Gibson have been in the guitar-making business for 120 years. They’ve made many iconic, trendsetting instruments and have consistently defined benchmarks for the entire industry; that’s why Gibsons are without doubt among the most ‘collectable’ guitars of all. Taking all that into account, you should be charitable and forgive them for having come out with one or two ill-conceived oddities along the way.
Although I’m sure Gibson undoubtedly had the best of intentions and would defend themselves by saying, ‘Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time’, their history is liberally peppered with instruments that have fared badly, and it’s highly likely that at some point you might be tempted to buy one, as we all like to be different now and again.
A little word of warning, though – most of these guitars are not easy to put a price on, for several reasons. Firstly, many are not particularly numerous, only having been in production for short periods; secondly, most are not old enough yet to have any real ‘vintage’ appeal; and thirdly, they are not traded regularly enough to ascertain a fair indication of their marketable value. At the end of the day, if offered one, you will have to be objective, cautious, and pay only what you feel that it’s worth to you.
Incidentally, all genuine guitars bearing the Gibson name have only ever been made in the USA. Over the years the company has produced instruments bearing other names. The American-made entry-level Kalamazoo and Cromwell ranges first appeared well before WW2, and there are many other Gibson-built ‘house brands’ which are not as well-known.
There were also some budget-priced Kalamazoo-branded solid six-strings and basses which appeared briefly in the late ’60s and early ’70s. These were much like a cross between a Gibson Melody Maker and a Fender Musicmaster, and came with particle-board bodies; they weren’t especially popular and didn’t stick around for very long.
By this time it was becoming painfully evident that Gibson didn’t have the knack of making cheap guitars well any more, whereas the Japanese of course did, and for this reason Gibson, amongst others, were forced to outsource production to the Far East in order to compete in this cutthroat market. Initially they exported all Epiphone production to Japan in 1969, and in more recent times we were to see their Korean-made Baldwins and the Japanese ‘Orville by Gibson’ models produced between 1985 and 1995.
Even more recently the company have invested significant resources in their ever-expanding Epiphone range, which now consists of a comprehensive collection of lower-priced reproductions of Gibson favourites, or reissues of original Epiphone models.
Purely from an investment standpoint I doubt if any of these will ever become particularly collectable, with the possible exception of certain mid-century off-brand Gibson-made flattops and archtops, although many remain cheap enough to enable anybody to build up a quite impressive spare room full of very useable guitars.
Back to our oddities, the first to come under scrutiny is the Marauder, which featured a bolt-on neck with a double-sided V-shaped headstock. These were made from ’74-’80, though since some tweaking was carried out at various points there are a few different versions. They certainly weren’t the best-looking Gibsons ever, but they did sell moderately well principally due to their budget price.
The S1 was a Marauder variation that had three single-coil pickups. The L-5S, produced in small numbers from 1972 with one or two still sneaking out of the factory as late as 1982, was their effort to make a solidbody jazz guitar that competed in its appointments with the archtop L-5C. The first two years’ production featured low impedance pickups borrowed from the Les Paul Recording, but conventional humbuckers were used after 1974.
Nice idea… but the L-5S it just didn’t really stick, probably as the far better-established Les Paul Custom actually did the job just as well. The L-6S was essentially a basic version of this guitar, also introduced in ’72, with the same outline but with a thinner slab body. They had two humbuckers but without visible poles and a maple neck, and were the first Gibson guitars to have 24 frets. There was also a cheaper L-6S Deluxe with black plastic pickup covers and a satin finish. An L-6S reissue has recently appeared.
In 1979 Gibson decided to re-launch the Flying V in an updated guise, the Flying V-II. It featured a five-layer sandwich body tarted up with some sculpturing and unique ‘boomerang’ pickups, although conventional humbuckers were fitted for the final year of manufacture. It was never a good seller, and despite several panic-driven facelifts it died an inevitable death in 1982. Only around 350 V-II’s were made.
In 1980 somebody at Gibson thought it would be a really cool idea to make a solidbody version of the ES-335, so along came the 335S – though why anybody would think that this would ever be a good idea totally mystifies me. There were nonetheless three versions, a Standard, a Deluxe and a Custom. They had the same outline as a conventional ES-335, though were understandably somewhat smaller to avoid excessive weight. The Standard and Custom survived just for a year or so, the Deluxe limping along until 1983. Rather surprisingly, 2013 witnessed a limited reissue of this totally unnecessary and rather dull-looking guitar.
The Corvus was introduced in 1982, made for two years, then dropped due to poor sales. There were three model variations, and a fixed neck version called a Futura. With its bizarre body shape it’s one Gibson that almost defies adequate description, although the term ‘can opener’ has been used. Completely bonkers.
The Victory guitar and Victory bass were Gibson’s attempt to capture a specific sector of the market that they felt was being lost to Fender, so they came up with this rather ‘Stratty’ looking guitar in 1981. There were two guitar models, neither greeted with much enthusiasm, and production appears to have dwindled away by 1984. They actually work well and sound pretty good too, but have a look that only a mother could love. Claims of ‘collectability’ are a trifle premature
The RD (for Research and Development) series were introduced in 1977, and one version persisted until 1982. It rather resembled a rounded-off reverse Firebird, and unusually for Gibson had a 25.5″ scale length. There were three models, the Artist, the Custom and the Standard, the first two having active onboard Moog circuitry, the Standard being passive.
