Gibson Guitars

The Experimental '70s
The Experimental '70s

That guitar collectors are a conservative lot has always struck me as curious. You’d think that the instrument which “killed fascists,” in the immortal Woody Guthrie’s phrase, would inspire a more progressive attitude, at the very least. But no, most folks would like a ’50s Les Paul. Who could blame them? But some of us may question whether or not there’s thousands of dollars worth of pleasure in these guitars, especially when, for that amount of money you can have ten, twenty, even more guitars which are pretty interesting.

Even maybe especially other Gibsons. Particularly if they’re one of those fascinating, often slightly goofy guitars of Gibson’s experimental ’70s.

A Tradition of Innovation
Even though the name “Gibson” brings sweet visions of Super 400s, sunburst Southern Jumbos, Goldtop Les Pauls and Reverse Firebirds dancing into our heads (all now solid, conservative, collectible investments, and justifiably so), the former Kompany from Kalamazoo has a remarkable history of innovative thinking and risk-taking that’s too often ignored in the rush for the obvious. Indeed, you can trace this progressive tradition back to Orville Gibson himself, if you want. His practice of carving the sides of his guitars out of solid chunks of maple (rather than bending boards in the time-honored manner) was pretty radical in its own somewhat impractical way.

But when you think of the spirit of innovation, the Gibson period that pops into the mind is the much-maligned 1970s, an era which many collectors view as a time when the guitarmaker was floundering without a clear, coherent direction.

Perhaps, as the ’70s are now fast receding into the past, it might be fun to look a little more closely at some of the Gibson Whimsies of the Me Decade which are pretty interesting, often significant side streets along the highway of guitar progress.

The Les Paul Recording
Curiously enough, Gibson got right out of the decade gate with one of it’s odder creations, 1971’s Les Paul Recording, never one of the most popular Les Pauls (although exceeding The Paul Firebrand!), undoubtedly due to its engineering complexity.

The story of the Les Paul Recording Guitar (and its companion, the Triumph Bass) actually begins in 1969 with Les Paul, who had apparently overcome his disaffection with Gibson over the switch from the real Les Paul to the SG back in 1961. It was in ’69 that Gibson debuted the Les Paul Personal, an LP with a slightly larger body and low impedance pickups to yield quieter recording than with the typically noisy high impedance pickups everyone wants for driving an amp crazy in a live situation. The Personal, following Paul’s preference for mounting his mic on the guitar, had a mic input and volume control, as well! This was followed quickly that same year by the Les Paul Professional, also with low Z pickups and a bunch of electronic switches. These two were both designed for use with the Les Paul LP-12 amplifier, which had both low and high Z (Z=impedance) inputs. A special transformer chord is needed to play these through a regular guitar amp. These same low impedance pickups also appeared later on the early, more desirable L-5S, by the way.

In 1971 the true Les Paul Recording/Triumph Bass appeared, with electronics similar to the Professional but with the transformer built in so you could play the guitar through any amp you choose. As you might expect in a design from Guitardom’s original Gizmo King, the LP Recording was conceived with the professional studio musician in mind. The basic idea was to give the guitarist a choice of low Z output for going direct into the board or high Z output for driving an amp. For tonal flexibility to avoid having to carry a bunch of guitars to a session the LPR let you play in- or out-of-phase. It also had what amounted to onboard EQ with separate bass and treble controls coupled with an eleven-position “Decade” switch (I guess they couldn’t figure out the Latin for “eleven;” neither can I, so I’m not throwing stones) with different capacitors to pass through varying frequency ranges.

