Gibson Week: Gibson Oddities

Published on 09 September 2019

It’s a funny thing.

Gibson have made some of the most objectively beautiful guitars on the planet.

Think about the wonderful Les Paul Custom.

Consider the ineffable ES295.

Gibson’s style is a very specific mix of tradition, bling and great angles.

Or so you’d think.

Okay, Gibson did also branch out during the 50s into slightly more daring territory with the Flying V and the Explorer, but these are now regarded (rightfully) as classics. Enough players have played them, and enough companies have copied them, to render these designs as pretty ‘normal’ in today’s market. So it goes.

But there is more to it.

Gibson have made some frankly odd instruments in their time. As in properly polarizing, Marmite sandwich stuff. Lucky for them, the balance of clearly beautiful instruments compared with abjectly horrific designs lies squarely in the former category, but for a bit of fun, we’d like to highlight some of Gibson’s more ‘esoteric’ design choices.

From the point of view that we think Gibson make supremely good and incomparably gorgeous guitars, let us introduce you to a circus sideshow of Gibson misfires that have bewildered and terrified us over the years...

 

The Moderne

Of all the guitars we’ve lassoed for today’s article, this one is probably the most desirable! The modern was debuted in 1957 as a prototype alongside the Flying V and the Explorer. Together, they were known as the ‘Designer’ series, but only the V and the Explorer made it into production. Clearly, like Marty McFly’s interpretation of ‘Johnny B Goode’, music fans in the fifties were just not ready for the Moderne.

In fact, even the prototypes are curiously missing from physical history. No official examples exist, leading some to believe this most daring of guitar shapes never existed until Gibson formally began producing them in 1982, some 25 years after its heralding.

Since then, Gibson have occasionally produced the Moderne, though releases are few and far between. It has never been a production model like it’s Designer brethren.

One day...

RD Artist

Here’s another Gibson design that was roundly hated-on when it was released, but which is now gaining some cult acceptance. The RD, like a chunky, stunted cousin of the Explorer, has somewhat stood the test of time.

The deal with the RD was thus: in 1977, Gibson were owned by the same parent company who owned Moog synths. The RD, which loftily stands for Research & Development (presumably the name ‘Gibson R&D’ didn’t quite conjure up the correct connotations), was designed to bring the synth world and guitar world together in one inspired instrument.

Alarm bells should be ringing about now.

The RD was heavy affair since the body was quite unnecessarily made from Maple! Gibson also broke ranks and gave the RD a 25.5” scale, in a massive side-dodge of the company’s trademark 24.75” norm. Why? Not sure, but it didn’t help.

However, it was the custom Moog circuit, which took up half of the RD Artist model’s body mass, which brought the intended interest/sealed its untimely fate (delete as appropriate). This custom circuit was active and featured treble & bass boost, a bright mode, compression and ‘expansion’.

Gobs were not being as smacked as maybe Gibson had hoped.

The guitar-playing public didn’t care much for these ‘benefits’ and so the RD became a dead duck by the early 80s. Nowadays though, a real collector’s market has sprung up for them, especially the special FX-laden Artist model. Both Jimmy Page and Dave Grohl have been seen plying RD’s, and brands like Hagstrom have produced models based on the RD’s hard rock-flavoured ‘ugly duckling’ look.

Les Paul Recording

Well, at least it probably sounded good!

If ol’ Les Paul himself wasn’t madly keen on Gibson’s SG design, we shudder to think of what he’d have made of this. Official propaganda implies that Les was over the moon with his newest signature guitar, but we aren’t so sure. Its name – the Les Paul Recording- pretty much admits visual defeat from the off.

‘A face for radio’ is what our elder family members might say, with a sly wink.

The Les Paul Recording did offer low-impedance pickups (via a switch) which, as per Les’ preference, gave a very clean sound when DI’d into a mixing desk, something that precisely no Les Paul players wanted to do in the 70s. Or ever, actually.

This effort crossed the finishing line in 1971 and was actually supposed to be truer to Les’s original vision than the beautiful LP Standard that we all know and love!  Described as ‘innovative’ in the same way that loud, obnoxious people are sometimes described as ‘confident’, the Les Paul Recording was in effect an inverse ugly duckling: the stunning swan had already hatched decades before this curiosity flapped into view.

Slanted, plastic covered pickups. Two separate (and pointlessly so) pickguards. Switches for those all-important innovations (a phase switch and an impedance switch, clearly preparing to change the world). A shape that was more-or-less a Les Paul but definitely not one that Gibson would ever make...

Since it was the post-Futura 70s, we could kind-of see the appeal of this if it were a crazy budget guitar brand from some American catalogue, but we all know it wasn’t.

Since when was a regular Les Paul not fine for the studio anyway?

