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Gibson Flying VGibson Flying V

Picture the future as seen from the optimistic '50s: the man and woman dressed in a strange, silvery material, standing in a desert next to an improbably curvaceous automobile, looking into the distance at the spires of a utopian city. Science fiction? Yes, but in 1958, the same sort of vision spawned Gibson's Flying V guitar.

Ted McCarty, then president of Gibson, is credited with the inspiration for the company's "modernistic guitars" which met with much resistance and have today found a lofty position in the world of collectible instruments. Spurred by Fender's rising sales in the mid '50s, McCarty assembly a team that contributed individual ideas for a wave of instruments designed to take jaded dealers and complacent customers by storm. Of the initial designs, the Flying Arrow, later designated "Flying V," was one of the only guitars to survive the prototype stage and achieve full (albeit puny), production status in 1958, and ending in '59. Longtime Gibson dealer Chuck Levin, who passed away in 2002, recalled the incredible splash McCarty and company made at a NAMM Show with the bizarre instruments. "We were still thinking of the electric guitar in terms of its predecessor, the electric archtop. When we saw the Flying V, everybody felt a little strange about them," said Levin. "They were positively weird, different-looking. But we were proud to have them in our shop."

The design was simplicity itself, but undeniably modern. Lost were the curves of the womanly archtop; instead, geometry ruled, with straight lines defining an angular, aggressive shape that was echoed in headstock, string mount, and pickguard. The fact that the instrument was made of African limba, renamed "Korina" by Gibson, with a lustrous natural finish and Gibson Flying V generic parts, focused attention on the design. Did the first production Vs leap off the dealers' shelves? Lonnie Mack, then growing in stature as a guitar instrumentalist, saw his first Flying V in '58 as a factory line drawing sent to Gibson dealers. Gazing at the simple rendering of what looked like a Flying Arrow, Mack told his Cincinnati Gibson dealer, "I gotta have it!" But the dealers and general public showed less enthusiasm for the modernistic guitars. Indeed, shipping totals from the late '50s reflect that the futuristic guitars, priced a mere $322.50, including the gargantuan trapezoidal plush-lined case, did not fly off the shelves. A total of 98 Flying Vs were shipped to dealers in '58-'59. The Flying V grabbed everyone's attention, and was were displayed prominently in music stores. Still, sales were less than brisk, and the guitar (and its cousin, the Explorer) were doomed by the very elements that made them unique. The guitar-buying public didn't seem ready for that much genius. So, Gibson Flying V production of the "modernistic" line ceased in '59. Leftover parts languished in storage until '62, when assembly resumed using new-old stock with slightly different parts and assembly.

Certain artists, sharing perhaps the same brashness that led McCarty and his team to invent the Flying V, were drawn to the design and became known for playing "that strange-looking guitar." Mack is most known for his version of "Memphis," which spawned his career. The father of the limited-edition Lonnie Mack Flying V series, he still treasures his original '58. Along with that instrument, Mack bought a '58 Explorer and an Explorer bass from that same Cincinnati dealer. "The Explorer guitar is gone," he admits, and the bass, which gathered dust for years in the corner of an office at Elektra Records, somehow found its way into the hands of a collector in San Diego. "But that first Flying V is still around," smiles manager Jamie Weber. The original dealer added a factory Bigsby and a cherry refinish when the first finish wore through, and it's been re-necked three times, most notably after a car accident in the Nevada desert at 100 miles per hour, when the guitar was thrown through the wall of the trailer Lonnie was towing. "He still has the original case," Weber relates. "I guess you could say Lonnie is attached to that old guitar."

The mercurial Dave Davies of the Kinks was another noted player of the early Flying V, as first seen on "Top of the Pops" and later on tour. His guitar survives, Gibson Flying V although in less than pristine condition; its finish has been stripped and redone with a brush. Some of the knobs were missing. G.E. Smith, Albert King, and J. Geils have all been identified with the Flying V.

Through the years, a certain mystique developed around the Flying V, thanks to its low production numbers and its visual appeal. After all these years, Gibson and Ted McCarty have been vindicated, and the public's initial indifference to this splendid creation contributed to its current stratospheric value.

— Stephen Patt


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