Friday 3/5/2010 ~ Retroactive
Do you ever have conversations
with yourself? Me too! (What? Who said that?)
made a few comments to myself last week as I was watching a TV
show. I don't know if you heard about the show... it was called
"The Olympics"... and it was pretty good.
On the final evening they had
an elaborate ceremony, with lots of folks lip syncing songs.
One of the lip synced songs was
called "Let's Have A Party" and it featured three "big-in-Canada"
folks I hadn't heard of: Nikki Yanofsky, Eva Avila and Derek
Miller. Despite the fact that Nikki and Eva were far more attractive,
I spent most of my time looking at Derek... since he was playing
guitar. (It's an issue we guitaraholics have...)
I immediately said to myself,
"Hey, nice white Reverse Firebird!"
Then I mused, "Hmmmm, 'Reverse
Firebird'... what an interesting name."
"How so?" I queried.
"Well, it's one of those
retroactive names," I said, teasingly.
"The Firebird is radioactive?"
"Not radioactive, retroactive,"
I said, "And turn that TV down, you can't hear yourself
"You're the one who's mumbling,
" I said to myself. "But I'm intrigued. Tell me more..."
Just as I was about to get into
a long-winded discussion with myself about the significance of
the "Reverse Firebird" name, Neil Young (big-in-Canada-and-everywhere-else-too)
appeared on the show, and he was actually singing live. He's
old and wrinkly... but he's still Neil Young. It was great to
see him there.
But getting back to the Reverse
In the early 1960s Gibson was
having a hard time staying "hip." Throughout the 1950s
Leo Fender kept introducing new models, trying to one-up his
original Telecaster model....first with the Stratocaster, then
the Jazzmaster, and then the Jaguar. Fender also offered custom
colors on all of his models. Meanwhile, the Gretsch company took
the custom color look even further, with two-tone guitars and
sparkle finishes. But over in Kalamazoo, Gibson was still viewed
as an "old"
company. Their brief attempt at something new and exciting, the
1958 introduction of the Explorer and Flying V, was a dismal
failure. (Total number of Explorers sold in 1958-59: twenty-two;
total Flying Vs sold in 1958-59: ninety-eight)
Despite the failure of the 1958
Explorer, Gibson still had faith in the angular look of a guitar.
And they needed to show that they were a creative, innovative
company. In mid-1963 they introduced a new guitar that was reminiscent
of the Explorer shape, but with rounded curves instead of sharp
angles. The new model was called the Gibson Firebird, and in
addition to its unusual outline, it also featured completely
new (for Gibson) construction. The center section of the guitar,
from the endpin to the headstock, was one piece of wood. The
sides of the body (or "wings") were then glued on.
(Instruments like this are often referred to as "neck-thru"
construction.) (Rickenbacker had been using this approach for
years.) (And they still use it, particularly on the 4003 bass.)
There were four six-string models,
named Firebird I, III, V and VII, and two basses, the Thunderbird
II and IV. Here are catalog pictures.
The guitars did catch everyone's
eye. They were new and different. And initial sales were decent.
But six-months later, something happened that Gibson couldn't
have predicted: The Beatles. By mid-February 1964, every kid
in America wanted an electric guitar. To meet this new and intense
demand, guitar manufacturers needed to make guitars as fast as
they could make them. And with its complicated (and relatively
expensive) construction, the Firebird was not a fast and easy
guitar to make.
Furthermore, one of the distinctive
features of the new guitar was also a liability. The Firebird
used machine heads that stuck out backwards, similar to those
used on banjos. (Gibson previously used these on their Electric
Bass.) Although these machine heads looked really cool, if you
laid the guitar on its back, the long delicate headstock would
rest solely on the furthermost
tuner. The result was that any type of headstock bump, even in
its case, would cause a headstock crack. If you meet someone
today who has an early Firebird, it's perfectly polite to say,
"Wow, that's a beautiful guitar! How bad was the headstock
By late 1964 Gibson gave up on
the Firebird, and did some heavy redesigning. They changed the
body construction to be quicker and cheaper... now just a thin
slab of mahogany with a glued-on neck. And they went back to
standard machine heads. They also went with a more conservative
body design, almost a reverse image of the original Firebird.
