Gibson’s Budget Redux

The SB Series Guitars and Basses

As the 1960s rolled into the ’70s, Gibson had established itself in the electric-bass market with front-line instruments such as the solidbody EB-0/EB-3 and Thunderbirds, as well as the semi-hollow EB-2 series.

(LEFT TO RIGHT) A SB-300 and a SB-400. SB-300 courtesy of Mike Gutierrez. SB-400: Luke Hobbs.

However, it struggled to win a share of the budget market despite offering a bass version of its popular Melody Maker and the reintroduction of the Kalamazoo brand, with its bolt-on necks and very-budget-minded “sawdust and glue” bodies (VG, June ’12).

Gibson’s follow-up consisted of two models that, while being “no frills,” were used to launch new features. Introduced in ’71, the SB-300 and SB-400 differed in scale length – the 300 had Gibson’s standard 30 ½″ scale, while the 400’s was 34 ½″ (as on the Thunderbird and the then-new EB-0L and EB-3L) – and bodies that used Gibson’s classic pointed double-cutaway silhouette but were slightly thicker.

Company catalogs focused on a “Highly polished Walnut finish” for the SBs, but a bright Cherry was also available from the get-go; neither was as well-executed as standard Gibson finishes, and today, the Cherry has often faded to a hot pink.

Both typically had matching headstocks – a first for Gibson’s budget line – though some sported a traditional black head face. The logo was a gold transfer (reinforcing that “budget” status), and tuners were by Schaller.

(LEFT TO RIGHT) The SB-350. Note the extra fret; this example has a replacement tailpiece. SB-450. SG-100 (with replacement tuners); the “starter” guitar in Gibson’s early-’70s budget series. SB-350: John Fell. SB-450 and SG-100 courtesy of Mike Gutierrez.

The set maple neck had a rosewood fretboard with dot inlays on 20 frets, and a 1 11/16″ width at the nut. Curiously, body wood is not cited in the instruments’ spec list. The bridge allowed for intonation of individual strings, and its cover had an embossed Gibson logo.

The other most-striking new element was the SBs’ two single-coil pickups. Small and oval-shaped, they resembled those on the Melody Maker guitar, but sported a Gibson logo and were surrounded by oval mounting rings made of brass.

While top-mounted controls had been used on earlier budget Gibson (and Kalamazoo) models, their knobs and switches had been part of the pickguard assembly. The SB-300 and SB-400, however, had a compact assembly that included off-on slider switches for each pickup, master Volume and Tone knobs, and a jack, all in one oval-shaped chrome plate.

Companion guitars introduced at the time included the SG-100 (one pickup), 200 (two pickups), 250 (two pickups, Cherry sunburst finish), and the thinline ES-320. There was also a Sam Ash SG-100, which was a limited edition of approximately 250 one-pickup guitars in Cherry sunburst made for the music retailer. All had the Melody Maker-style pickups and oval-shaped control plates, which in the eyes of some looked awkward. Accordingly, 1972 saw the introduction of two models that would ultimately replace the SB-300 and SB-400.

1971 Gibson Gazette announcement of the company’s budget guitars and basses. Gibson Gazette flyer courtesy of Steve Brown.

The short-scale SB-350 and long-scale SB-450 sported better-grade Walnut and Cherry finishes, and reverted to black headstock faces; their headstocks had a new, elongated silhouette Gibson then gave to all of its basses. A natural-finish version was available with a matching headstock and black logo (though some shipped with black headstocks).

Curiously, the SB-350 had 21 frets, while the SB-450 had 20 frets, and the pickups were mini-humbuckers in black plastic. Instead of the “tongue depressor” oval plate, the top-mounted controls (which had the same basic setup as their predecessors) were placed on a plastic half-moon plate. They were first given an intonatable bridge (as on the SB-450 shown here), followed later by the three-point bridge found on Gibson’s front-line basses of the era.

There were guitars in the new series, as well, all sporting the new mini-bucker pickups. The SG-I replaced the SG-100, the SG-II replaced SG-200, and the SG-III supplanted the SG-250. The guitars were given triangular pickguards.

One interesting comparison between the SBs is their respective neck junctures – the earlier version joined the body at the 18th fret, while the later joined at the 16th.

The SB-300 and 400 were produced from ’71 to ’73, while the 350 and 450 were made from ’72 to ’74, with some 450s shipped as late as ’78 or ’79.

As you might expect, the SB series do not carry the collectibility swagger of the Thunderbird, SG, or EB. More than 40 years on, they are seen as they were – functional, if not inspirational.

A 1973 Gibson flyer included the SG-I and SG-II, which replaced the SG-100 and SG-200. Note the triangular pickguards. Gibson flyer courtesy of Steve Brown.

This article originally appeared in VG April 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.