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Archive for the 'Guitar Talk' Category

Guitar Talk: High Maintenance Beauty — Gibson Firebird Non-Reverse Design

8th January 2011

Firebird
The late ’70s Firebird that I had a
love-hate relationship with

When you think about it, going to the guitar shop is kind of like the single guy heading to the bar to check out women. You go in, and can be taken aback with the beauty that surrounds you. Spend more than a couple of minutes and you’re liable to hook-up with one, spend some time with her, have a conversation (read: plug into an amp and try it out), and it could be love at first sight.

You’re reasonings can be clouded. “She’s beautiful. Imagine how I’ll look with her.” You throw caution to the wind, take her home and the marriage begins.

You get her home, and reality sits in. She’s high maintenance, and can be temperamental at times. You start to feel uncomfortable around her. Her outer beauty still remains, but it’s she’s not as attractive as when you first met.

If there were ever a case for that with a guitar, the Gibson Firebird “Non-Reverse” design is probably the case. I fell into this trap outlined above, and spent the better part of 2 years trying to gig with a late 70’s model, an image of the exact paint and configuration I provide here/ In the end, I sold her opting for function rather than form. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t want to get one again, but as main squeeze…. Thanks, no.

Model 1
Model 1 – “Reverse” Firebird
design

The Firebird was released in 1963 and came in several different designs. The “Reverse” design Firebird has a headstock designed similar to the Stratocaster and the smooth “Z-shape” that was leveraged off the radical Explorer design from 1958 but flipped; the horn on the top.

The “Non-Reverse” took the Explorer design and simply smoothed it’s sharp edges. The one difference was Gibson flipped the headstock and employed the use of banjo tuners. These design changes create interesting issues, which we’ll get into shortly.

The Firebird III-VII – the “Non-Reverse” – came with several configurations. Designs with 1, 2 or 3 pickups, hard tail piece, or tremolo, trapezoid, block, or dot fretboard inlays. All but one had rosewood fingerboards, with paint options starting with wood grain and tobacco burst, and then solid colors such as white and black. There was also a 12-string design. The classic bass design that went with had the product line “Thunderbird”. All were made of mahogany and had neck-through design (see this great image of the sales flier from the ‘60s)

For pickups, the reverse came with P-90s while the non-reverse came with mini-humbuckers.

As mentioned, the design is beautiful. Firebird collectors abound and they’ve been used regularly by the likes of Johnny Winter, Keith Richards, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Paul Raymond of UFO, and the late Allen Collins of Lynyrd Skynyrd (both Pete Way of UFO and the late Leon Wilkerson of Lynryd Skynrd used Thunderbirds as main bass rides at points in their recording careers).

But to say that they are easy to play would be lying. Where a Les Paul or Strat feel comfortable in terms of right hand position and the distribution of weight, the Firebird has the strings off-set to the left by roughly an inch. Play, say a Les Paul for some time, and then grab a Firebird and you’ll find yourself sliding your left hand a half-position out of place if you’re not watching what you are doing.

To add, by shifting the position, the weight is so unevenly distributed that if you’re using a nylon strap, just by letting go of the neck and having it hang on your body, you’ll see the neck dip to the floor – it’s weighted that far to the left.


Non-Reverse banjo tuners

And while the reverse headstock with the banjo tuners looks clean, it creates a case of nearly non-stop tuning issues. By having the low E now stretch the furthest distance from tail piece to nut, stretching and winds getting caught in the nut become nearly an “every song” matter. I went through so much graphite on the nut that at one point I considered buying a box of it. Throw in the banjo tuners that had considerable slip, and tuning after nearly every song becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

The Non-Reverse Firebirds are beautiful. Every time I see one, I think of that first day when I was smitten with its beauty and was blinded by it. They make a beautiful addition to any collection, and I could see how a white one sitting next to my black Les Paul custom would be a nice view. A good tech can make them manageable, but as a main squeeze for live gigs, they’re a handful.

Beauty? Yes. But, for the Non-Reverse Firebird, beware… It can be skin deep.

For more on my obsession with guitars, and the first guitar installment here on SportsBash see:

Guitar Talk: I Have a Metal Neck and My Name Is Travis

Maury Brown is the President of the Business of Sports Network where he is also a senior writer. He also currently writes regularly for Forbes SportsMoney and FanGraphs. His freelance work includes several book essays, The New York Times, Yahoo! Sports, MSNBC, NBC Sports, and the New York Post.

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Guitar Talk: I Have a Metal Neck and My Name Is Travis

7th January 2011

For those that have followed me for a while, they know that I have a fairly addictive taste for writing. “Prolific”, for some odd reason, seems a bit of a pompous adjective, but I seem to be pumping out 2-4 articles a day across multiple platforms.

If you know me (and of course, you’re seeing the name of the blog in big whopping letters) you know I write about sports – mostly of the outside the lines variety. I’m that “BizballMaury” guy on Twitter, which was a concatenation of my company’s LLC name and, yes, my first name. It’s pretty clear I’m obsessed with sports.

But, for those that have known me for a long period of time, they’ll tell you my obsessions have run just as deep on other topics. As a kid and early teen,  it was motocross. As a late teen till now, it’s been guitars.

I took up playing one summer in Jr. High and immediately failed at it. For some strange reason, the following school year, I took to it like distortion to a Muff Fuzz. I took classes, learned to read music, and then went about ignoring the reading in favor of ear training, combing over albums to learn songs.

When I got to Portland, I began playing in the local music scene weekly, toured for a couple of years playing daily, and worked at more than one music store.

But, it was a certain music store in downtown Portland where I really started getting focused on vintage and rare guitars, mostly of the electric variety. The owner, who I will not name, was an obnoxious jerk that would gladly rip off any uneducated musician that walked in, but he gave me the assignment of cleaning and attending to the rare gems that hung high out of reach, only to be played by those that were serious and I mean in terms of how much money they had.

It was educational, and honestly, a bit lustful. Guitars are art to me – functional art. Some see them as worthy of hanging on the wall and are never played (which seems sacrilegious to me, but I digress).

So, in the first of what I hope is many columns on the topic, I’m going to bust out some known, and not so known, cool and valuable rods that I dig, and I hope you do too. Today, it’s about metal… as in neck.

I’m sure that other materials had likely been toyed with, but when Travis Bean partnered with Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer, the latter of whom would go on to start his own guitar company, in the mid-70s, they opted to try a aluminum necks that ran through the body. The cool thing was that the pickups, a unique humbucker design, was bolted to the neck-through body. The design did two things: It gave a wholly unique tone, that was more brittle, but it also gave the guitars incredible sustain. To add, with metal being the neck material, warping of them was a non-factor.

I never owned a Travis Bean, but had played many. They were unique, but still classy – the wood body was still made of quality materials and the wood-grained models showed that beyond the novelty of the metal neck, the designs were classic – most with a double-cutaway reminiscent of smaller horns on the Gibson ES=335.

According to Wikipedia, “around 3,600 guitars and basses were produced between 1974 and 1979.”

As mentioned, Kramer went on to start his own company in 1975, and while I did not own a Travis Bean, I did own a metal necked Kramer with three single-coils for a stretch.

The Travis Beans are highly coveted collectables. In searching eBay, the #1 Travis Bean is listed for (sitting down?) , $58,000.

They’re odd, cool, and classic. How I wish I was still sitting there in that guitar store cleaning and playing one.

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