Email Specials from March 2010

Friday 3/5/2010 ~ Retroactive Naming


Do you ever have conversations with yourself? Me too! (What? Who said that?)

I 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?" I asked.

"Not radioactive, retroactive," I said, "And turn that TV down, you can't hear yourself think!"

"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 Firebird...

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 break?"

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 Firebirds.


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 Firebirds."

PPS: Beside the reversed body design, here's a breakdown of the differences between the Firebirds:

The original series: mid-1963- mid-1965:
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- mid-1969:
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- mid-1965:
Firebird I - 1377
Firebird III - 2546
Firebird V - 925
Firebird VII - 303
Thunderbird II - 718
Thunderbird IV - 322

The second series: mid-1965- mid-1969:
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 term "'Burst"!

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: Nik And The Central Plains

Friday 3/12/2010 ~ More on Retroactive Naming


The Pittsburgh Guitars Email Special
Chapter One: Thanks for writing
Chapter Two: Retroactively named people
Chapter Three: A retroactively named guitar
Chapter Four: I just looked at that album cover twenty-three years ago. How could I have forgotten??
Chapter Five: The Coupon
Chapter Six: The PSs's's



Chapter One:

Thanks so much to all of you who respond to the email special! I love hearing stories about guitars you own, or owned when you were a kid. And I especially like it when folks write to add new insight or information to the week's story.

Please forgive me if I don't always have a chance to write back. Sometimes we get flooded with "How much to ship that guitar to France?" emails. Or exchanges like this:

John Q. Public, Sr:
"Can you order a Rickenbacker 360 FG for me?"
"Of course!! Based on Rickenbacker's current delivery schedule, if we order a 360 FG today, we should have it in late March, 2012. Stop down with a deposit, and a phone number where you can be reached in 2012."

You know, maybe we should slow down with Rickenbacker deposits. I forget, is the world going to end in early-2012, or late-2012?

Anyway, thanks for the emails. I appreciate it!



Chapter Two:

Last week I discussed retroactive naming, and many people replied.

One of the more interesting non-musical parallels came from Lynne from Texas. She mentioned that anyone with "Sr." at the end of their name was retroactively named... i.e., George Bush, Sr.; Sammy Davis, Sr.; Robert Downey, Sr.; Martin Luther King, Sr.; Hank Williams, Sr. After all, you can't really be a "Sr." until years later in your life, when "Jr." is eventually born.



Chapter Three:

From a guitar perspective, several folks mentioned the 1961 to mid-1963 "Les Paul." It too got a retroactive re-name.

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1960 Gibson decided to do away with the Les Paul body shape. There were a handful of reasons... First of all, with its carved maple top and mahogany body it was complicated (e.g., expensive) to manufacture. Secondly, they were getting complaints about their new cherry sunburst finish fading when exposed to sunlight. Third, there's no denying that it was a bit heavier than Fender's Stratocaster. But most importantly... sales were dwindling.


Table 1.
Les Paul Standard Sales
1952 (First year of the Les Paul. Gold top finish. It's new! And electric!): 1716 sold
1953 (Second year. People are lovin' it!): 2245 sold
1957 (Sixth year. Ouch...): only 596 sold
1958 (In an attempt to boost sales: "NEW Sunburst Finish!" introduced): only 434 sold
1960 (Sales up slightly... but not enough): 635 sold


So, in 1961 Gibson redesigned the guitar to a beveled-edge, double cutaway, one-piece mahogany body, with a solid cherry finish. It looked like this. The new model was much cheaper to manufacture. (For example, moving the pickup selector switch to the same cavity as the volume and tone knobs saved routing time.) The red would still fade, but with the darker mahogany body (rather than the light colored maple cap) the fading would be less noticeable. And it was thinner, and much lighter.

And rather than lose their now-well-known model designation, Gibson decided to keep the name and still call it a "Les Paul."

But many folks weren't happy with re-using the old name, especially the actual Les Paul himself. He didn't like the look and feel of the new design, and he missed the tone of the maple/mahogany combination on the old model. He asked Gibson to remove his name from the new guitar. Gibson agreed and promptly renamed it the "SG." (For "Solid Guitar.") (As for the "promptly" part, they wanted to use up all of the "Les Paul Model" truss rod covers they had just made... so the guitars were labeled "Les Paul" through mid-1963.)

