Tested By Jude Gold
You cut a mean silhouette when you're wearing a Gibson Firebird Studio. While I was holding this dangerous mahogany plank at a recent soundcheck on a big outdoor stage,the late afternoon sun against my back created a magnificent sight: the majestic shadow of a guitarist wielding one of the most radical and distinctive solidbodies in history. Transfixed by the timeless image, I suddenly felt I had joined the Firebird's storied legacy and was following in the footsteps of British Invader Brian Jones, Texas blues pyromaniac Johnny Winter, and modern day grunge king Dave Grohl. Further enhancing my guitar-god aura was the Studio's reverse headstock, which-in conjunction with the guitar's downward pointing Grover tuners-evoked the upside-down Stratocaster vibe of the greatest guitar hero ever, Jimi Hendrix. Of course, my delusions of grandeur came to a harsh, abrupt halt when I remembered I was wearing a tuxedo and about to play a wedding reception. But who better to test such a weapon on than the unsuspecting patrons of matrimony?
I actually piloted the Firebird Studio on a dozen or more gigs-indoors, outdoors, in clubs, in ballrooms, even at a small amphitheater-and each time it was a cinch to get this Bird soaring high above the band. That said, when I first uncased the Studio, it did take a few minutes to attain liftoff. Its strings were tarnished and sooty and needed immediate replacement. And the pickup selector had somehow come loose in shipment and collapsed into the pickguard (a problem easily remedied by reattaching the switch's securing nut). Because an Ebony-finished Studio that Gibson had sent along with the Cherry also had a collapsed switch, I looked to the likely cause-their cases. Sure enough, judging by the significant indentations in the ceilings of these plush coffins, it was evident that the switches had been jammed against the padding, transferring the rumble of the road straight into the assembly. But the rough day for the case wasn't over yet. As I was hoisting it into the car for the first time, one side of its handle ripped out. (For the record, Gibson USA says the cases have been redesigned to solve these problems.)
With an eye-catching shape somewhere between that of a lightning bolt, a shooting star, and a flying amoeba, the Studio's "reverse" body style stays true to the vision of Ray Dietrich, the automobile designer Gibson hired in the early '60s to create the Firebird line of edgy, modern looking solidbodies. Unlike the two-tiered, neck-through Firebirds, the Studio's body is a single thickness, making it one hunky slab of guitar. Fortunately, the tapered, melted-chocolate edges cut down its mass somewhat and allow it to contour nicely against your ribcage.
The Studio's overall length surpasses that of many baritones (not to mention basses), but its neck retains a Les Paul's scale length, ensuring highly bendable strings and comfortable fretting distances, all of which help give the guitar a smooth-as-marble level of playability. As far as improvements over the original, the Studio balances better on your knee because it doesn't have the heavier, widely spaced banjo-style tuners Firebirds are known for. The Studio's mini Grovers-though tricky to adjust for anyone with "steak fries" for fingers-also allow the strings to shoot straight over the nut, thus preventing sideways friction. And some would argue that another improvement is the appointment of two. . .
. . .Humbuckers
Thanks to a pair of heat-packing dual-coils-which, unlike the mini humbuckers of classic Firebirds, feature adjustable polepieces-the Studio roars with mainstream tones, and particularly excels when your preamp is sizzling and your power tubes are starting to grind. I also found that, thanks to its thick body and high-output, alnico-driven pickups, the instrument has a uniquely dark timbre-a lovely, deep tone that took me a few seconds of knob twisting to get used to. The guitar's first gig was backing American Idol finalist LaToya London at a homecoming concert in a plaza in downtown Oakland, California, and it was plugged into a reissue Fender Vibroverb combo. When I finally got the nod to solo, I kicked on a Fulltone Distortion Pro, but a fatter, meatier, and wider-than-expected tone greeted my ears.
Once used to the Studio's bigger tone, though, I quickly learned how to harness its size to my advantage. Gig after gig, this instrument amazed me with its ability to drive lead channels of all types-including those onboard a Marshall JCM 2000 DSL50 and a Fuchs Audio Technology Overdrive Supreme-into the next gain strata. The 100-watt Fuchs head - with towering headroom on its clean side - also demonstrated the Studio's other big strength: its dual humbucker clean tone.
The Studio sings with a fantastically fat and funky voice with both pickups on. In fact, on several gigs using the Fender or Fuchs amps and a Sabine True Mobility wireless system, I'd test the presence of this guitar's rhythm sound by listening to it from the far side of the stage, or even by strolling out into the house mid-song and monitoring the mix from the "cheap seats." It always cut through the band.
The "stripped down" treatment has never worked better on a guitar than on the Firebird. Who needs the multi-ply pickguard, block inlays, neck-through construction, or fretboard binding of the original when you have a shape this edgy and aggressive, and you're firing off tones this rockin'? No guitar evokes both modern and vintage like the Firebird. Gibson USA deserves huge praise-not only for putting the Firebird within financial reach of more guitarists, but for furthering the evolution of one of the most inspired guitar designs in history.