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Gibson’s 5 Freakiest Electric Guitar Designs of the ’50s & ’60s

Dave Hunter

Many of the most successful electric guitar designs of all time have emanated from Gibson’s R&D departments in, first, Kalamazoo, Mich., and later Nashville, Tenn., but the brains behind the Les Paul, the SG, and the ES-335 also issued forth a handful of guitars that just didn’t take off in the same major way, sales-wise at least. Some of these were simply too far ahead of their time, and found a fan base years later, often after having been deleted from the catalog. Others were just too out-of-left-field to ever be widely accepted, although few failed to win at least a handful of devotees. Many of both types would become undeniable classics further down the road, but just didn’t sit right in the market at the time of their birth. Let’s take a look at five of the freakiest electrics to waltz out of the Kalamazoo factory in the 1950s and ’60s.

1958 Flying V and Explorer

Taking these guitars chronologically also places our most iconic freaks first, and we’ll cover both models from the Modernistic Series together because they embody similar thinking in two different shapes. The guitar world’s failure to accept the Flying V and Explorer at the time of their original production run of 1958-’59 is a street-cred misfire on the scale of the massive show of poor judgment displayed by the record label exec who showed Brian Epstein the door when he was shopping around The Beatles’s demos in the early ’60s.

We now know these to be among the sexiest solidbody electric guitar designs ever rendered by man, but back in the day they just didn’t fly. The original two-year run produced fewer than 140 examples of both models combined, although some others would be assembled in the early ’60s from leftover parts, and the lines would be revised and reissued in 1966. Not only was the Flying V’s shape wildly original, it was also made from solid Korina wood (also known as African limba), a variety that hadn’t been commonly seen in solidbody guitar making before this time, but had been used in Gibson’s Consolette and Skylark steel guitars. A relative of mahogany, Korina is a light, fine-grained wood with a slightly golden hue and excellent resonance and sustain properties. In short, it makes for a rich, singing solidbodied guitar, and partnered with a pair of PAF humbucking pickups was a force to be reckoned with in the tonal stakes. Gibson Custom’s 1959 Korina Flying V highlights the legacy of these great originals, while the 1958 Epiphone Korina Explorer offers a more affordable take on these wild lines.


1962 Tal Farlow Signature

Depending upon your own personal sense of esthetics, the Tal Farlow can look like a beauty or a beast; either way, this is exactly how the popular sideman and solo artist of the ’50s and ’60s wanted his signature model to look. The Tal Farlow model, first released in 1962, has a body that looks somewhat like the popular ES-5 archtop in its basic dimensions, but from there it departs in its own unusual direction. Its distinctive faux-scroll rounded cutaway, an effect created by inlays that “scroll” into the body (Farlow’s own design), the upside-down J-200 fingerboard inlays, double-crown headstock inlays, and Tal Farlow trapeze tailpiece with inlaid rosewood block set it apart from any other archtop Gibson had ever created. It has the width of a full-sized archtop at 17” wide, but is nearly half an inch narrower than other large-bodied guitars of the day, coming in at somewhat more comfortable 3” deep. Fully acoustic, it was also a fully electric model, with two set-in humbucking pickups with individual volume and tone controls, and a three-way selector switch. Its floating rosewood bridge base carries an ABR-1 tune-o-matic bridge for full adjustment of individual string intonation and excellent sustain. As preferred by many professional jazz guitarists of the day, the Tal Farlow was made to a 25 1/2” scale length, with a 1 11/16” nut width. An unusual Gibson though it may be — its original five-year production run numbered only 215 guitars — there has been a steady, if limited, demand for this exotic archtop, and Gibson Custom currently produces a Tal Farlow Signature model in the precise image of the original.


1963 “Reverse Body” Firebird

Another of Gibson’s coolest designs of all time, in the eyes of many rockers and collectors alike, the original “reverse body” Firebirds of 1963-’65 were another radical design that was slow to catch fire. Like the Flying V and Explorer, it seems these solidbodies were just too far ahead of their time, although they did sell in better numbers than the Korina wood Modernistic Series had in ’58-’59, before being revamped in 1965 into the simpler, non-reverse firebird range. In a bid to compete visually in the booming electric guitar market of the early ’60s, Gibson went right to the source of marketing style and hired automotive designer Ray Dietrich—designer of the Duesenberg car, among others—to take redraw the blueprint for the electric guitar. The result was a guitar that was clearly ahead of its time: the new Firebird had a body that appeared to be the reverse image of other solidbody styles on the market, an upside-down six-in-line headstock (using “banjo” tuners to avoid spoiling the lines of the phoenix-head profile), and a solid integral neck/body section with glued-on wings, a rarity in guitar manufacture at that time. In addition to the increased resonance and sustain given to the Firebird by its “through-body” construction, a new style of Gibson Mini-Humbucking pickup (two of them on the Firebird III) lent the model a bright, stinging tone. If you’re into the hip lines of this unusual yet versatile guitar, Gibson USA’s accurate rendition of one of the most popular reverse-bodied Firebirds, the Firebird V is worth checking out.


1964 Trini Lopez

Long a lame duck with vintage guitar collectors, the Trini Lopez model has gained a new following in recent years. No doubt Foo Fighter Dave Grohl’s use — and outspoken praise — of the model has helped, but chances are that it just took a while for many players to catch on to the alternative yet subtly groovy of this thin-bodied, ES-styled model. Released in 1964 as a signature model for Latin pop star Trini Lopez, this guitar is essentially a mid-‘60s ES-335 under the hood, with some significant cosmetic distinctions on the neck and body. Most noticeable, perhaps, are its diamond “f-holes”, which are echoed by the split-diamond fingerboard inlays. A six-in-line headstock borrowed from the non-reverse Firebird graces the end of the Trini Lopez’s neck, while the strings are anchored at the body end by the trapeze tailpiece that ES-335s of this era employed. While original models would have carried “patent number” humbucking pickups, an evolution from the hallowed PAF, Gibson Custom’s current reissue of the Trini Lopez uses the popular 57 Classic pickups to produce its thick yet snappy tone.


1969 Citation

First manufactured in 1969, and sporadically on a few occasions after, the Citation emobodied Gibson’s effort to construct the ultimate archtop guitar. In hindsight, it arguably exhibits the excessive and rather odd-duck looks of many “deluxe” examples of the luthier’s art from the late ’60s and early ’70s, but it packs loads of retro cool too. However you look at it, there’s no denying that Gibson went all-out with this guitar. The company’s craftsmen used the highest grade solid spruce for the top, which was hand carved into a graduated arch, and the back and sides were likewise carved from highly figured solid maple. Abalone cloud motifs were inlaid in its ebony fingerboard with pointed end, all of which was dressed in multi-ply black/white binding, and its headstock was inlaid with an abalone fleur de lis. Miniature fleur de lis were echoed on its ebony bridge base, while the highly figured maple pickguard echoed the curl of the maple in the back and sides. Of course, only 24 karat gold plating was good enough for the hardware used on this guitar. Although it was designed to be a full acoustic instrument, the Citation was made with a floating, pickguard-mounted pickup to make it performance ready. The summation of this indulgence in elegance was nothing short of breathtaking. A rare bird and a collector’s item from the start, the Citation has been reissued by Gibson’s Custom Shop, and offers a return to the days of the archtop guitar as art form.

Next week, in Part Two, we’ll look at some wild rides from the ’70s and early ’80s.

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