This guitar, now known and loved as the SG, turned out to be a very popular model and has been in production ever since. But those guitars made from 1961 through 1963, which are obvious SGs, were originally marketed by Gibson as "Les Pauls." To avoid confusion with real Les Pauls, today they are retroactively referred to as "SG/Les Pauls."


Table 2.
Les Paul, SG/Les Paul, and SG Standard Sales
1960 (Old style Les Paul): 635 sold
1961 (New SG style, originally named "Les Paul," now called the SG/LP): 1662 sold
1965 (After the "Les Paul" name was long-dropped, SG sales were still good): 1731 sold


So if you're ever talking to someone, and they say, "I have a 1962 Les Paul," you can say, "Oh, you mean an SG/Les Paul..." Then they'll say, "No. It says 'Les Paul' right on it." And you'll start telling them this story... and then... well, they'll probably walk away... But at least you tried to set them straight!



Chapter Four:


One thing I really enjoy is when people point out something funny that I missed. In last week's PS section I listed:

PPPPPS: "Famous Reverse Firebird Players"...

PPPPPPS: "Famous Non-Reverse Firebird Players"...

But Mark G. from Pittsburgh pointed out that, though I had Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones on the Reverse Firebird page, he should have been in BOTH groups. OK, that's not the most amusing thing in the world, but it would have been cute, and I should have thought of it... After all, in 1970 I bought a copy of the Rolling Stones album, "Got Live If You Want It"... and as recently as twenty-three years ago I looked at that LP, and saw the picture of him with a Non-Reverse Firebird III on the cover... Here's the album. I generally remember every album cover and 45 picture sleeve with guitars on them.... and I can't believe I didn't think of that last week! So I laughed out loud when I got Mark's email.

Here are some more photos:

Brian Jones with a Reverse Firebird VII. Note the three mini-humbucking pickups.

Here's a nice shot of the "banjo" style tuners on the original (Reverse) Firebirds.

Here's Brian with a Non-Reverse Firebird VII. Like the original Reverse Firebird VII, it has three gold mini-humbucks. Note how its body is reversed from the original Firebird (even through it's now called the "Non-Reverse" model.)

Here's Brian with a Non-Reverse Firebird III. This is the guitar on the album cover. Note the three P-90 pickups. (Black plastic covers, exposed pole-pieces.) No version of the original (Reverse) Firebirds had P90s... they all featured different numbers of mini-humbucks. (The Non-Reverse Firebirds with P90s: two on the Firebird I and three P90s on the Firebird III.)

And a day after I sent last week's email special, a customer brought in his 2002 reissue Reverse Firebird for a set-up. He let us take a picture. Here's John with a 2002 Reverse Firebird VII. (It's not a 100% accurate reissue. The Firebird VII should have gold hardware...)


Table 3.
Distinguishing Firebirds From A Distance
Reverse Firebirds (1963-1965)- small white pickguard on lower point.
Non-Reverse Firebirds (1965-1969)- larger white pickguard, covers upper and lower point, with pickups mounted on pickguard.


So next time you're watching TV with your friends, and...



Chapter Five:

A Gibson Firebird (Reverse or Non-Reverse) will certainly break if you drop it.


See you soon,



Chapter Six:

PS: Although Gibson discontinued the original Les Paul in 1960 and stopped using the Les Paul name on the SG/LP in 1963... they thankfully reintroduced the classic body style in 1968. And it has been with us ever since!

PPS: Gibson reintroduced the original Les Paul in 1968 because in the mid-1960s so many high-profile famous players were using original 1950s models. Folks using 1950s Les Pauls in 1965-66: Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Keith Richards, John Sebastian.... Here are some pictures.

PPPS: Here's an example of how confusing it all gets, even for the manufacturers: In 1986 Gibson wanted to introduce a reissue of the 1962 double cutaway Custom guitar. To avoid confusion with the public, they called it the "SG '62 Custom." BUT, although it is the SG shape, in 1962 this guitar would actually have been called the "Les Paul Custom"... so if it was really a reissue of a '62, then... well... So, just as the rest of us had been doing for years, Gibson gave up and gave it both names. In 1987 they renamed it the "SG Les Paul Custom." See, even Gibson is unsure about what to call those guitars! Here's John with an (only-called-this-for-one-year) 1986 SG '62 Custom.

