Throughout most of the 1970s, Les Pauls ruled the guitar roost.
But toward the end of the decade, some of the better players began to get interested in more sophisticated electronics, especially active circuitry. Suddenly souped-up guitars by Alembic, B.C. Rich, Ibanez, and Aria Pro II surged in popularity.
This new trend did not take Gibson by surprise, and the challenge was met with one of its more interesting lines of guitars, the RD Series. Top-of-the-line was the luxurious RD Artist, introduced in ’78.
Looking somewhat like ungainly reverse Firebirds, the RDs were developed in ’77 with input by the incredible jazz/fusion ace Bruce Bolen, who Gibson had hired in the mid ’70s to conduct traveling clinics on its Maestro effects line.
Whether or not you find the shape attractive, there’s no denying that the RD Artist was well-appointed. Featuring a maple body and glued-in maple neck, the head sported a fancy engraved “winged f” inlay. Most of the ebony fingerboards were unbound, but had huge mother-of-pearl block inlays. The RDs were Gibson’s first foray into the longer 251/2″ scale. Hardware was gold-plated. Finishes were Natural, Fireburst, and Ebony. Sales literature at the time claimed that the shape was specifically designed to help balance the long scale, and RDs are indeed very comfortable to play.
However, the real interest in the RD Artist comes under the hood. The Artist was outfitted with a new set of Series VI humbuckers hooked up to a traditional three-way toggle. The pickups were preamped, with an onboard transformer and 9-volt battery. Each pickup had its own active volume control that was at maximum “normal” volume in the middle. Roll it down and cut the volume, roll it up and boost output with the preamp. Both pickups shared the tone controls, which were separate knobs for treble and bass. Similarly, these were at normal high output in the middle, with frequency boost or cut on either side. Already, this is pretty interesting… but wait, there’s more!
The RD Artist was equipped with a second three-way toggle called a “trick switch.” The middle position was “neutral,” allowing the active electronics to work as described. The front position was a bright switch that boosted the treble frequencies for cut-through on lead solos. The back position activated expander/compression circuitry. In this mode, when the bridge pickup was selected, expansion kicked in, making the guitar more responsive to picking. Expansion gives a fast, explosive response with rapid decay. When the front pickup was selected, compression was activated. With compression, you reduce the initial attack response and increase the signal sustain of the notes. This makes for a very expressive guitar.
Gibson’s RD line also included the Custom with just the bright switch and the Standard without the active electronics. The 341/2″-scale RD Artist and Standard basses followed suit.
For all their tonal flexibility, RDs were less than a stellar success. Only the RD Artist survived 1979, making it to ’82, by which time it was known simply as the RD. After that… exit stage left.
Photo: Michael Wright.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.