In the ’60s, Gibson strived mightily to meet the demands of players of all levels while also working to maintain its image as industry leader. One of its primary attempts at the latter involved the Firebird guitars and Thunderbird basses introduced in ’63. Marked by innovative neck-through construction, unique features and looks, the Thunderbird’s full-size scale (a first for a Gibson bass), and a coinciding push of Gibson’s new custom-color finishes, one would think the story of the ’Birds would include the phrase “gloriously successful.” But one would be wrong! The truth is, as with so many models, neither instrument was a runaway success.
Maybe they were too unique or too fancy for the era, but for whatever reason, midway into 1965 – the models’ third year – Gibson implemented dramatic revisions; gone was the funky “reverse” body shape, replaced with a more-conventional silhouette. The headstock of the Firebird acquired standard tuners in place of its rear-projecting/banjo-style machines, and its pickups, pickup layout, and pickup selector were changed from a standard toggle to a slider switch. Both models were given more-traditional glued-in necks and unbound fingerboards, and dot markers. The Firebird was given a side-pull vibrato tailpiece, validating the notion Gibson was pursuing cost-savings in its manufacture.
The Thunderbird’s electronics, hardware, and layout were left unchanged in the transition. The single-pickup Thunderbird II kept its Volume and Tone controls, while the two-pickup Thunderbird IV still had two Volume controls and a master Tone (with no toggle). Control layout changed slightly from three evenly spaced knobs to a slight space between the two Volume knobs and the Tone on the non-reverse variant.
For all of their ho-hum aesthetics compared to the original, the ergonomics of non-reverse versions make both guitar and bass more balanced and comfortable, because the weight of the larger body quadrant housing the controls tends to place the neck in a more-upright position when strapped on.
The non-reverse versions have always had their fans. In the ’70s heyday of Roxy Music, guitarist Phil Manzanera gigged with reverse and modified non-reverse Firebirds fitted with full-size humbucking pickups. More recently, Warren Haynes has used newer non-reverse Firebirds onstage with Gov’t Mule. Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson (1952-2001) often staged a non-reverse Thunderbird.
Noted guitar authority and author Tom Wheeler once compared the original Firebirds and Thunderbirds to Errol Flynn in terms of their aesthetic appeal, while pronouncing the non-reverse versions the fretted-instrument equivalent of Elmer Fudd. Most collectors agree with (and laugh at!) the assessment. But for some, the non-reverse versions are nonetheless a comfortable, easy-to-play collectible.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.