Gibson Reissue ’58 Flying V

The Phantom V
The Phantom V

A number of years ago I purchased a reissue/limited edition Gibson Flying V constructed in the 1958/59 configuration (strings through the body type). Upon inspection, I took note of the serial number and the fact that the guitar was constructed of Honduras mahogany. It had a brown pink-lined case with the Gibson logo inscribed in gold on the lower right-hand corner of the outside lid. Included with this instrument was all the proper paperwork for this year/era of guitar, the keys to the case, as well as the added bonus of a 1983 Gibson catalog.

Early in 1980, I heard that Gibson was toying with the idea of reintroducing the 1958 Flying V (string-through) in korina as a limited edition; but, when I looked at my reissue I thought, “Well Gibson did it again, they promised a limited edition in korina, but delivered it in mahogany instead”.

What I mean by “Gibson did it again,” is that Gibson announced in 1976, that they were going to do a limited edition of the Explorer in korina, even though the prototype instrument on display at the Frankfurt Trade Fair (in early 1976) was made of mahogany. Well, the Explorer subsequently went on to be reissued in mahogany rather than korina, until the second reissue of this instrument (1983), made this time of the promised korina. So I thought the same thing that had happened with Gibson’s first reissue of the 1958 Explorer also happened to their first reissue of the 1958 Flying V, introduced in 1981, which was made out of mahogany as well. Being a ’59 Les Paul Standard and Les Paul Standard (SG) aficionado, I put the guitar away and didn’t think much about it. That was, until I started seeing the second reissue ’58 V made out of Korina (1983) with the ink stamp alienation A *** through F *** Series.

Before I go any further, let me explain my terminology of string-through Flying Vs: first reissue/limited edition, second, etc., (“string-through” is the key word here). The 1958 Gibson Flying V is the original issue, as is the 1963 Flying V with the nickel hardware, those made out of left over 1958 unfinished korina bodies (two beautiful examples of these, one ’63 and one ’58 can be found on page 27 of Mac Yasudas’ book The Vintage Guitar Volume II). The first reissue/limited edition ’58 string-through V came out in 1981 made of Honduras mahogany (this is the one I own, and will explain its existence in the body of this article). Gibson’s 1983 catalog introduces the second reissue/limited edition string-through made out of korina (these are the A through F Series ink-stamped horizontally on the back of the headstock toward the tip of the point, example: A 007). And, the third and final string-through ’58 korina wood reissue/limited edition to date is the present day Historical Series Flying V introduced in 1994.

Writing this article has two purposes; one, to share my research on this little known reissue; and two, I was becoming quite irritated with the individuals who kept insisting that what I had was an aberration, a forgery, or a nonexistent instrument. First of all, there are three axioms that hold true when it comes to the Gibson Guitar Company: (1) Gibson doesn’t give instruments away (endorsements excluded); (2) they don’t throw instruments away if they can finish them and sell them at a later date (the 1963 Flying V korina string through and some of the 1968 Gold Top Les Pauls are two good examples of this); and (3) they are famous for prototypes and one-offs that never make it to production, but mysteriously escape from the factory. For instance, take a look at Ian C. Bishop’s book The Gibson Guitar From 1950. On page 63 is a picture of John Entwhistle’s 1958 Discoverer Bass no such bass, right? or in Bacon and Day’s Book The Gibson Les Paul, page 42, shows a Les Paul Gold Top with a crown inlaid headstock and Les Paul written on the truss rod cover go figure? The point that I’m trying to make is, why don’t the uninformed collectors, dealers and musicians ever pick up some of the better research books for a little home study?

In this treatise I’m not going to belabor the reason why Gibson originally came out with the 1958/59 Flying V. This has been well documented in numerous books and articles about Gibson’s effort to shed its stodgy image as strictly a jazz guitar builder, their competition with Fender in the solid body market, and in the many interviews that Ted McCarty has given as to the origins of the V and Explorer, who designed it, who built it, etc. Instead, I want to focus on why (in 1981) Gibson made its decision to reissue the string-through V.

