Gibson M-III Standard

Missing the Mark(et)

Gibson’s bread and butter has long been tried-and-true designs that represent remarkable innovations – even if they date back to the 1950s. This is testament to how good those innovations really were! Guitars like this M-III Standard prove the company has also never shied from new ideas.

Squeezing maximum tone from pickups has been an obsession of designers since the advent of multi-pickup guitars. And from the beginning, their switching was sophisticated. Fender’s Telecaster, introduced in ’51, had two knobs and a three-way switch; the front knob was for Volume while the rear was a blender to equalize the capacitance of the two single-coil pickups. By ’52, the latter had become a Tone control.

Not all early schemes were perfect. In ’54, Fender introduced its three-pickup Stratocaster with a simple three-way switch – one position per pickup. However, players figured out they could get “in-between” sounds by jamming toothpicks into the switch. This is how the quintessential out-of-phase Strat sound was discovered.

The M-III had many touches of its time, including shred-friendly cutaways, contemporary neck set, pointy head, and comfortable contours.

With the arrival of rock and roll, the convention of the guitar providing rhythm behind vocals (punctuated by lead licks on turnarounds and the occasional solo) led to the development of dual circuits so a player could switch between pre-set lead and rhythm sounds.

It’s not known exactly when guitar designers thought to “tap” a double-coil humbucker into two single-coils, but as early as 1967, St. Louis Music (made by Valco/Kay) and Guyatone (in Japan) offered models that featured coil taps on the bridge humbucker.

Gibson introduced a number of interesting switching ideas in the ’70s, beginning with the ’71 Les Paul Recording, which had at least 18 possibilities including a very early phase reversal plus a choice of high or low impedance. The L6-S, designed by Bill Lawrence with two Super Humbuckers controlled by a six-position “Varitone” switch provided four bridge/neck combinations, each with a different capacitor running through bass and midrange controls. The Marauder, also by Lawrence, had a cool epoxy-potted single-coil and Super Humbucker on a rotary blender, lending an almost unlimited range of coil combinations (plus Volume and Tone). At the close of the ’70s, the RD Artist harnessed active electronics to yield a remarkable sonic palette. While important players used both guitars, they never really caught on.

A 1992 ad for the M-III featured Sid Fletcher of Roxy Blue.

Variations periodically showed up on other American and Japanese guitars. In ’91, the M-III became another of Gibson’s many attempts to compete in the shred-guitar market owned by Jackson/Charvel, B.C. Rich, and Ibanez.

Sporting a thin D-profile set neck, deep cutaways, a two-octave/251/2″-scale fretboard, Floyd Rose Schaller double-locking vibrato, and (to complete the heavy-metal formula) a pointy reverse headstock, the three-pickup M-III Standard yielded 10 tones (plus separate Volume and Tone). Pickups were a Gibson 500T bridge humbucker, a single-coil NSX in the middle, and neck 496R ’bucker wired through a five-way selector and a two-way toggle that essentially acted as a master coil tap. With the toggle down, you could manipulate the bridge humbucker, both humbuckers, neck humbucker, bridge humbucker with middle, and outer coil on the bridge pickup plus inner coil of neck pickup. With toggle up, the options were bridge outer coil, bridge outer and middle coils, middle pickup, inner and middle coils, and neck inner coil.

Models in the M-III family are poorly documented because they were rarely included in catalogs, but there were two basic models – Deluxe and Standard. The Deluxe had a sandwich body of walnut, poplar, and maple. The ’91-’92 production version had a large tortoise pickguard and three-pickup layout while a Custom Shop version made in ’91 only had twin humbuckers. Both were finished in Antique Natural.

Standards had a poplar body with no pickguard and the same pickup wiring. Production versions were made from ’91 into ’96 in Alpine White, Ebony, and Candy Apple Red. A Custom Shop version made from ’91 to ’93 was offered in translucent red or yellow. After ’93, it became a production model. A Custom Shop version with two humbuckers was made in ’91-’92.

Gibson’s family tree includes many guitars with sophisticated wiring in pursuit of tone. The first solidbody was the Les Paul Recording (left), with 18 options. The ’75 L6-S was dressed with Bill Lawrence’s six-position Varitone switch, which employed an array of tone capacitors. The ’78 Marauder had a fader that almost infinitely blended the pickup mix, while the ’78 RD Artist (right) brought the power of active circuitry.

Other versions included the M-IV-S with a Steinberger vibrato (’93-’95) and M-III Stealth in black limba (’91). The switching system was also employed on the Nighthawk (’93-’99).

The guitar here dates from ’92 (serial number 91962528) and fits the specs of a Custom Shop Standard. Production quantities are unknown, but Gibson M-IIIs appear to be rare.

When it launched the M-III, Gibson’s timing couldn’t have been worse. While metal and power pop bands were still popular, Nirvana’s Nevermind was released just as the M-III debuted. The band’s seemingly unpolished grunge plunged the guitar industry into uncertainty. Kurt Cobain played a retro pawn-shop partser Fender Mustang, not a superstrat or signature model. Up-and-coming guitarists no longer wanted shred machines. In fact, no one knew what guitar players wanted! Nevertheless, like many of Gibson’s attempts to innovate, the M-III was remarkably versatile and a dream to play. It just landed at an inopportune moment – and became yet another little-understood guitar.

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