Gibson Firebirds

Inverness Green 1964 Firebird I . 1965 Aztec Bronze III.
A Firebird I in Inverness Green, like this ’64 version, is rare. Add the Maestro vibrato and it’s even more so. A 1965 Firebird II in Aztec Bronze.

Say the words “custom color” to a collector or enthusiast and most will think of “Fender.” But Gibson had its own multicolored baby – the Firebird. Born in 1963 and put to rest in ’69, the Firebird was Gibson’s third full-line attempt at the solidbody market. While it did not do as well as the Les Paul or its younger brother, the SG, it was available in more variations.

While thought by some to be the poor cousin to the late-‘50s Explorer, the differences are greater than the similarities. From ’63 to ’65, it was produced in the “reverse” style, with four variations – the I, III, V, and VI. Common to all were the body shape, neck-through construction, mahogany body, mini-humbuckers, and banjo tuners. The earliest production runs did not have the distinctive logo on the pickguard.

The I and III came with an unbound rosewood neck and dot markers; the I had a single mini-humbucker pickup; the III had two pickups. A combination compensated bridge/tailpiece like that on the Les Paul Junior was standart on the I, and the III had a flat-blade vibrato with the same combination bridge as the I.

Moving upscale was the more deluxe V, which had a bound neck with trapezoid position markers and the deluxe vibrato – the same as available on the III, but with an extended trapezoidal-shaped casing. The bridge was a Tune-O-Matic. The VII was the Coupe DeVille of the ’birds. With white-pearl block inlays on a bund ebony fingerboard, three pickups, and gold-plated hardware, this guitar was no flipped-over Strat, but a real contender in the guitar wars of the early ‘60s.

The line was economically priced with a I being sold for $189.50 and the VII for $445. For those looking for something a little more special, an extra $150 would get you a Duco finished custom color. “Six new solidbody guitars and 10 exciting custom colors,” boasts the cover of the 1963 Firebird/Thunderbird catalog. And just what were those colors? Polaris White, Forst Blue, Ember Red, Inverness Green Poly, Silver Mist Poly, Kerry Green, Gold Mist Poly, Pelham Blue Poly, Heather Poly, and Cardinal Red.

1965 Sunburst with gold hardware. A 1964 Cardinal Red V
A ’65 Firebird VII in sunburst and a ’64 V in Cardinal Red.

The most common colors are Pelham Blue, Cardinal Red, and Polaris Whtie. The least-seen would have to be Silver Mist Poly, Heather Poly, and Kerry Green. Black is common among other Gibsons but it’s highly disputed in the Firebird line. Why Gibson would not produce a Black ‘bird after finishing other models in black is ponderable.

Our examples carry two of the standard custom colors, the 1964 Inverness Green I and the 1964 Cardinal Red V. The 1965 II finished in Aztec Bronze is a rare find; the color is more commonly associated with the Epiphone line. The 1965 VII has the sunburst finish most often seen on Firebirds. The translucent cherry finish found on SGs is also commonly found on Firebirds.

The Firebird has seen duty with a very eclectic group of players: Steve Winwood in his Traffic days, Johnny Winter with his sunburst V, Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera with a Cardinal Red VII, and Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi from the Four Seasons (shown on the cover of The Four Seasons Entertain You holding a Sunburst VII and II, respectively). Even the Stones’ Brian Jones and Keith Richard have played them.

The original “reverse” Firebirds are a rare breed. As with many guitars at the time of their production, they weren’t overly accepted, but as time passed their true appeal has taken flight.

This article originally appeared in VG Classics #01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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