Gibson is responsible for many of the most iconic designs in the guitar world. From the Explorer to the SG to the legendary Les Paul, Gibson guitars have graced stages alongside some of the most famous acts in music history. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Firebird, a guitar that has a cult following today. In this Gibson Firebird review, we’ll introduce you to this important design and its features.
What is a Gibson Firebird Guitar?
The Firebird is certainly a departure from most electric guitar designs. Gibson introduced it in 1963 in an effort to compete with the soaring sales of Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster models.
In order to create a guitar that offered modern, popular appeal, Gibson hired car designer Ray Dietrich. Dietrich was inspired by the tailfins of 1950s cars, and the resulting model looked a lot like a Gibson Explorer with rounded edges.
The Firebird was useful for a number of genres, but it was especially suited to rock and blues music. In its heyday, it was played by the likes of Eric Clapton, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, and Paul McCartney.
Gibson Firebird Guitar Series
The Firebird came in several incarnations. Instead of having names for each “level” of Firebird (like the Junior/Special/Standard/Custom designations for the Les Paul), Gibson numbered the Firebirds.
The series was numbered with odd Roman numerals, with the lowest number being the least expensive model. The reason for using only odd numbers was that the line of Thunderbird basses was numbered with even Roman numerals.
The Firebird was a guitar with a truly unique tone, and much of that was due to the pickups. Instead of relying on common pickup types, Firebirds were equipped with custom-wound Firebird humbuckers. However, certain 1965 models had Gibson P-90s.
The Firebird pickups helped create the guitar’s signature tone. Firebirds had a biting midrange with plenty of treble zing. Overall, their sound offered a powerful presence with plenty of character. Some players describe the tone as being in between that of a single-coil and a typical humbucker-equipped guitar.
Here’s a quick rundown of each Firebird level:
The Firebird I was the most basic level of the instrument. It was a stripped-down version of the design — it had only one pickup with a volume control and a tone control, and the bridge was a hardtail. It was relatively plain in terms of aesthetics, too. The fretboard had simple dot inlays and no binding.
But unlike many basic Gibson models, the Firebird I came in a variety of colors. The basic model was sunburst, but for an added $15, it came in 10 specialty colors. Those colors were offered, in part, to help Gibson compete with Fender’s flashy, modern array of finishes.
The slightly upgraded Firebird III came with two Firebird mini humbuckers. It also had a vibrato tailpiece with a basic flat-arm Vibrola (Gibson’s name for its tremolo system). Each pickup had its own volume and tone control. The fretboard was single-bound with dot inlays. The Firebird III came with the same color options as the Firebird I.
At first glance, the Firebird V seems a lot like the Firebird III. It also came with two mini humbuckers, each of which had its own volume and tone controls. The adjustable Tune-O-Matic bridge was certainly an upgrade. The Firebird V offered fancier aesthetics as well — the deluxe Vibrola was engraved, the rosewood fretboard featured trapezoid inlays, and the neck was single-bound. It came with the same color choices as the rest of the Firebird lineup.
The Firebird VII was the premier guitar of the Firebird line, and it offered plenty of upgrades in terms of both tone and style. This model had three mini humbucker pickups and all-gold hardware. Like the Firebird V, it had a deluxe engraved Vibrola and a Tune-O-Matic bridge. The high-end ebony fretboard featured flashy block inlays and single binding. It also came in the same custom colors as the other models in the lineup.
What Does Non-Reverse Mean?
Gibson Firebird reverse designs are the ones that most people first think of when they picture a Firebird. But while the Gibson reverse Firebird body style appealed to players who wanted something a little different, it didn’t sell especially well.
Gibson wasn’t ready to discontinue the Firebird entirely, so from 1965 to 1969, it introduced the “non-reverse” body style. This body style looks more like a Fender offset guitar (like a Jazzmaster). Instead of having the body’s bottom horn extending further out, the non-reverse body had a top horn that extended past the bottom. In other words, the non-reverse body looked a lot more like your classic double-cutaway electric with an offset body.