PPPPS: Customer of the week: Athlete

Friday 3/19/2010 ~ A Good Time to be Alive


For the last few days I've been doing some heavy pondering. It's like heavy lifting, except your brain hurts instead of your back.

It started when we heard "Land Of 1000 Dances" by Cannibal & The Headhunters on our satellite radio. Sam said, "Wow, I've never heard the original version of this song. I know it from Patti Smith's 1975 cover version." I said, "Actually the Cannibal & The Headhunters recording wasn't the original, either." To which Sam replied, "Tell me more..."

And conversation ensued... "It was originally done by Chris Kenner in 1962...." "Cannibal & The Headhunters got a lot of airplay with it in 1965..." "Wilson Picket had an even bigger hit with it in 1966..." etc

And at the end of it all, Sam said, "You're lucky to have grown up when you did."

I almost took offense at the "grown up" part... but then I realized that I may as well face it. As much as I've resisted "growing up," I'm now so old that it has been forced upon me. But he's right. Musically speaking the 1960s were a great time to be a young musician. The Beatles and the other 'British Invasion' bands showed the world that you could get together with three of your friends and play rock & roll. And all over America folks did that. From young kids like me, who bought our first instruments and learned "Gloria," to already accomplished folk singers, who turned electric and hired a drummer. (Here's an example of the latter: folk-singers Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, who plugged in and became The Byrds.)

The `60s were an exciting time, and every six months (or less!) something new turned the music world on its ear. Here in the 2000s, when was the last time something "new" changed everything in music? (Besides Lady Ga Ga.)

As all of that was going through my mind, Eric my brother-in-law, stopped by the store to play me a new song he was working on. The significance? He recorded the song on a four track recorder on his iPhone! Yep, for $9.99 you can download a four track recording studio to your iPhone. And it records in CD-quality 16 bit, 44.1 kHz.

With technology like that (and who knows what's coming next month), there's no denying that THIS is a great time to be a young musician.


So which is it? Should I be happy that I was alive during the early formative years of rock & roll? (And yes, I realize that with acts like Little Richard, Check Berry and Elvis "rock & roll" really started before my time, in the 1950s. For the sake of this argument I'm referring to "rock & roll" as played by self-contained two-guitars-bass-and-drums bands.)

Or should I wish that I was a kid now, with unbelievable technology at my fingertips? (Hey, is that a four track recorder in your pocket?)


Of course, looking at the big picture, any time to be alive is better than the alternative. And once you get to a certain age, you always wish you were younger. As Socrates said in 425 B.C., "Youth is wasted on the young." (OK, it really wasn't Socrates; George Bernard Shaw said that in 1925... But, hey, neither one of those guys had an iPhone...)

But I don't really wish that I was eighteen again. There's too much confusion at that age. Of course, I wouldn't mind LOOKING like I was eighteen. I guess I don't really have an answer.


One thing is definitely true. Beginners guitars are MUCH better now than when I was young. Thanks to international manufacturing, companies like Fender now offer quality inexpensive versions of their classic models. For example, the Fender Squier Affinity Telecaster sells for a fraction of the Fender American Standard Telecaster... yet it plays just as nice... and practically sounds as nice. Here's John with an American Standard Tele and a Fender Squier Tele.


Let's compare this to the past: Today the Squier Telecaster sells for 17% of an American Standard Telecaster. What could you get for 17% of an American-made Telecaster in 1967? Well, in 1967 the price of a new American-made Tele was $269. And 17% of that is $46. Here's John with what you could buy for $46 in 1967... a super deluxe Kimberly almost-Tele copy. Here's a close-up. Sure, it's cute... and funny... but it doesn't compare with the Squier. Here's John with both.


So what have we learned? I dunno... 1969... 2010... both good times to be alive. Would I trade seeing the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan and watching the musical world change, for an iPhone with a digital four track recorder? Probably not... But if I were learning how to play, would I trade a Kimberly kinda-Telecaster for a Fender Squier Tele? Yes!!


Hey, we're both here now, and there's not much we can do about it anyway. Let's enjoy what we have. Let's pull out our iPhones and whatever kind of Tele we have, and make some music!


See you soon,

PS: The Email Special will be taking a one week vacation next Friday... so I can start on the taxes. April 15th is coming up fast!

PPS: Customer of the week: Centipede Eest
and on MySpace Centipede Eest

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