Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Gibson Firebird and The Gibson Thunderbird

A couple of nights ago I watched a television show that recounted the history of The Packard Automobile Company. Packard’s were still around when I was a kid. Many models, especially the early ones, were big, luxury sedans with V-12 engines, competing with Cadillac and Lincoln.

One of the designers from Packard was a fellow named Ray Dietrich. He also designed automobiles for Chrysler.  In the early 1960’s Gibson Musical Instruments hired him to design a guitar. The 1960’s was a decade of innovation.

This was an era when several countries around the world were competing to be the first to put a man into outer space. The news of the day was about rockets, satellites, and jet airplane development.

Many products reflected this cultural focus of modern flight. Manufactured decked out automobiles with tail fins, as if they could fly. Marketing of all products was ensued with space-age names, and guitars were no exception.

In 1963, Mr. Dietrich designed the Gibson Firebird models with their reversed, zigzag body and upside-down headstock to resemble the automobile tail fins of the day.

It was a toned-down version of the Gibson Explorer, but the Firebird and subsequent Thunderbird were unique instruments. Gibson’s aim in designing the Firebird was to come up with a radical looking instrument that would have consumer appeal.

The company’s first attempt with the Explorer and Flying V looked great, but did not sell. Ironically, it was Ted McCarty, who designed the V and Explorer.  McCarty was the one who hired Ray Dietrich.

The original models are known as reverse Firebirds, since the body’s treble horn is longer than the bass horn. Dietrich used the Explorer as a basis, but rounded the guitars edges into a more appealing shape.

Perhaps the most radical part of the design was the neck, which ran the length of the body. In looking at the instrument, the neck appears to be built like a boat paddle with wings added on to each side.

The neck was manufactured with nine plies of wood. Mahogany and walnut were interspersed to give the neck the strength it needed since the neck was longer than other solid body guitars.

To accommodate tuning the guitar, Gibson decided to use banjo tuners instead of guitar keys.

The headstock loosely resembled an elongated Fender, 6 on a side, headstock, except the Firebird headstock was upside-down. The headstock and body design caused friction between Fender and Gibson.

Fender saw the Firebird as an upside-down Jaguar/Jazzmaster. Fender filed a patent infringement lawsuit.

The Firebird models were distinguished by Roman numerals:
Firebird I – one bridge pickup – stud/bridge tailpiece = chrome hardware – dot neck without binding.
Firebird III – two pickups – stud/bridge tailpiece and Gibson Vibrola tremolo bar – chrome hardware dot neck with neck binding.
Firebird V – two pickups – tune o matic bridge with Maestro Lyre Vibrola bar – chrome hardware – trapezoidal position markers with neck binding.
Firebird VII – three pickups – tune o matic bridge with Maestro Lyre Vibrola bar – gold plated hardware – block position markers with neck binding.

The original Firebirds utilized mini-humbucking pickups with non-exposed pole pieces.

In 1965, Gibson not only did not see the sales they wanted from the Firebird, plus their competitor was suing them. This resulted in Gibson implementing a design change.

Essentially, they turned the body upside-down, and made a few modification, creating the Non-Reverse Firebird. Gone was the neck-through construction. It was replaced with a glued in neck. The body’s horns were not as pronounced.

'65 Non Reverse Firebird
The upper horn was now longer than the treble horn. The headstock was now right side up with traditional Gibson tuners. Pickup configurations experienced a slight change. Models V and VII remained the same, however models I and III now had two or three P-90 pickups instead of mini-humbuckers and both were equiped with standard vibratos.

Gibson discontinued manufacturing the non-reverse Firebird in 1969. In 1972, the Reverse model was revived and manufactured until 1979.

2002 Gibson Firebird
Since 2002, the Firebird has been manufactured by Gibson’s Custom Shop and under their Epiphone brand. The pickups on both models have since been modified.

1964 Thunderbird Bass
During the same era the Firebird models came into being, Gibson produced a similarly shaped bass guitar called the Thunderbird. There were two different models produced.

Unlike prior Gibson bass guitars, both Thunderbirds sported a 34” long scale neck similar to Fender basses. The Reverse model existed until 1966. At that time Gibson created the Non-reverse models for the same reason, they switched their design of the Firebird.

The Thunderbird production ended in 1969. In 1976, it was revived as the Bicentennial model and was produced through 1979. Production was started up again in 1987 and has been available under the Gibson or Epiphone logos ever since.

Thunderbird II – one bridge pickup – chrome bridge – chrome string stop – unbound dot neck – volume and tone control.

Thunderbird IV – two pickups with one at the body’s center and one close to the bridge. Both pickups were covered by chrome hand rests – unbound dot neck –two control knobs – later version had two volume knobs and a single tone knob.

Although the bass’s headstock was reversed, however the four tuning keys were mounted on the top of the headstock.

Here is an interesting note about the Reverse Thunderbird. John Entwistle, of the Who, loved the Thunderbird design but hated the neck.

Due to the length of both the guitar and especially the bass, considering both had an extended headstock, if the instrument fell off a stand, the headstock broke off.

Entwistle solved this problem by creating what he called Fenderbirds. He had luthiers design a body similar to the Gibson Non Reverse Thunderbird, but it contained a pocket in the section where the neck joins the body that was fitted with a Fender Precision bass neck.

Entwistle was known to play both Reverse and Non-Reverse model Gibsons.
© UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Mr Noble said...

non-reverse Firebird <-- looks like fender jazzmaster with short horns

Anonymous said...

Production model Firebirds are made at the Gibson USA factory in Nashville. Only signature models ar produced at the Custom Shop.

Anonymous said...

very informative...thanks.

Erin D said...

Great job on a run down of the history of these. Love my Thunderbird.

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