36. 1991 Gibson Firebird V
I’VE always been a Fender man. Something to do with having been serially obsessed with a succession of Fender players, I think…Richie Blackmore, Wilko Johnson, Gypie Mayo, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sonny Landreth.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the guitarist I’ve spent most time standing alongside on stages near and far- my Automatic Slim compadre Ian Cundy – has been inseparable from his trusty 72 Tele Custom for almost as long as I’ve known him. (He had a Japanese Tele Thinline copy when I first met him.)
Having said that, if ever there were a guitar from “Brand G” to tempt me over to the Dark Side, it was always going to be Gibson’s original “reverse” Firebird – officially the Coolest Guitar on the Planet, as far as I’m concerned. I suppose, in an odd way, it remains, in some ways, the most Fender-like of all the classic Gibsons.
Such a beautiful thing. It’s easy to believe the story (I’m pretty sure it’s true, actually) that when Gibson were after a really cool, contemporary new look for a new guitar in the early 60s, they drafted in the inspired designer who put the tailfins on all those classic late 50s Cadillacs.
I don’t remember where I first saw one, or who was playing it, but I do recall drooling over pictures of the gorgeous three-pickup Firebird VII played by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera – all glossy red paint and gleaming gold hardware – and admiring Johnny Winter’s battered old sunburst Firebird V. (That was before Winter he started playing those weird headless guitars.) Long before I bought my Firebird, I was getting a vicarious thrill from leafing through small ads in magazines and auctions on eBay. I should have recognised the signs. My credit card finger starting to twitch.
One fine day in about 2005, I spotted a 1991 sunburst Firebird V on eBay with a ridiculously low starting price. Ridiculously low, but still a lot more than I’d ever paid for a guitar up to that point. I felt I just had to punt a bid on it, never thinking for a minute I’d win it. Turned out I was the only bidder. Shit, I thought. I’m going to have to buy it now! So before the start of my afternoon shift one morning, I headed to North London – Clapton, to be precise, which I took as some kind of omen – to collect it.
The seller was a spotty lad of about 24, a DJ type (he was actually wearing a baseball cap backwards!) Almost the first thing he said was that he wasn’t prepared to let it go for the auction’s closing price – he wanted at least £50 more. Apparently, his dad had bought him it for his 15th birthday and he felt bad enough about not playing guitar any more – and terrible about letting it go, but he was broke. I could have got really shitty about it, but call me soft-hearted, a sucker for a sob story… I decided it was well worth the extra £50. I didn’t quibble about it and walked out clutching an enormous brown coffin of an oblong Gibson case (the handle was broken). It was actually bigger than any bass case I’d owned in a previous life. If I’m honest, I was in a bit of a daze.
One of the things I loved instantly about the Firebird was that it wasn’t a pristine Gibson “furniture” guitar. It’d been a careless teenager’s plaything and bore the scars to prove it. Nothing major – I even liked the way years of play meant the gaudy Firebird emblem on the pickguard was almost invisibile!. The point was it was sufficiently beaten-up for someone as hard on guitars as me not to worry about, even though it was the most expensive guitar I’d ever bought – my fourth single most valuable possession after the house, the car and my Matchless Chieftain!
It was – still is – a thing of huge beauty, a graceful, elegant instrument, with a through-neck – the neck and the central part of the body one long piece of laminated mahogany. It’s surprisingly light for such a big instrument – did I mention that Firebirds are HUGE? Yep! A good six or seven inches longer than your average common or garden Strat or Tele. That, in itself, takes a bit of getting used to – if only so you don’t clobber your bandmates when you suddenly swing around on stage. It also hangs differently on a strap – you quickly discover everything is at least two frets further to the right than you expected! Then there are the two volume controls and two tones, not to mention a pickup selector seemingly yards away, down on the bottom horn. Anyone who’s ever got to grips with a Firebird is likely tell you the same – it’s a learning curve! But worth it.
I’ve actually done very little to this guitar since, other than admire its graceful lines – and play it quite a lot, of course.
The one major modification I made early on. I swapped out the distinctive Kluson straight banjo tuners for a set of Steinberger Gearless tuners. I’d been eyeing these in the Stewmac catalogue for some time (just in case one day I bought a Firebird copy with conventional tuners!)*
The Steinbergers are half the weight of the clunky old Klusons, which helped cure the Firebird’s neck-heavy tendancies. They tune incredibly precisely and also preserve the Firebird’s incredibly clean, sexy outline. My decision was vindicated by Gibson itself. About five years later, Gibson started factory-fitting Steinbergers to its regular Firebirds. However, mine has the original Steinbergers you haved to tighten with a spanner to lock the strings – the current ones have a rather ugly T-bar on each machine.
* I’ve long had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about various copies – especially the recent Gibson Studio ‘Birds, with their set necks and conventional tuners. My WOLFPACK colleague Joel Fisk had one for a while and it was a nice guitar, but it just looked WRONG! (For that matter, I never really liked the look of the later “non-reverse” Firebirds Gibson started making the mid-60s. If it ain’t broke etc etc.)
I’ve gigged my lovely old Firebird on and off in every band I’ve been in – not all the time, because in its case, it’s too big to fit in the car whenI’m carrying more than an amp and a couple of guitars to a gig – but pretty often. It’s another one of those guitars, like the Twincaster, that I like to use when playing big high-profile gigs…it’s just so photogenic!
What’s more, it’s definitely one of the guitars I’ll never, ever, sell. If fact, I quite fancy another one – either a white Firebird V or VII, or maybe a single-pickup Firebird l. I might even go for one of those rather fetching blue Epiphone Bonamassa models, which have a proper through-neck and straight-through tuners. I’d even put up with having that guy’s name on the headstock – that’s how cool I think they are!