The non-reverse body also didn’t have the reverse headstock of the “reverse” designs. The headstock had a typical alignment, and the tuners were along the top of the headstock instead of across the bottom.
Gibson Firebird: Reverse vs Non-Reverse – Similarities and Differences
The Firebird reverse vs non-reverse designs can be a point of confusion, especially if you aren’t too familiar with the history of the Firebird. Here’s a quick comparison table:
|Body Style||Neck||Body Headstock||Tonewood||Released|
|Reverse Firebird||Through Longer||Reversed||Mahogany||1963|
|Non-Reverse Firebird||Longer bass||Horn||Mahogany||1965|
Most Firebird models were “reverse,” meaning that the offset body was different from what you usually see. On most double-cutaways, the “horn” at the top of the guitar extends further than the bottom one. But on reverse Firebirds, it’s the lower horn that extends further. And compared to your typical electric guitar, reverse models have a headstock that looks like it’s flipped upside down.
Non-reverse models look more like your usual double-cutaway, with the top horn extending beyond the bottom. They also have more typical headstocks. But there’s a tonal difference, too. The non-reverse Firebirds often had Gibson P-90s instead of the usual Firebird mini humbuckers, so they sounded and looked different than the reverse models.
When Was the Gibson Firebird Released?
The Firebird has a rich history that began in 1963. At this point, all releases were Firebird reverse designs.
Though the Firebird was discontinued in 1970, Gibson still releases reissue models. The reverse body was first reissued in 1972, but it took until 2002 for the non-reverse to be reissued. It was offered through Gibson’s Custom Shop.
How Heavy is a Gibson Firebird?
Compared to many other Gibson designs, the Firebird was fairly light. Most of these guitars weigh around seven pounds. For the sake of comparison, the average Les Paul weighs around 10 pounds, while Fender Stratocasters are usually about 7-8.5 pounds. The Firebird’s relatively lightweight body made it a great stage guitar, especially for smaller guitarists or those who routinely played longer sets. However, in some cases, the larger body shape proved to be somewhat cumbersome.
Now that we’ve been through an introduction to this fascinating model, you might have some more questions. Here are some of the most common questions about the Firebird.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer to this question. In terms of different models, the Firebird VII came with more pickups (for more tonal versatility) and more features. And in terms of body style, more players seem to prefer the better-balanced reverse body style. However, some guitarists say that they prefer the sound of the non-reverse build — it tends to be a little more balanced and less harsh.
Like most Gibson solid bodies, Firebirds were made of solid mahogany. The necks were also made of mahogany, but they also had strips of walnut incorporated for added strength.
The Firebird is a 22-fret guitar. While a 22-fret guitar gives you a little less range than a 24-fret guitar, it does offer a tone that’s more “thick” and warm. That tone is better suited for rock and blues, and it helps accentuate the natural warmth of the mahogany body. By contrast, the sound of a 24-fret guitar emphasizes note articulation over warmth.
Pickups are one of the most important things when it comes to the tone of a guitar. And in keeping with the Firebird’s uniqueness, most models came with specialty pickups. Gibson included specially-wound Firebird mini humbuckers on many of the models. Depending on the specific type of Firebird (I, II, etc.), you would see one, two, or three of the pickups. These pickups helped create the Firebird’s signature thick, midrange-heavy tone.
There was some variation in pickup type, though. Some models featured full-size humbuckers, and some had Gibson P-90s. P-90s have their own unique sound — it’s often described as being a blend between a single-coil and a humbucker.
The reverse Firebird guitar was made with a neck-through design. This neck type extends all the way through the body, and it helps increase sustain. In fact, the reverse Firebirds were the first Gibson guitars to use this neck type.
However, the non-reverse design had a set neck, where the neck is simply “set” or glued into the body. While it often offers a bit less sustain than neck-through construction, a set-neck build is much less common among electric guitars.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the Firebird, one of history’s most distinctive guitar designs. Whether you want to start playing a reissue or simply want to learn more about guitar history, learning about this legend is sure to enrich your life.