The Gibson Guitars You’ve Never Heard Of…
by Daniel Brooks
Think of the historic guitars of the 20th century, and realize the impact Gibson has had on our music. Robert Johnson played his L-1 to define the Delta Blues for generations. Charlie Christian’s ES-150 allowed the Jazz guitarist to be heard in a big band for the first time. Woody Guthrie stood up for humanity with his 1945 Gibson L-0, decorated with his famous sign that read “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Elvis strummed his J-200, swung his hips, and established rock and roll as the most significant and popular form of music of the coming decades. Keith Richards picked up his ‘59 Les Paul to record “Satisfaction,” and kick the British Invasion into overdrive. Jimmy Page plugged his ’59 Les Paul into his Marshall amp and, with the help of his Led Zeppelin band mates, created the soundtrack to mystique itself, while Yes’ guitarist Steve Howe and his ’64 ES-175 took music to a whole new realm of Progressive Rock.
Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Robert Fripp, Robbie Krieger, Tony Iommi, Frank Zappa, and maybe even your favorite, unnamed here, are but a few on a long list of musicians whose legendary status is associated with that of their iconic Gibson guitar. Few guitar makers have enjoyed as great a presence, and as enduring an influence on Western pop culture as Gibson. But for all of their extraordinary successes, Gibson has created quite a few designs that have remained obscure, for one reason or another, though not necessarily unappreciated. Let’s take a minute to look a few of these.
The Gibson Moderne is, by far, one of the most storied and mysterious of the rare guitars. In 1957, Gibson sought to upgrade its image as the “traditional” guitar manufacturers, and regain some of the market share lost to Fender’s bold, new designs. A trio of modern guitar designs was proposed. The Flying V and the Explorer went into a relatively unsuccessful three-year production run, in which fewer than two hundred of each guitar were made and sold before being discontinued in 1960. The third model, the Moderne, never officially made it into the hands of the public, but stories of its design did. Over the years, the Moderne became something of a mythical design. Prototypes were rumored to have been built and either destroyed or closely guarded as the rarest and most coveted guitar in a handful of collections. Unfortunately, anyone who could have possibly known the truth about the Moderne is no longer around to verify any of the many stories. Billy Gibbons believes and affirms his Moderne is one of the elusive originals, but his story remains unverified as he is somewhat secretive about it and refuses to let it be inspected. Gibson finally revisited the design in 1980 with a brief “re-issue” that was met with limited success. Original Heart guitarist Howard Leese has one of the prototype reissues. In 2012, the Moderne was once again introduced, and the story continues.
The Gibson RD was introduced in 1977 to be the guitar of the future. The design proved to be quite brilliant and playable, with a body that suggested a more organic variation of the reverse Firebird of the previous decade. Three variations of the RD were available throughout it three year run, all with two humbuckers, a 25.5” scale length and the same body and set neck crafted from maple for a bright tone. The RD Artist was the premier model that featured active Moog circuitry, a switchable bright mode, treble boost, bass boost, compression and expansion circuits. The RD Custom featured active circuitry with a switchable bright mode. The RD Standard came with passive electronics, like most guitars. All three models were popular among the small but enthusiastic crowd of about 1,500 guitarists who bought one before the line was discontinued in 1980. The original ’77 RD Artist is now considered quite collectable, with a collector’s price to match their legend. In 2007, and then again in 2009, Gibson reissued the RD Standard with substantial changes in materials and hardware.
The Corvus was introduced in 1982 to in an attempt to recast Gibson in a new light as a bold, adventurous innovator. Corvus is the name of the genus that includes crows and ravens, and the complex design of guitar’s alder body suggested the shape of a crow in flight. The Gibson Corvus had a rare (for Gibson) bolt-on neck and came in three different models, each differentiated by, and named for, its pickup configuration. The Corvus I had a single humbucker with one tone and one volume control. The Corvus II featured a pair of humbuckers, each with its own tone control and a single master volume control. The Corvus III came with three single coil pickups and the same three controls. Despite being a great sounding, easily playable guitar, the Corvus line sold poorly and lasted a mere two years before being discontinued in 1984.
1969 Les Paul Personal
The Gibson Les Paul Personal should have been a lot more popular than it eventually proved to be. It represented all of Les Paul’s personal preferences and innovations that followed after he lent his name to Gibson’s most famous and successful guitar. Ever the restless inventor, Les Paul designed his own low impedance pickups, altered the body dimensions for a slightly wider, more bottom rich tone, and added circuits and switching for different phase and tone operations. The 11-position “decade” control chose a range of tonal signatures from almost acoustic to open humbucker sounds, and the tone switch reconfigured the controls three different ways for a vast range of options. The guitar even featured a microphone jack on the upper bout. As versatile as it was, the Les Paul Personal proved to be too complicated for most guitarists and was discontinued in 1969 after a production of only 370.
1973 Les Paul Recording
With the discontinuation of the Les Paul Personal in 1969, Gibson saved some of Les Paul’s innovations for the guitar that eventually became his favorite, the Les Paul Recording Model. Designed to be a versatile tool in the recording studio, the Recording featured the same diagonal, low impedance pickups that could deliver an impressively broad and malleable range of sounds directly to a recording console. Of course, Les Paul used his favorite recording model for live shows, a flip of a switch activated the high end of the custom low/high impedance circuitry for use with a standard amp. The Les Paul Recording Model stayed in production until 1979, with several thousand guitars created. It has come to be recognized as a highly collectable guitar with a respectable collectors price tag keeping them in the hands of those value them the most as outstanding studio tools.
With the Gibson logo on the headstock, few obscure models will go for a price that is practical for most entry level guitarists. But if you should find an old Marauder, Dusk Tiger, Melody Maker, Futura, S-1 or any of the guitars featured here, chances are good you’ll have unearthed a treasure that is well worth any reasonable price.