearly on a roll at the Winter NAMM show last January, where scads of models were on display in a huge space filled with dealers, music store owners and guitar fans. The recent Summer NAMM show in Gibson’s hometown of Nashville witnessed more of the same, with the launch of the G-45 series acoustics, the Strings Collection and new signature models for Sheryl Crow, Vivian Campbell and Paul McCartney guitarist Brian Ray

Those guitars join tributes to Slash, with an exacting replica of his 1966 Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck, a re-creation of Eric Clapton’s long-lost 1964 Firebird I and the limited-edition Custom Shop Gold Rush Axcess Les Paul made for Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

At the core of these dazzling rollouts is a renewed appreciation among the management and employees for the history of Gibson and the immense impact it has had on stringed-instrument design since the early 20th century. This revived spirit is due to changes brought about by Gibson’s new CEO, James “JC” Curleigh, and Cesar Gueikian, chief merchant officer of Gibson Brands.

“Starting with Orville Gibson and continuing into the 1920s and up through the ’60s, there was clearly a spirit of innovation at Gibson,” Gueikian says. “And as we looked back to our golden era - particularly to acoustic guitars dating back to the ’20s and ’30s with the Advanced Jumbo, and the innovations that happened with the J-45 and the J-200 - we sought to impose on ourselves the level of discipline and challenge that Oroville and Lloyd Loar and Ted McCarty left us, and see how we can apply modern-day manufacturing practices that maintain that legacy of craftsmanship.

“A good example is the new G-45. It’s made by the same people in Bozeman, Montana, that make our J-200, yet the G-45s are priced at $1,000 and $1,300 respectively for the Studio and the Standard versions. I think it’s a pretty revolutionary product in an industry where there is no other U.S.-made guitar offered at that price point.

“And there’s more coming for acoustics. We’re going to be showcasing a lot of new guitars and new directions for our acoustic architecture starting next year. This also includes the new Strings Collection. We weren’t offering the same strings that we were using at our factories, which were developed by our master luthiers, so it was an easy decision to start giving our fans the ability to buy the same strings that they loved when they bought their Gibson electric or acoustic guitar. We developed all these American-made strings in-house with our luthiers, and we feel they are the best that can be paired with any of our guitars.”

You recently launched new models for Sheryl Crow, Brian Ray, Vivian Campbell, Eric Clapton and Slash. What was the reasoning behind those projects?

These artists represent very different styles and musical genres, and each one of them is an icon. They are amazing people to work with, which is a high priority for us, and it’s a way of celebrating their careers and how they have influenced generations of people to pick up a guitar and play. We’re working with a lot of artists whose models will be coming out over the next three years, and we chose each of them for the same reason - because they have an influence on people’s decision to play guitar.

Can you give us some specifics on the guitars themselves, starting with the Sheryl Crow Country Western Supreme?

The Country Western model is very significant for her, so we wanted to make a really special version of it. Sheryl’s got a new album and is going on tour, so it was good timing as well. Being a Supreme edition of the Country Western, it’s got a thermally aged spruce top on a mahogany body, along with very distinctive mother-of-pearl parallelogram inlays. It also has a Trance Audio system, which is a really high-end pickup that Sheryl favors because it has a very crisp and immaculate sound.

How about the Brian Ray ’62 SG Junior?

This model incorporates his two loves: SG Juniors and the ebony block tailpiece, which was only seen in 1962. We had to re-engineer that for him, which was a challenge, and he also wanted to incorporate an induction coil, which is mounted under the pickguard and acts essentially as a humbucker for the P-90. The TV Pearl White finish [Gibson now calls it White Fox] is a first for us at the custom shop, and the guitar also has a Maestro Short Vibrola tailpiece. It’s all very unique and very Brian, and it blends everything he loves about SGs into one.

Of all these signature models, the Epiphone Holy Diver is certainly the most accessible for the majority of players.

It’s a tribute to the Les Paul that Vivian Campbell used with Dio, and Epiphone’s interpretation has the modifications that he originally made to it, including the DiMarzio X2-N open-coil humbuckers, the aged black finish and the brass knobs and nut. We actually got our hands on his guitar, and we scanned and blueprinted it and did all the work to make sure that it was the best that we could make. Vivian was very involved.

How did you create a replica of the Firebird I that Eric Clapton no longer owns?

We had to work on the basis of all the photographs for this one, because weren’t able to track down the current owner of the guitar. Eric wanted to do something special for the 2019 Crossroads Festival, and we picked the Firebird I that he is seen with in many photographs. He told us that he remembered one night in particular with his Firebird at a Cream show in Philadelphia, and he recalled it as one of the greatest gigs he ever played. So, based on all the information that we were able to gather from the photos, we built one and sent it to Eric, and he told us that it felt exactly like his original. 

A Pivot To Collaboration

These and other new models aren’t the only changes taking place at Gibson. The company recently adopted a less combative stance with other guitar makers who have been inspired by its designs.

Gibson has entered into multi-year agreements with (so far) Jimmy Wallace Guitars, Banker Custom Guitars and Echopark Guitars, and will give these boutique makers license to use key Gibson trademarks, including the body shapes of the Les Paul, Explorer, ES-335, Firebird and Flying V. Gibson even promises to promote these efforts, which is a sea change indeed for a company that once launched a high-profile lawsuit against Paul Reed Smith guitars for trademark infringement over its Singlecut model that debuted in 1998.

“Gibson had a legacy of being confrontational in a few areas, and I think the new world order is making that pivot to collaboration,” JC Curleigh says. A guitar player turned entrepreneur, Curleigh played a key role in the revitalization of apparel icon Levi’s and helped steer Portland, Oregon–based footwear company Keen to worldwide prominence. “We can see it happening across multiple industries where collaboration is kind of the new norm. There are a lot of really interesting boutique guitar guys that sometimes will use a shape that’s a Gibson design. We decided that, instead of trying to reconcile it, why don’t we just collaborate with some of these folks and see what happens? We should all be encouraging more people to play guitar.”

The company is also working with the accessories company Thalia, which makes Gibson-branded wooden phone cases, and launched a collaboration with apparel-maker Aviator Nation, an L.A.-based 1970s-inspired lifestyle brand. “It’s new territory for Gibson,” Curleigh says, “but the early indicators are that everyone’s winning with it.”

The takeaway here is that Curleigh and his team’s multifaceted objectives will allow Gibson to reclaim its place as an icon of U.S. guitar manufacturing. “I want to get back to the original DNA that made Gibson famous in the first place,” Curleigh explains. “So the emphasis is on our ’50s and ’60s guitars - what we’re calling our Original Collection - along with significant investment to improve the quality of our guitars. My focus is on amazing guitars and a vision around being the most relevant, the most played and the most-loved guitar brand again.”