A decade of sound
If you are already beginning to short out on following this, it’s even worse when you get into the mechanics of using this otherwise pretty impressive flexibility. Not only does this guitar have two sliding switches for low/high Z and in-/out-of-phase, a threeway toggle select, master volume pot, bass tone pot, treble tone pot, and Decade tone selector, it also has a three-position tone switch. In a fun tradition that goes back to some of those bizarre switch combinations to be found on ’60s German Framus guitars, the available possible functions are dependent on where you have all of these switches set. In other words, there are a couple of switch settings in which not all controls work, but, there are others in which everything does something. The only thing the LPR lacked was a little collapsible holder so you could mount the manual in front of you to figure out how to get the sound you wanted…

For those of you lucky enough to own one of these but unlucky enough to not have the manual, here are a few standard recommended settings from a 1971 manual (if there’s not setting indicated, it either means that the switch doesn’t affect that combination, or that the editor left something out):

Other than these ultra-complex electronics (they work fine, by the way, if you eventually figure them out), the LPR was a nicely made, if somewhat homely, Les Paul. The body was three-piece mahogany with a b/w/b/w-bound, clear-finished carved mahogany cap that’s usually stained in a “walnut” finish. The neck was three-piece Honduras mahogany with a bound Custom-style inlaid headstock (5-piece split diamond) and a b/w-bound rosewood fingerboard with small pearl block inlays (smaller than a Custom). The fingerboard on the guitar (not the Triumph bass) was angled at the body (like on a Mosrite) to match the angled pickup with a partial 22nd fret on the treble side. Hardware was usually chrome with a stop-tail and Tune-O-Matic bridge. The LPR had a small elevated pickguard plus a second control panel (with jack) covering the lower bass bout. The Triumph did not have the elevated pickguard.

The LPR remained in the catalog until 1980, although 1973 was apparently the Big Year, with 1759 being shipped, while only 180 went out the door in 1978. 5302 LPRs were shipped between 1971-78, so, while not the rarest of Les Pauls, it isn’t the most common, either. In 1973, for example, there were more Les Paul Customs shipped than the total number of LPRs ever made. In 1975 the LPR was offered in a white finish, and in 1978 black and cherry sunbursts were added.

While it’s true Les Paul Recordings lack some of the noisy, rip-roaring rock fire associated with its high impedance brothers, they are quite versatile and they are, indeed, Les Pauls.

A Laurentian Trio
About mid-decade Gibson came up with a trio of pieces which have been slow to catch on with collectors, but which have considerable intrinsic interest because of their connection with one of the great names in guitar mythology, pickup maven Bill Lawrence (a.k.a. Billy Lorento of German Framus fame).

The L6-S: Bill Lawrence and Carlos Santana
The first was the L6-S, which received its first notice in Guitar Player in February of 1974, a sort of wide, unbound, contoured maple-bodied, glued-neck variant on the Les Paul. Even though quite a few of these guitars were shipped, carrying the endorsement of Carlos Santana (who endorsed the guitar in Guitar Player ads beginning in January of 1975), they’re not usually regarded today as an “el Success.”

What’s cool about the L6-S, however, is that this was the guitar for which Bill Lawrence developed the very high output Super Humbucker, at the time the hottest pickup ever. Introduced in 1973 and discontinued in 1980, the L6-S had a two-octave neck joining the body at the 18th fret. There were basically two models, the L6-S (redubbed the L6-S Custom in 1975) and the L6-S Deluxe, a downscale model that debuted in 1975.

The original L6-S had the two Lawrence Super Humbuckers (epoxy potted, non-adjustable poles), one volume and two tone pots, and a six-position rotary pickup selector control mounted on a black pickguard, which offered a bunch of different tonal colors. They featured the larger rectangular Tune-O-Matic bridge and a stop-tail. Natural finished ones had a separate maple ‘board, the tobacco ‘burst had an ebony board, both with small abalone block inlays. In ’75, when the name changed to Custom, the block inlays became abalone dots (as seen on the ’75 example here).

The L6-S Deluxe was a dot-neck version with a standard threeway pickup selector and strings passing through a diagonal line of holes in the body to ferules in the back.

The L6-S is a nice guitar to play, although it’s not hard to see why both players and collectors prefer the fancier appointments of the Les Paul. The pickups are indeed quite hot, although in a post-Dimarzio world, probably not as impressive as they were several decades ago. They do jump alive when you plug in. The rotary switch is fun, too, but, like, you have to memorize a totally different way to select pickups, which is a bit radical. Let’s just say that it’s not uncommon to find these suckers with the rotary switch yanked out and a threeway toggle installed, even though that violates the original idea of tonal flexibility.

