Gibson’s “Non-Reverse” Firebirds

When Down Was Up
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Gibson’s “Non-Reverse” Firebirds
968 Firebird I in Cardinal Red.

Some guitars get no respect, at least historically. At the dawn of the ’70s, Gibson’s original (1963-’65) Firebirds were already being hailed as classics, while the versions that replaced them were denigrated as another example of the company’s late-’60s decline.

Second-generation Firebirds are often cited as being “post-McCarty,” but the fact is Gibson president Ted McCarty was fully in charge at their launch. With them came the labels “reverse” and “non-reverse” because the ’63 “reversed” traditional (i.e. Fender) solidbody design with the larger upper bouts below rather than above the neck. While the Strat was laid out for ergonomic balance, Firebirds were geared to visual flash. In ’65, the layout was “reversed” to more-conventional orientation – a reverse of the “reverse” original, if that makes sense. Comparing the two was, as Guitar Player’s Tom Wheeler wrote in the late ’70s, akin to “confusing Errol Flynn and Elmer Fudd.”

In Gibson histories, non-reverse Firebirds are glossed over, though they’ve risen in status over the last 55 years. Designed to cut into Fender’s market – a Gibson for the twang-and-surf crowd. McCarty hired industrial designer Ray Dietrich to devise the concept, but his elaborate neck-through design proved expensive and difficult to make, so in ’65 they gave it a glued-in neck.

Reverse Firebirds also proved fragile, prone to breakage at the headstock. The neck-through required extra effort, from wood prep to assembly to shipping. Additionally, wastage was a problem; if anything went wrong with the neck or body, the entire guitar was scrap, as were damaged ones returned for warranty repair. With high manufacturing costs, the series had to be priced well above those bolt-neck Fenders. The result was sales that proved disappointing for all.

A ’65 Firebird VII (left) with three mini humbuckers, slider switch, Deluxe Vibrola, and gold-plated Tune-O-Matic bridge, an-early ’65 Firebird III in Inverness Green with body-mounted P-90s and slider switch, and a ’66 Firebird V-12 with mini humbuckers, and slider switch. Note the lack of Vibrola.

Another concern came from Fender itself, which made noise about a lawsuit claiming the body shape encroached on Leo’s patented “offset waist” design. A letter dated February 7, 1964, shows Fender’s patent attorneys prodding Leo to file suit against Gibson: “…the question of Gibson’s Firebird models should be reconsidered. When the Gibson catalog pages are held up to the light and looked at from the reverse side, the outline is very similar to a Fender outline. I am sure you are aware of this but I felt I should write this letter to remind us that the question should be reconsidered at a later date.

”This was CC’d to Fender sales head Don Randall, and while it sounds like lawyers trying todrum up business, it resulted in discussions with Gibson.

McCarty, though, was dismissive.

“Leo always wanted to sue somebody… so Fender got their attorneys and we had a meeting… there were engineers and attorneys,” McCarty said in Gil Hembree’s Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty’s Golden Era 1948-1966. “Our presentation ended the discussion about a lawsuit.”

Ironically, the non-reverse Firebirds look more like offset Fenders – perhaps McCarty’s way of flipping off Fender!

While the re-engineered line was prepared, two stop-gap variations of the I and III models with non-standard features were shipped into the summer of ’65. These used inventory neck/body sections and were colorfully dubbed “platypus” Firebirds by Wheeler in his late-’70s “Rare Bird” column.

Offered across the Firebird line for a mere $15 upcharge and shown in a stand-alone 1965/’66 brochure, custom colors were rarely ordered despite the temptation spurred by the 10-selection chart. Very rarely, a color not shown is found, including Burgundy Mist and SG-style Cherry.

The revised line was announced in June of ’65, in time for summer NAMM – the first evidence is Gibson’s price list dated June 22, just before the show opened on June 25. That summer was the high-water point of the guitar decade, as the folk boom and Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. pushed guitar sales to all-time highs. Magazines keyed to the show were bursting with guitar-centric promotion, but Gibson made no effort to promote the “new” models.

That June ’65 price list made no mention of changes, simply showing significant price reductions on Firebirds, a sign the new version would be shipping soon. Early ’Birds had been priced higher than the SG, while the new one listed lower, and more in line with comparable Fenders.