At this time, Gibson was in its infancy in its endeavor to bring back the classic accuracies of some of its more sacred models. Case in point was the Les Paul Standard. What the Les Paul had degenerated to since its reissue in 1968 was a sin. The fine original features had given way to a hideously large headstock, with a volute and lousy inlay, a sandwiched body, and no recurve whatsoever. The real innovations started at the Kalamazoo plant for two reasons. First, this plant was considered a “soft tool” plant, a place where they could change up tooling as they changed the design, whereas Nashville was a “hard tool” plant that once the tooling, jigs and automation was set, there was no changing it. Secondly, and most important, were the personnel at Kalamazoo. These individuals were, to coin a phrase “Orvilles’ true believers and renegade sons”. The true believers were Jim Deurloo, Marv Lamb and J.P. Moats, and the renegade sons being Tim Shaw and Bruce Bolen. Given the constant roadblocks that Norlin threw at these guys, they had to be part manager, craftsmen and guerrilla fighter, especially in the last years of Norlin’s ownership. Keep in mind these innovations were taking place under heavy fiscal constraints put on them by the “suits” at Norlin.

Let me give you an example of one such constraint. In a conversation with Tim Shaw, he told me how he had lobbied Norlin to allow him to buy the proper pickup lead wire so it would be accurate. They refused, citing that the gauge wire he was requesting was a few cents more per pound than what they were using, and wouldn’t allow it. During this same conversation Shaw recounted the story of when they brought Les Paul over to Kalamazoo in 1980 to see the first new and improved prototypes of his namesake, and how he almost broke down and cried at the beauty and accuracy of the new models. These of course went on to be issued as the Les Paul Heritage Series “Standard 80”, “Standard 80 Elite” and, in 1981-85, the “Sunburst ’59 Reissue”. Although not totally authentic to the nth degree, these instruments were a million times better and closer in accuracy to the original ’59 Burst than what were currently being produced. These first instruments, which were researched and developed by these innovators at the Kalamazoo Factory, were definitely the catalyst that brought Gibson to the point of 99% accuracy in their Historical Series of the present day. This, and when the current owners purchased the company from Norlin in 1986.

So what was the motivation to bring back a reissue of the 1958 Flying V? There were a myriad of reasons, but simply put, “to bring back an old classic”. Disappointed that they couldn’t bring back the 1976 reissue of the ’58 Explorer in korina because of a lack of acceptable wood, Gibson wanted to take extra care to make sure that this wouldn’t happen with the reissue of the 1958 V. A short side bar for you collectors out there: Gibson did in fact make six prototypes of the 1976 reissue Explorers in korina, but they were terrible examples because of the poor quality of the wood. They tried natural and color finishes on them which resulted in chipping and cracking, so they fanned the idea and went with mahogany.

Midway through 1980, when the decision was finally made to build the first reissue of the ’58 V, the Kalamazoo people started looking around to find someone with an original V for them to take specs from. Many owners offered Gibson the use of their instruments, with the caveat that they and their guitar would fly to Michigan first class, with the V in the adjacent seat with full accommodations while there. According to Tim Shaw, “The Bean Counters” at Norlin heard this and indicated that they wouldn’t allow any such expenditure of this type, and the mere suggestion was laughable. What they finally based their specs on was a poster. Kalamazoo got a hold of a poster that featured a full size color photo of an original ’58 Flying V. This poster was produced by a music store in Germany called Music One, and in typical German fashion, the color and clarity were superb. From the poster, research and development started specing out the measurements, drawing up the blue prints and setting up the tooling. The search for immaculate slabs of wood then commenced.

“Terminalia Superba,” what Weyerhaeuser Timber Company coined korina or limba, is a light to medium colored wood found on the ivory coast of Africa. Unlike its distant cousin Honduras mahogany, korina has a lot of twists and bends, so getting fine specimens of usable wood is extremely difficult. Gibson had been using a German broker to secure such wood for them, and the stock he had was not very encouraging. As the ’81 NAMM Show deadline was closing in, it looked as though Gibson wasn’t going to be able to debut its new string-through V because of the korina situation. At the factory the prototypes were being assembled and built out of Honduras mahogany, mainly because they had miles and miles of it and no shipment of korina had arrived. Needless to say the ’81 Frankfurt Trade Fair (Europe’s NAMM Show), was on the horizon and since the korina situation looked bleak (shades of the 1976 Explorer, or “Deja Vu” all over again as Yogi Berra would say), the decision was made to make these reissues out of mahogany.