And the names chosen for the new guitar, introduced in mid-1965,
were exactly the same as its predecessor: the Firebird I, III,
V and VII; and two basses, the Thunderbird II and IV. Here are catalog pictures.
Since the new model was also
called the "Firebird," a name needed to be coined to
refer to the older, discontinued guitar. The older ones became
retroactively known as "Reverse Firebirds."
The new Firebirds still didn't
catch the world on fire, and they were discontinued in 1969.
In 1972 Gibson re-introduced
the original Firebirds, and they have been available off-and-on
throughout the decades... and are now universally known as Reverse
So, when I saw Derek Miller at
the Olympics with his Firebird, it struck me that the name "Reverse
Firebird" was a retroactive name. And I wondered if there
are other examples of retroactive naming.
One came to mind immediately...
and it's also a Gibson product. In 1953 Gibson introduced their
first electric bass. They called it the "Electric Bass."
(That wasn't a banner day in the "Naming Department.")
In 1958 Gibson introduced a second bass, modeled after the new-for-1958
hollow-body ES-335. The new hollow-body bass was called the EB-2
("Electric Bass #2") and the previous model was retroactively
named the "EB-1." Here's Scott with a 1956 EB-1... although
when this particular bass was made it was simply called the Electric
Bass, not the EB-1.
I'm sure there are other examples
of retroactive naming happening, either in the guitar world,
or the real world... I'll ponder it.
See you soon,
PS: As you might guess, the second
series of Firebirds are now retroactively called "Non-reverse
PPS: Beside the reversed body
design, here's a breakdown of the differences between the Firebirds:
The original series: mid-1963-
Firebird I - one mini-humbucking pickup
Firebird III - two mini-humbucking pickups
Firebird V - same as II except fancier, with tune-o-matic bridge
and trapezoid inlays
Firebird VII - the Custom version, with three mini-humbucks,
gold hardware, bound fingerboard, etc
The second series: mid-1965-
Firebird I - two P90 pickups
Firebird III - three P90 pickups
Firebird V - two mini-humbucking pickups
Firebird VII- three mini-humbucks and gold hardware
In both series the Thunderbird
Bass II had one pickup, and the Thunderbird IV had two pickups.
PPPS: While we're at it, here
are the sales totals:
The original series: mid-1963-
Firebird I - 1377
Firebird III - 2546
Firebird V - 925
Firebird VII - 303
Thunderbird II - 718
Thunderbird IV - 322
The second series: mid-1965-
Firebird I - 1590
Firebird III - 1435
Firebird V - 492
Firebird VII - 79
Thunderbird II - 435
Thunderbird IV - 283
The rarest of them all is the
non-reverse Firebird VII, but the coolest looking is the reverse
Firebird VII, followed by all of the other reverse models.
PPPPS: I just thought of a couple
of retroactive nicknames...
a) In an effort to improve sales,
1958 Gibson changed the color of the Les Paul from a gold-top
to a beautiful cherry sunburst.
Unfortunately, the guitar still didn't sell well (even though
it was, and is, the finest guitar Gibson ever produced!) and
in 1961 it was discontinued. Seven years later, in 1968, the
Les Paul was reintroduced, and in a variety of colors including
different types of sunbursts. But if you're ever discussing vintage
guitars, the term "Sunburst" refers specifically to
those original 1958 - 1960 cherry sunburst Les Pauls. And if
you're talking to serious guitaraholics, you can just use the
b) Leo Fender's original Telecaster
featured a black bakelite pickguard. In 1956 the pickguard color
was changed to white. Although you can now get either color on
your telecaster, the term "Black 'guard Tele" refers
to Telecasters made between 1951 and 1956.
PPPPPS: Famous Reverse Firebird players...
PPPPPPS: Famous Non-reverse Firebird players...
PPPPPPPS: Customer of the week:
And The Central Plains