The new Firebirds were still sleek, stylish, and unlike any other Gibson, but still more conventional, with a glued-in neck and thin one-piece sculpted mahogany body without separate “wings.” It required labor comparable to the SG (which were also simplified at the time), greatly reducing production costs. The shape retained a fluid, sculpted feel, but with a Fender-like silhouette; the body was 143/4″ wide at the swooping lower bout, and (like the SG) a thin 11/2″ at the rim. Its waist was slightly offset, with curvy bouts emphasizing the impression, and the back has a Fender-like contour. Compared to an offset Fender, the treble-bout horn extends upward more than outward. Strap buttons were on the neck heel and (a fairly useless) one at the apex of the upper bout, perfectly placed for the strap to slip off and send the guitar to the floor.

A’65 Firebird I in Polaros White with body-mounted P-90s and first-version slider switch, Deluxe Vibrola, and Tune-O-Matic Bridge. Many ’66 and ’67 headstock were fitted with imported open-back strip tuners.

The neck was considerably narrower at the nut compared to earlier Firebirds, but tapered noticeably toward the body. Nut width was changed across Gibson’s line in ’65; early Firebird necks were chunky – 111/16″ at the nut, while new ones were 15/8″, which made sense to compete with Fender. Many experienced Gibson players did not like the slimmer nut, and tooling seemed to wander; many Firebirds made from ’66 through ’70 have nuts as narrow as 11/2″. The flat headstock was very Fender-like, as well, reversed (again!) from the earlier design, and shedding its elaborate carved ledge and heavy banjo tuners – the shape first appeared on the Trini Lopez standard at the end of ’64, so when people say the Trini has a Firebird headstock, it’s actually the opposite!

The new Firebird used modular construction pioneered by Danelectro. Where early models had unique neck binding, fretboard inlays, and a pickup array that had to be tooled-in, with wood remaining between the pickups, second-gens were given an unbound/dot-inlaid fretboard and universal three-pickup rout under the pickguard. All could be assembled from a finished body, greatly streamlining production. Standard finish was a dark mahogany with sunburst on the top only.

The only specific hardware for the non-reverse models was the large, white, laminated pickguard, which had to be cut to fit depending on pickup array. Lower models had single-coil P-90s, saving mini humbuckers for upscale models. The pickguard covered much of the guitar’s face and, unfortunately, was prone to shrinking that over time has left many with cracks at the mounting screws.

 

All were initially fitted with a flimsy three-way slider switch for pickup selection, similar to Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Some later examples substituted a sturdier Switchcraft three-way, seemingly at the whim of the assembler. And at first, all used Kluson Deluxe strip tuners borrowed from Gibson-made Epiphone solidbodies.

Another change was chrome-plated hardware in place of nickel. Many ’65-’66 ’Birds were given a mix of plated parts as Gibson employees used up the stock of nickel pieces alongside newer chrome. All ’65-’69 versions had a standard “short” Gibson Vibrola or “long” Deluxe version depending on model. A very few have been seen with a horseshoe Bigsby, which was not an official option.

The first non-reverse Firebirds, like this ’65 III (top), shipped in Gibson’s #1210 case or in the cheaper #310 case, here housing a ’65 VII in Polaris White.

Despite a chaotic serial-number situation at Gibson in the mid/late ’60s, the progression in Firebirds was suprisingly orderly. The final reverse variation of the III ran in batches from serial number 289xxx to 324xxx . The non-reverse models show up around the 327xxx and become more common near 34xxxx. Very few randomly “off” numbers have surfaced. Quite a few non-reverse have numbers in the 00xxxx area, but that’s a later series from ’67.

Like ’50s Les Pauls and subsequent SGs, Firebird trim ranged from student to “artist” level, increasing in price as features were added. Designated by Roman numerals instead of jargon like “Junior” and “Standard,” the effect was the same. Gibson’s ’66 catalog and dealer one-sheets pictured the line in glorious color – a first for Gibson. But apart from this, Firebirds were largely absent frads and promo materials. The illustrations show a Firebird I in sunburst, the III in Cardinal Red, V in Frost Blue, and the gold-plated VII in Pelham Blue. Gibson did little else – if anything – to promote them.

