This is such a fun column to write, and I love my work as a guitar-cheologist, but this crazy cut of wood is a cut above the rest. Introduced in 1958, but not commercially issued until the early 1980s, the Gibson Moderne is surrounded by more questions than answers.
If you had this baby in your hands, and plugged it into a fine amp, you would agree there is nothing really wacky about it. It’s a cool, solid-body Gibson through and through. What’s not to like? Sure, it looks something like a hipster’s coffee table in the Jetson’s futuristic home. Originally, it was one of Gibson’s attempts to be less stodgy and more “with it” in 1958, as the Moderne was introduced at that year’s music trade shows along with the Explorer and Flying V. So the weirdo factor is more of a “mystery issue,” as the Moderne had a bit of a fitful history.
According to Ronald Lynn Wood’s book, Moderne: Holy Grail of Vintage Guitars, before Gibson released a new guitar at a convention, they would make up to a dozen differing versions that sales reps would take around to players and music stores for feedback. Here’s what we don’t know about the 1958 Moderne: Did they make a few prototypes, or did they make just the one? If it was just one, does that single model still exist?
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons has claimed that he owns a prototype, but he has never had it authenticated. Vintage expert George Gruhn—who has never seen even one original Moderne come through his amazing store in Nashville—says photos of Gibbons and his Moderne show that it has a traditional Les Paul headstock. According to the original blueprints, the Moderne’s headstock was oddly triangular-shaped with six awkward string guides. My own guitar—which is from the second Moderne run in 2012—has a slightly more conservative and more functional headstock. But neither the ’58-era blueprints or the newer designs show a Les Paul/SG headstock, which makes Gibbons’ vintage model somewhat suspect.
PLAYABILITY & SOUND
This guitar follows the fine tradition of stalwart Gibsons we have come to know and love, but sports a very original look. It sounds great, it’s an absolute joy to play, and it’s comfortable to sling around your shoulder. It doesn’t have a sound all its own, but it’s definitely in the family of great Les Pauls, SGs, Flying Vs, and Explorers—wonderful clean and dirty tones with richness and resonance and sustain for days.
If you have the prototype, congratulations on winning the lottery! In 1958, you probably could have bought it for the same price as an Explorer or Flying V—$258. Models from the long-delayed first run of Modernes in the 1980s are now worth around $3,000 to $5,000. A Moderne from the second run in 2012 can be obtained for under $2,000.
WHY IT RULES
This is one groovy-looking, American-made Gibson that you can buy used for less than your “average” secondhand Les Paul Standard. And, despite its shape and size, it’s about as light as an SG at only 7.5 lbs. It looks great, sounds great, plays great, and feels great. It’s simply a great guitar.
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org photos of your rare weirdos.