The positions available on the rotary are: 1=both p.u. in series in phase; 2=neck p.u. only; 3=both parallel in phase; 4=both parallel out-of-phase; 5=bridge only; 6=both in series out-of-phase. The L6-S had a master volume and two tone controls which are wired in such a way that both tones affect the output. The front tone pot has an .02 mf capacitor, while the back has an .01 mf cap, yielding considerable additional tonal flexibility.

While the L6-S isn’t exactly the most handsome guitar ever made, it occupies an interesting place in electric guitar history and certainly does provide a lot of neat sounds. And hey, any guitar Carlos liked to play has to have something going for it!

Approximating the Fender Sound (and feel)
The other two guitars with Laurentian connections Lawrence designed pickups and circuitry were the Marauder and its companion the S-1. Both of these were very atypical and fairly unsuccessful excursions into Fender territory with gulp bolt-on necks (which probably accounts for their lack of acceptance by Gibson fans). Both were unbound, contoured Les Paul-shaped single-cuts with alder bodies and maple necks with triangular, Flying-V-style headstocks. Both aimed at achieving a glassier, Fenderish sort of sound.

The Marauder: on a Sliding Scale
The Marauder was the first to appear in January of 1975, with the first ad showing up in the June Guitar Player. It had two colorful epoxy potted Lawrence pickups, a Super Humbucker at the neck and a blade single-coil at the bridge (the configuration that the contemporary S.D.Curlee guitars reacted against). These pickups (like those on the S-1) featured clear epoxy and colored wire insulation. On the one shown here, the front pickup has red wire, the back has green.

Initially, the Marauder had a traditional Gibson threeway switching arrangement, which was subsequently replaced by a more novel approach. This new switching system is what distinguishes this nifty guitar, using a “blender” rotary switch which lets you mix a continuum of tone from front to back pickups. Initially this blender was located in place of the threeway toggle on the right horn, but was later relocated to between the volume and tone controls.

With this system, you don’t get the traditional front/combined/back arrangement. Instead, you’re kind of shifting the tonal focus from front to back, or vice versa, on a continuous line. These pickups are extraordinarily quiet, by the way, and the sounds you get are, again, closer to Fender than Gibson, although they are, indeed, quite distinctive.

Marauders originally appeared with unbound rosewood ‘boards with dot inlays. In the middle of 1975, the original Marauder was joined by its upscale sibling, the Marauder Custom with a bound fingerboard and block inlays, which lasted until 1977. In 1978, the maple ‘board was made (as on the example shown, which also has an unusual black-lacquered neck), as well as a few regular Marauders with threeway toggles. Indeed, it’s not clear how many had the interesting switching system, and there may have been more Marauders produced with the typical threeway select than otherwise.

Even though the Marauder never completely rocked the guitar world, at least for awhile it rocked Kiss, with the endorsement of Paul Stanley, who was featured promoting the guitar in Guitar Player ads beginning in August of 1976.

The Marauder went the way of all flesh in 1980.

The S-1
The S-1, introduced in 1976, could easily be taken for the econo model of the Marauder line, but, indeed, this is a different guitar altogether. The first ads in Guitar Player in May of 1976 sporting an endorsement by Ronnie Wood. The S-1 was a bolt-neck Les Paul like the Marauder (pretty much the same physical axe), but it had three single coil pickups. Aesthetically speaking, these are also ultra-cool, with the coils wound with wire covered with bright red insulation visible through clear cast epoxy. Lawrence himself once described this as “one large three-coil pickup,” rather than three individual pickups.

The switching system was again novel, with a two-way toggle select combined with a four-position rotary selector. Early versions of the S-1 were then switched as follows. Flip the toggle down and get the lead coil only. Flip the toggle up and it activates the rotary: position 1 = neck and middle coils in humbucking mode; 2 = bridge and middle humbucking; 3 = bridge, middle and neck coils humbucking; 4 = bridge and neck coils out-of-phase). These then go through one volume and one tone control.

