2008 Gibson Reissue Firebird V in 'Vintage Sunburst'
|Period||1963 — present|
|Neck joint||Through-body; some models have set necks|
|Neck||Mahogany and Walnut|
|Fretboard||Rosewood or Ebony with trapezoid, block, or dot mother of pearl inlays|
|Bridge||Tune-o-matic ABR-1 style, after 2008 Nashville style|
|Pickup(s)||1, 2 or 3 Mini-Humbuckers, Full Size Humbuckers, or P-90s|
|Classic White, Ebony, Pelham Blue, Heritage Cherry, Vintage Sunburst, Antique Natural|
The Gibson Guitar Corporation released several new styles during the 1950s to compete with Fender's solid-body instruments, such as the Telecaster and Stratocaster. After success with the Les Paul in the 1950s, Gibson's popularity began to wane in the 1960s. Fender's colors, shapes and multiple pickups were endorsed by notable guitarists. Gibson's guitars, most of which were hollow or semi-hollow designs, seemed old-fashioned. Coupled with higher prices, this contributed to a decline in sales.
Gibson had made forays into radical body shapes – the Flying V and Explorer in the 1950s – which met limited initial success. The president of Gibson, Ted McCarty, hired car designer Ray Dietrich to design a guitar that would have popular appeal. Under Dietrich, the Firebird took on the lines of mid-50s car tailfins. Dietrich took the Explorer design and rounded the edges. The most unusual aspect is that the guitar is "backward" in that the right-hand (treble) horn of the body is longer than the other. Thus, the original Firebirds were unofficially referred to as "reverse". The Firebird looks like an Explorer with softer "points," or maybe a reverse Fender Jaguar or Jazzmaster.
The Firebird is the first Gibson solid-body to use neck-through construction, wherein the neck extended to the tail end of the body. The neck itself is made up of five plies of mahogany interspersed with four narrow strips of walnut for added strength. Other features were reverse headstock (with the tuners on the treble side) and "banjo"-style planetary geared tuning keys. The special original Gibson Firebird humbucking pickup(s) – single, dual or triple – were smaller footprint versions of standard Gibson humbucking pickups, but were unique in that inside each of their smaller bobbins contained an AlNiCo bar magnet (standard humbucking pickups AND mini-humbucking pickups have one bar magnet that activates the 6 iron slug poles of one bobbin, and 6 iron screw poles of the other bobbin). Original Firebird pickups were also built without any specific bobbin fasteners – their bobbins (and possible "reflector" plate under the bobbins) were held onto the frame during both the wax potting process (to reduce/eliminate feedback and unwanted noise) and the solid metal cover that was soldered to the frame base. There are no screw poles on Firebird pickups. Some Firebirds from 1965 featured Gibson's single-coil P-90 pickup.
The Firebird line went on sale in mid-1963 with four models distinguished by pickup and tailpiece configurations (see below). Unlike the Les Paul and SG line, which used the terms "Junior", "Special", "Standard" and "Custom", the Firebird used the Roman numerals "I", "III", "V" and "VII". Gibson's line of Thunderbird basses is rooted in the design of the Firebird, and uses even Roman numerals ("II" and "IV") to distinguish it. From 1965 to 1969, Gibson introduced "non-reverse" models after failing to achieve marketing success with the unusual reverse-body design. Gibson had also received complaints from Fender that the Firebird headstock mirrored the Stratocaster and that the body violated Fender's design patents, with Fender threatening a lawsuit. The "non-reverse" body is a more standard double-cutaway design, with the bass horn being longer than the treble horn and the headstock having the tuners mounted on the bass side. It also had a standard glued-in ("set") neck rather than neck-through construction, as well as other, less noticeable changes in design and build. Pickup and tailpiece configuration for the V and VII were the same as the earlier "reverse" models, although the I- and III-models were now shipped with two or three P-90 pickups and plain vibratos. After a few years of disappointing sales, the "non-reverse" line was dropped. "Reverse" body Firebirds were first reissued in 1972, with a commemorative "Bicentennial" model released in 1976 which was made available in a variety of finishes including black, vintage white, natural, and the traditional sunburst. The bicentennial model was also distinguished by gold hardware and a red-white-blue logo on the white pickguard. The logo on most other models is red.
The "reissue" Firebirds are usually based on the original reverse body design; however Gibson reintroduced the non-reverse Firebird in 2002 as a Custom Shop guitar. While prices for just about all vintage guitars have rocketed, the reverse body Firebirds are the more popular design, and command more money than the non-reverse. Many types have been released. Epiphone, owned by Gibson, also issued Firebirds.
The 2010 Standard Firebird V will not feature the classic banjo tuners but Steinberger gearless tuners, tuners with the tuning key on the back, and locking mechanisms on top of the headstock. Gibson stated that they will no longer be creating banjo tuners.
Modern Gibson reissues of the Firebird do not use the same Firebird pickup build that was originally introduced in 1963. These new pickups do not have the same tone and output as the originals. Dissecting an original 1963 Gibson Firebird pickup reveals twin plastic mini bobbins with AlNiCo bar magnets inserted into the center of each. Most, but apparently not all, of these early Firebird pickups used a metal "reflector" plate under the bobbins and magnets that increased the pickup's inductance and those bobbins are wound with 42AWG coil wire. Recent issue Gibson Firebird pickups use ceramic bar magnets and 43AWG coil wire and no reflector plate, making for a very different pickup. Modern Firebird pickups have more output (volume), more midrange, less treble "bite" and a higher DCR reading, whereas vintage Firebird pickups have less output, less midrange, more treble "bite" and a lower DCR reading.
Notable Firebird players
PJ Harvey used a Gibson Firebird VII extensively during the early portion of her career.
- Firebird I – One pickup. Combination stud bridge/tailpiece. Nickel hardware. Dot inlays, no neck binding.
- Firebird II Artist CMT – A limited-production instrument from the early 1980s; features a maple top, mahogany body, set mahogany neck, two standard-sized humbuckers, and toggle switches to control active Moog electronic tone controls.
- Firebird III – Two pickups, stud bridge/tailpiece and Gibson Vibrola (player could choose to use the stud or Vibrola). Nickel hardware. Dot inlays and neck binding.
- Firebird V – Two pickups, Tune-o-matic bridge with Maestro "Lyre" Vibrola; reissues feature a stop-bar tailpiece. Nickel hardware. Trapezoid inlays and neck binding.
- Firebird VII – Three pickups, Tune-o-matic bridge and Maestro "Lyre" Vibrola tailpiece. Gold hardware. Block inlays and neck binding.
- Firebird Studio – Two standard-sized Alnico humbuckers, Tune-o-matic bridge with stop-bar tailpiece. Chrome or gold hardware. Set neck. Dot inlays and no neck binding.
- Firebird XII – A two-pickup, twelve-string non-reverse Firebird.
- Non-Reverse Firebird – Collectors' term for a Firebird I, III, V or VII featuring a headstock with the tuners on the bass side, and a body having the bass side horn slightly longer than the treble side horn.
- Firebird X – Three pickups, automatic 3×3 tuners, on-board digital effects and processing/output, dot-inlays, and has very little resemblance to any other Firebird models.
- "Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup". www.lespaulforum.com. Retrieved 9 May 2017.
- "Dirty tricks for a modern Firebird pickup (pics..)". mylespaul.com. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
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