 

Dusk Tiger

It’s easy to put the boot in at Gibson’s much-maligned self-tuning Robot technology, but we’ll assume you have your own opinions about spending thousands of pounds on a guitar with a large, bulbous, plastic buzzy tuner box clamped onto the back of your new and otherwise iconic guitar headstock.

Comments about being able to tune a guitar before moving on to an expensive Gibson guitar are valid.

Gibson brought out a disturbing amount of ‘Robot’ guitars at the height of this ‘craze’ around ten years ago, but one in particular sticks in the brain like the horrifying after-image of a nightmare: the Dusk Tiger.

Don’t get us wrong: the name sounds lovely, conjuring up exotic and pleasurable sense-images. It’s just that one then makes the mistake of gazing at the Dusk Tiger and...well, things can never be quite the same again.

Clearly not giving up on the notion of plastic pickup covers on a Les Paul, Gibson decided to get bold (those alarm sounds again...) and introduce a strange Formica-like flat top, coupled with a metallic ‘swoosh’ that may well have started out as a pickguard but definitely did not end up as one. This swoosh (or was it a Thundercats weapon?) was festooned with bright L.E.D.-lit control knobs, undermining the already-regrettable look and giving mild mannered musicians everywhere ‘the fear’.

The Gibson Dusk Tiger was, at the time, a little bit dearer than a Les Paul Custom. What it lacked in classic good looks, or authenticity, or style, it made up for with the Robot tuning system and a further battery-powered ‘Master Control Knob’ (we aren’t kidding) which allowed you to simulate, in true Variax style, different pickups and EQ settings, including acoustic sounds.

Excellently, the guitar shipped without a manual, meaning deeper features like the inbuilt audio interface (presumably for those perplexing guitarists who’d shell out nearly £3k for a guitar but not a further £150 for a USB interface?) which gave you 7 individual outputs to your laptop or desk: one per string and another for the piezo.

Indeed, just what we were waiting for too.

The best news is, there were only 1000 Dusk Tigers ever made. The same cannot be said for our final entry into Gibson’s P.T. Barnum-style circus of horrors...

 

Firebird X

Indeed, what else could it have been? Gibson’s Firebird X holds its own special chamber of hell, sorry, we mean special place in our hearts as the Gibson guitar which finally ‘jumped the shark’ completely. When the Firebird X was announced, we genuinely double-checked our calendars to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

You may have recently seen the really rather odd video of hundreds of Firebird X’s being ceremoniously lined up and crushed by a construction vehicle. As a statement of intent, it’s far from subtle. Here it is, in case you missed it:

The reality is, though, that 8 or 9 years ago, it was a very different story. Gibson really did expect people to stop what they were doing and go mental for these frankly awful instruments.

Showing up in 2011 and ‘selling’, at that point, for well over £3000, the ill-fated Firebird X was never going to be an easy sell. With a shape that honestly looked like the winner of a nursery school drawing competition, a range of finishes that made them look like Pat Sharp would be playing them in his Funhouse, and ALL of Gibson’s unwanted technology heaped into one unfortunate guitar, the Firebird X was a heroic exercise in getting everything possible wrong all at once.

Child-like colourful 5-way levers, preset patches, toggle switches and implausible Bluetooth connectivity all contributed to flog the dead horse, even before the head-scratching moment came when you had to factor in two included footpedals...

The world at large laughed and said, ‘forget it’. They didn’t want the Gibson app to swap patches with other possible Firebird X players who might one day be out there, never mind the notion of looking to find the (yet again) unavailable manual. Even an ex-Gibson employee was quoted as calling the Firebird X a “horrible guitar with too much technology all based on Windows 98 or something.”

The world had almost forgotten about the said mistake that was the Gibson Firebird X, and that that video showed up. It’s not in our nature to cheer on the destruction of guitars, especially expensive American made guitars from Gibson, but this is one occasion where it seemed to be the only humane thing to do.

 

Final Thoughts

We have our tongues firmly in our cheeks as we write this article, of course. Gibson is one of our most beloved brands: We could write thousands of words on our love for Black Beauty Les Pauls, TV Yellow Juniors and Cherry Red ES-355’s, so Gibson fans should please bear that in mind! If even Gibson themselves post up gleeful videos of their guys smashing up the absurd Firebird X, it’s safe to say that we can all laugh about it now, too.

The take away from all of this is that Gibson have learned, through all of this experimental madness, that their formative designs simply work the best, and that guitarists don’t really want them as a brand to do anything other than give us the best versions of the models we all know and love.

This seems to be very much what Gibson are now doing, having worked all of the silliness out of their system. Maybe the purgatory days of the Gibson Robot and Dusk Tiger were worth it in the long run....

...maybe.

Gibson have been a good laugh over the years! We salute them as we enjoy their current, fantastic output.

 

See you next time

 

Ray McClelland

 

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