This highlights a perk – custom colors offered exclusively for the Firebird line at just $15 over list. A direct lift from Fender, some colors were identical but given different names. With hues christened Frost Blue, Cardinal Red, Inverness Green, and Golden Mist Poly, Gibson hoped “the kids” would flock to the six-string hot rods. The plan, though, encountered a deadly lack of enthusiasm from dealers, lore holding that the color brochure didn’t help sell stock. “If you’ve got a red one, they want a blue one,” was the complaint, and whatever the truth, solid-color guitars are exponentially rarer than sunburst. It does seem that the non-reverse guitars have a slightly higher proportion of them, but just barely. Now, they’re highly collectible.

The original (and elaborate) body-mounted pickup arrangement with rout, and the later “swimming pool” rout (middle). Non-reverse Firebirds (and the SG line) had a universal control-cavity rout with copper shield.

The four 1965 variations were well-conceived. The Firebird I re-thought the model; intended as the “student” version, the original was clean-looking, with its single mini humbucker making a bold, modernist statement. But at $215, it wasn’t sufficiently appealing to 1964 buyers. Gibson expected the cheapest model in any series to be the best-seller, but the mid-priced III with two pickups and vibrato racked up the best sales in ’63-’64.

Taking a lesson, the second-gen model I gave kids what they wanted – two-pickups and vibrato at a budget price. Fitted with black P-90s instead of a mini-humbucker, and the “short” Gibson Vibrola with solid/stud bridge, it became the top seller, moving 1,164 units in ’66 before belly-flopping to only 200 the following year, when the III sold more than twice that amidst declining overall Firebird sales. Many I models shipped in ’65-’66 were likely sitting in dealer inventories, prompting the resounding drop. Odd, really, as it was an excellent value – at $199.50 in ’66, it was $25 cheaper than the similarly equipped SG Special, which at 1,870 units, outsold it by a wide margin. Fender’s beginner Mustang obliterated both, with 17,788 sold at $184 in ’66.

The Firebird III brought another interest ing redesign. Equipped with three P-90s – a configuration unseen since the ES-5 of the ’50s – it was wired in Gibson’s usual three-pickup layout, with the center switch selecting bridge and middle out of phase, giving a “fat Strat” effect. Gibson typically used three pickups only on its top solidbody, so this mid-line application was a novel idea. The ’65 price was $259.50, which was lowered by $20 in ’66-’67. Still, the guitar struggled, selling just 935 units, then 463 the next year. Its closest Fender competitor, the Stratocaster ($252) shipped more than 5,300 units in ’66. Clearly, Gibson was not winning.

Brian Jones in ’66, with his Firebird VII (left), Steve Winwood in Traffic circa ’71 with his Firebird V in Inverness Green.

The Firebird V reverted to two mini humbuckers and a Deluxe Vibrola with the lyre-decorated tail, which looked snazzier but offered no functional advantage. It also fitted a Tune-O-Matic bridge. Since it had the same unbound body and dot-inlaid neck, the V’s advantages over the I were the bridge and mini humbuckers, which Gibson valued at $90. Even at $289.50 ($50 less than a Jazzmaster) the V sold poorly, likely not much more than 500 in the entire run. As the only second-gen Firebird with mini humbuckers and standard switching, the V is an underappreciated guitar.

The Firebird VII is the rarest stock variant. At $379.50, only 79 shipped after ’65 and listed total production that year was 110, at least half of which were likely reverse – that’s a much smaller quantity than the reverse (around 250), non-reverse V-12 (272), and reverse I (more than 1,000).

Carrying three mini humbuckers and gold-plated hardware, it’s a great-looking instrument. Wiring was typical for three-pickup Gibsons, with neck and bridge alone and a bridge/middle in the center, giving a “Stratty” snap unique to the VII.

The second-gen VII was built on the same body/neck assembly, again without binding, block inlays, or ebony like other high-end Gibsons. It was also far less-fancy than the earlier version or top-line SG Custom, despite a price that went up to $445. Today, a custom-color VII is the ultimate non-reverse collectible.

