8th January 2011
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 – “Reverse” Firebird
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:
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.