This became Gibson’s first official reissue of the ’58 Flying V. This run was a total of 75 to 100 including overruns. Most of these were sprayed white, but as Tim Shaw admitted to me, there could have been a few reds and blacks, but certainly no sparkles or far out colors. Another distinctive mark on these first reissues was the truss rod covers, inscribed “FF 81” for Frankfurt Trade Fair 1981. My V is from this run, however with a slight twist. Mine was not finished in 1981; it is one of less than a dozen leftovers that were finished in a natural finish in early 1982 with a blank truss rod cover. The serial number which is “80552064”, indicates this, and also that this instrument was made on the 55th day of 1982, in Kalamazoo, which was Wednesday, February 24, 1982. Thus, the mystery of the origins of this instrument has been solved! It is not surprising that very few people have seen or heard of this little known reissue, since all but half dozen natural finish models were sent to Europe.

These are two of the major reasons that motivated Gibson to reissue the ’58 V. First, when looking at the musical landscape, what type of music was popular at the time? Heavy Metal was extremely predominant during that period, and who were the monster guitarists? Here are a few: Rudolf Schenker (Scorpions, trademark guitar, a Flying V), Michael Schenker (UFO/MSG, trademark guitar, a half white, half black Flying V), Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing (Judas Priest, trademark a variation on the Explorer design). With this proliferation of Heavy Metal, every young musician who lived and breathed this genre of music wanted the axe his or her hero was playing. Since most of the highest profile Metal bands came from Europe, it behooved Gibson to make extra sure that the first reissue of the ’58 string-through V debuted at the 1981 Frankfurt Trade Fair, and it did. Secondly, as early as 1975/76, other guitar manufacturers were starting to poach Gibson’s original V and Explorer designs, a prime case in point was Ibanez’s Destroyer” and Rocket Roll Sr. Other companies that followed suit with exact or variations on the V and Explorer designs were Dean Guitars, Hamer, Charvel, Jackson and B.C. Rich. Gibson said, “Hey wait a minute, these guys are capitalizing on a design we created!” Gibson knew all too well what could happen if these “faux” instruments went unchecked, for all they had to do was be reminded of what happened with their 1959 Les Paul Standard Burst (i.e. Tokai, ESP, etc.).

So, in order for a collector to have the definitive string-through V collection, you have to own an original 1958/59 or ’63 korina, a 1981/82 “FF 81” white or natural mahogany ’82, any one of the 1983 A through F Series natural, white, red or black korinas and the 1994 Historical Series 1958 korina. When looking at the production runs of the various string-through Vs ever made, three facts become evident about this 1981/82 mahogany reissue. First, it was the first official reissue of the ’58 V; second, it was the only string-through reissue that was ever made out of mahogany; and third, it was the lowest number of all the string-through Vs ever produced. In regard to numbers produced, according to Gruhn’s Guide and Tim Shaw (who was with research and development at Gibson’s Kalamazoo plant during the inception and production of both the 1981/82 mahogany and the 1983 A through F Korina Series), the production runs were as follows: 1958/59 and ’63 korina, 120 instruments; 1981/82 mahogany, 100 instruments; 1983 korina A through F Korina Series, 600 instruments (100 per letter A, B, C, etc.); and the 1994 Historical Series Korina, total is presently unknown since they are still in production. However, given the number that have been produced thus far, they will exceed 100.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank George Gruhn for his initial advice and some of the leads he provided me with in pursuing research on this project they were invaluable. In preparing for this article, the information that I received from Jim Deurloo (Gibson’s Kalamazoo plant manager at the time this V was produced) along with his associates Marv Lamb and J.P. Moats, were very insightful. Two other gentlemen I would like to thank are Bruce Bolen (Gibson’s head of research and development at Kalamazoo at this time) and his associate Tim Shaw. Tim Shaw was especially helpful as his conversations were anecdotal as well as informational. This was a fun project, and I hope that it will be as informative to the readers as it was for me.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’96 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.