Later versions of the S-1 altered the rotary positions so that position 1 = neck pickup alone; 2 = bridge and middle pickups.

The groovy thing about the S-1 is that the tones on the rotary switch are all those funky, glassy Strat-type sounds. If you’re looking for a meaty econo-Les Paul clone, pass on by and pick up The Paul. But if you appreciate a nice solid feel and a distinctive sound with its own voice, pick up an S-1.

Fundamentally, the L6-S, Marauder and S-1 were pretty interesting guitars, and worth collecting for the Lawrence connection alone, if not for their cleverness. However, I suspect it was that very cleverness requiring new thinking about pickup switching that ultimately was their undoing. Of the three, the L6-S was probably the most popular, but the bolt-neck Marauder and S-1 were bombolas. It’s curious to note in that regard that Fender has never done well with glued-neck guitars, while Gibson has never done really well with a bolt-neck…

The RD Artist
Some time ago when the Gibson M-III was introduced to much fanfare, a lot of people could be overheard expressing awe at the possibilities of the switching system. But, as we’ve seen, this is only the latest example of Gibson’s long infatuation with complex switches. While the Les Paul Recording remains my personal favorite, it’s followed quickly by the often insulted RD Artist, occasionally referred to as the “Research & Development” Artist.
The RD line was originally conceived in 1975, officially introduced in 1977 and ultimately discontinued in 1982. The RD series was essentially Gibson’s response to the emerging success of companies like Alembic and B.C. Rich, which specialized in lots of switches with fancy electronic options. It’s curious to note that a Norlin subsidiary, the distributor L.D. Heater, of Portland, OR, handled B.C. Rich as well as Gibson guitars in the early ’70s. Early B.C. Riches used Gibson humbuckers obtained through L.D. Heater until Gibson found out. B.C. Rich switched to Guild and then DiMarzio pickups and took over its own distribution shortly thereafter. Maybe the RD was Gibson’s revenge?…

To execute this design, Gibson employed Robert Moog, of Moog synthesizer fame, and the man behind the last mach of the Gibson Maestro effects of that very same era.

The RD series was, admittedly, a little demented. First of all, its shape is sort of a retread Reverse Firebird, maybe the offspring of mating with a Guild Thunderbird (one which unfortunately didn’t inherit the built-in stand!). The maple body is comfortably contoured, though, and the neck solidly glued on for an overall pretty nice feeling guitar, sort of like an SG. Put a pillowcase over the body and you can get down with this baby.

RD 77: Standard, Custom and Artist
The RD series originally came in three models, the Standard, Custom and Artist, all called the RD 77 (for 1977, geddit?). All had an atypical 251/2″ scale.

The RD Standard was basically a two-humbucker gitter with an unbound rosewood fingerboard, dot inlays and no active circuitry. Hardware was nickel plated, with a finetune bridge, stop tailpiece and Schaller tuners. Pickups were two Gibson Series VI humbuckers, with two volume and two tone controls and a threeway select.

The RD Custom was similar to the Standard except it had a maple fingerboard with abalone dot inlays (much like some L6-Ss). Pickups were Gibson Series VI humbuckers with a threeway select, two volume controls, and separate treble and bass tone controls. The RD Custom also had a second large toggle switch that activated a built-in preamp circuit run on a 9-volt battery.

The RD Artist was the top-of-the-line, with an unbound ebony fingerboard (the catalog said bound ‘board, but most if not all were not bound), block inlays, gold hardware, fancy bound pearl inlaid headstock and more comprehensive active features activated by a second large toggle switch. Pickups were two Gibson Series VI humbuckers with a threeway select, two volume controls, individual treble and bass tone controls, and a built-in preamp circuit with compression/expansion and bright/lead functions.

Also appearing in 1977 were the RD Standard and RD Artist basses, both with 341/2″ scale. The Standard bass had a maple fingerboard with dot inlays, nickel plated hardware and two passive Gibson Series IV humbuckers with a threeway select, two volume and one tone controls. The Artist was the same cosmetically, but had two Gibson Series V humbuckers, two volume controls, individual treble and bass controls, threeway select, and a second large threeway toggle that activated a preamp circuit identical to the Artist guitar.

