57. Faking a Firebird
AT the start of this extended essay about single-pickup guitars, I mentioned Gibson’s very coolest single-pickup guitar, the “reverse-body” Firebird I. I also lamented the fact Firebird Is are almost unobtainable without a greater outlay than I have made on a single guitar in my entire life.
I still wanted one, though. And fired up by the success of my Esquire build, I was soon starting asking: What next? I kept finding myself looking at Firebird-shaped bodies on eBay and wondering what I might do with one. One of the things I love about putting together guitars (I’m still not sure if bolting together instruments from modified pre-fabricated parts constitutes proper guitar-building) is working through the many what-ifs and technical challenges of these projects.
I kept coming back to listings on eBay by a company called Luthiers’ Warehouse, (now called Luthier Crafts), offering Firebird bodies in something called “Uruguayan mahogany”. I had two reservations, however: One practical and one in my mind.
All LW’s Firebird bodies were routed to take at least two P90 single-coil pickups, a Gibson-style tune-o-matic bridge and a stop tailpiece. My Firebird I needed to have to have a single mini-humbucker and a one-piece wraparound bridge.
As big a stumbling block to me was the fact the resulting guitar would have a Fender-style bolt-on neck, rather than the complex through-neck construction that’s one of the things that makes Firebirds so very special. The unique sustaining properties of single-pickup guitars (see Part 1) is fascinating and maybe a tiny bit controversial, but so is the effect of a through-neck – an extension of nine laminated strips of hardwood running all the way through the body and up to the headstock.
As the proud owner of a genuine vintage through-neck Gibson Firebird V, I’m sorry to say I’m a bit of a through-neck snob, scoffing at Tokai, Epiphone and Gibson Studio Firebirds, with their bolt-on, or glued-in necks.
Eventually, I sprung for a slight factory second body from LW, plus the cheapest blank “paddlehead” Strat-style neck I could find. (I figured if my attempts to fashion a reverse Firebird headstock from the paddle went awry, I wouldn’t have wasted all that much money. And if it turned out OK, it would have been well worth taking a punt.) The body cost me £70; the neck a princely £32!
I did ask Luthier’s Workshop if it could supply a body with the routs I wanted, but sadly, it couldn’t. This was during the Delta covid spike, when the workshop was short-staffed and not able to produce one-offs, so I ordered a standard body and turned my mind to ways I might modify it to the spec in my head. As I say, I do like the challenge or a slightly out-of-the-way project.
Alongside my Gibson, the body was roughly the right size and shape, though the back was a plain, chunky slab, lacking the front’s neat, Firebird-esque raised centre section carve. Other un-Firebirdlike characteristics included a side rout for an output jack and a 5mm-deep rout to sink the bridge into the body. Bizarre, especially since the neck pocket was WAY too shallow! What were they thinking? With the bridge set so high into the body, the fingerboard would sit unplayably high.
While I waited for the body to arrive, I’d ordered my mega-cheap neck. I wasn’t expecting much, but what the postie brought was actually okay. The fingerboard was dry as bone and the frets needed a LOT of work, but it was straight, the truss rod worked and the nut was reasonably well cut. More importantly, the oblong paddle headstock was big enough – just – to cut a Firebird headstock, though, of course, it didn’t pitch back like a Gibson one.
I found a template online but, at that point, I bottled it, turning to my Burnham friend Steve Edwards, who has years of proper, grown-up guitar-building experience – not to mention a workshop full of power tools!
In exchange for a few cans of cider, Steve shaped the headstock, drilled out the tuner holes and routed the neck pocket to a more appropriate depth.
I did ask if he might be able to carve out the back of the body to emulate the rear raised section on a Firebird, but since the control cavity had already been routed, this was impossible without a lot of faffing about. What he did do, though, was carve a nice belly-cut (which I later extended with a palm sander, while also thinning down the top bout to a more Firebird-like contour).
After a bit of badgering, Luthier’s Warehouse agreed to supply a couple of offcuts of “Uruguayan mahogany” which roughly matched the body, so I could make filler pieces for the unwanted pickup cavity and bridge routs. I was pretty pleased with the results – they are not exactly seamless, but you have to stare quite hard at the finished guitar to spot where the cavities were.
The body took a fair bit of sanding – I also decided to sand away part of the body around the neck join to make it a bit less chunky, using recessed steel ferrules rather than a neckplate.
For the finish, again I opted for Tru-Oil, though first I had to darken the pale maple of the neck with wood stain to get it closer to the colour of the body. I also masked off the raised centre section of the body on the front and stained that area darker to give the guitar a bit more of a through-neck look.