An especially ephemeral Firebird is the V-12, added to the line in ’66. In ’64/’65, 12-string electrics were hot, but by the time the V-12 was ready to ship in ’66, the trend had peaked. Appearing in the ’66 price list at $309.50, the V-12 (which is how Gibson listed it, not the commonly used Firebird XII) is a nice design, mating the V body with a standard 12-string headstock. The slim nut wasn’t convenient on a 12-string, but was the same size as on 12-strings by Rickenbacker and Fender. Thankfully, it was given a simple block tailpiece. Despite being an excellent solidbody 12-string, only 248 shipped in ’66, followed by 24 stragglers in ’67. Rare to begin with, some have since been crudely converted to six-string.

Paul McCartney recording with his lefty Firebird VII in ’71. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown with his Firebird V in its original configuration. He later gave it a stop tailpiece.

From ’65 through ’69, Firebirds saw minor variations in hardware. Many ’66 and ’67 headstocks were fitted with imported open-back strip tuners that also appeared on SGs of the period (Guild also used them). Whether due to a shortage of Kluson tuners or just purchasing economy is a moot point. Though not the best quality, they were very light, arguably improving the guitar’s balance!

From ’66 through ’68, some Firebirds appeared with Switchcraft toggles in place of the cheap slider. In ’66 and ’67, the body rout was altered to a single large “swimming pool” rout and the P-90s on the I and III hung from the underside of the pickguard, making them more adjustable. This was also applied to SGs in ’66, as were amp-style “witch hat” knobs.

Like other Gibsons of the era, later-’60s Firebirds sometimes exhibit quality issues including sloppy fitting and indifferent finishing. Some have dubious neck angles resulting in strings not having enough break angle over the vibrato. This is especially problematic on stud-bridge models, particularly with very light strings. Some have wood inserted under their fretboard edges over the body (under the finish) indicating an attempt to achieve better angle!

The first non-reverse guitars shipped in the same oblong yellow-lined Gibson/Faultless #1210 case. The cheaper Archcraft #310 case was added, still in black tolex but with flimsier latches, hinges, and handle. Many sported a checked-cloth lining collectors call “picnic table fabric,” while others use a more-prosaic (but equally cheap) red. The 310 listed at $31 in ’66, while the 1210 was $42. Money had to be saved somewhere!

After four years of diminishing returns, Firebirds were gone from the September ’69 price list, though stragglers shipped into 1970. Sales were disappointing, though Gibson hardly helped with lackluster promotion. It seemed that even in Kalamazoo, there was apathy toward their avian offspring.

The ’Bird’s most-visible original user was Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who received a sunburst VII from Gibson and was shown with it in the Gibson Gazette. The non-reverse VII became his main stage guitar in ’66-’67, and he used it while the band mimed “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?” on Ed Sullivan. Jones also acquired a new Firebird III and used it at Royal Albert Hall in September ’66; the guitar is on the cover of Got Live If You Want It, released that December. Both guitars later cropped up in the hands of Mick Taylor.

In the early ’70s, Traffic’s Stevie Winwood bucked the “hippie natural” trend by playing a non-reverse in very rare Inverness Green finish. His likely dated to circa ’67, with its Switchcraft selector. The guitar was stolen when Traffic played New York in ’73. In March ’08, Gibson presented Winwood with a Custom Shop re-creation.

None other than Paul McCartney had one of the very few left-handed Firebirds – a custom VII with a blue finish, horseshoe Bigsby, and dark pickguard. He used it during sessions for Ram and, reportedly, his first solo effort.

Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera had a red reverse VII and a non-reverse three-pickup in ’75-’76 modified from a I or III with the vibrato removed and three full-size humbuckers with individual selectors.

Blues fans will recall a non-reverse V as the main squeeze of bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, whose hugely worn guitar was dressed with a tooled-leather pickguard. He eventually removed the vibrato.

More recently, the non-reverse silhouette has been spotted with guitarist Gem Archer (Oasis), Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, and indie faves The National.

While still not particularly familiar, second-generation Firebirds have gained a modicum of respect. After decades of disinterest, in the 21st century, Gibson finally reissued the model with Custom Shop renditions. Taken strictly on merit, Firebirds are unlike any other guitar in sound and feel – light, fast-playing, and stylish, they remain unrepentant hot-rod rockers.


This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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