The RDs have been reissued a couple of times in recent years. In my humble opinion they are ugly, ungainly, heavy and a bit of a handful. They do have legions of fans, though, so what would I know?
The Challenger was a single-cutaway guitar available just from 1983 to 1985, with a bolt-on neck and aimed squarely at the student market. There was a single-pickup Challenger 1 and a twin-pickup Challenger 2, plus a triple single-coil version designated Challenger 3.
These were allegedly made simply in an effort to use up crates of leftover Marauder parts following the ditching of that model. They look cheap, and indeed were, but potentially could sound good and play very nicely with a little patience.
The Sonex was Gibson’s answer to the increasing difficulty of sourcing timbers, a conundrum that rumbles on to this day. All guitar makers were, and are, very concerned about the long-term timber supply problem, and some were experimenting with alternative materials, such as plastic (Ovation, Steinberger, Ampeg and briefly Peavey), or aluminium (Travis Bean, Veleno, Kramer and the Tokai Talbo) and even fibreglass (Airline and Valco). Following ongoing research in this field, we are now able to add carbon fibre to the list.
Gibson’s solution, the Sonex, appeared in 1980, and was in production for four years. The single-cutaway Les Paul Special-style body was formed from a synthetic material grandly named ‘Resonwood’, moulded around a real wood core. This guitar superseded the Marauders and S1’s, and was made in four varieties. Despite its affordable price, it was not a great success.
I once owned a Sonex for a couple of years, and I have to confess that its playability made it one of the better guitars that I’ve ever bought. The major problem was that it looked like my little brother had knocked it together for his school project.
While none of these Norlin-era guitars (1969-1986) will ever represent the peak of the guitar makers art, they may unexpectedly be hidden gems, albeit not very sexy ones, so buy any of them if you want to. Most are likely to be relatively cheap, but don’t gamble on their values soaring sky-high over the next decade or two… or even three.
Now in their post-Norlin years, Gibson still occasionally produce what might justifiably be termed an ‘oddity’. Looking back over the past 25 years or so there are several obvious candidates, but two in particular have attracted my attention: the Eye guitar and the Dusk Tiger.
The Eye guitar looks rather like an elongated SG, available just in fire engine red, and has a white pickguard with cute red pickup covers. Just 350 were produced in 2009. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it has been called by some the ugliest Gibson ever. To me it looks like a Fisher-Price ‘My First Guitar’.
The Dusk Tiger emerged in 2010 in an edition of 1000, a Les Paul outline guitar but with a very different look and some tricky built-in electronic wizardry far too complex to describe fully here. It appears to have evolved from the gremlin-ridden limited-edition Dark Fire of 2008.
The Dusk Tiger is the latest of Gibson’s several attempts to build what they would like to promote as a state-of-the-art ‘space-age’ guitar incorporating onboard effects and aimed at a sector of the guitar-playing public who happen to be computer-savvy. All have failed to make much impact thus far – and don’t even get me started on the Firebird X.
I’m well aware that the company’s products need to advance and evolve for the 21st century, and not be fossilised forever in the amber of the ’50s and ’60s; I get that, I really do… but why do they all have to be so ugly (although I might momentarily soften my stance and concede that their latest LPX is a bit more attractive, and even that Dark Fire didn’t actually look too bad).
However, why would I ever want a guitar with a FireWire interface (whatever the hell that is) or a USB connector so I can download upgraded parameters from their website?
Oh, dear… I just want to get plugged in and grind out some blues. There is somebody employed at Gibson who is obviously convinced that this particular path of guitar evolution is the one to take in the years that lie ahead. Will somebody please find out who this guy is and find him a job at Burger King before he does more damage?
As these guitars are still comparatively new, only time will tell if they will ever become collectible or not, and for the time they simply trade as just secondhand guitars. Not many have been made, a fact which may in due course enhance their desirability, but to buy one now with any future value in mind, well… I personally wouldn’t take that gamble, and would far rather spend my money on something safer– a 335, or an SG Standard, or in fact pretty much anything else.
There are also understandable concerns regarding just how well all these high-tech electronic components will survive as the years roll by, and if by chance they don’t, how practical it will be to have them repaired.
If your grandchildren happen to buy one of these in 2050, they then might be the proud owners of a vintage guitar which doesn’t work, and is never likely to unless they were to have all the electronics stripped out and replaced. The structure of the instrument is certain to be more robust than all its electronic widgets – for after all, you can still pick up a 1952 Les Paul goldtop, take it on stage and play it, without ever needing to connect it to a laptop.
The very last thing I intend is for this article to be interpreted as some kind of anti-Gibson rant. It isn’t, as these can be few people love a fine Gibson guitar more than I do. The company has made many great guitars over the past 30 or 40 years, they continue to do so, and I truly think that – to give just one example – the new Midtown Kalamazoo, a very affordable modern take on the old Byrdland, is a stroke of genius.