Hardware was relatively easy to find, though the tuners could have been a bit tricky. My Firebird snobbery dictated they had to be straight-through tuners like those on an original Firebird, leaving that graceful headstock outline unencumbered. Reverse Firebirds originally came with big, clunky, Kluson banjo tuners – great heavy lumps of steel which never held tuning all that well and contributed to the notorious neck-dive for which ‘Birds are infamous.
For these reasons, I’d replaced the Klusons on my ’91 Gibson long ago, using a pricey, but excellent, but expensive set of Steinberger Gearless tuners (£120 from Stewmac, in 2005.) A couple of years after I modded my ’91, Gibson wised up and from about 2007 until well into the 2010s, fitted similar locking Steinbergers to its production Firebirds…great minds and all that!
Sadly, at some stage in recent times, this type of tuner seems to have since been discontinued by Steinberger – Gibson still lists them on its website, but they seem to be permanently out of stock.
Fortunately for me, during the 2010s, Gibson lost the plot a bit, introducing all manner of weird, whacky models and pointless modifications to classic guitars which were just fine as they were. One such “improvement” was adding Steinberger tuners to some Les Pauls and SGs. Unsurprisingly, they never caught on – they looked totally wrong and were removed by many owners. One such guitarist’s misfortune worked in my favour. I found a set of T-piece tuners, removed from a Les Paul by the owner, He was grateful to be shot of them for £60. Result! I would have preferred the older-style tuners, but I’m not complaining.
Both the bridge and the pickup came from that favourite guitar parts standby, Wilkinson. Both the Wilkinson wraparound bridge and the Firebird mini-humbucker (£25 each, give or take) proved well up to standard and worked out just fine. Finding a chromed metal pickup surround for a sensible price proved a lot harder – again, the online guitar modders’ network came up trumps. There are hundreds of guitar groups on Facebook and they are often a real godsend for the likes of me. 🙂
For the pickguard, the truss rod cover and the raised section of the headstock, I turned to another old standby, plastic modeller’s card – a throwback to my days of building and modding Airfix models as a teenager – white for the pickguard (traced from the one on my ’91) and black for the other two. It was really handy having a real Firebird around the house – I simply unscrewed them and traced round them as templates!
It all came together relatively well, despite the usual restless, impatient period of more than a fortnight while there was nothing much to do except applying a daily coat of Tru-Oil, rubbing down with fine wire wool every two or three coats.
While that was going on, I’d fitted the tuners to the neck and, anxious to find out how this cheap Strat neck might play, I removed the neck from one of my Strats, bolted on the Firebird neck and strung it up. It took a bit of jiggling and a small amount of shimming, but it actually played pretty well. Looked cool, too. I was almost tempted to leave it on the Strat and get another neck for the Firebird…
The electrics – CTS pots, jack socket and tone capacitor – came courtesy of another of my go-to traders, Northwest Guitars, which carries a very good stock of guitar parts at quite reasonable prices. (I also got the Wilkinson hardware there.) Another job I was able to carry out while waiting for the body oil to cure was to make up the wiring loom, with a piece of cardboard marked and punched to hold the components in their correct positions.
Finally finished and strung up at the end of January 2022, the end result looked impressive. (I later added a Firebird decal to the pickguard and a hooky vinyl Gibson logo on the headstock – controversial to some, but I just thought it looked better with them on. Nobody’s ever going to mistake this for the real thing, but it makes me happy!)
It plays OK and sounds reasonably good. I’ve even gigged it a couple of times. On stage, it worked OK, but if I’m honest, never really inspired me in the way the Esquire did, r my original Firebird does. (The Esquire is still my go-to guitar for playing around the house because it plays so well.) All the same, building the Firebird was a very worthwhile learning curve.
Several guitars into the building craze, I’m firmly addicted. In fact, it has more or less cured me of the urge to buy guitars (for now, anyway!) Where I used to find myself scouring the online marketplaces for guitars, these days, the things I’m looking at online tend to be routers, pillar drills, spindle sanders and all the kit “proper” guitar builders use – builders who know what they’re doing. All I need now is a workshop and a couple of grand to equip it!
For some time now, I’ve been threatening to screw some guitar hangers to the lounge wall for decorative purposes. When I finally get around to it, I have a feeling this Firebird, along with my pretty, orange fake Gretsch, will end up hanging there, offering greater delight the eyes than to the ears or the fingers. 🙂
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