Unfortunately, Moog and Gibson didn’t just settle for a simple preamp switch like the B.C. Rich. Instead, we get another complex switching system on the Artist models. Here’s the skinny; bear with me.

The three-way pickup select and individual treble and bass tone controls are pretty clear and a very nice feature on any guitar. In the center position, the second threeway toggle switch is in neutral, making the guitar active but without the special circuits. In the forward position, the switch activates a bright/lead function which accentuates the treble frequencies. This works for both pickups.

In the back position, the active switch turns on a compression/expansion circuit. The compression function operates on the neck pickup only and reduces the fundamental attack time and “compresses” each note into a longer sustaining signal. In this mode, the output remains stable no matter how hard you play.

The expansion function (we haven’t moved the second toggle yet) operates on the bridge pickup only and “permits the player to play harder and louder without the note collapsing. Expansion offers a very fast, explosive response with a rapid decay,” says the Gibson literature.

Of course, either function works in the middle pickup selector position, too.

But Wait, There’s More…
If it were just this easy, it’d be easy to see why guitar folks didn’t warm to the RD. But, there’s also the matter of the tone pots, which are really notched filters. 0 is in the center and flat out. 0-5 clockwise gives you bass boost on the front pot, treble boost on the back pot; 0-5 counter-clockwise cuts bass/treble respectively. In other words, you have an EQ system with the tone pots combined with the active options. Got it? So, you can boost the bass to clockwise 5, cut the treble to counter-clockwise 4, with the active selector in the middle, cut the bridge pickup volume to 8, then throw the active switch forward to the bright mode and get…oh, never mind. Where’s my Les Paul?

RD Artist 79
The long-scale RD77 series was available in toto until 1979, when the more typical Gibson shorter scale RD Artist 79 was introduced. Except for the RD77 Artist, which was still available on a custom-order basis, the RD79s replaced the RD77s at this time.

The RD Artist 79 basically was a shorter scale version of the old RD 77 Artist with improved active Artist electronics. The older compression/expansion and bright/lead functions were split off into two mini-toggles instead of relying on one threeway toggle. Much simpler to figure out, although still requiring an engineering degree. The RD Artist 79 had a bound ebony fingerboard with block inlays, the fancy headstock, a TP-6 tailpiece and a 243/4″ scale.

In 1979 the RD Artist Bass replaced the older RD Standard and RD Artist basses. In 1980 or so a 6-string bass version was made, in very small numbers, perhaps only as prototypes.

Although they disappear from 1982 price lists, the RD Artist/79 and /77 were still listed in the 1983 Gibson catalog, essentially the same guitar with the addition of those nifty little built-in tuner cranks. Deciphering the purple-prose description in the catalog is a bit tough. It appears that the two volume pots “act as expansion or compression intensifiers (front pickup compression back pickup expansion).” This sounds as though they function as sort of presence controls when in the compression/expansion mode. Fortunately, on the earlier RD the volume pots just control the volume, but then again, that may just be what Gibson’s copywriter was saying in ’83…

Artist Actives and Out
After the RD Series proved quite unsuccessful, the active circuitry was put into a few Les Pauls and ES-335s, promoted as “the Active Sound of the 80s” in around 1980. Among these were the RD Artist Active, the ES Artist Active and the Les Paul Artist Active. The RD appeared to be the old RD 79. The ES and Les Paul Artist both had three mini-toggles. In a look reminiscent of the old Gretsches, the ES had dot markers inlaid along the top edge of the fingerboard. All had the TP-6 tailpieces and gold hardware. But, alas, these, too, headed straight for the guitar graveyard.

Still, you’ve got to admire the chutzpa of these guitars, and, despite their complexity, RDs play well and still represent a pretty good bargain for what was once a high-end Gibson guitar.

The Mark Acoustics
During the ’70s, one of the big buzzes in the guitar press was the work of Michael Kasha, a physics Ph.D. who was doing a thesis on the physical aspects of acoustics as they relate to the mechanical system design of the acoustic guitar. Kasha developed all these groovy variations on the standard fan bracing, with an asymmetrical bridge that transferred heavier bass waves to the top via a fat round part and thinner treble wave via a tapering skinny part, and other such swell ideas derived from hours of staring at an oscilloscope. Another neat feature, by the way, was a slide out interchangeable saddle.

A marriage of art and science
True to its experimental mentality, Gibson decided to pursue this scientific approach to acoustic guitar design and using its discoveries, introduced the Mark series which debuted in the Spring of 1975 and died in 1979. The first active promotion of the Marks occurred in August of 1975 with full spread ads in Guitar Player.

According to accounts published in The Music Trades, in May of ’73 Gibson began the Mark story by contacting Dr. Adrian Houtsma, Professor of Acoustic Physics at MIT, to confirm some research Gibson itself had initiated. Receiving a favorable review, Gibson then went to Dr. Kasha, who was at the time, a chemical physicist working as Director of the Institute of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University. Combining the findings from Gibson’ R&D department and Drs. Houtsma and Kasha, the company finally landed on the doorstep of well known luthier Richard Schneider, who was charged with making the scientific information practical, designing a guitar that fit with Gibson’s aesthetics and capable of being put into production. The Mark series was born.

Eventually six Marks were produced. They were, to wit, the MK-99, MK-81, MK-72, MK-53, MK-35 and MK-35-12. The model number, by the way, is branded into the back joint strip, visible through the soundhole. Appointments, according to Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars, were as follows. MK-99 custom order handmade by Schneider with gold parts, steel or classical. The MK-81 had a rosewood body, removable pickguard, ebony board with abalone block inlays and gold hardware. The MK-72 had a rosewood body, a three-piece ebony/rosewood/ebony board, dot inlays and nickel hardware. The MK-53 (shown here) had a maple body, rosewood board, dot inlays and nickel hardware. The MK-35 had a mahogany body. The MK-35-12 was a 12-string; only 12 were made in 1977.

Shown here is an M-53 from the end of the run in 1978. It follows the Gruhn description, except that the sides and back are natural maple (not walnut stained), with the back being moderately flamey. It has a nice sustain, especially strung with medium gauge strings, and a full, balanced response. The big body depth provides loud projection when you bang on it with a flatpick, but lacks subtlety when you try to fingerpick it.

The Divorce
Were the Gibson/Houtsma/Kasha/Schneider innovations a significant improvement over designs that had evolved over the last several hundred years? Well, this M-53 is a nice sounding instrument, but it isn’t too difficult to find a handmade guitar with more traditional construction that offers superior tone. I suspect the problem was that the designers were trying to apply science, which is based on the fundamental principle of reproducability, to working with wood, which is entirely an art form. No two pieces of wood are the same. Each board, like individual people, responds to pressure and stress differently, however subtly. The best oscilloscope in the world won’t be able to predict what the next piece of spruce will sound like. The best guitars are what they are because of the skill and intuition of the maker who tunes them, one at a time.
I also suspect that the brilliance of designs like C.F. Martin’s (or whomever’s) X-bracing for steels and Torres’ fan bracing for classicals lies more in their general applicability across a wide variety of tonewood response in a production environment than in their superior theoretical transference of sound waves. In other words, the Marks are pretty cool guitars, but there’s a good reason they only lasted three or four years and you can pick one up for a lot less than what you’d pay for a far less scientifically fashioned Hummingbird.

Pieces of Radical History
It’s pretty obvious that Gibson’s experiments from the ’70s weren’t the aesthetic and commercial successes they hoped they’d be. But no one else put so much effort into trying. And no, an S-1 ain’t a Stratocaster and an M-53 isn’t a Herringbone. But take them on their own merits and you end up with some interesting pieces of guitar history you wont’ mind plucking on when your spouse goes to bed…and you’ll enjoy telling your grandchildren about when you’re too old to rock and roll. Go on, do something radical.

Closeup of the Gibson Les Paul Recording control panel.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Guitar Stories Vol. I.